THE BOOK OF 1 KINGS
Lesson 8: Chapters 19-20
Part II: The Divided Kingdom
Elijah at Horeb (Mt. Sinai) and
The Aramaean Wars

Lord God,
Your prophet Elijah demonstrated extraordinary fortitude in the face of evil in his contest with the prophets of Baal. But the victory did not yield the desired result. He lost hope when his successful mission against the prophets of Baal failed to produce repentance in Israel. In his hour of distress, You took mercy on Elijah and called Your prophet to a personal encounter with the Divine to give him the strength he needed to complete his mission. When we are tossed about by the storms of life and everything seems to be working against us, we know that if we call You that You are there to strengthen us. In those times, when we call out like St. Peter in the midst of the stormy sea: "Lord, save me!", You are there to lift us up and to guide us, like You encouraged Elijah, so we can continue our life's journey. Please send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in the continuing story of Elijah, "father of prophets." We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Finally, taking the desert road that leads to the place where the living and true God reveals himself to his people, Elijah, like Moses before him, hides "in a cleft of the rock" until the mysterious presence of God has passed by. But only on the mountain of the Transfiguration will Moses and Elijah behold the unveiled face of him whom they sought; "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God [shines] in the face of Christ," crucified and risen.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2583

Elijah has defeated the prophets of Baal and has demonstrated to both King Ahab and the Israelites that Baal is a false, impotent god; it is only Yahweh who is God. Elijah accompanied Ahab back to his palace at Jezreel and waited for the signs of the repentance of the king and the people. And yet, the repentance of the king and the people did not materialize despite the proofs of Yahweh's power in the miracle of the fire from heaven (18:38). Instead, Elijah faced the wrath of Jezebel, Queen of Israel and devoted disciple of Baal.

Chapter 19: Elijah and the Aftermath of his Victory at Mt. Carmel

This section of the Elijah cycle Part I has three episodes:

  1. Elijah's encounter with Jezebel and his journey to Mt. Horeb/Sinai (19:1-8)
  2. Elijah's encounter with Yahweh at Horeb/Mt. Sinai (19:9-18)
  3. The call of Elisha (19:19-21)

1 Kings 19:1-8 ~ Jezebel's threat and the journey to Horeb
1 When Ahab told Jezebel everything [all] that Elijah had done, and [all about] how he had put all the prophets to the sword. 2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods bring unnamable ills on me and worse ills too, if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like one of theirs!" 3 He was afraid and fled for his life. He came to Beersheba, a town of Judah, where he left his servant. 4 He himself went on into the desert, a day's journey, and sitting under a furze [broom] bush wished he were dead. "Yahweh," he said, "I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." 5 Then he lay down and went to sleep. Then all of a sudden an angel touched him and said, "Get up and eat." 6 He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones [ashes], and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 But the angel of Yahweh came back a second time and touched him and said, "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you." 8 So he got up and ate and drank, and strengthened by that food he walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, God's mountain.

The word "all" is repeated three times in the Hebrew text of Ahab's account of events to Jezebel. The repetition is probably to emphasis the enormity of Elijah's actions which were part of God's divine plan to call Israel to repentance.

Question: Why was Elijah fearful of Jezebel? Hadn't God protected him in the past?
Answer: Elijah and the other Biblical heroes are not cardboard saints. They were real, flesh and blood men and woman who experience all the fears and anxieties that we face, but they were called by God to extraordinary works in His name. Elijah was afraid because he was human; it is human to fear suffering and death.

In the failure of Israel to repent after his victory at Mt. Carmel, Elijah did not experience a crisis of faith but a crisis of expectation.
Question: How did Elijah experienced a "crisis of expectation" that left him despondent? What did he expect after his victory over the prophets of Baal that did not happen?
Answer: He expected that his victory against the prophets of Baal would result in the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom and their king repenting their sin of idol worship. He expected that they would turn back to Yahweh, and they would destroy their pagan altars. When this did not happen, he felt his entire mission to call the nation to repentance had been a failure. Elijah felt he had failed the people, and he felt he had failed God.

In modern terminology, we might say that Elijah had a nervous breakdown as a result of his ordeal.
Question: Elijah's sense of failure is similar to the sorrow of what earlier prophet when the Israelites demanded a king like the other nations and when the king he anointed proved faithless? See 1 Sam 8:4-9; 15:22-23, 15:34-16:1.
Answer: The prophet Samuel also felt responsible for the failure of the people when they demanded a human king and when Saul, who Samuel anointed and guided, failed in fidelity and obedience to Yahweh, thereby losing God's divine favor.

But Elijah had not failed. He had completed the mission God gave him. It was the people of the Northern Kingdom and their king who had failed. However, they would not be able to complain when they faced God's divine judgment for their sins that God was not merciful to them and did not give them the opportunity to repent and return to faith and obedience. God provides the same kind of mercy to each of us when our sins catch up with us and we bear the judgment of suffering as a condition of engaging in those sins, as in the example of King David. In the New Covenant in Christ Jesus, the experience of just judgment is God in His mercy calling us to repentance in turning away from the sin and turning back to Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The life of a prophet was difficult; it was full of rejection by the prophet's own people because of his unpopular message and it was filled with loneliness. Jesus' description of the suffering His disciples could expect could also be applied to the Old Testament prophets (Lk 11:49; 21:12-19). Yahweh will solve the problem of both Elijah's sense of failure and his loneliness.

He came to Beersheba, a town of Judah, where he left his servant.
Beersheba is the southern limit of the Kingdom of Judah; therefore Elijah went as far as he could to separate himself from Queen Jezebel. Located 50 miles from Jerusalem in the center of the Negev desert region, Beersheba has been important in the Biblical narrative since the time of Abraham:

4 He himself went on into the desert, a day's journey, and sitting under a furze [broom] bush wished he were dead. "Yahweh," he said, "I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." 5 Then he lay down and went to sleep.
The furze or broom tree is a common desert shrub that grows from 4 to 12 feet high. Wood from a broom tree provided warmth for Job's friends (Job 30:4) and gives shade to Elijah who is despondent and prays for death.
Question: Elijah is despondent for what two reasons? See 1 Kng 14:15-16.
Answer: He is despondent because of the failure of his mission and for the future that he knows awaits the unrepentant Israelites according to the prophecy of Ahijah the prophet: loss of the Promised Land and exile.

He asks God to take his life because his mission is a failure, and he sees no point in going on. He cries out that he is no better than his ancestors, referring to the Israelites who constantly both complained and rebelled against God's divine plan in the Biblical period of the Exodus liberation and the wilderness years.
Question: How is he no better than his ancestors of the Exodus generation? How did they "fail" God? See Ex 19:6; Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; Num 15:40; Dt 7:6; 14:2, 21b; 26:19; 28:9.
Answer: The first generation of Israelites of the Exodus failed in their mission to be a "holy people" (e.g., Ex 19:6; Lev 11:44-45). The first failure was in the worship of the image of the Golden Calf, the same failure of idol worship repeated by the people of the Northern Kingdom. He has not failed in the same way they failed, but he believes he has failed none-the-less.

Then all of a sudden an angel touched him and said, "Get up and eat." 6 He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones [ashes], and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
Once again Yahweh comes to the aid of His faithful prophet, providing food and water. The bread baked on ashes is the immemorial Bedouin method of making flatbread.

7 But the angel of Yahweh came back a second time and touched him and said, "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you." 8 So he got up and ate and drank, and strengthened by that food he walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, God's mountain.
The angel explains that he will need nourishment for the journey. God already knows it is Elijah's intention to go to Horeb/Mt. Sinai. Horeb/Mt. Sinai is where God revealed Himself to the Israelites and called them into covenant with Him as a corporate covenant people who pledged to be obedient to His Law (Ex 24:7-8). It is also where God gave Moses a private revelation of Himself when Moses asked Yahweh to "Please show me your glory" (Ex 33:18).

Question: What did God tell Moses when he asked for a private revelation after the Israelite's rebellion of the Golden Calf and the death of 3,000 of the rebels, a tragic event in the history of the covenant people? See Ex 33:19-23.
Answer: Yahweh told Moses "my face...you cannot see, for no human being can see me and survive"; therefore, God put Moses in a cave and shielded Moses until He passed by. Moses did see the back parts of God but not His face.

The private revelation gave Moses the courage to continue leading a stubborn and rebellious people who lacked gratitude for the wonders God worked on their behalf. Perhaps Elijah was hoping that a similar revelation would give him the strength he needed to continue his mission, or he intended to relinquish his mission by dying at God's holy mountain.

The holy mountain is called both Sinai and Horeb. The journey to the holy mountain took forty days and nights. Forty is a significant number in Scripture, recognized as an important number both on account of the frequency of its occurrence and with the uniformity of its association as a time of consecration and as a period of trial. The number appears as time periods for both forty days and forty years in Scripture.
Question: How many forty day periods can you recall in Scripture?
Answer:

  1. Forty day periods during the great Flood (Gen 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6).
  2. Forty days Moses was on the mountain to receive the Law of the Sinai Covenant during which the faith of the Israelites was tested (Ex 24:18).
  3. Forty days Moses was on the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf to receive new stone tablets and additional laws (Ex 34:28).
  4. Forty days after his birth a male child of Israel was dedicated to God at the Sanctuary (Lev 12:1-4).
  5. For forty days the Israelite spies reconnoitered the land of Canaan (Num 13:25).
  6. Elijah traveled forty days and nights to Mt. Horeb/Sinai (1 Kng 19:8).
  7. Jonah was to give the people of Nineveh forty days to repent (Jon 3:4).
  8. For forty days Ezekiel lay on his right side to symbolize the forty years of Judah's transgressions (Ez 4:6).
  9. For forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness before His temptation (Mt 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2).
  10. Jesus taught the Church for forty days between His Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:3).

1 Kings 19:9-18 ~ Elijah's encounter with Yahweh at Mt. Sinai
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night there. Then the word of Yahweh came to him saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10 He replied, "I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh Sabaoth, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me." 11 Then he was told, "Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh." For at that moment Yahweh was going by. A mighty hurricane split the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the hurricane. 12 And after the hurricane, an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire, a light murmuring sound. 13 And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice came to him, which said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 14 He replied, "I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh, God Sabaoth, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left and now they want to kill me." 15 "Go," Yahweh said, "go back by the same way to the desert of Damascus. You must go and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 You must anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat, of Abel-Meholah, as prophet to succeed you. 17 Anyone who escapes the sword of Hazael will be put to death by Jehu; and anyone who escapes the sword of Jehu will be put to death by Elisha. 18 But I shall spare seven thousand in Israel; all the knees that have not bent before Baal, all the mouths that have not kissed him."

When Elijah arrived at the mountain he spent the night in a cave. There is no information to confirm if it was the same cave where Moses stood. When Yahweh spoke to Elijah he asked "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (verse 9). God could be asking why Elijah felt the need to come here, or it could be a challenge asking why Elijah has abandoned his mission to call Israel to repentance.

10 He replied, "I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh Sabaoth, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me."
Question: In what ways was Elijah both "jealous" and "zealous" for Yahweh? See Ex 20:3-5; Dt 5:6-9 and Ex 24:7-8; 1 Kng 19:10.
Answer: He was "jealous" for Yahweh's rightful place to be worshipped as the one true God, as expressed in the first commandment (Ex 20:3-5; Dt 5:2-3, 6-9). And he was "zealous" to maintain the covenant Israel formed with Yahweh at Mt. Sinai and to restore the ancient faith (Ex 24:7-8; 1 Kng 19:10).

In response to Yahweh's question Elijah also says: "I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me."
He is not the only one left. There are 100 prophets who have been saved from the wrath of Jezebel, (1Kng 18:4) but his statement emphasizes how much he feels alone and vulnerable.

11 Then he was told, "Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh." For at that moment Yahweh was going by. A mighty hurricane split the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the hurricane. 12 And after the hurricane, an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire, a light murmuring sound. 13 And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
The theophany Elijah experiences is different from the theophany experienced by the children of Israel when they heard God speak in the sound of thunder. God's presence was manifested in these natural phenomena for the children of Israel, but in Elijah's experience they are only the heralds of God's coming. Like Moses' private experience, Elijah is protected by a cave but instead of God covering Moses as He passed by, Elijah experienced the phenomena of the hurricane, earthquake and fire, but it wasn't until he heard the quiet voice that he stepped to the cave entrance. The soft voice signifies God's intimate communication with His prophets.

Question: Why did Elijah cover his face with his cloak? See Ex 33:20.
Answer: He knew that human being tainted with original sin or personal sins can look on the face of God and live; therefore, he covered his face in his direct contact with the divine.

15 "Go," Yahweh said, "go back by the same way to the desert of Damascus. You must go and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 You must anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat, of Abel-Meholah, as prophet to succeed you."
Elijah's mission is not completed. God's campaign against Ahab and Jezebel and the Northern Kingdom will take a new path. Since they refuse to repent and renounce idol worship despite the signs God has given through His prophet, He will send his Elijah to "anoint" two men, a Gentile (Hazael) and an Israelite (Jehu), who will be instruments of God's judgment against an apostate Israelite kingdom and King Ahab. Elijah must also anoint a successor. Nowhere else in Scripture is the anointing of a Gentile king mentioned, but all men who rule cannot be in those positions of power and influence without God's permission, since He has sovereignty over all men and their governments.

Question: The literal Hebrew text of verse 16 reads that Elijah will anoint Elisha as a prophet "in your stead." It is the same phrase in Hebrew used for royal succession. What does this suggest?
Answer: Elisha is not merely to act as Elijah's disciple, but it is implied that Elijah's days are now numbered and Elisha will succeed him and carry on his mission.

17 "Anyone who escapes the sword of Hazael will be put to death by Jehu; and anyone who escapes the sword of Jehu will be put to death by Elisha."
Ahab and Jezebel will be destroyed first by an Aramaean foreign enemy, then by an Israelite who will depose Ahab but whose judgment will be left to Elisha. Elijah will not fulfill the first two missions mentioned in these verses; fulfillment will be left to his successor, Elisha who will follow Elijah's prophetic precedent in condemning Baal worship and executing Baal worshippers.

18 "But I shall spare seven thousand in Israel; all the knees that have not bent before Baal, all the mouths that have not kissed him."
Finally, God tells Elijah that he is not alone. There are seven thousand in Israel who have remained faithful to Yahweh. The seven thousand should not be understood as a literal number but a number reflecting those righteous Israelites who God has chosen to survive the Assyrian conquest and whose descendants will play a role in God's continuing plan for mankind's salvation.

Elijah is told to anoint Elisha as his successor in the same way Moses anointed Joshua as his successor (Num 28:18-23). There are three holy offices in which Yahweh's agent is anointed for service: prophets, priests, and kings.

Question: Which of these holy offices will Jesus fulfill? See Dt 18:15-19; Heb 7:22-25; 8:12; 2 Sam 7:16, 29; 23:5; Lk 1:32-33; Acts 3:22-23; CCC 436, 1547.
Answer: He will fulfill all three:

  1. He is the prophet prophesied by Moses.
  2. He is the High Priest of the new and eternal covenant.
  3. He is the rightful successor of King David and king of the eternal kingdom.

1 Kings 19:19-21 ~ The call of Elisha
19 Leaving there, he came on Elisha son of Shaphat as he was ploughing behind twelve yoke of oxen, he himself being with the twelfth. Elijah passed near to him and threw his cloak over him. 20 Elisha left his oxen and ran after Elijah. "Let me kiss my father and mother, then I will follow you," he said. Elijah answered, "Go, go back; for have I done anything to you?" 21 Elisha turned away, took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He used the oxen's tackle for cooking the meat, which he gave the people to eat. He then rose and, following Elijah, became his servant.

Elisha, whose name means "God is salvation," lived in a town called Abel-Meholah (19:16). The town was probably located in the Jordan Valley south or southeast of Beth-shean, but its exact location has not been identified. The assumption of its location is based on the name appearing as a designation of one of the boundaries of Solomon's fifth administrative district, in which Tannach, and Beth-shean are two of the chief towns (1 Kng 4:12).

Twelve yoke of oxen is twenty-four oxen with a pair of oxen under each of twelve yokes. The twelve pairs of oxen were plowing the field under the direction of twelve different men, Elijah with one pair of oxen and eleven other men who were either Elijah's father's servants or kinsmen who owned the field in common or joined together to plough their adjacent fields. Elisha was plowing with the last two oxen and the other pairs were in front of him.

When Elijah put his cloak over Elisha, Elisha knew exactly who he was because by this time all Israel knew about Yahweh's prophet Elijah and his victory at Mt. Carmel. He also understood that being covered with the prophet's cloak was an invitation to discipleship. The cloak symbolized the owner and his rights/authority. In addition, as we will later learn, the prophet's cloak has miraculous properties (2 Kng 2:8) and Elijah, by throwing his cloak over Elisha, apparently acquired an authority over him that Elisha is inspired to accept (although his free-will choice was still intact).

Question: What request did Elisha make?
Answer: His one request was to say goodbye to his parents.

Elijah answered, "Go, go back; for have I done anything to you?"
Elijah's response should not be understood as a rebuke. Instead, he is giving his approval for Elisha to make his farewell to his family by saying he has done nothing to suggest that Elisha should not go back. Elisha's immediate response shows this is the way he understood Elijah's words.

Question: Why does it make sense that Elijah would have approved Elisha's request? See Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16.
Answer: Elijah approved because Elisha's request was in accord with the commandment to honor one's parents, and it is Elijah's mission to not only call the people to repentance but to call them to obedience to the Law.

Elisha's farewell dinner will be repeated by St. Matthew/Levi when Jesus calls him to discipleship (Mk 2:13-15). This same request is, however, discouraged by Jesus later in His ministry in Luke 9:61 ~ And another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home." 62 To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."
Question: Why does Jesus urge the man to make the commitment to discipleship without looking or going back? See Lk 9:57-62.
Answer: Jesus tells the would-be disciple that commitment to the Kingdom leaves no time for ordinary family affections and requires the sacrifice of placing the needs of the Kingdom above all human connections and affiliations.

In Luke 9:57-62 Jesus gave three teachings to would-be disciples that are warnings to those who want to join Jesus' mission. The focus of the teachings is that one needs to count the cost of discipleship weighed against personal relationships and commitments. Three men express the desire to follow Jesus, but Jesus counters each man's spoken desire to follow Him with a warning on the cost of discipleship. When Jesus invites the third man to "Follow me," the man adds a condition that recalls the request that was granted to Elisha when he was called to become Elijah's disciple (1 Kng 19:19-21). Elijah permitted Elisha to kiss his parents good-bye and to have a farewell feast with his family, but with the Incarnation of the Christ, time is now limited. Jesus is on the road to His Passion and the Kingdom must be proclaimed. Jesus counters his request: To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." It is the time to move forward with God's plan for humanity and to not look back because with the coming of the Son of God time is limited: Heaven is opened, blessings and judgments are eternal, and the countdown to the "End of Days" for humanity has begun!

Elisha turned away, took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He used the oxen's tackle for cooking the meat, which he gave the people to eat.
The slaughtering of the oxen is not a sacrifice to Yahweh; it is the preparation for a banquet with his family and friends.
Question: What is the symbolic significance of Elisha destroying the oxen and the using the yoke and tackle for the wood to cook the meat?
Answer: His farewell dinner with his friends and family symbolizes the end of his old life as he begins a new life devoted to serving Yahweh and His prophet Elijah.

This is the end of part I of the Elijah cycle. Chapter 20 is the break between the Elijah cycle parts 1 and 2.

Chapter 20: The Aramaean Wars

"Thus the saints go up to the Lord, the wicked go down to sin; the saints are on the mountains, the guilty in the valleys."
St. Ambrose

1 Kings 20:1-6 ~ The siege of Samaria and the demands of Ben-Hadad king of Aram
1 Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his whole army. Thirty-two kings were with him, horses and chariots, and marched on Samaria to besiege it and take it by assault. 2 He sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel to tell him, "Ben-Hadad says this, 3 Your silver and gold are mine. Your wives and children remain yours.'" 4 The king of Israel replied, "As you command, my lord king. Myself and all I have are yours." 5 The messengers came again; this time they said, "Ben-Hadad says this, I have already sent you an order to hand over your silver and your gold, your wives and your children; 6 but I swear, this time tomorrow, I shall send my servants to ransack your house and your servants' houses and lay hands on everything that they value and take it away.'"

Aram was located northeast of Israel and is known today as Syria. Ben-Hadad II was the ruler of the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus and the successor of Ben-Hadad I mentioned in 1 Kings 15:18 with whom King Asa of Judah made a treaty alliance to save himself from an invasion by the Northern Kingdom. In c. 857 BC, Ben-Hadad saw an opportunity to attack the Northern Kingdom that had been weakened by famine.1 This was not the first time the Kingdom of Damascus had attacked Israel. In a previous conflict Ben-Hadad I had taken towns from Omri and demanded a trading mission in Samaria (see 20:34). Ben-Hadad II gathered together a coalition of 32 "kings" who were probably tribal chieftains or heads of city-states who recognized him as their overlord. He laid siege to the Northern Kingdom's capital city and demanded a tribute payment of all Ahab's gold and silver. In agreeing, Ahab was acknowledging Ben-Hadad as his overlord and accepting vassal status without a fight. When Ahab agreed so quickly, Ben-Hadad must have taken it as a sign of weakness and decided that instead of a tribute payment he would conquer the kingdom.

1 Kings 20:7-12 ~ Ahab's reply to Ben-Hadad and Ben-Hadad's response
7 The king of Israel summoned all the elders of the country and said, "You can see clearly how this man intends to ruin us. He has already demanded my wives and my children, although I have not refused him my silver and gold." 8 All the elders and all the people said, "Take no notice. Do not consent." 9 So he gave this answer to Ben-Hadad's messengers, "Say to my lord the king, All you first required of your servant I will do, but this I cannot do.'" And the messengers went back with the answer. 10 Ben-Hadad then sent him the following message, "May the gods bring unnamable ills on me and worse ills too, if there is enough dust in Samaria for each of my followers to have a handful!" 11 But the king of Israel returned this answer, "Say: the man who puts on his armor is not the one to boast, but the man who takes it off." 12 When Ben-Hadad heard this message, he was under the awnings drinking with the kings. He gave orders to his servants, "Take up position!" and they took up their positions against the city.

Ben-Hadad's second demand went too far even for Ahab. With the support of his counselors, he refused the demand. Enraged, Ben-Hadad took an oath to utterly destroy Samaria. King Ahab's response was to quote what must have been a proverb of the times the purpose of which is to remind Ben-Hadad that a boast is not the same as a victory and the battle is not won until the victor takes off his armor. An overly confident Ben-Hadad received the message at his camp tent drinking with his vassals.

1 Kings 20:13-21 ~ God's message from a prophet and Israel's victory
13 A prophet then arrived, looking for Ahab king of Israel, "Yahweh says this," he said, You have seen this huge army? This very day I shall deliver it into your hands, and you will know that I am Yahweh.'" 14 "By whose means?" Ahab asked. The prophet replied, "Yahweh says this, By means of the guards of the district governors.'" "Who will co-ordinate the attack?" Ahab asked. "You will," the prophet replied. 15 So Ahab inspected the guards of the district governors: there were two hundred and thirty-two. After these he reviewed the army, all the Israelites: there were seven thousand. 16 They made a sortie at midday, when Ben-Hadad was drinking himself senseless under the awnings, he and the thirty-two kings who were allies. 17 The guards of the district governors led the sortie. A report was made to Ben-Hadad: "Some men have come out of Samaria." 18 He said, "If they have come out for peace, take them alive; if they have come out for war, take them alive too." 19 So they made a sortie from the city, the district governors' guards and behind them the army, 20 and each struck down his man. Aram took to flight and Israel pursued; Ben-Hadad king of Aram escaped on horseback. 21 The king of Israel then advanced, capturing horses and chariots and inflicting a great defeat on Aram.

An unnamed prophet of Yahweh arrives to deliver a message to Ahab.
Question: What is the message and why has Yahweh sent it?
Answer: God will give the Israelites victory over their enemy as another proof that only Yahweh is God.

14 "By whose means?" Ahab asked. The prophet replied, "Yahweh says this, By means of the guards of the district governors.'" "Who will co-ordinate the attack?" Ahab asked. "You will," the prophet replied. 15 So Ahab inspected the guards of the district governors: there were two hundred and thirty-two. After these he reviewed the army, all the Israelites: there were seven thousand.
In verse 14 Ahab consults Yahweh through the prophet abut military strategy and is surprised to learn that he is the one who will lead the attack, but, with God on his side, victory is assured. In the past other leaders had consulted Yahweh on military matters (Ex 33:7; Judg 1:1ff.; 20:18; 1 Sam 14:18) and will do so in the future (1 Kng 22:5ff.)

In addition to his professional army, the forces of the district governors have been called up. The "seven thousand" in verse 15b is a typological number also used in 19:18 with reference to the Israelites who had remained loyal to Yahweh. It represents a small but force as compared to the powerful force that Aram had mustered (verse 29), but, since God is willing the victory, it is all that is needed. Seven is the number of the Holy Spirit who will guide the Israelites in battle. Notice the repetition of sevens in the narrative (19:18; 20:15, 29 (twice), 30.

In the meantime, an over confident Ben-Hadad has drunk himself senseless in his camp. When told the Israelites have come out from the city, he is unsure whether they have come to fight or to surrender. They came to fight and they completely overpowered the enemy.

1 Kings 20:22-25 ~ The prophet warns Ahab and the Aramaeans' battle strategy
22 The prophet then went to the king of Israel and said, "Now is the time to be resolute and think carefully about what you should do, for at the turn of the year the king of Aram will march against you." 23 The servants of the king of Aram said to him, "Their gods are gods of the mountains; that is why they have proved stronger than we are. But if we fight them on level ground, we shall certainly beat them. 24 This is what you must do; remove all these kings from their commands and appoint professional soldiers in their place. 25 You, for your part, must recruit an army as large as the one which deserted you, with as many horses and as many chariots; then if we fight them on level ground, we shall certainly beat them." He listened to their advice and acted accordingly.

The prophet who went to King Ahab is probably the same prophet as the one in 20:13.
Question: What warning does Yahweh's prophet give King Ahab?
Answer: Be resolute and make the effort to be ready because the Aramaeans will return in the spring.

Question: What advice did Ben-Hadad receive from his counselors?
Answer: Their suggestion is that the best strategy is a professional military. They think Yahweh is a mountain god because the prophets of Baal were defeated at Mt. Carmel and they suggest that the Aramaeans should engage the Israelites on level ground where their chariots will be an advantage.

1 Kings 20:26-30a ~ Israel's victory at Aphek
26 At the turn of the year, Ben-Hadad mustered the Aramaeans and marched on Aphek to fight Israel. 27 The Israelites were already mobilized and provisioned, and marched out to meet them. Encamped opposite them, the Israelites looked like two herds of goats, whereas the Aramaeans filled the countryside. 28 The man of God then went to the king of Israel and said, "Yahweh says this, "Since Aram has said that Yahweh is a god of the mountains and not a god of the plains, I shall put the whole of this huge army into your power, and you will know that I am Yahweh.'" 29 For seven days they were encamped opposite each other. On the seventh day battle was joined and the Israelites slaughtered the Aramaeans, a hundred thousand foot soldiers in one day. 30a The rest fled to Aphek, into the citadel, but the city walls collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of the survivors.

After the spring equinox which is the beginning of the Israelite liturgical year (Ex 12:1-2), when armies go to war (see 2 Sam 11:1), the armies of Israel and Aram faced each other at Aphek. In 1 Samuel 29:1 the Philistines used a place called Aphek as a site to muster their army against Israel. It is unlikely that the site of the battle between Israel and the Aramaeans is the same place, since there are numerous locations that have this name. The site is named eight times in the Old Testament or nine if the place called Aphekah in Joshua 15:23 is included; both Aphek and Aphekah mean "fortress" in Hebrew.2 This Aphek is probably located in the northeast on the border between the two kingdoms east of the Sea of Galilee in the Jordan Valley on the plain near to where the river Yarmuk flows into the Jordan.

27 The Israelites were already mobilized and provisioned, and marched out to meet them. Encamped opposite them, the Israelites looked like two herds of goats, whereas the Aramaeans filled the countryside.
The Israelites were outnumbered and under equipped for battle, while the Aramaeans' army looked impressive in their equipment and in their numbers. However, this difference makes the victory by Yahweh's control over events even more impressive.

29 For seven days they were encamped opposite each other. On the seventh day battle was joined and the Israelites slaughtered the Aramaeans, a hundred thousand foot soldiers in one day. 30a The rest fled to Aphek, into the citadel, but the city walls collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of the survivors.
Question: The seven days prior to the battle and the city walls collapsing are reminiscent of what other battle won for Israel by God's intervention? See Josh 6:1-5.
Answer: The conquest of Jericho in the conquest of Canaan.

1 Kings 20:30b-34 ~ Ahab and Ben-Hadad
30b Now Ben-Hadad had fled and taken refuge in an inner room inside the citadel. 31 "Look," his servants said to him, "we have heard that the kings of Israel are faithful and kind kings. Let us put sackcloth round our waists and cords round our heads and go out to the king of Israel; perhaps he will spare your life?" 32 So they wrapped sackcloth round their waists and put cords round their heads and went to the king of Israel, and said, "Your servant Ben-Hadad says, Spare my life.'" 33 "So he is still alive?" he replied, "He is my brother." The men took this for a good omen and quickly seized on his words. "Yes," they said, "Ben-Hadad is your brother." Ahab said, "Go and fetch him." Then Ben-Hadad came out to him and Ahab made him get up into his chariot. 34 Ben-Hadad said, "I shall restore the towns which my father took from your father and you may set up a trading quarter for yourself in Damascus as my father did in Samaria." With a treaty," Ahab said, "I shall set you free." Granting him a treaty, Ahab let him go.

Ben-Hadad's servants suggest a sign of repentance and mourning that the king remove his royal robed and wear sackcloth that might elicit mercy from the Israelite king (see 1 Kng 21:27). This posture was adopted to suggest utter defeat and the willingness to be led off as a prisoner in the hopes that his life would be spared. You will recall Ben-Hadad had sworn an oath to kill every Israelite including Ahab, and he knew he and his vassals might experience the same fate (1 Kng 20:10).

"Your servant Ben-Hadad says, Spare my life.'" 33 "So he is still alive?" he replied, "He is my brother." The men took this for a good omen and quickly seized on his words. "Yes," they said, "Ben-Hadad is your brother." Ahab said, "Go and fetch him." Then Ben-Hadad came out to him and Ahab made him get up into his chariot.
Question: When Ahab learned the Aramaean king was still alive, what was his response?
Answer: He greeted Ben-Hadad with respect as an equal instead of a vanquished enemy and even took him into his private chariot.

Vassal kings or rulers referred to themselves as "servants" of their overlord whereas kings of equal rank referred to each other as "brothers." Hearing Ahab refer to their master as "brother" tells the vassals of Ben-Hadad that their master is safe. The problem is that the fate of Ben-Hadad should have rested with Yahweh who is the true victor and who has placed Ben-Hadad and his army under the curse of destruction (20:42).

34 Ben-Hadad said, "I shall restore the towns which my father took from your father and you may set up a trading quarter for yourself in Damascus as my father did in Samaria." With a treaty," Ahab said, "I shall set you free." Granting him a treaty, Ahab let him go.
Question: What concessions does Ben-Hadad offer in exchange for the mercy Ahab has extended to him?
Answer: The only concession offered by Ben-Hadad is to return Israelite towns taken in the previous reign, to establish a trade mission, and to make an alliance treaty.

1 Kings 20:35-43 ~ Ahab's policy with Ben-Hadad is condemned
35 At Yahweh's command a member of the brotherhood of prophets said to a companion of his, "Strike me," but the man refused to strike him. 36 So he said to him, "Since you have disobeyed Yahweh's order, the very moment you leave me a lion will kill you." And no sooner had he left him than he met a lion, which killed him. 37 The prophet then went to find another man and said, "Strike me," and the man struck him and wounded him. 38 The prophet then went and stood waiting for the king on the road, disguising himself with a bandage over his eyes. 39 As the king passed, he called out to him, "Your servant was making his way to where the fight was thickest when someone left the fighting to bring a man to me, and said, "Guard this man; if he is found missing, your life will pay for his, or else you will have to pay one talent of silver." 40 But your servant was busy with one thing and another, the man disappeared." The king of Israel said, "That is your sentence then. You have pronounced it yourself." 41 At this the man quickly pulled off the bandage over his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. 42 He said to the king, "Yahweh says this, Since you have let the man escape who was under my curse of destruction, your life will pay for his, your people for his people.'" 43 And the king of Israel went home, gloomy and out of temper, back to Samaria.

The prophets in this part of the narrative, like the prophet who first came to King Ahab to inform him that Yahweh was going to give him victory, are probably members of the community of prophets saved by Obadiah (1 Kng 18:3-4, 13). Yahweh has told the prophet to take Yahweh's pronouncement of divine judgment to Ahab in which he must assume the identity of an Israelite soldier.

Question: The fate of the second prophet who refuses to help the first prophet carry out his mission is similar to what other story in 1 Kings? See 1 Kng 13:11-25.
Answer: It is similar to the story of the "man of God' from Judah who broke the fast God commanded him to keep and was eaten by a lion as a judgment for his failure.

The second prophet refused to strike his brother prophet even though it was part of God's divine plan because it seemed wrong to him. He was going by his own understanding and not according to God's divine plan and his judgment was to be eaten by a lion. Lions as a vehicle of judgment are also found in 2 Kings 17:25 and metaphorically in Hosea 5:14.

Question: Can you think of an example in the Gospels where God's plan seemed wrong by human standards and Jesus severely rebuked the one who expressed an opposite view? See Mt 16:21-23.
Answer: When Jesus gave the first prophecy of His Passion, St. Peter was horrified and expressed his opposition of God's divine plan. Jesus severely rebuked him by saying he was behaving like a child of Satan (one who works to thwart God's plan) instead of an obedient child of God.

Question: What lesson is to be learned from both these stories?
Answer: Any disobedience to the word of God or His representative will be punished. It is not for individuals to determine God's motives or to deviate from His divine plan. God is holy and good and therefore His plan for mankind is holy and good.

Question: The prophet stops King Ahab, wounded and wearing a disguise. What two purposes do the wound and the disguise serve?
Answer:

  1. His disguise gives a dimension of reality to the story he will tell the king.
  2. It disguises his true identity as a prophet until the king pronounces his own judgment.

Question: The prophet's exchange with King Ahab that is intended to make the king aware of his own sin and to pronounce his own judgment on himself is similar to what other exchange between the prophet Nathan and King David? 2 Sam 12:1-15.
Answer: It is reminiscent of when the prophet Nathan was sent to reveal David's sin with Bathsheba and his complicity in the death of her husband. Nathan told a story to provoke David's anger and for him to pronounce a kingly judgment which then was to rebound on himself.

42 He said to the king, "Yahweh says this, Since you have let the man escape who was under my curse of destruction, your life will pay for his, your people for his people.'" 43 And the king of Israel went home, gloomy and out of temper, back to Samaria.
For the first time we learn that God's prophet had instructed Ahab to put the curse of destruction (in Hebrew, herem) on Ben-Hadad II and his army. His failure will mean devastation for Israel in the future.
Question: Ahab's failure to execute the curse of destruction (herem) on the enemy at Yahweh's command is similar to what other Israelite king? See 1 Sam 15:1-3, 9-11.
Answer: It is similar to King Saul's failure to execute God's command for the curse of destruction on King Agag of the Amalekites.

It is a pity Ahab did not learn from the story of Saul's failure that cost Saul his dynastic kingship and God's divine protection. The stories in Sacred Scripture are meant to be lessons on moral behavior, lessons on maintaining our covenant relationship with God, and stories to encourage us in faith and obedience.

Question: How was Ahab's response different from David's response to God's judgment for his sin?
Answer: David immediately admitted his sin, repented, asked for forgiveness, and submitted himself to God's judgment. David's sin was forgiven, but he still made atonement for his sin through God's judgment. But Ahab offered no repentance at this time, nor did he ask for God's mercy but simply returned the palace "gloomy and out of temper."

Today's lesson should remind us that our Lord shows the same loving patience with us that He showed Elijah. When we fail in our spiritual expectations, our Lord is always with us, to console us and to give us the strength we need to continue on our faith journey through this life to the revelation of the divine that He has planned for us. Trust in God and continue the journey with confidence like the prophet Elijah.

Questions for reflection or group discussion:
Question: How do you respond to your penance in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Are you an Ahab or a David? Do you take your penance seriously and perform the required outward expression of your inward contrition, or do you simply see it as a suggestion and not a necessary act to be fulfilled? What is necessary for complete restoration of fellowship with God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the sinner? See CCC 1450-53, 1459-60, 1468-70.

Question: Elijah gave Elisha permission to say farewell to his family, but in Luke 9:62, Jesus refuses a similar request. In that passage Jesus was speaking of the radical transition that was taking place from the Old Sinai Covenant to the New Covenant in Christ that makes earthly ties a part of the things that are to be left behind when we enter God's heavenly Kingdom. The decision to follow Christ cannot only be an emotional enthusiasm but must be a resolute determination. There are three sacrifices that Jesus calls every would-be disciple to make in that passage:

  1. The sacrifice of personal security and comfort.
  2. The sacrifice of family duties and obligations.
  3. The sacrifice of parental connection and to separate oneself from one's past life.

Question: What do these sacrifices demand of the would-be disciple today and why are they necessary?

Question: Have you ever experiences a "crisis of expectation" in your faith journey? What brought on the crisis and how did you deal with it? Are there any Scripture passages that helped you in your crisis? Consider Rom 8:17-19, 26-27; 2 Cor 17-18 among many others.

Endnotes:
1. Ben-Hadad II is also mentioned in Assyrian records. Records of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria (c. 858-824 BC) refer to Ben-Hadad II as "Adad-idri." Along with Ahab of Israel and other kings from the region, Ben-Hadad fought against Shalmaneser repeatedly in 853, 849, 848, and 845 BC. Lines 3 and 4 of a stele discovered at Tel-Dan in northern Israel refer to an unnamed individual as "my father." Since the king responsible for the stele appears to have been King Hazael of Damascus, the successor of Ben-Hadad II (but not his son), the reference is probably to Ben-Hadad II.
2. See Josh 12:18; 13:4; 19:30; 1 Sam 4:1; 29:1; 1 Kng 20:26, 20; 2 Kng 13:17.

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Catechism references for this lesson

1 Kng 19:1-14 (CCC 2583); 19:5 (CCC 332); 19:16 (CCC 436)