Chemosh: God of War

Another war-god mentioned in the Bible has been a key player in the long drama unfolding over the last five thousand years. He embodies the destructive, uncontrolled martial aspects of Resheph/Nergal/Apollo and Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna. He’s not referenced in Scripture as often as Baal or Astarte, but his followers were a thorn in the side of Israel for a thousand years.

Inscription possibly depicting national god of Moab, Chemosh

This god’s cult existed in the region a thousand years before the Exodus, and he’s still active as part of the Fallen’s long game to destroy as much of God’s creation (and as many of His people) as they can before the end.

We refer to the national god of Moab, Chemosh.

You may find that surprising. While Moab and Israel fought a lot in Old Testament times, Moab was never an existential threat to Israel the way Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon were. Despite being called “the abomination of Moab,”[1] you get the sense that Chemosh was on the infernal JV team. He gets little play in the Bible, mentioned in only eight verses. That’s misleading.

The god of Moab was worshiped alongside Resheph and Dagan in Ebla, the ancient city in northern Syria we’ve mentioned before. There, Chemosh was spelled Kamish, and he was one of the most important deities in what was the most powerful kingdom in the Levant at the time. Texts from between 2400 BC and 2200 BC show that Kamish/Chemosh was one of six deities for which a month was named:

1)         Feast of Dagan — First month
2)         Feast of Ashtabi (War-god; Hurrian name for Attar) — Second month
3)         Feast of Hada (Adad/Baal, storm-god) — Third month
4)         Feast of Adamma (Goddess, consort of Resheph) — Ninth month
5)         Feast of Ishtar — Eleventh month
6)         Feast of Kamish (Chemosh) — Twelfth month[2]

This is an interesting pattern. The first month of the year was named for Dagan, called bēl pagrê (“lord of the corpse”), and the next two were named for warrior gods (the Syrian storm-god is usually depicted in a “smiting” pose). The next grouping of three months named for gods began with the feast month for Adamma, a Hurrian goddess whose name meant something like “soil” or “earth,” which makes sense for the consort of the gatekeeper of the underworld. Her feast month was followed by two more months named for warrior deities.

The pattern of feasts for the gods of Ebla was: Underworld god, warrior, warrior, underworld goddess, warrior, warrior. And remember, the city’s patron deity was Deber, the pestilence-god. We’ll say again: Ebla must have been a really fun place to live.

We also note that the Ebla texts record dealings with the ancient city of Carchemish, which means something like “port” or “market of Kamish,”[3] about sixty miles northeast of Aleppo on the modern border between Syria and Turkey. It’s mentioned several times in the Bible[4] and was the site of a key battle between Egypt and Babylon in 605 BC. More recently, it was the scene of intense fighting for the modern village of Jarabulus during the Syrian civil war in late August 2016.

Back to the point: The worship of Chemosh was around for centuries before Moab was founded by the oldest son of Abraham’s nephew, Lot.[5] The cult and rituals involved with Chemosh aren’t well known because there haven’t been many texts recovered from ancient Moab. Most of what we know comes from two sources—the Bible and the Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone.

Mesha was the king of Moab in the time of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, and Ahab’s son Joram, king of Israel, around 850 BC. His kingdom had been conquered by David, but the Moabites recovered their independence while the Israelite tribes were occupied with the rebellion of the northern tribes after the death of Solomon. Israel’s King Omri reconquered northern Moab, and it had been controlled by Israel for several decades by the time of Mesha’s rebellion.

Second Kings 3 and the Mesha Stele record different aspects of this fight, but both shed light on the character of Chemosh. The records agree that while the coalition of Israel, Judah, and Edom routed Mesha and his army, forcing them to take refuge in his capital city of Kir-hareseth, they failed to strip Moab of its independence. On his commemorative stone, Mesha described instructions he was given by his patron god.

And the men of Gad lived in the land of Ataroth from ancient times, and the king of Israel built Ataroth for himself, and I fought against the city, and I captured, and I killed all the people from the city as a sacrifice for Kemoš and for Moab.…

And Kemoš said to me: “Go, take Nebo from Israel!” And I went in the night, and I fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, and I took it, and I killed its whole population, seven thousand male citizens and aliens, female citizens and aliens, and servant girls; for I had put it to the ban of Aštar Kemoš. And from there, I took the vessels of YHWH, and I hauled them before the face of Kemoš.[6]

This account of the slaughter of Nebo, which was probably at or near the place where Moses got his only look at the Promised Land, is similar to the treatment given by Joshua and the Israelites to the Amorite cities declared khērem(“under the ban”), a phrase usually translated into English as “devoted to destruction” or “annihilated.” The sense of the word is hard for us in the modern West to grasp because we aren’t taught that things can be so sacred or set apart that we humans touch them or possess them on pain of death. For example, the first use of the word khērem in the Bible is in Exodus 22:

Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.

Exodus 22:20 (ESV)

Khērem is the root behind the name of Mount Hermon, the mountain where the Watchers of Genesis 6 began their rebellion and where the pagan Amorites believed their creator-god El held court with his consort and their seventy sons.

The Mesha Stele confirms that Chemosh and his followers understood the concept of khērem. And that’s not all. Before the slaughter of the Israelites of Nebo, this happened:

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

2 Kings 3:26–27 (ESV)

So, Chemosh accepted child sacrifice. Verse 27 can be a hard pill to swallow for Jews and Christians; why, after the prophet Elisha told the kings of Judah, Israel, and Edom that God would grant them victory over Moab, was there “great wrath against Israel”? Whose wrath was it—God’s or Chemosh’s?

There are a couple of possible explanations. First, we should make clear that this passage does not depict a victory by Chemosh over Yahweh. It’s probable that God’s anger was directed at the armies of Judah and Israel for losing faith in His ability to deliver on His promise.

Bad Moon Rising

The practice of child sacrifice was well known in the ancient Near East, even in times of battle. Classical historians record the horror of the mass sacrifice of at least two hundred children in 310 BC when the people of Carthage were surprised by an army from the city-state of Syracuse on Sicily.[7] Inscriptions from Egyptian temples commemorating military victories of the New Kingdom pharaohs (Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties, which covers the period from about a hundred years before the Exodus to about the time of the birth of Israel’s first king, Saul) confirm that rituals of child sacrifice like this were not uncommon in exactly the situation described in the Bible.

The pharaoh [Ramesses II, the Great] attacks the city of Ashkelon; in the city we can see four beseeching men, and three women kneeling below them. The hands of these men are directed toward the sky. The chief, with the brazier, can be clearly made out, and in front of him is depicted a man together with a young child. The hairlock of youth plus the diminutive size of the second figure removes any doubt concerning its age. The child is definitely being sacrificed as the battle rages on.  Moreover, the same act is being repeated to the left. On both occasions, it is clear that the two children are not being carried up to the citadel, but thrown down; and from the depiction of the limp arms and legs of the child at the right, we can conclude that one, at least, is definitely dead.[8]

It appears that the armies of Judah, Israel, and Edom, seeing King Mesha slaughter his firstborn son on the wall of his capital, assumed the war-god Chemosh was about unleash his fury and they simply lost heart. As a result, thousands of Israelites in Ataroth and Nebo later died, and Mesha, according to his account, expanded his kingdom northward by capturing territory that had belonged to the Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad for the better part of five hundred years.

The other point we need to emphasize from the Mesha Stele is the link between Chemosh and Ashtar, an alternate spelling of the male aspect of Astarte, Attar, the war-god. It appears that to Mesha and the Moabites, Attar and Chemosh were the same entity.

How can that be? Both Attar and Chemosh were worshiped in Ebla about fifteen hundred years earlier. Well, trying to pin down precise correlations between the gods and goddesses of the ancient world is a great way to drive yourself crazy. They change names and genders over the centuries—and besides, they lie. It’s possible that the names of these deities are, at least in some cases, more like job titles than proper names. For example, in the Hebrew Old Testament, Satan is actually “the satan.” And since hašāṭān means “the accuser” or “the adversary,” it’s what that spirit would put on the second line of its business card instead of the first. In fact, during the Second Temple period, Jews believed in multiple satans,[9] and even named some of them—Gadreel,[10] Mastema,[11] Belial, and Samael.[12]

In the same way, the etymology of some of the names of ancient deities seems to fit that pattern, like “plague,” “pestilence,” “thunderer,” and so on. It may explain why some that we’d assume to be evil characters, like Resheph and Deber (Plague and Pestilence), are found in the Bible serving God’s purposes, as in Habakkuk 3:3–5.

That begs the question: Did Chemosh take on the mantle of “the attar,” the war-god, sometime after Israel established itself in Canaan? About the same time, the violent, male side of Astarte, the war-god Attar/Ashtar, was deemphasized, if not entirely split from her character. By the time she became Aphrodite of the Greeks and Venus of the Romans, the warlike aspect of her personality was nearly gone, maybe set aside in favor of emphasizing her identity in the Western world as the Queen of Heaven.[13]

Attar, however, continued his career as an independent male war-god elsewhere. More about that in an upcoming article.

Chemosh began to fade from history after Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Levant in the early sixth century BC. The last known inscription attesting to the name Chemosh is dated to the fourth century BC.[14]

What happened to him? We get a clue from coins issued during the reign of Roman emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193–211) found at Moab’s capital city, featuring the emperor on one side and a war-god on the reverse. By that time, Moab’s ancient capital, Diban, had been renamed Areopolis in honor of the region’s patron god—who was then identified as the Greek war-god, Ares.[15]

Like Chemosh, Ares (Mars to the Romans) was not a pleasant god to have around. In his Greco-Roman form, he embodied the unrestrained, destructive aspect of war—sometimes necessary but never welcome. In other words, Ares/Mars was very much like the bloodthirsty Anat of the Canaanites and Ishtar/Inanna of Babylon and Sumer.

So, Chemosh did not disappear; he simply did what other deities of the ancient world have done for thousands of years—changed his identity. He’s been known to the world for the last two thousand years as the god of the red planet, Mars.

And a time was coming when the unrestrained violence of Chemosh/Ares/Mars would be put to very effective and deadly use by the rebels in their long war against Yahweh.

[1] 1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:13.

[2] Pettinato, op. cit., 257.

[3] Ibid., 292.

[4] Jeremiah 46:2; 2 Chronicles 35:20; Isaiah 10:9.

[5] Genesis 19:37.

[6] “The Stela of Mesha.” (, retrieved 12/27/18.

[7] Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, Book XX, Chapter 14. Lacus Curtius(*.html), retrieved 12/27/18.

[8] Anthony J. Spalinger, “A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978), 50.

[9] David Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Sages and Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cambridge; Jerusalem: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2009), 41.

[10] 1 Enoch 69:6.

[11] Book of Jubilees 10:8, 17:1516.

[12] “Jewish Concepts: Angels and Angelology.” Jewish Virtual Library(, retrieved 12/28/18.

[13] C. Houtman, “Queen of Heaven.” In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible (2nd extensively rev. ed.) (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 678.

[14] Collin Cornell, “What Happened to Kemosh?” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 128(2) (2016), 10.

[15] Ibid., 12.

1 Comment

  1. I need a line graph to follow the flow of names. Name known as name, known as name and here he is known as name, but referred to as name. I’m lost after the third sub-name. Great and interesting article is I just could figure out who you are writing about. Nonetheless, thank you for sharing this information.

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