King Ahab: Prisoner of the text

Ahab’s political power informs our understanding of ancient Israel – and provides a relevant post-Shoah Jewish theology that takes into account the centrality of the exercise of political power and sovereignty.

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Ahab was one of the great kings of the ancient Middle East. As ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE, Ahab proved himself to be a powerful warrior and a builder of cities. According to the “Monolith Inscription” of Shalmaneser III, Ahab provided 10,000 men and 2,000 chariots that faced the superpower of Assyria at the Battle of Qarqar in Syria in 853 BCE. While Shalmaneser claimed victory, his inscription indicates that the coalition, led by Israel, halted the Assyrians’ plans for conquest. The confrontation at Qarqar is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
Also hardly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is Ahab’s success as a great builder. Ahab built up Samaria as the chief city of his kingdom. Archeological evidence reveals that Ahab also involved himself in building magnificent structures in Dan, Hazor, Megiddo and Tirzah.
Why would the Book of Kings not mention a battle as important as that fought against the Assyrians at Qarqar? Why does the Hebrew Bible not describe the glory of Ahab’s building projects in Samaria and his feats of engineering in Hazor? The prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible chooses to focus on other aspects of Ahab’s monarchy, that have nothing to do with the geopolitical realities of the ancient Middle East.
This silence becomes understandable, however, once we grasp the theology of the Hebrew Bible. The text is concerned with the vision of the prophet Elijah, who condemns the rulers of the Northern Kingdom for its idolatrous practices and their immorality. The reality of Ahab’s political power is only of concern to the prophet as it relates to the king’s failure to promote the Sinai covenant and the cultic centrality of Jerusalem.
The authors of the Book of Kings do not applaud Ahab for his marriage to Jezebel – a shrewd political move that increased the power of the Israelite kingdom in the ancient Middle East. This is not the Hebrew Bible’s concern. All that matters is that his union with the Phoenician princess led to Baal worship that was a betrayal of fidelity to the One God of the Israelites.
The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and Ahab’s seizing of the vineyard of his neighbor Naboth – these are the stories that dominate the Biblical text in its recounting of Ahab’s reign. The power of Ahab at the Battle of Qarqar and his magnificent building projects are all but forgotten – deliberately dismissed, perhaps – in the Hebrew Bible.
The episode of the vineyard of Naboth that is related in I Kings 21 seems to be a bizarre foray into a minor episode in the career of a successful monarch. Ahab, under the influence of Jezebel, has Naboth executed for blasphemy and steals the dead man’s ancestral land. At first glance, there seems to be nothing unusual about Ahab’s actions against Naboth. Ahab is the ruler of the Northern Kingdom – is it not his right as king to take the land of any of his subjects? In the face of the realities of geopolitics and the building of empires, why should an example of unethical behavior even merit mention in the text of the Hebrew Bible? Elijah’s mission is to realign the acts of Ahab toward the will of God. No one has the right to steal another man’s property and then murder him. This violates the ethical component of the covenant.
The prophet cares little for Ahab’s brand of realpolitik. All that matters is that Ahab committed a moral crime that is a significant deviation from the will of God.
Naboth is lower on the social and political ladder of authority than Ahab. But Naboth is on a higher moral plane than the king, a man who defends the right to not forfeit his ancestral inheritance.
Elijah comes to magnify what might seem a misdemeanor into a major transgression of the covenant and a radical turning away from God.
These prophetic values are the core of my mission as a rabbi. But I am distressed that the Book of Kings provides a monochrome version of Ahab’s life. The Ahab of my Jewish tradition is a “prisoner of the text.”
All the Hebrew Bible tells us is that Ahab deviates from the covenant. Is this a deliberate attempt to suppress Ahab’s successes? Archeologists have liberated Ahab from his biblical prison. Biblical archaeology liberates me, as a traditional Jew, from the constraints of the text. Ahab’s political power informs our understanding of ancient Israel – and provides a relevant post-Shoah Jewish theology that takes into account the centrality of the exercise of political power and sovereignty.
Elijah’s condemnation of Ahab and Jezebel should resonate for us today. Jews have sovereignty and political power for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The prophetic texts are an urgent reminder that corruption and exploitation based on any form of authority should never be tolerated. This message should never be forgotten.
Yet, it would be folly to simply dismiss the political power of King Ahab. He maintained the independence and integrity of his kingdom.
In the post-Auschwitz epoch, to possess power is a moral obligation and a key to survival. But the prophets remind us that power exercised without ethics is a danger to our people. Perhaps both the realpolitik that drove Ahab and the zealous defense of the covenant that was Elijah’s motivating force can be taken into account as valid.
The theologian, the historian and the archeologist should join forces to paint a more complete picture of the Jewish past, one that defends the covenantal paradigm and also recognizes the need for the exercise of power.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.