Elijah disappears from our narrative for a while, leaving us with a chapter that is surprisingly favourable toward Ahab – at least at first. We find Ahab as King Benhadad of Syria decides that he will invade Samaria. When the Syrians arrive, Benhadad demands that Ahab give him all his gold, silver, and fairest wives and children (or, perhaps, fairest wives, and children). Ahab immediately acquiesces. Perhaps realizing that Israel is being led by a pushover, Benhadad figures he can get away with more: the next day, he will send in some servants to just take whatever they want.

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

This goes too far, and Ahab balks. With the backing of his elders, he sends word that he is still willing to comply with the first demand, but he does not consent to the second. Benhadad, of course, is enraged and declares that his followers will not be going home with nothing but handfuls of dust. To this, Ahab replies: “Let not him that girds on his armor boast himself as he that puts it off” (1 Kings 20:11) – in other words, this ain’t over.

I was trying to figure out why Ahab so readily conceded to the first request, but stood firm on the second. After all, if the Syrians are already going to make off with all the gold, silver, wives, and children, what is Ahab worried about them getting? My first thought was that the difference might lie in who is robbed – in the first, it is Ahab’s household that will be plundered (Ahab’s gold, Ahab’s wives, Ahab’s children). In the second request, Benhadad is saying that he will loot “your house and the houses of your servants” (1 Kings 20:6). So one possibility is that Ahab was willing to give away his own possessions, but unwilling to allow the whole city to be looted.

Tim Bulkeley proposes an alternative – that the whole interaction is a misunderstanding between Benhadad, who is just here to plunder, and Ahab, who believes that Israel is being made a vassal state. In other words, when Ahab answers that “I am yours, and all that I have” (1 King 20:4), what he meant was that he would agree to being placed under Benhadad’s control, not that all that he has would literally be carried away. In this interpretation, Benhadad’s second message is not adding to his original demand, but clarifying it.

Israel Fights Back

With Benhadad unwilling to compromise and Ahab unwilling to let Samaria be looted bare, war is inevitable. What’s really interesting about this chapter in context is that the prophets, and God, are on Ahab’s side (at least for now). The two obvious explanations for this are: a) the story is presented out of chronological order, and actually occurs before Ahab started slaughtering all the prophets, or b) the story’s source was generally more sympathetic toward Ahab, excluding the final few verses that we’ll come to later.

So an unnamed prophet comes to Ahab and tells him that he will win the upcoming battle, and that he must be the one to initiate the fighting. Ahab gathers 7,000 soldiers (an interesting number, as that is the same number of true believers who were set aside to be spared in 1 Kings 19:18, though I have no idea if this is just a coincidence), and marches forth. Benhadad, clearly not expecting the Israelites to show pluck, was busy getting drunk.

When he finds out that the Israelites are advancing, he gives the following order: “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; or if they have come out for war, take them alive” (1 Kings 20:18), which is rather silly and redundant. The Tim Bulkeley podcast I linked to above discusses the various purposes that this verse might have had. In particular, he notices that the word order has been changed from: “If for peace they have come out, seize them alive, and if for war they have come out, alive you shall seize them.” Referencing the 19th century Rabbi Malbim, he wonders if the word order is meant to draw particular attention to the words in bold.

Bulkeley also discusses a theory put forward by the Bible commentator Abrabanel, who suggested that the line is meant to be confusing and absurd, an indication of Benhadad’s inebriation.

Of course, with the Syrians drunk, unprepared, overconfident, and lacking in God’s favour, the Samarians win, though Benhadad himself escapes with his cavalry.

Try, Try Again

Another unnamed prophet, or perhaps the same one, warns Ahab that Benhadad will be back in the spring. Sure enough, Benhadad’s advisors convince him that the Syrians only lost because the Israelite gods are gods of hills, their power at its strongest in the hill country. Therefore, if Benhadad were to engage the Israelite army in the plains, they’ll lose their divine advantage and will lose. They focus their mustering on chariots and cavalry, which are extremely effective in flat country where they can really get up speed and ram through infantry lines.

But they underestimated God! A prophet tells Ahab not to worry. Because Benhadad believes that God’s power is lacking in the plains, the Israelites will win the conflict and thereby prove that God’s genitals are the biggest (for such a powerful deity, he really does go on about how much he has to prove, doesn’t he?).

The two armies set up camp next to each other, but wait seven days before fighting. When they do, as predicted, the Israelites win (slaughtering an impossible number of Syrians in the process), but Benhadad escapes again.

Realizing that the jig is up, Benhadad and his followers wear sackcloth and put ropes on their heads, which apparently signals that they are very very sorry that they ever bothered Samaria. The kings of Israel, they say, have a reputation for being merciful. Sure enough, Ahab decides to spare Benhadad, and the two form a covenant in which all lands that Syria has taken from Israel in the last few generations are to be returned, and Israel gets to set up a bazaar in Damascus.

“Hit Me”

Which is just awful because, as we well know, there are few things that God hates more than mercy. In a story that is reminiscent of 2 Sam. 12:1-7, an unnamed prophet (who is at first referred to as a “certain man of the sons of the prophets” – 1 Kings 20:35 – apparently signifying that he was only a disciple) asks someone to hit him. When that person refuses, he is eaten by a lion. The prophet asks a second person to hit him, and the second person immediately complies. Sadly, there is no twist ending where the second person realizes that the prophet was a figment of his imagination all along.

Bruised and bandaged, the prophet goes to Ahab and tells him a story about having been entrusted to guard a man and letting him escape, tricking Ahab into passing judgement on himself by getting him to judge the prophet. You see, says the prophet as he rips off his disguise, Ahab was entrusted by God to kill Benhadad, but he showed mercy. God hates mercy. Because of his failure, Ahab’s life will have to serve as a substitute for Benhadad’s.

And there it ends. Perhaps God didn’t really mean it after all.