Political Power and the Prophet: Ahab, Elijah, and Naboth's Vineyard

Article excerpt

A special thank yon to Professor Zohar Raviv of the Spertus Institute m Chicago for providing the inspiration and teaching that are the basis for this essay.

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 superior political strategist, a powerful warrior, and a master builder of cities and fortresses. According to the "Monolith Inscription" of Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, Ahab provided 10,000 men and 2,000 chariots as part of a rebelling coalition that faced the emerging superpower of Assyria at the Battle of Qarqar in Syria in 853 BCE. While Shalmaneser claimed victory in this battle, it is clear from his inscription that the coalition led by Israel halted the Assyrians' progress and maintained the integrity of the northern kingdom's independence in the face of a formidable enemy. (1) Although the confrontation at Qarqar is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible's account of Ahab's reign, both external sources and archaeological evidence provide us with the portrait of Ahab as a powerful player in the politics of the ancient Middle East.

Also hardly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is Ahab's success as a great builder. Ahab's father Omri fortified the hill of Samaria and established it as the capital of Israel. The son continued his father's work and built up Samaria as the chief city that represented an "era of strong leadership and political--even international--prominence" for the Omrides. (2) Archaeological evidence from the Biblical period reveals that Ahab also involved himself in building magnificent structures in Dan, Hazor, Megiddo, and Tirzah. (3) The king of Israel built an elaborate shaft and a tunnel to tap into the underground water sources at Hazor. In Megiddo, his builders created a magnificent chariot park and horse stables. These building projects strongly suggest "the kingdom of Israel became one of the most important states in the entire region, enjoying economic prosperity through the development of commerce and industry, along with territorial expansion and increased urbanization." (4)

At first glance, the Hebrew Bible's silence in regard to Ahab's successes is bewildering and disturbing. Why would the Book of Kings not mention a battle as important as that fought against the Assyrians at Qarqar, especially when the Assyrian superpower plays such an important role in the demise of the northern kingdom more than a century later? Why doesn't the Hebrew Bible describe the glory of Ahab's building projects in Samaria and his feats of engineering in Hazor? The Biblical scribes mention an "ivory house" built by the king of Israel (I Kings 22:39-40) but makes scant reference to "all the cities that he built." (I Kings 22:39). The prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible chooses to focus on other aspects of Ahab's monarchy that have nothing to do with realpolitik and the geopolitical realities of the ancient Middle East.

This silence becomes understandable, however, once we ourselves understand the theological agenda of the Hebrew Bible's writers and the message they are trying to convey to the reader. What we see clearly from the text is its concern not with the "sight" of the monarch of Israel but the "vision" of the prophet Elijah who condemns the rulers of the northern kingdom for their idolatrous practices and their immorality. The reality of Ahab's political power is only of concern to the prophet as it relates to Ahab's failure to fulfill the "ethical teleology" enshrined in the "covenantal paradigm" that is the basis of the ongoing relationship between God and Israel.

The Book of Kings sets the stage for the activities of Elijah in its first description of Ahab as King of Israel:

Ahab, son of Omri, became king over Israel in the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, and Ahab, son of Omri, reigned over Israel in Samaria for twenty-two years. …