RELG 303

The Moabite Stone: take-home mid-term exam

by Peter T. Chattaway
February 24, 1994

In the time just prior to David's rule, Samuel mentioned Moab in his retirement speech as one of Israel's enemy neighbours (I Sam 12:9), and Saul is said to have "inflicted punishment" on them and Israel's other enemies in the early part of his reign, before God rejected him (I Sam 14:47). The only other reference to Moab during Saul's reign tells of a Moabite king who hid David's parents from Saul (I Sam 22:4).

However, once David had established his leadership over all the tribes of Israel, he attacked the Moabites and defeated them, allegedly measuring their numbers off with a length of cord and killing the Moabites for two out of every three lengths. David then made them his subjects and exacted tribute from them (II Sam 8:2), dedicating this tribute to YHWH (II Sam 8:11-12). Ithmah, one of David's "mighty men", is called "the Moabite" (I Chr 11:46); perhaps he was a defector or a mercenary soldier of some sort, or like his legendary kinswoman Ruth he had become "Israelized". Moab had at least two mighty champions of its own, whose defeats at the hands of the Israelite Benaiah were counted among Benaiah's "great exploits" (II Sam 23:20). Nothing else is said of the Moabites during David's reign.

Solomon, David's son and successor, is said to have married Moabite women (I Kings 11:1) among his many foreign wives, and built a high place for Moab's "detestable god", Kemosh, as a favour to them (I Kings 11:7-8). Apparently this practice spread to the people of Israel during Solomon's reign and prompted Ahijah to condemn Solomon on behalf of YHWH (I Kings 11:33). There is no direct indication here of the political relationship between Israel and Moab, but since Solomon's wives were of "royal birth" (I Kings 11:3), one may assume that Moab received more benevolent treatment under Solomon than it had under David, and was now more of an ally than a subject; however, one could just as easily assume that Saul was pilfering from the Moabite dynasty and simply adding the daughters of a subject king to his collection of wives and concubines.

No mention is made of the Moabites after this until the rebellion of Moab that followed Ahab's death (II Kings 1:1), nearly a century later; the Bible does not specify how authority over Moab shifted from Solomon's Judean kingdom to northern Israel. Before this revolt, Moab had supplied Israel with 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams; Mesha, the Moabite king, is himself characterized as one who "raised sheep" (II Kings 3:4). Ahab's son Jehoram tried to suppress the revolt with the help of the Judean king Jehoshaphat, plus the king of Edom (II Kings 3:9; however, according to I Kings 22:47, Edom did not have a king at this time but a "deputy" who reported to Jehoshaphat). The Israelites destroyed many Moabite armies and villages, but ultimately retreated because of a mysterious "fury" (II Kings 3:26-27). Israel felt the loss of control over Moab for years; over 40 years later, during the reign of Jehu's grandson Jehoash, it is said that Moabite raiders "used to enter the country every spring" (II Kings 13:20).

Chronicles, written from a Judah-centric point of view to the almost complete exclusion of northern Israel, paints a drastically different portrait of this era. Here, it is said that the Moabites allied themselves with the Ammonites, and possibly the Meunites, against Jehoshaphat (II Chr 20:1). Instead of fighting, Jehoshaphat led the Judean army in a chorus and Yahweh set the Moabites and their allies to destroying each other (II Chr 20:22-23). Half a century after this somewhat bizarre story, Jehoshaphat's great-grandson Joash was assassinated by two men, one the son of an Ammonitess and the other the son of a Moabitess (II Chr 24:26). As Chronicles was written a few centuries later, and as the earlier parallel assassination account in II Kings 12:21 makes no mention of the assassins' ethnicity, the emphasis on their foreign ancestry would seem to be an indictment against the contemporaries of Ezra, who were critiqued for their casual intermarriages (cf. Ezra 9:1).

A relationship of some sort is evident between II Kings 3 and the Mesha Stele, since both refer to an Israelite domination over Moab that was thrown off during the reign of Omri's son or grandson. Both accounts agree that Israel was unsuccessful in recapturing Moab, and Mesha's tacit reference to the "kings" he has been delivered from may allude to the involvement of Judah and Edom in Israel's military campaign, though he does not name these particular kings (or any other non-Israelite kings) in his account. It should be noted, however, that the biblical text itself rarely uses personal names; Jehoram is named only once (3:6) in the military account, as is Mesha (3:4). Jehoshaphat is named five times, in a way that parallels his alliance with Ahab in I Kings 22, and he is presented as the king who fears YHWH; without his presence, Elisha would not offer a prophecy for the king of Israel (3:14).

However, after Elisha consents to prophesy, there is no further mention of Jehoshaphat or any of the Judeans. The role of Jehoshaphat, if not the entire Judean army, may have been interpolated into the text to make a moral point about the role of YHWH in the Israelite campaign. Going further back, one might even assert that the original account was an anonymous story about a "king of Israel" who battled a "king of Moab", and that the redactor of Kings judged this to be its most likely chronological context and added the names at the beginning of the account. On the other hand, Mesha makes no reference to the personal names of his own contemporaries, so the use of "king of so-and-so" in place of a personal name does not necessarily deny the account's basic historicity.

Mesha does name Omri as the one who originally oppressed Moab, though the brief account of Omri's reign in I Kings 16:21-28 makes no mention of this or any other occurences between Omri and Israel's neighbours. Omri reigned for 12 years (I Kings 16:23) and his son Ahab for 22 years (I Kings 16:29); even if Moab had been conquered at the outset of Omri's reign, which is not likely as Omri was in the midst of a civil war, the Israelite occupation would have lasted 34 years, not quite the 40 years that Mesha claims. Mesha also claims that Moab was possessed for only "half the days" of Omri's son, which would make Mesha's claim an even greater exaggeration. However, one can interpret "son" as "descendant" or "successor", which may in this case be a reference to Jehoram. Or perhaps Mesha refers to "half" of Omri's descendants' combined reigns. Given the reference to Moab's rebellion in the account of Ahaziah's brief reign (II Kings 1:1), a rebellion that Israel does not appear to deal with until Jehoram's reign shortly thereafter (II Kings 3:5-6), it would seem that this is the more likely interpretation.

As might be expected, Mesha makes no reference to the destruction of Moabite territory asserted in II Kings 3:25; he simply quotes the Israelite king as saying, "I will oppress Moab!" Similarly, while the biblical text refers to Moab's "rebellion" (II Kings 1:1, 3:5,7), it never says in what way this rebellion expressed itself; that is, there is no reference there to the destruction of any Israelite towns. As far as the biblical sources are concerned, Mesha might have done no more than cease the payment of tribute.

There is also no reference in the Mesha Stele to a human sacrifice performed on the city wall at Kir Hareseth (II Kings 3:27). Mesha does record that Kemosh "drove him [the king of Israel] away before my face", but he does not elaborate; it may be no more than a religious interpretation of a standard military victory. For that matter, the biblical text says only that "the fury against Israel was great" after the sacrifice, though it does not say whose fury it was. Some interpreters have suggested the fury came from a divine agent, whether YHWH or Kemosh; others point to the previous verse, in which the Moabite king attacks the king of Edom unsuccessfully before sacrificing "his firstborn son", and say that the pronoun "his" refers to the king of Edom, who may have turned on his Judean and Israelite allies after his son was killed in their war. (In this case, the Revised English Bible follows the Old Latin, which says the Moabites attacked the king of "Aram", instead of the Hebrew "Edom", thus changing the meaning entirely.)

Mesha says the king of Israel built Jahaz, where he stayed during his campaign against Moab. II Kings 3 makes no reference to this or any other city as an Israelite base of operations. Jahaz is much closer to the Moabite-Ammonite border than it is to the Moabite-Edomite border, where it would have to be if the II Kings 3 account of the Israelites' southern passage through Edom is accurate. The only historiographical references to Jahaz in the Bible refer to it as the place where Israel defeated Sihon, the previous oppressor of Moab (Num 21:23-26; cf. Deut 2:32-37). Jahaz was then given to the tribe of Reuben as a city for the Merarite clan of Levites (Jos 21:36); Mesha differs on this point, asserting that it was Gad, not Reuben, that lived in Moab "from ancient times".

Even in its current form, the II Kings 3 passage would appear to either puff up whatever successes the Israelites had, or to redirect the route of the Israelite campaign to make a moral point. While Mesha lists city after city that he liberated and/or "built" (perhaps "renovated"?), the only Moabite city actually named in II Kings 3 is Kir Hareseth, and it is a city that Israel fails to capture. Furthermore, Kir Hareseth is on the southern edge of Moab near the border with Edom, and the nearest major town is Aroer, 20 miles to the north; presumably those "major towns" (II Kings 3:19,25) that Israel supposedly destroys are the same towns that Mesha claims to have captured, but they are all even further north! Mesha may be exaggerating his own claims, of course, but where are the towns that the Israelites destroy? And why aren't the Israelites defending their properties on the northern Moabite border, instead of risking their lives by marching through the buffer state of Edom? It is also curious that Elisha should be found in this southern region when all of his other recorded activities place him in Israel or its northern neighbour, Aram; he also may have been active near the northern Moabite border. Since his prophecy of total victory over Moab (3:18-19) does not come true, and since Mesha refers to the Israelite king's "campaigns" in the plural, it is possible that a successful Israelite campaign was in fact conducted through the north, and this account was then combined with another, in which Israel lost a Moabite town because of a human sacrifice and the subsequent "fury".

Both sides of the battle claim to be sent by their respective deities. Mesha says that Kemosh told him to take this town and that town, though he does not say how he was told this. As soon as the Israelite army runs out of water, Jehoram claims that "the LORD called us three kings together only to hand us over to Moab" (3:10); later, he repeats the claim to justify his demand for a prophecy from the prophet of YHWH and not the Baal prophets (3:13). This is rather interesting, as the text itself never claims that YHWH ordered the campaign prior to Elisha's prophecy. Mesha may have had prophets devoted to Kemosh, as there seem to be prophets for Baal and other non-Israelite deities, though he does not say so in his stele.

Both accounts speak of total destruction of the other's towns, both property and citizens. Mesha boasts of killing "all the people" of Atarot as well as Nebo's "whole population, seven thousand male citizens and aliens, and female citizens and aliens, and servant girls", and says he did this because he "had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh." Similarly, the Israelites are said to have "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." (3:24-25) This wholesale destruction is a staple feature of the Deuteronomistic History, and it appears in revised accounts of previous Israelite conquests too. Num 21:25 claims that the Israelites "captured ... and occupied" the cities governed by Sihon, but Deut 2:34-35 claims, "At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them -- men, women and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock ... we carried off for ourselves." No reference is made there to occupation, and the NIV footnote says that the word translated as "destroyed" refers to "the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them." In this, then, the Israelites and the Moabites shared a common religious and military practice.

Mesha also speaks of taking "the vessels of YHWH ... before the face of Kemosh", an act that parallels David's dedication of captured Moabite articles to YHWH (II Samuel 8:11). And, just as Kings interprets Israel's misfortunes and ultimate destruction as the judgment of YHWH, who "was not willing to forgive" (II Kings 24:2-4), Mesha claims that Moab's former oppression was brought on Moab because "Kemosh was angry with his land."

© 1994-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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