May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).