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Did The Lord Fail Against a False God?

A Reading of 2nd Kings 3.

John Fisher 2.0
8 min readNov 6, 2023


Therefore Mesha, who had lost all his hope in his armies, made an about-face to ask the gods for help, because he had seen that no human being could help him. Certain wise men of his country said to him that it was necessary to implore the mercy of the God of Israel by means of an extraordinary sacrifice, for exactly the same reason which Abraham, the father of the Israelites, had made his offering, which had been quite pleasing to God, according to the tradition that is generally renowned among the Canaanites.

– St. Ephrem the Syrian, “On the Second Book of the Kings 3.25–27”.

Some skeptics claim that The Lord was but a small deity in the ancient near-east, more similar to Zeus or Thor. While he displayed supernatural powers far past what human beings could possess, he was still finite. An ancient Superman. One chapter that is often utilized to bolster this point is 2nd Kings 3.

Scholar Dan McClellen offers an interesting parallel with a couple of others chapters in 2nd Kings, chapter 18–19. Clearly, after prayers from God’s prophets, Israel gains the strength to overthrow a rival king and push him out of the land. Now, why does it not follow in chapter 3 that the sacrifice of Mesha likewise pushed Israel out?

I have to commend Dan for this great example of argument from analogy. Here, he sets up a parallel, and if the Christian believes that the role he plays in answering prayer counts in favour of his power in chapters 18–19, he must believe in the foreign god case, answering the prayer counts against the Lord. Clearly, the biblical inerrentist must provide some symmetry breaker.

Does this anti-apologetic hold water? I don’t think so. Along with Josephus – Not to mention Saint Ephrem – I would deny that it was a foreign god that answered Mesha’s request.

For he [Mesha] took his eldest son, who was to reign after him, and lifting him up upon the wall, that he might be visible to all the enemies, he offered him as a whole burnt-offering to God – Antiquities of the Jews – Book IX, chapter 3.

Instead, the Lord of Israel did. I will first consider the arguments for my interpretation and consider some counter arguments against.

Arguments in Favour.

(1) The name of a foreign god is not mentioned.

Consider that within the whole chapter, Mesha never credits the name of a foreign God, which is something we would at least suspect. The only time a foreign God is mentioned is Baal, and the only one who is mentioned as worshipping them was king Ahab. Both Joram and Jehoshaphat, other Hebrew kings, “clung to the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit; he did not depart from it”. Which sin was this? Well in 1 kings 12:32 we read about how,

Jeroboam appointed a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the festival that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar; so he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made.

They were still practitioners of idolatry. Noticed that this is not something the Moabites’ king is guilty of, but the kings of the Hebrews. Let’s turn to the verse where the sacrifice of the Moabite prince is made.

Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt-offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. – 2 Kings 3:27

All things considered, this is only supposed to be some meagre evidence considering that an appeal to silence isn’t really that strong an argument. But it is on some level evidence.

(2) the divine wrath is only ever associated With the Lord

According to Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

And there was great indignation against Israel. – Or, And great wrath fell upon Israel. This phrase always denotes a visitation of Divine wrath. (Comp. 2Chronicles 19:10; 2Chronicles 24:18.) The manifestation of wrath in the present case was apparently a successful sortie of the Moabite garrison, whose faith in this terrible expedient of their king inspired them with new courage, while the besiegers were proportionally disheartened. The result was that “they (i.e., the allied forces) departed from him (raised the siege), and returned to the land” (of Israel).

While it is the opinion of the commentator that the divine wrath is actually an appeal to the god of the Moabites, I think this view is ultimately a rather strange one to maintain in the face of other instances only having association with The Lord of Israel, and without the mention of the name of the Moabites’ god, Chemosh anywhere else in the chapter.

(3) The sacrifice of the first-born fits a reoccurring inter-textual pattern.

Within the Hebrew Bible, the request for sacrifice is usually that of the firstborn, whether or not it was human or animal. Consider the attempted sacrifice of Isaac – the first-born of – Abraham’s progeny. Or consider that Moses requested (Exodus 13:2) Israel hand over its firstborn of their animals for sacrifice. Jephthah sacrifices his only (hence first-born) daughter in the Book of Judges. Of course, it is to be remembered that in the case of Abraham, the son was substituted with a ram and he was coming from the background as an idol worshipper, and Jephthah’ sacrifice took place at a time when Israel had no king and “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25), showing this to be part of a theme of ignorance of the law before the rulership of the kings. Mesha fits the mold of a well-meaning idol worshipper who is yet ignorant of the law. Like Jephthah (and unlike Abraham), his ignorance leads him to do something immoral, even if he had the good intent of contrition for his actions.

What does not fit the mold in any text is a foreign God driving away and thwarting the Lord of Israel. If the Bible is man-made theological propaganda, we should expect a story that doesn’t make the God of the Jews weak, since he is not thwarted anywhere else. If inter-textual precedence is evidence of how we ought to read the text, it rules in favour of the sacrifice made to the Lord, and Mesha as a well-meaning but ignorant ruler, whose ignorance causes the sacrifice of the firstborn. Not an idol-worshipper whose foreign god gets the better of Israel, despite divine protection.

(4) Creates a contrast between Mesha and the Hebrew kings, tying in mention of their cattle-worshipping.

Joram and Jehoshaphat are mentioned as clinging to Jeroboam’s cattle-worship, but why? Well, it’s possible that it was just a passing mention with no real connection to the text. However, we should assume that the writer has some purpose in including that verse. On the reading Mesha sacrifices his son to God, we have a contrast of God preferring the improperly and ignorantly manifested faith of a pagan king over those of the Hebrews who by dint of knowing the law should have turned away from the sins of Jeroboam. This gives the earlier reference a tie into the story.

Arguments Against.

(1) The end result is still a failed prophecy.

The prophet Elisha predicts that Moab will fall into the hands of Israel, and yet, Moab did come out of the campaign with Israel retreating. Surely, isn’t the apologist still forced to take an L? Isn’t God supposed to keep to his promises?

It’s important to notice that this is not an argument against the reading of the text, but rather a reductio ad absurdum, that is to say, it doesn’t so much contend for another interpretation, but rather argues holding to this interpretation comes with hefty theological costs like Elisha being a false prophet of sorts.

According to the prophet Jeremiah, prophecies come with a conditional nature in certain contexts. In contexts where an enemy is about to be destroyed for their evils, God will forgive them on condition of their repentance. Jeremiah writes,

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. – Jeremiah 18:7–8

We see this happening in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God is willing to give Sodom a chance at repenting. Given the righteous intent (although, not action) of Mesha, in contrast with the unrepentant idolatry of the Hebrew kings, we can see that there was no failure on the part of Elisha, but the partial success of Mesha.

(2) God is against this sort of action when it is done for other gods. Why would he bless this?

God wants, first and foremost, a repentant heart (psalm 51:17), one that turns to him. While he is willing to tolerate some evils, it is done for the sake of bringing about a greater good. One must consider both the act and the intent of a crime, and while the act of child sacrifice is horrific and immoral, the intent to recognize your wrong and save your kingdom by turning to God is laudable for a Moabite who was raised in conditions prejudicing him against proper worship, the law, and recognition of his sins.

Why does God not interfere? To highlight an important lesson, when the law is given in an explicit fashion through the prophets, more is expected of you when turning from idols. When the law is not given but in an implicit way, it is harder to to the right thing properly, even if you have the right intent. Both are imperfect, but the right intent of penance is always the better place to start.

Concluding Remarks

It is not only not clear which deity Mesha sacrifices to, but there’s good evidence to suggest that it is, indeed, the same God of the Hebrews. From the use of the divine wrath, the silence of reference to the lord of the Moabites, to inter-textual patterns, and explaining certain features of the text. Furthermore, the theological argument against this view fail. If we don’t have sufficient evidence to hold this as the true reading, it is at least a probable one that undercuts the objection of Dan and those who would agree.



John Fisher 2.0

Catholic blogger, my views are not necessarily reflective of the Church’s. Please post corrections to help me avoid heresy.