Who was Ahab?
In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Ahab, son of Omri, the seventh king of Israel, who reigned for twenty-two years, from 876 to 854 (1 Kings 16:28 ), was one of the strongest and at the same time one of the weakest kings of Israel.
1. Ahab's Reign
With his kingdom he inherited also the traditional enemies of the kingdom, who were no less ready to make trouble for him than for his predecessors. Occupying a critical position at the best, with foes ever ready to take advantage of any momentary weakness, the kingdom, during the reign of Ahab, was compelled to undergo the blighting effects of misfortune, drought and famine. But Ahab, equal to the occasion, was clever enough to win the admiration and respect of friend and foe, strengthening the kingdom without and within. Many of the evils of his reign, which a stronger nature might have overcome, were incident to the measures that he took for strengthening the kingdom.
2. His Foreign Policy
In the days of David and Solomon a beneficial commercial intercourse existed between the Hebrews and the Phoenicians. Ahab, recognizing the advantages that would accrue to his kingdom from an alliance with the foremost commercial nation of his time, renewed the old relations with the Phoenicians and cemented them by his marriage with Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre (the Ithobalos, priest of Astarte mentioned by Meander).
He next turns his attention to the establishment of peaceful and friendly relations with the kindred and neighboring kingdom of Judah. For the first time since the division of the kingdoms the hereditary internecine quarrels are forgotten, "and Jehoshaphat," the good king of Judah, "made peace with the king of Israel." This alliance, too, was sealed by a marriage relationship, Jehoram, the crown-prince of Judah, being united in marriage with the princess Athaliah, daughter of Ahab.
Perhaps some additional light is thrown upon Ahab's foreign policy by his treatment of Benhadad, king of Damascus. An opportunity was given to crush to dust the threatening power of Syria. But when Benhadad in the garb of a suppliant was compelled to sue for his life, Ahab received into kindly as his brother, and although denounced by the prophets for his leniency, spared his enemy and allowed him to depart on the condition that he would restore the cities captured from Omri, and concede certain "streets" in Damascus as a quarter for Israelite residents. No doubt Ahab thought that a king won as a friend by kindness might be of greater service to Israel than a hostile nation, made still more hostile, by having its king put to death. Whatever Ahab's motives may have been, these hereditary foes really fought side by side against the common enemy, the king of Assyria, in the battle at Karkar on the Orontes in the year 854, as is proved by the inscription on the monolith of Shalmaneser II, king of Assyria.
3. His Religious Policy
Ahab's far-sighted foreign policy was the antithesis of his short-sighted religious policy. Through his alliance with Phoenicia he not only set in motion the currents of commerce with Tyre, but invited Phoenician religion as well. The worship of Yahweh by means of the golden calves of Jeroboam appeared antiquated to him. Baal, the god of Tyre, the proud mistress of the seas and the possessor of dazzling wealth, was to have an equal place with Yahweh, the God of Israel. Accordingly he built in Samara a temple to Baal and in it erected an altar to that god, and at the side of the altar a pole to Asherab (1 Kings 16:32 , 1 Kings 16:33 ). On the other hand he tried to serve Yahweh by naming his children in his honor - A haziah ("Yah holds"), Jehoram ("Yah is high"), and Athaliah ("Yah is strong"). However, Ahab failed to realize that while a coalition of nations might be advantageous, a syncretism of their religions would be disastrous. He failed to apprehend the full meaning of the principle, "Yahweh alone is the God of Israel." In Jezebel, his Phoenician wife, Ahab found a champion of the foreign culture, who was as imperious and able as she was vindictive and unscrupulous. She was the patron of the prophets of Baal and of the devotees of Asherab (1 Kings 18:19 , 1 Kings 18:20 ; 1 Kings 19:1 , 1 Kings 19:2 ) At her instigation the altars of Yahweh were torn down. She inaugurated the first great religious persecution of the church, killing off the prophets of Yahweh with the sword. In all this she aimed at more than a syncretism of the two religions; she planned to destroy the religion of Yahweh root and branch and put that of Baal in its place. In this Ahab did not oppose her, but is guilty of conniving at the policy of his unprincipled wife, if not of heartily concurring in it.
4. The Murder of Naboth
Wrong religious principles have their counterpart in false ethical ideals and immoral civil acts. Ahab, as a worshipper of Baal, not only introduced a false religion, but false social ideals as well. The royal residence was in Jezreel, which had probably risen in importance through his alliance with Phoenicia. Close to the royal palace was a vineyard (1 Kings 21:1 ) owned by Naboth, a native of Jezreel. This piece of ground was coveted by Ahab for a vegetable garden. He demanded therefore that Naboth should sell it to into or exchange it for a better piece of land. Naboth declined the offer. Ahab, a Hebrew, knowing the laws of the land, was stung by the refusal and went home greatly displeased. Jezebel, however, had neither religious scruples nor any regard for the civil laws of the Hebrews. Accordingly she planned a high-handed crime to gratify the whim of Ahab. In the name and by the authority of the king she had Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy against God and the king, and had him stoned to death by the local authorities. The horror created by this judicial murder probably did as much to finally overthrow the house of Omri as did the favor shown to the Tyrian Baal.
5. Ahab and Elijah
Neither religious rights nor civil liberties can be trampled under foot without Divine retribution. The attempt to do so calls forth an awakened and quickened conscience, imperatively demanding that the right be done. Like an accusing conscience, Elijah appeared before Ahab. His very name ("my God is Yah") inspired awe. "As Yahweh, the God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years," was the conscience-troubling message left on the mind of Ahab for more than three years. On Elijah's reappearance, Ahab greets into as the troubler of Israel. Elijah calmly reforms him that the king's religious policy has caused the trouble in Israel. The proof for it is to be furnished on Mount Carmel. Ahab does the bidding of Elijah. The people shall know whom to serve. Baal is silent. Yahweh answers with fire. A torrent of rain ends the drought. The victory belongs to Yahweh.
Once more Elijah's indignation flashes against the house of Ahab. The judicial murder of Naboth calls it forth. The civil rights of the nation must be protected. Ahab has sold himself to do evil in the sight of Yahweh. Therefore Ahab's house shall fall. Jezebel's carcass shall be eaten by dogs; the king's posterity shall be cut off; the dogs of the city or the fowls of the air shall eat their bodies (1 Kings 21:20-26 ). Like thunderbolts the words of Elijah strike home. Ahab "fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly." But the die was cast. Yahweh is vindicated. Never again, in the history of Israel can Baal, the inspirer of injustice, claim a place at the side of Yahweh, the God of righteousness.
6. Ahab's Building Operations
In common with oriental monarchs, Ahab displayed a taste for architecture, stimulated, no doubt, by Phoenician influence. Large building operations were undertaken in Samaria (1 Kings 16:32 ; 2 Kings 10:21 ). Solomon had an ivory throne, but Ahab built for himself, in Jezreel, a palace adorned with woodwork and inlaid with ivory (1 Kings 21:1 ; 1 Kings 22:39 ). Perhaps Amos, one hundred years later, refers to the work of Ahab when he says, "The houses of ivory shall perish" (Amos 3:15 ). In his day Hiel of Bethel undertook to rebuild Jericho, notwithstanding the curse of Joshua (1 Kings 16:33 , 1 Kings 16:34 ). Many cities were built during his reign (1 Kings 22:39 ).
7. Ahab's Military Career
Ahab was not only a splendor-loving monarch, but a great military leader as well. He no doubt began his military policy by fortifying the cities of Israel (1 Kings 16:34 ; 1 Kings 22:39 ). Benhadad (the Dadidri of the Assyrian annals; Hadadezer and Barhadad are Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic forms of the same name), the king of Syria, whose vassals the kings of Israel had been (1 Kings 15:19 ), promptly besieges Samaria, and sends Ahab an insulting message. Ahab replies, "Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off." At the advice of a prophet of Yahweh, Ahab, with 7,000 men under 232 leaders, inflicts a crushing defeat upon Benhadad and his 32 feudal kings, who had resigned themselves to a drunken carousal (1 Ki 20 through 21).
In the following year, the Syrian army, in spite of its overwhelming superiority, meets another defeat at the hands of Ahab in the valley, near Aphek. On condition that Benhadad restore all Israelite territory and grant the Hebrews certain rights in Damascus, Ahab spares his life to the great indignation of the prophet (1 Kings 20:22 ).
In the year 854, Ahab with 2,000 chariots and 10,000 men, fights shoulder to shoulder with Benhadad against Shalmaneser II, king of Assyria. At Karkar, on the Orontes, Benhadad, with his allied forces, suffered an overwhelming defeat (COT , II, i, 183 f).
Perhaps Benhadad blamed Ahab for the defeat. At any rate he fails to keep his promise to Ahab (1 Kings 22:3 ; 1 Kings 20:34 ). Lured by false prophets, but against the dramatic warning of Micaiah, Ahab is led to take up the gauntlet against Syria once more. His friend, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, joins him in the conflict. For the first time since the days of David all Israel and Judah stand united against the common foe.
8. Ahab's Death
Possibly the warning of Micaiah gave Ahab a premonition that this would be has last fight. He enters the battle in disguise, but in vain. An arrow, shot at random, inflicts a mortal wound. With the fortitude of a hero, in order to avoid a panic, Ahab remains in his chariot all day and dies at sunset. His body is taken to Samaria for burial. A great king had died, and the kingdom declined rapidly after his death. He had failed to comprehend the greatness of Yahweh; he failed to stand for the highest justice, and his sins are visited upon has posterity (1 Kings 22:29 f).
9. Ahab and Archaeology
(1) The Moabite Stone
The Moabite Stone (see MOABITE STONE ) bears testimony (lines 7, 8) that Omri and his son (Ahab) ruled over the land of Mehdeba for forty years. When Ahab was occupied with the Syriac wars, Moab rose in insurrection. Mesha informs us in an exaggerated manner that "Israel perished with an everlasting destruction." Mesha recognizes Yahweh as the God of Israel.
(2) The Monolith of Shalmaneser Ii
The Monolith of Shalmaneser II (Brit Mus; see ASSYRIA ) informs us that in 854 Shalmaneser II came in conflict with the kingdom of Hamath, and that Benhadad II with Ahab of Israel and others formed a confederacy to resist the Assyrian advance. The forces of the coalition were defeated at Karkar.
(3) Recent Excavations
Under the direction of Harvard University, excavations have been carried on in Samaria since 1908. In 1909 remains of a Hebrew palace were found. In this palace two grades of construction have been detected. The explorers suggest that they have found the palace of Omri, enlarged and improved by Ahab. This may be the "ivory house" built by Ahab. In August, 1910, about 75 potsherds were found in a building adjacent to Ahab's palace containing writing. The script is the same as that of the Moabite Stone, the words being divided by ink spots. These ostraca seem to be labels attached to jars kept in a room adjoining Ahab's palace. One of them reads, "In the ninth year. From Shaphtan. For Ba'al-zamar. A jar of old wine." Another reads, "Wine of the vineyard of the Tell." These readings remind one of Naboth's vineyard. In another room not far from where the ostraca were found, "was found an alabaster vase inscribed with the name of Ahab's contemporary, Osorkon II of Egypt." Many proper names are found on the ostraca , which have their equivalent in the Old Testament. It is claimed that the writing is far greater than all other ancient Hebrew writing yet known. Perhaps with the publication of all these writings we may expect much light upon Ahab's reign. (See OSTRACA ; Harvard Theological Review , January, 1909, April, 1910, January, 1911; Sunday School Times , January 7, 1911; The Jewish Chronicle , January 27, 1911.)
Recommended for You
More on Christianity
World Religions - Main pages