Melachim Bet Perek 3 in Light of the Mesha Stele by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Torah and Archaeology

Far from threatening Torah belief, archaeology often supports and assists our understanding of Torah. The history of the relationship between Orthodox Torah study and archaeology has most recently and capably been presented by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Rav Amnon Bazak in his very important work entitled Ad HaYom HaZeh[1]. Rav Bazak demonstrates that not a single archaeological find contradicts the Torah and many actually clarify otherwise obscure sections of the Torah. The discovery of the Mesha Stele is a stunning example of how an archaeological find can shed light and answer a host of difficult questions regarding an episode in Tanach.

Introduction to the Mesha Stele

Rav Bazak writes the following about the Mesha Stele[2]:

“In Sefer Melakhim we read:

‘And Mesha, king of Moav, was a sheepmaster, and he delivered to the king of Israel a hundred thousand lambs, and a hundred thousand rams, with the wool. But it was, when Achav died, that the king of Moav rebelled against the king of Israel" (Melakhim II 3:4-5).’

In 1868, a stele (inscribed stone) dating to the 9th century B.C.E. was discovered in what is now Jordan. Its inscription shows that it was established by this same Mesha, king of Moav. It opens with the words, “I am Mesha, son of Kemosh[3], king of Moav.” Mesha records that the people of Moav were subservient to Omri, king of Israel, for a long time [“Omri, king of Israel, and they afflicted Moav for many days”] and describes at length how he prevailed against Omri's son, until Israel was annihilated[4]. The Mesha Stele, then, is the earliest external evidence of Moav's battle against Israel, as recorded in the text, and of the existence of the House of Omri.”

Mesha ascribes his defeat of the Israelite king as a victory of his god Kemosh, as the Stele states “Omri was king of Israel, and oppressed Moab during many days, and Chemosh was angry with his aggressions.” Mesha even credits his success to Hashem’s subservience to Kemosh (heaven forfend): “I took from it the vessels of Je-ho-vah, and offered them before Chemosh.”

Melachim II Perek 3

Melachim II Perek 3 describes the Israelite king Yehoram ben Achav’s forming a coalition of the Judean Kingdom (Malchut Yehudah) led by the righteous Melech Yehoshafat and the king of Edom in response to Moav’s rebellion against the Israelite kingdom (Malchut Yisrael). On route to the battle, this triple alliance runs out of water. Yehoram calls upon the Navi Elisha, who joined the troops going to the battle, to miraculously provide water and rescue the three armies. Elisha speaks harshly to Yehoram ben Achav but speaks kindly about his partner Yehoshafat. After miraculously providing water, Elisha instructs the alliance to smite Moav and engage in total warfare against Moav, destroying all in their path including the fruit trees. After successfully executing Elisha’s plan and wreaking havoc upon Moav, the war ends inconclusively as the alliance dissolves in a last minute debacle[5].While Moav is left in shambles, Yehoram ben Achav’s goal of restoring his control of Moav is not achieved[6].

Serious Questions Regarding Melachim II Perek 3

The thoughtful reader is left with many questions regarding this episode. First, why did the righteous Melech Yehoshafat join this battle? One could answer that he joined with Yehoram ben Achav since his son married Achav’s daughter Atalyah. Indeed, Yehoshafat allied with Achav in his war against Aram. However, Yehoshafat narrowly escaped death in that war and later refused to ally with Achav’s son Achazyahu in his quest for gold, as recorded in Melachim II Perek 1.Why then did Yehoshafat join Yehoram ben Achav in his quest to regain control over Moav? Moreover, why is the Navi Elisha clearly pleased with Yehoshafat’s participation in this war[7]?

The second question is why the Navi Elisha called for such an aggressive campaign against Moav. Moreover, what is the justification of his order to cut down fruit trees which directly violates an explicit Torah prohibition presented in Devarim Perek 20? Rambam (in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah) explains that this was a “Hora’at Sha’ah,” a temporary suspension of a Torah law, which an established Navi is permitted to enact in cases of great need[8]. Rambam does not clarify, however, what the great need was that called for a suspension of the Torah prohibition to cut down fruit trees.

A third question is why Elisha, a prolific miracle worker, made a miracle to save the “triple entente” from dying of thirst[9] but did not make a miracle to ensure a complete victory over Moav. Shouldn’t Elisha’s presence have insured a complete and unadulterated defeat of Moav? Apparently, Hashem did not want the coalition to achieve such a triumph. We are left wondering why.

One could answer that since Yehoram ben Achav was a Rasha, he was undeserving of a miracle. If so, then why did the coalition merit to obtain water in a miraculous fashion? Why was the Yisrael/Yehuda/Edom army so successful in its effort to wreak havoc upon Moav? Melachim II Perek 3 and the traditional commentaries do not provide clear answers to these three major problems.

The Mesha Stele – a Source for the Answers

With the discovery of the Mesha Stele in the late nineteenth century, the answers to these questions are readily apparent. After his successful rebellion against Yehoram ben Achav, Mesha erects the Mesha Stele to celebrate his victory, elevate the Moabite god Kemosh, and denigrate Hashem in the most public manner possible. One may hypothesize that Mesha erected numerous such Steles in his territory.

Armed with this information, we may proceed to answer our three questions. Our answers are a variation of Rav Elchanan Samet’s approach presented in his monumental work Pirkei Elisha. The modifications come from the sharp questioning of TABC students to whom I presented Rav Samet’s approach.

Based on the enormous Chillul Hashem created by the Mesha Stele, it is readily understood why the righteous Yehoshafat joined the battle against Moav. Yehoshafat came to correct the terrible Chillul Hashem created by the Moabite king Mesha. Elisha wholeheartedly endorsed Yehoshafat’s noble motives. Despite the near disaster that occurred in his previous alliance with the Northern Kingdom, Yehoshafat was willing to take the risk in order to counter the terrible disgrace of Hashem’s name.

Elisha ordered the utter devastation of Moav to demonstrate the sheer impotence of the fraudulent Moabite Kemosh, thereby reversing the awful Chillul Hashem created by the Mesha Stele. This goal clearly justifies the temporary suspension of the prohibition to cut down fruit trees.

Elisha was hostile to Yehoram ben Achav due to the latter’s indifference to the Chillul Hashem created by the Mesha Stele. Yehoram ben Achav assembled a coalition and waged war against Moav simply to regain control of Moav. Thus, Yehoram ben Achav hardly merited regaining Moav and his ambitions were thwarted by a shocking and desperate action of the Moabite king at the end of the battle. Thus, although the Chillul Hashem was corrected, Yehoram ben Achav’s goals went unmet[10].Both the reversal of the Chillul Hashem and Yehoram ben Achav’s failure to meet his goal are most appropriate and fit with Torah values.

Why Sefer Melachim Does Not Mention the Mesha Stele

TABC students ask why Sefer Melachim does not present the information contained in the Mesha Stele if it can help us answer many difficult questions. In response, I cite Ramban’s assertion (BeReishit 11:28) that the Torah does not present the story of Avraham Avinu’s miraculous survival of Nimrod’s fiery furnace so as not to publicize the idolatrous beliefs of Nimrod. Similarly,  Tanach does not publicize the Chillul Hashem created by the Mesha Stele.

This is analogous to the approach adopted by the authors of the Da’at Mikra Tanach commentary. The authors, Orthodox Tanach scholars who are thoroughly familiar with both the Orthodox and secular approaches to Tanach, do not mention the interpretations of Bible critics to various Tanach passages. However, the commentary includes an Orthodox response to the Biblical criticism. Thus, for those familiar with the arguments of the Bible critics, reading the Da’at Mikra commentary provides a response. Those who are unfamiliar with the secular critics’ claims will also find the Da’at Mikra meaningful and enriching even though they will not appreciate the full extent of the commentary’s goals. The authors of the Da’at Mikra series thus achieve their goals of writing a significant commentary on Tanach and responding to Biblical criticism without publicizing Biblical criticism to those who are unfamiliar. The Da’at Mikra on the one hand avoids the pitfall of publicizing anti-religious views while on the other hand it refutes such views.

Similarly, one who is not familiar with the Mesha Stele will find Melachim II Perek 3 meaningful, but not to the extent of those who are aware of this famous monument. We live in an age of great access to information[11] and thus it is important to demonstrate that far from contradicting Tanach, the Mesha Stele enriches our understanding of Tanach.

Rav Amnon Bazak, writing a generation after the composition of the Da’at Mikra commentary, presents a full and open response to Biblical criticism. He fully presents the views of Bible critics and offers highly persuasive responses to their views. One could criticize Rav Bazak’s approach since it makes people aware of anti-Torah views. However, the Torah response to the critics is so well developed that the time has come to lay out the views and make it clear to all that at the very least, Bible critics far from prove their anti-Torah arguments[12]. In my opinion, Rav Bazak cogently demonstrates the shallowness of the secular critics’ arguments and the far-fetched and unreasonable nature of their approach.

A Final Thought about the Mesha Stele

The ultimate response to the Mesha’s bold declaration that Israel is defeated forever is the fact that Moav and Kemosh are long gone and the Jewish people live on. In fact, the only ones who still know about Moav and Kemosh are the Jews whom Mesha so boldly proclaimed are defeated forever. Israel’s survival is the greatest testament to God’s continued management of the world. As the Gemara (Yoma 69b) states, “if not for the fear of the Almighty how could one nation survive among so many [hostile] nations.” The continued existence and vibrancy of our people constitutes the greatest Kiddush Hashem.

[1] While Rav Bazak’s original work is in Hebrew, an English translation is available online at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s virtual Beit Midrash in a section entitled “Fundamental Issues in the Study of Tanakh.”

[2] A stele is a stone monument erected by ancient kings often to celebrate a great military victory.

[3] Kemosh is well known in Tanach as the god of Moav. For example, "Woe to you, Moav! You are done for, O people of Kemosh!" (BeMidbar 21:29); "Then Shlomo built a high place for Kemosh, the abomination of Moav" (Melachim I 11:7).

[4] Rav Bazak notes “the considerable historical irony in the fact that the two most ancient archaeological proofs concerning the existence of Am Yisrael, the Merneptah Stele and the Mesha Stele both describe the annihilation of Israel: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not,” says the former, while the latter asserts, “Israel has perished; it has perished forever!”

[5] See Ralbag and Malbim for an explanation of the obscure last Pasuk of Perek 3 which states the reason for the dissolution of the alliance.

[6] The Mesha Stele undoubtedly is describing the initial Moabite rebellion against Yehoram ben Achav and not the battle Moav waged against the “triple entente.” The Stele mentions only that Mesha fought against a descendent of Omri (i.e. Yehoram ben Achav) and makes no mention of Yehoshafat and Edom.

[7] Similarly, Chazal (Avot DeRabi Natan) strongly criticize Yehoshafat for partnering with Achav in his fight against Aram but do not criticize Yehoshafat for joining Yehoram ben Achav’s war against Moav.

[8] A classic Hora’at Sha’ah is Eliyahu HaNavi offering a Korban on Har HaCarmel, as recorded in Melachim I Perek 18. Eliyahu HaNavi did this despite the prohibition of Shechutei Chutz, offering a Korban outside the Beit HaMikdash, due to the extraordinary need to draw the Jews of the Northern Kingdom back to Torah. These Jews were disconnected from the Beit HaMikdash for many generations and there was no chance that they would assemble in the Beit HaMikdash for a showdown with the prophets of Ba’al. Moreover, the prophets of Ba’al could not be tolerated in the Beit HaMikdash.

[9] Even if the soldiers were not in danger of dying from thirst, their dehydration would have prevented them from fighting effectively. Michael Oren, in his classic work Six Days of War, notes that a major reason for Israel’s stunning victory in the Sinai portion of the Six Day War is that the Israeli soldiers were fully hydrated whereas the Egyptian forces lacked sufficient water.

[10] The Mesha Stele also explains why Edom allied with the Jewish kings, a singular event in all of Tanach. The Stele records that Moav had waged war and captured Edomite territory as well. This clarifies Edom’s motivation to recover its territory.

[11] The Mesha Stele in contemporary times is on prominent display in the Louvre in Paris.

[12] Rav Bazak also presents which of the secular critics’ insights are of value and could possibly be used to enhance and deepen our understanding of Torah.

Miracles of the Establishment of the State of Israel- Part Four by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Miracles of the Establishment of the State of Israel – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter