Richard Hess and the Need To Make Sacrifices

This is the first of two posts in which I will engage further comments offered by Richard Hess within our ongoing debate. In my next post I will (gratefully) concede a correction Hess offered on the reading of line 12 of the Mesha Stele (unrelated to our discussion here). I am posting that after this so as to end on a more constructive note, because in this post I must insist that Hess continues to stumble in his handling of the data regarding 2 Kings 3:27.

From the beginning of our engagement, I have been arguing that the killing of the king’s son in 2 Kings 3:27 cannot refer to a non-religious execution because the word used is not any one of the many common words for such a public execution, but rather is the word ‘olah, which (when in reference to a killing) always and only denotes a burnt-sacrifice to a deity. Hess has finally responded to this point. While Hess has now slightly altered his language, unfortunately, his response nevertheless displays a distinct lack of clear-thinking. Here is what Hess has written in response:

The ‘olah or burnt offering is one of the most frequent types of offerings mentioned in the Bible. It also occurs at Ugarit by the same name. There the offerers could eat of this offering while in Israel it was unique in that the whole of the offering was burnt to God. So the evidence we do have suggests it was a frequent offering and one that took on different meaning and practice in different cultures of the time. However, Moab was culturally closer to Israel and Judah than to Ugarit, so my guess is that this is some sort of burning of the prince on the walls as a sacrifice of some sort. Again, the point is that the text does not emphasize the god to whom it was dedicated or any deity or divine element. Rather, the whole thing appears as a horrible act of propaganda to demoralize Edom and to turn them in anger against Israel so as to break up the alliance.

It seems to me that in his discussion of the distinction between the practice of ‘olah in Ugarit and Israel, Hess wants to highlight that it had different meanings in different cultures, and that this is a set up for his statement that the burning of the king’s son was “a sacrifice of some sort.” But what does this mean, a sacrifice of some sort? Is there some sort of “sacrifice” in the ancient world that is not offered to a god? Hess wants to claim, in fact, that the absence of explicit mention of a deity here indicates that this is not a sacrifice to a god. To whom, then, is it a sacrifice? How far is Hess willing to stretch the concept of sacrifice to maintain his understanding of the text?

Today we use “sacrifice” much more broadly, but nevertheless when we use it we still refer to a sacrifice to something. Soldiers “sacrifice” their lives for their countries. Workaholics “sacrifice” their families for their jobs. We have to make “sacrifices” to get ahead, which really means, we have to make “sacrifices” to the “god” of prosperity.

Of course, in the ancient world, a sacrifice was plainly and simply a sacrifice to a god. And ‘olah, when in reference to any act of killing, always and only refers to a sacrifice to a god. This is why Hess’s attempt to appeal to the distinction between ‘olah in the Ugaritic and Hebrew materials as evidence that ‘olah “took on different meaning in different cultures of the time” is a red herring. Yes, there is a difference in the kind of sacrifice ‘olah was at Ugarit and Israel. In the latter, the sacrificial victim could not be consumed for food. In the former, it was not a whole-burnt offering, but one which the offerers could consume for food subsequent to the sacrifice. Of course, Israel had these kinds of sacrifices also. Vow offerings, well-being offerings, etc. were first offered to God on the altar before being consumed by the offerers (Lev 7:14-16). With the offerings of well-being, the blood, organs and fat belonged to Yahweh, while the flesh was to be consumed by the offerer (Lev 3:1-17). But the point is that the distinction between whole burnt-offerings and consumable offerings is irrelevant for Hess’s purposes. Both kinds of offerings are offerings to a deity. This was just as true at Ugarit as it was in Israel as it was in Moab, as Hess knows.

Another problem with the line of discussion taken up by Hess is that it matters not one iota what the Moabites might have meant by the word ‘olah. Hess writes,

So the evidence we do have suggests it was a frequent offering and one that took on different meaning and practice in different cultures of the time. However, Moab was culturally closer to Israel and Judah than to Ugarit, so my guess is that this is some sort of burning of the prince on the walls as a sacrifice of some sort.

This would only be remotely relevant if a Moabite had composed 2 Kings. But the author is a Hebrew, and he is giving his description of the event. This is all that matters. And what the Hebrew writer tells us is that Mesha offered the son as an ‘olah. So the question is not what the Moabites meant, but what the Hebrews meant by the term. And in Hebrew it was always and only a burnt-sacrifice to a deity, even when in reference to other gods than Yahweh. Of course, Hess knows that since “Moab was culturally closer to Israel and Judah than to Ugarit,” it is likely they meant something quite similar, but out of the other side of his mouth Hess identifies Mesha’s act as “a sacrifice of some sort.” Just not to a deity, Hess wants us to believe.

But noteworthy here is precisely what the term does mean for the Hebrews. As noted, ‘olah was a whole burnt-offering. In other words, the entire victim was consumed by the flames; the flesh could not be consumed by humans. It may be for just that reason that ‘olah is a term used often for human sacrifices in the Bible. It is the term used for the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the term used for the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, and the term used for the king’s son here in 2 Kings 3. It is also the term used for the sacrifice of “sons” to Baal in Jeremiah 19:5. This is all that is relevant. The term ‘olah is never used in the Hebrew Bible for the killing of a human being in any way other than as a sacrifice to a deity.

Hess has been attempting to characterize this sacrifice as non-religious, as a standard public execution, frequently employed by armies in the ancient (and modern) world in order to incite terror in the hearts of their foes. I have pointed out numerous times that there were terms at hand to describe such public executions. But none of them are used here. Rather, the term used is that of a burnt-sacrifice to a deity. Moreover, the text makes clear that this is an offering: “he took his son . . . and offered him as a burnt-sacrifice.” The word translated here as “offered” is ‘alah and is connected to ‘olah. Literally it means something like, “and he lifted him up as a burnt-offering.” To whom or what is Mesha offering this son, if not to a deity?

At any rate, the question is, on what grounds does Hess continue to insist, despite the linguistic data, that this is not a sacrifice to a deity, just “a sacrifice of some sort” (whatever that means), but really is a public execution? The only grounds Hess has ever offered is that “the text does not emphasize the god to whom it was dedicated or any deity or divine element.” Hess has persistently repeated this excuse, despite that I have pointed out that the meaning of ‘olah as a burnt-sacrifice to a deity is so secure that it hardly need be mentioned that Mesha is offering his burnt-sacrifice to his god. Hess is well aware of this fact, but it is not affecting his resolve. What can one say in response to one who simply reasserts a claim for which there is no support? My response is that if the express mention of a deity is requisite in order to understand ‘olah as a sacrifice to a deity, then here are some more examples that may refer to “public executions” of children and animals, since there is no mention of any deity to whom the children and animals are offered:

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire. (Deut 18:10)

He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom Yahweh drove out before the people of Israel. He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree. (2 Kings 16:3-4)

I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them. (Ezek 20:26)

Since no deity is explicitly mentioned, it seems likely that these parents are not burning their children as offerings to any deity, but rather to scare the rest of their children into obedience. Any animals sacrificed were merely slaughtered for food and burned for warmth, and the “gifts” in Ezekiel 20:26 are just gifts “of some sort,” since no deity is explicitly mentioned.

Dr. Hess has identified my past use of sarcasm to display the inadequacy of similar arguments of his as “insulting.” I make no excuses for my behavior, and in many (though not all) cases I acknowledge that my sarcasm was unjustified. But certainly my use of sarcasm here is no more insulting than Hess’s arguments are to our intelligence.

It will do no good to contend, “But ‘make them pass through fire’ is a technical term for an offering to a deity,” because the same is true of ‘olah, as Hess is well aware.

The fact is, Hess has acknowledged that kings in the ancient world sacrificed their sons. (Hess: “Clearly sons and sons of kings were sacrificed to gods.”) Further, the fact is that the ancients believed that sacrifices could be offered to a deity in exchange for aid in battle. As I’ve shown, we see this in 1 Sam 7:7-11, where Samuel offers a burnt-sacrifice (‘olah) to Yahweh in order to secure Yahweh’s aid in battle against the Philistines. The result was that Yahweh “thundered a great sound” upon the Philistines, scattering them and forcing them to retreat, just as Mesha’s sacrifice to Kemosh wrought “great wrath upon Israel,” forcing them to do the same. We see this paradigm at work again in 1 Sam 13:5-12, where Saul offers a burnt-sacrifice (‘olah) to Yahweh, again to secure Yahweh’s aid in battle against the Philistines. And we see this in Judges 11 with Jephthah, who vows to offer a human burnt-sacrifice (‘olah) to Yahweh in exchange for Yahweh’s aid in battle against the Ammonites.

Will this be enough for Dr. Hess? No, it will not. What Dr. Hess requires is a single word: lachemosh, despite the fact that this is (well, I can’t say) undeniably implied in Mesha’s “offering” of his son as a “burnt-sacrifice,” when his enemy was just too formidable to overcome on his own strength.

Indeed, some obstacles are just too formidable to overcome without sacrificing something.

(In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how such sacrifices are made.)

One thought on “Richard Hess and the Need To Make Sacrifices

  1. Love you, Thom! Thank you for sticking with this conversation so that folks such as myself can better weigh all the evidence. And kudos to Hess for engaging you, even if poorly, on this issue. Too bad Copan and Flannagan have decided to drop out. Keep up the great work!

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