The Regional Conflict between Israel, Judah, and Moab:  Comparing the Biblical Narrative to Moabite - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Regional Conflict between Israel, Judah, and Moab:

Comparing the Biblical Narrative to Moabite Tradition

Armstrong State University
In conflict, spoils go to the victor.  This expression has lasted through many civilizations and skews the way in which future generations view societies that have long since passed.  Spoils of war include wealth and resources, but also include the luxury of contextualizing, defining and writing the history of the opponent. History defined by the victor is not a contemporary notion.  Its application can be traced to the ancient world.  The medium by which ancient society documented conflict was with grand carvings or monumental structures.  The Moabite Stone, created by King Mesha of Moab, describes multiple generations of conflict between the Moabites and Israelites that concludes with Israel’s defeat and Mesha’s subsequent building projects.  The stone is not the only primary source of the conflict.  The Israelite’s perspective, defined in 2 Kings 3 of the Bible, tells a similar story, but differs in its conclusion of events.  There is debate about whether or not the two sources are describing the same event or are portraying a series of events in a long conflict.  It is more likely that the Moabite Stone and 2 Kings 3 are describing the same series of events from a broad perspective, but the Moabite Stone is the conclusive statement about the termination of hostilities.

Moabite Stone, recreation
housed in Louvre Museum, Paris

The Moabite Stone’s discovery and incorporation into western archeological evidence was very fortunate.  Journey into areas surrounding the Dead Sea was a perilous adventure for the archaeologists exploring the Holy Land.[1]  Charles Clermont-Ganneau discovered the Stone in the town of Dhiban.  Clermont-Ganneau, aware of the risks that travelling to the area presented, sent two proxies to inspect the stone for authenticity.  He had cause to suspect that the stone was a fraud because the antiquities market at the time paid a high premium for artifacts. This led to many forgeries being sold.  The second proxy that Clermont-Ganneau sent to inspect the Moabite Stone found it intact and made an impression of the artifact. Unfortunately, the stone was destroyed possibly due to the high demand and expected profits of selling it as smaller fragments or due to cultural hostilities.   The reason for the stone’s destruction is not known, but Near East historians are fortunate that an imprint was made of the Moabite Stone.  The Louvre houses a recreation of the stone based on Clermont-Ganneau’s mold.[2] 

According to 2 Kings 3, while Omri was living, Moab was a tribute state of Israel.  Moab was a pastoral society that bred sheep.  Its annual tribute, according to 2 Kings, was 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams.[3]  The numbers given that describe Moab’s tribute to Israel are possibly exaggerated.  They more likely are symbolic of the magnitude to which Moab was subordinate to Israel.[4] When Ahab died, Moab openly rebelled against Jehoram.  The rebellion spurned the Kingdoms of Israel, Judah and Edom to form a military coalition against Moab.  The armies decided to invade Moab via a southern route that led through Edom.  Dehydration and an absence of water caused the invasion force to seek YHWH through a prophet named Elisha.  Elisha informs the kings that their god will give them water and deliver Moab into their hands.  A great flood washed through the lands and provided aid to the thirsty soldiers. 

Moab and Israel, c.830 BCE

The promise of Moab delivered would go unfulfilled.  2 Kings describes a slaughter of Moabite forces after the flood, but it is not completed due to a great wrath that falls upon Israel and forces their retreat.[5]  The “great wrath” referenced is a subject of debate and interpretation.  The biblical verse tells that Mesha sacrificed his first born son as a burnt offering that spurned the wrath of either the Israelite god, YHWH, or the Moabite deity, Chemosh.  The biblical text is ambiguous about what wrath they suffered.  Authors of the text would have likely edited out any reference to the regional god, Chemosh, having demonstrated an effective display of power at par with YHWH.[6] Instead, more pragmatic explanations about what exactly forced Israel and her allies to retreat from an otherwise successful campaign are sought.  Attention centers around Mesha’s human sacrifice along the city wall. The Deuteronomist’s view that “ancient Israelites would have felt remorse at the human sacrifice of an enemy is so outlandish, that it must be rejected out of hand.”[7]

Rav Moshe offers a more humanitarian explanation.[8]  Mesha led a counterattack that was repulsed by allied forces.  It is likely Mesha would have tried to puncture through the weakest units on the battlefield.  The tribute state of Edom would have been the least militarily powerful and likely staffed by less provisioned and motivated soldiers.  If the counterattack reached the reserve units where the son of the Edomite King was leading his troops from the front, the commander could have been captured by Moab.  This same person could have been the human sacrifice that 2 Kings 3 references.[9]  If he was the sacrificed person, the loss of his important personage could have forced Edomite withdrawal.  Edom was the logistical support base of the invasion force.  If Edom withdrew, it would force Israel and Judah to abandon the invasion and withdraw their forces.[10]  It is possible that Judah and Israel over extended their supply lines or were entirely dependent upon Edom for logistical support.  Weak political will is hardly at par with divine wrath, but with the vague description offered by biblical authors, contemporary scholars must speculate and find alternative explanations to account for the abrupt end of an otherwise successful campaign.  The author resorting to a “theological expedient”[11] to explain the withdrawal of Israelite forces is counterintuitive to the mission of biblical texts.  If a divine intervention occurred, it would not be the god YHWH, but Chemosh.  Mesha’s human sacrifice was likely not to the god of his enemies. Rather, it is more likely that he would sacrifice to the Moabite god.

A royal inscription commissioned by Mesha of Moab tells a selective history of the events.[12]  The Moabite Stone does not mention Moab’s failed invasion of Southern Judah, but highlights his defense of the southern capital and subsequent victories.[13] Moab invaded Judah because it sought to control the lucrative trading routes between Arabia and Philistia.[14]  Though southern Judah was a well-fortified and well-supplied region, meritorious defense did not defeat the invasion force.  Moab united with the Ammonites and Mineans for the campaign, but internal conflict destroyed the political union before they could engage in battle.  When Moab’s coalition was shattered, it not only lost control of the trade routes, but also found itself on the wrong side of an allied invasion.

It is difficult to establish a definitive timeline of events.  Both the correlation between the Moabite Stone and 2 Kings 3 and the chronology of events on the Moabite Stone are difficult to quantify. The Moabite Stone is dated sometime around 853 BC and makes reference to Ahab and his son as kings of Israel.  2 Kings 3 describes Mesha and his refusal to pay tribute.  The two documents were written describing the long-term conflict the two nations experienced.  The Moabite Stone has plausibility as the final word on the matter.  Following Moab’s stand at Kir-hareseth, Judah was a state in decline. 

Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

Jehoshaphat died shortly thereafter and left Jehoram as sole ruler of Judah.  Jehoram felt his rule was threatened by his brothers and questioned their loyalty.  To ease his concerns, Jehoram had all of his brothers killed.  The brothers were serving as regional governors throughout the kingdom and oversaw central policy enforcement.  The internal strife weakened Judah and was visible to the outside world.  Edom, the former tribute state, successfully rebelled in 848 BC against their Judean overlords.[15]  Jehoram tried unsuccessfully to force Edom into their former tributary role.  In addition to Edom’s rebellion, Jehoram would be unable to control the territory and cities within Judah’s borders.[16]  As a result, Judah could no longer collect taxes on the overland trade routes that it had fought a war with Moab to protect.

The fall of Judah gives more credibility to Mesha’s description of his campaigns.  When Mesha writes about the people of Israel he says, “Chemosh was angry with his land…but I took vengeance upon him and upon his house, and Israel was utterly annihilated forever.”[17]  Mesha makes public the problems that Israel was having, and though he may credit himself with the downfall of their kingdom, other factors were involved in Israel’s loss of regional hegemony.  The Moabite Stone recounts the attack on the Israelite city of Medeba and construction of new forts in Beth-baal-meon and Kiriathen.  At Ataroth the Gadite garrison was now isolated and when Moabite forces were victorious, they eliminated the entire population. Ataroth contained an altar hearth of David, which Mesha drug before Chemosh.  There is a similar interaction between the divine and each king.  Jehoram consults Elisha who is able to ascertain YHWH’s will and Mesha receives instruction from Chemosh directly.  Chemosh commanded Mesha to “Go, seize Nebo from Israel!”[18]

The siege and capture of a city entailed more than economic devastation.  The practice of herem warfare meant that everything within a city’s walls would be destroyed and sacrificed to whatever god the invading army worshipped.  The total destruction that resulted in herem warfare is not confined to Mesha’s campaign.  The conquest of the land of the Canaanites by the Israelites is another example of the practice of herem.[19]  Citizens who were loyal to the conquering army often resettled a city after the inhabitants were killed.  This was the case with Nebo.  Mesha describes fighting the city from dawn until noon where he successfully conquered Nebo.  The men, women and maidens of the city were killed as sacrifices to Chemosh.  People were not the only offerings to Chemosh.  In each city that Mesha conquered, he confiscated the vessels dedicated to YHWH  as offerings to Chemosh also.[20] 

The Moabite Stone dedicates much of its text to tales of military conquest.  Mesha describes several building projects he undertook and describes the filial quality of his rule.  There was a large building effort undertaken at the city of Qeriho.  Mesha rebuilt the extensive walls and created a central water supply for the city.  He claims that the labor supply he utilized was slaves or Israelite prisoners.  Dibon, Aroer, Medeba, Beth-dithaim, and Beth-baal-meon were sites of rebuilding and refortification projects.  Mesha’s most extensive project was a highway that crossed the Arnon.  The destruction of the stone is unfortunate because the remaining portion of the texts is illegible.  Different translations speculate about what the remaining inscriptions contain, but it cannot be said definitively.

There is strong evidence that the two primary sources correlate around a similar sequence of events.  It is unlikely that the Moabite Stone describes conflict of a different generation than that of Jehoram and Jehoshaphat.  Modern scholars are fortunate to have access to the story of Mesha.  The stone’s recovery from the antiquities market saved the data from disappearing into the obscurity of private collections.  Clermont-Ganneau’s dedication to discovery and dissemination preserved a document that added depth to a story that, if were only told by 2 Kings 3, would be threadbare at best. The story told by 2 Kings 3 is minimalist because the moral told within the account conflicts with the broader narrative of the Old Testament.  2 Kings 3 is in the difficult position of either attributing divine intervention to a god other than YHWH or explaining a divine wrath visiting the invading Israelite forces without any justification or explanation.  If the text does not refer to the Israelites breaking their covenant with YHWH, then it is difficult to attribute divine wrath to their failure.   Being able to compare multiple primary sources allows historians, scholars, and students to eliminate the bias that might be present if only one account of an event is read.  When 2 Kings 3 is compared with the Moabite Stone, a better picture is developed of the relationship between Moab and its Israelite neighbors, a relationship that could not be understood without the Moabite inscription.

About the author

William McLaughlin is an Army Veteran and a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming.  He is a junior at Armstrong. His historical interests and areas of study are the military conflicts in the 19thand20thcenturies and reformations.

Recommended citation

William McLaughlin, “The Regional Conflict between Israel, Judah, and Moab: Comparing the Biblical Narrative to Moabite Tradition,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 1 (Jan. 2012).



[1] Annie Caubet, “Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant,” Louvre. (accessed April 4, 2011).
[2] Ibid.
[3] 2 Kings 3 (JPS).
[4]  Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings. Vol. 11 of Anchor Bible [Doubleday and Co., 1988]. 46
[5] 2 Kings 3.
[6] Cogan and Tadmor, 47.
[7] Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, Carta’s New Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible (Jerusalem: CARTA, 2007), 104.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Cogan and Tadmor, Anchor Bible, 52.
[12]Yohanan Aharoni et al., The Macmillan Bible Atlas; Rev. 3rd ed. (Jerusalem: Carta, 1993), 97.
[13] Ibid., 98.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Rainey and Notley, Carta’s New Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible, 104.
[16] Ibid.
[17] William Downing, Gloria Campbell, and Jeff Couick, “Moabite Inscription (KAI 181),” UNC Charlotte.…/moab.htm (accessed 3/22/2011).
[18] Ibid.
[19] Joshua 6:1−27
[20] William Downing, Gloria Campbell, and Jeff Couick, “Moabite Inscription (KAI 181),” UNC Charlotte.…/moab.htm (accessed 3/22/2011).
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