Sitting in a seminary classroom and translating the famous Mesha Inscription from Moab can create a unique sense of unease and confusion. Here is a god so similar to, well, God; to Yhwh that is, the god of the Hebrew Bible! So who was Kemosh, really?
The Hebrew Bible often proclaims Yhwh’s stark uniqueness and repudiates other gods – like Kemosh of the Mesha Inscription. Kemosh is named eight times in the Hebrew Bible (Num 21:29, Judg 11:24, 1 Kgs 11:7, 33, 2 Kgs 23:13, Jer 48:7, 13, 46). In all but one of these occurrences (Judges 11:24), Kemosh is associated with the land of Moab, located across the Dead Sea from Judah. Kemosh is also called a šiqquṣ (1 Kgs 11:7, 33, 2 Kgs 23:13), a Hebrew word the King James Version translates as abomination – the same noun underlying, for example, the climactic and evil “abomination of desolation” in the Book of Daniel. Because king Solomon showed disloyalty to Yhwh and built an altar to the foreign god Kemosh (“the abomination of the Moabites”), Yhwh grew angry with him and tore the kingship from his dynasty (1 Kgs 11). Jeremiah anticipates a day when “Moab will be ashamed of Kemosh” (48:13).
According to the Hebrew Bible, then, Kemosh was a shameful abomination and a cause for rage to Yhwh; that is, they were not similar. But the Mesha Inscription gives a different impression. Rediscovered in 1868, the Mesha Inscription is a stone monument almost four feet tall. It dates to the 9th century BCE and voices the exploits of Mesha, the Moabite king. Mesha commissioned the stele to honor his patron deity Kemosh, “because he saved me from all the kings, and because he let me gloat over all my enemies” (line 4). The Moabite script and language are extremely close to ancient Hebrew.
The inscription tells the story of how Kemosh “was angry with his land” and so permitted a neighboring king, the Israelite king Omri, to oppress Moab. But Kemosh then worked Moab’s deliverance: he speaks by oracles to Mesha and commands him to fight against various cities. As directed by Kemosh, Mesha drives out Moab’s occupiers, ritually slaughters the entire population of the city Nebo, “seven thousand male citizens and aliens, female citizens and aliens, and servant girls” (line 16), and parades cultic vessels captured from a temple of Yhwh in front of his god.
Each of these points finds a parallel with Yhwh in the Hebrew Bible. Yhwh, too, experiences anger with his people and so permits them to fall into the power of their enemies (e.g., Judg 2:14, 2 Kgs 17:20). Yhwh also speaks by oracles to his kings – in words nearly identically to the Mesha Inscription – commanding them to fight against specific cities (cf. “Go up!” in 1 Sam 23:2, 2 Sam 5:19, 1 Kgs 22:12, 15). In Deuteronomy and Joshua, Yhwh is (infamously) the recipient of cultic slaughter, described with the same word ḥerem that the Mesha Inscription uses. 1 Sam 5 narrates how Yhwh’s ark was captured and paraded in front of the god Dagon, but also how Yhwh turned the tables and humiliated his captor.
Several royal psalms from the Hebrew Bible show the same basic configuration of relationships as the Mesha Inscription. Yhwh as patron deity favors his king, blesses his country’s war-making, and demonstrates anger towards their enemies (Pss 2, 20, 21, 110, among others). So obvious are the parallels that soon after the Mesha Inscription was first published, the scholar Theodor Nöldeke wrote: “it is plain that Moab felt herself in the same relation to Chemosh as Israel did to Jahve…Change the name, and we have the religious language of the [Hebrew Bible].”
But in fact Nöldeke was only partly right, and seminarian queasiness, only partly justified. “Change the name, and we have the religious language,” not of the Hebrew Bible writ large, but only select passages, especially those that many scholars deem early relative to the rest of the biblical text. That is to say, Yhwh looks most like Kemosh in texts such as the royal psalms, or the royal annals that underlie Samuel and Kings, (arguably) among the oldest biblical materials. In such texts, to borrow words from the 19th century German critic Julius Wellhausen’s, Yhwh is bound to his nation “as indissolubly as body and soul.” As the “soul” of Israel and its divine patron, Yhwh was “always on Israel’s side”; so likewise with Kemosh and the national cause of Moab in the Mesha Inscription. As Julius Wellhausen described it, for these early texts the idea that the national god could turn wholly in wrath against his own king and country represented a “paradoxical thought.”
On the other hand, in vast swathes of the Hebrew Bible, Yhwh is very dissimilar to Kemosh, exactly because he is capable of annihilating rage against his own nation and its leadership. Consider the impassioned ‘divine husband’ of the prophetic books, the jealous Lord of Deuteronomy, or the destroying sovereign of Samuel and Kings. It seems that if Yhwh and Kemosh initially mirrored one another as patron deities in early royal psalms and stories, they later parted ways. Yhwh was written down, and became a more tempestuous, complex, and literary deity. Kemosh was not written down, and experienced no comparable enrichment in his profile. He remained a generic war deity, and as such, would later merge with another war deity, the Greek god Ares. Although Yhwh, too, edged towards a merger with his Greek counterpart Zeus (e.g., 2 Macc .6:2), he had become too distinctive for the equivalence to stick.
But why did the historical paths of these two deities fork? Already in 1878, Wellhausen gestured towards an explanation: “One reason for the difference…is obvious. Israel received no gentle treatment at the hands of the world…Moab meantime remained ‘settled on his lees’ (Jer 48:11).” Wellhausen thus suggests that the final difference between Yhwh and Kemosh grew from their countries’ varying experiences of defeat. The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah, which shared the same patron deity Yhwh, survived another 136 years before, it, too, met a catastrophic end – all of which catalyzed theological reflection of an intense and anguished scale. Moab, by contrast, did not watch a sister kingdom that worshiped its same deity fall. Also, when the Neo-Babylonian invasion came in the early 6th century BCE, Moab underwent a rather milder incorporation into imperial jurisdiction than Judah. For Kemosh this meant there was much less stimulus to rethink his identity, and – most crucially – the scope of his anger.
Translating the Mesha Inscription in seminary is like looking at an old photo album, and seeing (shockingly) that Yhwh and Kemosh resembled one another – but only (as it turns out) in their “youth.” Whereas Kemosh suffered arrested development and languished in obscurity, Yhwh faced challenges that would expand his character and would lead, most importantly, to his immortalization through being written down in the texts of the Hebrew Bible.
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For Further Reading
Collin Cornell, “What happened to Kemosh?” ZAW 128 (2016): 284-299.
Reinhard G. Kratz, “Chemosh’s Wrath and Yahweh’s No: Ideas of Divine Wrath in Moab and Israel,” in Divine Wrath and Divine Mercy in the World of Antiquity, ed. Reinhard G. Kratz and Hermann Spieckermann, FAT II/33 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 92–121.