Melakhim Alef Chapter 20
Ben-Haddad, king of Aram, gathers an enormous coalition army of thirty-two kings and prepares to lay siege upon Israel. He sends a threatening message to Ahav, claiming that all that belongs to Ahav really belongs to him. Ahav appears to agree to become a vassal of his kingdom. Ben-Haddad then threatens that his men will come to Israel, enter Ahav’s home and the homes of his officers, and confiscate everything they desire.
Interpreting this as a declaration of war, Ahav summons his advisers and they support his mobilization of troops to defend the realm. He once again conveys to Ben-Haddad that he is willing to subjugate himself to Aram but not to allow the kind of pillaging Ben-Haddad proposed. Ben-Haddad, replies with haughty bravado, and Ahav retorts with a pithy phrase, “he who girds armor should not boast like he who takes it off”, the ancient wartime equivalent of “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
An anonymous prophet of Hashem approaches Ahav and assures him that Israel will win the battle. Ahav asks for advice as to who should initiate the military engagement and whom should be sent out to fight; the prophet answers that Ahav should initiate by sending the young men of the princes of the provinces, a small force of only two hundred and thirty two men, followed by seven thousand troops.
Ahav dispatches the modest force and when they arrive at the camp of Ben-Haddad, he and his associates and officers are drunk. The army of Israel routs the Aramean forces and chases them away; Ben Haddad himself escapes on horseback. The prophet warns Ahav that Ben-Haddad will return before the end of the year for another battle.
The servants of Ben-Haddad suggest that the reason for their loss in battle is that the God of Israel is a god of the hills and therefore had an advantage. They propose attacking the Jews on a plain so that this time they will be victorious. The servants recommend assembling an army equal in size to the one that Ben-Haddad mobilized previously. Moreover, they advise that the kings be replaced with lesser officers this time – men who will be more interested in fighting than in drinking.
The relatively tiny forces of Israel array themselves facing the vast army of Aram. A prophet of Hashem approaches Ahav and tells him that since the people of Aram conceive of this as a battle between their gods and the true God, falsely believing that Hashem’s power is limited to the hills, the Jewish people will win this battle for the sake of His name. After seven days of posturing, the fighting begins, and the Jewish people achieve a decisive victory, slaying one hundred thousand footmen. The remainder take refuge in the city of Afeq, but the wall collapses, killing twenty-seven thousand men.
Ben Haddad and his attendants hide safely in an inner chamber in Afeq. The servants of Ben Haddad tell him that the kings of Israel have a reputation for being especially merciful. Hoping to find favor and receive a compassionate response from Ahav, they dress in sackcloth and place ropes on their heads to project a pitiful image before approaching the king.
When they meet Ahav, they convey a message from “your servant, Ben-Haddad”, begging Ahav to spare his life. Ahav, learning that Ben-Haddad is still alive, refers to him as “my brother”; Ben-Haddad’s servants, noticing the change of tone, adjust their language and call him “your brother, Ben-Haddad” as well.
Ahav instructs the servants to bring forth Ben-Haddad, to whom he will grant clemency. Ben-Haddad emerges from his hiding place and offers to restore to Ahav the cities that his father had taken from Omri, Ahav’s father. He also gives Ahav permission to open up a market for trade in Damascus. Ahav and Ben-Haddad establish a treaty of friendship and Ben-Haddad returns to Aram.
Meanwhile, a prophet of Hashem approaches a bystander and, in the name of Hashem, commands the person to strike him. The person refuses and, as predicted by the prophet, is killed by a lion shortly thereafter. The prophet makes the same request of another person, who complies. Then, his eyes covered with a headband and his face bloody, he stands before Ahav and requests his ruling on an urgent matter.
The disguised prophet claims that he was a soldier in the war and had been entrusted with guarding a prisoner. He had been told that, if he fulfilled his mission, he would be rewarded; however, if the prisoner escaped, the guard would have to pay with his life. The prisoner disappeared and now the guard has been condemned to die and seeks mercy from the king. Ahav responds that since he accepted this condition upon himself when he took responsibility for guarding the prisoner, he must face the consequences of his negligence.
The prophet then lifts his headband and Ahav immediately recognizes him as one of the prophets. In the name of Hashem, he rebukes Ahav for freeing Ben-Haddad who was worthy of death. Like the “jailer” who allowed his charge to escape, Ahav will pay with his life and the lives of his people for this negligence. Ahav returns to his palace in Samaria deeply troubled by this message.
This chapter seems like an interruption in the narrative about Eliyahu and Elisha that we have followed thus far. Yet despite the absence of these two key figures, the context of Ahav’s court is suddenly very Jewish. The prophets who appear in this story are anonymous figures who speak not in the name of Baal but in the name of Hashem. The prophet declares to Ahav that the he will be victorious in the first conflict so that “you will know that I am Hashem” – a phrase that evokes memories of the story of the Exodus and its plagues that served to persuade Pharaoh to believe in God – implying that Ahav is in the process of developing and deepening his understanding of the Almighty.
Moreover, Ahav requests guidance in his military affairs from the prophet of Hashem, a pleasantly surprising move on his part. Remarkably, the second battle conducted by Ahav is, in some respects, intended to sanctify God’s name, an unlikely mission to be assigned to a king such as Ahav. Finally, we see that Ahav exhibits compassion toward his enemy which, although misguided, is understood as a very “Jewish” response to witnessing pain and suffering. How did Ahav suddenly become so religious?
The Midrashim add yet another layer of meaning to this interlude in the text. The Sages were troubled by the redundancy of the messages exchanged between Ben-Haddad and Ahav at the beginning of the chapter (we resolved this problem by interpreting the second communication from Ben-Haddad as a threat to physically seize property as opposed to the first, which was merely a request for surrender). According to the Rabbis, Ben-Haddad was not satisfied with looting the material goods of the kingdom – he wanted to take the king’s Torah Scroll. Ahav was willing to send Ben-Haddad anything he required as a tribute; however, when Ben-Haddad demanded the Sefer Torah, Ahav refused.
I believe that this Midrashic interpretation may have developed out of a sensitivity to the unusual features of the narrative we noted above – namely, that Ahav is portrayed in this chapter as a bona fide “King of Israel” who in his receptiveness to prophetic instruction and personal conduct reflects Jewish values.
The implications of this chapter are remarkable. Apparently, Eliyahu’s hasty conclusion that his message had fallen on deaf ears was at least partially unfounded. Ahav has, to some extent, begun to embrace his Jewish identity, to acknowledge Hashem’s existence, and even to seek the counsel of God and try to conduct himself in accordance with the Divine will. With each new experience, his religious education progresses – his victories on the battlefield further reinforce his newfound faith in the Almighty, the One God of Israel. Unfortunately, Eliyahu left the scene too early to witness this.
Recognizing the startling theme inscribed between the lines of this narrative, the Rabbis go so far as to recast Ahav into a champion of Judaism who is intent on preventing Aram from robbing Israel of its greatest treasure, the Torah. And it is noteworthy that throughout all of this, Izevel and her pernicious influence are nowhere to be found, allowing Ahav to give expression to the “hirhurei teshuva”, the faint thoughts of repentance, that are occupying his mind.
Despite the positive light cast on Ahav in this chapter, he is still found wanting at the end of the story. The war with Ben-Haddad, a battle to sanctify the name of God, should not have concluded with Ahav’s agreement to a political and economic treaty with the sworn enemy of Israel, someone who intended to destroy the Jewish people and all it represented. With his magnanimous gesture, Ahav intended to win the affection and friendship of Ben-Haddad, to be accepted by Ben-Haddad as a “brother” and to become an honored member of the society of kings. From a religious perspective, however, this should have been anathema to Ahav. As a Jewish king, he should want no part of the corrupt and idolatrous “fellowship” of royalty; he succumbed to his desire for recognition and placed it above his concern for his people and his God.
In this error of Ahav, we see further evidence of his essential character flaw; namely, his lack of the inner strength necessary to remain faithful to his principles and his resultant desire for validation from the international community or “powers that be”. His marriage to Izevel – daughter of the prestigious King of Tzidon – and his vulnerability to her influence, not to mention his tremendous enthusiasm for Baal worship – the religion of Tzidon – can all be traced to the same motive, a desperate need to be accepted by the rich, famous and powerful. Unfortunately, this conflict between standing up for what we believe to be true and right versus placating the nations of the world to win their favor and approval is a struggle that continues to plague the Jewish people even in our times.
The miraculous success of the small Jewish army, complemented by the collapse of the wall of Afeq and decimation of the survivors of Aram, was reminiscent of the Battle of Yeriho that included a similar Divine intervention. Like the victory at Yeriho, destroyed as a demonstration that Hashem was the true Conqueror and King of the land, no spoils, political advantages or material benefits should have been derived by Ahav from this achievement. The totality of the accomplishment was meant to be attributed to and consecrated to Hashem.
Since Ahav failed to see the hand of God in the battle and to sanctify Hashem’s name for its own sake, he has lost a golden opportunity to live up to the calling of a true king of Israel. Nonetheless, even in his moment of defeat, he responds nobly, sadly accepting the Divine judgment upon himself and taking its painful message to heart. He knows that he has empowered an enemy of his people and that the consequences of his error will eventually return to haunt him.
One last interesting feature of this story is the seven thousand troops of Ahav. In the previous chapter, Hashem had informed Eliyahu that he would keep alive the seven thousand citizens of Israel who had not bowed to or kissed the Baal. The commentaries generally interpret the number as metaphoric; surely more than seven thousand men survived from the generation of Ahav!
However, it is intriguing to wonder if perhaps the “seven thousand” men described to Eliyahu are a reference to the men who fought for Ahav in these “holy wars”. As we have learned in previous stories in Nakh, battles fought to sanctify Hashem’s name should be carried out by those with a clear understanding and devotion to Him. Perhaps the repetition of the number here is no accident – it is intended to hint to us that the troops of Ahav were not ordinary Israelites but were servants of Hashem who were spiritually superior to most of their contemporaries and were therefore worthy of conducting this war.