One of my favourite stories from the Old Testament is found in 2 Kings Chapter 3. Have a read – it’s absolutely fascinating!
The story goes like this. Mesha, the king of Moab, was one of Israel’s vassals. But, when King Ahab of Israel died, Mesha decided it was time to stop paying his tribute. Upset with this, the new Israelite king, Joram, decided to attack Moab. He enlisted the help of Judah and Edom. But, most importantly, he had Yahweh’s assurance that he would defeat Moab:
“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.” (2 Kings 3:18-19)
It could not be clearer – Yahweh has promised to deliver Moab into Joram’s hands. As the Israelites approached, the Moabites went out to fight the allied attackers. Things were not going well for them; the Israelites were clearly getting the better of the battle:
“But when the Moabites came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and fought them until they fled. And the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree. Only Kir Hareseth was left with its stones in place, but men armed with slings surrounded it and attacked it.” (2 Kings 3:24-25)
By this time, the Moabite king realised the battle was getting away from him. After a failed attempt to break through with a company of swordsmen, he decided there was only one option left:
“Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.” (2 Kings 3:27)
Wow! King Mesha sacrificed his own son, the heir to his throne, to the Moabite god. (Other sources identify this god as Kemosh; see Numbers 21:29, Jermiah 48:7,13,46, and the very interesting Mesha Stele.) But, most importantly, the sacrifice worked! Even though the Moabites had been all but decimated by the Israelites, the tide turned as soon as Mesha sacrificed his son to Kemosh. Despite Yahweh’s clear promises to defeat the Moabites, Israel was defeated.
Now, what do we learn from this interesting story? That Kemosh is a real god, and really defeated Yahweh in battle? No, of course not. What we do learn is that the author(s) of this part of the Old Testament believed:
- that Yahweh was just one of a number of (real) gods,
- that human sacrifice was effective in enticing a god to help you out, and
- that not even Yahweh could defeat other gods if a human sacrifice had been made.
Naturally, conservative evangelical scholars attempt to reinterpret this story in a variety of ways in order to deny the three points above. It is not my intention here to argue against these positions, since this has already been done. Instead, I’d like to direct my readers to the writings of Thom Stark. Stark discusses the 2 Kings 3 passage in his book The Human Faces of God (in the context of Israelite polytheism on pp78-80, and in the context of human sacrifice on pp91-92). But far more thorough is the treatment in his freely available online book Is God a Moral Compromiser? (pp65-89), in which he engages with conservative scholars like Paul Copan and Richard Hess, decisively showing that their attempts to deny the three conclusions above are entirely inadequate. After more than 20 pages of demolishing every single attempt to make the very clear words of 2 Kings 3 say something they do not, Stark concludes:
“The fact is, the text says that Yahweh promised Israel victory, but Mesha trumped them with a human sacrifice, and Kemosh beat Yahweh.” (Stark, Is God a Moral Compromiser?, pp88-89)
Conservative Christians want to maintain the view that polytheism in the Bible is limited to the Israelites going astray, that Yahweh was always understood to be the only true God. But modern scholarship has shown that the Old Testament as we have it today is the result of centuries of editing and revising. Israelite religion was thoroughly polytheistic in its original form, with Yahweh only one of a pantheon of gods, one of the several sons of Elyon (see especially Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32, and Thom Stark’s article on this). Only later, when subsequent biblical authors began to embrace monotheism, were the original writings suppressed. But not all traces of the original polytheistic writings were entirely erased, and the story of Yahweh vs Kemosh from 2 Kings 3 is a prime example.
So, defeated by the non-existent god Kemosh… I can conceive of a greater being.