The Deception of Ahab

Approaching storm over the ocean.

Introduction

Ahab was a king that embodied blasphemy. His actions were true to his character: desirous of illicit gain, idolatrous in disposition, and scandalous in marital union. What length will Yahweh extend himself for the sake of his people? This study reveals the level that Yahweh will extend himself in showing mercy to the most wicked, even when ostensibly in the form of deception. In addition, it seeks to understand the motif of 1 Kings 22 with a hermeneutical approach.

Hermeneutical Approach To 1 Kings 22

The narrator begins by stating the political climate between Israel and Syria; three years of peace. By calling attention to the existent peace between Israel and Syria, the narrator is emphasizing the covetous nature of Ahab’s words in 1 Kings 22:3-4 ESV.[1] The king of Israel, Ahab, begins the dialogue with comments that are provocative for illicit gain through unsanctioned warfare. He asks the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, to go to war with him (1 Kings 22:4); Ahab’s opening remarks are not inquisitive but rhetorical. The disposition of Ahab is a pivotal element, and when traced back further it can be viewed in the proper context.

Preceding the deceptive narrative in 1 Kings 22 is the account of Naboth’s vineyard in chapter 21. If we allow chapter 21 to bear on chapter 22, the desire for illicit gain is consistent to both narratives. Furthermore, the text does not condone Ahab’s military actions against Ramoth-gilead. Ahab knows what he wants and is resolved to do it.[2] The first scene closes with Jehoshaphat acquiescing to war against Ramoth-gilead under one condition, Jehoshaphat wants to hear from the Lord (1 Kings 22:5).

As the prophets are gathered before Ahab and Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:6), the question posed by Ahab is important. In 1 Kings 22:6, Ahab asks the prophets “Shall I go to battle … or shall I refrain?” Ahab indicates his desire before they prophesy. Responding to the king with a favorable word lends job security but adds discomfort for Jehoshaphat; “the Lord will give it into the hand of the king” (1 Kings 22:6) is “ambiguous.”[3] Jehoshaphat recognizes the king of Israel’s influence over the prophets and requests a second opinion. Who can be inquired of? Micaiah, who the kings hates for he “never prophesies good concerning me, but evil” (1 Kings 22:8).

Two Courts in Juxtaposition

It is at this point in the narrative that we are given a picture of the earthly court: kings sitting on thrones, arrayed in robes, at the threshing floor, prophets surrounding the kings and prophesying (1 Kings 22:10). There are parallels between the earthly court scene in verses 10-12 and the heavenly court scene in verses 19-22.

Earthly Court                                                              Heavenly Court

Kings on throne (v. 10) King on throne (v. 19)
At the threshing floor (v. 10) Judgement seat (v.19)
Prophets surrounding (v.10) Host of heaven surrounding (v. 19)
Kings asks question (v. 6) King asks question (v. 20)
Zedekiah speaks before Kings (v. 11) Spirit speaks before the King (v. 21)
Approval and promise of success (v. 12) Approval and promise of success (v. 22)

Micaiah’s answer is not what we are expecting. Micaiah answers the king in much the same way as the court prophets, with a false message of victory (1 Kings 22:15). According to Robert Chisholm, the best answer is that the false message of victory “was, in a sense, the Lord’s word.”[4] Chisholm adds, “the Lord then authorized the deception.”[5]

Scholars and theologians do not have consensus on the meaning of this passage. James Crenshaw proposes that there is an “element of the demonic in Yahweh.”[6] Walter C. Kaiser suggests that God only allowed such deception to occur, rather than promoting it.[7] Robert Chisholm posits that God is truthful and keeps his unconditional promises to his people, but “that does not mean that he never uses deceit as a method of judgement.”[8] Lissa Wray Beal says that “Yahweh craftily uses a person’s perversity against that person.”[9]

Chisholm asks why Micaiah gave the king a false message of victory?[10] He concludes that the Lord set in motion the deceptive plot and Micaiah’s words are consistent with the chicanery. Alternatively, was Micaiah following a specific form of communication found in Proverbs 26:5? “Answer a fool according to his folly.” Moberly seems to assert this when he says that Micaiah “mimics them so sarcastically that the king gets the point.”[11] With that said, Micaiah is answering a fool according to his folly.

Chisholm asserts that Micaiah vowed only to speak the word of the Lord, which in this case is a deceptive message.[12] But according to Moberly, Micaiah’s answer draws out a “delicious piece of irony.”[13] Ahab knew that the court prophets would prophesy in his favor and moreover, was aware of the false nature of their words. If so, then Ahab was complicit in the deception. Otherwise, why would Ahab demand Micaiah swear to tell him the truth in verse 16? If this is the case, Micaiah’s initial response to the king can be viewed as an elucidation to the folly of the charade, not as a deceptive response.

 Two Visions

In response to Ahab’s demand, Micaiah provides the first vision for the king. Israel is scattered and has no shepherd (1 Kings 22:17). This is a true vision and has no essence of deception. This is a warning designed to avert its taking place. Namely, that the desire for illicit gain by Ahab will have disastrous consequences for Israel. God is showing mercy to Ahab; it is a call for repentance and remembrance of responsibility for the people of Israel before personal gratification. Ahab is the recipient of mercy in chapter 21 as the Lord defers the decree of disaster to Ahab’s son. Now Ahab rejects the warning of Micaiah in chapter 22 and the stakes are elevated.

The vision of the heavenly court is secondary to the vision of Israel scattered. Moberly draws attention to the “communicative strategy”[14] of Micaiah. Micaiah’s strategy parallels that of Nathan when the latter confronts David in 2 Samuel 12-17. The golden rule in this communicative strategy, “don’t state the obvious.”[15] Micaiah will present the message in the form of story that leaves the king in awe intent on inciting repentance.

It is possible that prophet in 1 Kings 20 is Micaiah. In 1 Kings 20, Ahab is devoted to destruction. The communicative strategy of this prophet resembles the same style. The message is presented in the form of a story designed to incite repentance not deception (1 Kings 20:35-43); “the prophets action had been symbolic.”[16] If Micaiah is the prophet in 1 Kings 20, then Ahab is aware of his communicative strategy. The purpose of the vision of the heavenly court is to move the king to repent.

It is at this juncture that the parallel of the earthy court and heavenly court become clear. Following a pattern of repetition,[17] the heavenly court is depicted and meant to reflect what is taking place in the “here and now,” [18] according to Moberly. The scene of Yahweh’s court is meant to reflect the reality of what is taking place in Ahab’s court. In 1 Kings 22:8, Ahab’s hatred for Micaiah stems from the latter’s prophetic words against the former. This hatred may have stemmed from 1 Kings 20, if Micaiah is the prophet of chapter 20. Nevertheless, Ahab wants a prophecy for himself and not the land.

There are three levels to Micaiah’s words, according to Moberly. Psychological, moral, and theological.[19] On a psychological level which is embodied in the question that Yahweh proposes, Micaiah is saying to the king “You are so foolish that you are being duped.”[20] On a moral level, the court prophets are reflecting to the king of Israel his own self-will.[21] Ahab wants a prophesy for himself. On a theological level, Micaiah is challenging the king to repent. According to Mobley, Yahweh’s message of compassion in this case “must be formulated as a challenge.”[22]

Conclusion

The mercy extended to Ahab in the form of divine deception is similar to the concept of divine hardening. Yahweh is extending mercy and grace to the king of Israel and desires for Ahab to accept this word on his own volition. Ahab rejects Yahweh’s word and thus Yahweh allows Ahab to remain true to his inner disposition, namely a desire for personal and illicit gain before the benefit of the kingdom he is to steward.

The question of whether Yahweh deceives can best be understood through a recognition of the lengths that Yahweh will go to get our attention. Such lengths that he himself is willing to be a scandal among men. Given this perspective, Romans 8:37-39 takes on enhanced meaning. There is nothing that will be able to separate us from the love of Yahweh.

Bibliography

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
[2] R. W. L. Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah Ben Imlah as a Test Case,” Harvard Theological Review 96, no. 1 (01, 2003): 4, accessed April 27, 2016, ATLASerials, Religion Collection.
[3] Peter Leithhart, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 and 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 161, accessed April 24, 2017, ProQuest ebrary.
[4] Robert Chisholm Jr., “Does God Deceive?” Bibliotheca Sacra, no. 155 (January-March 1998): 14, accessed April 24, 2017, ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost.
[5] Ibid., 13
[6] James Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict (Berlin, Germany: Society of Biblical Literature, 1971), 77-81, accessed April 29, 2017, https://books.google. com/books.
[7] Walter C. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 256.
[8] Chisholm, “Does God Deceive”, 12.
[9] Lissa Wray Beal, Apollos Old Testament Commentary: 1 and 2 Kings (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 289, accessed April 24, 2017, ProQuest ebrary.
[10] Chisholm, “Does God Deceive”, 14.
[11] Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah Ben Imlah as a Test Case,” 7.
[12] Chisholm, “Does God Deceive”, 15.
[13] Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah Ben Imlah as a Test Case,” 7.
[14] Ibid., 9.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, abr. ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 534.
[17] Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moisés Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 128.
[18] Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah Ben Imlah as a Test Case,” 9.
[19] Ibid., 10-11.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s