Does the Moabite god defeat Israel in 2 Kings 3:27?


Does the Moabite god defeat Israel in 2 Kings 3:27?

In this passage (text of it pasted below), the Israelites are closing in on the king of Moab. In a final attempt to stop them, the Moabite king sacrifices his son on the wall.

From here it starts to get unclear. We know that this sacrifice causes some form of great wrath against Israel, which ultimately drives Israel back. However, we don’t know for sure whose wrath it is. Some suggest that the wrath is from the Moabite god (Chemosh), while others suggest that it is the wrath of Yahweh, the wrath of the Moabites or the wrath of the other kings.

The NAB notes favor that it is the wrath of the Moabite god, in which case it would seem that this god defeats Israel:

“The wrath against Israel: probably the wrath of Chemosh, the Moabite god to whom the child was offered. The Israelites, intimidated by this wrath, retreat.”

Here is the text from the NAB (2 Kings 3:21-27):

21 Meanwhile, all Moab had heard that the kings had come to war against them; troops from the youngest on up were mobilized and stationed at the border.

22 When they rose early that morning, the sun was shining across the water. The Moabites saw the water as red as blood,

23 and said, “This is blood! The kings have fought among themselves and killed one another. Quick! To the spoils, Moab!”

24 But when they reached the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and attacked the Moabites, who fled from them. They ranged through the countryside destroying Moab—

25 leveling the cities, each one casting the stones onto every fertile field and filling it, stopping up every spring, felling every fruit tree, until only the stones of Kir-hareseth remained. Then the slingers surrounded and attacked it.

26 When he saw that the battle was going against him, the king of Moab took seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom, but he failed.

27 So he took his firstborn, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a burnt offering upon the wall. The wrath against Israel was so great that they gave up the siege and returned to their own land.


I found a link with some opinions on it here:


And another link here:


This paper also addresses it. It argues that the Israelites retreated after the sacrifice because they feared the retribution of Chemosh:


This seems to be one of those “cliffhangers” that we find in Scriptures… but the message is not that a god bested the people of Israel or that Moab’s king gained power by sacrificing his successor…

The passage stars by describing how Israel is like a pendulum–swinging to and from God as the new incumbent dictates loyalty or disloyalty to Israel’s God (2 Kings 3:1-4)…

Then it discloses that the king of Moab refused to pay the accorded tribute to Israel (2 K 3:5); there was a gathering of the kings (2 K 3:9); Yahweh’s prophet makes a clear distinction about the Fellowship of Israel (2 K 3:14); a misunderstanding about the miracle event (water in the desert) and wishful “they killed themselves off” vain hope (2 K 3:22-24). A devastating battle where Moab all but succumbed took place (2 K 3:24-25); followed by a final attempt to subdue the Israelite kings (2 K 3:26); ending with a desperate sacrificial offering of the firstborn of Moab (2 K 3:27a)… at this but all of Moab (the people who would not see a future king) raged against Israel’s occupying force and Israel’s armies return to their land (2 K 3:27b).

Good or bad the monarch of a nation (the man who would be king) usually represented stability, future wealth, and security–being robbed of their future king could cause blind hatred and popular uprising where many citizens (including women and children) could be put to the sword… Israel sought to lessen instead of intensifying their assault on an already defeated subject.

Maran atha!



Thanks for your response. I think your explanation is a good one and makes a lot of sense. But the more I look at commentaries, the more it appears that everyone is all over the map on this one. I’ll try and post some excerpts of what I’ve found. Having said that, it’s disappointing that the NAB notes had to take the most controversial position when it seems like one could quite reasonably go many different directions in interpreting this. It’s almost as if they are overcompensating for fear of being accused of having a Catholic bias.


Here is an excerpt from the New Interpreter’s Bible:

The Israelites, as Elisha predicted, carry their victory to its extreme conclusion, destroying good trees and arable land, in contravention of deuteronomic law. In desperate straits, the king of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son, the crown prince to the Moabite throne. One expects this to be the denouement of the story, an indication of decisive victory for Israel. Instead, we find a surprising conclusion: a great wrath comes upon Israel, and so they withdraw and return home. The text is ambiguous about the source of the “great wrath.” We might take the sudden withdrawal of Israel as indicative of the efficacy of the human sacrifice and, hence, take the “great wrath” as coming from Chemosh, Moab’s patron deity. Some interpreters, however, have proposed that the “wrath” (קצף qeṣep) refers to human passion: the outrage of the Moabites that prompted them to muster all their resources to beat back the coalition, the anger of the attackers because of the protracted battle, and so on. It should be noted that the Hebrew expression for “good wrath” (קצף גדול qeṣep gādôl) is used in the Bible only for the wrath of the Lord (Deut 29:27; Jer 21:5; 32:37; Zech 1:15; 7:12). Moreover, the expression היה קצף על (hāyâ qeṣep ʿal, “there was a wrath against”) is always used in reference to divine wrath. It seems most probable, therefore, that the text is referring to the wrath of the Lord for the violation of the deuteronomic prohibition of the scorched-earth policy in war. For the narrator, the Lord gave victory to Jehoram-but not a complete victory.

SOURCE: Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004), 184–185.


Here is another excerpt from OT scholar Iain Provan:

3:27 / The fury against Israel was great: The nature of the fury (Hb. qeṣep̱) is left unspecified. It has been a common assumption that it is divine rather than human wrath. But it is very difficult to believe that this is right. To argue, on the one hand, that the authors had in mind the wrath of the Moabite god Chemosh—see most recently J. B. Burns, “Why Did the Besieging Army Withdraw? (2 Reg 3:27),” ZAW 102 (1990), pp. 187–94—is to ignore everything we have read up to this point about the LORD alone being God and the “gods” having no real existence. These are truths that will shortly be reinforced by the story of Naaman in 2 Kgs. 5. The LORD has no rivals in heaven, and Chemosh is no god but merely a “detestable thing” (1 Kgs. 11:7). To argue, on the other hand, that it is the LORD’s fury that is meant (cf. qeṣep̱ in Deut. 29:28; Josh. 22:20) is to accept that the authors are allowing for a link between child sacrifice and divine action—as if this practice, which other passages describe as abhorrent to the LORD (cf. 2 Kgs. 16:3; 17:17; 21:6), was in this one instance acceptable. This, too, seems unlikely. It is much more likely that the FURY is thought of as in the first instance human (cf. both the other places in Kings where Hb. qṣp̱, “to be angry,” appears, 2 Kgs. 5:11; 13:19). Having failed to “break through to the king of Edom” (v. 26, perhaps implying that this was the weakest point in the forces surrounding him and the only way out), Mesha sacrifices. His troops respond to this desperate act with a superhuman fury that carries them to victory. This is not to ignore the fact, of course, that at another level it is certainly the LORD whose hand must be seen in this reversal for Israel, for it is always he who gives other nations their victories in Kings (cf., e.g., 2 Kgs. 5:1; 23:26–27; 24:1–4, 10–17). The Moabites’ anger would have counted for nothing, had God not ordained that it should count for something.

SOURCE: Iain W. Provan, 1 & 2 Kings, ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 186.


This from the Westminster Bible Companion. It favors the wrath being from Yahweh.

Great Wrath Came upon Israel
The ending of this story is puzzling. Israel, for all of its devastation of people and environment in Moab, has been driven home without victory. This raises several questions and forces the reader to go back and see if some clues have been missed.
We focus on the word “wrath.” Wrath commonly “goes forth” or “comes upon” people, the effect of which may include plague or death (see Num. 1:53; 16:46; 18:5; 31:16; Josh. 22:20). Unlike other words used for divine anger in Kings (see at 1 Kings 14:21–16:34), wrath is an impersonal reality here, not a legal penalty or a divine response in view of apostasy. Wrath is an effect intrinsically related to or growing out of a violation of the moral order of God’s creation. Wrath is usually the wrath of the Lord, as God sees to the movement from deed to consequence. The lack of reference to God in this text, however, makes it virtually deistic in its force. Something has happened that triggers wrath.
Whose wrath is it? Some scholars suggest it is the wrath of Chemosh upon the sacrifice of a child; the effect is the deliverance of the Moabites from Israel. But it seems unlikely that the larger narrative, so opposed to gods other than Yahweh, would ascribe such power to Chemosh or grant such an effect to child sacrifice. Hence it is best to see the wrath as having an origin from Israel’s God.
What effect does the wrath have? It disrupts the military situation to such an extent that the Israelites have to give up the fight short of final victory and return home (as in 1 Kings 22:36).
Why does the wrath “come upon” Israel? The reader could appeal to God’s mysterious ways, or suggest that the text is purposely ambiguous. Perhaps so, but some clues must be explored. The text up to this point suggests that Israel is mediating the wrath of God against Moab, and the child sacrifice on the part of Moabites should only intensify that wrath. It could be that the wrath comes upon Moab as well, but only Israel is mentioned. The narrator’s interest in its impact on Israel is evident. But what if the wrath is not directly (or only) related to the child sacrifice? Might it not include the degradation of the environment (vv. 19, 25), an implicit violation of the law in Deuteronomy 20:19–20 (cf. also the violation of Deut. 2:9)?
Even more, the clue might be found in the numerous parallels to 1 Kings 22, many of which have been noted above. The question of the will of God in this confrontation has been suspiciously raised by Jehoram twice (vv. 10, 13). This suspicion may be grounded in the deceptive promissory word of both Micaiah and Ahab’s prophets (on divine deception, see at 1 Kings 22:1–53), which sends Israel’s armies against Aram precisely in order that they might fail. Might the word of Elisha in verses 18–19 be a counterpart to that of Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:15, that is, a deceptive word delivered (unknowingly? see 2 Kings 4:27) to lead to Israel’s failure? The almost complete fulfillment of Elisha’s word—Moab was not finally “handed over” (v. 18)—would thus be a part of this larger divine design in view of Israel’s apostasy (and certainly takes the edge off his reputation). Whatever positive developments may occur in Israel’s life, the buildup of its apostasy issues finally in devastation. The negative effect on Israel here would anticipate this final wrath against Israel (2 Kings 17:7–18; see Deut. 29:28).

SOURCE: Terence E. Fretheim, First and Second Kings, ed. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 143–144.


The Oxford Bible Commentary doesn’t take a clear stand on the source of the wrath:

The source of this ‘great wrath’, be it YHWH, the Moabites, or their god, remains unclear. At this point one should take note of an unusual piece of extra-biblical evidence. King Mesha of Moab (mentioned in 3:4) erected a victory stele which was discovered in the Moabite town of Diban in 1863. On it he boasts of his triumphs against Israel (text in ANET, analysis and interpretation in Dearman 1989). His description is in some points similar to 2 Kings 3: during the years before his reign Israel dominated Moab until he turned his trust to the god Chemosh and subsequently forced Israel out of the country. Mesha does not report that Israel, Judah, and Edom made a great campaign against Moab. Nevertheless such action fits well with the time of Omri’s dynasty, which tended to have a policy of broad alliances (e.g. against Assyria) and which could always drag Judah in its wake. The sinister, final scene in 2 Kings 3:27 reflects something of the Moabites’ religious faith, though nothing of this kind is mentioned in Mesha’s report. Chemosh was in no way a lover of child sacrifices, as it may appear here. The crown-prince’s sacrifice was rather a desperate attempt to force the god into action, as we have already seen with Jephthah during his war against the Ammonites (Judg 11:30–1). We also discover from the Mesha stele that Chemosh exacted a far higher sacrifice from Israel: several Israelite villages were ‘banned’, i.e. given to the god and completely eradicated (cf. the Israelite analogy, 1 Kings 20:35–43). The war rituals hinted at here are archaically gruesome, though one must not be deceived by them: they were sporadic rather than widespread. Mass armies, the destruction of entire countries, religious wars dominated by fanaticism, extensive genocide, weapons of mass destruction: none of these phenomena were contrived or practised by the small states of the ancient Near East, but are the invention of our own time.

SOURCE: John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., Oxford Bible Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 2 Ki 3:4.


Keil and Delitzsch hold it to be the wrath of Yahweh:

2 Kings 3:27. But when this attempt failed, in his desperation he took his first-born son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice upon the wall, i.e., in the sight of the besiegers, not to the God of Israel (Joseph. Ephr. Syr., etc.), but to his own god Camos (see at 1 Kings 11:7), to procure help from him by appeasing his wrath; just as the heathen constantly sought to appease the wrath of their gods by human sacrifices on the occasion of great calamities (vid., Euseb. praepar. ev. iv. 16, and E. v. Lasaulx, die Sühnopfer der Griechen und Römer, pp. 8ff.).—“And there was (came) great wrath upon Israel, and they departed from him (the king of Moab) and returned into their land.” As הָיָה קֶצֶף עַל is used of the divine wrath or judgment, which a man brings upon himself by sinning, in every other case in which the phrase occurs, we cannot understand it here as signifying the “human indignation,” or ill-will, which broke out among the besieged (Budd., Schulz, and others). The meaning is: this act of abomination, to which the king of the Moabites had been impelled by the extremity of his distress, brought a severe judgment from God upon Israel. The besiegers, that is to say, felt the wrath of God, which they had brought upon themselves by occasioning human sacrifice, which is strictly forbidden in the law (Lev. 18:21; 20:3), either inwardly in their conscience or in some outwardly visible signs, so that they gave up the further prosecution of the siege and the conquest of the city, without having attained the object of the expedition, namely, to renew the subjugation of Moab under the power of Israel.

SOURCE: Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 217.


Here are the short thoughts from four Catholic commentators:

  1. Then he had recourse to human sacrifice, the Crown Prince probably offering himself freely, like Marcus Curtius in the Roman Forum or the Carthaginian general Hamilcar, who made himself a holocaust at Himera in 480 for the success of his army. Thus Mesha thought to avert the wrath of his god Kemosh (cf. Mesha Stone, lines 5, 6) and to render his ramparts inviolable. Then ‘there came great indignation (of Yahweh) upon Israel’; cf. Jos 9:20 etc. Some calamity, probably a pestilence, forced the Israelites to retire. According to Stade, Šanda, Kittel, etc., the original narrative said ‘the indignation of Kemosh’. But this would be at variance with ancient ways of thought, especially Israel’s; the Assyrians attributed a reverse to the anger of Nana, the Babylonians to the anger of Marduk. Mesha rebuilt his towns and remained unsubdued (Mesha Stone, lines 21–33).

SOURCE: K. Smyth, “3 and 4 Kings,” in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Bernard Orchard and Edmund F. Sutcliffe (Toronto;New York;Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1953), 339–340.

Defeat in battle causes the Moabite king to seek Syrian aid, and when that recourse fails, he sacrifices his own child in hopes of winning his god’s favor over Israel. This horrifies the Israelites, who return to Israel. Perhaps even they fear the power of the Moabite god in his own land!

SOURCE: Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Based on the New American Bible with Revised New Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989), 312.

  1. burnt offering: The actual immolation of children was rare but not unknown in ancient times, especially in the lands where Baal was worshiped (cf. 1 Kgs 16:34; for the exceptional cases in Israel, see Jgs 11:29ff.; 2 Kgs 16:3). wrath upon Israel: Most likely the Israelites raised the siege because of a superstitious fear of the consequences of Mesha’s oath to Chemosh, the god of Moab. Possibly, however, the sacrifice of the crown prince filled the defenders with such desperate courage that they repulsed the invaders (cf. Jos 9:20; see Albright, ARI 164; De Vaux, AI 442, 446; M-G, Kings 364).

SOURCE: Raymond Edward Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland Edmund Murphy, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 198.

Ver. 27. Wall, to Chamos, the idol of Moab; (M.) or to Moloc, to appease the wrath of the gods. Horrible blindness! The pagans believed, that the most precious thing ought to be sacrificed in very imminent dangers. Philo Biblius. ap. Eus. præp. iv. 16.—The Phœnicians offered such victims to Saturn. Many devoted themselves to death for the safety of the Roman republic; and some were ready to do so, to preserve the lives of Caligula and Nero, before they had given proof of their evil dispositions. Seuton. xiv.—It s thought that Sennacherib intended to treat his two sons in this manner, if they had not prevented him. Abul. in 4 K. xix. 37.—Some imagine that Mesa sacrificed his son to the God of Israel, in imitation of Abraham; (Joseph. Grot.) others, that he slew the son of the king of Edom, out of revenge. Kimchi, in Amos ii. 1.—The Heb. is ambiguous. Amama.—But interpreters generally believe, that the heir of Mesa fell a victim (C.) to his father’s mistaken zeal, or to his desire to make the enemy retire, when they saw him reduced to such a state of desperation. It had, at least, this effect. H.—Indignation, at such a cruel action. M.—Sept. “there was great repentance” and sorrow. The text may also imply, that God was displeased at Israel for pushing the king to such an extremity; or, they became an object of horror to the surrounding nations. C.—The first explanation seems the best; as the Israelites thought the king had been sufficiently punished, and therefore retired. They had no reason to suspect that he would have given way to such madness, nor were they to blame for it. H.

SOURCE: George Leo Haydock, Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary (New York: Edward Dunigan and Brother, 1859), 2 Ki 3:27.


Here is another interesting take:

3:26–27 Holed up in Kir Hareseth, the king of Moab with seven hundred swordsmen tries to break through to the king of Edom. He either believes that the king of Edom would be more sympathetic or sees an area of weakness in that part of the battle line. Failing in that attempt, he moves to a last-resort maneuver to win victory over Israel and save his throne. Mesha offers his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, as a sacrifice [literally, “a whole burnt offering”] on the city wall. In response to the king’s sacrifice, there is great fury קֶצֶף, qeṣeph, “wrath”] against Israel. The alliance withdraws and returns to their own land. Mesha is saved. As Joram himself will be saved from the besieging Arameans (6:24–7:20) and Hezekiah from the Assyrians (18:9–19:37), so Mesha is rescued from the hand of Israel. Ironically, Joram’s words are true. Yahweh has given them over “to the hand of Moab” (vv. 10, 13).

But what of Elisha’s prophecy? This shocking reversal at the end of the story raises questions about his oracle. Also, key to unraveling the story, what is the “fury against Israel”? There is ambiguity in the text concerning this wrath. Is it the wrath of Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom against Joram, or perhaps the wrath of Yahweh? It could even be the wrath of Moab’s god Chemosh, who in Mesha’s view must have won the day. The context would suggest that there was indignation against Joram, one assumes from Jehoshaphat, over what this untoward mission had led to, reprehensible human sacrifice to a foreign deity. Even though the alliance held the upper hand, this provocative act caused them to retreat. But the writer appears to be doing more than explain the coalition’s retreat. The word that the narrator uses for wrath (qeṣeph; “fury” in the NIV) is regularly used for the wrath of God (cf., e.g., Num 18:5; Deut 29:27; Josh 9:20; 22:20). Since the point of view of the storyteller is that Yahweh is the only true God (cf. 1 Kgs 20:28), it is unlikely that he means to say that Mesha was delivered because of the wrath of Chemosh. More likely, in addition to explaining Israel’s withdrawal, the narrator uses qeṣeph to say that Yahweh has defeated Joram (cf. 5:1). The resonance between this story and Ahab’s ill-fated campaign against Ben-Hadad frames the narrator’s words. While Joram has not met his fate on the battlefield, he has been defeated in much the same way as was his father. In fact, in a rather brilliant way, the narrator records Joram asking the question of the narrative: “Has the LORD called us three kings together only to hand us over to Moab?” (v. 10; emphasized by repetition in v. 13b)—to which the final scene answers, “Yes!” The word of Yahweh has thwarted Joram’s misguided efforts to maintain the regional dominance of his fathers.

Recognizing how this story fits into the larger narrative explains the role of the prophet. Through the lens of the Ahab/Jehoshaphat battle narrative, Elisha is Micaiah. He has enticed Joram to attack Moab. At the same time, the narrator goes out of his way to say that Elisha’s words are technically true. Only, the prophet’s word is not the whole truth. Elisha does not explain (as Micaiah explained) what Yahweh is doing. In spite of the fact that Joram is not as bad as his parents, Yahweh has not forgotten Elijah’s word of judgment on Israel. Unwittingly, the king twice verbalizes the point of the story—Yahweh called the three kings together to hand them over to Moab (vv. 10, 13). The anger of Yahweh continues against the house of Ahab. The reader can anticipate that Joram will die like his father.

SOURCE: Jesse C. Long, 1 & 2 Kings, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub., 2002), 305–307.


Walter Kaiser thinks the “fury” was Israel’s revulsion at the sacrifice.

3:27 Human Sacrifice Worked?

Did not the sacrifice of the king of Moab’s son, the heir apparent to the throne, work in that Israel broke off the siege of the city of Kir Hareseth in Moab? Does this count as evidence that the god of the Moabites intervened on their behalf?

When Mesha, king of Moab, refused to send the required annual tribute of wool to Israel, King Jehoram mobilized his forces, in addition to successfully enlisting King Jehoshaphat of Judah, to go to Moab to enforce this tribute.

The whole campaign almost ended in a disaster for both Israel and Judah as they chose to attack from the desert side of that nation, but the prophet Elisha happened to be along to give divine counsel and direction. Miraculously the fortunes of the two armies were reversed, and very quickly the soldiers of Moab turned in full retreat to the city of Kir Hareseth.

King Mesha, seeing that the battle had gone against him, in desperation took his oldest son and offered him on the city wall, apparently hoping that this would appease their god and he would act in delivering them. The Israelites did break off their siege and return home.

Does this mean that their god delivered them? Hardly, given his nonexistence. There was no need to continue the hostilities any further, for the object of the campaign had been achieved: Moab’s power was broken and the rebellion suppressed. The country was once again under the jurisdiction of Israel. What more could be achieved? That, along with the revolting spectacle, was enough for all the troops of Israel and Judah.

This is not the only time such a desperate action has been taken in the ancient Near East. Nor is the mention of “fury” to be attributed to God’s fury against Israel because of the lengths to which they had pressed the king of Moab, as C. F. Keil thought. Instead, the “fury” was Israel’s indignation and revulsion over so gruesome an act and so senseless a waste of life. The guilt was solely on the shoulders of the king of Moab, for as Psalm 106:38 warned:

They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.

The sacrifice was so disgusting and revolting to the Israelites because they understood that it rendered the whole land impure, accursed and covered with blood-guilt.
See also comment on GENESIS 22:2; 2 SAMUEL 21:1–9.

SOURCE: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 234.


This is from the Anchor Yale Bible. It calls the “wrath” clause in 1 Kings 3:27 “one of the most perplexing items in Scripture.” So I guess this is a pretty huge difficulty.

  1. Then he took his oldest son … on the (city) wall. This is the clearest case of human sacrifice under conditions of stress in biblical literature; the case of Jephthah’s daughter belongs to the class of sacrifice offered in fulfillment of vows, cf. Judg 11:30–31; Lev 27:29. Classical sources report the frequent sacrifice of children in cities under siege in Phoenicia and its north African colonies. See, among others, Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica I, 44; Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica XX, 14:4–6; and the survey of this evidence by M. Weinfeld, “The Worship of Molech and the Queen of Heaven and Its Background,” UF 4 (1972), 133–40; and below note to 21:6. It is still a question whether or not the depictions on Egyptian reliefs of a child hanging over the wall of a besieged city are ritual in nature and related at all to infant sacrifice; see A. Spalinger, Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities (Toronto) 8 (1978), 47–60. Likewise, the crucial lines in a Ugaritic prayer for a city under siege referring to the consecration of a “first-born” (?) are of disputed interpretation. See A. Herdner, Ugaritica VII (Paris: Geuthner, 1978), 31–39, Text RS 24.266; cf. B. Margalit, Seventh WCJS, 63–83.

Mesha’s sacrifice, performed on the city wall being assaulted by Israelite troops, is best taken as a propitiatory act offered to the angry Moabite deity Chemosh in extremis, not as a regular cultic offering. For a suggestion that Ahaz sacrificed his son under similar circumstances, see note to 2 Kgs 16:3.

There was great wrath against the Israelites. This clause is one of the most perplexing items in Scripture. Heb. qeṣep, “wrath,” describes YHWH’s visitation upon wrongdoers—e.g. Num 18:5, Deut 29:27, Josh 9:20, 22:20. The usual idiom is hāyâ qeṣep ʿal, as in our verse; but yāṣāʾ qeṣep, “the wrath began” (lit. ‘issued’)—Num 17:11; and bāʾ qeṣep, “the wrath came”)—2 Chr 32:26, are also attested.

Many commentators assume that originally the subject of the “great wrath” was the Moabite deity Chemosh, who in accepting Mesha’s grim sacrifice, struck out at Israel’s armies. This reference to an effective display of power by a non-Israelite deity was subsequently edited out of the text (Kittel, Šanda, Gray). Y. Kaufmann, however, has argued that “the wrath of Chemosh is a totally nonbiblical image, but that magical wrath or anger could actually be effective according to biblical thought, as seen in the danger posed by Balaam (cf. Josh 24:10).” Elisha’s apparent absence from the camp at the time of Mesha’s sacrifice led to the “wrath” which scattered the Israelite forces. See Kaufmann, Collected Papers, 205–7 (Hebrew). Rabbinic exegetes transferred the wrath from the divine to the human plane: the king of Edom in his anger turned against Jehoram and Jehoshaphat because of the sacrifice of his son who had been taken captive by Mesha in an earlier attack (a fanciful interpretation which joined v. 26 with the enigmatic Amos 2:1); so Qimḥi, Gersonides. Other commentators interpret qeṣep as the “anger” of Israel’s own troops over the prolonged siege that brought about such horrors (Thenius), as “panic” and the losing of heart (Keil, Montgomery-Gehman), or even “sorrow and vexation” on the part of the Moabites over Israel’s attack (G. R. Driver, JThSt 36 [1935], 293). For an analysis of this verse in its compositional setting, see Comment.

SOURCE: Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 11, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 47–48.


A further comment from the Anchor Yale Bible:

The epilogue to the prophetic narrative, vv. 26–27, relates the final stages of the campaign: the unsuccessful attempt of the king of Moab to break through the siege; the sacrifice of his firstborn, the crown prince, on the city wall; Israel’s retreat. These two verses stand in open contradiction to Elisha’s prophecy: “He will deliver Moab over to you” (v. 18), after which the narrative should have told of the taking of Kir-haresheth. The cryptic statement: “There was great wrath against the Israelites” (v. 27) further confounds the reader.

In reality, Elisha’s prophecy was fulfilled only in part; Moab remained independent and was never reconquered by Israel. It is this clash between the prophetic tradition (vv. 6–25) and the historical tradition behind vv. 26–27 which the epilogue in its present form attempts to resolve.

The editor of the prophetic stories resorted to a theological expedient, a sudden divine wrath, to explain Israel’s retreat. The subject of the wrath was left unnamed. The editor could have ascribed it to “the wrath of Chemosh”; but, as Kaufmann pointed out, to do so would have been to admit that a foreign deity was indeed a power source on the level of YHWH and that Mesha’s sacrifice was in this sense efficacious, an incredible admission for any biblical writer. Or he could have ascribed the wrath to the god of Israel; but Mesha’s sacrifice was obviously not to the god of his enemies. A proper biblical explanation would have been to point to some wrongdoing on the part of Israel which then brought on the divine wrath (see the examples in the note to v. 27), but such an act was not part of the prophetic tradition in vv. 6–25. The equivocal “wrath” might have satisfied the ancient editor, but it has been an embarrassment to all his readers.

FOOTNOTE TO LAST SENTENCE: On this point, D.N.F. comments: “The editor/author has an interest in the House of Omri, and apparently wants to show that God would not permit an Omride to have an undiluted victory … Hence the revised account which incorporates a divine judgment against the latest heir to the throne … In spite of the prophet and the decision of God against the Moabites, in the end, Jehoram was not allowed to enjoy the fruits of the victory, but had to retreat precipitately.”

SOURCE: Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 11, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 51–52.


And finally, here is Peter Leithart’s take:


2 KINGS 3:1–27

The story of Israel’s war with Moab has a familiar feel to it. It is an exodus story: the journal of Jehoram and Jehoshaphat follows Israel’s itinerary as they approach the promised land, moving to the south through Edom and then coming up to Moab before crossing the river into the land (2 Kgs. 3:8, 24; Num. 20:14–21; Deut. 1:1–5). As the kings travel through the wilderness of Edom, they run out of water (2 Kgs. 3:9), and a prophet promises water and victory (3:14–19). The Lord miraculously provides water for them (3:20), as he does when Israel comes out of Egypt (Exod. 17:1–7). The water is the death of the Moabites (2 Kgs. 3:21–26), like the waters of the Red Sea that simultaneously deliver Israel and destroy Egypt (Exod. 14). When the water comes, it looks like blood (2 Kgs. 3:23), reminiscent of the water that actually turns to blood in Egypt (Exod. 7:14–19). There is even a “song of Moses” (Exod. 15) in the harp that accompanies Elisha’s prophecy (2 Kgs. 3:15).

It is also a holy war story: when Joshua invades the land, Yahweh miraculously gives Jericho into his hand (Josh. 6), disturbs natural phenomena to give Joshua victory over an alliance of kings led by Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (Josh. 10), and provides Joshua with battle plans to defeat the city of Ai/Bethel (Josh. 7). Specifically, the battle with Moab is like the battle at Jericho in several particulars: it involves a seven-day period (2 Kgs. 3:9; Josh. 6:1–5), and in the end Israel gathers at the walls of an enemy city (2 Kgs. 3:27; Josh. 6:20–21). During the period of the judges, further, Yahweh intervenes to deliver Israel from opponents with much larger armies, when Israel is in desperate straits. He raises up Ehud to kill the Moabite king Eglon (Judg. 3), gives victory to Deborah and Barak against Jabin of Hazor and his commander, Sisera (Judg. 4), and enables Gideon to defeat the Midianites with a handful of men (Judg. 7). Samson is a one-man army, possessed of the Spirit of Yahweh to win victories over impossible odds (Judg. 13–16). Here in 2 Kings, Yahweh traps the Moabites, luring them unsuspecting into the wilderness, where Israel falls on them and panics them.

The war against Moab is a familiar story, and it should end with Israel gaining total victory over the rebellious Mesha, with Israel reducing Moab to its prior status as a vassal state in Israel, with Yahweh vindicating himself against the gods of the Gentiles. So Elisha prophesies, it seems: “You shall strike every fortified city and every choice city; and fell every good tree and stop all springs of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones” (2 Kgs. 3:19). This is a story of Israel facing crisis and escaping by the skin of its teeth, winning at the last moment and against all odds—all by the faithful mercy of Yahweh.


Peter Leithart


If the story ended at 3:26, it would be comfortably, reassuringly familiar. But it goes on for another verse, and that verse deconstructs the story and disturbs our complacency, as the writer of Kings does habitually. We think we are reading another story about the crafty covenant Lord trapping his enemies, but when we reach 3:27, we realize we are reading a story about a doubly crafty God who traps Israel at the very moment he appears to be trapping Moab. M. Night Shyamalan would be proud: the surprise ending transforms the story from an exodus into a satire of exodus, from a story of Israel’s holy war to a parody of holy war, a story of Gentile victory over Israel.

What actually happens at the wall of the Moabite capital of Kir-hareseth? According to 3:27, King Mesha of Moab offers his firstborn son and heir on the wall as an “ascension” offering. Apparently as a result of that offering, “great wrath” breaks out against Israel so intense that Israel is forced to leave Moabite territory. Commentators offer several explanations. One is that the “great wrath” is not divine wrath but human wrath. When the Moabites see their king sacrificing the crown prince on the wall of the city, they are infuriated at Israel and fight so desperately and energetically that Israel has to withdraw. Psychologically plausible as this may be, the word used for “wrath” normally refers to God’s wrath, not to human wrath (Davis 2005, 48). Even if this scenario were true, human wrath cannot stand against God’s wrath. If Yahweh intends to give victory to Israel, he would have done so, no matter how excited the Moabites get.

Perhaps the wrath is that of the Moabite God Chemosh (Nelson 1987, 168). Inactive during most of the battle, he responds once the king offers a suitable sacrifice and fights for Moab. This is the view of Mesha himself, who records his wars with Israel on a tablet known as the Moabite stone: “As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years …, for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, ‘I will humble Moab.’ In my time he spoke (thus), but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel hath perished for ever! (Now) Omri had occupied the land of Medeba, and (Israel) had dwelt there in his time and half the time of his son (Ahab), forty years; but Chemosh dwelt there in my time” (Pritchard 1969, 320). But this explanation cannot stand as the final word in 1-2 Kings. Baal is decisively defeated at Carmel (1 Kgs. 18), and Baal-ekron does not have the power to heal anyone (2 Kgs. 1); and for the author of 1-2 Kings Chemosh is no more powerful than Baal. Whatever reality lies behind Chemosh, it is under Yahweh’s control.

The other explanation is that “great wrath” comes from Yahweh. This explanation has its problems, since the wrath appears to be a response to Mesha’s human sacrifice, yet, on balance, it is the best explanation. Why would Yahweh be angry with Israel? It is questionable, first of all, whether Moab should have been part of Israel in the first place. In Deut. 2:9, Moses tells Israel: “Do not harass Moab, or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot as a possession.” Possibly, this applies only to the time of Moses, but it raises questions about the legitimacy of holding Moab as a client state. Moab and Ammon are, after all, cousins to Israel, however scandalous their origins (Gen. 19:30–38). The Omrides, moreover, impose a terrific tribute on the Moabites: one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams (2 Kgs. 3:4), a sign that the Omrides are illegitimately oppressing Gentiles incorporated into Israel (Exod. 22:21).


More Peter Leithart:


Israel, finally, directly violates the Mosaic laws of war during their Moabite campaign. Deuteronomy 20:19–20 forbids Israel from making war against the trees of an enemy land, yet when Israel invades Moab, each “threw a stone on every piece of good land,” and they “stopped up all the springs and felled all the good trees” (2 Kgs. 3:25). Israel is at times instructed to engage in holy war, but that is not the normal practice of war for Israel, and even in holy war Israel does not destroy the natural products of the land. When Jehoram fights Moab, however, Israel makes war against land, springs, and trees, not only against the Moabites themselves. Yahweh’s “great wrath” burns against Israel because they conduct their war in flagrant disregard of his laws.

All these explanations run up against the reticence of the text itself. Great wrath—but whose? And why would great wrath come against Israel after a human sacrifice? What we can say with confidence is that Yahweh is a God who sets traps, not only for Gentile Moabites but for Israelites. He is an equal-opportunity trapper. Yahweh lures Moab into false assurance of victory with the combination of water and sunrise, but he is simultaneously luring Jehoram into false confidence in a battle that ultimately turns against him.

Ironically, Jehoram predicts this. A whiner like his father, Jehoram crumples as soon as he faces an obstacle to his plan and complains that “Yahweh has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab” (3:10). Jehoram is a Calvinist of sorts, who recognizes that the blessed Lord gives and takes away. But his sort of Calvinism is the faith of neither Calvin nor the Scriptures. Faith is not simply belief that God has the power to triumph over all things or the belief that God in control. Even devils believe that and tremble. A true believer believes not only in God’s will, but in God’s good will (Nelson 1987, 165). Faith is the confidence that God does all he does for our good. Scripture does not teach a naked sovereignty. Scripture teaches that God is sovereign, triumphant, infinite, omnipotent good; he is sovereign, triumphant, infinite, omnipotent love. Faith like Jehoram’s might seem honoring to God because it acknowledges God’s sovereign rule, but it is ultimately an insult to God because it denies God’s goodness. Anyone who believes in the way that Jehoram believes will get just what he or she expects.

Once we read the end of the story, hints and clues about the final outcome begin to emerge earlier in the story. It is like watching Sixth Sense a second time. Some of the clues become evident when we consider the echoes between this event and the battle with the Arameans that ends 1 Kings (Provan 1995, 183–84). In that earlier account, Jehoshaphat of Judah cooperates with Ahab and states his cooperation in exactly the same words he speaks to Jehoram: “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses” (1 Kgs. 22:4; 2 Kgs. 3:7). Before that earlier battle, Jehoshaphat asks Ahab to provide a prophet of Yahweh to consult (1 Kgs. 22:7), and when the three kings get stranded in the wilderness, Jehoshaphat again asks for a prophet of Yahweh (2 Kgs. 3:11).

When Jehoshaphat asks for a prophet in the Aramean war, Ahab summons Micaiah, who tells Ahab that Yahweh is luring him to his destruction, and that background hints that Elisha’s prophecy may somehow be misleading, a trap for Jehoram. Elisha’s prophecy is not false (Westbrook 2005); everything he predicts happens as he predicts. He says that “that valley shall be filled with water” (3:17), and in the morning “water came by way of Edom, and the country was filled with water” (3:20). He says that Yahweh will “give the Moabites into your hand” (3:18), and Yahweh lures the Moabites out to the three kings for slaughter. He says that Israel will “strike every fortified city and every choice city” (3:19), and they “struck the cities” (3:25), including Kir-hareseth. He says that they will sow the land with stones, stop up the springs, and knock down every good tree (3:19), and that is precisely what they do (3:25).


Peter Leithart…


Yet, Elisha’s prophecy is ambiguous in at least one respect: does Elisha command Jehoram and Jehoshaphat to destroy the good trees of the land and to stop up the water supply? His prophecy is open to that reading, but this would imply that Elisha instructs the kings to violate the Torah’s rules of warfare, which is unlikely. Elisha’s prediction is a prediction and nothing more. Further, Elisha’s prophecy is certainly incomplete. Yahweh gives Moab into the hand of Israel, as Elisha predicts, but Elisha does not finish the story, and that incompleteness, like the prophecies of the false prophets in 1 Kgs. 22, sets a trap for Jehoram.

The other set of clues has to do with King Mesha of Moab himself. This is the story of an exodus and a conquest, but in the end it is not a reenactment of Israel’s exodus. It is Moab’s exodus, an exodus led by a Moabite “Moses,” Mesha (the two names pun in Hebrew, and “Mesha” מישע] is, like “Joshua,” built on the verb “save”). Heavily oppressed like Israel in Egypt, Moab rebels, with Mesha leading his people out of Israel/Egypt. Even the horrific slaughter of his firstborn son on the wall of Kir-hareseth is part of an exodus typology, an infernal Passover that delivers Mesha while wrath burns against his enemies. This is also Mesha’s holy war. In biblical holy war stories, Israel is normally outnumbered and Yahweh intervenes to rescue them from certain defeat. Here, Moab is the underdog, yet they win the battle because Yahweh takes their side.

Two exodus stories intersect in the chapter: the exodus of Israel and the exodus of Moab. Two holy war stories are being told simultaneously: the holy war that Israel wages against Moab and the holy war that Moab wages against Israel. In the end, Moab’s exodus is successful, and Israel’s is not. This fits the internal typology of 1-2 Kings: Ahab is a perverse Solomon, and just as Israel divides in the days of Solomon’s son, so the northern kingdom divides in the days of Ahab’s son (compare 2 Kgs. 3:5 with 1 Kgs. 12:19).

Yahweh occasionally gives the Omride kings victories, in spite of their rebellion, but so long as Israel tolerates idols it is not successful militarily over the long run.1 Yahweh makes war against his enemies with infinite power and infinite cunning, and he is perfectly willing to direct his shrewd energies to trap his own people when they turn from him.

This unnerving story reveals something of God’s ways with humanity in general. What is God up to in history or in the specific history of our individual lives? That is often difficult to answer, and frequently, just when we think we have a sense of what God is doing, he turns things inside out and upside down and does something else. He is a living God, and that means he is the God of surprise endings. He does this not because he takes malicious delight in toying with us, nor does he trap us to guffaw over the resulting pratfalls. The God of surprises is wholly righteous, wholly good, wholly just, wholly love, wholly light without a shadow of turning. He is faithful with the faithful, but the faithful throughout the centuries testify that God is a God of surprises. God surprises us because we have only the slightest grasp of what is actually going on in history or in our lives. God surprises us because he is doing far, far more than we can imagine, and his plans are far, far bigger than we can perceive. God surprises us with roadblocks and obstacles because he wants us to grow up from complaining, sentimental childish Jehorams into mature adults, into the image of Jesus, who learns obedience by what he suffers.

We have no control over our ends, whether the end of our lives or the end of any particular storyline of our lives. We cannot number our days. When we recognize this, we might respond with fear and anxiety at the feeling of utter helplessness, bottomless dependence. But recognizing that we are not in control of our ends only produces anxiety when we assume that we should be in control. In Scripture, recognizing that we are not in control is a source of joy because it is combined with the confidence that someone is in control, someone who is far wiser than we. Recognizing our utter dependence removes the heavy yoke and leaves us buoyant, lighter than air. This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the wisdom that freely confesses that the world is vapor—and then proceeds to eat and drink and make love (Eccl. 9:7–9). Recognizing that we cannot control our endings is just the reverse side of our basic Christian confession that God controls our endings. Our helplessness is inherent in the basic confession that God is God and we are not. The meaning of our life story depends on what happens tomorrow, what happens at the omega-point of our lives, and we do not know what will happen tomorrow. But there is a God in heaven who knows and controls every alpha and every omega, a God who is alpha and omega.

Second Kings 3 does not leave us with an arbitrary God, but it certainly does not reveal a tame God. This story leaves us precisely where the whole of Scripture leaves us: utterly dependent upon the God who is sovereign love and sovereign good. This odd and mystifying story urges us to take this one stance in life: trust him, remembering that the greatest surprise ending is the double surprise of the gospel—the shocking horror of the Son of the King crucified outside the walls by his own “fathers” and the wild joy of a risen Lord.

SOURCE: Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 178–183.

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