Thursday, February 07, 2008

Folly from God (I Kings 20-22)

I can’t think of very many figures in the Bible more fitting for a Shakespeare adaptation than King Ahab. The character of Macbeth may very well have been inspired by him. Here we have an evil, ambitious man, who becomes just conscious enough that he is in the wrong to have regrets, but isn’t able to truly repent. Ahab, thy name is tragic.

His downfall begins with a war against king Ben-hadad of Syria. The Syrian king, sensing weakness, bullies Ahab into a political corner. The desperate and terrified king is forced into open war. Ben-hadad is assured by his servants that Israel’s god is a hill deity, and will therefore be unable to defeat them in the open plain. The Lord decides that it is time for a little object lesson for the Syrians, to teach them just who they are dealing with.

The Israelites crush the Syrian army. After the battle, Ben-hadad comes crawling to Ahab begging for mercy. After agreeing to reparations and treaties favorable to Israel, Ahab lets Ben-hadad go free. Big mistake. A prophet quickly confronts Ahab for his fundamental misunderstanding of the source of his victory. The Lord didn’t defeat the Syrians so that Ahab could increase his political mojo; Ben-hadad was not his to show mercy to.
And he said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people.’” And the king of Israel went to his house vexed and sullen and came to Samaria.
Ahab then has his wife Jezebel condemn a man named Naboth to death on trumped up charges of cursing the Lord so that he can confiscate his property. In response to this deceptive murder for gain, Elijah prophesies that Ahab and his house will die off and be eaten by dogs. This, coming from the prophet who beat 400 others in the showdown on Mt. Carmel, makes quite an impression:
And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son's days I will bring the disaster upon his house.”
Ultimately the king of Israel is doomed by his own blind ambition. After three years of peace, Ahab conspires with Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, to take the city of Ramoth-Gilead from the Syrians in a surprise attack. Ahab has the prophets of the Lord inquire for him. They all return with promises of success – some even taking the time to bring iron horns into the throne room as a visual aid. When Jehoshaphat asks Ahab if all the prophets are accounted for, he responds that the one absent is the distasteful Micaiah, who never says anything good about him.

So Micaiah is summoned. He initially repeats the positive words of his contemporaries, but Ahab will have none of that:
How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?
Touché. “Truth” is indeed the theme here. Micaiah explains that he saw a vision of the heavenly council, with the Lord asking for suggestions as to the most appropriate way to entice greedy Ahab to go and get himself killed in battle against Syria. An enthusiastic spirit stands up and volunteers to be “a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” The Lord agrees that this is just the sort of thing Ahab would fall for, and grants his permission. Micaiah then summarizes Ahab’s situation:
Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.
Ahab’s response is classic:
And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?”
Nope – there’s no getting one past clever Ahab. He sees right through the old lying spirit trick. With this knowledge, he then rides off into battle disguised as a common general, and is promptly shot dead by a stray arrow. To top off this cup of poetic justice, his servants end up washing the royal chariot at the exact same spot where poor Naboth was executed, and a pack of dogs lap up the king's blood.

I have a lot of trouble with this story. It just doesn’t sit with me that the source of all truth is said to be employing the father of lies in his service. But it is reminiscent of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and of Paul’s letter to the Thesselonians:
Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Ahab had a chance to honor the truth, but has chosen to consistently pursue his own political ambition rather than the heart of God. Hence he is given over to deception, and becomes a willing accomplice in his own destruction.


What's most interesting to me in the episode with the lying spirit is that Ahab isn't deceived. God apparently doesn't turn the spirit loose in order to trick Ahab, but to reveal that he has enough discernment to have made a better choice, and been a better king. Instead he wants to know the truth so he can use it to his own advantage, and leaves his people like sheep without a shepherd. It's more about a right use of the truth than whether or not he sees it. (He reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar, who also seems to want and recognize the truth, but doesn't submit to it.)

It makes me wonder about other troubling passages where God seems to be bargaining with the liar. They seem unfair, but I have to believe that the God who paid such a price to make redemption available "once for all" isn't stacking the deck against us in these instances, but has some other purpose that doesn't sell out his truthful nature. I think we're supposed to be bothered by these things, though. Answers don't come where there are no questions.

Lies in Scripture are interesting. Though Proverbs certainly doesn't like them, they don't seem to be universally banned (not, for example, in the Ten Commandments). I guess if Moses can lie to Pharoah about why he wants to take the people out of Egypt, who am I to suggest that God can't?

...I donno.

Long live the Luddites! (As long as they don't take away my computer... :-)

Speaking for myself: I'm ready to let God be sovereign, but I'm not ready to be quite that casual about lying. (Though I agree there are head-scratchers.) Couple of thoughts (which I have at the ready only because I was just thinking about this recently):

--Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.”

--I Samuel 15:29: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” (This one throws me for a loop because he seems to change his course of action fairly often.)

--I'm not sure what you mean about there being no commandment against lying--?

--Moses--do you mean his contrived rationale? Interesting; I never thought much about that, really. But Moses lying doesn't mean God approves of it... and Moses suffers some severe consequences for his decisions before he's done.

If God can lie, I don't see where there's much basis for a relationship with him, or much to distinguish him from other "dieties."

Hi W2B,

To say that God "lies" in these cases strikes me as rather flippant. What I would say instead is that wisdom and power both come from God, and that those who rebel against him he is liable to deprive of both. I reflected on this a while back with the story of Jael and Sisera. In the case of Moses, I think things a little different. Both him and Pharaoh knew what was being asked, and it is probably best understood as an indirect way of asking the question (people in Asian countries are very familiar with this sort of thing).

I don't think God lies. I was actually arguing against that. (Which explains the need for "to be" after "writer" in my nickname...)

i don't follow...

if Ahab "sees through the lying spirit trick" then he knows that Micaiah is telling the truth. that means that he rode off into battle knowing he was doomed.

do you really think that Ahab thought a lame disguise was going to cheat God? i just find it hard to believe that Ahab was that dense.

maybe there's something about humans that once they get into a pattern of self-deception and destruction, they just can't help themselves. sort of like the gambler who thinks that even though the odds are against him, he'll hit the jackpot this time.

hmmm, i don't know.

Hi Amtog,

I certainly agree that that is a lot of what is going on here. Ahab knows at one level that Micaiah is right (why else would he have protested when the prophet initially lied to him?) but is holding out hope that the other 400 are right. He's seen one against 400 before with Elijah and the prophets of Baal, and knows where this is going, but goes anyway.

It reminds me a bit of Macbeth once he finds out that MacDuff wasn't "of woman born". He fights on, though he knows its hopeless. Ahab disguises himself, hoping that it'll all be alright, but I'm pretty sure deep down he knows better.

Adam and Eve had an unobstructed relationship with God, yet they still thought they could hide behind a few leaves. Ahab's hubris is no greater than that. It's pride, not deception, that makes us do foolish things, isn't it?

I still can't quite see this as a story about deception--self-deception, or spirit deception, or divine deception. Ahab is given undiluted truth, right between the eyes, to the bitter end. I think it's a story about the nature of truth. It's not something to use for our own purposes, but something that's part of the very nature of God and has to be submitted to.

Things might have gone differently for Ahab if he'd responded in chapter 22 the way he did at the end of chapter 21--humbly.

Almost forgot--I'm rusty on Macbeth, but Ahab in Moby Dick comes to mind. (I go for the easy connections!)

Hi Wonders, what chapters will your next post cover? I would like to "read ahead" so I can have more context when you post. I just found your blog recently and am really getting a lot out of it. Thanks.

Hi Pupa Tater (did you used to be a larva?),

I appreciate all your kind words - and am so happy you're getting some out of my little project here. I must confess that I don't always necessarily know what I'm going to blog on next 'til I sit down to write it. I'm thinking I may lump all of Elijah/Elisha in the next post, and then do something on Jehu's bloody purges after that. Honestly, I'm pretty eager to get done with Kings A.S.A.P.

Feel free to read back on the old stuff - I get automatic e-mails of comments and I'll always respond to them. I think so far I've gotten the most out of the book of Job.

Hi, thanks for your response. I read from Genesis to Psalms over the last few months and must admit wanting to skim over I&II Kings. Genesis through II Samuel held my interest (even Leviticus), but Kings ... whew. Seriously, simply reading your commentary makes it more interesting. Thanks.

(Yes, I guess I was a larva at some point ... and maybe one of these days I'll spread my wings and fly!)

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