Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 22

In this chapter, Ahab and Jehoshaphat go up to fight against Aram, they are defeated and Ahab dies.

This chapter begins on an interesting note, with the king of the southern kingdom Judah going up to visit Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom Israel.  In previous parts of this book, we saw Judah and Israel fighting each other, and this is the first sign of rapprochement between the divided tribes of Israel.  This in itself is a fairly significant political development.

In spite of Ahab defeating Aram several times in the previous chapter, he appears to still hold a grievance against Aram, which seems a little odd to me because not only did Ben-hadad promise to give Israel their towns back, but Ahab could have easily demanded more at the time because he had Ben-hadad completely within his power.

Nonetheless, it did not happen and now Ahab wants to re-open the conflict with the Arameans.  Jehoshaphat and Ahab both agree to attack Aram, but that appears to be the last thing they agree on.  I think one of the most interesting things in this chapter is the contrast between Jehoshaphat and Ahab, because I think this contrast highlights the differences in the religious development of Israel and Judah.  The last few chapters have been all about Israel as they devolved both politically (with numerous coups) and spiritually (as Baal worship filled the country).  Meanwhile, Judah has remained relatively stable and with the temple of God in Jerusalem, they have also mostly stayed true to the covenant.

Jehoshaphat first asks that they should consult with the LORD before going out to battle.  Ahab responds by bringing in his 400 prophets, who reply, "the Lord will give it to you".  Depending on what translation you use, you might not realize the distinction, but LORD (uppercase) is the word Yahweh, which refers to the God of Israel.  Lord (lower case) is the Hebrew word "baal" which means master or lord, but is also the name of a Canaanite deity that is worshiped by Jezebel, Ahab and many others.  Jehoshaphat asked that they consult with the LORD and Ahab responds by bringing together all the prophets of Baal, who declare that they would be successful.

Jehoshaphat, probably feeling a little awkward, says "no really, these prophets of Baal are great and all that, but can we please consult with a prophet of the LORD?" (v. 7).  Ahab agrees to bring in the solitary remaining prophet of the LORD (presumably Elijah is in hiding somewhere), but shows his hostility towards the LORD when he says this prophet only declares evil towards him, which, I guess, should be to the surprise of no one?  Ahab keeps doing evil, God keeps condemning him to judgment, and the prophets of the LORD keep declaring that judgment, and Ahab's response is that he is really tired of these prophets declaring judgment against him.  This is what a hardened, unrepentant heart looks like, when multiple prophets of God declare judgment against you and you respond by getting different prophets to tell you good things.  They are lies, but they are entertaining lies, and in the end, isn't that the real truth?  The answer... is no.

Jehoshaphat insists that Ahab should not speak evil about Micaiah or the LORD and that Micaiah should be brought in, so Ahab does so.  The servant of Ahab implores Micaiah to give a favorable word in agreement with all the other prophets, which is pretty remarkable because it shows that even Ahab's servants have no regard for the truth.  They don't actually care what the LORD's will is, or whether they will be successful, they want affirmation in their folly.

Verses 15-16 are pretty funny.  Ahab asks Micaiah whether they should attack Ramoth-Gilead, Micaiah says yes, and then Ahab insists that he should tell the truth because Micaiah was obviously being sarcastic.  We can tell that Ahab and Micaiah must have had a long and fairly antagonistic relationship before this, explaining both Ahab's reticence in summoning Micaiah and Micaiah's obvious disdain for Ahab.

The story in verses 19-23 is very interesting, and in my opinion this is the second most interesting part of this chapter.  As far as I can remember, this is the first time we actually have a vision or description of God in heaven, and there is a lot we can mine out of the details here.

First, God is seated upon a throne.  We already knew that God was described as being Israel's lord and is described as being like a king, but now we see kingship is one of the primary expressions for how God represents himself in heaven.  He is an authority.

Second, God is surrounded by the gathered army of heaven, and they are consulting together to decide how to get Ahab to go to his death at Ramoth-gilead.  We learn, then, that God is surrounded by many powers over whom he exercises authority.  There are armies in heaven that serve God, and it is interesting that he should ask them how to accomplish his will.  This always surprised me a little because I just assumed that God would know exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it.  I assumed he would just tell angels where to go and what to do, and it was their (and our) responsibility to simply obey.  This is not the portrait painted by these verses.

Instead, while we see God is clearly in control and he is the master of all, seated upon the throne, and is the driving force behind the activity, he invites the spirits to come and work with him to fulfill his will.  In the past, I pointed out many examples of how God seeks to partner with humans and angels to fulfill his will on earth.  In this instance, we can see that not only does God give us agency to fulfill his will, he also asks us for our opinions on how to do that.  It means that we get to partner with God in both actions and decisionmaking.

Third, we learn that God intends to send Ahab to his death.  This is an act of judgment but also an act of mercy; Ahab must die as punishment for the evil he committed, but God also said in the previous chapter that Ahab would die before God brings "the evil upon his house" (1 Kings 21:29), sparing him from having to see calamity befall his family.

The fourth, and perhaps most controversial part of this story (to me at least) is the notion that God would send a "deceiving spirit" upon someone, which is similar to the "evil spirit" that God sent to torment Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).  In what sense may God send an evil spirit or lying spirit to someone, since God is himself good and truthful?  I don't really have an easy one-liner for this.  I think it's a pretty challenging question.  Rashi suggests that the deceiving spirit in this chapter is the spirit of Naboth, whom Ahab killed in the previous chapter, in which case it would be an act of retribution by Naboth.  Other commentaries suggest that the evil spirit could be a demonic presence that was either sent by God, or in the alternative, an evil spirit permitted by God to go deceive Ahab.  Certainly we know that living outside of a covenant with God leaves us vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits, so one could say that God permits evil spirits to torment or deceive those who do not follow God.  But that does not appear to be what's happening here, in this case God is clearly directing a spirit to go and deceive Ahab.  It is unthinkable that God would invite evil spirits into his council, a position of authority.  I think it's possible this story is a metaphor or allegory, and the deceiving spirit is a representation of how Ahab has opened himself to deception by seeking evil.

Regardless of the answer, we know that people who are not in the covenant, who do not follow God, are open to deception when they do evil.  Whether that deception comes from the powers of evil or whether God himself sends deceiving spirits to lead them down the path they have chosen is not a question that can be easily addressed.

Verse 24 is also kind of funny, Zedekiah is asking Micaiah if he saw how the lying spirit passed from him into Micaiah, in essence calling Micaiah a liar.  Micaiah says, "you will know the answer to that question when you are hiding in a room trying to escape from people who are coming to imprison or kill you" (v. 25).

Ahab is not amused, and orders Micaiah put into prison.  This is actually the last time we ever see Micaiah, so it's not clear if he was released from prison after Ahab died or if Ahab's servants put Micaiah to death after their master was killed.  Either way, we know that this is the last time Micaiah ever sees Ahab.

In the battle itself, Ahab disguises himself because he knows the king of Aram (who may still be Ben-hadad, but his name is not given in this chapter) would seek to kill him, but Aram and Judah are not at war so Jehoshaphat is somewhat safer.  In v. 32, it says that Jehoshaphat "cried out", which means he cried out to God, and in calling out to God, the captains of Aram recognized that he was not Ahab.  They knew from Jehoshaphat's prayer that he was not Ahab.

In the end, Jehoshaphat suffers loss from fighting alongside Ahab, but Jehoshaphat's life is spared, while Ahab dies in battle.

At the end of the chapter, we learn a few minor things.  Jehoshaphat mostly follows in the good patterns of Asa, which is expected and the biggest difference between Judah and Israel.  Jehoshaphat tries to send merchant vessels to get gold from Ophir, but they are destroyed in large part because of his alliance with Ahab.  Ahab's life is rather disastrous for Israel, and Jehoshaphat suffered great loss by aligning himself with Ahab.  That is perhaps why Jehoshaphat refused to deal with Ahaziah, because of what happened to him after fighting with Ahab.

This is, perhaps unexpectedly, the end of 1 Kings.  The book ends without much in the way of ceremony because it was originally composed as a single book.  Next we will enter into 2 Kings, which picks up where the story leaves off here.

1 comment:

Allison Wonderland said...

"They are lies, but they are entertaining lies, and in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer... is no." I have never seen someone quote The Simpsons and the bible in a blog. This put a smile on my face :)