That Time a Pagan Sacrifice Worked

The other day in church the preacher was talking about 2 Kings 4, when Elisha provided a widow with a miracle of multiplied oil. That account is interesting enough in its own right, but I found myself, for at least some of the sermon, distracted by the verses which immediately preceded it. I saw the startling verses of 2 Kings 3:26-17.

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

A bit shocking, isn’t it? I went back in the chapter for context and the whole story. King Ahab of Israel died, and as his son Jehoram took his place, the king of Moab, who had been subject to Ahab, took advantage of the moment to rebel. So Jehoram allied with Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom to stop the Moabite rebellion. When their armies ran out of water in the wilderness, they consulted the prophet Elisha. Elisha was no fan of apostate Jehoram, but for the righteous Jehoshaphat’s sake, he brought them miraculous water and a message of victory from God. So they fought the Moabites, overthrew several cities, destroyed loads of land, stopped up springs, felled the healthy trees, and generally wrought havoc on Moab. The battle eventually came down on the city of Kir-hareseth, where it went very badly for the Moabites. It was at this point that the king of Moab took the drastic step in the verses cited above and drove the Israelites out.
This little adventure, good enough for prime time TV, raises an obvious question. How did it work? The king of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son as a burnt offering, and it leads to wrath on the Israelites, who then retreat. His offering seems to have been successful. To further complicate matters, Elisha had foretold victory for Israel. But the battle ended in retreat. So what happened?
There seem to be a couple of possibilities, and these are largely tied to a grammatical question. It is not clear in the text from whom the “great wrath” which broke out against Israel came. The two basic options are that this wrath is either human or divine. If human, the only real possible sources are the Moabite soldiers or, as some commentators have suggested, the Edomites, who may have turned on Israel. I would be inclined to reject this last possibility altogether, as it is the least obvious from the text. The wrath of the Moabites makes a little more sense, but I’m skeptical, given the more obvious options. The more obvious options take the wrath as divine. After all, any change which results immediately from a burnt offering in a book where the supernatural is taken for granted makes most sense as a divine response. If so, the great wrath could refer to either that of Yahweh God or, perhaps, that of Chemosh, the god of the Moabites.
This latter possibility may strike you as odd, but the former makes even less sense. Why would God’s wrath break out against the Israelites because the king of Moab sacrificed his son? Some commentators have imagined that, perhaps in response to the sacrifice, the Israelites lost their faith and thus incurred God’s wrath, but this goes far beyond anything which would be clear from the text. Nor is it the most natural way to view the cause-and-effect which follows a sacrifice. The point of sacrifice, after all, is to encourage divine action, not to scare humans.
This leaves the option that it is the wrath of Chemosh, the Moabite god, which came upon the Israelites. “But that’s impossible! Chemosh doesn’t exist!” I hear some of you saying. That would be a good objection, but it’s just totally off-base. It relies on the well-intentioned but misguided idea that the Bible teaches the non-existence of pagan gods. This, however, is a conclusion that cannot be reached except by eisegesis. In the Bible, pagan gods do exist, but they are inferior beings, not at all comparable to Yahweh, who themselves are His creations. In modern lingo, heavily influenced by the New Testament, we would call them “demons.” I mentioned this in my review of Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm. As Paul himself said, those who think they are sacrificing to Artemis or Zeus are in fact sacrificing to malevolent spiritual beings which are not at all really gods but very really real (1 Cor. 10:20).
But, of course, if we accept that the demon behind Chemosh unleashed his wrath on the Israelites in response to the king of Moab’s sacrifice, we seem to be left with another problem. Elisha seems to have prophesied victory from God, but the Israelites are forced to retreat. So what gives? Did Chemosh overpower Yahweh? This seems unthinkable given everything else the Bible teaches about Yahweh’s superiority.
I think the key here is to realize that God did give the Moabites over into Israel’s hands, given the scale of the victories that even brought them to Kir-hareseth, and everything that Elisha said would happen in 2 Kings 3:19 did happen. The only difference was that, at the end, Israel gave up. Notice that the Israelites were not said to have been defeated, nor was it said that the Moabites overpowered them, nor anything else of the sort. Rather, it simply says that Israel withdrew. Given this, I actually think it is most likely that Israel, in the face of Chemosh’s wrath, simply did not follow through, but ran for the hills. Of course, I’m open to alternatives, but this seems about right to me.
Interesting stuff, to be sure. The more you read your Bible, the more surprises you find.

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