Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 20

In this chapter, Ahab defeats the Arameans twice, but permits Ben-hadad to live.

In the beginning of this chapter, Ben-hadad comes with a massive army to besiege Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom Israel.  The situation is obviously dire for Ahab, because Ben-hadad sends to request his gold, silver, wives and children and he agrees to give them.  We can also see the power relationship in the language used between them, particularly when Ahab calls Ben-hadad his "lord" in v. 4 and v. 9.

When Ben-hadad requests even more, Ahab figures that Ben-hadad would just continue asking for more and more and take everything.  That is why Ahab decides to fight, rather than just give up everything.  Ahab probably expects to be defeated, but he knows that he needs to try.

In verse 11, Ahab uses this peculiar expression, that "one who puts on armor should not boast like one who takes it off".  This confused me when I first read it, but eventually I figured it out.  What this means is that when you are putting on armor, you are preparing to enter a battle which you may or may not win.  When you take it off, it's because you just won the battle and are taking your armor off in victory.  When I first read it, I assuming that a person taking off their armor was running away from a battle, but it actually means that you already won the battle and are taking it off afterwards.  In essence, what Ahab is saying is that Ben-hadad should not boast about destroying Samaria before he even fights the battle.

Ben-hadad, in turn, is busy drinking with his captains, is naturally enraged when he hears Ahab's response, and orders his men to prepare for battle.

Afterwards, an unnamed prophet tells Ahab that he will be victorious and directs him how to fight the battle.  I think what stands out to me the most is, once again, Ahab's indecisiveness.  On the one hand, he permits his wife Jezebel to worship Baal and kill prophets of the LORD, but on the other hand, when this unnamed prophet comes up to him with a message from the LORD, he obeys.  He goes out to fight Ben-hadad (who is drinking again; this man is clearly unqualified to be leading an army) and is victorious.  Ben-hadad also shows his pride once again, because he says that his men should take the Israelites captive rather than fight to kill them.  It is much harder to take a soldier alive than to take him dead, so I think this statement is prideful in that Ben-hadad is making the assumption that his forces are so much stronger that they will handily defeat the Israelites.

Ahab shows that he is still divided between following the LORD or Baal, whenever it is convenient to him.  He shows no conviction, other than his most basic desire to remain in power.  Later on, in this same chapter, when the prophet tells Ahab that he will die because he permitted Ben-hadad to live, he returned to his palace sulking and angry.  His attitude reminds me of Cain, who was similarly angry and downcast (Gen 4:5) when the LORD did not accept his offering.

This chapter also reminds me of Saul, because in 1 Sam 15 Saul permitted Agag to live and that was one of his sins which caused Samuel to pronounce him stripped of the kingship.  In this chapter Ahab allows Ben-hadad to live, and he loses the kingship (and his life) for it.  Neither Saul nor Ahab repent, and that is what makes their attitudes sinful and similar to Cain.

When God rebuked Cain, he didn't get humble, he got angry.  When Samuel rebuked Saul, he didn't get humble, he got desperate to maintain his reputation before the people.  When the unnamed prophet rebuked Ahab, he didn't get humble, he got angry and frustrated.  When David sinned with Bathsheba and Uriah, he was rebuked and he repented.  He got humble.  In order to be a king before God, you need to be humble, which is the opposite of how the world teaches people to be.  The world teaches that you need to be strong, proud and self-confident to be a king.  God exalts humility.  I find that humility is defined most clearly in how I react to my own mistakes.  This is not the only way humility appears, but I think it is the clearest.  Do I try to hide or deny my mistakes, or do I accept them and try to fix them (to whatever extent possible)?  Pride cannot accept mistakes and that is why it reacts with anger whenever it is rebuked.

At an even more basic level, I am surprised that God decided to intervene on behalf of Ahab.  Given everything we know about Ahab, there is no evidence he has repented for anything.  Yet, God ended the drought a few chapters ago, and now he is leading Israel to victory in battle over their enemies.  I think we see part of the answer in v. 28: God is doing it not (only) as an act of deliverance for Israel, but as a warning to the other nations.  As with the previous chapter, we don't really get an explanation for why God chose this moment to liberate Israel from their foreign oppressors, so it's not a question I can definitely answer.  We do know that in the long run, as long as Israel persists in idolatry, things will get worse before they get better.

I also want to discuss is the rather unusual passage in verses 35-42.  Could you imagine someone coming up and asking you to strike him with a sword, and when you refuse to do it he says the LORD is going to have a lion kill you because you disobeyed?  I know if one of my friends came up and asked me to cut him or her with a knife, I would almost definitely refuse.  I think one could probably draw broader lessons from this passage, but for the time being I will just say that obedience to the LORD must be the most important thing to us, even if God is asking us to do something that is contrary to our natural inclination.

Besides that, we do not have any record of Ahab actually being ordered to kill Ben-hadad.  We can either suppose that 1) Ahab was told to kill Ben-hadad but we just don't have it recorded, 2) the unnamed prophet implied that Ahab should kill Ben-hadad in his earlier statements or 3) it was just so normal for defeated kings to be killed or imprisoned that the author assumes Ahab should have done it.  Out of these three, I think the third is most plausible because it aligns with the parable that the unnamed prophet told.  Ahab captured Ben-hadad in battle, took him prisoner, and then let him go without any real punishment at all.  In fact, Ahab appears to honor Ben-hadad by calling him brother and bringing Ben-hadad into his own chariot (v. 33).  Considering how Ben-hadad was treating Ahab earlier in this same chapter (totally humiliating him and demanding everything he owned), this is a little perplexing and certainly unusual.

Why is Ahab punished for showing mercy?  I think we get the answer to that in the parable.  Ben-hadad was not Ahab's prisoner; Ahab was merely his custodian.  Ben-hadad was a prisoner who belonged to the LORD, and it was the LORD's decision to set him free or put him to death.  By letting him go, Ahab was erring in his duty to the LORD.  It was not Ahab's right to make that choice.

Lastly, I want to take some time to dig into the notion of the LORD being the god of mountains and valleys.  After the first battle, in verse 23 the advisers to Ben-hadad claim that the LORD is a god of mountains, but not a god of the valleys, and therefore if they fight in the valleys (rather than the mountains), then the Arameans would be able to defeat Israel.  In verse 28, the unnamed prophet asserts that because the Arameans think the LORD is not a god of valleys, he will defeat the Arameans a second time to prove his supremacy in both mountains and valleys.  I think this is a really fascinating part of the story and I would like to take a moment to expand on it.

There are at least three different ways of looking at this story, which I will explain in turn.

First is the physical, or military, explanation: chariots are more effective in valleys than in mountains.  To elaborate, I have mentioned on several occasions that chariots are an incredibly effective force multiplier in the ancient world, and battles would often revolve around which army had more chariots or utilized their chariots more effectively.  One of several examples I could give is Exodus 14-15 where the chariots of Pharaoh are used as a personification of Egypt's military strength.  A second example is Joshua 17:16 where Ephraim and Manasseh insist that they cannot take the valleys of Canaan because the inhabitants of those lands have chariots of iron.  I do not think it is a coincidence that the chariots of iron are mentioned in the same breath as the valleys of the Canaanites, because (as I already said) chariots are far more intimidating of a weapon in wide open, smooth spaces, where they can move very fast and tactically reposition around the enemy.  In mountainous terrain, the chariots are less effective because there is less space for repositioning and it is easier for an army to set up a defensive front in some culvert or narrow pass, while in a valley chariots could attack from many different angles.

So when the Arameans say that they want to fight against Israel in the plains, the military explanation is that their chariots would be more effective in that environment, giving them a tactical advantage.

The second way to look at this story is through the conflict between the polytheistic philosophy of the Arameans and the monotheism of the bible.  Let me explain what I mean.

One of the hallmarks of ancient religion is polytheism (the idea that there are many gods in the world) where each god is associated with one or more aspects of the world.  Although the Greek religion came into preeminence several hundred years after this story was written, I think it is likely very similar to how the Arameans viewed the world.  In the Greek religion, each god is associated with certain attributes: Ares is the god of war, Demeter is the goddess of harvest, grain and fertility, Zeus is the god of thunder and storms, and so on.  The Greek religion also had demi-gods and goddesses associated with geographic features who were called nymphs or oreads, and in Greek society people would pray and offer sacrifices to the god associated with whatever kind of divine favor they wanted.  Sailors would often pray to Poseidon for calm oceans and safety on their voyages, farmers would offer sacrifices to Demeter and Persephone, and so on.

How does this relate to the present story?  It is possible that the Arameans think the LORD is a particular deity who has supremacy over mountains, but that their own gods are the gods of valleys and would therefore prove superior to the LORD when fighting in their own domain.  It is basically ascribing to the LORD a particular domain because they are trying to fit the God of Israel into their polytheistic philosophy that viewed all of the gods as being gods of a particular thing.  The LORD insists that he must defeat the Arameans in order to prove them wrong because they are viewing the world in a fundamentally flawed way.  God is the god of mountains as well as valleys, because he has dominion over the whole earth and every aspect of it, which is contrary to the assumptions of every polytheistic philosophy of the time.  If there were a god that had power over everything in the world, that would (in some ways) defeat the whole purpose of polytheism, and indeed that is exactly the point.  The LORD is not an equal among many gods, he is the mighty and only God who has power over anything and everything.

The third way to look at this story is through the lens of metaphor.  The mountains are a metaphor in the bible for encounters with God.  Think of Mount Sinai where Moses ascending to meet with the LORD and returned with the tablets of the ten commandments and the covenant.  Valleys are the gaps that exist between mountains, when we descend from the heights of spiritual experience and return to ordinary life.  Some people think of God as being accessible during mountaintop experiences but struggle to find God during the mundane or difficult circumstances that come between those encounters.  What we can learn from this chapter is that God is present and has power over every circumstance we face in life, whether mountains of valleys.

I think if there is one principle that stands out to me, it's the notion that God has full dominion over the whole earth and every circumstance.  This is contrary to the religious philosophies of the Arameans, but to us who serve God, it is an encouragement because we know that in every situation God is with us and is in control; that he can bring us victory both in the mountains and in the valleys.  In verse 28, God says that after Israel is victorious in the valleys, "you shall know that I am the LORD".  He very identity and name are known to us because of his authority and power in every situation.

There is one more thing I want to say about this passage.  When the Arameans attempt to spiritualize the battle, God says that he must defeat them a second time to prove them wrong.  Something I noticed is how much more devastating the second defeat is than the first one.  In the first defeat, the Arameans lost an army.  In the second defeat, Ben-hadad is left cowering in a dark room waiting for the Israelites to come and perhaps kill him.  I think this is certainly a general principle.  Anyone who persists in sin will not remain in that condition; they will either find freedom or they will fall into a deeper and deeper darkness.  In this case, the sin of the Arameans is to think that they can resist God or that their gods are equal in strength to the God of Israel.  The universe is not an equal opportunity employer: not all gods are created equal.  One God really is stronger and more powerful than every other being, and only one God is the creator of everything else.  In counting their own gods as (philosophically) equal to the LORD, they sinned, and by persisting to fight against Israel, they were instead fighting against God.  It was inevitable that as they persisted in this battle, that the LORD would punish them more and more harshly unless they repent.

In the same way, if we pursue some sin in our own lives, unless we repent of it we are bound to harsher and harsher torment until we are destroyed.  Sin destroys lives.  Those who are redeemed do not face punishment from God because his judgment does not fall upon his children, but the sins that we accept into our lives can still punish us because sin itself brings death.  This is usually a progression that grows from a small thing into greater and greater darkness, just as the Arameans faced more and more severe defeats.

No comments: