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.