And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too fierce for him, he took with him seven hundred men who drew swords, to break through to the king of Edom, but they could not. Then he took his eldest son who would have reigned in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering upon the wall; and there was great indignation against Israel. So they departed from him and returned to their own land. (2 Kings 3:26-27, NKJV)
When the king of Moab realized he was losing the battle, he and 700 swordsmen tried to break through and attack the king of Edom, but they failed. So he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up as a burnt sacrifice on the wall. There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland. (2 Kings 3:26-27, NET Bible)
The verses quoted above are a terse conclusion to a chapter which describes a war involving Israel, Moab, Edom, and Judah. The above verses have long been a subject of controversy because they may be misread to mean that Mesha, the Moabite king, killed his own firstborn son as a human sacrifice to his god (Chemosh), and that this pagan god responded with an outburst of wrath against Israel, forcing the Israelite army to flee. Indeed, the translation of קֶצֶף־גָּדוֹל as “an outburst of divine anger” by the NET Bible seems to accommodate this interpretation (the NKJV “great indignation” is better). Such an interpretation is entirely foreign to biblical theology, which always presents pagan gods as false gods, i.e., as fictions. But then what does 2 Kings 3:26-27 describe?
The background of this story is that Jehoram has just replaced his father Ahab (and brother Ahaziah) as king over Israel. During Ahab’s reign, Moab had paid tribute to Israel, since Ahab was divinely granted extraordinary military success, particularly against Aram (Syria). But when Ahab died, Moab rebelled. Jehoram understood that Israel’s army was too weak to attack Moab on its own, so he appealed to Judah for help. King Jehoshaphat of Judah, who had a very large army (2 Chr 17:10-19), agreed to go with him. Jehoshaphat is the kingpin in this war, although his forces seem to occupy a reserve role and basically stay out of frontline combat.
When Jehoshaphat brought his forces to go to battle against Moab, the king of Edom came with him, with an Edomite army (v. 9). The armies also passed through Edomite territory to attack (v. 8). Edom’s army had to go to war whenever Judah went to war because Edom was a vassal state of Judah in those days. This relationship probably went all the way back to David’s annihilation of Edom in 1 Chronicles 18:12-13. Second Kings 8:20 says Edom rebelled from under the hand of Judah in the days of Jehoshaphat’s son Joram, indicating that they were subject to Judah during Jehoshaphat’s reign. This also explains how Jehoshaphat could build a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber (1 Kgs 22:47-48), which is in the land of Edom (1 Kgs 9:26).
Before the battle began, the armies of Judah, Israel, and Edom encountered serious trouble when their water supplies ran out in the desert. At that point, Jehoshaphat called for Elisha, who prophesied that God would supply them with water, and that Yahweh would “deliver the Moabites into your hand. And ye shall smite every fortified city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all fountains of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones” (vv. 18b-19).
The next morning, the Moabites were tricked by a mirage into approaching the allied armies carelessly. The army of Israel counterattacked and “smote the Moabites” (v. 24). Israel then proceeded to fulfill Elisha’s prophecy by beating down Moab’s cities, marring every good piece of land, stopping up all the wells and springs, and felling every good tree. The last stronghold in the land was Kir-hareseth, which is where the king of Moab and his army gathered for their last stand. As the Israelite slingers began to break down the wall of the city, Mesha, the king of Moab, realized that he was in desperate straits.
The king of Edom plays a pivotal role in the events which follow. It is significant that in v. 26, when the king of Moab was in serious trouble, he tried to break through the Israelite army to reach the king of Edom—apparently not caring about the possibility of his avenue of retreat being cut off. He felt that if he could somehow break through to the king of Edom, he would be rescued, and the attack would be broken. It is noteworthy that Mesha specifically wanted to break through to the king of Edom, and not simply to the Edomites generally. Evidently the king of Moab had previously captured the king of Edom’s firstborn son, and was holding him as a hostage. Because the Edomites were forced to accompany Jehoshaphat, they would not have been enthusiastic about the war in the first place, and a threat to kill the crown prince of Edom would make the Edomite army turn against the Israelite army, thereby ending the attack.
After Mesha’s attempt to break through to the king of Edom was unsuccessful, he retreated back into the city and performed an extreme act of desperation. His whole land had just been completely destroyed, and the Israelite army was about to break into his sole remaining city and kill both him and his army. This desperate situation prompted Mesha’s despicable act in v. 27. Mesha took the the king of Edom’s oldest son onto the height of the wall and burned his body (alive?) in full view of the attacking armies—which is what is meant by “offered (lit., ‘presented’) him as a burnt-offering.” When the Edomites saw that Israel’s assault had resulted in the death of the heir to their throne, they became enraged with Israel to the point of launching an attack, forcing the Israelite army to withdraw immediately to avoid a major battle. After all, Edom had come along involuntarily, and now they felt that the war had occasioned this great horror against them. It was Israel that had requested this war, and it was Israel’s interests that were at stake in it—so Edom was furious with Israel. Since the Edomites and the Judeans were merely representing the interests of Israel, they also withdrew from the land of Moab when the Israelites withdrew. Thus, Moab’s rebellion against Israel was successful, and the Moabites regained their independence.
In defense of this interpretation, note the ambiguity of the pronouns in v. 27: “the king of Edom” is the last person mentioned before this verse, while “the king of Moab” is second-to-last. Thus, “his oldest son” could refer either to Mesha’s oldest son or to the king of Edom’s oldest son—but the latter is the closest antecedent, even though Mesha is the subject of the verbs in these verses. Thus, based on the grammar, it is not unlikely or implausible that the king of Edom’s son is referenced here. Note that the text does not say “his own firstborn son,” which is the phrasing that would normally be used to eliminate ambiguity, were the text referring to the king of Moab’s son. It is also noteworthy that Amos 2:1 says Moab “burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime,” which appears to be a reference to the events of v. 27—the crown prince was considered a co-regent.
Other interpretations of this episode are unsatisfactory. The usual interpretation is that the king of Moab sacrificed his son to his god Chemosh. There are then several different methods of explaining the verse. One is to say that Israel became very afraid when they saw the lengths to which the king of Moab would resort to win the battle. However, it would seem that Israel would be happy to see the king of Moab’s son be killed, and it would not weaken their military position in the least. However, if Mesha killed the king of Edom’s firstborn son, that would make a huge difference in the story.
Another explanation is that Israel became very afraid of the wrath of Chemosh when Mesha did this despicable deed. However, the text says that actual wrath came upon Israel, not just great fear.
Finally, some say that the wrath of Chemosh really did come upon Israel. Of course, there never was such a god as Chemosh, who was a mere figment of the Moabite imagination, but there were demonic forces behind the Moabite religion (1 Cor 10:19-20). Since the Israelites were idolatrous, some speculate that demonic wrath could very well have come upon them, and Yahweh would not necessarily save them from it. After all, Elisha’s prophecy had already been fulfilled, and the only thing that was left to accomplish was complete annihilation of the remaining Moabites, which Yahweh had not commanded. However, there is not a word in this chapter about the god Chemosh, nor does the text say that the king of Moab was offering his son to Chemosh. The main point in the text is that the king of Edom’s oldest son was killed horrifically in full view of the attackers. He may have been sacrificed to a pagan deity, or perhaps “offered him as a burnt-offering” is just a way of saying that Mesha bound him, cut him open, and burned him to death on a platform. The Moabite Stone makes no mention of the king of Moab sacrificing his son to appease Chemosh, as we would surely expect if that were what actually happened. It is also questionable whether God would actually allow demonic forces to turn the tide of a human battle so dramatically, as if to vindicate such a despicable deed; the Bible always presents God as the one who controls the outcome of battles (1 Sam 17:47; Prov 21:31).
Thus, the interpretation of 2 Kings 3:27 that is most consistent with the context and which best accounts for the actual words in the text is that the king of Moab killed and burned the king of Edom’s firstborn son, and that the Edomites responded with great wrath against Israel for the death of their hostage. Other interpretations do not follow the nearest antecedent of “his son” and do not adequately account for other information in the text, nor do they comport with biblical theology. The best translation of 2 Kings 3:27 is as follows: Then he took his oldest son who should have reigned in his place, and burned him as a sacrificial victim on the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.
 It may be asked why this passage (2 Kgs 3:9) places a king in Edom, when 1 Kings 22:47 and 2 Kings 8:20 say there was no king in Edom in those days. However, the text of 1 Kings 22:47 gives the answer: “a deputy was king.” There was a “king” in Edom, but since he was subservient to Judah, he was not a true sovereign.
 The Bible contains many potentially ambiguous pronouns, whose antecedents must be determined by context as well as grammar. See 2 Chronicles 3:1 (“where he appeared unto David his father”), Matthew 27:3 (“when he saw that he was condemned”), etc.
 The famous Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) evidently was written sometime after the death of Jehoram. It is a celebration of Mesha’s victories over Israel. The Mesha Stele portrays Omri and his unnamed son as oppressors of Moab for many years, prior to Mesha’s recovery of Moabite independence. It is significant for naming Yahweh as the God of Israel, and for noting how the Gadites had lived in Ataroth since ancient times (cf. Num 32:34). It gives the round number of 40 years as the length of time in which Omri’s dynasty oppressed Moab (the Bible gives 12 years for Omri’s reign, 22 years for Ahab’s, 2 years for Ahaziah’s, and 12 years for Jehoram’s, for a total of 48 years, minus the number of years after Moab broke free from Israel partway through Jehoram’s reign). Many other biblical places are mentioned in the inscription, which is written in a language very close to biblical Hebrew. This inscription is a testimony to the accuracy of the Bible’s historical record, and it is one of many extrabiblical texts that have prevented intelligent but anti-Christian critics from dismissing the Bible as a fairy tale.