Monday, June 2, 2014

Henotheism and the Great Wrath in 2 Kings 3

In its third chapter, the biblical book of 2 Kings tells the intriguing tale of how the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom set out to battle the Moabites for refusing to pay tribute to Israel. On their way, the armies ran out of water for themselves and their animals, and so Jehoshaphat king of Judah called for consultation with a prophet of their god. Elisha came to see the kings and told them,

...this is what the Lord says: You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle and your other animals will drink. This is an easy thing in the eyes of the Lord; he will also deliver Moab into your hands. You will overthrow every fortified city and every major town. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field with stones.

By the next morning, the land was filled with water. The Moabites, having heard the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom were coming to meet them, rose and saw the sun shining on the water, giving it a red shade that they mistook for blood. Thinking the three armies had turned against each other in the night, the Moabites rushed to finish them off, only to find they had been wrong.

The Israelites took their advantage, destroying Moabite towns, throwing stones on every good field, stopping all the springs, and cutting down every tree. Distressed by this drastic turn of the tide, the king of Moab called on 700 men to try and break through the Edomite army, but was unsuccessful. In a desperate final effort, the king took his firstborn son and heir to the throne and sacrificed him on the city wall. Then "there came great wrath against Israel", writes the author of 2 Kings, and the Israelites left and returned to their own land.

Whence the Wrath?

A cursory reading of this chapter might lead one to assume that the wrath spoken of in verse 27 originates from the Moabites.  This is highly unlikely, though, as the passage recounts the miserable situation of Moab leading up to the mysterious wrath. The Moabites were "slaughtered", their towns and springs were destroyed, and the 700 soldiers commanded by the Moabite king failed to gain even a fighting chance. It is safe to presume that when the king sacrificed his heir and child, he did it out of dejection, having nothing left to wage against the advancing Israelites. The wrath could not have come from the Moabites.

Another interpretation one might take could be that the wrath came from the Israelites' own god. However, the Israelites were following the sanction given to them by Yahweh through the prophet Elisha. Not only were they instructed to enact the destruction that they leveled upon Moab, but they were even given a sign of god's favor when they awoke to find water throughout the land. Furthermore, the Hebrew god is depicted numerous times throughout the scriptures as strongly opposing child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 12:31, Ezekiel 20:31), making it more likely that an idolater's sacrifice of a child would anger the Israelite god against Moab rather than against his own people. So it doesn't seem the wrath came from Yahweh, either.

From whence, then, did the great wrath originate?

In ancient times, sacrifice played a vitally important role in earning the attention of the gods. Animal sacrifice was practiced by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Aztecs, in addition to the Hebrews themselves, and was used for expiation and worship. Human sacrifice and child sacrifice have been practiced by a number of cultures historically. These rituals were not simply ways of appeasing divinities, but were sometimes a bit like drawing them out into the spotlight. 1 Kings 18 reports on how hundreds of prophets of Ba'al scrambled in a sacrificial competition of sorts with the prophet Elijah, each side attempting to demonstrate the power of their god through specific deeds supposed to invoke its attention or participation.

Although one could interpret the slaying of the Moabite king's son as a political move, basically conceding authority to the Israelites by ending his own legacy in front of their eyes, the fact that it is mentioned as a sacrifice and not a mere execution makes all the difference. A sacrifice would generally not be a concession to a rival tribe, especially in this instance where the rival tribe worships a deity (Yahweh) known for his hatred of child sacrifice. In sacrificing his son, the Moabite king was not surrendering to, or placating, the Israelites, he was calling out for help in repelling them. The logical conclusion, therefore, would be that the great wrath against Israel was the consequence of the sacrifice; the king's call was heard and answered.

Chemosh the Subduer

The god of the Moabites was known as Chemosh, a name thought to mean "destroyer" or "subduer". In the 19th century, an Anglican missionary discovered an inscribed stone dating around 840 BCE which has been called the Mesha Stele. The text on the stone tells of Mesha king of Moab and his interactions with Israel. Mesha believed Chemosh had been angry with him and allowed Moab to be oppressed by the Israelites, yet after a time the Moabite god returned to his people and "Chemosh drove [Israel] out before me". The stele appears to reference the same events described in 2 Kings 3, with some new light cast on the great wrath against Israel.

Religion in the ancient world was often territorial in nature. Different regions had different patron deities, yet there was acknowledgment of other gods. The term henotheism has been used to describe this religious system, which differs from monotheism in that while it emphasizes the worship of one particular god, it does not deny the existence of others. In 2 Kings 5:17, Naaman asks to take two mule-loads of Israelite soil back with him to Syria, after being healed by Elisha. The purpose of the soil is for making offerings to Yahweh, who Naaman apparently sees as having jurisdiction in Israel, but not Syria. Though one could argue that Naaman's view was not the Israelite view, the encounter with Mesha in 2 Kings 3 seems to challenge such a claim.

It's hard to miss the implication in the story; right after Mesha sacrifices the Moabite prince to Chemosh, a great wrath comes against Israel, driving them out of Moab. The Israelites were on foreign soil ruled by a foreign deity, and when the Moabite king invoked that deity, the Israelites were forced to retreat. It's open for speculation whether their retreat was out of fear or some other provocation, and the text neither praises nor condemns the Israelites for leaving, but it appears beyond doubt that their reaction had something to do with the religious significance of Mesha's sacrifice. Also interesting is that the Hebrew word for sun, used in 2 Kings 3:22, is shamash. Perhaps Chemosh was not always an enemy of Israel.

Hebrew Henotheism

I am certainly not the first person to suggest that the ancient Hebrews once believed in other gods. The Bible itself tells the familiar tale of Israel falling into idolatry time after time. Passages like 2 Kings 3 seem different, however, because there is no strong denouncement of foreign gods like there is in a passage like Deuteronomy 13:12-18. Even the famous commandment to have "no other gods before me" in Exodus 20:3 looks cast in henotheistic terminology, as plenty of scholars have noted. Why not just 'have no other gods', period - or 'have no god but me'? The concern is placed on prioritizing the Hebrew deity, not really with believing in him to the exclusion of all other gods.

Of course, this idea of ancient Israelite religion doesn't sit well with many Christian apologists. Some of them attempt to explain away the issue by attributing the wrath to Yahweh or to the Moabite people, though we've already discussed why these explanations don't suffice. Others try to downplay the wrath by proposing a lesser meaning of the Hebrew word qesep, suggesting that after witnessing Mesha's sacrifice, the Israelites were "displeased with themselves, lost heart, and disengaged from the battle." [1] However, qesep's numerous occurrences are in the context of divine wrath, delivered by a deity, not pity or the kind of anger an army would dish out. [2]

There's a lot more evidence than this supporting the view that the ancient Israelites were henotheists, including an inscription associating Yahweh with the Canaanite goddess Asherah. [3] It's very easy to come up with hand-waving dismissals of many of these arguments, but what continually strikes me while learning about the complex world of ancient Israel is learning how unexceptional they were. They might have been Yahweh's chosen people, and yet Moab was Chemosh's chosen people, and Babylon was Marduk's chosen people, and so on and so forth. They were trying to find their unique place in the world of their time, just like everyone else.

Perhaps the lesson we should take from these ancient cultures in our past is one of unity, not under one and only one god, but as one world, one species, one tribe. Many of us seek the same things out of life as our fellow humans seek, struggle with the same struggles, and walk down the same roads. One might hope that is reason enough not to cling to the same prejudices and rationalizations to which we clung in our past.


1. Explaining 2 Kings 3:27, (Sept. 3, 2009).
2. Strong's Hebrew: 7110.
3. William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? (2005, Eerdmans)

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