About the religion of the Moabites, frustratingly little is known. Even given the recent discovery of the temple at Khirbat al-Mudayna, described in the accompanying article, most archaeological evidence so far only sheds indirect light on what the Moabites believed and how they worshiped. The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites’ neighbors east of the Dead Sea worshiped the “loathsome,” “abominable,” “filthy” (depending on the translation) god Kemosh (1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:13). The identity of the Moabites’ principal deity is confirmed by the famous Mesha Stele. Unearthed in 1868 in Dhiban, this slab of black basalt bears a royal inscription commemorating a series of victories against the Israelites by Moab’s King Mesha, who repeatedly attributes those victories to Kemosh.

Although our sources are patchy, it is nevertheless possible to sketch some of the broad outlines of Moabite religion, and to offer educated guesses about Moab’s god. Despite the aspersions heaped upon Kemosh in the Hebrew Bible, the Moabites’ rituals and beliefs seem not to have differed much from that of the Israelites; and Kemosh appears to have had a good deal in common with Yahweh.

The worship of Kemosh dates to well before the Moabite period. He is mentioned (as Kamish) on a list of deities unearthed in third-millennium B.C.E. Ebla, in the north of Syria. Kamish may have been one of that city’s principal gods: There was a temple to Kamish there, at which offerings were given; Kamish was also incorporated into personal names, was used as the name of a month and as a component in place names like Carchemish (kar-kamisû).

Some scholars have suggested that an Iron Age stone relief unearthed in Jordan near modern Kerak (the Biblical Kir-haraseth) and known as the Shihan Stele might give us a glimpse of Kemosh. It depicts a warrior with a javelin, wearing an Egyptian-style kilt. It could represent a warrior-hero or a king or a warlike god such as Kemosh. A similar figure, however, has been found at Qadbun in Syria—an area where the culture was different and Kemosh was unknown. Thus the identity of the figure in the Shihan Stele must remain in doubt. The same is true of the divinities depicted on another stone also found near Kerak, the Balu‘a Stele, dated to the 12th–11th centuries B.C.E. This stone shows three figures—probably a king standing before a god attired like the figure in the Shihan stele, and flanked on the other side by a goddess.

Did Kemosh have a consort? Although the Bible describes the Moabites as the “people of Kemosh” (Numbers 21; Jeremiah 48) most scholars think that the Moabites were not monotheistic. Moabites at least acknowledged the existence of other gods (henotheism), and it may be that during some periods they were polytheistic like the Canaanites. A passage in the Mesha inscription has been thought to imply that Kemosh had a female counterpart; the passage refers to Mesha’s divinely-mandated destruction of Nebo:

And Kemosh said to me: ‘Go! Take Nebo against Israel.’ And I went by night and fought against it from break of dawn till noon. And I took it and slew all: 7,000 men, boys, women, girls, and pregnant women, because I had devoted it to Ashtar-Kemosh. And I took thence the altar-hearths of YHWH, and I dragged them before Kemosh.

This, we should note, is the oldest known reference to the Israelite god Yahweh (YHWH) in any text. But who is Ashtar-Kemosh? Compound names could be used to denote divine couples. (A controversial inscription from the Sinai even links Yahweh with a consort, “Asherah.”h) If Ashtar is Kemosh’s divine consort, then she could be related either to the Mesopotamian goddess of war and fertility, Ishtar, or to the West Semitic fertility goddess Astarte. The Moabites may have represented this female deity with the numerous clay figurines that have been found at cult sites like the one described in the accompanying article, a couple miles from Khirbat al-Mudayna. Other scholars think it is more likely, however, that Ashtar may refer to the god Athtar or Attar (best known at the time among Arabs and Aramaeans), in which case the compound name could simply signify that these two deities—Ashtar and Kemosh—were seen as one and the same.

King Solomon of Israel respected the deities of foreign peoples and even erected a high place to Kemosh, but the Moabites and Israelites often saw their respective gods as rivals. Yet there were many strong parallels between the religions of Moab and Israel: High places were erected to Kemosh, as to Yahweh, and like Yahweh, sacrifices were made to him. As we now know from Khirbat al-Mudayna, sweet-smelling substances were burned in Moabite temples—again, a feature common to Israelite worship. More importantly, the Mesha Stele and Biblical sources both acknowledge that Kemosh was actively involved, like Yahweh, in the affairs of his people—particularly when it came to matters of territory and warfare. The Mesha Stele is clear evidence that the Moabites attributed their military successes to Kemosh in much the same way that the Israelites attributed theirs to Yahweh; again and again, Kemosh sends Mesha on the march in the same style as Yahweh commanded Joshua or Gideon. The inscription also shows that, like Yahweh, Kemosh seems to have ranged from gladness to displeasure in his feelings for his people at various times; the Israelite oppression that Moab had previously endured was due, Mesha explains, to the fact that “Kemosh was angry with his land.”

A vivid and unusual window onto Moabite religious belief comes from 2 Kings 3:27, which tells of King Mesha’s sacrifice to his god (presumably Kemosh) of his firstborn son, for the purpose of breaking an Israelite siege. The Israelites withdrew, although the account doesn’t make their reasons entirely clear: Did they fear a terrible divine intervention by the Moabite god because of this awesome sacrifice in his name?

In the end, only Kemosh knows for sure.

For more about Kemosh and Moabite religion, see Gerald L. Mattingly, “Moabite Religion and the Mesha Inscription,” in Andrew Dearman, ed., Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989); and P.M. Michèle Daviau, “New Light on Iron Age Religious Iconography: The Evidence from Moab,” in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan VII (Amman: Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 1999], pp. 317–326.