Putting an End to the Battle: Richard Hess and 2 Kings 3:27

Dr. Richard Hess and I have been disputing the interpretation of 2 Kings 3:27. I read it as an episode in which the king of Moab, besieged by Israel and their allies, in an act of desperation sacrifices his own son, heir to his throne, in order to secure the favor of his deity. This act was successful, and the Israelites were subsequently routed by a “great wrath” that came upon them. Dr. Hess “reads” this as an episode in which the king of Moab somehow managed to capture the king of Edom’s son and publicly executed him in order to demoralize the Edomites, who then turned their “great wrath” upon their ally Israel for getting them into this mess, withdrew from the coalition, and went home. Dr. Hess claimed that his re-writing of the text made

more sense than the view that he would sacrifice his own son and successor in public view. Where is there an example of this in the West Semitic world? Clearly sons and sons of kings were sacrificed to gods; but we have no example that I know of where a king sacrifices his son in a besieged city so that the enemies see that sacrifice.

If this is really the only precedent Dr. Hess needed in order to change his mind on this text, then perhaps it is time for Dr. Hess to turn his wrath upon his allies for getting him into this mess, withdraw from the coalition, and go home.

In 1978 a tablet from Ugarita was published1 in which is found a clear and decisive parallel to 2 Kings 3, as well as to 1 Sam 7 and 13. The relevant portion of the text reads as follows:

If an enemy force attacks your [city-]gates,
An aggressor, your walls;
You shall lift up your eyes to Baal [and pray]:

“O Baal:
Drive away the [enemy] force from our gates,
The aggressor from our walls.
We shall sacrifice a bull [to thee], O Baal,
A votive-pledge we shall fulfill:
A firstborn,
Baal, we shall sacrifice,
A child
we shall fulfill [as votive-pledge].
A ‘tenth’ [of all our wealth] we shall tithe [thee],
To the temple of Baal we shall go up,
In the footpaths of the House-of-Baal we shall walk.”

Then shall Baal hearken to your prayers,
He shall drive the [enemy] force from your gates,
The aggressor from your walls.

Note that the word translated “firstborn” in the prayer is the Ugaritic bkr, which in Hebrew is bekor. This happens to be the same word used in 2 Kings 3:27.

According to Baruch Margalit, this text dates to ca. 1250-1200 BCE, about four centuries before the reign of Mesha of Moab. However, the same practices described in this tablet are documented at least as late as the Roman period. “Mesha’s actions, and the Israelite retreat, fit perfectly within this Canaanite, later Punic (neo-Canaanite), tradition of a thousand years.”2 The following examples are provided by Margalit:

Diodorus of Sicily (ca. 50 BCE) writes that “in Sicily the Carthaginians . . . were besieging Syracuse, but in Libya Agathocles had brought the Carthaginians under siege—the Carthaginians betook themselves to every manner of supplication of the divine powers . . . they sent a large sum of money and . . . expensive offerings to Tyre . . . when they . . . saw their enemy encamped before their walls . . . they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly.”3

The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus (ca. 50 CE) records an episode in which the “Canaanite” city of Tyre was under siege by Alexander the Great. The citizens were expecting military aid from the west, but this was not forthcoming. They then considered emergency measures. According to Rufus: “Some . . . proposed renewing a sacrifice which had been discontinued for many years (multis saeculis intermissum) . . . of offering a freeborn boy (ingenuus puer) to Saturn—this sacrifice, handed down from their founders, the Carthaginians are said to have performed until the destruction of their city—and unless the elders . . . had opposed it, the awful superstition would have prevailed over mercy.”4

According to Margalit, “This Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice to relieve a siege was traced to the Phoenicians (Canaanites) by the Phoenician historian Sanchuniaton, as transmitted by Philo of Byblos, Porphyrius and the Church father Eusebius. According to this tradition, the Phoenicians, in circumstances of extreme duress, would sacrifice their beloved children to their high god. The eight-volume history of Sanchuniaton was reputedly full of such stories.”5

Margalit writes that “the significance of this material for a proper understanding of the account of Mesha’s child sacrifice in 2 Kings 3 can hardly be exaggerated. Indeed, the correspondence between the theory as presented in the Ugaritic text and the practice as recounted in the Biblical text is nothing short of remarkable. The circumstances—a city under siege—are identical. Mesha’s sacrifice is one of the items mentioned in the prayer section of the text. And the withdrawal of the Israelites is uncannily presaged in the conclusion of the cuneiform tablet from Ugarit.”

He concludes:

It follows that Mesha’s sacrifice of his son, rather than unprecedented, was in fact an integral, if seldom implemented, part of an age-old Canaanite tradition of sacral warfare. This consideration might mitigate our moral condemnation of this “degenerate heathen.” Mesha’s sacrifice of his firstborn, seen in this new light, was virtually guaranteed to save the lives of the entire population—men, women and children—of the city under siege. In these circumstances, Mesha’s conduct may be seen as an act of altruism sanctioned—indeed, commended—by venerable religious tradition.

Margalit’s own interpretation of the data is not as useful as his initial presentation of it. He attempts to interpret the “great wrath” in a psychological sense, contending that the Israelites were terrified, and claims that this is what is meant in the Ugaritic tablet since it guarantees the retreat of the enemy. But this blatantly ignores what the tablet says: “Then shall Baal hearken to your prayers / He shall drive the [enemy] force from your gates / The aggressor from your walls.”

So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt-offering to Yahweh; Samuel cried out to Yahweh for Israel, and Yahweh answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt-offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but Yahweh thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. (1 Sam 7:9-10)

Then he [Mesha] took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt-offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. (2 Kings 3:27)

And thus did the battle end.


  1. A. Herdner “Nouveaux Textes Alphabetiques de Ras Shamra,” Ugaritica VII (Paris, 1978), pp. 31–38 (text facsimile on p. 33). For an earlier publication, see Herdner, “Une priere a Baal des ugaritains en danger,” Proceedings of the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres (CRAIBL, 1972 [1973]), p. 694. [BACK]
  2. Baruch Margalit, “Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son,” BAR 12/06 (Nov/Dec 1986). My thanks to John Kesler for bringing Margalit’s article to my attention. [BACK]
  3. Bibliotheca historica, XX.13.4ff, 14.1ff; trans. R. M. Greer. [BACK]
  4. A History of Alexander the Great (of Macedon), 4.3.23; trans. J. C. Rolfe. [BACK]
  5. Porphyrius, De Abstinentia, II.56 = Eusebius, Praep. Evang., 16.6. [BACK]

12 thoughts on “Putting an End to the Battle: Richard Hess and 2 Kings 3:27

  1. Wow, those poor children. Makes me thankful to live in 2011 CE.

  2. Thom,
    So is your view “controversial” because it implies that Yahweh responded positively to child-sacrifice or that the writer of 2 Kings believed in the existence and power of some non-Yahweh god?

  3. This text shows the latter, not the former. It also shows that the writer assumed the efficaciousness of human sacrifice in general. Other texts, not this one, reflect a time when it was believed that Yahweh appreciated human sacrifice.

  4. Is there anything in the text that necessitates a causal connection between a) Mensha killed his son and b) there was great wrath upon Israel? Or is this open to the interpretation that one simply followed the other chronologically?

  5. If human sacrifice had NOT been successful, then it would have been abandoned much sooner, IMO. The only trouble I have is that I hold to the idea of monotheism as Paul taught it in the NT. There is only one power (IMV), so how do I reconcile what has happened over the history of man? My thoughts lean in the direction that the power of human energy (and our beliefs that direct and drive this energy) is creative in itself. We can find witness to what I’m trying to express even in the scriptural record. “As a man thinketh in his heart…”

    Sorry if this has gotten off track. I just don’t see any way of denying the reality as you (Thom) have laid out. So rather than denial, I’m trying for reconciliation within my belief of the One.

  6. Brian,

    It is not strictly “necessitated” by the text that the “great wrath” was that of Kemosh, but it is by far the most probable reading. Conservative interpreters, when it comes to problem texts, tend to cling to what is technically “possible,” even if what’s possible is not at all probable.

    The word for wrath occurs several times in the Hebrew Bible, and the vast, vast majority of the time it refers to divine wrath. The word is never once used for the wrath of an army or nation. Positing that the wrath was that of Yahweh makes no sense whatsoever. Why would Yahweh turn against his own people in response to Mesha’s sacrifice to his god? Finally, as I’ve shown the reading I espouse fits squarely within the broader worldview of the ancient Near East, and even fits the worldview of Yahweh worshipers, who made similar sacrifices for identical reasons. There is no reason to be surprised that Israelites in this period believed in other gods and believed that their power was real. Moreover, in this episode they are in the territory of Kemosh, outside of Yahweh’s domain. I tend to choose the most probable readings, regardless of what that means for any theological or doctrinal commitments I might hold. And reading the “great wrath” as the wrath of Kemosh is by far the strongest reading. If it weren’t for Jewish and Christian disinclination to believe that scripture would acknowledge not only the existence of other gods but also that these other gods could potentially hold their own against Yahweh, no one would dispute that this is what the text is saying.

    But if they believed in the efficacy of human sacrifice, then I would say this episode serves as a justification for their defeat. They would have won, but they got trumped by a human sacrifice. I read it as apologetic in nature.

  7. The inerrantist “answer men,” Copan, Hess, Flanagan, et al, seem to have more regard for their imaginative reconstructions than the ANE milieu itself. They stop at their imagination reconstructions when it comes to their replies to “problem texts,” but you have dug deeper into ANE lore and continued to ask more questions. Why can’t they? Have they been able to annihilate Niditch’s arguments?

  8. Thom, And what about the NT? Does anyone imagine Copan, Hess or other “answer men” deal adequately with the NT?

    In Acts 5 Peter stands up like Moses and says the Holy Spirit told him that a particular couple was lying about selling all they had when they joined the Christian commune. Was the couple told to leave? No. They were given no choice at all. Instead the husband dies right after Peter confronts him, then the wife comes in and Peter confronts her and adds, “The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” And she dies instantly. The story ends with, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” The implication is that God struck the couple down for “lying” to Him. They weren’t lying about believing in Jesus since they wanted to join the commune. Maybe God or Peter could have been a little less harsh in their reaction? Maybe God and Peter could have shamed their Christian brother and sister until they gave up whatever they had held back? Or cast them both out of the commune? No. Execution was the response. Instant execution. Of both the husband and then the wife. No bullets were used as Stalin might have, but instant execution is still instant execution. And it didn’t matter if they loved each other and fellow believers and wanted to live togeher with them. I guess the story illustrates that only one’s spiritual marriage to the birdegroom of Christ should matter, not saving some money to please one’s self or one’s wife, nor holding back some money because you feared the commune itself might fail. Whatever happened to that early Christian commune anyway? I guess it failed. Apparently that kind of communal living morphed into the first monestaries, and a story like that probably came in handy when new monastic recruits appeared, who were told to give all they had to the monestary without holding anything back.

    The story about Peter should also be read in light of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapters 10-11 in which Paul compared the Corinthians to the ancient Israelites whose behavior displeased God and whom He slaughtered, sometimes twenty-three thousand at a time. Paul says in those two chapters that God is doing the same to the Christians at Corinth, making “many weak and ill” and even executing some Christians:

    1 COR 10: 1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all . . . baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us. . .

    Paul continued in the next chapter

    27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

    Note the line, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [=died, and in this context it means as the result of God’s judgment].”

    The apostles told stories about God using his magical power to make his chosen people (Israelite or Christian) ill or execute them. And then in the book of Revelation Jesus, the Prince of Peace, takes off the kid gloves and the streets run with blood from holy curses and judgments galore.

    Maybe Copan’s next book will be titled,

    God Is Love, And Slaughters People En Masse.

    Just the idea of God putting large groups of people to death en masse, from the Flood to the conquest narratives, seems like the type of barbaric God who practices indiscriminate slaughter. It’s like using a sledgehammer to debug a rose bush, it’s like using a guillotine to remove a mole from one’s neck. Even the guy who shot J.F.K. was able to focus on the back of J.F.K.’s head instead of blowing up Dallas. God couldnt’ spare a single young Midiannite male baby or fetus when Moses commanded the destruction of “all males” in Numbers 31? God put whole cities under the ban in Canaan, demanding the deaths of all the people and animals in certain cities (but spared the trees!). And the Israelites boasted in their holy book that they did what the Lord told them, and cursed those whose swords did not drip with blood.

  9. My name is Jack. I check into this website from time to time to read Thom Stark’s work. Most of it, I’ll admit, I don’t really know what it means because I’m not schooled in religion as much as he is or the others on this site.

    However, I came out of a pretty bad rough patch thanks to his work, and maybe I can contribute some to what Ed mentioned about Acts 5. I hope it’s not too distasteful, but I’m just trying to call a spade, a spade.

    If what Peter, and according to what Peter said, God did, in Acts 5, to these people, it amounts to murder. Plain and simple, whether it’s 2011 or 2,000 years ago. I don’t see where Peter allowed for forgiveness, or compassion, or love, or humility or humbleness, or even a fair trial, which apparently wasn’t available to Ananias or his wife. There’s pretty much no wiggle room in that fact. If Peter were alive today, he would’ve been arrested by local police and sent to prison, if convicted, and since I’m a journalist, I’ll allow an “allegedly.” His buddies who took them out and buried them, as accomplices. It makes since that the Sadducees in the following verses threw them in jail, and rightfully so.

    I feel confident that if there is a God, he didn’t condone this straight up violence.

    I know this doesn’t have much to do with Thom’s work above, but I felt the need to comment. Thanks.

  10. “Divine Judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11): A Stock Scene of Perjury and Death” JBL 130, no. 2 (2011): 351–369 by j. albert harrill

    This exegetical study remaps the interpretation of Acts 5:1–11 beyond the
    search for biblical antecedents and toward stock scenes of divine judgment for the crime of perjury in Luke’s Greco-Roman culture. In Mediterranean and Near Eastern antiquity, the destruction of a paradigmatic object typically sealed the oaths, vows, and other pacts used in everyday life, such as business and commercial transactions.

    The verbal formulas in oath ceremonies included a self-curse for dishonesty and perjury (e.g., “May I die . . .”). Many ancient works questioned, however, the value of such self-imprecations, especially when impious characters with a habit of forswearing were proverbial. The comedy of the stage perjurer explored this question in stock scenes to great dramatic effect.

    From the perspective of Luke’s narrative, the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira are not tragic. Rather, the scene encourages the audience to have confidence that the church (ἡ ἐκκλησία) is blameless of impiety (ἀσέβεια) and that promises about its deity are true. The positive resolution thus matches the form or structure of a comedy. The author of Luke-Acts engages the notions of ritual and religious identity in his contemporary culture. He distinguishes the piety of his early Christian heroes by the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, who scorn the keeping of oaths that God demands.

    The story of Ananias and Sapphira begins with a utopian scene of the earliest believers sharing all goods in common. A Levite named Joseph (alias Barnabas) sells his field and lays all the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for distribution to the community’s needy (Acts 4:32–37). Ananias then, “with the consent of his wife Sapphira,” sells a piece of property and appears to follow suit. Ananias, however, lays “only a part” of the sale’s proceeds before the apostles (5:1–2). The apostle Peter berates Ananias for “lying not to humans but to the Holy Spirit” (5:3), and Sapphira for “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (5:9). Upon hearing the apostle’s rebuke, Ananias and Sapphira each die in turn, suddenly and on the spot. The story ends with “great fear” (φόβος μέγας) seizing “all who heard these things” and especially the whole “church”—the first occurrence of ἐκκλησία in the narrative (5:11).

    The story’s apparent moral injustice has long offended biblical interpreters. In the third century, a Greek “philosopher,” most likely Porphyry, condemned Peter’s rebuke as hypocritical and irrational: the apostle, who perjured himself by denying Jesus three times (Luke 22:31–34, 54–62), ritually murders the couple for doing a much lesser sin, if indeed the couple’s action was a sin.1 More recent commentators have shared Porphyry’s shock at the story and its theological implications.2 To resolve the story’s apparent moral injustice, scholars have proposed various exegetical solutions: [INSTEAD, THE AUTHOR OF THIS PAPER SUGGESTS ITS SIMPLY A STOCK SCENE]

  11. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira are tragic. It’s a shame that two people, according to these verses, were killed for apparently trying to keep a little change in their pocket. Not only that, but people were in fear because of it. I don’t think it’s a good thing to base people’s lives on comedy stock scenes.

    Another interesting thing is that in my NIV study bible, the authors apparently thought this was an important event to show that God would not tolerate hypocrisy and deceit.

    “If no dire consequences had followed this act of sin, the results among the believers would have been serious when the deceit became known. Not only would dishonesty appear profitable, but the conclusion that the Spirit could be deceived would follow. It was important to set the course properly at the outset in order to leave no doubt that God will not tolerate such hypocrisy and deceit.”

    I don’t know about anybody else, but when I have a problem with someone, I usually just pull them to the side and let them know. Something tells me killing them isn’t the best solution.

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