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.

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