“Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and he had to deliver to the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.” (2 Ki 3:4 – 5).
Mesha’s reign as king of Moab was concurrent with several of the Omride kings of Israel. Almost everything that is known about his life comes from two sources: the Bible, and the Mesha Inscription (also called the Mesha Stele or the Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868 in Dibhan, Jordan).
The Moabites traced their lineage back to the incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters (Gn 19:36-37). The territory of Moab was traditionally east of the Dead Sea, between the Arnon River to the north and the Zered Brook to the south. Throughout the centuries this region was hotly contested, changing hands numerous times. Bryant Wood summarizes: “At the time of the Conquest at the end of the 15th century BC, the region was occupied by the Amorites, who had earlier taken it from the Moabites (Nm 21:26). The Israelites then captured the area (Nm 21:24 Dt 2:24, 36 3:8, 16), with the tribe of Reuben taking possession (Jos 13:16). The area see-sawed back and forth for the next several centuries, passing to the Moabites (Jgs 3:12), Israelites (Jgs 3:30), Ammonites (Jgs 11:13, 32-33), and back to Israel (Jgs 11:32-33). In the mid-ninth century BC, Mesha was successful in throwing off the yoke of Israel and bringing the area once again under the authority of Moab (1 Kgs 3:5 Mesha Inscription).”1
The Biblical text identifies Mesha as a sheep-breeder, but one need not imagine he was a lowly shepherd. He was powerful man, no-doubt made wealthy through his trade in large flocks of sheep. In his own inscription, Mesha identifies himself a man from Dibon, who had inherited the throne of Moab after his father had reigned for 30 years (lines 1-3). At some point during his father’s reign, the Omride Dynasty of Israel expanded, annexing Moab and enforcing a heavy tribute: 100,000 lambs and the wool from 100,000 rams (2 Ki 3:4).
The account of Mesha’s rebellion against his Israelite overlords is recorded both in the Bible (2 Ki 3) and in the famous Mesha Inscription.
The Bible records that, when King Ahab died, Mesha rebelled against King Joram/Jehoram, his son, who had ascended the throne. We read, “So King Jehoram marched out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. And he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, ‘The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to battle against Moab?’” (2 Ki 3:6-7).
In the Mesha Inscription, we read, “I am Mesha, son of Chemosh[ît], king of Moab, the Dibonite. My father ruled over Moab thirty years, and I ruled after my father. I made this high-place for Chemosh in Qerihoh, high-pl[ace of sal-]vation, for he saved me from all the kings and made me enjoy the sight of my enemies. Omri, king of Israel, oppressed Moab for a long time because Chemosh was angry with his country. His son succeeded him, and he also declared: “I will oppress Moab.” In my days, he declared thus, but I enjoyed his view and that of his house: Israel was destroyed forever. Omri had taken possession of the land of Madaba, and he dwelt in it (during) his days and, (during) half of my days, his sons, forty years, but Chemosh restored it during my days.”2 A simple calculation reveals that the forty-year period of subjugation brings his rebellion into the days of Joram, King of Israel, as stated in the biblical account.
According to 2 Kings, the Israelite coalition initially had some success in repressing the rebellion (2 Ki 3:24). Eventually Mesha was besieged in this southern capital of Kir Hareseth (2 Ki 3:25), but Israel was unable to take the city.
“When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land” (2 Ki 3:26-27).
The question of who Mesha sacrificed on the wall and why this cause a great wrath against Israel, causing them to withdraw from the battle has long been a source of debate. The traditional interpretation, that Mesha sacrificed his oldest son which so appalled the Israelites that they broke off the attack, is unconvincing in light of the fact that the Israelites had already slaughtered numerous Moabites. Moreover, the Israelites were not devoutly following Yahweh at this time; indeed Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah, and Joram all did evil in the eyes of the Lord (1 Ki 16:25; 1 Ki 16:30; 1 Ki 22:52; 2 Ki 3:2). So, it’s difficult to see them taking such offense and breaking off the attack.
Another suggestion is that it was the King of Edom’s son that the King of Moab sacrificed. 2 Kings 3:27, would then be interpreted, “When he [Mesha, the king of Moab] took his [the King of Edom’s] firstborn son, who was to succeed him [the king of Edom] as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.” This is plausible as both the king of Moab and the king of Edom are mentioned in the preceding verse, allowing “his firstborn son” to refer to either. In The Sacred Bridge Anson Rainey and Steven Notley explain how this may have happened. “When Mesha tried to breakthrough (to escape the siege and probably go north to Dibon), he chose the part of the enemy ranks where the Edomites were stationed, probably thinking that they would be easier prey. But he misjudged his foe; the Edomites did not crack. However, Mesha did manage to take an important prisoner, viz. the son and heir of the Edomite king, who was already the co-regent…Mesha then took him up on the wall and made him a human sacrifice. The Edomites had come in support of Judah and Israel…the loss of the crown prince was a fatal blow to the Edomites morale. Their anger against the Israelite army was such that their own withdrawal from the campaign left the Judean and Israelite troops exposed and far from their home bases. They had no choice but to withdraw in ignominy. The sacrifice of the Edomite co-regent was denounced generations later by the prophet Amos (2:1).”3
While we may never have certainty around the final events of the siege of Kir Hareseth, both the Mesha Inscription (lines 8 and 9) and the Bible (2 Ki 3:27) agree that Mesha’s rebellion was ultimately successful.
Kir Hareseth is identified as modern Kerak, located on a cliff that overlooks the Dead Sea. Little remains from the Moabite occupation in the days of Mesha; it is more famous for the Crusader castle at the site. However, in 1958 the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman acquired a grey-black basalt stone bearing an ancient Moabite inscription that was discovered a foundation trench that was cut for a new building at Kerak.4 The “Kerak Inscription Dates to the 9th century BC and has been translated to read, “…[Ke]moshyat, King of Moab, the…(temp)le? of Kemosh, for an altar because…and now I made…”5 This royal inscription is evidence of a Moabite presence at Kerak (Kir Hareseth) in the 9th century.
After Mesha had thrown off the shackles of Israelite oppression, he set about to consolidate his kingdom by attacking cities in the region still held by Israel:
- “The men of Gad dwelt in the land of Atarot from ancient times, and the king of Israel had built Atarot, but I fought against the city and took it; I killed the entire population” (lines 10-11)
- “Chemosh said to me: “Go, take Nebo from Israel!” I went in the night, and I fought there from dawn until noon; I took it and killed everyone: seven thousand men, boys, women, [daught]ers and pregnant women, because I devoted it to Ashtar Chemosh.” (lines 14-17)
- “The king of Israel had built Yahaz, and he lived there while fighting against me, but Chemosh drove him out before me; I took two hundred men of Moab, all its divisions, and I led them against Yahaz; I took it” (lines 18-20).
- The House of David dwelt in Horonain […] and Chemosh said to me: “Go down, fight against Horonain!” I went down, [fought against the city and took it.] Chemosh restored it in my days (lines 31-33).6
In 2010, excavators at Khirbat Ataruz (biblical Atarot), unearthed a 50cm tall altar base inscribed with an ancient Moabite inscription that may reference Mesha’s rebellion. The inscription mentions over 4600 Hebrews and foreign men who were scattered from “the desolate city.” The scholars who translated the inscription conclude, “The Ataruz Inscriptions, inscribed in Moabite on a cultic object in a cultic context, dateable to the late 9th–early 8th centuries BCE, provide important new historical evidence for this Moabite occupation of Atarot in the 9th century BCE.”7
To further consolidate his power, Mesha refortified numerous cities, possibly some of those that had been destroyed by Israel (2 Ki 3:25). Specifically, he claims to have (re)constructed Baal-meon (line 9), Kiriathain (line 10), Aroer (line 26), and Beth-Bamoth (line 27).8 Excavations at Aroer have revealed an Iron Age fortress measuring 50m by 50m, constructed of large stones laid in header-stretcher, which may have been built by Mesha.9
The longest description of Mesha’s building feats is related to Qerihoh: “I built Qerihoh: the wall of its parks and the wall of the citadel; I built its gates, its towers, and a royal palace. I made the retaining walls of the water reservoir within the city. There had not been a cistern within the city, in Qerihoh, and I said to all the people: “Build for yourselves a cistern, each one in his house!” (Lines 21-25)10
Because Mesha claims to have erected his stele at the “high-place for Chemosh in Qerihoh” (line 3), and since the stele was discovered in Dibon, scholars believe Qerihoh (Qrhh) was the citadel of Dibon which was constructed by Mesha. In his excavation report from the first season of excavations at Dibon in 1951, Fred V. Winnett stated, “It seems necessary to conclude that Qrhh and Dibon were both located on the northwestern mound. The early settlers would doubtless have occupied that part of the mound where the sides are steepest and most easily defensible, namely the northern and northwestern areas. Hence it is probable that Mesha’s royal suburb was located on the southern and southeastern sections of the mound and it was here that Mesha’s stele was actually found.”11 These excavations unearthed a 1.5m thick fortification wall and significant defensive tower. The excavators concluded, “In view of the manifestly early date of Wall 1 and in view of Mesha’s explicit assertion that he provided Dibon with towers, it does not seem unreasonable to attribute the construction of Wall 1 and the tower to this famous Moabite king.”12
In addition to refortifying his cities, Mesha dedicated himself to building and refurbishing temples to his god, Chemosh/Kemosh. Chemosh was the supreme god worshiped by the Moabites: he is mentioned by name six times in the Bible (Nm21:29; Jdg 11:24; 1 Ki 11:7; 11:33; 2 Ki 23:13; Jr 48:7, 13, 46), and twelve times in the Mesha inscription. While little is known about Chemosh/Kemosh some scholars have suggested this deity was worshiped by other ancient peoples, and was known by the name Kamish.13 The Al-Balu’ Moabite Stele on display at the Jordan museum may depict Chemsoh/Kemosh/Kamish crowning a Moabite king.
Mesha ascribes his victory to Chemosh (lines 8-9) and builds temples for his god at Madaba, Diblaten, and Baal-meon (line 30). As was often the case in the ancient world, a victory by one nation over another was seen as a victory of their god over the defeated nation’s god. Mesha makes special note of taking Israelite cultic objects of YHWH. From Nebo, he captured the “hear[th]altars of Yahweh” and “brought them before Chemosh” (lines 17-18).
Dating the Mesha Stele
Some scholars have proposed that Mesha erected his monument within a few short years of his rebellion in the 840’s BC. However, this is not likely, as more time would be needed to account for the number of cities he rebuilt and the temples he refurbished. Furthermore, as Todd Bolen points out, the Mesha Stele is not an annalistic record and was not written as a chronological account; rather ather it is a memorial inscription, likely written near the end of his life. This would make sense of his statement that Chemosh had saved him “from all the kings” (line 4). He suggests that Mesha likely erected the monument after Jehu overthrew the Omride dynasty and after seeing Hazael, king of Aram defeat Israel. According to Bolen, “the Mesha Stele was written ca. 830–820 by the Moabite king after years of successfully rebuilding his kingdom.”14
The Mesha Stele is the most important royal inscription from the Iron Age found on either side of the Jordan.15 It helps us understand the geopolitical power struggles in the southern Levant during the 9th century BC and both affirms and illuminates Mesha’s rebelling as it is described in 2 Kings 3.
In this case, since we have the same event described from each perspective, the Bible and the Mesha Inscription inform each other and help historians make sense of what transpired between Israel and Moab in the 9th century BC.
Cover Photo: Moabite Stone (Mesha Stele) from the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903). Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
1 Bryant G. Wood, “Mesha, King of Moab.” Associates for Biblical Research. Sept. 27, 2006. Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/chronological-categories/divided-monarchy/3437-mesha-king-of-moab (Accessed March 9, 2023).
2 André Lemaire, “What Does the Mesha Stele Say?” Bible History Daily. November 18, 2022. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/what-does-the-mesha-stele-say/ (Accessed Feb. 3, 2023).
3 Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notely, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. (Jerusalem: Carta Jerusalem, 2014), 205.
4 William L. Reed, and Fred V. Winnett. “A Fragment of an Early Moabite Inscription from Kerak.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 172 (1963): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.2307/1355710 (Accessed March 15, 2023).
5 Heather Dana Davis Parker, and Ashley Fiutko Arico. “A Moabite-Inscribed Statue Fragment from Kerak: Egyptian Parallels.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 373 (2015): 106-107. https://doi.org/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.373.0105 (Accessed March 15, 2023).
6 André Lemaire, “What Does the Mesha Stele Say?” Bible History Daily. November 18, 2022. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/what-does-the-mesha-stele-say/ (Accessed Feb. 3, 2023).
7 Adam L. Bean, Christopher A. Rollston, P. Kyle McCarter & Stefan J. Wimmer (2018) An inscribed altar from the Khirbat Ataruz Moabite sanctuary, Levant, 50:2, p. 234. DOI: 10.1080/00758914.2019.1619971 (Accessed March 11, 2023).
8 André Lemaire, “What Does the Mesha Stele Say?” Bible History Daily. November 18, 2022. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/what-does-the-mesha-stele-say/ (Accessed Feb. 3, 2023).
9 Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notely, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. (Jerusalem: Carta Jerusalem, 2014), 204.
10 André Lemaire, “What Does the Mesha Stele Say?” Bible History Daily. November 18, 2022. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/what-does-the-mesha-stele-say/ (Accessed Feb. 3, 2023).
11 Fred V. Winnett and William L. Reed, “The Excavations at Dibon (Dhībân) in Moab. Part I: The First Campaign, 1950-1951. Part II: The Second Campaign, 1952.” The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Vol. 36/37, p.7. Online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3768535 (Accessed March 11, 2023).
12 Ibid, 16.
13 Gerald L. Mattingly, “Chemosh,” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1336.
14 Todd Bolen, “The Aramean Oppression of Israel in the Reign of Jehu,” PhD diss., (Dallas Theological Seminary, 2013),47. https://www.academia.edu/6097624/The_Aramean_Oppression_of_Israel_in_the_Reign_of_Jehu (Accessed Oct. 9, 2020).
15 Amahai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (London: Yale University Press, 1990), 542.
Great write-up. Certainly a significant bit of archaeology with the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone). Thanks for this, Bryan!