The Moabite Rebellion and the Mesha Stele

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The Moabite rebellion discussed in Melakhim II 3 is one of several events which is spoken of in both Tanakh and extra-Biblical sources.  A victory monument erected by Mesha, the king of Moav, known as the Mesha Stele, tells of the revolt from the Moabite perspective.  The two accounts differ drastically, leading scholars to debate whether the events described on the stele constitute the prelude to or the aftermath of the war discussed in Tanakh.

Biblical Sources

Melakhim II 3 tells how Mesha, the King of Moav, had originally paid tribute to Israel, but rebelled after the death of Achav. As a result, Yehoram, the king of Israel, makes an alliance with both Yehoshafat, the king of Judah, and with Edom to retaliate. With Hashem's aid, Israel is able to smite Moav, but despite the initial success, the battle ends without a clear victor. The verses are ambiguous, but suggest that, in desperation, the King of Moav offered his son as a sacrifice,1 leading to "great wrath on Israel."  Though the nature and reason for this "wrath" are unclear, it led to the premature end of the battle and the return of the troops to Israel.

Extra-Biblical Sources: The Mesha Stele

The Moabite rebellion is attested to outside of Tanakh, as it is discussed in detail in an inscription on a victory monument erected by Mesha, King of Moav, known as the Mesha Stele or the Moabite Stone. The monument was discovered by a missionary named Frederick Klein in 1868 in Dhiban (Biblical Dibon)2 and is presently in the Louvre Museum in Paris.3

The inscription opens by describing Moav's servitude to Israel, declaring that Omri, King of Israel had "humbled Moav many years, for Chemosh4 was angry at his land". Mesha then tells how, in the days of Omri's son, he was able to triumph over Israel and end the oppression, claiming, "Israel has perished forever".  The rest of the stele discusses both Mesha's victories (including his defeat of Medeba, Atarot, Yahaz, and Nevo, cities north of the Arnon River) and his fortifications and building projects. It ends with a description of his attack against the Horanim, in the south.5

Relationship Between the Sources: The War

The Biblical and Moabite accounts of the war differ drastically. Sefer Melakhim gives the impression that Moav was almost decimated and includes no account of any Moabite victories. The Mesha Stele, in contrast, says nothing of Moav's near-defeat, and, instead, reports the capture of Israelite territory and the slaughter of its citizens. As such, scholars debate the relationship between the sources and whether the campaign described in the stele occurred during, before, or after the events mentioned in Tanakh:

I. Mesha's campaign preceded the battle described in Tanakh

  • Suggested reconstruction of events – According to Y. Liver,6 the Moabite campaign described on the stele preceded the battle with the three kings and constituted the revolt which prompted their attack.7 If so, Moav's rebellion was marked not only by his ceasing to pay tribute, but by his embarking on a military campaign in which he managed to conquer significant Israelite territory.  Liver suggests that the Moabite conquests began towards the end of Achav's reign,8 when Achav was preoccupied with Aram9 and unable to retaliate. Mesha took advantage of the situation to re-occupy land previously held by Moav and to conquer several new areas.10 He then fortified the region to prevent the anticipated counter-attack by Israel. The attack on Horanim, described at the end of the stele, might have been slightly distinct, as the city, lying on the border with Edom, was likely conquered from them rather than from Israel.11
  • Impact on understanding Tanakh – This reconstruction might shed light on several aspects of the Biblical account:
    • Attack from south – Y. Liver explains that Yehoram's seemingly odd decision to attack from the south was likely prompted by Mesha's newly built fortifications in the north and the desire to avoid the drawn out sieges which would be needed to conquer them.12
    • Edom's participation –  The Edomites joined the alliance not only because they were vassals of Yehoshafat,13 but because they had a personal interest in fighting Moav, as their land, too, had been taken by Mesha.
    • Yehoshafat's participation – R"E Samet14 suggests that Yehoshafat viewed the battle as a religious war.15 According to the stele, Mesha had taken the "vessels of Hashem"16 from what was apparently some holy site in Nevo and placed them before his god, Chemosh. Yehoshafat joined Yehoram mainly in order to rectify this desecration of Hashem's name.17 
    • Harshness of attack – If Moav's revolt was military in nature and included both the slaughter of many Israelites and a desecration of Hashem's name, this could explain why Yehoram did not suffice with conquest, but also took harsh punitive measures to ruin Moav's land, destroy its trees, and block their wells.18
    • Moav maintains independence – Y. Liver suggests that the decision to attack from the south meant that the outcome of the battle needed to be "all or nothing".  Israel had managed to subdue the southern region of Moav, but never reached the northern areas which Moav had re-occupied. As such, despite the initial victories, there was no contiguous Israelite territory and, thus, no way to hold on to the defeated towns.19

II. Mesha's campaign followed the battle described in Tanakh 

  • Suggested reconstruction of events – In contrast to the reading proposed above, S. Horn20 and N. Na'aman21 suggest that the military victories described in the stele took place after the events described in Tanakh. According to Horn, Moav emerged from the battle against Israel ravaged, but still independent, and quickly went from the defensive to the offensive. If so, the events described in the stele constitute the "קֶצֶף גָּדוֹל עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל" described at the end of the account in Melakhim.22  To support this reconstruction, Horn argues that the fortifications described in the stele must have taken many years to build, and this could not have been accomplished in the short time span between Achav's death and Yehoram's attack. It is more likely that they were built after the battle to ensure that Israel did not attempt a second attack. The stele's descriptions of the rebuilding of destroyed cities also suggest that the events took place in the aftermath of the war, as the need to rebuild was a direct result of the devastation wreaked by the Israelite alliance. Similarly, Mesha's building of water reservoirs and cisterns might have stemmed from Yehoram's having plugged the Moabite springs ("וְכׇל מַעְיַן מַיִם יִסְתֹּמוּ").
  • Impact on understanding Tanakh – As this reconstruction suggests that the events of Tanakh preceded those described by Mesha, the stele does not contribute much to a deeper understanding of the events of Melakhim 3 itself except to explain the nature of the "קֶצֶף גָּדוֹל עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל".‎23 

Relationship Between the Sources: Chronology

According to Sefer Melakhim, Moav rebelled after the death of Achav, and the Israelites attempted to re-subjugate them in the time of Yehoram. The Mesha Inscription, on the other hand, records that Omri dominated Moav "in his days and half the days of his son: 40 years," at which point Chemosh returned it to Moav's hands.  How is the stele's dating to be understood; does it correlate with the chronology laid forth in Tanakh, or is the stele presenting a different order of the events?

  • At first glance, the stele's dating appears to contradict itself.  According to the first part of Mesha's words, the rebellion occurred in the middle of Achav's reign ("half the days of his son").  On the other hand, the phrase "forty years" suggests that the revolt occurred about 6 years after Achav's death, since Omri and Achav reigned for only 34 years between them.24  The discrepancy suggests that at least one of the two phrases needs to be reinterpreted.
  • Many,25 thus, suggest that the number forty should be understood metaphorically to mean "generation." In addition, the phrase "half the days of his son" could express the length of an incomplete reign, rather than literally half of it.26  If so, the inscription might set the revolt towards the end of Achav's reign (as per Y. Liver above).27 This is slightly earlier than Tanakh's dating but need not be seen as a contradiction, as it might have taken a couple of years before the revolt was at full strength.28
  • Others29 have suggested that the word "son" (בנה) means descendant,30 and posit that the inscription is saying that Israel dominated Moav during the reigns of Omri, Achav, Achazyah and halfway through the reign of Yehoram, which would amount to about 42 years.  [The number forty mentioned in the inscription would then be a round number.]31  This would match the second approach above which suggests that Mesha's campaign took place only after Yehoram's battle. If so, Mesha's statement regarding the end of its subjugation refers not to the date in which he ceased to pay tribute (which occurred, as Tanakh states, with the death of Achav) but only to his military feats which successfully returned the occupied Moabite lands to his nation.

Relationship to Later Prophecies Against Moav

Prof. Elitzur32 suggests that the prophecies of Yeshayahu 15-16 and Yirmeyahu 48 against Moav should be understood in light of Mesha's stele.  Yeshayahu claims that his words are based on earlier prophecies: "זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה' אֶל מוֹאָב מֵאָז",‎33  leading Prof. Elitzur to suggest that they were originally said by a prophet living in the time of Mesha,34 and as a direct reaction to Mesha's inscription.35

  • Rebuking Moav's arrogance – Yeshayahu and Yirmeyahu's prophecies highlight Moav's arrogance36 and even suggest that Moav saw itself as greater than Hashem: "כִּי עַל י"י הִגְדִּיל".  Prof. Elitzur claims that this rebuke of Moav's hubris is likely a reaction to both the self glorification of Mesha in his stele,37 and to his desecration of Hashem's name in recording that he took Hashem's vessels from Nevo and placed them before Chemosh.
  • Mocking Moav's victories – The prophecies further mention numerous places discussed in the stele, including: נבו, קריתים, חורונים, ערוער, דיבון, יהצה, בית דבלתים  בית מעון, קריות.  These serve to mock Mesha's boasts; while Mesha bragged of his victories and the building of these areas, Yeshayahu and Yirmeyahu prophesy that each of the sites are to be a source of mourning as Moav is destroyed.38
  • "אָבַד עַם כְּמוֹשׁ" – Similarly, in response to Mesha's hyperbolic declaration that "Israel has perished forever," Yirmeyahu emphasizes: "אוֹי לְךָ מוֹאָב אָבַד עַם כְּמוֹשׁ".  It is Moav, not Israel, who is to perish.

Additional Significance of the Stele

  • Earliest extra-Biblical reference to Hashem -– The inscription bears the earliest extra-Biblical reference to Hashem, with lines 17-18 reading: "ואקח. משמ. א[ת כ]לי יהו-ה ".  It also attests to the existence of temples to Hashem on the eastern side of the Jordan.
  • Earliest extra-Biblical reference to the House of David – According to the reconstruction of Andre Lemaire,39 line 31 contains a reference to the House of David.40  If he is correct, this is the earliest extra-Biblical reference to the Davidic dynasty.41
  • One of four extra-BIblical references to "Israel" – The stele is one of four contemporary inscriptions which mentions "Israel" (rather than the House of Omri, Shomeron etc.). The others are the Merneptah Stele, the Kurkh Monolith42 and the Tel Dan Stele.43
  • Moabite theology – The stone sheds some light on Moabite theology, which, in certain aspects, closely resembles Israelite thought. 
    • Mesha invokes his god, Chemosh, throughout the stele, understanding both his defeats and victories to stem from him.  Thus, he explains the initial subjugation as being due to Chemosh's anger at his people, much like Sefer Shofetim depicts Israel's servitude to foreign nations as stemming from Hashem's wrath at their idolatry. His victories, too, are attributed to the god, as he says, "Chemosh drove him out before me."
    • The stele presents Mesha as attacking certain cities because his god told him to do so, similar to the many Israelite kings who seek and follow Hashem's guidance before going to war. 
    • The concept that a defeated town could have "חרם" status (like the defeated Yericho) is suggested by the stone, as the inhabitants of Nevo are "consecrated" to Chemosh (כי. לעשתר. כמש. החרמתה).