During ancient times, when monarchies ruled Judea and Israel, prophets very often acted as political analysts. I’m not saying they weren’t divinely inspired (easier than having to do research!), but am looking at the historical framework. They had to consider the kingdom’s situation, the king’s behavior, and the neighbors’ strength and intentions.
Their job was not to engage in wishful thinking or to be most popular or to promote their careers.
Micaiah ben Imlah (not to be confused with Micah) could be – if this were not so religiously contradictory – the patron saint of political analysts. (My other small connection with his story is to have participated a small bit on the archaeological excavation of the town where the following story took place.) Ahab was considered the worst Israelite king ever because of his pagan behavior and mistreatment of his subjects. Here’s the story, taken from I Kings 22: King Ahab decided to recapture the town of Ramoth-Gilead. He called a meeting of 400 prophets – today we’d call them experts – to ask what the Lord wished: “Shall I march upon Ramoth- Gilead for battle, or shall I not?” They unanimously answered: “March and the Lord will deliver [it] into your majesty’s hands.”
What more could one ask for? It’s like all scientists agreeing about man-made global warming; or all economists agreed that Barack Obama’s economic plan was brilliant; or all Middle East experts agreeing that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t take over Egypt or that the Arab side is desperately seeking peace with Israel.
But Ahab’s ally, King Jehoshaphat of Judah, asked: Wait a minute – isn’t there someone missing? Ahab responded, “There is one more man through whom we can inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune – Micaiah son of Imlah.”
Jehoshaphat, however, replied, Well, why don’t we ask him, too? The king reluctantly sends a messenger, who advises Micaiah: “Look, the words of the prophets are with one accord favorable to the king. Let your word be like that of the rest of them; speak a favorable word.”
Go along and you will be richly rewarded, disagree and be persecuted at worst and ignored at best. That Amalekite Liberation Front is a secular, moderate group, and supplying arms to the Ramoth-Gilead rebels is a brilliant idea.
If 400 other highly paid, honored pundits say it, how can they be wrong? Micaiah, however, isn’t intimidated. He replies: I’m not going to lie! I will only say what the Lord tells me to say.
When Micaiah comes before the king, at first he speaks so sarcastically, saying sure, go ahead and attack the city, that the king knew Micaiah didn’t mean it, and commands him to speak only the truth.
So Micaiah replied, in effect: Okay, you asked for it. I foresee a terrible disaster.
And why did the other 400 all agree that the proposed military attack would be a great idea? Micaiah explained it as having had a vision of the Lord who, since He had good reason to detest Ahab, asked, “Who will entice Ahab so that he will march and fall at Ramoth-Gilead?” A certain being (perhaps what would be today a high-ranking adviser, CIA chief, secretary of state, secretary of defense, professor, or journalist) came forward and said: I’ll do it! The Lord asks, How? “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.”
And the Lord agreed, saying, “You will prevail.”
Imagine all of those 400 false prophets – or perhaps, to be fair, misinformed ones – bragging afterward about how they had spoken truth to power as they ate their dainties, basked in the court’s admiration, and dwelt in their nice abodes. Those were their rewards, in fact, for not speaking the truth.
But, wait! There’s a paradox here: If Micaiah is just doing the Lord’s will and the Lord wants Ahab to be deceived then why is Micaiah telling the truth? Either Micaiah is defying the Lord – unlikely – or the Lord wants Ahab to be told the truth and given one last chance to change his mind.
What was Micaiah’s reward for telling Ahab the truth? One of Ahab’s men hits him in the face and the king had him thrown into a dungeon and fed only bread and water. He was to remain in prison until Ahab’s return. Unintimidated, Micaiah replied: You’re not coming back.
And so it came to pass. Ahab lost the battle and was slain. The Bible doesn’t say what happened to Micaiah but I like to think he was immediately released from prison and lived happily ever after, being able to say, I told you so! Whether you are religious, agnostic, or atheist, this story is equally appropriate.
Say, for example, that Micaiah evaluated the quality of each side’s troops, the weapons they used, and the terrain they were fighting on. And the others engaged in wishful thinking, told the king what he wanted to hear, or didn’t know what they were talking about.
This story brought home to me that to do one’s task rightly, to bear witness honestly, and to face the consequences without flinching should be the hallmarks of my field. What else should a writer, teacher, or intellectual do? Unfortunately, at times one seems to be outnumbered by 400 to 1, in both numbers and audience size.
Micaiah had a good answer as to how to know who was right: Watch and see according to the outcome! Or as he put it more elegantly to Ahab: “If you ever come home safe, the Lord has not spoken through me.”
Not always, of course, is the proof so quickly at hand. Yet there are many such indications available on a daily basis.
If the Palestinians make peace with Israel; the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Iran and other Islamists turn out to be moderates; Syria is a democratic success story, and many other such things come to pass, I guess I was wrong.
Otherwise, you can’t say I didn’t warn you!
The author is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.