Melakhim Alef Chapter 16
The prophet Yehu ben Hanani is sent by Hashem to warn Baasha, King of Israel, that his house will meet the same fate of destruction and annihilation that befell the House of Yarovam. This decree was passed against the royal line of Baasha because he spurned the path of Torah and because he massacred the family of Yarovam. Since he continued the evil practices of the House of Yarovam anyway, he lost any moral “high ground” that would have justified his killing them and taking their place.
Baasha dies and his son, Elah, reigns in his stead. One day, while Elah is drunk, Zimri, the captain of half of his chariots, rises up against him and kills him. Zimri occupies the throne of Elah for seven days. In the meantime, Omri, the general of the army of Israel, plots an overthrow of Zimri; when Zimri realizes he has no chance of escape, he commits suicide by lighting the royal palace on fire. Israel is split into two factions – one that supports Omri and one that supports Tivni ben Ginat for the position. The majority are on the side of Omri so, by popular consensus, he is selected as the new king, and Tivni either died or was executed.
Omri, though known as a powerful and accomplished monarch from sources outside the Bible, is portrayed as nothing more than a wicked king in our chapter. He follows the path of Yarovam and does evil in Hashem’s sight. One noteworthy action he takes is relocating the capital of Israel from Tirtzah to a mountain he purchases in Shomron, which will become the flagship city of the Kingdom of Israel frequently referenced in the words of the prophets. Omri dies and is succeeded on the throne by his son, the notorious Ahav.
Ahav advances the evil of the kingdom of Israel to the next level, far beyond the precedents established by Yarovam. He marries Izevel, the daughter of Etbaal, King of Tzidon, and, apparently under her influence, not only embraces worship of the Baal and its female counterpart Ashera but actually constructs a Baal Temple and Ashera shrine in Shomron. This is the first time we find state-sponsored idolatry in Israel; although the population dabbled in idol worship and the occult, it was never officially sanctioned by the government. And, as you will recall, Yarovam’s calves were never intended to be seen as substitutes for God – they were ill-advised attempts to concretize and “channel” the presence of the true God of Israel.
The chapter concludes with a brief mention of Hiel of Bet El, who decides to rebuild Yeriho, transgressing the prohibition instituted by Yehoshua when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. Yehoshua had pronounced a curse upon anyone who would restore the city – his first born would die at the laying of the foundation and his youngest son when the gates were set up (many commentaries interpret this to mean that all of his children will die, from the oldest to the youngest). This curse is fulfilled in Hiel whose children indeed die as a result of his project to reconstitute Yeriho.
The instability of the kingdom of Israel had previously prevented any real dynasty from becoming established. With the rise of the ambitious and effective Omri, this undergoes a dramatic shift. He constructs a new capital, as if to usher in a new era of leadership and strength. And, unlike any other king of Israel thus far, his son is able to occupy his throne without being opposed or assassinated. Finally, a royal household has emerged in the Northern Kingdom.
With that newfound stability and security, however, come new problems. The tenuous and precarious nature of previous regimes was the result of Hashem’s intervention, which undermined the corrupt kings before they had the opportunity to perpetuate and further ingrain their wickedness by passing it on to the next generation. Ahav, however, is the exception to this principle. No prophet threatens Omri as Yarovam and Baasha were threatened. No political upheaval or military intrigue unseats Ahav, as Nadav, Elah and Zimri were unseated.
Hashem has allowed the House of Omri to plant deep roots in Israel; the days of the “one hit wonder” kings have given way to a stable and lasting monarchy. Yet, neither Omri nor Ahav is faithful to Hashem or the covenantal mission of the Jewish people. Why does Hashem allow such an aberration to occur? Why didn’t he cast Ahav out like the wayward kings before him? None of our commentaries offer an explanation for this anomaly.
I would like to suggest that Ahav was in a unique position to take the Jewish people in a positive direction. As much as instability and turmoil were helpful in preventing wicked regimes from establishing too secure of a foothold in Israel, they were also impediments to growth and progress. The political and economic landscape was too chaotic and unpredictable to allow for the “yishuv hadaat”, the presence of mind, necessary for any leader to reflect upon the errant direction of the kingdom and change it.
Ahav was the beneficiary of an unprecedented period of calm, tranquility and success in Israel, and could have used this as an opportunity to break with the entrenched traditions of Yarovam, relics of the tumultuous past, and to return the nation to its religious roots. Indeed, we find that part of Ahav is quite receptive to the prophetic messages he receives and shows great promise, even though his epiphanies are always short lived and ultimately disappointing.
Ahav actually does capitalize on the stability of his kingdom to implement changes. However, these changes, rather than bringing the Jewish people back to Torah, drive them even further away from it. Moreover, Ahav does, in fact, discard the “outdated” traditions of Yarovam; however, rather than returning the population to authentic Judaism, he decides to embrace pure, “authentic” idolatry in place of the poor, watered-down substitute offered by Yarovam.
The sense of security enjoyed by Ahav explains why he was willing to make such bold counter-cultural moves. He had a “mandate” to be innovative; the fact that he was the “Shelomo” of the Northern Kingdom, heir to his father’s throne, invested him with substantial authority and clout. By refashioning the religion of Israel in a manner that was more compatible with the cults of their neighbors, he successfully paved the way for further expansion of his empire and the creation of stronger international alliances.
Tragically, Ahav is the first king of Israel who goes so far as to remove Hashem – or try to remove Hashem – from the picture entirely. As we will see, this is reflected not only in the promotion of idolatry and priests of Baal in the kingdom, but also the persecution of the prophets of Hashem. Again, for the first time in history, the prophet of God will be neither mentor nor guide to the king of Israel – instead, he will be declared an enemy of the state by virtue of his call for a rejection of idolatry and a return to Torah.
The final episode of the chapter appears, at first glance, out of place; what does the rebuilding of Yeriho have to do with Ahav’s idolatry? However, when we contemplate it more deeply, the connection is obvious. Yeriho was left in a state of desolation for hundreds of years, preserved as a reminder of the miraculous capture of the city and, more generally, as a testimony to the idea that Hashem, and not the military prowess of the Jewish invaders or the power of the Jewish kings, was responsible for their possession of the Land of Israel.
Even the wicked kings of Israel opted to keep this “national monument”, which paid tribute to the Divine hand in their history, protected and untouched. However, the sudden attempt to rebuild Yeriho was fully consistent with the innovative, programmatic effort of Ahav to eliminate Judaism from the Kingdom of Israel and to shape it into a “normal”, conventional country like its neighbors. It signified erasing the past, wiping away the memory of Hashem and His intervention, and thereby denying that the Kingdom had anything to do with Hashem or owed any allegiance to Him.
The death of children as a result of the transgression can be understood as measure for measure. The one who rebuilds Yeriho intervenes to stop the preservation of its memory, its legacy and its impact for future generations. By losing his children, the builder’s own memory, legacy and capacity to influence future generations are likewise erased forever.
Put differently, if one is tampering with the tradition memorialized at Yeriho and interfering with its perpetuation to the next generation, one is suggesting that a different narrative or vision of the world – one that excludes Hashem and His providence – should be passed on instead. The death of Hiel’s children ensured that his distorted values and corrupt viewpoints would not have a future in Israel.