The Audio Recording
Melakhim Alef Chapter 22
After three years of peace with Aram, tensions arise as Aram occupies Ramot Gilead, territory that belongs to the Kingdom of Israel. Ahav reaches out to Yehoshaphat, King of Judah, with whom he has a strong alliance, and requests his support in fighting Aram and reestablishing his dominion over Ramot Gilead. Yehoshaphat expresses solidarity with Ahav but requests that before they proceed, they seek the word of Hashem regarding their course of action.
Ahav gathers his four hundred “government employed” prophets who all declare in the name of Hashem that the Jewish forces will prevail in the war. Among them is the memorable Tzidqiya ben Kenaanah, who fashions horns of iron, places them on his head and announces that “with this shall you gore Aram!” Yehoshafat perceives that these alleged prophets are not genuine, and presses Ahav to consult with a bona fide prophet of Hashem. Ahav is loath to do so, because the only available prophet of Hashem is Mikhayhu ben Yimlah, and he has a reputation for delivering pessimistic and negative messages to the king.
Nonetheless, Mikhayhu is summoned to the court of Ahav, informed that all of the prophets thus far have given positive predictions, and is asked for the word of Hashem. He replies that he will only convey the message that Hashem has instructed him to preach. At first, he mocks the request and simply mimics the declaration of the false prophets. Ahav chastises Mikhayhu and demands that he report the word of Hashem fully and truthfully. Mikhayhu states that Hashem has decreed that Ahav will be seduced by the empty assurances of his false prophets and will fall in battle at Ramot Gilead, leaving his kingdom without a leader.
Tzidqiya ben Kenaana slaps Mikhayhu in the face and berates him for lying in the name of Hashem; Mikhayhu responds that Tzidqiya will, indeed, learn the truth of the matter when he must run and hide from the imminent devastation. Ahav orders that Mikhayhu be placed in jail and fed meager rations until the day that he returns from the battle in peace. Mikhayhu replies that if Ahav does, in fact, return in peace, then he should rightly be considered a false prophet.
Ahav and Yehoshafat head to the battle. Ahav disguises himself so that he will not be a target of the Aramean forces. The army of Aram has been given strict instructions to focus on assassinating the king of Israel and not be distracted by the other troops. At one point, they pursue Yehoshafat, believing him to be the man that they seek; however, when they realize he is not Ahav, they leave him alone.
An archer of Aram shoots a random arrow that happens to hit Ahav in one of the cracks of his armor, wounding him severely. He is carried away from the battlefield in his chariot and dies. The rest of the men of Israel escape the war and return home. Ahav’s chariot is cleansed of his blood by the pool of Shomron, a place where dogs drink and harlots bathe, in fulfillment of the prophetic vision that his blood would suffer this demeaning fate.
The chapter then provides a brief biography of Yehoshaphat, son of Asa, king of Yehuda. Yehoshaphat was a righteous king who adhered to the Torah and continued his father’s efforts to rid the land of the practitioners of immorality. However he, like his father, did not dismantle the Bamot, or personal altars, that proliferated in Israel during the time of Rehavam and diluted the centrality and exclusivity of the Bet Hamiqdash. At one point, Yehoshafat had commissioned a fleet of ships to bring gold from Ophir, something reminiscent of the opulent days of Shelomo. However, the ships were damaged and the project was abandoned.
Although Yehoshaphat made peace and cooperated with the Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahav, this relationship seems to have weakened or fallen by the wayside during the rule of Ahav’s son, Ahazya. Ahazya, like his father and mother, did not follow the ways of Hashem and served the Baal. The description of his brief and tragic reign will be the first topic addressed in Sefer Melakhim Bet.
One intriguing point in this chapter is that Yehoshaphat can readily distinguish between “real” and “fake” prophets of Hashem. How did he know that the men encouraging them to battle Aram were not authentic representatives of the Almighty? Apparently, this reveals to us one of the fundamental differences between pagan prophets in the ancient world and prophets of Israel.
The “prophecies” of pagan prophets were like blessings they conferred upon the king; they would endorse, promote, and encourage the leader on the course of action he had already decided to take. The job of such a professional prophet was to give the impression that there was some kind of spiritual backing to a king’s initiatives that gave them larger-than-life significance and would therefore win the commitment and support of the populace and the troops.
Prophets of Israel, by contrast, primarily serve an instructive and educational purpose. At times, they convey Divine approval of choices made by the king, but at other times – especially when the very essence of a particular king’s agenda runs counter to the will of Hashem – the job of the true prophet is to oppose, criticize and redirect a misguided ruler for the benefit of the nation. Yehoshaphat could immediately perceive – and so could Ahav, who does not protest – that the so-called prophets initially gathered by Ahav were merely his “cheerleading squad” who were expected to engage in dramatic and theatrical behavior and to repeat slogans and mantras in support of the king’s decisions.
In today’s terms, we might compare their function to that of the media outlets that are decidedly biased and engage in propaganda and spin on behalf of the cause, political party or movement to which they are dedicated. They are not critical thinkers or meaningful sources of objective insight; they are helping to drum up popular support for one or another agenda.
Despite his awareness of this fact, Ahav disregards the prophecy of Mikhayhu and trusts the false claims of his “yes men”. We must bear in mind that this is an unusual move for Ahav; in the past, he has been generally receptive to the word of Hashem as conveyed by true prophets, even though he has had adversarial relationships with them on a personal and political level. However, as Mikhayhu’s vision revealed, this “seduction” of Ahav by the false prophets was part of his punishment from Hashem; it was out of character but, like Pharaoh whose heart was hardened in the story of the Exodus, Ahav had exhausted his chances to repent and Hashem took away his clarity of judgment and discernment so that he would inevitably meet his final downfall.
One remarkable feature of this chapter is that Ahav is not once mentioned by name – he is referred to simply as “the King of Israel” throughout, with the exception of the verse describing his death. The reason for the omission of his name is a mystery. It is possible that this is the text’s way of showing disdain for Ahav, effacing his name and referring to him only by his title. On the other hand, it is possible to interpret this anomaly as a veiled praise of Ahav.
As we saw in the previous chapter, Ahav took pride in his accomplishments and all that he had achieved for the sake of his nation. He was more troubled by the prediction that the legacy he had established as a successful leader in Israel would be destroyed than he was by the prospect of his own disgrace and demise. In the merit of his demonstration of humility before God, Ahav was spared the pain of having to witness the obliteration of his dynasty.
Perhaps it was in the same spirit of “accepting the repentance” of Ahav that the prophetic author adorns him here with the name “King of Israel”, a title and an office that he showed meant more to him than life itself. The “King of Israel”, as it were, ignored the danger that battle posed to him personally, put himself at risk to defend the territory of his people, and died a tragic but manifestly patriotic and heroic death. However, when all is said and done, he is simply Ahav – a Jew with tremendous leadership potential who failed to live up to the expectations Hashem had of him.