Ancients, including Jews, believed their god functions only in their territory


Many scholars contend that in the ancient Near East people believed that there were many gods, the power and presence of a god was localized in the territory inhabited by the worshiper, and did not know that all lands belong to God.

There is, for example, the remarkable, often overlooked story of Mesha, king of Moab. The story is told in two seemingly conflicting sources, the Mesha Stele and II Kings 3. A Stele is an upright stone slab with an inscription. It was apparently set up by the king to advertise his victory. It tells that Moab was captured by Omri, the king of Israel, but Mesha defeated Israel and ended the suzerainty of Israel.[1]

II Kings 3 offers a more detailed report.[2] Mesha was forced to give the wool of 100,000 lambs and 100,000 rams as tribute to Ahab, the then king of Israel. When Ahab died, Mesha rebelled against Jehoram his son who was now Israel’s king. Jehoram sent a request to Jehoshaphat, king of Judea, asking if he would lead his army and join in war against the rebellious Moabites. Jehoshaphat agreed and the two armies were joined by the army of Edom and the three attacked Moab.

II Kings describes a problem that three armies had: they had no water. The kings of Israel and Judea summoned the prophet Elisha who, after some discussion, agreed to seek a prophecy, which he could do if a minstrel played music for him. The minstrel was brought, and when the minstrel played, Elisha heard the word of God. Elisha told the kings to dig trenches because water is coming. He also predicted that the three kings would defeat Moab. The first prophecy occurred, but not the second.[3]

Mesha heard that the three kings had come up against him. He mobilized his army at his border. In the morning he saw the sun’s rays shining on the water in the trenches and it looked red. He thought that the three nations had fought each other, the trenches were filled with blood, and the enemy forces were weakened, so he attacked. But he was defeated.

Mesha retreated, but then tried to fight just the army of Edom. He lost again. “Then,” II Kings states:[4] “he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him as a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came a great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.”

This verse raises two problems. First, who is “his eldest son”? The chapter mentions Mesha’s attack on Edom in the prior sentence. Was this the son of the Edomite king who Mesha, following the tradition of the time, took captive years earlier as security to assure that Edom would not attack him? This is the view of some scholars who suppose that this act caused Edom to retreat, and once Edom left the battlefield, Israel and Judea were unnerved and left as well. This interpretation seems counter-intuitive because one would imagine that the king of Edom would have stayed to seek revenge rather than leaving.

The more accepted view is that Mesha sacrificed his own son to his god saying in effect, “Please god help me. I love you so much that I am willing to give you my son, my heir.”

The second problem is what was the “great wrath” that came upon Israel and why did the three armies leave?

Scholars, as mentioned earlier, explain that the ancients, including Israel, believed in the existence of many gods and that their god only had power in their own territory. When they saw that Mesha had made such an enormous sacrifice to his god, they felt sure that the god would aid the king and defeat them, so they rushed home.[5]

This understanding of the mind-set of the ancients explains other biblical passages.

For example, why did Jonah try to escape God by leaving Israel?[6] According to this understanding of the ancient mind-set, Jonah felt that if he left Israel, God would no longer have power over him and he could avoid the divine mission God demanded to go to Nineveh and tell the people that in forty days their city would be destroyed. The narrator of the book of Jonah reveals the foolishness of Jonah’s view of a limited deity, for he relates how God acted with Jonah outside of Israel.

II Kings 5:17 is another example. After the prophet Elisha cured Naaman, the captain of the army of Aram, of leprosy, Naaman told Elisha that he was returning to Aram. He asked Elisha to give him “two mules’ burden of earth” of the land of Israel. He said he would no longer worship other gods, but only the Lord. Henceforth whenever he worships the Lord, he will stand on Israel’s earth. Naaman is making this request because he understood that the only way he could communicate with the God of Israel was in Israel or on earth from this land.

In I Samuel 26:19, to cite a final example, King Saul had been pursuing David trying to kill him. David begs the king to see reason; he should stop hounding him and stop causing him to flee Israel. David says that Saul caused people to drive “me out this day that I should not cleave unto the inheritance of the Lord, saying: ‘Go serve other gods.’”[7] David is saying: these people are driving me from Israel, the land where God exerts divine power, to a land where there is another functioning god.



[1] Scholars date the end of the battle around 850 BCE.

[2] Moab was defeated by King David, but when his kingdom was split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea, when his grandson Rehoboam became king, it became necessary for Omri, king of Israel, years latter to recapture Moab. Mesha mentions the defeat to Omri in his Stele, but not the prior history.

[3] Why was this prophecy never achieved? Tosafot on Yevamot 50a notes that virtually all biblical prophecies never materialized and explains that a prophecy is not what will be but what should be.

[4] In the Jewish Publication Society translation, The Holy Scriptures, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960.

[5] F.L. Andersen and D. N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible, Amos, Doubleday, 1989, page 288; and A. Chacham, Trei Asar, Sefer Amos, Da’at Mikra, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1973, page9.  Kimchi has a novel interpretation of the “great wrath” that came upon Israel. He states that when the king of Edom saw that the king of Moab sacrificed his son, who he was holding as a hostage to assure that Edom would not attack Moab, in revenge for Edom joining Israel and Judea in the attack against Moab, the king of Edom became very angry at Israel and Judea for persuading him to break his treaty with Moab.

[6] Jonah 1.

[7] JPS translation. The Torah uses the metaphor “inheritance” frequently for “a divine gift,” in this case the land of Israel.