Second Kings 3 records a battle between Mesha, the Moabite king, and an alliance of kings comprised of Joram (king of Israel), Jehoshaphat (king of Judah), and the king of Edom. After the Israelites slaughtered the Moabites and destroyed their towns, the Moabite king offered his son as a sacrifice on the city wall of Kir Hareseth. After this, “the fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land” (2 Kings 3:27). The Moabites were defeated (2 Kings 3:26), but what caused the great indignation against Israel after Mesha sacrificed his son?
When Joram (or Jehoram) became king of Israel, Mesha did not pay his tribute of one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams. That was the reason the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom allied to fight against the Moabites (2 Kings 3:4–7). Following Elisha’s instructions, the allied nations dug ditches in the Desert of Edom, and God filled them with water (2 Kings 3:8–20). With the morning sun shining on the water, the Moabites mistook the water for blood. Thinking that the allies had fought among themselves and slaughtered each other, the Moabites began attacking Israel (2 Kings 3:21–23). “But when the Moabites came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and fought them until they fled. And the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites” and left the land destroyed (2 Kings 3:24). Israel and her allies had defeated the Moabites. Yet Mesha did not accept the defeat.
Mesha tried one last time to come against Israel with seven hundred swordsmen and failed (2 Kings 3:26). Then “he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall” (2 Kings 3:27). After this event there came “great indignation against Israel” (NKJV). More than likely, Mesha offered his son as a peace offering or bloody propitiation to the war god, Chemosh. The Bible mentions Chemosh several times (Numbers 21:29; Judges 11:24; 1 Kings 11:7, 33; 2 Kings 23:13; Jeremiah 48:7, 13, 46), and he is almost always described as the god of the Moabites. Mesha believed that offering his son, the heir to the throne, would appease his false god who would grant him victory over his enemies.
The battle waged in Moab has archaeological support. The Moabite Stone (or the Mesha Stele) was discovered in Dhiban, Jordan, in 1868 by French medical missionary F. A. Klein. The Mesha Stele is a stone slab, or stela, measuring three feet high and two feet wide. Unfortunately, the stone was later broken into pieces by local Bedouin, but about two thirds of it was recovered, and those pieces, along with an impression made before the stela was destroyed, allowed all but the last line of text to be reconstructed.
The Moabite Stone verifies most of the details found in 2 Kings 3, but from the Moabite perspective. The stone contains fourteen sections and is inscribed by Mesha, king of Moab, who identifies himself as the son of Chemosh (also spelled Kemoš). The stone tells of some of Mesha’s accomplishments and gives some history between Moab and Israel. In the third and fourth sections, the oppression of King Omri (sixth king of Israel before King Ahab and then King Joram) is recorded and states that King Omri’s son also oppressed Moab. The stone mentions Chemosh twelve times and clearly reflects the relationship that ancient Near Eastern kings had with their gods. Kings needed to convince their gods and subjects that their military acts had just causes to gain both divine and public support. Mesha credits his successes and motivations to Chemosh.
After Mesha sacrificed his son, “the fury against Israel was great; they [the Israelites] withdrew and returned to their own land” (2 Kings 3:27). Moab maintained its independence afterward—another detail confirmed by the Moabite Stone. It is unclear whether the “great indignation” came from Moab, from Israel, or from Israel’s allies, Judah and Edom. Moab could have been indignant that the allies’ actions led to the sacrifice of their next king. Knowing that human sacrifice was an abomination (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31), the army of Israel could have also been indignant with themselves for having pushed things to the point of an atrocity. The same holds true for Judah and Edom, who were likely sickened at the sight of a human sacrifice, especially when the battle had essentially been over for a while. In any case, the siege of Kir Hareseth was relinquished, and the allies withdrew from battle and returned to their own lands.
God calls us all to have great indignation against sin and evil (Psalm 97:10; Proverbs 8:13). May we follow Paul’s instruction and let love be genuine, abhor what is evil, and hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9).