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Moabite Religion


MOABITE RELIGION . In ancient times the land of Moab comprised the narrow strip of cultivable land on the Transjordanian Plateau east of the Dead Sea, between the escarpment and the Arabian Desert. This was an area about twenty-five kilometers wide and, during its periods of greatest strength, about ninety kilometers long, stretching the length of the Dead Sea. The main Moabite plateau extended from the Wādī al-esā (the biblical river Zered) at the south end of the Dead Sea to the Wādī el-Mūjib (the biblical river Arnon) at the midpoint. The northern portion of Moab from the Wādī el-Mūjib up to around Tell esbān (biblical Heshbon), however, was historically not as secure and seems to have been open to incursion, a fact that is illustrated by the Moabite Inscription (MI), the largest preserved Moabite text. Not many details are known about Moabite history, but Moab as an independent kingdom probably arose in the last centuries of the second millennium bce and disintegrated in the midfirst millennium bce (that is, c. 1300600 bce), falling first to the Assyrians and then to subsequent con-querors.

The Moabite religion seems to have shared several features with that of other Iron Age kingdoms in the region, such as Israel, Edom, and Ammon, and all of them probably inherited much from their Bronze Age "Canaanite" predecessors. However, while it used to be commonplace to claim that all four kingdoms had their own national god (Kemosh for Moab, Yahweh for Israel, Qaws for Edom, and Milkom for Ammon), it is perhaps better to be more cautious in view of the meager evidence outside the Bible. At any rate, the MI shows that King Mesha of the Moabites worshipped a patron deity (Kemosh), in whose name Mesha conducted warfare, made sacrifices, and consecrated sanctuaries and even the peoples he had defeated (compare the biblical erem, or "sacred ban"). The Moabite religion probably slowly disappeared as new religions such as that of the Nabateans entered the region at the end of the first millen-nium bce.


The most important of the scarce textual sources concerning Moab and the Moabites are the Mesha Inscription (Donner and Röllig, 19661969) and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Other relevant written evidence is preserved in a few other fragmentary Moabite inscriptions, several Moabite seals with inscribed personal names, and a handful of references to Moabite place or personal names in Assyrian and Egyptian texts. Archaeological remains have been uncovered as well; in addition to various regional surveys of the Transjordan, there are excavated sites such as Dhībān and Tell esbān to analyze.


Kemosh (or Chemosh) was presumably the chief deity of the Moabites, although they doubtless worshipped other gods as well. Kemosh is known from earlier times in Syria-Palestine, with the consonants kmš or km variously vocalized, having the phonological forms kam(m)i or kam(m)u . For instance, at Ebla in the third millennium the deity was known as Kamish (dGa-mi-iš or dGa-me-iš ), and he played a significant role; he received sacrifices, possessed a sanctuary, and even had a month named after him. The deity may even have been the chief god of the city of Carchemish/Kār-Kamiš in northern Syria, since the very name signifies "quay or port of Kamiš." In Akkadian texts from the second millennium onward, the divine name appears as Kam(m)ush (dKa-am-muš or dKa-mu-uš ). Alphabetic texts from fourteenth-century Ugarit preserve km in combination with another divine name (.w km ), and the resulting compound (perhaps pronounced iu-wa-Kamā u ), may or may not be related to the later Moabite deity. In Moabite texts (also written without vowels), the name is given as kmš and was possibly pronounced Kam(m)ash or Kam(m)ush (note the two Moabite royal names that appear in Akkadian as mKa-ma-aš-al-ta-a and mKam-mu-su-na-ad-bi ). Finally, in the Bible, the name is written once as Kĕmîš (Jer. 48:7) but otherwise as Kĕmôš, which has become the conventional way of pronouncing this deity's name ever since.

The meaning of the name Kemosh in its nonbiblical forms may be "conqueror, subduer," from variously an adjective (qail -pattern), a causative verbal adjective (qaul), or a nomen agentis (qaāl), from the same root as Akkadian kamāšu or kamāsu, which means "to bow or kneel." The Masoretic pronunciation Kemosh (Kĕmôš ) as it appears most often in the Bible is difficult to explain. The Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate versions of the Bible have instead Khamós/Chamos, hinting that the correct vocalization of the Hebrew Kemosh should have been kāmôš from an original kam(m)âš. One suggestion for the Masoretic twist in pronunciation is that it was given the same vowels as bĕʾôš, "stench." A similar treatment was given to other divine names in the Bible; for example, Baʿal, which is sometimes rendered as bōšet, "shame," or the pronunciation ʿAštōret (ʿAshtoreth, for the goddess Astarte), whose two final vowels also reflect those of bōšet.

Personal names containing the element Kemosh attest to the god's popularity. The father of Mesha was possibly kmšyt (Kamash-yat, "Kemosh has given [a son]"). In seals, one finds among others the names kmšyy (may Kemosh live), kmšmʾš (Kemosh is [my] gift), kmšʿm (Kemosh is kin), kmšʾl (Kemosh is god), kmšdq (Kemosh is righteous or Kemosh has done justly), kmšdn (Kemosh has judged), and kmšntn (Kemosh has given). In Assyrian texts recording tributes from Moab, one also finds royal names with kmš : Kamush-nadbi (mKam-mu-su-na-ad-bi, "Kemosh is my abundance"), Kamash-alta (mKa-ma-as-al-ta-a, "Kemosh is strength").

Characteristics of Kemosh

In the MI, Kemosh is portrayed as a god of war who delivers his people, the Moabites, up to their enemies when he is angry and then "delivers" them and "returns" their land. Scholars as far back as Eusebius (c. 260330 ce) have equated Kemosh with the Greek god of war, Ares, based especially on the fact that there was a town named Areopolis in the center of the Moabite region (although this may be a folk etymology). The so-called Shīān Warrior Stele, with its javelin-wielding figure, has also been interpreted as depicting a warrior deity, perhaps Kemosh.

Also in the MI, Kemosh accepts the consecration of the massacred populace under the name "ʿ Ashtar-Kemosh" (ʿštr.kmš, MI, line 17). The "ʿ Ashtar" element is most likely the name of a well-known West Semitic astral deity ʿ Ashtar/ʿ Athtar, combined with Kemosh in a compound name, as is not uncommon with West Semitic divine names (see above .w km at Ugarit). Another less likely option is that the name is that of Kemosh's consort, a goddessfor example, the goddess Ishtar or Astarte. However, in West Semitic the goddess's name should have a final -t, and the compound should thus have more likely been spelled ʿštrt.kmš. At any rate, the basis for the association of Kemosh with ʿAshtar is unknown, as the compound only appears in this single inscription.

In the Bible, the name Kemosh appears eight times (Nm. 21:29; Jgs. 11:24; 1 Kgs. 11:7, 33; 2 Kgs. 23:13; and Jer. 48:7, 13, 46), and Kemosh is said to be the god of the Moabites or, as in Judges 11:24, the god of the Ammonites.

Since Kemosh was worshipped throughout Syria-Palestine, one may also look to non-Moabite sources for relevant information. For instance, Kemosh may well have had a chthonic nature. In a Middle Assyrian copy of a Mesopotamian god list (Cuneiform texts from Babylonian tablets in the British Museum 24, 36:66), the Akkadian name dKa-am-muš is equated with Nergal (god of war, death, and the netherworld). In a Mesopotamian lexical list, Kamush (dKa-mu-uš or dKa-muš ) appears as one of several possible readings of the Sumerogram GUD, which sometimes stands for Akkadian eemmu, "ghost, spirit" (Ea IV 142 = Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon, vol. 14, p. 361). In three Ugaritic invocations of gods (KTU 1.100:36; 1.107:41'; and 1.123:5the last two are incantations against serpent bites), there is a deity with a double divine name that may refer to Kemosh: .w km (iu-wa-Kam ā u ). The element perhaps means "mud, clay" (compare Akkadian îu, Hebrew î ), a substance that in ancient Near Eastern texts is often said to be abundant in the netherworld. The location of the main cult place of .w km is said to be ryt(h) (see KTU 1.100:36), perhaps one of the two or three towns known by the name Hurriya in Syria and northern Mesopotamia.

Other Moabite Deities

On the basis of Moabite place and personal names, it is possible to perhaps identify other deities in addition to Kemosh that were known or worshipped by the Moabites. The several occurrences of Baʿal (bʿl ) as a theophoric element in personal names (e.g., bʿlntn, "Baʿal has given") and in place names (Baʿal-peʿor, Bamoth-baʿal, Baʿal-meʿon) might mean one of two things: either they indicate that the deity Baʿal was worshipped by Moabites or else the word baʿal was used to mean merely "lord" and could have referred to Kemosh himself. There are also combinations with ʾEl in Moabite personal names, as in mšp ʾl or Mishpaʾel, "El (or the god) is justice." However, in these cases as well one does not know if the Canaanite deity ʾEl is meant or simply the generic definition "god." The Moabite place name Nebo in the MI (nbh ) and the Bible may indicate that the Mesopotamian god Nabu was worshipped. The name Shalamanu (Sa-la-ma-nu ) for a Moabite king in a Tiglat-Pileser tribute list may attest to worship of the god Shalman, and other Moabite personal names in published seals may perhaps attest to the knowledge of further deities in Moab. The name of the god oron may appear in the place name awronen (wrnn ) in the Mesha Inscription (line 32, compare the biblical ōrōnayim, Jer. 48:34). oron was known as a deity of magic and exorcism in especially Ugaritic and Egyptian texts. Finally, the Bālūʿa stele bears iconographic witness to what is probably a god and goddess in front of a worshipper. The stele, which has Egyptianizing artistic elements, may or may not reflect Kemosh and a female consort.

Sanctuaries or Temples

According to the MI, King Mesha built a "high place" (bmt, compare the Hebrew bāmāh ) for Kemosh at Qaroh (perhaps a name for the acropolis or royal quarter of the city of Dibon, modern Dhībân). In another inscription also found at Dhībân, a sanctuary is mentioned that may have been devoted to Kemosh too (only the k of the god's name is preserved). Excavations at Dhībân in 1955 suggested that the Iron Age II structure in Section L was the palace complex of Mesha, on the east side of which there may have been a sanctuary. In this vicinity a terra-cotta incense stand was found along with two female figurines. The fact that there was a Nabataean-Roman temple built much later on that site may indicate a continuous sacred tradition. There may also have been a sanctuary of Kemosh in Kir-hareseth (modern Kerak), and the Bible retains a tradition that Solomon made a high place to Kemosh at Jerusalem (1 Kgs. 11:78; 2 Kgs. 23:13).

Cultic Practices

Information about sacrifices and rituals is scarce. In the Bible, however, Moabites are said to make sacrifices (presumably to Baʿal) in Numbers 22:4023:30 and to make sacrifices and burn incense in Jeremiah 48:35. Numbers 25:15 mentions sacrifices again as well as orgiastic practices carried out by Israelites with Moabite women in honor of Baʿal of Peʿor. Most shockingly of all, in 2 Kings 3:427 the Moabite king Mesha is said to offer a human sacrifice. On this occasion, a campaign of King Jehoram of Israel (son of Ahaziah, son of Ahab) against Mesha ends with a siege at Kir-hareseth, the city in which Mesha had taken refuge. The Israelites are said to have withdrawn after Mesha sacrificed his oldest son on the city wall. Although one may doubt whether or not this story reflects merely a pejorative tradition about the practices of Israelite enemies, there are other clues that suggest at least the possibility that the Transjordanian peoples were acquainted with human or child sacrifice. One notes that the Deir ʿAllā inscriptions from the mid-eighth century bce, which relate to a certain prophet Balaam (compare the biblical non-Israelite prophet of the same name in Nm. 2224), have several key words that might indicate child sacrifice was practiced in the region (e.g., nqr "sprout" or "scion" for a human sacrificial victim, mlk as the word for a kind of offering). In fact, child sacrifice constitutes a highly debated topic in modern scholarship concerning the Phoenician and Punic world.

Priests and Prophets

Jeremiah 48:7 refers to priests of Kemosh, but evidence for other cultic practitioners is unknown. It has been suggested that line 32 in the MI, "Kemosh said to me, 'Go down, fight against awronen,'" indicates divination of some sort, requiring a prophet or the like to obtain an oracle or vision from the deity. The hiring of Balaam by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites in Numbers 2224 perhaps also indicates that the Moabites used seers and diviners.

Sacred Warfare and Divine Intervention

In the MI, King Mesha says he dedicated to Kemosh the Israelite inhabitants of the cities ʿAaroth and Nebo. The idea of sacred battles and a consecrated massacre of peoples (including men, women, and children) is shared with the Hebrew Bible's theological accounts of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, in which Yahweh is said to demand such a destruction (with use of the root rm in, for example, Dt. 7:2, 20:1617; Jos. 6:1719, 21; 1 Sm. 15:3; compare line 17 of the MI). In fact, the MI can actually be seen as a religious document that has the same theological tone and envisions the same divine involvement in human affairs as the Hebrew Bible.


There is no textual evidence for Moabite beliefs in an afterlife. However, the Iron Age II rock-cut tombs at Dhībân from around the time of Mesha contain mortuary goods such as pottery, jewelry, and at least one anthropoid clay coffin, suggesting a Moabite concern for proper burial with an eye to needs in the afterlife. There has also been some speculation that since Kemosh was perhaps associated with the gods of the netherworld, Moabites might have believed in some form of continued existence after death.


An important modern body of studies on the MI and Moab is Andrew Dearman, ed., Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab (Atlanta, 1989); see especially Gerald L. Mattingly's "Moabite Religion," pp. 211238. Other studies include A. H. van Zyl, The Moabites (Leiden, Netherlands, 1960); Herbert Donner and Wolfgang Röllig, Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften, I-III, 2d ed., no. 181 (Wiesbaden, Germany, 19661969); H. P. Müller, "Chemosh," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2d ed., edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, pp. 186189 (Leiden, Netherlands, 1999); H. P. Müller, "Die Inschrift des Königs Mesa von Moab,"in Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testaments I/6, edited by O. Kaiser, pp. 646650 (Gütersloh, Germany, 1985); U. Worschech, "Der Gott Kemosch: Versuch einer Characterisierung," Ugarit Forschung 24 (1992): 393401; U. Worschech, "Pferd, Göttin, und Stier: Funde zur moabistischen Religion aus el-Bālūʿ (Jordanien)," Ugarit Forschung 24 (1992): 385391; Jo Ann Hackett, "Religious Traditions in Israelite Transjordan," in Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, ed. Patrick D. Miller et al., pp. 125136 (Philadelphia, 1987); W. Lambert, "Kammuš," Reallexikon der Assyriologie, vol. 5 (Berlin, 19761980), p. 335. For the Ugaritic texts (KTU), see now Manfried Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani, and Other Places (KTU) (Münster, Germany, 1995), 2d ed. of Die keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit (Neunkirchen, Austria, 1976).

Archaeological studies include Nelson Glueck, The Other Side of the Jordan, rev. ed. (Winona Lake, Ind., 1970); Rudolph Henry Dornemann, The Archaeology of the Transjordan in the Bronze and Iron Ages (Milwaukee, Wis., 1983); A. D. Tushingham, Excavations at Dhiban in Moab (Cambridge, Mass., 1972); and Piotr Bienkowski, ed., Early Edom and Moab: The Beginning of the Iron Age in Southern Jordan (Sheffield, U.K., 1992). For additional translation sources, see the Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum 24 (1896): 3666, and Benno Landsberger's Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon 14 (19371985): 361.

Tawny L. Holm (2005)

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