Controversy over the Moabite Stone: II Kings 3

Moabite Closeup
AO 5066, The Moabite Stone. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Moore, Amridge University. Photo taken at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Disagreements Concerning Genre

The disagreement over the inscription’s genre began at the 1998 Oslo congress, i.e., at the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT) annual meeting. It was there that Thomas L. Thompson (former professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen) used the Moabite Stone inscription as an example of literary narrative rather than actual historiography—saying it “belonged to a definable literary tradition of stories about kings of the past.”1 Thus, he classified the text as a “fictive story or pure literature.”2 It should be noted that the primary point of Thompson’s lecture was to condemn what he observed as an excessive interest in historiography, which dominates “both the rhetoric and perspective of biblical archaeology.” 3 Thompson argues that this concern for historiography “was not shared by the authors of ancient texts.”4

Other scholars, such as André Lemaire (a French epigrapher and Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris) had until that time classified the inscription as “a commemorative/memorial royal inscription.”5 Likewise, according to Nadav Na’aman (a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University), “The Mesha stele is a commemorative inscription . . . the inscription combines elements of dedication and of commemoration, and is designed to extol and record the king’s achievements and deeds.”6 That is, it was likely erected by Moabite enemies of Israel to commemorate their victory.

Thus, the disagreement has to do with whether or not the inscription is completely fictitious. Regardless, of this dispute, there seems to be widespread agreement that the inscription is thematically organized, and hence should not always be read chronologically.

Chronological Discrepancies

The stone has no doubt become the subject of a great amount of controversy within the guild. This should not be surprising in an era where the field has experienced a noticeable shift from maximalists like W. F. Albright, Cyrus Gordon, and Yigael Ladin—who led the way in believing that the Bible reflected true history—to minimalists, like Thomas L. Thompson, Philip Davies, and Niels Peter Lemche— who posit that the biblical text is not historically oriented.

Though it is understood that the inscription partially parallels 2 Kgs 3:4–8, it has also often been pointed out that there are chronological disagreements between the two accounts. For example, the biblical narrative states that after “Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel” (2 Kgs 3:5). In contrast, the Moabite inscription positions the Moab rebellion during the reign of Omri’s son Ahab, and not after his death: “And his son followed him and he also said, ‘I will humble Moab.’”7 Moreover, it is asserted that the text’s credit to Omri and his son of a forty-year control over Moab cannot chronology be reconciled with biblical narrative. Therefore, it is often asserted that “the inscription does not confirm the historicity of the story of 2 Kings 3.”8

The scope of this post is not to spend time arguing these points. However, it is worthwhile to note that the Moabite inscription does indeed verify that certain things recorded in 2 Kings 3 are accurate, and it makes other things in the biblical text more understandable: 1) both the biblical narrative and the Mesha Stela confirm the existence of Mesha king of Moab, 2) likewise, both confirm that Mesha had been subject to Israel under the Omride dynasty, 3) the Mesha Stela affirms with 2 Kings 3 that the Israelite god was YHWH (Mesha Inscription, line 18 refers to vessels of Yahweh plundered from Nebo), 4) This Mesha, according to both accounts, was responsible for flocks (2 Kgs 3:4; Mesha Inscription, line 31, “I led [my shepherds] up there [in order to tend the] sheep of the land”).

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FOOTNOTES

     [1] Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History: Changing Perspectives 2 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 271.

     [2] Ibid.

     [3] Ibid.

     [4] Ibid.

     [5] Andre Lemaire, “The Meshe Stele and the Omri Dynasy” in Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasy (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 135.

     [6] Nadav Na’aman, “Royal Inscription versus Prophetic Story: Mesha’s Rebellion According to Biblical and Moabite Historiography” in Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 149.

     [7] “The Moabite Stone” translated by W. F. Albright (ANET 320–21).

     [8] Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History: Changing Perspectives 2 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 272. See also Lemaire, The Meshe Stele, 136.

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