Chemosh

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Ancient Near Eastern deities
Levantine deities

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Egyptian deities
Amun | Ra | Apis | Bakha | Osiris | Ptah

Chemosh (from Hebrew כמש, pronounced /χeˈmoʃ/), was the primary god of the Moabites (Num. 21:29; Jer. 48:7, 13, 46). Like the Hebrew deity Yahweh, he blessed his people with military victory when they pleased him, and allowed them to be conquered by their enemies when they did not. The Moabite King Mesha dedicated a high place to Chemosh which contained a well-preserved inscription on the so-called Moabite Stone, describing Chemosh's involvement in Mesha's battles against the descendants of the Israelite kings Omri and Ahab.

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The specific characteristics of Chemosh are not clear in many respects. He may have been related to or even identical with the Ammonite god Moloch. The Moabites, Ammonites, and Israelites were reportedly kinsmen, and the Israelites sometimes worshiped Chemosh, as well as their own national god, Yahweh. King Solomon dedicated an altar to Chemosh outside of Jerusalem in honor of his Moabite wife. Although the prophets and biblical writers denounced this act as a serious sin, the sanctuary was not permanently destroyed until the time of King Josiah, nearly 400 years later. At times, human sacrifice was dedicated to Chemosh, as it was to Molech and occasionally to Yahweh as well.

Moabite source

The Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone

Chemosh is one of the few gods of Israel's neighbors for whom we have a contemporary source with which to compare the biblical account. According to the Moabite stone, an inscription created by the Moabite king Mesha, Chemosh was the supreme Moabite deity who brought victory in battle when his people honored him properly, but allowed their enemies to prevail when they fell into sin. Also known as the "Mesha Stele," this remarkable monument was erected about 850 B.C.E. as a record of Mesha's victories in his revolt against the Kingdom of Israel after the death of his overlord, King Ahab. Mesha identifies himself as the son of Chemosh-melek (alternatively (Chemosh[ît] the king), who had ruled over Moab for 30 years. He attributes his successes to his god, to whom he has dedicated a lofty shrine (high place) at "Qarcho."

"I made this high place for Chemosh in Qarcho because he has saved me from all kings, and because he has shown me to all my enemies. Omri (the father of Ahab) was the king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son (Ahab) replaced him; and he said, 'I will also oppress Moab'... But I looked down on him and on his house. And Israel has been defeated; has been defeated forever... Chemosh restored (the land) in my days. And I built Baal Meon, and I built a water reservoir in it... The men of Gad lived in the land of Atarot from ancient times; and the king of Israel built Atarot for himself. And I fought against the city and captured it. And I killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for Chemosh and for Moab... And Chemosh said to me, "Go, take Nebo from Israel." And I went in the night and fought against it from the daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed it all: 7,000 men and (male) aliens, and women and (female) aliens, and servant girls—since for Ashtar Chemosh I banned it. And from there I took the vessels of Yahweh, and I brought them before Chemosh."

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Chemosh was the supreme Moabite deity who was believed to bring victory to his people when they honored him properly, but allowed their enemies to prevail when they fell into sin

From this we can deduce a number of probable facts about Chemosh. First, he was Moab's national god. Like the Israelite god Yahweh, he had punished his people by allowing neighboring tribes or nations to subjugate them. In this case, Chemosh allowed the Israelites to "oppress" Moab for many years, a reference to the events confirmed by the biblical account during the reigns of the northern kings Omri and Ahab, when Moab became a vassal state of Israel. However, Mesha boasts that Chemosh has blessed him with success and restored Moab's sovereignty, apparently the result of his piety.

Holy war: "David defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live." (2 Samuel 8:2)

We also learn that Chemosh communicated with the king, probably through a form of divination similar to the many biblical references to Israelite kings "inquiring of the Lord." Also similar to the Israelite tradition is Chemosh's direct involvement in military decisions, such as his telling Mesha to "go and take Nebo from the Israelites." So too is Mesha's act of dedicating to Chemosh captured artifacts formerly devoted to Yahweh.

Mesha says that he captured Nebo, a town located on the very mountain where Moses traditionally saw the promised land before dying. Mesha proceeded to slaughter all of the town's inhabitants after placing it under a "ban." Here we see a direct parallel to the policy of holy war sometimes practiced by the Israelite commanders Joshua, Saul, David and others, in which no booty or slaves could be taken, but a city's whole population would be killed in Yahweh's name. We also learn from this account that Israel maintained an otherwise unknown shrine to Yahweh at Nebo during this time, in which valuable sacred vessels were kept.

Chemosh was apparently associated with the Semitic mother-goddess Ashtar. "Ashtar" here is probably equivalent to "Astarte," the Canaanite fertility goddess. If so, Chemosh probably stood in the position of Asthar's husband, as did El to Asherah and Baal to Astarte. Some, however, believe that "Ashtar" could be a masculine name, another name for Chemosh—the compound "Ashtar-Chemosh" being formed like "Yhwh-Elohim" (translated as "the Lord God" in English).

Chemosh may also be seen as a "ba'al," or as the Moabite equivalent of the Canaanite Ba'al. Some hold that the Moabite god "Baal-peor" of Num. 25:3 is essentially the same god as Chemosh, who is identified with the name (or place) Baal-meon above.

Biblical data

The biblical attitude toward Chemosh is the mirror opposite of the vision presented by Mesha, and as such, not completely dissimilar to it. An ancient poem, twice quoted in the Old Testament (Num. 221:27-30; Jer. 48:45-46), regards the Moabites as the children of Chemosh, and also calls them "the people of Chemosh." Elsewhere, however, the Moabites are seen as closely related to the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot. Yahweh himself protects them and tells Moses:

"Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession." (Deuteronomy 2:9)

The etymology of "Chemosh" is unknown. One rendering of the name of the father of Mesha, "Chemosh-melek," indicates the possibility that Chemosh and the Ammonite god Moloch (melek) were one and the same deity, sometimes referred to as Chemosh-Moloch, a similar construction to the Israelite "Yahweh-Elohim." Indeed Judges 11:24 speaks of Chemosh as the god of the Ammonites.

Moabite territory neighbored that of Israel and Judah to the east, with disputed territories such as Nebo and Baal-meon shown here to the north.(Click to enlarge)

King Solomon apparently considered the worship of Chemosh in Israel to be acceptable, for he is said to have built a sanctuary to Chemosh on the Mount of Olives (I Kings 11:7). This act by Solomon was no doubt to some extent a political one, motivated by a desire to honor his Moabite wife.

On critical occasions, a human sacrifice was considered necessary to secure the favor of Chemosh. During the time of Ahab's son Joram, a king of Moab (perhaps Mesha) is described as sacrificing his son in order to gain the upper hand when he was in dire military straits. Even the biblical writers are forced to admit that the strategy succeeded:

"Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land." {2 Kings 3:27)

The Israelite judge Jephthah had offered Yahweh a similar sacrifice—his virgin daughter—to fulfill a sacred vow he had made to God prior to gaining victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11). Israelites engaged in human sacrifice as late as the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who says: "They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded it, nor did it enter my mind." (Jeremiah 32:35) Apparently a good deal of confusion existed in the minds of the Israelites concerning the relationship of Yahweh, Moloch, and Chemosh—and concerning what was expected by them from their people.

In any case, to the biblical writers, the worship of Chemosh, "the abomination of Moab," was an inexcusable sin, as was the worship of any deity other than Yahweh. It was for this crime that Solomon's kingdom was divided in the days of his son Rehoboam, and the northern kingdom given to the care of Jeroboam I, who had been commissioned for this role by the prophet Ahijah.

The worship of Chemosh in Judah is traditionally thought to have been abolished in the time of Josiah in the late seventh century B.C.E. (2 Kings 23:13). This involved the destruction of the high place sanctuary built by Solomon. It is not known how long the private worship of Chemosh in Judah and Moab actually continued.

The attitude of Yahweh himself toward the nation of Moab in its worship of Chemosh, as expressed by the prophet Isaiah, is not devoid of compassion:

"Dibon goes up to its temple, to its high places to weep;
Moab wails over Nebo and Medeba. Every head is shaved and every beard cut off.
In the streets they wear sackcloth.
On the roofs and in the public squares they all wail, prostrate with weeping...
My heart laments for Moab like a harp. My inmost being for Kir Hareseth.
When Moab appears at her high place, she only wears herself out;
When she goes to her shrine to pray, it is to no avail." (Isaiah 15)

Critical views

The career of Chemosh may be best understood in light of the movement of Israelite religion from its origins in polytheistic Canaan, developing next through a period of exclusive worship of Yahweh as Israel's national god, and finally to the later tradition of Jewish monotheism. Before the advent of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites, or proto-Israelites, may have seen Yahweh-Elohim as the supreme deity, but not as the only god worthy of worship. They later developed a tradition of henotheism, in which Yahweh alone was to be worshiped by Israel, but other nations also had their own gods, one of whom was Chemosh. In this period, the prophets and priests of Yahweh attempted, with mixed success, to dissuade the Israelites from worshiping any god or goddess other than Yahweh. Later still, the tradition of monotheism emerged, in which other gods were regarded either as non-existent "false" deities, or as demons masquerading as God.

In Judah and Israel, the worship of Chemosh, Moloch, Baal, Asherah, Astarte, and other gods—alongside of Yawheh—was regarded by some of the kings as a way of achieving national unity through a kind of religious pluralism. Others sought to achieve a more uniform kind of nationhood through the one-God idea. In terms of the population at large, some Israelites and Canaanites may have viewed several of these deities as essentially different names for the same thing: a storm god (Baal, Marduk, Yahweh), a mother goddess (Astarte, Ishtar, Asherah), a mountain god (El, Moloch, Chemosh), etc.

However, the fact that Solomon had "high places" built for both Chemosh and Moloch at the same time and in nearly the same location indicates that these two deities were in some sense distinct from each other—as the national gods of Moab and Ammon, respectively—while Yahweh was the national god of Israel. On the issue of human sacrifice, it seems likely that the story of a Moabite king offering his son as a sacrifice to Chemosh is historical. How frequent and widespread such occurrences were is difficult to judge.

References

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

  • Bienkowski, Piotr (ed.). Early Edom and Moab: The Beginning of the Iron Age in Southern Jordan. Continuum, 1992. ISBN 978-0906090459
  • Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. Israel and the Nations: The History of Israel from the Exodus to the Fall of the Second Temple. InterVarsity Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0830815104
  • Dearman, Andrew (ed.). Studies in the Mesha inscription and Moab. Scholars Press, 1989. ISBN 978-1555403560
  • MacDonald, Burton. Ammon, Moab, and Edom: Early States/Nations of Jordan in the Biblical Period (End of the 2nd and During the 1st Millennium B.C.E.). Amman: Al Kutba, 1994. ASIN B0006F510I

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