Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mesha Challenging The Power Of God: Unsettling Stories of the Bible

As many from our reading group have noticed, the Bible is full of troubling stories.  Why the ban?  Why is David an example for moral fortitude when he relishes the chance to kill 200 Philistines and mutilate their corpses to gain the foreskins he needs to marry Saul's daughter?  A few of the readers in our group have been worn out, and worn down, by the constant killing in the Bible.  Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children seem to be killed every other page.  It is unsettling.

At the end of II Kings chapter three, there is a story that strikes me as unsettling.  King Jehoram of Israel has formed an alliance with King Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom (name not given) to quell a rebellion in the land of Moab.  While on the way there, the armies of the three kings run out of water.  This is understandably an issue, much like when the American army ran out of gas and got stranded in the desert a few years back.  The chances of a successful campaign are greatly diminished, and so the three kings decide to track down Elisha the prophet to ask if they should return home.  Elisha says they should not.  In fact, not only will God give their armies enough water for the soldiers, he'll also provide enough water for their cattle (I'm assuming they were brought along for food) and their animals (horses for the chariots?).  Then to go a step further, God is going to absolutely route the Moabites.  Every fortified city will fall.  The three armies will have full access to the riches of the land, and it will be a lasting victory from which the Moabites will not recover.  This all seems to come to pass...until the very end.

Toward the end of the war the three kings have the remaining Moabites surrounded in the city of Kir-hareseth.  King Mesha of Moab attempts to escape the siege with the help of seven hundred swordsmen, but the King of Edom forces them to retreat back into the city.  In desperation, the king of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son on the wall of Kir-hareseth.  At this point, as II Kings puts it, a great wrath came upon the Israelites and they were forced to retreat.  In fact, the sacrifice, and the resulting wrath, bring an end to the war.  The Israelites go home and the Moabites survive.

This is troubling to me.  To the ancient mindset, the end of this story couldn't have been understood as anything but the god of the Moabites defending his people.  To take it a step further, the god of the Moabites pushes back the God of Israel.  What is that doing in the Bible?  For me, this story is far more troubling then the sheer number of deaths mentioned so far.  Sure, the blatant devaluing of human life is appalling, but up until now God's ultimate power has gone unchallenged.  Even though the implications of Mesha's sacrifice aren't overt, the consequences of that sacrifice, if we stop to think about them, are rattling.

Most modern readers of the Bible (at least American readers.  I can't speak for anyone in Napal.) carry a number of presumptions with them.  Just to name a few...first, faith is the absence of doubt.  Second, even though more and more people are becoming comfortable with the idea that inspiration doesn't necessarily mean every word and syllable of the Bible is faultless (there are spelling errors and bad grammar), at the very least, there certainly shouldn't be any major, troubling contradictions.  Personally, I don't find either of these presumptions to be very helpful.  Actually, I think they can be rather harmful.

As to the first, if faith is the absence of doubt, that makes doubt the absence of faith.  Since when has that been the case?  On the contrary, it is only people who truly try to live a life of faith that discover what doubt really is.  I don't waste time doubting things I don't believe in anyway.  I don't spend a lot of time doubting the existence of life on Mars, because, frankly, I could care less.  I don't believe there is any...end of discussion...let's move on.  However, it matters very much to me whether there is a God and whether that god is the god revealed in the Bible.  So, I spend a great deal of time thinking about that.  I also believe and trust (have faith) that there is a God and that god is the god revealed in the Bible, which then means I have a ton of doubt.  It is only in seriously questioning the truth of a premise that you discover all the reasons why it might not be true, and all those arguing voices get twisted together in your head.  So, doubt is not a sign of my lack of faith, it is the evidence of just how much faith I actually have.  Not to toot my own horn, but apparently I have quite a bit of faith.

As to the second presumption, that if the Bible is inspired it must be simple (and yes, I am rephrasing my statement above), I'm afraid we're in for a major disappointment.  The Bible is full of stories, specifically the stories of people, and even more specifically, the stories of how God reveals himself in the lives of people.  Here's a news flash...peoples' lives are messy.  They contradict.  People say one thing and do another.  People act honorably one day and demonic the next.  People are a jumble of formative experiences and genes and hormones and indigestion and ever changing sleep patterns (maybe I'm just speaking for myself here.  Also, for an interesting read on the relationship between free will and blood sugar levels, check this out.).  The Bible being full of difficult, troubling, often times contradicting stories does not make it less realistic.  A child sacrifice in the Iron Age does not make the Bible less believable, but more so.  If I were making a story up, why would I include a story that weakens my position?  So, the Bible is not simple.  It does not answer all our questions.  It doesn't even try to.  It is infuriatingly complex.  It presents me with questions that I'm not prepared to wrestle with.  The Bible repeatedly refuses to form to my presumptions and expectations.  Audaciously, God seems to think I should be formed by the Bible.  The nerve....

So, what do I do with the story of Moab and Mesha's sacrifice?  I don't know.  For now, I'll brood over it.  I'll continue to trust that God is in control, that he is, in fact, the only true power.  I'll also let the story of Mesha exist, no matter now much it makes me question and doubt.  I will have faith.  I will accept the authority of Scripture.  I will be unsettled.

Stopping point: II Kings 3


  1. Good stuff. Regarding the story of the king of Moab, the text doesn't seem to specify that it was the fury/wrath of any god (that of Abraham or otherwise) that burned against Israel. It just says that it was there and that it was great, great enough to cause Israel to call off their campaign. It seems a rather voluntary act on the part of Israel. Kind of like "God told us we would crush these people, but we're deciding not to press the issue."

    It's impossible to say. The text simply does not give enough detail. My explanation is as much conjecture as anyone else's. However, at least it does not place God on the losing side. If anything it displays the lack of faith on the part of Israel that God would keep his promise no matter how angry their enemy got at them.

  2. Jeremy,

    Thanks for your comment. You're right in pointing out that the text doesn't specifically say anything along the lines of "and God lost." I didn't explain any of my thinking leading up to my conclusion about the battle of the gods either. So, here's my thinking.

    Child sacrifice is almost always linked to deity worship in ancient Canaan. One of the OT prophets (and I can't think of which one off the top of my head) directly links child sacrifice to Molech, god of the Ammonites. I think Chemosh is named as the god of the Moabites, and so I am making an assumption that King Mesha was sacrificing to Chemosh, but again, the text doesn't specify that. If that's the case, I think King Mesha would have assumed that when the invading armies turned around and left, it would have been the work of Chemosh that delivered him. That was, after all, the assumption of King Hezekiah when Sennacherib lost a bunch of soldiers, broke the siege of Jerusalem, and returned to Assyria. Now granted, the Bible spells that out for us, but I don't see why Mesha wouldn't have assumed the same.

    Of course, I don't believe God was defeated by Chemosh. I don't believe Chemosh exists. However, the fact that the Bible doesn't explicitly say that in this story is still troubling because of how an ancient reader might have read this story. Anyhow, that was some of my thinking behind the post.

    Post again in the future. It was good to hear from you and I hope your family is doing great.

  3. One question that comes to my mind. If we assume that the ancient readers of the text were Jews, wouldn't they have also read it with the knowledge that Chemosh did not exist, and therefore it was not the wrath of a foreign god that burned against Israel?

    I could be wrong. In any case, great thoughts and I look forward to reading future posts.

  4. That's a really good question. At the time the story would have happened, the northern country (Israel) was polytheistic. So they would have believed in other gods and goddesses. The southern nation (Judah) was ruled by a monotheistic king, so it's not quite as easy to decide there. Plus, by the time the book of II Kings was put in the form it is now, I'm not sure how Israelite readers would have read this story. So...great question. It gives me a lot to think about.