I Kings 20

For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied I Kings 20.

King Ben-Hadad of Syria, his army, and thirty-two kings have besieged and attacked Samaria, the capital of Northern Israel.  Ben-Hadad lays claim to the wives, children, silver, and gold of King Ahab of Northern Israel, and Ahab does not refuse him.  Then Ben-Hadad says that his servants will go through Ahab’s house and the house of his servants and take whatever pleases them.  At that point, Ahab concludes that Ben-Hadad has gone too far.  At the advice of his elders, Ahab sends messengers to Ben-Hadad, telling him to kiss off (my paraphrase).  Ben-Hadad then threatens to fill Samaria with Syrian troops, such that each Syrian soldier will be unable to grasp a handful of Samarian dust, for there won’t be enough dust to go around, with all of the Syrian soldiers there!

Ahab tells Ben-Hadad that one who puts on armor shouldn’t brag like one who’s taking it off.  Essentially, that means that Ben-Hadad is counting his chickens before they’re hatched: he’s acting like he’s already defeated Northern Israel, before the battle has even begun!  And indeed, Ben-Hadad is cocky, for, at the time, he’s getting drunk with his kingly allies.  He assumes that the battle is finished, and in his favor!

A prophet promises King Ahab that God will deliver the Syrian multitude into the hands of Israel, who will know that God is the LORD.  God will do this by the hands of “young men of the governors of the province” (my translation).  The word translated as “young men” can mean “servants” (Genesis 22:3), or it can be a term for some kind of soldier (II Samuel 2:14).  In any case, Israel was the clear underdog in this battle.  The number of Israelite “young men of the governors of the province” is 232, plus there are 7,000 additional Israelites going out to fight (I Kings 20:15).  The Israelites slaughter the Syrians, and, because v 25 states that Ben-Hadad later replaced the Syrian army that he had lost “horse for horse, and chariot for chariot” (which implies that his new army was as big as that which the Israelites had slaughtered), the 7,232 Israelites had defeated an army of at least 127,000 Syrians (see vv 29-30)!

Ben-Hadad retreats back to Syria and plots to attack Israel again.  The prophet warns Ahab that Ben-Hadad will return in the spring, which scholars say was a good season for battles because of the pleasant weather and the greater availability of provisions (e.g., food).  That spring, Ben-Hadad brings an army to Aphek.  Many cities bear that name—one in the Northern Israelite tribe of Asher (Joshua 19:29-30), one in modern-day Lebanon (Joshua 13:4), and one near the Philistines further south, in Sharon (Joshua 12:18; I Samuel 4:1; 29:1).  But the Aphek in I Kings 20 is probably the one in Southern Syria (see II Kings 13:17), close to a Northern Israelite boundary.

The man of God affirms that Israel will defeat the Syrians once more, especially because Ben-Hadad has downplayed the power of the Israelite God.  Ben-Hadad said that the Israelites only won the last battle because it occurred in the hills, where their gods possess their power; in the plains, however, the Syrians will triumph.  The commentaries that I consulted made a couple of good points.  Mordecai Cogan pointed out that the Syrians’ chariots were not as effective in the hills as they would be in the flat plains, and that’s a good practical reason that Ben-Hadad thought he’d have better luck in the plains.  And the Intervarsity Bible Background Commentary said that Israel was very hilly, so that’s why the Syrians assumed that the gods of Israel were more comfortable with the hills than with the flat-lands.  The Syrians wanted to draw the God of Israel out of his comfort zone so that they could beat his people, Israel.  But God wanted the Syrians to know that every place is his comfort zone, for he’s a powerful God.

The Israelites kill 100,000 Syrian foot-soldiers in one day, and the remaining 27,000 are killed by a wall which falls on them in Aphek, as the Syrians are retreating to that city.  Ben-hadad hears that the kings of Israel are generally merciful, so he sends servants to Ahab.  Ben-Hadad’s servants put on uncomfortable sackcloth and tie a rope around their necks, probably to indicate their surrender to Ahab as well as Ahab’s newfound power over them.  Ahab regards Ben-Hadad as his brother, probably because the two of them had a relationship by treaty (see I Kings 9:13 for a parallel example).  And the two kings arrive at an agreement: Ben-Hadad restores to Israel the towns that his father took, and he allows Israelites to do business in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

But a prophet is not very happy with this agreement!  He asks a fellow prophet to smite him, and the fellow prophet refuses.  The prophet then says that, because the fellow prophet didn’t obey the voice of the LORD, a lion will smite him!  The Hebrew word translated “smite” can mean to “smite” or to “kill” (see Exodus 2:11-12), but most commentators maintain that the lion kills the disobedient fellow prophet, rather than just wounding him.

The prophet then asks another man to smite him, and this man does so, to the point of wounding the prophet.  The prophet now looks like a beat-up Israelite soldier, and he approaches King Ahab.  The prophet says that a Syrian hostage was entrusted to him, and he was told that, if the hostage got away, he (the prophet disquised as a soldier) would lose his life or pay a talent of silver.  But, alas, the hostage got away, so what should happen to him?  King Ahab says that he (the prophet disguised as a soldier) should be punished.  The prophet then reveals himself to be a prophet, and he proceeds to upbraid Ahab for letting Ben-Hadad go free.  In the name of the LORD, the prophet in v 42 refers to Ben-hadad as “the man of my cherem”, meaning that Ahab should have killed Ben-Hadad to honor the LORD, who had helped Israel in battle.  The prophet predicts that Ahab will lose his life, and Israel will lose out as well.  Ahab then returns to his house and sulks.

I want to comment some about how this chapter relates to surrounding chapters.  In I Kings 19, which we read last week, God instructed Elijah to appoint Hazael as the King of Syria, predicting that Hazael will ravage Northern Israel.  In I Kings 20, however, God helps the Israelites to defeat Syria (under Ben-Hadad).  But Ahab lets Ben-Hadad go, after making what appears to be a lucrative agreement for Israel and Syria.  In I Kings 21, Ahab kills Naboth to get his vineyard, and God through Elijah prophesies the destruction of Jezebel and the house of Ahab as punishment.  But Ahab repents, so God decides to postpone the destruction to the time of Ahab’s son.  In I Kings 22, Ahab decides to go to war with Syria to get back for Israel the city of Ramoth-gilead.  The false prophets of the LORD tell Ahab he’ll succeed, whereas Micaiah says that Ahab will die in battle.  Ahab puts Micaiah in jail and dies in battle.  Ahab’s death demoralizes the Israelite army, so it retreats. 

God had predicted that Syria would defeat Northern Israel at some point, as judgment for Israel’s slaughter of God’s prophets.  Yet, God didn’t allow that to happen right away.  Rather, God took the time to demonstrate to Ahab, Israel, and also the Syrians that the LORD is God.  Perhaps God was giving the Israelites another opportunity to repent.  After Ahab defeated Syria, Ahab chose to trust in Ben-Hadad rather than to honor the LORD.  Ben-Hadad proved to be a disappointment, however, for he promised as part of his agreement with Ahab to return the Israelite cities that the Syrians had taken, yet he apparently didn’t return Ramoth-Gilead.  But God still gave Ahab somewhat of a chance, for Micaiah warned Ahab not to fight the Syrians for that city.  Ahab could have lived and not died.

Interestingly, the Septuagint reverses I Kings 20-21, so that the story of Naboth’s vineyard precedes that of Ahab’s defeat of Syria.  Is this order conveying the message that Ahab repented for killing Naboth and taking his vineyard, so God decided to protect Israel in the days of Ahab from Syrian domination?

Or maybe God didn’t punish Northern Israel right then and there because it wasn’t the right time.  God wanted the punishment to come later, under Ben-Hadad’s successor, Hazael.  Then, the time for judgment would be ripe, and God would bring along Jehu to purge Israel of Baalism.  This is an example (albeit a grisly one) of how God operates in seasons.  Yet, free will can still come into play, for God can postpone punishment based on repentance. 

The part about the Syrians recognizing the mercy of Israel’s kings has often caught my eye when I’ve read this chapter.  I’ve seen this as an indication that even Israelite kings in their corruption learned from the mercy of God, and showed that mercy to others.  As Ellen White said, “By beholding, we become changed.”  Yet, as a preacher I heard pointed out, Ahab didn’t show mercy to all of the prophets of the LORD he slaughtered!  Ahab was willing to show mercy to people he deemed important, those who could help him out—through lucrative agreements or consent to be ruled.  But he didn’t show mercy to those who annoyed him or did not benefit him.  And, ironically, he was willing to show mercy when it wasn’t to God’s honor, and to dispense with mercy when it was.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to I Kings 20

  1. James Pate says:

    On my blogger blog, Emet writes:

    I see we have the “cherem” again. Since I don’t believe in coincidence, I’m going to have to do a word study on all of the places the Hebrew word cherem is used. That will take up my free time tomorrow afternoon – but I’ll learn more too.

    The commentary in the Jewish book on Kings says that cherem means the man “condemned to destruction”, but can also mean “the man whom I entrapped”. It also says that the Almighty had “entrapped” Ben-hadad by killing 100,000 troops in 1 day and then having a wall crush 27,000 more which left Ben-hadad helpless. They criticize Ahab for not recognizing that the Almighty set it up for him to kill the evil enemy of Israel.

    It also says that the Almighty performed these miracles for the evil King Ahab because he showed love for Israel by not turning over the Torah Scroll that all kings must own, to Ben-hadad. It showed he really cherished the Torah of the Almighty.

    When I was in 1 Kings Jewish bible study, the understanding of why the Almighty helps out the rather wicked King Ahab shows that when Ben-hadad asks for silver, gold, the best women and children, King Ahab agrees. But the second time the messenger comes back he says –
    20:6. But at this time tomorrow I will send my servants to you, and they will search your house and the houses of your servants, and anything you prize they will put in their hands and take it away.”

    The commentaries ask what could you cherish more than your wives and children, even your money? But the prize that Ben-hadad wanted was the Torah Scroll. He wanted to do battle with the Almighty and felt he could get the upper hand if he could get the Torah Scroll. So while King Ahab at first was willing to give the wives, children and money, he would not give the Torah scroll.

    20:9. And he said to the messengers of Ben-Haddad, “Tell to your master the king, ‘All that you have sent to your servant at first, I will do, but this matter I cannot do.’ ” And the messengers went, and they brought back the message to him.

    King Ahab goes on to win the battles but has mercy on Ben-hadad. In the beginning, the tables were reversed, Ben-hadad would have waged a bloody battle and killed Ahab. King Ahab’s misplaced mercy is turned back on Israel and himself in the later chapters.


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