Melakhim: The Book
By Rav Alex
Shiur #24 –
Chapter 20 – A Test of Faith (Part I)
contest at Mt.
Carmel and the ensuing
rainfall make an impression on Achav? Was Achav affected by the experience of
God's fire descending from heaven or was he oblivious to God's powerful
religious orientation is complex and far from linear. Achav does not share
Izevel's monolithic attachment to the Ba’al. Rather, Achav's faith has a
fascinating history, taking interesting twists and turns. On the one hand, Achav
is described by the mishna
as one of the three evil kings of Israel whose place in the World to
Come was denied. On that backdrop, we might see him as a hopeless case. But it
is Chapter 20 that that provides the impetus for a surprisingly positive
Rabbinic statement regarding Achav:
said: Why did Achav deserve to reign for twenty-two years? Because he honored the Torah, which was
given with twenty-two letters (Sanhedrin 102b)
What is the
Biblical source for this midrash? How does Achav honor the Torah? Is this
out of character?
survey the evidence:
describes Achav's altercations with the Kingdom of Aram. In this depiction of the royal
court, the prophet of God has a central role. Achav acts upon the encouraging
words of the prophet - not once, but twice. The theme of the prophetic message
is, "and you shall know that I am God,"
which implies that God is interested to advance and deepen Achav's faith. In a
scene at the end of the chapter, we see how one of the nevi’im needs to
disguise himself so that Achav doesn't recognize him A clear feature of this
chapter, then, is that Achav is acquainted with nevi'ei Hashem and
responsive to them.
the prophets of the Ba’al and the Ashera? If Izevel remains a central religious
influence, why are prophets of God allowed to feature so freely and prominently
in the royal arena? It is true that in chapter 18, Achav's closest advisor,
Ovadia, was loyal to God. But at the same time, he needed to hide his allegiance
to God. At that point in time, Izevel had a free hand when it came to national
religion. With the central role of the prophet of God in chapter 20, we have to
consider the fact that something HAS changed in the royal court. Eliyahu's
actions had generated a significant shift in the religious tone of the
ends with a clash between the prophet and the king, leaving a sour taste
regarding the positive cooperation between the king and the prophet. Similarly,
chapter 21 tells a story of considerable friction between prophet and king; yet,
when condemned by Eliyahu for his unethical actions, Achav responds with an act
of contrite repentance.
22, we return to the royal court. There, we find 400 prophets. Interestingly,
they are false prophets, more like actors or a paid political crowd who give a
sense of support by chanting in unison the lines that the king wishes to hear.
Nonetheless, and particularly important in the light of the number of
constituents - 400 - these prophets speak in God's name and not in the name of
What we are
contesting then, is that Achav is far from having rejected God or the religion
of Israel. He has his vacillations and
fluctuations as regards the place of Israelite religion, but he is engaged in an
active dialogue with his Judaism. In out chapter, God shows an active interest
in encouraging his faith. What the evidence would seem to show is that after Har
Ha-Carmel, the prophets of Ba’al do not return. Instead, prophets of God have a
fixed presence in the royal court. That religious adjustment is enormously
significant. In many ways, Eliyahu succeeded.
to our perek is the hostility between Aram and Israel, a conflict that began already
in the times of Ba'asha (15:19-21) and steadily escalates after Achav,
continuing until the reign of Yerovam ben Yoash.
In our chapter, Aram's king Ben-Hadad joins with 32
other kings, probably tribal chieftains bound to him by treaty, and sets siege
to Shomron. The dialogue here is indirect and is conducted in the form of
telegraphic messages sent from the siege camp to the besieged Achav. (The verb
SHL"CH is something of a keyword,
featuring in a more intense form – SHALACH - at the end of the
here is difficult. We shall compare the first exchange with the
And he sent
messengers to Achav inside the city to say to him:
Ben-Hadad: Your silver and gold are mine; your beautiful wives and children are
The king of
Israel replied: "As you say my lord
king: I and all I have are yours."
messengers came again and said:
Ben-Hadad: When I sent you the order to give me your silver and gold and your
wives and your children, I meant that tomorrow at this time I will send my
servants and they will search your house… and seize everything you prize and
take it away." (vv.2-6)
reaction is slow and deliberate. He first summons his advisors, giving them his
feeling that this is no ordinary demand but essentially a provocation, a pretext
for attack: "This man is bent on evil/destruction."
They advise him not to submit, and Achav informs
Tell my lord
the king: "All that you demanded of your servant at first, I shall do, but this
thing I cannot do." (v.9)
commentaries are puzzled. In his first message, Ben-Hadad proclaimed that
Achav's money and close family were his. Achav agreed! What was the critical
shift that took place in the second demand? Why did Achav agree so readily to
the first demand and reject the second? The Ralbag and Metzudat David both
I and all I
have are yours: I am under your governance, to serve you and to pay tribute.
words, the original request was seen as demand that Achav capitulate to the
superior military might of Aram, aligning himself with Aram as a
vassal, paying taxes to the Aramean kingdom, but essentially governing his
internal affairs independently. But Ben-Hadad's second message indicated that he
wished to actually enter the city and seize Achav's family and his house items.
That was an act of humiliation, a violation of the international standard
between vassal and sovereign. Alternatively, as suggested by R. Yoseph Kra, it
was a demand to have the city open its doors and submit to the enemy, allowing
them to overrun and destroy the kingdom. In short, it is a message that tells
Achav that Ben-Hadad is determined to wage war or to force a surrender, but that
he is not interested in other options. And because this is precisely an
existential threat, Achav called a cabinet meeting. His advisors also understand
that this is no ordinary offer, and that essentially it is a declaration of war.
His ministers advise him to reject the arrangement.
depiction of Achav taking advice is interesting. We see Achav as a person who is
open to influence and to reason. Do note, however, that Achav still calls
Ben-Hadad, "lord, my king," indicating that he would accept the subordinate
to Achav's humble demeanor, the response of Ben-Hadad is one that smacks of
arrogance and braggery. He boasts as to his victory.
But interestingly, Achav does not adopt a subordinate or intimidated position.
He will have the final word in the conversation. In a wonderful idiom, he
expresses that this battle is far from decided:
The king of
Israel answered, “Tell him: ‘One who
puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it
In other words, this is a
military makeover of the famous expression, “Don't count your chickens before
read this exchange very differently. They suggest that Achav was willing to
accept that his wives and children would be seized by the enemy forces. What was
it that Ben Hadad demanded next – "everything you prize" – that Achav refused?
What was his red-line? It was a Sefer Torah! This is not a personal
dressing-down of the king, but rather an act of national humiliation, as
Ben-Hadad seeks to take away a national symbol. And it is this attack at the
spiritual roots of Israel that leads to a response by
Achav. Let us read Rashi's comment:
Are not all
the items mentioned in the earlier message "prize" possessions? But what is the
"prize"? It is that which is the most precious of all: the Sefer Torah,
about which it is said, "It is dearer than gold and great treasures." Achav said
to himself, "He is asking for a great thing which does not belong to me alone,
but to the elders of Israel!" Hence, "He summoned the
elders of the land." Even though they served idols, they respected the
fascinating derash, as Achav faces the very survival of his kingdom, he
discovers that what matters most to him is his Jewish identity. In a classic
gesture that has been exhibited by many wayward Jews, who, in critical moments
of danger or external pressure and anti-Jewish humiliation discover their Jewish
roots, Achav demonstrates that at his core is a Jewish sensitivity, a commitment
to God. He may not keep the law but he knows that it is the essence of
point, Ben-Hadad activates his forces to enforce the siege. Interestingly, we
are informed even at this stage (v. 12) that Achav and his compatriots had
started drinking. They clearly were not anticipating any action that day. After
all, a siege can take months, if not years. There was no need at this point to
be on alert. The brief mention of Ben-Hadad drinking with his associate kings
conveys not only their confidence, but underscores the contrast in mood between
the carefree scene at the siege-camp, and the tense atmosphere inside Shomron.
This disparity will be the key to Achav's victory. By the time we reach v. 16,
Ben-Hadad will be drunk (despite the fact that it is only noon).
It is at
this juncture that the navi enters the scene:
the Lord: Do you see this great multitude? I will deliver it into your hands
today and you shall know that I am the Lord.
not contest the prophecy and seeks only to know who will lead the battle and who
will conclude it. Achav follows God's advice, sending out the "na’arei
sarei ha-medinot" to attack. This is hardly a recommended tactic -
sending out a small unit of soldiers
to attack so a large force, in broad daylight, at noon – and yet it would appear
that they are following God's instruction against all odds. At any rate, a
drunken Ben-Hadad delivers an incoherent message to his sentries.
Seeing a meager 232 people emerging from the camp, they view this as a
possibility that this is a group of deserters, abandoning the city and the bleak
prospects of a prolonged siege. And so, a small force becomes an advantage, and
the forces from Shomron win the day.
had been orchestrated by God, and it is clear that God had been victorious. Even
if, in retrospect, we could see the genius in sending a small force in midday,
no one could have had intelligence information as to the inebriated state of the
enemy, a critical factor in the panic and confusion that ensued. God's hand was
evident in this unpredictable reversal of fortunes.
As we can
see from v. 22, the navi, now allied with Achav, cautions against
over-confidence, informing the king that Aram
will return next year. Nonetheless, this close relationship is a dramatic shift
in the texture of the government of the North.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PESHAT AND THE
What is the
difference between the peshat and the derash? According to the
midrash, there is a certain innate quality to Achav that understands the
value of the primary symbols of Judaism. The unwillingness to part with a
Sefer Torah expresses certain principles that Achav always held.
God rewards Achav then, by offering him a victory over his enemies as a response
to his religious commitment. This is a story of virtuous acts and their
according to the peshat, Achav begins with simple sense of national
pride. His refusal towards Ben-Hada is not a religious one. It is national,
political. Nonetheless, Hashem uses this opportunity as a springboard to
motivate Achav along religious lines, having the Navi inform Achav how God will
assist in moments of absolute despair. The sense generated by the peshat
reading is one of God actively seeking to draw Achav to a different religious
place, to educate him that if he follows God, God will protect
continue with this chapter in our upcoming shiur.
number of the army which followed the attack force – 7,000 – is interesting,
because the last appearance of this number was in regards to the "seven thousand
– every knee that has not bowed to Ba’al" (19:18). Is this a literary indication
that the people have been exonerated for their sins of avoda