We begin the chapter on a rather confusing note, as our narrator tells us that Jehoram succeeded Ahab in the 18th year of Jehoshaphat’s rule in Judah. This presents us with a problem, since it conflicts with 2 Kings 1:17, where Jehoram succeeded Ahaziah (who is here skipped over) in the second year of Jehoram, king of Judah (the son of Jehoshaphat).

This works in terms of Omri’s dynastic lineage, since Ahaziah and Jehoram were brothers, and therefore both Ahab’s sons. It’s also conceivable that a chronicler skipped over Ahaziah because of the shortness of his reign (easily forgotten, hardly worth mentioning). However, none of this can square with the matching against Judah’s chronology.

For that, the dominant explanation seems to be that there was a co-regency period during which both Jehoram of Judah and Jehoshaphat were kings (perhaps while one did the battle thing, the other stayed home and did the statecraft thing). It seems more likely, however, that we just suffer either from shoddy chroniclers and/or  from our poor author trying to piece together the records found in two (or more) separate books and feeling just as frustrated as we are when the numbers just won’t add up no matter how many times he shuffles the beads around on his abacus (I am certainly familiar with those feelz).

Yet while our author may be confused about the dates, he’s quite clear when it comes to his assessment of Jehoram. Spoilers: He was just awful. But at least he wasn’t the same sort of awful as his parents, and did put aside his Baals (hopefully before he got hairy palms). Unfortunately, he walked the way of Jeroboam, which I suppose means that he either built multiple unsanctioned shrines, or allowed worship to take place in them. In the end, he ruled, Baal-less, for twelve years.

On to Moab

What’s really interesting about this chapter is that we actually have two versions of the story – one from the Hebrew side, and the other from the Moabite side. The frustrating thing is that there don’t seem to be any accessible authoritative translations of the Moabite version, found in the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone). I’m finding claims about its contents, but I can’t confirm them against anything other than Wikipedia’s own claims, which leaves me rather vulnerable to circular evidence chains.

From what I can glean, however, both agree that Israel lost the conflict (sorry, spoilers) and both seem to credit Moab’s victory to their god, Chemosh. I know, I know! But more on that when we get to it. First, the set up.

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

It seems that Moab was a vassal state, and required to pay an annual tribute of 100,000 lambs, plus the wool of 100,000 rams. The numbers seem rather excessive, and I’m seeing some conjecture that it was only a one-time payment, or that it was meant to be spread out over a number of years, but I think it likely that this is just a nice big-sounding number used as a stand in to indicate that it was, like, totally a lot of lambs and wool.

After Ahab’s death, however, King Mesha of Moab decided that maybe he didn’t have to make those tributes any more. The testing of a new leader is certainly not uncommon. Jehoram responds by mustering his army and calling on King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. When they decide to go through Edom, it seems that its king and army joined in the fun (with the strong implication that Edom was also a vassal state, and perhaps did not have much choice in the matter).

Unfortunately for these combined armies, they were unable to find enough water to sustain them. So they decide to consult with God, calling on Elisha to serve as their telephone. Elisha initially refuses, sore over Jehoram’s dynasty’s infidelity toward God. In response, Jehoram argues that the drought that is about to win Moab the war is God’s doing, so yes, they’d like to speak with God, please. The whole exchange sounds like it would have been delivered with sneers.

Elisha does query God in the end, however, with the help of a (trance inducing) minstrel. God promises that the dry riverbeds will soon be full of pools and that Israel will defeat Moab.

Well, the first part comes true, anyway. By morning, pools had formed in the riverbeds, and the Israelite (plus allies) army was able to water itself.

God seems to have really tried to fulfill the second portion as well. When the Moabites saw the water, it appeared red – tricking them into thinking that the various encamped armies had turned on each other, and it was their blood pooling in the riverbed. My study Bible thinks that the colour comes from the “red sandstone of Edom” (pointing to the connection between Edom and the colour references in Genesis 25:30), while my New Bible Companion proposes that it was a reflection of the sunrise.

Figuring that they’d just scored a really great looting opportunity, they head out to the Israelite camp, only to find it full of very much alive Israelites. The Israelites attack, and thoroughly smash the Moabites. They start taking cities, and there’s a bit in there about throwing stones. It’s all very victorious-y.

It’s also all very short-lived.

Realizing that he’s beaten, King Mesha pulls his Hail Mary move – sacrificing his eldest son, his heir, on a city wall. Chemosh isn’t named here, but Mesha is a Moabite, so it seems fair to assume that the sacrifice was made to that God rather than the Hebrew one. The sacrifice is effective and causes a “great wrath” (2 Kings 3:27) on the Israelite army, forcing them into retreat.

This appears very much to be a conflict between gods, with God having promised the Israelites a victory and Chemosh having denied it. Of course, my New Bible Commentary calls this “a highly unlikely suggestion” (p.351), but they would, wouldn’t they? The explanation they give is that it might have been disgust at the act – which, done on the wall, would have been fully visible by the attacking Israelites – that drove the Israelites away. A few commentators connect the verse with the one before it, in which we see Mesha meeting Edom on the battlefield, to conclude that it was the king of Edom’s son who was murdered on the wall rather than Mesha’s. If seen this way, Israelites retreat would have been a morale issue.

Either way, it seems undeniable that Israel lost its attack and Moab was freed from its vassalage, and both sides’ records tell us that same story. What’s really interesting here is that Israel’s victory was promised by God yet not granted, and that this wasn’t somehow turned into some sermon on the sins of Israel.