1 Kings 20 (NIV)✞: Ben-Hadad Attacks Samaria, Ahab Defeats Ben-Hadad, A Prophet Condemns Ahab
After focusing on the prophet Elijah (and the “calling” of Elisha), the focus in this passage shifts back to King Ahab in Israel. Though… I kind of consider him a secondary player in this story, it’s really between God and the Arameans.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The chapter starts with Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram, attacking Samaria, the capital of Israel. It’s a severe blow to Israel, and one that proves to King Ahab that he’s outmatched by the Arameans, so when Ben-Hadad issues his demands Ahab immediately submits to them:
2 He sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel, saying, “This is what Ben-Hadad says: 3 ‘Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.’”
4 The king of Israel answered, “Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.”
In fact, he might have agreed too quickly, because Ben-Hadad comes back with additional demands:
5 The messengers came again and said, “This is what Ben-Hadad says: ‘I sent to demand your silver and gold, your wives and your children. 6 But about this time tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away.’”
7 The king of Israel summoned all the elders of the land and said to them, “See how this man is looking for trouble! When he sent for my wives and my children, my silver and my gold, I did not refuse him.”
8 The elders and the people all answered, “Don’t listen to him or agree to his demands.”
9 So he replied to Ben-Hadad’s messengers, “Tell my lord the king, ‘Your servant will do all you demanded the first time, but this demand I cannot meet.’” They left and took the answer back to Ben-Hadad.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t good enough for Ben-Hadad, who sends message back to Ahab that he’s going to take everything. In fact—credit where credit is due—he uses a phrase that I kind of enjoy reading: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful“ (verse 10 (NIV)✞, emphasis added). It’s boastful, sure, but it’s clever boasting.
But Ahab is not to be outdone in clever retorts:
The king of Israel answered, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’”
In other words: It’s all well and good to boast before the battle, but let’s see who’s boasting after. Which is maybe a bit cheeky for someone who’s as overmatched as Ahab is, but still… clever.
Fortunately or unfortunately this provokes Ben-Hadad into action and he musters his army for battle.
However, a prophet comes to see Ahab—the ESV Study Bible is quick to point out that the prophet is not Elijah or even Elisha, it’s a different prophet, despite all of Elijah’s complaints that he’s the only prophet left—and tells the king that the LORD is going to hand Ben-Hadad’s entire army over to the Israelites to prove to Ahab that He is the LORD.
I don’t know why, but for some reason Ahab asks the prophet who, specifically, will be doing battle with the Arameans, and the prophet tells him that it will be the junior officers. The ESV Study Bible gives a bit more context:
1 Kings 20:14–18 Israel is to fight according to a divine battle plan that does not make much human sense (as in the case of Gideon in Judges 7). The servants (plural of Hb. na‘ar) are to initiate the battle—young men unschooled in military matters, like the young and untrained David, who is also called a na‘ar in 1 Sam. 17:33 (a “youth,” in contrast to the warrior Goliath). The plan benefits from the fact that Ben-hadad is drunk as the Israelites approach (1 Kings 20:12, 16) and seemingly incapable of uttering coherent or sensible instructions (v. 18).
ESV Study Bible
That last part I’m not sure if I’m in agreement with, but we’ll get to that in a sec…
Ahab gathers those junior officers—232 of them—and sends them out first, with the rest of the 7,000 soldiers of Israel behind them. As mentioned, Ben-Hadad and his officials are busy at the moment getting drunk, and when his people inform him that there are Israelites approaching he answers, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; if they have come out for war, take them alive” (verse 18 (NIV)✞). This is the part the ESV Study Bible calls an incoherent instruction but I always took it as vanity: “my troops are so superior that I don’t even need to kill these Israelite soldiers, I can just take them alive.” I viewed the “if X take them alive, if Y take them alive” phrasing as just a way to emphasize the command. Maybe I’ve just been so overwhelmed with all of the wordplay earlier in the chapter that I’m seeing everything as clever wordplay, and the ESV Study Bible is right about it being nonsensical…
The 232 junior officers arrive and each kills his opponent. Now that shouldn’t be a big deal to the Arameans, it’s only a loss of 232 men; the Israelites have brought 7,000 men and, given the context, I have to believe the Arameans have even more, so 232 is nothing. However, as often happens in battles that are recounted in the Old Testament, there is more going on than just a human battle: at the paltry loss of 232 men, the Aramean army flees, with the Israelites in pursuit! Verse 20 (NIV)✞ tells us that Ben-Hadad is able to “escape,” with some of his horsemen, which means that this is a pretty decisive victory for the Israelites, against the superior forces of the Arameans!
There’s no time to rest, however, because the same prophet comes back to Ahab after the battle and tells him to prepare for the following Spring when the Arameans are going to attack again.
For their part, however, the Arameans believe they know what the problem was, and come up with a solution:
23 Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they. 24 Do this: Remove all the kings from their commands and replace them with other officers. 25 You must also raise an army like the one you lost—horse for horse and chariot for chariot—so we can fight Israel on the plains. Then surely we will be stronger than they.” He agreed with them and acted accordingly.
26 The next spring Ben-Hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. 27 When the Israelites were also mustered and given provisions, they marched out to meet them. The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.
Since I’m apparently all about clever wordplay in this post, I might as well mention that I love the metaphor of the Israelites being like two small flocks of goats in front of the Aramean army that covers the countryside.
There’s no humanly way that the Israelites can win this battle – which is the point, as called out by the prophet:
The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Because the Arameans think the LORD is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the LORD.’”
The two armies sit across from each other for seven days—which may or may not be typical, I don’t know—but when they finally join battle on the seventh day the Israelites beat the Arameans badly, inflicting 100,000 casualties1 in that one day. Once again Ben-Hadad has to flee for his life, ending up in the nearby city of Aphek. But he doesn’t just flee to the city, he’s so scared of the Israelites (and their God?) that he hides in an inner room there!
His officials approach him with a plan, however, and this time the plan works:
31 His officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.”
32 Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says: ‘Please let me live.’”
The king answered, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.”
33 The men took this as a good sign and were quick to pick up his word. “Yes, your brother Ben-Hadad!” they said.
“Go and get him,” the king said. When Ben-Hadad came out, Ahab had him come up into his chariot.
34 “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.”
Ahab said, “On the basis of a treaty I will set you free.” So he made a treaty with him, and let him go.
This, however, was not God’s plan; the intent had been for Ahab to kill Ben-Hadad, not let him go. So a prophet—seemingly a different prophet from before, “one of the company of the prophets” (verse 35 (NIV)✞, emphasis added), so, again, Elijah is far from the only prophet around at this point—is going to act out a story for Ahab.
Well… first there’s a hiccup. He asks one of his companions to strike him with a weapon to injure him but his companion refuses, so the companion ends up being killed by a lion as punishment. Then another companion strikes the prophet, injuring him, so that he can play-act for King Ahab:
38 Then the prophet went and stood by the road waiting for the king. He disguised himself with his headband down over his eyes. 39 As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver.’ 40 While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”
“That is your sentence,” the king of Israel said. “You have pronounced it yourself.”
41 Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. 42 He said to the king, “This is what the LORD says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’”
Hearing this the king returns to his palace in Samaria, but he is “sullen and angry” (verse 43 (NIV)✞).
I have some main thoughts on this passage, and then a couple of minor points as well.
The Point of the Story
As to the main thrust of this chapter, I don’t actually consider Ahab to be one of the main players in this episode (as mentioned above). He’s definitely an important part of the story, but the primary people involved are the Arameans and the LORD. Ahab is an audience member: the LORD is doing this to prove to Ahab (and, I assume, the surrounding nations) that He is God.
So the point of the defeat of the Arameans in this story is for God to show that He is God, and whatever gods the Arameans worship aren’t real gods at all; that no matter how powerful the nation of Aram is, that power is nothing next to the power of the LORD.
There are actually two aspects to this:
- God defeating the Arameans in such a way that it’s obviously God’s work (not the Israelites’), and
- God deciding who to use, regardless whether it fits our definitions of “worthiness”
This is God’s Battle, Not Ahab’s
It’s pretty obvious from reading the text, but the way God defeats the Arameans clearly shows that this is His victory, not the Israelites’.
I see this as the reason there are two battles instead of one: after the first battle the Arameans aren’t thinking that they’ve been defeated by God because He is real and their gods aren’t, they’re thinking tactically: “OK, the Israelites have a god who operates well in hilly country, so let’s attack them in a place where there aren’t a lot of hills!” If God had defeated the Arameans all at once, the first time, that might very well have been the lesson surrounding nations (and Ahab) took away from this event: the Israelites worship god(s) who like hills. By defeating the Arameans twice, in different terrains, He removes the possibility of this reasoning.
But… Was Ahab Worthy to be Used by God?
But what’s more interesting about this is who God uses for His plans: the Israelites, under one of the worst kings of Israelite history, King Ahab. Based on all of the times the Israelites have been called out by the LORD for not worshipping Him properly, it’s almost laughable to think of Him as being “their” God; Ahab definitely doesn’t worship the LORD! We’d think that it would be better for Him to accomplish this victory through the nation of Judah, rather than the nation of Israel, where the people are at least trying to worship Him properly.
But God often works differently from the way we think He should work. When we get confused as to why God would choose to use Ahab as His tool instead of someone more righteous, it means we’re misunderstanding how the Bible works (Old Testament and New): God always chooses someone unworthy as His tool! Always! King David, for example, would have been more worthy than King Ahab, but he still would have been unworthy. When we read the stories in the Old Testament as morality tales—if you obey God He will reward you and use you for His purposes—we’re really missing the point of the Christian Scriptures.
Actually, there was one person who was worthy to be used for God’s purposes: Jesus Christ, who accomplished more than anyone else ever has. I may be as sinful as Ahab—hopefully not, but I sometimes view myself that way—but because Jesus was worthy, He made me way more righteous than David ever was when he was alive.
Right now, at this moment, I’m still not “worthy” to be used by God, but, by His Grace, He will use me anyway.
Did Ahab Disobey?
Ahab is reprimanded for letting Ben-Hadad go instead of killing him, but there isn’t such a command outlined for us in this passage. We see the original prophet telling Ahab that the Israelites will win the battle(s) against the Arameans, but the command to make sure Ben-Hadad is killed isn’t actually in the text. I’m assuming, however, that it was given, either implicitly in what the prophet told Ahab or explicitly and it just wasn’t recorded in the text. There definitely isn’t an indication from Ahab that he didn’t understand the command that was given.
Why does Ahab Make the Treaty?
Which does bring up another question, however: why did Ahab make the treaty with Ben-Hadad in the first place? He has overwhelmingly defeated the Arameans—well… to be pedantic, God has defeated the Arameans on his behalf—so he doesn’t need to make this treaty. I can think of a couple of reasons, but I don’t know if either is correct:
- Ahab is greedy: he figures it’s better to have the Arameans paying him tribute than to destroy them. (The treaty doesn’t mention tribute, but, again, it might have been either implied or just not recorded in the text.)
- Ahab is afraid: he’s worried that, even if he kills Ben-Hadad, the Arameans will someday rise again to be a great power, and then they’ll destroy Israel in retribution.
As I say, I don’t know if either of these theories hold water.
The Arameans’ Two Demands
The passage states with the Arameans making demands of Ahab, Ahab immediately capitulating, and then the Arameans coming back with additional demands. This is another case where I might be reading too much into it or missing something cultural, but I’ve always read this as somewhat selfish on Ahab’s part. Ben-Hadad tells Ahab that the Arameans are taking all of Israel’s gold and silver, and even their wives and children, and he doesn’t say a thing. Then Ben-Hadad makes it personal and says he’s going to go into Ahab’s palace, and this time Abah gets angry. As if Ahab’s attitude is that it’s one thing to raid the nation, but raiding his house is going too far!
A more charitable reading of this is that Ahab realizes, upon the increased demands, that nothing he agrees to will ever be good enough, and this is just the demand that pushes him over the edge.
- Based on a number of sources I’ve been listening to lately it’s probably best not to take numbers too literally in the Old Testament, where they tend to be more symbolic than what we would consider “accurate.” And, frankly, there wouldn’t have been someone there counting, to see how many casualties there actually were. But the point is the point, regardless of the actual number: it was a huge loss to the Arameans. ↩