The Summary (Please Note – one or two minor points were added to written summary and aren’t included in the recording)
Melakhim Alef Chapter 13
A prophet from the Kingdom of Yehuda is sent by Hashem to the altar in Bet El, where he finds Yarovam standing by the altar as officiant. The prophet proclaims his message, addressing himself to the altar directly. He states that priests will one day be killed and human bones burned upon the altar when a descendant of the house of David, named Yoshiyahu, comes to power. He also predicts that the altar will break in half and its ashes will spill to the ground.
Yarovam stretches out his hand to order his guards to arrest the prophet, but a miracle occurs and his arm becomes frozen in place. The altar splits apart as predicted, confirming the authenticity of the prophet’s words. Yarovam asks the prophet to pray to Hashem so that the strength of his arm is restored; the prophet complies, and Yarovam is healed. Yarovam invites the prophet to dine with him and offers to reward him but the prophet declines, citing God’s command that he not eat bread or water in Bet El, and that he return to the territory of Yehuda by a different path than he arrived.
An elderly prophet living in Bet El is informed of the events at the altar by his sons. He leaves in search of the prophet from Yehuda and finds him resting underneath a tree. The elderly prophet invites the visiting prophet to his home to eat, and the visiting prophet again declines because of the command of God. The elderly prophet lies and claims that Hashem told him to invite the prophet of Yehuda to his house so that he may eat and drink; the visitor, trusting the older prophet, agrees and joins him.
At the meal, the elderly prophet suddenly receives a prophecy that he is bidden to convey to the prophet of Yehuda – because the latter transgressed the word of God that he received, he would pay with his life, and his remains would not reach the burial grounds of his ancestors. Shortly after he departs, the prophet of Yehuda is mauled by a lion. The lion does not consume the carcass, nor does it harm the donkey upon which he had been riding; it merely stands nearby, disinterested, testifying to the supernatural motive of the attack.
When the prophet of Bet El hears word of the bizarre occurrence, he immediately infers that it must have involved the prophet with whom he had dined; he retrieves the body of the prophet, brings it back to his city, eulogizes him, and buries him. He instructs his sons that, after his death, he should be buried alongside the prophet, whose words regarding the altar of Yarovam will surely come true.
The chapter concludes by noting that this encounter with the prophet did not deter Yarovam. On the contrary, he continued in his evil ways, recruiting “priests” to serve at various local altars throughout his kingdom. This policy of Yarovam would ultimately bring divine punishment upon his family and lead to its destruction by the hand of God.
Although the confrontation between the prophet and Yarovam is certainly a powerful and significant moment, it is almost eclipsed by the bizarre epilogue – the story of the two prophets and their interactions. The narrative raises numerous questions. Is the elderly man a genuine prophet? If so, why does he lie to his younger colleague? Why is the younger prophet punished so harshly while the older one, who was responsible for misleading him, emerges unscathed? And finally, most importantly for our purposes, what is the connection between this “side story” and the unfolding events in the Kingdoms of Yehuda and Israel, which are the primary subject of the prophetic message of the Book of Kings?
Our Sages, followed by most of the traditional commentaries, assume that the elderly prophet is, in fact, a false one. This is how they explain his willingness to speak falsehood in the name of Hashem. From this perspective, we can understand his motives easily. No matter what their field of work, people with dubious credentials and shady backgrounds benefit from rubbing shoulders with respectable, established professionals. They love to take pictures with luminaries and celebrities and hang them on the wall to prove that they are accepted by the mainstream and have some clout.
So too, the false prophet wishes to bolster his reputation by publicly associating himself with a genuine prophet who has intrigued the locals with his miraculous deeds. This accounts for not only his hospitality and warmth toward the young prophet but also for his sudden desire to be buried next to him, even though he just met him a few hours ago!
The younger prophet understood clearly that he had to refuse the dinner invitation of Yarovam, who wanted to gain some positive “public relations” points from breaking bread with the messenger (after all, the most sensitive issue at hand in Yarovam’s kingdom was whether it was favored/accepted by the Almighty or not, and dining with a prophet would look good for the king). However, the visiting prophet failed to recognize the same motive at play in the actions of the false prophet and therefore naively accepted the claim that Hashem had rescinded His initial prohibition.
The prophet from Yehuda was supposed to reject any social overtures from any member of Yarovam’s community in order to demonstrate that Hashem had withdrawn his presence from them entirely. Unwittingly, he undermined his own mission by eating with and thereby lending credence to a “religious leader” of Yarovam’s kingdom who was not, in fact, a true representative of Hashem. The false prophet was not of sufficient stature to warrant any miraculous punishment from Hashem, but the younger, true prophet was held to a higher standard and therefore deserved a severe consequence for his misjudgment. His death and burial with the false prophet was a poetic testimony to his betrayal of the task with which Hashem had entrusted him.
The key difficulty with the interpretation of our Sages is that the older man in fact receives a prophecy from Hashem while he is sitting at the dinner table. While it is possible to take this as a fluke or a miraculous intervention by Hashem, it doesn’t seem to be presented in that light. A straightforward reading would indicate that the elderly man is, indeed, a real prophet of Hashem. This is how the Abarbanel, for example, explains the story.
There are several hints in the text that support the theory that the older man was a true prophet. The first is the fact that he did not attend the service at Bet El, only hearing about it from his sons. One would have expected a false prophet to be in the pocket of Yarovam and therefore be present on such a momentous occasion. Second, his fascination with the reported actions of the visiting prophet appear to be genuine and not driven by ulterior motives. Third, his experience of prophecy, delivery of a message, and reaction to its fulfillment all seem consistent with the profile of a true prophet. The question remains, then – why did he lie to the visiting prophet to begin with?
We may be able to infer something about the subtext of these events from a few subtle allusions in the narrative. The older prophet is described as having his donkey saddled twice, a seemingly superfluous piece of information for us to be told. The younger prophet is found sitting beneath a terebinth (a kind of tree) when the elder prophet approaches him – again, the reason for this detail is inexplicable on the surface.
I would like to suggest that these aspects of the narrative serve to conjure up memories of other, very important incidents in the Hebrew Bible. Avraham our Patriarch was famous for saddling his donkey to head out to the Aqedah, the Binding of Isaac. Interestingly, the older prophet has his donkey saddled twice, once to invite someone to his home for dinner and once to bury the dead – the two signature acts of kindness associated with Avraham Avinu, who was famous for welcoming guests and went to great lengths to secure a proper burial place for his wife, Sarah!
The younger prophet sitting beneath a terebinth might also be a reference to Avraham, who was sitting beneath the same kind of tree when he beheld the three angelic visitors to whom he rushed out to invite to his tent for a meal. In the Book of Shofetim, we find Gideon – also an Avraham-like personality who must shatter his father’s idols and break away from the existing social order to qualify for leadership – working beneath a terebinth tree when he is first contacted by the angel who appoints him.
(There may also be a hint here to the story of Bilaam, who likewise saddles his donkey to join the elders of Moav on a mission to curse Israel. Bilaam knew what Hashem’s true intent was but kept it hidden from the Moabites so that he could do his best to win honor and riches from King Balaq. Here, too, the elder prophet knows that he has not received any word of God permitting the younger prophet to dine with him, and he, like Bilaam, should have abandoned his course of action, but he suppresses the truth in order to gain the benefit he seeks from his visitor).
These literary allusions highlight a fascinating aspect of the story that might otherwise go unnoticed. The prophets in this story, like Avraham and Gideon (and even Bilaam to some extent), are lonely, solitary individuals. They are, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the people and institutions around them. While the population rallies around Yarovam and places him on a pedestal, these prophets are ignored, neglected or even despised. What a relief it must have been for the prophet of Bet El to hear that a courageous messenger from Yehuda had spoken truth to power to Yarovam! How excited he must have been to form a bond of friendship and camaraderie with a like-minded spiritual leader who stood apart from and rose above the corruption of the kingdom like he himself did. He rationalized that the little white lie he told was justified because he assumed that the initial restriction of eating and drinking in Bet El excluded dining with fellow prophets.
Yarovam was a populist whose success or failure hinged on the communal support for and endorsement of his activities. In fact, after the embarrassing showdown with the prophet which may have tarnished his credibility, Yarovam expanded his “democratization” program even further, establishing more altars and appointing everyone who was interested to serve as “priests” in them. He responded to the prophetic challenge by “hitting the pavement” and campaigning for more votes, offering even more opportunities and benefits to his citizens. The Rabbis, bewildered by the intelligent and capable Yarovam’s stubbornness, explain that even though he was offered the chance to be the founder of an eternal dynasty in Israel, he could not accept being “second” to the Davidic dynasty and therefore spurned the word of God.
The prophets in the story were meant to serve as a contrast to this orientation and to stand aloof from public opinion. They were expected to be courageous, principled and not swayed by the need for social acceptance – even from one another – as long as they lived by the wisdom of Hashem. To underscore this idea, the prophet was supposed to leave the area immediately after delivering his message to Yarovam, not stick around to make friends, receive feedback or build a following. However, apparently, even the prophet found being alone and alienated difficult to handle. When he was approached by another Abrahamic figure in an evidently Abrahamic setting, he assumed that it was a Divine signal that there was an exception to his original prophecy, and he was relieved to have the opportunity to form a social connection with someone who appreciated what he had to say.
The prophet from Yehuda failed to realize that there was more to the concept of dissociating himself from Bet El than simply not lending his endorsement to the corrupt power players. It was also imperative that he show his independence of spirit and his total disinterest in whether his ideas were popular or not. By succumbing to the desire to commiserate with someone who “approved his message” he accidentally watered it down, showing that he – like Yarovam – was also dependent, to some degree, on the support and encouragement of others when it came to his religious initiatives. He did not see himself as responsible and accountable to God alone, regardless of the views of other human beings. Fascinatingly, his punishment is to be killed by an animal that takes no interest in personal gain from his deed – the lion acts totally in service of the Divine Will and seeks nothing in return for its trouble.
(In fact, even according to the view that the elder prophet was a false one, it is possible that this flaw – the desire for validation and endorsement from others – was the reason the younger prophet so quickly and naively accepted the claim that Hashem had issued a “retraction” or “correction” of His original message. He wanted to believe it was true and to feel that his noble actions had won the appreciation of someone who seemed respectable.)