Richard Hess’s Response to Thom Stark

Note from Paul Copan:

This is an e-mail (dated 7 May 2011) to me from Richard Hess (Denver Seminary) in response to Thom Stark’s criticisms of Hess in Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker).

The entire letter is by Richard Hess, but it is divided into Stark’s charges/arguments (which I have italicized) with Hess’s full responses (which I begin with the capitalized “HESS:”)

Dear Paul:

Thanks for sharing this with me and for inviting me to respond.  I have chosen to address here most of the places where Stark actually cites me and criticizes me, and to address the problems with his points.  Surprisingly, the total wordage came to about 4500.  It was difficult to stop!  But I hope it is of help.

Best wishes,
Rick Hess

– – – – – –


In his first criticism of me, Mr. Stark quotes my reference to herem in the Mesha stele on p. 25 of my “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview.” He goes on to critique me as follows:
“This is Hess’s critique of Niditch. A two-sentence dismissal of a book-length argument!”  

HESS: Mr. Stark’s claim is false.  I devote pp. 25-27 of my article to summarizing the approach of Niditch and spend most of it approving of her work. Indeed, I largely use her categories as a useful means to understand the subject of warfare.  I never dismiss them.

“The problem is, contrary to Hess’s claim here, there is ample evidence in the early texts for human sacrifice to Yahweh, and good evidence that Israelites in the pre- monarchical period believed that a human sacrifice could be offered to Yahweh in exchange for victory in battle. Niditch spends numerous pages pouring [sic] over the evidence and discussing it in detail; Hess’s response is just to deny that any such evidence exists, with no argument offered. But we’ll just cite two examples.” 

HESS: This is false.  The denial of human sacrifice as “an approved form of Yahweh worship” is my concern throughout this discussion and that phrase appears at the end of the same paragraph on the same page where Stark cites my Mesha of Moab discussion.  Stark’s decision to ignore this point distorts my statements and my understanding of the absence of human sacrifice as “approved.”

The examples Stark cites to prove that human sacrifice was given to Yahweh and approved by early Israel come from Judges 11 and Numbers 21.  Judges 11 is irrelevant because (1) there is no reference to herem anywhere in the chapter; and (2) there is no evidence that this practice of Jephthah’s was “an approved form of Yahweh worship” in the sense that the biblical text endorses it.  Numbers 21 is irrelevant because it does not deal with human sacrifice.  Line 17 of the Mesha inscription does indeed discuss the herem.  However, it simply uses the causative verbal form of this root with the Moabite god as the direction toward which the herem was made.  This follows king Mesha’s slaughter of 7,000 inhabitants of the city.  However, in the context of war it is nowhere clear that this has to do with human sacrifice. It has to do with defeat of the enemy.  We do not know what the religious beliefs of the Moabite king were in respect to the practice of the herem; only that he practiced some form of it.  Beyond that, there is insufficient evidence on the basis of this one citation.  To attempt an identity of the use of this term in the 9th century Moabite stele with that of the herem in Israel’s wars, in a different culture and at times centuries removed from the Moabite text, is incorrect method.

Again, contrary to the impression Stark leaves his readers with, I cite Niditch approvingly in the text immediately preceding Stark’s quote about the Mesha stele.  I note that she says that the “dominant voice in the Hebrew Bible treats the ban not as sacrifice in exchange for victory but as just and deserved punishment for idolaters, sinners.” I do not disagree with this.  My only disagreement would be whether that “dominant” understanding goes back in time to early Israel of the Monarchy and pre-Monarchy or whether it occurs for the first time only late in the Monarchy (or even later).  I fail to see evidence that this “religious practice” (of condemning human sacrifice) cannot have occurred early in Israel’s history. 

To repeat the point, the examples that Stark cites above and the one I cite (Genesis 22) do not demonstrate Yahweh’s approval of human sacrifice as part of the herem or in any other context.  In Numbers 21, Yahweh certainly approves of the destruction of the king of Arad and his people who first attacked Israel, in an unprovoked manner, and who took Israelites as captive slaves. It does not suggest that these people were human sacrifices, e.g.,as one might make animal sacrifices to Yahweh or any other deity.  If Stark wishes to deconstruct the biblical text and find some sort of evidence for human sacrifice behind the statements as they now stand, that is up to him. But such a procedure will always remain speculation, not proof.

On pp. 175-6 Stark refers to the issue of the translation of Deut 32:8 which he argues should be translated “the sons of the gods.”  He makes several assertions that characterize his argument:

 “In the earliest extant version of Deut 32:8-9 (DSS 4QDeutq), Yahweh is said to be one of several of El Elyon’s sons who received an inheritance from their father.”

HESS: This is both an error of fact and a fallacious interpretation.  The error of fact is that the Dead Sea Scroll fragment that is clear on this reading is 4QDeutj, not 4QDeutq.  4QDeutq clearly has “Sons of ‘El/el’.”  Whether El is understood as the head of a pantheon and a god other than Yahweh, or as el, a title for Yahweh; the phrase cannot be translated “the sons of the gods” in 4QDeutq.  However, 4QDeutj does indeed have the reading, “bene ‘elohim.”

In 4QDeutq the text is broken after ‘el/El’ and may have read the longer ‘elohim form; however, this is not certain and cannot be cited as proof. The manuscript evidence is collected by Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, p. 269, where he translates the scroll fragment as, “the sons of God.”  To translate the phrase (in 4QDeutj, not 4QDeutq) as “the sons of the gods” imposes on it an interpretation that is contrary to the larger context of the chapter, the book of Deuteronomy, and certainly the Bible as a whole. 

 “Now it won’t read that way in your NIV, because the NIV uses the Masoretic Text here, which is over a thousand years later than the Deuteronomy scroll from Qumran.”

HESS:  This is an error of fact.  The present edition of the NIV indeed translates v. 8 as “the sons of Israel,” but has a footnote that witnesses to the Dead Sea Scroll and Septuagint as rendering the text “sons of God,” exactly as Tov does above.

 “To date, Richard Hess’s attempts to argue against this reading (both in his book on Israelite religions and in his piece on Bill Craig¹s website) have only displayed that Hess is totally oblivious to the DSS reading of this text.”

HESS: This is not a statement of fact but a personal evaluation.

 “In his book he says that scholars base this reading on the LXX, which is false, and in his piece on Craig’s website, he goes so far as to claim that ‘the Hebrew’ doesn¹t say that. Of course, what he means is that the Masoretic Text doesn’t say that, and what this shows is that (at the time he wrote that piece at least) he hasn’t been introduced to 4QDeut.”

This is an error of interpretation.  In my Israelite Religions book on p. 103 I do indeed refer to Smith and Day as using Psalm 82 and the LXX of Deut 32 to make their argument. It is true that they cite other evidence in their works, including the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  What Stark neglects to point out is that I do not disagree with Smith and Day on this interpretation.  That is because it is part of a larger scheme in their books, comparing the Ugaritic pantheon with the putative (pre-?)Israelite pantheon, that I am rehearsing in my discussion of West Semitic religion as reflected in the Ugaritic texts.  On Bill Craig’s website I introduced my discussion of Deut 32:8-9 by reference to “the Hebrew as we have it.”  This would not suggest any Hebrew text, much less the Hebrew text of one Dead Sea Scroll fragment.  Rather, it refers to the Masoretic Text.  As I cite the works of Smith and Day scrupulously and as they forthrightly cite all the evidence, including that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I leave it to the reader to determine whether I was somehow “totally oblivious” to this fact in the midst of all the other data I cite.  Now in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, it is common to refer to fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that agree with the LXX tradition as just that, agreeing with the LXX tradition.  I have yet to see it stated that the LXX agrees with the Dead Sea Scroll tradition of 4QDeutj.  Thus citing the LXX tradition in contrast to the traditional Hebrew text does not demonstrate that one is “totally oblivious” to the Dead Sea Scrolls.  And in this case, given the scholars I cite, it was impossible for me to have been oblivious.

On p. 204 we read: “Now, conservatives like Richard Hess want to argue that, though there is no evidence for an occupation of Jericho in the appropriate period, it’s possible that the lack of evidence can be explained by erosion. But this is not an acceptable argument. After all, very strong evidence of occupation from the sixteenth century remains, having survived over 200 years of erosion between the sixteenth and fourteenth centuries, as even conservative Evangelical scholar Kenneth Kitchen acknowledges.”

HESS:  This is false both factually and in terms of interpretation.  In my article, “The Jericho and
Ai of the Book of Joshua,” I do cite erosion as a possible scenario.  It is clear that pottery from the late 10th century and afterwards, attests to occupation at the site despite the absence of layers of occupation (only tombs are found).  In fact, one can walk onto Tell es-Sultan and go to the
highest points on the tell.  That layer, which is the latest layer, is 18th century B.C. (Middle Bronze IIB), not 16th and certainly not 10th century or later.  By Mr. Stark’s criteria no one lived at Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) in the first millennium.  They just left a lot of pottery and some tombs!  What Mr. Stark ignores is my point in the paragraph that he cites that 15th century Egyptian scribes claim that Thutmose III conquered and destroyed Megiddo, something that I am unaware of any modern Egyptologist disputing. Yet at Megiddo in Palestine we have yet to find a destruction layer from this event.  Why?  I don’t know but I am no more going to dismiss the Egyptian scribes than I will the biblical scribes.  Mr. Coogan, whom Stark quotes, is a biblical scholar and his assessment of Jericho may be correct. But Mr. A. Mazar, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jersualem, whom I quote, does not agree with him.

On p. 247 we read:  “The word herem isn’t even used in Numbers 31! It’s never used in connection to the Midianites anywhere. Hess should know this; he reads Hebrew. Numbers 31 isn’t depicting herem warfare. Why he thinks he can cite this as an example that noncombatants weren’t killed in herem warfare is beyond me.”
HESS: This is false.  I never say that the herem is applied in Numbers 31.  In fact, my point is that the herem is not applied here.  If it were, everyone should have been killed.  I cite without criticism Niditch’s view that texts such as Numbers 31 describe a “separate type” of warfare.

On this same page we read that I have made a “ludicrous claim” by the statement, “(also see Judges 21)” set at the end of the sentence where I refer to Numbers 31.  A sizeable interpretation of my words is then foisted upon the reader.  I apparently refer to Judges 21 because it “uses the word herem” and because it “didn’t involve the killing of noncombatants.”  Anyone reading my essay should be able to discern that this paragraph is not all about herem. It is about how, as Niditch observes and I quote at the beginning of the paragraph, a group that fears loss of identity attempts to define itself by eliminating foreigners, both outside and inside the group. Herem is an important example of this, but not the only example in the Bible.  My reference to Judges 21 is not to endorse what went on there as a herem on the order of Deuteronomy 20, just because the killers use that term.  There is nothing about Judges 21 that is endorsed by divine words or by the narrator.  It is simply another example where some are allowed to live and some are exterminated.

On p. 251 we read:  “Copan and Hess are able to offer no evidentiary support for this claim that ‘men and women’ meant ‘all.’”

HESS: This is false.  In my “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” I note that “man and woman” in the Hebrew is literally “from man (and) unto woman,” and I survey the remaining 8 occurrences of the term in the Bible (in addition to those of Jericho and Ai).  In every case, except Saul’s extermination of the inhabitants of Nob (1 Sam 2:19), it occurs alongside the Hebrew kol “all,” and refers to all those involved. When I state that this is stereotypical, I do not mean that it cannot refer to noncombatants, as Stark claims.  I do mean that it need not refer to noncombatants.  It is merely a way of saying “everyone” without prejudicing the reader as to the nature of who is involved.  If Jericho and Ai were forts then this would involve only the occupants of the fort; i.e., soldiers. Were “women and children” “routinely killed” as Stark claims?  I make no claim that the horrible term “collateral damage” could not be applied here.  However, I do make the claim that the primary target in Jericho and Ai was military because they were military forts.

On p. 255 we read:  “But let’s examine the actual texts that Hess cites to prove that ‘men and women’ was a ‘synonym’ for ‘all, everybody.’ We’ll find that in no case does the phrase mean ‘whoever happens to be there.’ It refers to scenarios where both men and women are literally present.”  

HESS:  This is misleading.  In fact, in every case it means “whoever happens to be there.”  I would never deny that in the examples both men and women were regularly present, but why say “from man unto woman”?  Why use this expression when the common conjunctive phrase “men and women” was available and used more frequently than “from man unto woman”?  “Men and women” occurs some 13 times in the Hebrew Bible and is different from the phrase, “from man unto woman.”  For example, it first occurs in Gen 7:2 with reference to the animals going on the ark.  There it implies the necessity of both genders being present.  Again, in Exodus 35:29 and 36:6 the phrase emphasizes the importance of both genders in the fullness of their heartfelt contribution and in the prohibition of either gender bringing anything more.  In all the occurrences of “from man unto woman,” both genders may or may not be present.  That is not the emphasis. Instead, it is on everyone who happens to be there.

On p. 257 Stark argues that “Hess omits” Joshua 6:21. 

HESS: In fact, it is the first verse I mention at the bottom of p. 38 of my article. 

Then he states that “Hess’s list of seven occurrences of ‘men and women’ also leaves out another text,” i.e., 1 Samuel 27:9. 

HESS: In fact, this text does not use the “from man unto woman” phrase, but the “man and woman” phrase.  Thus he confuses these two separate phrases that actually carry different referents. Why does he throw everything together and betray no knowledge of the Hebrew text?  I don’t know and will not judge Mr. Stark.  Rather than dealing with the text, and carefully reading what the Hebrew actually says (not to mention what I actually write), he succeeds in distorting, taking out of context, presenting polemic, and regularly engaging in vitriol and all
manner of name calling.  This continues through the entire book and it remains for the reader to determine whether it adequately substitutes for evidence and reason. 

On p. 252 Mr. Stark attacks my view that the Hebrew word ‘elef, usually translated “thousand” cannot mean “squad” but only “clan” and then it is “extremely rare.” 

HESS: This is false.  In the standard Hebrew-English lexicon of Koehler and Baumgartner, 15 occurrences are listed, almost all in military contexts in Numbers, Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel.  Clines’ Dictionary of Classical Hebrew lists 15 as well, including two that occur in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  In both lexicons they describe some texts as equivalent to various smaller groups, including the word for “family” “mishpachah” in 1 Samuel 10:19-21 and Judges 21:14.  For the interested reader, note the important discussions by Colin Humphreys, “The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt,” Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998): 196-213; idem, “The Numbers in the Exodus from Egypt,” Vetus Testamentum 50 (2000): 323-328.

On p. 259 there is more name calling but no substantially new evidence. 

On p. 260, we learn that Hess points out a few exceptions to the normal meaning of ‘ir’ [‘city’].” 

HESS: Exactly how many does “a few” constitute?  How many examples need to exist before they become more than “a few”? How about several hundred villages and hamlets that appear between Joshua 13 and 21? Are all these sites major population centers?  They are all designated by ‘ir’ (Joshua 13:9, 10, 16, 17, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30, 31; etc. – the NIV often renders “ir” as “villages” or “towns”).  I would be interested in any biblical scholar or archaeologist who would wish to defend Stark’s position that there are only a “few exceptions to the normal meaning of ‘ir’” where it must refer to a major urban center such as we might understand the meaning of “city” today.  Anyone reading the literature will quickly realize that Stark betrays no idea of the usage of this term.  His distortion continues on p. 261 where he accuses me of not understanding the nature of Rabbah of the Ammonites.  Perhaps he thinks that it is the entire populated center that is mentioned in 2 Samuel 12:26.  If that is the case then what is being described in verses 27-31 where the rest of the “city” is conquered?  Furthermore, Rabbah is identified as the acropolis of the modern Amman, capital of Jordan.  This is where the Iron Age fortifications have been found.  I invite Mr. Spark to visit this center of Amman and estimate how many Ammonites he would place on that acropolis.  There is not room for the entire population unless it consisted of a few hundred rather than thousands or more.

On pp. 261-262 Mr. Stark wishes to identify Zion in 2 Samuel 5:6-8 as a civilian center.

In fact, all major commentators identify this as a distinctive fort; and here I include, Gordon, McCarter, and Hertzberg, none of the “conservative Evangelicals” that are Mr. Stark’s targets.  Hertzberg in particular states, “It certainly looks as though a distinction is made between the ‘stronghold of Zion’ and the rest of the city (‘Jebus’?); this is even clearer in the account in Chronicles.”  See p. 268 of his I & II Samuel commentary (Old Testament Library; Westminster Press, 1976).  The lexicon of Koehler and Baumgartner lists this with seven other biblical references (including 2 Samuel 5:7 and 9) as a “district within a city.”  Mr. Stark’s argument is not with me but with Hebrew commentators and lexicographers, none of whom could be identified as “conservative Evangelicals.” 

This is where the gold crown of Amman was found.  There was no special royalty or military center here; just the average citizenry. 

HESS: I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about such claims that gold crowns were deposited away from the royalty and military.  I wish Stark would pursue his argument with these other scholars as they will make a case not unlike the one I propose.  However, as with other cases (e.g., the citation of the archaeologist A. Mazar above), Mr. Stark prefers to focus his insults and derisions on me, whom he finds easier to designate as “pseudo-scholarship” (p. 262).  But the reader should be aware that in doing so he does not address the preponderance of scholarship that does exist.

So on p. 263 Mr. Stark chooses a humorous insult with his imaginative midrash on the note I make that no noncombatants are explicitly identified.

HESS: I do not mean, of course, merely that they are not named.   I mean also that there is no specific reference to any noncombatants unlike the armies that are again and again described through Joshua 6-12.  It is the armies that confront Israel in these pages of the Bible.  First, there is the southern coalition in Joshua 10 and then the northern coalition in Joshua 11.  Look for a moment at the opening verses of chapter 11. These armies gathered together for the sole purpose of genocide against Israel.  Here there is no question but that they intended to destroy every man, woman, and child of that nation.  There is no similar threat that Israel presents in Joshua to the noncombatants of the armies that gather against them.  Mr. Stark betrays his own misunderstanding of the genocide intended for Israel.

In Joshua 8:25, in the only reference made to both genders at Ai, the phrase, “from man unto woman” occurs, with the same sense as at Jericho. Why in Joshua 8:17 is Bethel referred to if Ai was an independent population center separated from Bethel?  It would seem that, as with the Iron Age forts surrounding Jerusalem (at modern French Hill and Giloh, for example) and surrounding Amman, so Bethel had its outpost at Et-Tell (Ai) overlooking the major road from the Jordan Valley to the city of Bethel.

On p. 267, Mr. Stark accuses me of “nothing but a sleight of hand trick, because Hess never established any precedent for the use of mlk as a vassal to other vassals in the hill country.” 

HESS: This is true insofar as Stark raises the burden of proof to finding evidence in the hill country of Canaan, i.e., I need to find the “king” of Jericho mentioned in the Amarna texts as a vassal to other vassals.  Of course, I do not make this claim, nor is it necessary to raise the bar to this point to establish what I want to establish.  Among my “irrelevant arguments,” he notes my point that an Amarna Canaanite gloss on a certain Piwuri is malik, identical to the Semitic precursor of the Hebrew melek, translated as “king” of Jericho.  This figure is not a leader of a city but someone responsible to the pharaoh for military leadership in Canaaan (on Piwuri see my Amarna Personal Names [Eisenbrauns, 1993], pp. 125-126 and all the references conveniently listed there).  He is a commissioner appointed by a “king” (in this case, pharaoh) over a geographical area in Canaan and responsible to that king for administration of the area.  This parallels the responsibility of the “king” of Jericho.  Mr. Stark can continue to sneer at this understanding as he does on pp. 268-269 but it does not explain why the Canaanite term malik is glossed to the Sumerogram MASHKIM in EA text 131 lines 21-24.  This logogram is rendered in Akkadian as rabitsu, not as malik.  Elsewhere, MASHKIM is always glossed (i.e., there appears side-by-side with it in the text, usually with the intention of explaining the word) with rabitsu in Akkadian.  The Akkadian dictionaries give no other example of MASHKIM glossed with malik. Malik is the Canaanite form here of the Akkadian rabitsu which is written logographically as MASHKIM.  See the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary volume 14 “R” pp. 20-23.  This is recognized by Daniel Sivan in his Grammatical Analysis and Glossary of the Northwest Semitic Vocables in Akkadian Texts of the 15th-13th C.B.C. from Canaan and Syria (Verlag Butzon & Bercker Kevelaer, 1984), p. 243.  He translates malik with the sense of king or governor at Amarna, Alalakh, and Ugarit; all West Semitic archives of the second millennium B.C.  The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is certainly correct regarding how the Akkadian equivalent of malik (or malku) should be rendered, but we are dealing here with a West Semitic gloss, not an Akkadian term (something the Chicago Akkadian Dictionary recognizes elsewhere but not here; my objection lies with its inconsistent application of comparative Semitics, not, as Mr. Stark supposes, my questioning of its basic definitions). 

The West Semitic use of malik as governor or ruler is attested in use throughout the Levant in the archives of the second millennium B.C.  In addition to the sources already cited, this is discussed at length by John Huehnergard, Ugaritic Vocabulary in Syllabic Transcription (Scholars Press, 1987), p. 147, where he uses the same example that I cite and that Mr. Stark belittles as somehow demonstrating that the word does not mean “to have authority.”  That is, Mr. Stark misconstrues his quotation of me on p. 269.  I do not contend that the text affirms that the mayor and overseer have authority in this case.  Rather, I contend that the verbal form of the root mlk (the same root for the noun malik), indicates authority and not merely advice. 

The concern of my paper was to argue that the melek of Jericho need not have been an independent sovereign but could be a local leader responsible to a greater “king.”  In the context of the paper, I was specifically examining textual evidence from Bronze Age West Semitic archives (Amarna especially but also Alalakh, Ugarit, Emar, etc.).  Within the Bible itself, however, a phrase such as “king of kings” demonstrates the same point (Ezra 7:12; Ezekiel 26:7; Daniel 2:37).  The term melek “king” was not restricted to independent sovereigns but could include governors or other leaders responsible to a greater “king.”

I could go on with this but I have neither the time nor the need.  His disagreements consistently occur as misinterpretations of what I have actually written and in many cases they are factually wrong.  It is sufficient to look at the examples here.

6 Responses to “Richard Hess’s Response to Thom Stark”

  1. In another bit of correspondence, Richard Hess responds to Thom Stark on Rash Vows (from Triablogue):

  2. Another follow-up comment by Richard Hess (replying to Thom Stark) on “Chemosh.”


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