Millgram-why Ahab was worse than the others

As we begin to discuss Hillel Millgram’s insights into the stories of Elijah and Ahab from his book The Elijah Enigma, it may help to have before us a text:

. . .Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him. In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho; he laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua son of Nun (1 Kings 16:33-34 NRSV).

This is a little different from the evaluations Kings makes of other kings. Usually Kings covers these reigns very briefly. The northern kings were all bad. They all followed in the footsteps of Jeroboam I. So a short paragraph about their reign ends with a judgment against them and what passed for a link to a scroll called the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel. Then the narrative moves on to the next king.

However, with Ahab a long series of stories, mostly about Elijah, intervenes between the introduction of his reign and its conclusion.

Millgram calls attention to the claim made above and in 16:30 that Ahab was somehow worse than the other kings who ruled before him. It was not just that he promoted idolatry. That is already the sin of Jeroboam and the kings who came after him.

Millgram argues that there is a moral aspect to the condemnation of the various kings. They were not just bad because they fostered a bad, idolatrous, non-Jerusalem cult. They were also bad because of murder.

He takes the example of Zimri, the king who ruled only seven days because he was almost immediately overthrown by Ahab’s father, Omri. It is said of Zimri that he walked in the ways of Jeroboam (1 Kings 16:19). But clearly he did not, during the week that he held Tirzah, do much to promote idolatry or the bull cult. What he did was assassinate the previous king and send death squads out to kill every member and supporter of the Baasha dynasty.  His short reign was a bloodbath.

But Ahab was worse. Why? That is where the story about Hiel, Ahab’s military engineer who fortified Jericho comes in. We know that Omri had conquered part of the Moabite territory east of the Jordan. This is probably what prompted the fortification of the long-abandoned site at Jericho.

Now according to the Book of Joshua (remember that book, as well as 1 Kings, is part of the history that one scribe wrote or edited during the Babylonian exile) after the walls of Jericho fell down there was a curse attached to rebuilding them (Joshua 6:26). The actions of Hiel, who made a human sacrifice of Abiram when he began and of Segub when he finished, made that curse real. He carried out the curse in a shockingly unexpected way.

Human sacrifice seems to have really been an aspect of Phoenician religion. The practice of making human foundation sacrifices and burying the child’s bones with the foundation of a building occurs in non-biblical sources. The story of Hiel and his unfortunate sons illustrates the claim that Ahab was worse than all his predecessors.

That raises the question of Jezebel, Ahab’s Phoenician wife. Jezebel has become the villain of the story in popular imagination, books and movies. There has been a reaction against this recently, so that Jezebel has become a model for girl power. There is a feminist magazine/website named after her.

Millgram does not whitewash Jezebel, but he does stick to the fact that the story in Kings puts the full responsibility on Ahab. Jezebel probably had no choice about marrying Ahab. It was an arranged marriage made for political reasons. But, as Solomon had done, Ahab extended to his foreign wife the courtesy of providing a place for her to practice her religion. But unlike Solomon, it looks like Ahab came to actually affirm the religion of his wife.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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