Thursday, July 03, 2008

Judge Not Others...: 1 Kings 20

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Our fun tour with Elijah over, it's back to the sinful kings of Israel. The king of Aram mobilizes an enormous combined force, with the help of 32 allied kings, and besieges the Israelite city at Samaria, demanding gold, silver, and women in tribute. King Ahab accepts the terms initially, but King Ben-Hadad gets greedy and says he's going to send more looting parties to search the king's palace and other houses and make sure nothing is missing. Ahab summons the elders of Israel and then decides to refuge Ben-Hadad's demands. In response, Ben-Hadad attacks.

We know Ahab is an entirely ungodly king, but for whatever reason, Ahab successfully enlists the help of prophets in devising a winning combat strategy. They surprise Ben-Hadad's army in the early afternoon, just after the latter has finished a large liquid lunch. The surviving Arameans try to flee, but the Israelites overpower them even as they retreat.

The Arameans, distressed by the loss, consult their own prophets, who offer an interesting philosophical rationale for the defeat. According to their rather unlikely explanation, the Israelites won the battle because it took place in hilly territory, and the Israelites worship "gods of the mountains." So the next battle should take place on the plains - because the Arameans worship the gods of the plains. As an afterthought, they also suggest that all the defeated kings be replaced with competent military officers, which certainly makes much more sense.

The Arameans attack again, and this time God again comes to Ahab's aid - not for Ahab's sake but for his own, because, he explains, he wants the Arameans to know that he is a god of the plains as well as a god of the hills. The Arameans lose again and this time Ben-Hadad and Ahab negotiate a peace treaty.

Today, we'd call this a decent ending to a tragic war, but unsurprisingly, the God of the Old Testament doesn't see it that way. Ben-Hadad is an enemy of Israel and therefore he ought to have died in battle. Ahab needs to be told this. So God sets up an absolutely ludicrous confrontation between Ahab and yet another wandering prophet, who are so implausibly numerous in 1 Kings that you'd think you couldn't walk a mile in ancient Israel without accidentally bumping into one.

This particular wandering prophet is walking up to people on the road asking them to injure him. The first refuses, and as a result, the prophet kills him (well, actually, God kills him using a lion, but you get my drift). Eventually someone agrees to strike and wound him, wihich the prophet accepts with grace. Then he stands by the road waiting for Ahab to ride by, pulling his hood down over his face to hide his identity.

Ahab arrives and the prophet falsely identifies himself as a soldier who was present at the battle and was set to guarding prisoners of war, but let his prisoner escape, for which he now fears that his life is forfeit. Under standing orders, if you let a prisoner escape, you either had to forfeit your own life or pay a fine of 75 pounds of silver (quite a bit of silver, actually). Obviously this is a test.

Interestingly, it's also a test that Jesus later retells as a parable, so remember this outcome: Ahab is unsympathetic, saying that if that's the penalty the soldier must pay, the soldier will simply have to pay it. He offers no money to help out, and we have to assume the result might have been different if he had. As it is, the prophet lifts the cloth from his face and tells Ahab that he's going to be judged by the same standard by which he would have judged the soldier: "you have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life."

Despite the bizarre "strike me or I'll kill you" beginning to this part of the story, it's actually well written. Ahab is judged by the standards by which he would have judged others.