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Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son, Baruch Margalit, BAR 12:06, Nov-Dec 1986.

king-mesha-sacrificing-his-sonIn his highly interesting article, “Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces,” BAR 12-03, Professor Siegfried Horn recounts the ninth-century B.C. war between Moab and an alliance of Israel, Judah and Edom. When the alliance besieged the Moabite capital of Kir-Hareseth, the Moabite king Mesha, in desperation, sacrificed his eldest son to the god Chemosh. King Mesha offered the crown prince as a burnt offering on top of the city wall in full view of the enemy forces (2 Kings 3-26–27).

With this horrifying act, Mesha turned defeat into victory. The allied forces retreated and Moab retained its independence for the next two centuries.

What was the reason for this sudden volte-face of the allied forces? Professor Horn offers a number of speculations, but concludes with the admission that “no one has been able to give a satisfactory answer.”

Recent scholarship places Mesha’s act in a wider cultural context and may even suggest an explanation.

In 1978, a cuneiform tablet from the Syrian city of Ugarita was published,1 the text of which indicates that Mesha’s seemingly unprecedented, as well as morally outrageous, act was in fact carried out in accordance with ancient Canaanite laws of “holy war.”

The relevant text of this Ugaritic tablet is short enough to quote in full-

Introduction

“If an enemy force attacks your [city-]gates,

An aggressor, your walls;

You shall lift up your eyes to Baal [and pray]-

Prayer

‘O Baal-

Drive away the [enemy] force from our gates,

The aggressor from our walls.

We shall sacrifice a bull [to thee], O Baal,

A votive-pledge we shall fulfill [viz.]-

A firstborn,2

Baal, we shall sacrifice,

A child3

we shall fulfill [as votive-pledge].

A “tenth” [of all our wealth] we shall tithe [thee],

To the temple of Baal we shall go up,

In the footpaths of the House-of-Baal we shall walk.’

Conclusion

“Then shall Baal hearken to your prayers,

He shall drive the [enemy] force from your gates,

The aggressor from your walls.”

This text can be dated to about 1250–1200 B.C., some four centuries before Mesha of Moab, but the practices it describes are documented as late as the Roman period. Mesha’s actions, and the Israelite retreat, fit perfectly within this Canaanite, later Punic (neo-Canaanite), tradition of a thousand years.

Diodorus of Sicily (about 50 B.C.) writes that “in Sicily the Carthaginiansb … were besieging Syracuse, but in Libya Agathocles had brought the Carthaginians under siege—the Carthaginians betook themselves to every manner of supplication of the divine powers … they sent a large sum of money and … expensive offerings to Tyre … when they … saw their enemy encamped before their walls … they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly.”4

Additional evidence for this practice of child sacrifice by “Canaanites” under siege is provided by another Roman historian, Quintus Curtius (Rufus) (50 A.D.). The city of Tyre was under siege by Alexander the Great. At first, the citizens hoped for assistance from the colonies in the west. When this failed to materialize, the leaders met to consider emergency measures. According to Rufus-
“Some … proposed renewing a sacrifice which had been discontinued for many years (multis saeculis intermissum) … of offering a freeborn boy (ingenuus puer) to Saturn—this sacrifice, handed down from their founders, the Carthaginians are said to have performed until the destruction of their city—and unless the elders … had opposed it, the awful superstition would have prevailed over mercy.”5

This Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice to relieve a siege was traced to the Phoenicians (Canaanites) by the Phoenician historian Sanchuniaton, as transmitted by Philo of Byblos, Porphyrius and the Church father Eusebius. According to this tradition, the Phoenicians, in circumstances of extreme duress, would sacrifice their beloved children to their high god. The eight-volume history of Sanchuniaton was reputedly full of such stories.6

The significance of this material for a proper understanding of the account of Mesha’s child sacrifice in 2 Kings 3 can hardly be exaggerated. Indeed, the correspondence between the theory as presented in the Ugaritic text and the practice as recounted in the Biblical text is nothing short of remarkable. The circumstances—a city under siege—are identical. Mesha’s sacrifice is one of the items mentioned in the prayer section of the text. And the withdrawal of the Israelites is uncannily presaged in the conclusion of the cuneiform tablet from Ugarit.

In the Biblical account we are told only that after Mesha sacrificed his son, “there was bitter indignation against the Israelites, who then withdrew” (2 Kings 3-27). No other explanation is given. The Hebrew word translated “indignation” is ketsef. But in light of the foregoing texts it cannot really be understood as “indignation” or “anger” of the Moabite national god Chemosh. The word denotes the psychological breakdown or trauma that affected the Israelite forces when they beheld the sign of human sacrifice atop the walls of Kir-Hareseth. The author of the Ugaritic text apparently anticipated this reaction of mass hysteria when he confidently predicted the withdrawal of the attacking force. Apparently, it had happened before, elsewhere, and could be counted on as a kind of conditioned reflex.

It follows that Mesha’s sacrifice of his son, rather than unprecedented, was in fact an integral, if seldom implemented, part of an age-old Canaanite tradition of sacral warfare.

This consideration might mitigate our moral condemnation of this “degenerate heathen.” Mesha’s sacrifice of his firstborn, seen in this new light, was virtually guaranteed to save the lives of the entire population—men, women and children—of the city under siege. In these circumstances, Mesha’s conduct may be seen as an act of altruism sanctioned—indeed, commended—by venerable religious tradition.

a. See “The Last Days of Ugarit,” BAR 09-05, Claude F. A. Schaeffer, and “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies,” BAR 09-05, Peter C. Craigie.

b. Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?” BAR 10-01.

1. A. Herdner “Nouveaux Textes Alphabetiques de Ras Shamra,” Ugaritica VII (Paris, 1978), pp. 31–38 (text facsimile on p. 33). For an earlier publication, see Herdner, “Une priere a Baal des ugaritains en danger,” Proceedings of the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres (CRAIBL, 1972 [1973]), p. 694. The present writer’s views on this text may be found in “A Ugaritic Prayer for a City Under Siege,” in Proceedings of the Seventh World Congress of Jewish Studies- Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East 177 [1981], pp. 63–83 (in Hebrew).

2. The Ugaritic word bkr in Hebrew equals [bekor], the same word used in 2 Kings 3-27! The initial sign of the Ugaritic word is heavily damaged, and some have doubted that it is a B rather than a D. But Mlle. Herdner, an acknowledged specialist in Ugaritic epigraphy, was quite definite in her reading on both occasions, and the present writer has marshalled the literary-prosodic arguments in favor of this reading in his aforementioned study (endnote 1). For a contrary opinion, cf. P. Xella in Rivista di Studi Fenice 6 (1978), pp. 127–136.

3. The text actually reads an otherwise unknown H|-T-P which I take to be a scribal error for the well-attested H|-T-K—“offspring” or the like. In Ugaritic cuneiform script P and K are very similar and are on more than one occasion confused with each other. Attempts to interpret Ugaritic H|-T-P as the equivalent of Akkadian Hå-T-P are highly improbable on purely phonological grounds, and the results are much less convincing literarily, since the word stands in obviously synonymous parallelism with B-K-R. For further discussion, the reader is referred to my afore cited study, pp. 76ff.

4. Bibliotheca historica, Book XX.13.4ff, 14.1ff; transl. R. M. Greer.

5. A History of Alexander the Great (of Macedon), Book 4.3.23; transl. J. C. Rolfe.

6. Porphyrius, De Abstinentia, II.56 = Eusebius, Praep. Evang., 16.6. Translation and commentary in C. Clemen, Die Phönikische Religion (Liepzig, 1939).

See also-

Queries and Comments- Human Sacrifice and Circumcision, BAR 13-02, Mar-Apr 1987.

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