How Ahab is exposed to be a petty thief rather than a king by sparing a life, and how another is shown to be a king as he is executed with brigands.

The Walking Dead (spoiler alert)

Season 6 ended with meeting Negan.

I have seldom seen a portrayal of evil as compelling as Negan. The situation is simple. Rick and the company of survivors we’ve been following are now vassals of Negan. They go out and get stuff for Negan and Negan allows them to live. Simple.

What isn’t simple is how you completely subjugate a human being. Negan has this down. He is manipulative and cruel and he reigns by fear. This is how the world works.

Forgotten Ahab Story

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I picked up the recommend for this book from the CEP site. There’s a real paucity of books on the book of Kings in the OT even though there are some really terrific stories in them. They are so ripe for preaching.  I really enjoyed this book. Some Dutch pastor working his way carefully through the most famous stories of Elijah, full of insights. The book isn’t easy to get a hold of but it was worth it.

I read 1 Kings 20 away from my office and I was anxious to see what Van’t Veer had to say about it. In the back of my mind I thought though “didn’t the book end at the end of chapter 19? Why would he quit there?”

Sure enough, he did and I think most people do. The stories with the angel feeding him by the brook, the widow of Zarepheth, the showdown at Carmel, the showup of God at Horeb. It’s all top tier stuff. Chapter 20 seems to come in and shake up all the implicit story mojo that the book has created.

  • Where’s Elijah? Where’s Jezebel?
  • What happened to Hazael? (he’ll come, be patient)
  • Why is God helping evil Ahab?
  • Who is this prophet without a name and what it his story? (He’s not the first important prophet without a name, remember the “man of God from Judah” that wrangled with Jereboam.
  • We just don’t like the story because God is angry with Ahab for seeming to not comply with a political assassination that the prophet never explicitly ordered. This connect us back with Samuel and Saul and the Amalekites.

A Window Into Their World

The chapter starts with what seems to be a trade war for the time. Politics isn’t much above gang warfare. Augustine was not alone in noticing this, it didn’t escape the pirates talking to Alexander the Great.

Chapter 4. How like kingdoms without justice are to robberies

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

Augustine, Saint. The City of God (p. 88). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

Ben-Hadad goes down to Samaria and besieges it hoping to pick up some cash. Ahab rolls over like a submissive dog and cries uncle, but doesn’t open the gate. Ahab is probably thinking he’ll send out some tribute and Ben-Hadad will go away. Ben-Hadad is serious here though, perhaps because the Assyrians are on the rise and he needs money or he needs Israel to be a sincere vassal. He basically tells Ahab he’ll send in his men and they’ll take what they want.

This is foreign to many of us who live in the controlled, developed world, which is why we create stories about it so that we can visit our fears.

Now the inhabitants of Samaria in this moment find their voice and suggest to Ahab that, eh hem, even though this is a monarchy and he’s a tyrant (we’ll see that better next week) if Ben Hadad and his men come in THEY will all get their wives and children and stuff taken and they aren’t happy about this. They know that in the end (again as we see next week) they are at the bottom of the food chain. There is, even in this world, a bit about the consent of the governed and Ahab if he wants to stay king had better do his job.

You might notice in the text how “Ahab” is now mostly referred to as “the king of Israel”. The narrator is pointing us to what the story is about. Despite the stuff of the last few chapters the LORD it seems has not abandoned his people.

With the complaint of the people “the king of Israel” suddenly finds a backbone and the game is one.

The Word of the LORD

Now God shows up via a nameless prophet. God is going to give Ahab victory over that huge army so that “you will know that I am the LORD.”

Ahab, back to his name, always the faithless one wants more details before he’ll go along with it. This is pretty amazing given the fact that he seems to have no cards. God complies and tells him how it will roll out. We have echoes of David a bit here where God is giving explicit instructions.

Sure enough, the junior officers rout the army and Ben-Hadad runs away back to his land after suffering heavy losses. Again, this seems like the good old days back in David’s time where a small group defeats a multitude.

Before Ahab gets too comfy the prophet suggests they’ll be back. In fact the officials of “the king of Aram” now do bit of strategic theologizing here suggesting that Yhwh can only fight in the hills.

Again, we have another battle scene where Israel is hopelessly outmatched but God is calling the shots. This is Ahab’s opportunity to actually be who he is supposed to become. Could he become a new David and lead God’s people as the servant of the LORD?

Once again the battle goes terribly for Ben-Hadad. They get driven from the field suffering huge casualties only to run to a city to take refuge, and even those walls fall down. Remember Jericho?

Jericho Moment Ahab

It is important to revisit Jericho. Remember back when we met Ahab at the end of chapter 16 he not only sets up a temple to Baal in Samaria but in his time Jericho is rebuilt. Jericho was defeated and the LORD ordered that Israel NOT make herself wealthy at Jericho’s expense (remember Achan) but the crumbled walls were to be a memorial that the kingdom lives not by its military might but by it’s devotion to the LORD.

Now the walls of Aphek have tumbled down and Ben-Hadad, who was going to shakedown Israel is begging for his life. What will Ahab do? Will he bring justice to the thief of Aram? Ahab says “he is my brother”.

We are reminded about how he was introduced in the first place. What is Ahab’s sin? Ahab is a king like all the other kingdoms. Ahab is guilty of Augustine’s observations about rulers without justice. They are just thieves who style themselves as emperors. Ahab was quick to be the servant of Ben-Hadad and now even more eager to be his brother.

The Kind of Story we Say we Like

Now at this point we who live in comfortable and civil America want Ahab to let Ben-Hadad live. We call this forgiveness and grace. I think the ancient world would see it as good business. Ben-Hadad is worth more to Ahab alive than dead and Ahab knows it.

What’s interesting is that at the same time when we watch Negan we so want him to get what he’s got coming to him. The show has flirted with various assassination plots against Negan and we, who love Rick and the gang long for them to be free of Negan and for Negan to get what he deserves. Negan is a cold blooded killer and he deserves to die. Ahab is his brother. What do we say we want when we’ve got full bellies and safe secure houses?

The Word of the LORD comes again

So brother Ahab cuts a deal and gets some cash out of the arrangement. What comes next is a strange story which illustrates the seriousness of the LORD.

The story picks up with the prophetic guild. The word of the LORD comes to one of them. The implication is that it isn’t the one we met at the beginning of the chapter. The implication is that unlike the Elijah story where we have a superstar prophet these are just arising among the prophets and therefore it isn’t the will of the prophets. This is God moving in the midst of the people. Remember the elders of Samaria pressuring Ahab? Remember the officials of Aram pressuring Ben Hadad? God is working.

One prophet tells the other to strike him. That prophet should know to comply and doesn’t. He gets eaten by a lion. Remember the man of God from Judah (1 Kings 13) getting eaten by a lion for disobeying God?

Now he asks again and the second guy does the job. The prophet disguises himself as someone who was wounded in the war, a lowly foot-soldier.

Status and Class

The narrator is going to make a point here about justice. Throughout Ahab’s life we’ve see him to be the fulfillment of Samuel’s warning about kings. Samuel and Augustine are on the same page. Without justice kings are just thieves. They grow wealthy at the expense of the little people. It is the way of the world. It was supposed to be different in Israel, but Israel wanted to be just like the other nations.

Ahab has been delivered by God and he can take absolutely no credit for that deliverance. He was ready to roll over at Ben-Hadad at the beginning of the story. The LORD intervened, took him by the hand and gave him victory. What did he do with it?

The prophet tells him a story which everyone would understand. If a servant is put in charge of a captive and the captive gets away the servant pays for it with his life. Ahab wouldn’t wait a moment to execute such judgment against a servant who fails in this duty. We know how Ahab is since the Obadiah episode in chapter 18.

What we have here is an episode echoing Nathan confronting David over taking Bathsheba and killing Uriah the Hittite. The climax of that scene is the charge “you are that man!” and David immediately humbles himself before the LORD. Will Ahab? No. Ahab just goes home grumpy because the prophet has spoiled his day by exposing who he really is.

Ahab is not a servant of the Lord. The language here is herem, which is “the ban” which connects this chapter to Joshua and Jericho and Saul and the Amalekites. Ahab is not David, Ahab is Achan. Ahab is Saul.

What is Justice? 

Remember Augustine’s observation? A king without justice is just another thief. That level of thief, however, doesn’t just trouble a home, he or she troubles the world.

How can justice be found? It is found in being a servant of the LORD of justice, not someone looking to advantage yourself through the grimy politics of your day.

What should the archetype of a just king look like? 

Kings are wealthy, and they have power, and they use people. Just kings serve others and use the power given to them in obedience to God and in the service of their flock. The Old Testament repeats this again and again.

What, we might ask would be the highest, greatest King imaginable?

Plato wrestled with this. What is justice? What is injustice? The unjust are happy because they end up with the money, the booty, and whatever they want. The just are unhappy because they get the short end of the stick along with the meek.

And you must look at the matter, my simple-minded Socrates, in this way: that the just man always comes out at a disadvantage in his relation with the unjust. To begin with, in their business dealings in any joint undertaking of the two you will never find that the just man has the advantage over the unjust at the dissolution of the partnership but that he always has the worst of it. Then again, in their relations with the state, if there are direct taxes or contributions to be paid, the just man contributes more from an equal estate and the other less, and when there is a distribution [E] the one gains much and the other nothing. And so when each holds office, apart from any other loss the just man must count on his own affairs falling into disorder through neglect, while because of his justice he makes no profit from the state, and thereto he will displease his friends and his acquaintances by his unwillingness to serve them unjustly. But to the unjust man all the opposite advantages accrue. I mean, of course, the one I was just speaking of, [344] the man who has the ability to overreach on a large scale. Consider this type of man, then, if you wish to judge how much more profitable it is to him personally to be unjust than to be just. And the easiest way of all to understand this matter will be to turn to the most consummate form of injustice which makes the man who has done the wrong most happy and those who are wronged and who would not themselves willingly do wrong most miserable. And this is tyranny, which both by stealth and by force takes away what belongs to others, both sacred and profane, both private and public, not little by little but at one swoop. [B] For each several part of such wrongdoing the malefactor who fails to escape detection is fined and incurs the extreme of contumely; for temple-robbers, kidnappers, burglars, swindlers, and thieves are the appellations of those who commit these several forms of injustice. But when in addition to the property of the citizens men kidnap and enslave the citizens themselves, instead of these opprobrious names they are pronounced happy and blessed not only by their fellow-citizens [C] but by all who hear the story of the man who has committed complete and entire injustice. For it is not the fear of doing but of suffering wrong that calls forth the reproaches of those who revile injustice. Thus, Socrates, injustice on a sufficiently large scale is a stronger, freer, and more masterful thing than justice, and, as I said in the beginning, it is the advantage of the stronger that is the just, while the unjust is what profits a man’s self and is for his advantage.”

Plato. (1937–1942). The Republic: English Text. (T. E. Page, E. Capps, W. H. D. Rouse, L. A. Post, & E. H. Warmington, Eds., P. Shorey, Trans.) (Vol. 1, pp. 67–71). Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd.

If injustice is most profitable the larger the scale, as both the pirate and Socrates’ dialogue companions note, the of course at the scale of the universe it would be greatest. But what of Jesus?

Steve Martin here as a huckster evangelist makes the point clearly.

Plato will then wander into questions of archetypes.

What would be the situation for the most just man? If a just man is known for being just they would benefit from the reputation of being being just and enjoy the favor of the people. If we would try to imagine an even more just man that man would have been considered by the people around him to be unjust. He would have to be scorned by the people and even killed by them because they considered him evil. But the man of maximum justice would in fact need to be truly just to the degree that his justice is confused with injustice and he is condemned with the unjust.

Does this sound like anyone familiar to you? Could Israel have a king who would suffer and die while being labeled king of the Jews who was, actually, completely embodying in himself our welfare at his expense completely opposite what we saw in Ahab?

How should you regard such a person? How should you approach such a king?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Ahab is exposed to be a petty thief rather than a king by sparing a life, and how another is shown to be a king as he is executed with brigands.

  1. Pingback: Is this art? Is this goodness? Is this how God saves and rescues us as we de-construct the world? |

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