Millgram-Ahab dies a failure

I am reading Hillel Millgram’s The Elijah Enigma.

In 1 Kings 22 we see a situation where prophets advise kings. Ahab has secured the backing of Judah’s king Jehoshaphat to retake Ramoth-Giliad east of the Jordan, a stronghold that has been retained by the Syrian regime in Damascus.

Ahab’s purpose is to accommodate King Jehoshaphat of Judah, who is more religious (read superstitious) than he is. So he calls together an assembly of ecstatic prophets to also raise morale and build confidence in the coming campaign.

The scene described in 1 Kings 22:10-12 gets imagined by Millgram as quite a show with prophets whirling, dancing and chanting in ecstasy. A certain Zedekiah puts on a headpiece with iron horns and charges up and down the court before the thrones, saying that the two kings will gore Syrians like a bull. The prophets start to chant together that the kings should go to war and triumph.

Into this scene comes and otherwise unknown prophet, Micaiah. He at first offers to confirm the positive oracles of the others. But Ahab hesitates. He has gotten negative pronouncements from this prophet before. So he wants him to get real. So Micaiah prophecies that the flock will lose their shepherd, the king. Remember that Ahab has already been sentenced to death because of the killing of Naboth. So the question for our narrative is only when this will happen.

To explain the contradictory messages the king is getting, Micaiah tells of a vision of the heavenly court where God sends a lying spirit to dupe the prophets and the king. So the Micaiah is not saying the court prophets are false prophets, only that they are agents of God in luring the king into the situation where the death penalty already pronounced against him will be executed.

Ahab dies from wounds inflicted in the battle. From the point of view of the author of 1 Kings, he has been a moral failure. Yet he knows the worldly achievements of Ahab:

Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? (1 Kings 22:39 NRSV).

We know about some of the building projects from archeological digs. For instance, it seems that he rebuilt and expanded the port at Dor to establish Israel as a factor in sea trade on the Mediteranean. His alliances made him part of a coalition that Assyrian records report as fighting them at Qarqar, thus delaying Assyrian expansion into the Syrian-Phoenician-Israelite area. He reestablished close ties with Judah, apparently marrying off his relative, Athaliah, to the crown prince. (Millgram takes the unique position that Athaliah was Ahab’s younger sister.)

The main interest of Kings is not really kings. A book of annals he uses as a source is really about them. Kings is the prophetic challenge to kings.

I am rushing a bit to publish today because of pre-Christmas activities (my social life picks up this time of year). Before I close, let me share a thought that is may be altogether wrong.

When Zedekiah puts on bull horns and charges around, is he giving us a hint about the nature of the bull cult at Bethel? When the Northern Kingdom was founded, Jeroboam identified bulls with the deity that had brought Israel out of Egypt. So might the idea of bulls have been closely associated with divine help in battle?

Zedekiah son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron, and he said, “Thus says the Lord: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.” (1 Kings 22:11 NRSV).

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2018-Christmas letter

As I have done before, I post my family end-of-the-year, Christmas letter here:

Yule—Our Germanic ancestors got really drunk and sacrificed somebody to Chris Hemsworth (Thor). We too really want the days to start getting longer. We’re going to refrain from the sacrifice, but might lift a glass or two—maybe watch an Avengers movie.

Hanukkah—the Greeks tried to enforce a Mediterranean version of Yule on the Jews. The Jews staged a bloody revolt. We too worship the God of Israel, so in solidarity we light candles for religious freedom. Again, though, we try to avoid bloodshed.

Christmas—God became human in the infant Jesus. We celebrate this with family and church, lights and gifts.

Rather than a vague happy holidays we say: Have a cool Yule, a happy Hanukkah, and a merry and blessed Christmas. We also send along this geography our year:

Tennessee: In March our 6th grandchild was born to Paul and Jennifer, Theodora . We showed up a week or so later to do fun grandparent stuff.

Kansas: Karl and Theresa moved into a beautiful new home. We helped.

Maine: Granddaughter Eliza completed on August 1 her through hike of the Appalachian Trail. She had started in Georgia and hiked through deep snow in Virginia in the Spring. So proud!

Korea: Grandson Elias visited Korea in October with his Tia Kwon Do group.

Montana: We did not go to Montana this year. But Dave’s Mom turned 97 in August and we’ve cleared the calendar for the big celebration in three years.

Missouri: Dave was on the search committee for a pastor for our church for most of the last two years. This summer we were finally able call Russell Alexander, who began in October.

We all had some sadness. Betty lost a loyal canine friend, Luke, a friend’s dog that she had been walking for years. Dave lost one of the people he drives to doctor’s appointments. He had been driving Junior for a long time and had become friends. But most shocking and sad was the unexpected death in June of our church’s interim pastor, Rick Butler.

Our year also included music: The Scott Joplin festival, our church’s Music in the Street celebration, and a rock concert with Foghat and other bands at the Missouri State Fair.

In August we celebrated grandson Connor’s 10th birthday. In October Dave celebrated the 60th anniversary of his 10th birthday.

Florida: We made our getaway last January. We basked in beauty in a condo overlooking the Gulf at Cedar Key. Oh, did we eat great seafood! We spent a day at the Kennedy Space Center. We were in Daytona Beach and visited the speedway. We are looking forward to Florida again soon.



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Millgram-the blood of Jezreel

In my reading of Hillel Millgram’s The Elijah Enigma I come to the story of Naboth’s vineyard and 1 Kings 21.

There are conversations recounted: Ahab with Naboth, Ahab with himself, and Ahab with Jezebel. There are also letters that Jezebel supposedly wrote. The author of 1 Kings uses all this as a literary device. He does not possess transcripts. But there is something true and probably historical that comes through. That is the cultural difference between Phoenicians and Israelites.

When Ahab makes an offer to buy Naboth’s land in 21:2, he offers an exchange of land for land. Paying silver seems like an afterthought.

But when Ahab retells the story of the offer to Jezebel in verse 6, he says he made the cash offer first. He tailored his story to Jezebel’s Phoenician economics where money mattered more than land. But this is not the way Israelites thought. The land was a gift from God. (Or, perhaps in the older form of religion in the north, it was a gift from God through ancestors now thought of as demigods.)

In any case, to the Phoenicians, to have an offer of cash rejected was unreasonable and an insult.

Millgram, although he knows that the conversations and letters are literary devices, still considers these events with a kind of historical naivete. It looks to me like the whole story has been backwritten by someone who knew how Naboth died and how Jezebel died. He also knew about land-grabbing by royal officials as condemned by many prophets, especially Micah. He plausibly traced this practice back to Phoenician influence.

Maybe he knew more. Maybe he had some account of what the charges against Naboth were. The charge in verse 10 is that he had offended Elohim and Melech, translated as God and the king. This seems to echo Exodus 22:28 from the Covenant Code. However, if these charges were made under Phoenician influence, the Elohim could be interpreted as a true plural: gods, judges or spirit-ancestors. And the god of Tyre was Melqart, literally milik-qurt, “King of the City”. That is suggestive.

Millgram is interested in Ahab’s motivation.

Why did he want Naboth’s farm so badly? Naboth’s land abutted Ahab’s winter palace. He wanted to plant a vegetable garden (v. 2). That sounds trivial and maybe it was meant to. A man was lynched because the king wanted greens for his table. Millgram thinks it had more to do with the king’s landscaping plans. In a footnote, he considers another theory: that Ahab wanted Naboth’s estate in order to gift it to a loyal general or official.

In any case Ahab fell into a funk, went to bed, turned his face to the wall, and wouldn’t get up even to eat (v. 4) until Jezebel reported Naboth’s death.

Millgram considers how Ahab’s petty and passive behavior seems to contrast with the portrait of a decisive and aggressive leader that we have seen in the stories about his wars.

This causes Millgram to see that he cannot take the story entirely at face value. Ahab was an expert at covering up his involvement, at keeping his hands clean. So the story as we have it, with Jezebel as the arch-villain, may have come to us that way because Ahab was so good at covering up his role.

This is especially likely because, once Elijah confronts him, Ahab does not put the blame off on Jezebel. He seems to take responsibility and fully repent.

Elijah has pronounced doom. This still applies to Jezebel and the house of Omri. However, God will spare Ahab. This does not keep the exilic author from repeating his judgment that Ahab was worse than all the other kings (v. 25).

Thinking about this causes me to reconsider the meaning of “the blood of Jezreel” in Hosea 1:4. We shall see that 1 Kings affirms the murders committed by Jehu in the overthrow of the Omride dynasty. Hosea doesn’t. Usually interpreters take the “blood of Jezreel” to mean the blood Jehu shed all over the Jezreel valley. But the phrase may have originally applied to the city of Jezreel. Perhaps it was a phrase that first referred to the murder of Naboth as the reason for the fall of the Omrides. But Hosea broadened the term to include even the death of Jezebel in the context of the fall of house of Jehu.

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More deeply into Advent

Here is a semi-poetic Advent meditation that I link because I haven’t yet done anything to mark Hanukkah or the impending Nativity celebration.  Be sure to watch and listen to the video at the end.

It may help to know that, although I don’t think he mentions it in the meditation, the author, Gerald VanderLeun, lives (or lived) in Paradise, California and just lost his home to the fires.

I like this meditation because it deals with spaceflight, which is often on my mind,  and acknowledges the awe-instilling and worshipful aspect of seeing the bigness of the universe.  Yet it also raises questions about the hubris that tempts us because we have been able to reach out toward the stars.

From the meditation:

As we now move more deeply into Advent, we move — in our long sweeping orbit about our home star — closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and most certainly our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith — even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had — this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle made manifest all about us in every moment if we could but pause to see the forever present revelation.

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Millgram-war in the hills

Today I will treat Hillel Millgram’s discussion of King Ahab at war with Syria.

1 Kings 20 focuses on King Ahab and tells us a lot about him. We learn that he is not an autocrat. Rather, he usually will not act without consulting others. Also he is capable of making brilliant strategic decisions. Moreover, he is not vengeful. Rather, he treats his enemies well and deals with them in a pragmatic way.

The history shows how King Ahab defeated King Ben-Hadad (possibly the second Syrian king by that name) and reestablished Israel’s power and northern territory.

But the story of Ahab is set off by two encounters with prophets. So the theological evaluation of Ahab differs from an evaluation of whether he was a good or competent leader.

Because Millgram here deals so much with history, I had to take time to go to the back of the book and read some of the appendices to get a better idea of Millgram’s historical approach.

One of the things Millgram points out that I thoroughly agree with is that chapter 20 is not in chronological order. These events come before the ministry of Elijah, the drought, and the contest on Mount Carmel. Elijah does not appear in the chapter. Notice that Ahab fights almost entirely with infantry. The many horses that he had later do not yet appear.

The part I can’t agree with is his contention that Canaanite religion was eliminated in Israel in an earlier time and only now, with the alliance with Tyre, is coming back.  I will probably get a chance to talk about that in a later post.

He tends toward accepting historical events as reported. He does not ask as often as I would how an exilic author would know historical details from centuries earlier. But he does understand that the author has an agenda that he imposes on his historical account.

How that works in chapter 20 comes out partly in the summary of the military review the Syrians did after their initial defeat at Wadi Fara (vs 23 ff.). The generals supposedly tell the king that they have lost because they fought in the hills. Israel worships a mountain god, so they had the advantage in that terrain.

Now it is unlikely that the author of 1 Kings had access to the report the generals gave the their king. He probably made an intelligent assumption that they thought they lost because they were at a disadvantage in the narrow ravines going up to the hills.

However, the prophet uses the military strategy to make a theological point (v. 28). The God of Israel is not a limited, territorial god as the Syrians might have thought, but the only God.

You can see that this is part of the theological agenda and not part of the historical account, because the Israelites do not actuallly fight the battle of Aphek on the plain, where they would still have been at a disadvantage. They advance quickly and trap the Syrian army in a canyon near the Golan Heights.

The theological point does mesh with what happened in the sense that the prophet stresses the great numerical advantage of the Ben Hadad’s army. The Syrians filled the area, but the Israelites looked like a couple of herds of goats. When destruction comes upon the enemy, the author uses numbers to highlight a vast calamity. But we shouldn’t think those numbers are literal.

Millgram compares Ahab’s achievement here with the Spartan victory at the pass of Thermopolyae with just 300 men.

I have always assumed that the claim often translated in v. 30 to say that 27,000 Syrians died when the city wall fell on them is just a wildly unhistorical enhancement. However, Millgram interprets the verse as saying that as the troops fled towards Aphek, the canyon wall fell on them. The number is still an exaggeration, but there might have been an avalanche.

While a modern analyst might give Ahab credit for his magnanimous treatment of Ben-Hadad, the prophetic position was that the king was the Lord’s prisoner, not Ahab’s. So the Lord should have decided what happened to him. I do not know what happened historically. The condemnation of Ahab for failing to kill the Syrian king seems like a part of the Deuteronomisic perspective. It reminds me of King Saul displeasing Samuel by failing to kill the Amalekite king.

One thing to note is that the Bible has not mentioned the “sons (company NRSV) of the prophets” (v. 35) before. If this chapter reflects the period of Ahab’s reign before Elijah, the existence of prophets as, not just loners, but a community predates Elijah and Elisha.

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Millgram-Elijah resigns

I have been doubtful about the historicity of the events in the Elijah cycle. The feats and wonder-working remind me of the Samson cycle in Judges. It is not that Samson never existed. One likely theory is that his stories are based on Shamgar ben Anath, whose fight with the Philistines gets brief notice in Judges 3:31. But the stories about Samson run with a lot of folk-lore and myth. They show borrowings from the Herucules stories of the Greeks.

Reading Hillel Millgram’s The Elijah Enigma is helping me see how Elijah’s stories are different from Sampson’s. There is more historical connection through Ahab and the Omride dynasty. The portrayal of Elijah as a wonder-worker mirrors the Pentateuch and its portrayal of Moses.

After Elijah’s encounter with the Baal prophets on one mountain, he flees to another mountain. There is very little historical information in this. Elijah is near Jezreel. Then he is a hundred miles away  in Beer-Sheba without any mention of the days of travel this would have taken him. Then he treks through the desert to Horeb. Supposedly he did not eat or drink for 40 days. Millgram is quite correct that the 40 days represent a lesser period of time. The fast, the 40 days, and the journey to the mountain are all supposed to recall Moses.

Elijah’s journey is a theological and human drama, not a report based on a calendar somebody kept.

These chapters from Millgram contain much speculation about what Abab, Jezebel and Elijah were thinking. This is what Millgram imagines Elijah was thinking:

. . .I acted in the best way I knew how; I did what I thought had to be done. And You backed me to the hilt, by sending fire from heaven as well as rain. But all this proved insufficient. Repentance was temporary at best. As soon as the rains came—as soon as the pressure was off—the Israelites replapsed into their old ways. Here I am alone—a fugitive (Sorry, no page numbers in this Kindle book).

He looks closely at Elijah’s reflective thoughts in 1 Kings 19:10.

Millgram points out three elements of Elijah’s thinking that may surprise us. The first is just how self-absorbed he has become. For someone with a mission from God, he has become very focused on how unfair and hard his own circumstances are.

Second, Ahab and Jezebel drop out of the picture. Elijah doesn’t blame them for his troubles. Instead, he says that Israel has abandoned God and left his prophet all alone.

The third surprise is the way Elijah totalizes Israel, as though every single individual except Elijah has turned away from God. According to the narrative, Elijah should know that Obadiah had enabled many prophets of YWWH to survive. But, perhaps their loyalty is not good enough for Elijah. Their going into hiding instead of standing for their faith in the open disqualifies them as faithful servants of God.

Elijah keeps saying that he is “very zealous”. We should probably interpret this to mean fanatical. And, according to 1 Kings, he is more fanatical than God.

Elijah tries to resign from his mission. But God does not accept his resignation.

In his experience at Horeb, Elijah has a religious experience that is almost completely negative. It is about what does not convey God’s presence-wind, earthquake and fire. He finally heard a sound of silence. Again, this is negative. The text does not say whether God was in the silence.

But, somehow, Elijah figures out that God wants him to go back the way he came and then on to Damascus. Perhaps the mission to Damascus reflects Elijah’s judgment that his mission to Israel has failed.

I have concentrated on Millgram’s exploration of Elijah’s thought processes because the text gives us some basis for that. I found his attempts to discern the thoughts of Ahab and Jezebel to have less foundation.

However, there may be something to his idea that Ahab saw the situation in Israel after the downfall of the Baal prophets as a big win. Of course, the end of the drought was a win for him. But also the growing power of the Phoenician religious officials and the alienation of loyal Israelites may have become a negative for him. So the elimination of the Baal prophets would have left a more balanced situation. And this would have curbed Jezebel’s power without Ahab needing to upset anyone in the court at Tyre.

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Millgram-fire and blood on Mount Carmel

The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal illustrates a feature of Hillel Millgram’s treatment of the Elijah cycle in his The Elijah Enigma that has puzzled me. His way of treating the stories is under the influence of literary and canonical critics. They often do not see much importance in historical questions. But Millgram combines his literary analysis with a defense of a mostly literal understanding of the events themselves.

For instance in the Mount Carmel story from the last part of 1 Kings 18, Millgram seems to care a lot about where the water poured on the sacrifice came from. There had been a long drought. Water was in short supply. So how did they have so much water?

He rejects the notion that Elijah sent people to the River Kishon (where the story later says that the Baal prophets died). The whole story takes place in a few hours. So there would have been no time to make several trips to fill jars at the river, which may have become a dry bed by now anyway. He mentions the idea that the contest happened near a spring. But he argues, instead, that all the people brought flasks and Elijah made them empty their flasks into jars so that he could make a show of burning a soaked bull carcass.

This shows that Millgram takes the physical events described in the story very literally. Yet he thinks the author wrote this centuries later. He does not have much in the way of a source theory. So my question is how the scribe; perhaps Baruch writing in exile, could have known in detail what happened in the Carmel mountain range several centuries before his time. Over the years, might some hyperbole have come in with regard to Elijah’s showmanship and the number of people involved?

That does not stop me from appreciating aspects of Millgram’s view. One of the things I have always enjoyed about this story (I used it as a dramatic reading in an oratory class in college) is the sarcasm of Elijah when the Baal prophets are hopping around and even self harming in their futile prayers. Here is Millgam’s paraphrase 1 Kings 18:27:

Maybe your problem is that you are not praying loud enough. After all he is a god and may be busy. He may be talking to somebody; he may have a case of the runs and is closeted in the outhouse; maybe he isn’t at home, he’s gone out; maybe he is taking a nap and you’ve got to wake him up to get some action.

Another aspect of Millgram’s view is his focus on monotheism. He proposes modifying the translation of 1 Kings 18:21:

Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word (NRSV).

Here is a metaphor that pictures a bird hopping back and forth between two branches, unable to settle on one. The same word is used later for the “hopping” of the prophets of Baal upon their altar (v. 26).

But more significantly, the translation should be “the LORD is the God”. He is not just a member of the class: gods. He alone is the God.

Millgram sees how the story shows the contrast between the intolerance of monotheism and the tolerance of paganism. Ahab tried to effect a neutral and tolerant position. He did not directly interfere with Elijah or the pagan prophets. He probably thought that, if he gave Elijah enough rope, he would hang himself.

It seems to me that, writing during the exile, the author could have fervently objected to paganism on Israelite soil, and yet, following Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29), advocated tolerance on other soil.

I have two credibility problems with this story.

First there is the miracle of fire falling to consume the sacrifice. This is the lesser problem for me. Certain rare but natural phenomena seemed to attend the Exodus: east wind blowing the sea back, manna, quails falling exhausted in the desert. These natural phenomena became miracles when they happened at the right time to help Israel.

A “bolt from the blue“ is a natural phenomenon: see here.

The more difficult problem for me is the murder of the prophets of Baal depicted in this seldom-used icon of Saint Elijah.

The story partly justifies this by reporting that Jezebel had slaughtered prophets of YHWH. I have already doubted that event.

It seems to me that the slaughter of the Baal prophets is part of the shaping of this story to show Elijah as a second Moses. Moses had Levites kill idolaters according to a wilderness story (Exodus 32:15-34). Deuteronomy 13:5 legislates the death penalty for false prophets.

But I wonder if the Mount Carmel story wasn’t revised to give Elijah more agency than he had. The prophets of Baal greatly outnumbered Elijah, and Ahab would have been okay with his demise. The people were initially indifferent. “The people did not answer him a word.”

So a more credible story to me would be that the prophets drug Elijah off to lynch him. But some of the people were finally stirred to action and saved him at the cost of the lives of many of the Baal prophets.

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