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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Kings 20

 

 

Verses 1-21

The Initial War With Benhadad (1 Kings 20:1-21).

This war would appear to have been occasioned by a refusal by Ahab to pay the tribute due under a vassalage treaty. Because of this Benhadad came with his allies to enforce the treaty, at which point Ahab submitted. But when Benhadad then tried to extract considerably more than was due, and to humiliate Ahab, Ahab resisted, and was promised by YHWH that victory would be his so that he would recognise YHWH for Whom He was. And the result was that he achieved a great victory.

Analysis.

a And Ben-hadad the king of Aram (Syria) gathered all his host together, and there were thirty and two kings with him, and horses and chariots, and he went up and besieged Samaria, and fought against it (1 Kings 20:1).

b And he sent messengers to Ahab king of Israel, into the city, and said to him, “Thus says Ben-hadad, Your silver and your gold is mine, your wives also and your children, even the finest, are mine” (1 Kings 20:2-3)

c And the king of Israel answered and said, “It is in accordance with your saying, my lord, O king. I am yours, and all that I have” (1 Kings 20:4).

d And the messengers came again, and said, “Thus speaks Ben-hadad, saying, I sent indeed to you, saying, You shall deliver me your silver, and your gold, and your wives, and your children, but I will send my servants to you tomorrow about this time, and they will search your house, and the houses of your servants, and it shall be, that whatever is pleasant in your eyes, they will put it in their hand, and take it away” (1 Kings 20:5-6).

e Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, “Mark, I pray you, and see how this man seeks mischief, for he sent to me for my wives, and for my children, and for my silver, and for my gold, and I did not refuse him.” And all the elders and all the people said to him, “Do not listen, or give consent” (1 Kings 20:7-8).

f For which reason he said to the messengers of Ben-hadad, “Tell my lord the king, All that you sent for to your servant the first time I will do, but this thing I may not do.” And the messengers departed, and brought him word again (1 Kings 20:9).

g And Ben-hadad sent to him, and said, “The gods do so to me, and more also, if the dust of Samaria will suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me” (1 Kings 20:10).

h And the king of Israel answered and said, “Tell him, Let not him that who girds on his armour boast himself as he who puts it off” (1 Kings 20:11).

g And it came about, when Ben-hadad heard this message, as he was drinking, he and the kings, in the pavilions, that he said to his servants, “Set yourselves in array.” And they set themselves in array against the city (1 Kings 20:12).

f And, behold, a prophet came near to Ahab king of Israel, and said, “Thus says YHWH, Have you seen all this great host? behold, I will deliver it into your hand this day, and you will know that I am YHWH” (1 Kings 20:13).

e And Ahab said, “By whom?” And he said, “Thus says YHWH, By the young men of the princes of the provinces.” Then he said, “Who will begin the battle?” And he answered, “You”. Then he mustered the young men of the princes of the provinces, and they were two hundred and thirty-two, and after them he mustered all the people, even all the children of Israel, being seven thousand (1 Kings 20:14-15).

d And they went out at noon. But Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the pavilions, he and the kings, the thirty and two kings who helped him. And the young men of the princes of the provinces went out first; and Ben-hadad sent out, and they told him, saying, “There are men come out from Samaria” (1 Kings 20:16-17).

c And he said, “Whether they are come out for peace, take them alive, or whether they are come out for war, take them alive” (1 Kings 20:18).

b So these went out of the city, the young men of the princes of the provinces, and the army which followed them, and they slew every one his man, and the Aramaeans (Syrians) fled, and Israel pursued them, and Ben-hadad the king of Aram (Syria) escaped on a horse with horsemen (1 Kings 20:19-20).

And the king of Israel went out, and smote the horses and chariots, and slew the Aramaeans (Syrians) with a great slaughter (1 Kings 20:21).

Note that in ‘a’ Benhadad gathered together his host and his horses and chariots, and in the parallel they are all smitten by the king of Israel. In ‘b’ Benhadad made his demands on Ahab including his children (bn), even the finest, and in the parallel the pick of the ‘children’ (n‘r) go out to him and defeat him utterly. In ‘c’ the king of Israel says that all that he has is Benhadad’s and in the parallel Benhadad looks forward to seizing what the king has sent out. In ‘d’ Benhadad renews his demands and claims not only his silver, gold, wives and children, but also the right to search through all Ahab’s possessions and take what he wanted, and in the parallel report comes to him that young men (n‘r - young men , children) were coming out of Samaria. In ‘e’ Ahab is advised not to listen to the demands of Benhadad, and in the parallel he instead musters his retaliatory forces at the command of YHWH Who pinpoints the ‘young men (children)’for the purpose. In ‘f’ Ahab refuses the demands of Benhadad, and in the parallel YHWH assures him not to be afraid because he will give him victory over Benhadad’s response to his refusal. In ‘g’ Benhadad promises to grind Samaria to dust, and in the parallel he sets his men in array for that purpose. Central in ‘h’ is the injunction from Ahab to Benhadad not to count himself as having won until he has actually done so. It was a reminder to the readers and hearers that when YHWH was involved nothing was certain except that His will would be done

1 Kings 20:1

And Ben-hadad the king of Aram (Syria) gathered all his host together, and there were thirty and two kings with him, and horses and chariots, and he went up and besieged Samaria, and fought against it.’

The crisis now facing Ahab was a severe one. Benhadad of Aram had gathered his forces together and with thirty two ‘kings’, and horses and chariots, was besieging Samaria. This was seemingly because Ahab had previously become Benhadad’s vassal, but had withheld tribute. It was Benhadad who now controlled the trade routes, and had grown rich and powerful.

It is quite clear from this that Benhadad, king of Aram, reigning in Damascus, was the new power in the area. From small beginnings when Rezon had made it his base at the end of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 11:23-25), Damascus had gradually begun to establish itself, and to organise the Aramaean tribes, and taking advantage of the continual squabbles between Israel and Judah, had grown ever more and more powerful, even assisting Asa against Israel in return for adequate reward (1 Kings 15:17-22), when the Aramaeans had raided Israel’s northern borderlands.

Seemingly by the time of this incident he had gone further, and had reduced Ahab to vassalship. But it would appear from what follows that Ahab had withheld tribute, and Benhadad now therefore called on thirty two ‘kings’ (some local petty kings but mainly tribal chieftains) to aid him in punishing his rebellious vassal, Ahab. The threat of Assyria, which would in the future unite the two kingdoms with others in a common cause, had not yet appeared over the horizon, although we know from Assyria’s assessment of Omri that they had certainly been taking an interest in the area. This incident must have taken place some time before the coming Battle of Qarqar in c.853 BC when the kings of the area united in common cause to fight off the Assyrians under Shalmaneser III, and Ahab contributed ‘two thousand chariots and ten thousand men’. He would die in the following year.

The prophetic author’s interest, however, is not in the history of the period, but in the fact that after His revelation of Himself at Mount Carmel YHWH was making clear that if only Ahab would turn back to YHWH with all his heart, YHWH would be able to deliver him from all his enemies.

1 Kings 20:2-3

And he sent messengers to Ahab king of Israel, into the city, and said to him, “Thus says Ben-hadad, Your silver and your gold is mine, your wives also and your children, even the finest, are mine” ’

With Samaria under siege Benhadad sent messengers to Ahab to point out that he was Benhadad’s vassal. It was his intention to receive a large amount of silver and gold, and to take Ahab’s wives and children as hostages to Damascus, hostages for his good behaviour. (Ahab could get many more wives, and he would know that his children would be well treated as long as he kept to the terms of the treaty. Benhadad would probably not have wanted to offend Tyre by taking Jezebel).

1 Kings 20:4

And the king of Israel answered and said, “It is in accordance with your saying, my lord, O king. I am yours, and all that I have.” ’

Ahab, recognising that he had little alternative, yielded to Benhadad’s demands. He was prepared to swear fealty, pay his ransom, and hand over the hostages, in return for Benhadad’s withdrawal.

1 Kings 20:5-6

And the messengers came again, and said, “Thus speaks Ben-hadad, saying, I sent indeed to you, saying, You shall deliver me your silver, and your gold, and your wives, and your children, but I will send my servants to you tomorrow about this time, and they will search your house, and the houses of your servants, and it shall be, that whatever is pleasant in your eyes, they will put it in their hand, and take it away.” ’

But Benhadad was not satisfied with that. He wanted to demonstrate his complete superiority over Ahab by humiliating him and walking in and taking whatever could be found of value in Samaria, on top of what had originally been demanded. As Ahab recognised, it was a deliberate insult.

1 Kings 20:7

Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, “Mark, I pray you, and see how this man seeks mischief, for he sent to me for my wives, and for my children, and for my silver, and for my gold, and I did not refuse him.”

Ahab then called together his council, the leading men of the land who had taken shelter in the capital city. He pointed out the humiliating nature of the demand that was now being made, which was on top of the original demand to which he had acceded and sought their advice.

1 Kings 20:8

And all the elders and all the people said to him, “Do not listen, or give consent.” ’

Moved to anger by the demands, and probably feeling safe in Samaria which was built to withstand a long siege, the elders and all the people urged Ahab to resist.

1 Kings 20:9

For which reason he said to the messengers of Ben-hadad, “Tell my lord the king, All that you sent for to your servant the first time I will do, but this thing I may not do.” And the messengers departed, and brought him word again.’

That was the reason why Ahab sent the messengers back, repeating the original terms, by which he was willing to abide, but pointing out that he could not accede to the new demands. At this the messengers returned to Benhadad.

1 Kings 20:10

And Ben-hadad sent to him, and said, “The gods do so to me, and more also, if the dust of Samaria will suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” ’

Benhadad’s reply was that he would grind Samaria into such a small pile of dust that there would hardly be sufficient to give a handful to all those who followed him. Alternately he may have had in mind the thought that his followers were so numerous that what Samaria could contribute after he had finished with them would be an insufficiency.

1 Kings 20:11

And the king of Israel answered and said, “Tell him, Let not him that who girds on his armour boast himself as he who puts it off.” ’

Ahab, who was no coward, and whose adrenalin was now flowing, sent his own reply back and suggested to Benhadad that the time for boasting was after he had won the battle, not before. The words are emphasised by the author (central in the chiasmus) as a reminder that man should beware of boasting when YHWH was around.

1 Kings 20:12

And it came about, when Ben-hadad heard this message, as he was drinking, he and the kings, in the pavilions, that he said to his servants, “Set yourselves in array.” And they set themselves in array against the city.’

The message reached Benhadad as he was drinking in his splendid tent with his loyal kings and chieftains, and infuriated he sent out immediate orders that preparations should instantly go forward for reducing the besieged city. The time for talking was at an end.

1 Kings 20:13

And, behold, a prophet came near to Ahab king of Israel, and said, “Thus says YHWH, Have you seen all this great host? behold, I will deliver it into your hand this day, and you will know that I am YHWH.” ’

Meanwhile unknown to Benhadad a new power was entering into the equation, for a prophet came from YHWH to Ahab and assured him that the great host that he saw before him would be delivered into his hand that very day so that Ahab would be able to appreciate that YHWH truly was YHWH, the great Deliverer of Israel from Egypt. After the exhibition at Mount Carmel YHWH was giving Ahab another chance.

1 Kings 20:14

And Ahab said, “By whom?” And he said, “Thus says YHWH, By the young men of the princes of the provinces.” Then he said, “Who will begin the battle?” And he answered, “You.” ’

Ahab had been sufficiently impressed by what had happened at Mount Carmel to listen, and he then asked the prophet by whom this deliverance was to take place. Who were those to be involved? The reply brings out YHWH’s sense of humour. Benhadad had demanded Ahab’s children, had he? Well, he could have them. The deliverance would by ‘the young men’ (the word can also mean children) of the princes of the provinces, those not defiled by contact with the court and the Baalism of Samaria.

Ahab then asked whether he should wait for Benhadad to attack, or whether he should attack first, to which the prophet replied that he should attack first.

1 Kings 20:15

Then he mustered the young men of the princes of the provinces, and they were two hundred and thirty-two, and after them he mustered all the people, even all the children of Israel, being seven thousand.’

So Ahab mustered the young men of the princes of the provinces, of which there were two hundred and thirty two, and then he mustered all the available fighting men in Samaria. These numbered ‘seven thousand’ (seven military units). In view of the mention of ‘seven thousand’ chosen servants of YHWH in 1 Kings 19:18, where the idea was of YHWH’s divinely perfect ‘reserved chosen ones’, we are probably intended to see this as indicating YHWH’s divinely perfect fighting force.

1 Kings 20:16

And they went out at noon. But Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the pavilions, he and the kings, the thirty and two kings who helped him.’

Meanwhile Benhadad, confident that Ahab was trapped in the city and could do little or nothing, was getting himself and all his accompanying kings blind drunk. The thought of a full scale attack from within the city was outside his comprehension. Thus when the initial foray of ‘Ahab’s children’ came out of the city at noon he treated it as a joke, something to be dismissed out of hand.

1 Kings 20:17

And the young men of the princes of the provinces went out first, and Ben-hadad sent out, and they told him, saying, “There are men come out from Samaria.”

The initial foray was by the young men of the provinces, and when Benhadad sent out in order to discover what the commotion was about, he was informed that men had come out of Samaria.

1 Kings 20:18

And he said, “Whether they are come out for peace, take them alive, or whether they are come out for war, take them alive.” ’

He probably dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. His commanders in the field could deal with that. And he was so confident that he gave the command that, regardless of whether they had come out to make terms, or whether their aim was more belligerent, the men be taken alive. He did not realise that by this he was merely hampering his forces, who would seek to carry out his wishes. It is much more difficult to take men alive than dead, and his officers would know what the consequences would be for them if too many of their opponents died after they had received that command. Benhadad would not be lenient.

1 Kings 20:19-20

So these went out of the city, the young men of the princes of the provinces, and the army which followed them, and they slew every one his man, and the Aramaeans (Syrians) fled, and Israel pursued them, and Ben-hadad the king of Aram (Syria) escaped on a horse with horsemen.’

Meanwhile the young men came forward determined to prove their worth and to show Ahab that he had chosen wisely, and, with all eyes concentrated on them, they were followed by the seven large units who had also been mustered, but were probably virtually unnoticed. It is possible at this stage that recognising in the young men the usual offer of a ‘trial by combat’ in which chosen men of each side would first fight in order to see whose side the gods were on, Benhadad’s captains sent out the equivalent number of young men to do battle. We can compare how Goliath had similarly challenged the hosts of Israel to provide a champion (1 Samuel 17), and how Joab’s young men had met Abner’s before the battle began (2 Samuel 2:14-16). It was a method of the day.

But the young men of Ahab prevailed, each slaying his man. And in that superstitious age such a portent was devastating to the morale of the opposing army, especially one which was as loosely affiliated as the Aramaeans (1 Kings 20:24). With this portent, and with their kings and chieftains drunk in their tent, and with seven organised units of Israelites suddenly appearing and bearing down on them the different tribal sections turned and fled (as the Philistines had on the death of Goliath - 1 Samuel 17:51). If the gods were against you, what was the point in fighting?

Meanwhile Benhadad, now aroused from his drunken stupor, recognised the danger and, caught up in the general panic, seized a horse and fled with his cavalry. Cavalry were a relatively new idea in Palestine at the time, and from the Assyrian descriptions of the battle of Qarqar we know that the Aramaeans had twelve hundred of them.

1 Kings 20:21

And the king of Israel went out, and smote the horses and chariots, and slew the Aramaeans (Syrians) with a great slaughter.’

Seeing the success of his men, Ahab then gathered together all in Samaria who were remotely capable and went out to take advantage of the situation, smiting the horses and chariots, which would not have been anticipating a battle and would have been unprepared, and slaughtering great numbers of fleeing Aramaeans. YHWH had triumphed on behalf of Israel once again. It was a rout.


Verses 1-43

War With Benhadad King Of Aram (1 Kings 20:1-43).

There is no indication at what point in Ahab’s reign these events occurred, but a situation is indicated where the power of the Aramaeans had now grown so great that they had made Ahab into a vassal king who paid tribute to Aram (Syria). This must have been some time into the reign of Ahab, for it is unlikely that it was true of the great Omri (except possibly in the early stages of civil war), but the history has all been ignored by the prophetic author as irrelevant simply because no prophets were involved. In his view Ahab at that stage was simply suffering the consequences of his disobedience and his trust in Baal, and as far as the author was concerned that had been brought out more effectively in the passage about the great drought. But at some stage Benhadad the king of Aram then sought to publicly humiliate Ahab, which resulted in determined resistance, and resulted in his own defeat. And this was seen as important because it was patently YHWH Who had fought for Israel in accordance with the word of a prophet (1 Kings 20:13).

On returning a second time in order to gain his revenge Benhadad would once again be utterly defeated, and once again we are informed that it was because YHWH fought for Israel at the word of a ‘man of God’ (1 Kings 20:28). The consequence was that a new treaty was made with Benhadad as the vassal. This treaty was, however, criticised by a prophet because the purpose of YHWH had been that Benhadad be put to death because of his sinfulness, and Ahab was finally informed that by his failure to do that he had forfeited his future security.

The passage thus splits up into three subsections, namely:

The initial war with Benhadad, where the promise is given, ‘Have you seen all this great host? Behold I will deliver it into your hand this day, and you will know that I am YHWH’ (1 Kings 20:1-21).

The second war with Benhadad where the promise is given, ‘I will deliver all this great host into your hand, and you will know that I am YHWH’ (1 Kings 20:22-34).

The condemnation of Ahab by the prophet of YHWH, where he declares, ‘Thus says YHWH, because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life will go for his life, and your people for his people’ (1 Kings 20:35-43).

It will be noted that the main purpose in all this was so that Ahab might be brought to know that YHWH was truly YHWH, ‘the One Who will be what He will be’. It may well therefore have occurred after the incident on Mount Carmel as God sought to reinforce the impact that that had had on Ahab.


Verses 22-34

YHWH Thwarts Benhadad’s Second Attempt On Israel (1 Kings 20:22-34).

It was not likely that Benhadad would take this reverse lightly. While his forces had fled in panic with the result that he had forfeited all the gains and tribute that he had been expecting, and had lost a good number of men, he was still militarily strong, and now he had the further motive in that there was a humiliation to wipe out and a rebellious one time vassal to subdue. Thus he began to prepare himself for a second attempt on Israel.

This time, however the battle was to be fought on grounds of his choosing. This was, indeed necessary, because his men had got it into their minds that in the mountains Israel’s gods were more powerful and it was therefore unwise to venture there. So he amassed his superior numbers and once again set out to deal with Ahab, and this time he was determined to do it on the flat plain at Aphek. This Aphek (there were a number of Apheks, the name merely indicating a source of water) was probably to the east of the Sea of Galilee on the road leading from Damascus to Israel near the junction of the Yarmuk and the Jordan. (Others see it as the Aphek in the Plain of Esdraelon).

Unfortunately for him, however, YHWH was not simply like other gods (a point being emphasised here by the prophetic author). He was the only God, and God of both mountain and plain, and of the whole world. Thus he would punish Benhadad for his impudence, and at the same time give further indication to Ahab that Israel were His chosen people, and that Ahab should therefore look only to Him.

The consequence was that the forces of Aram were one again routed with such severity that Benhadad had to become Ahab’s vassal. But as we shall see, that had not been YHWH’s intention, for He had wanted Benhadad executed so that he could no longer trouble Israel.

The author’s main point in this passage, therefore, is to bring out that YHWH is triumphant anywhere , and is not limited in what He can do. For He is YHWH, the One Who will be what He will be.

Analysis.

a And the prophet came near to the king of Israel, and said to him, “Go, strengthen yourself, and mark, and see what you do, for at the return of the year the king of Aram (Syria) will come up against you’ (1 Kings 20:22).

b And the servants of the king of Aram (Syria) said to him, “Their god is a god of the hills, therefore they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they. And do this thing. Take the kings away, every man out of his place, and put captains in their room, and number you an army, like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot; and we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice, and did so (1 Kings 20:23-25).

c And it came about at the return of the year, that Ben-hadad mustered the Aramaeans (Syrians), and went up to Aphek, to fight against Israel (1 Kings 20:26).

d And the children of Israel were mustered, and were provisioned, and went against them, and the children of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of kids, but the Aramaeans (Syrians) filled the country (1 Kings 20:27).

e And a man of God came near and spoke to the king of Israel, and said, “Thus says YHWH, Because the Aramaeans (Syrians) have said, YHWH is a god of the hills, but he is not a god of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great host into your hand, and you will know that I am YHWH (1 Kings 20:28).

d And they encamped one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined, and the children of Israel slew of the Aramaeans (Syrians) a hundred units of footmen in one day (1 Kings 20:29).

c But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city, and the wall fell on twenty and seven units of men who were left. And Ben-hadad fled, and came into the city, into an inner chamber (1 Kings 20:30).

b And his servants said to him, “Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings. Let us, we pray you, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes on our heads, and go out to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will save your life. So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and put ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, “Your servant Ben-hadad says, “I pray you, let me live.” And he said, “Is he yet alive? He is my brother.” Now the men watched him diligently, and sought rapidly to catch whether it were his mind, and they said, “Your brother Ben-hadad.” Then he said, “Go you, bring him.” Then Ben-hadad came forth to him, and he caused him to come up into the chariot (1 Kings 20:31-33).

a And Ben-hadad said to him, “The cities which my father took from your father I will restore, and you shall make streets for yourself in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria.” “And I,” said Ahab, “will let you go with this covenant.” So he made a covenant with him, and let him go (1 Kings 20:34).

Note that in ‘a’ Ahab is warned to prepare himself because Benhadad will come up against him again, and in the parallel, having defeated him, he spares him, makes a treaty with him, and lets him go. In ‘b’ we have the servants advice to Benhadad in which they demean YHWH and proudly muster their army, and in the parallel we have the servants advice to Benhadad in which they demean themselves and put on sackcloth and plead for mercy. In ‘c’ Benhadad and his army come to Aphek, and in the parallel they flee into Aphek to escape from the Israelites. In ‘d’ we have the comparison between the might army of Benhadad, and the tiny army of Ahab, and in the parallel we have a similar comparison, with the tiny army vanquishing the Aramaeans. Centrally in ‘e’ we learn why this was. It was because YHWH was demonstrating precisely what kind of a God He was, and as seeking to bring home to Ahab a knowledge of Himself.

1 Kings 20:22

And the prophet came near to the king of Israel, and said to him, “Go, strengthen yourself, and mark, and see what you do, for at the return of the year the king of Aram (Syria) will come up against you.’

God was now making a determined attempt to win Ahab away from the worship of Baal and the syncretism of Jeroboam to a true worship of Him, and to make him realise that his only hope lay in full submission to Him as YHWH. Thus he sent a prophet to keep Ahab in touch with events, and to remind him of His ever present eye. This prophet advised Ahab to build up his fighting capabilities, and to be careful what he was about, because within a year he could be sure that Benhadad would be back. He was seeking to teach Ahab continual dependence.

1 Kings 20:23

And the servants of the king of Aram (Syria) said to him, “Their god is a god of the hills, therefore they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they.” ’

Meanwhile, unaware that YHWH knew their every conversation and was plotting against them, Benhadad’s courtiers and commanders were advising Benhadad on his next course of action. As they could not see any other explanation for their previous failure (panic not being seen as an option) they had come to the conclusion that the explanation lay in the fact that Israel’s God had been victorious because He was a ‘god of the hills’. Let them then but fight Israel in the plains and the victory would be theirs.

The importance laid on this by the prophetic author comes out in the repetition of the idea in 1 Kings 20:28 where it is seen as having ‘offended’ God because it was so ludicrously untrue.

1 Kings 20:24-25

And do this thing. Take the kings away, every man out of his place, and put captains in their room, and number you an army, like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot; and we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice, and did so.’

Thus their solution was that the army should be reorganised under reliable military commanders who would be responsive to their general, rather than being left in the hands of chieftains who often preferred to do their own thing, especially when booty was available. An army equal in size and military strength to the previous one was then to be mustered under these commanders, and by meeting Israel’s army in the plain they would nullify the effectiveness (they hoped) of their God. It appeared to be a sound plan and might have worked of God had been like the gods of the nations. The snag lay in the fact that He was not.

1 Kings 20:26

And it came about at the return of the year, that Ben-hadad mustered the Aramaeans (Syrians), and went up to Aphek, to fight against Israel.’

So ‘at the return of the year’ (there is disagreement as to whether this means around April or around September) Benhadad again mustered his Aramaean troops, and in accordance with the plan went up to the plain around Aphek in order to fight Israel on the flat there. (April is more likely to have been the time chosen simply because it would mean that Benhadad’s army would find growing crops on which they could feed themselves. On the other hand in September there would be plenty of stored crops available in all the farms and towns that they came across).

1 Kings 20:27

And the children of Israel were mustered, and were provisioned, and went against them, and the children of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of kids, but the Aramaeans (Syrians) filled the country.’

Learning of the threat of invasion the children of Israel were also mustered and provisioned, and went against them. And so massive was the army of Aram that the army of Israel appeared like ‘two little flocks of kids’ in comparison. It appeared to be ‘no contest’.

“Two little flocks of kids.” We should translate as ‘a few flocks of kids’ with ‘two’ being used as in 1 Kings 17:12 to indicate ‘a few’. The point of the contrast is the size of the Aramaean army as opposed to the comparative fewness of the military units possessed by Ahab.

1 Kings 20:28

And a man of God came near and spoke to the king of Israel, and said, “Thus says YHWH, Because the Aramaeans (Syrians) have said, YHWH is a god of the hills, but he is not a god of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great host into your hand, and you will know that I am YHWH.’

But there was one difference, and that was that YHWH was with Israel, and intended to make quite clear that the foolish words of the Aramaeans about His limitations were nonsense. This is emphasised by the repetition of the words from 1 Kings 20:23. This is spelled out to Ahab with the assurance that the folly of their words would be made clear when Ahab gained the victory. Then he would know truly Who YHWH was, which was the whole point of the exercise.

1 Kings 20:29

And they encamped one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined, and the children of Israel slew of the Aramaeans (Syrians) a hundred thousand footmen in one day.’

The outcome was inevitable. The armies encamped opposite each other for seven days, probably awaiting for the propitious time as indicated by their gods and their prophets, and then at the end of that period (‘seven days’ - the divinely appointed time) they joined battle. Unfortunately the god of the plains had forgotten to turn up and the result was that the Aramaeans were totally defeated, and the children of Israel were able to slaughter a hundred units of the enemy in that one day

1 Kings 20:30

But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city, and the wall fell on twenty and seven thousand men who were left. And Ben-hadad fled, and came into the city, into an inner chamber.’

The remainder of the Aramaean army fled to the city of Aphek in order to take shelter there. But the Israelites set about undermining the walls, with the result that the walls caved in on the crowded troops assembled within the city just inside its walls, falling on another twenty seven units of the enemy and killing many of them. Meanwhile Benhadad had taken refuge in an inner chamber.

1 Kings 20:31

And his servants said to him, “Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings. Let us, we pray you, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes on our heads, and go out to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will save your life.’

His courtiers then came to him and pointed out to Benhadad that whatever he had intended to do to Ahab, the kings of Israel had a reputation for being merciful kings. The author was especially interested in this point because it emphasised the difference between the attitude of the enemy and the distinctiveness of Yahwism. The covenant taught men to be merciful.

So they suggested that they all strip off their robes and put on sackcloth, and wind ropes on their heads, and then go to the king of Israel. Perhaps he would be merciful. Ropes may have been the headgear of the poorest classes, and thus have symbolised humility.

1 Kings 20:32

So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and put ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, “Your servant Ben-hadad says, “I pray you, let me live.” And he said, “Is he yet alive? He is my brother.” ’.

Suiting their actions to their words, but not risking taking the king with them, his courtiers came to the king of Israel in sackcloth and with ropes wound round their heads, and offered Benhadad’s plea that his life might be spared. And their hopes very much sprang to life when Ahab, instead of speaking in anger rather asked after Benhadad’s welfare and spoke of him as his ‘brother’. He was surprised that he had survived the fierceness of the slaughter.

1 Kings 20:33

Now the men watched him diligently, and sought rapidly to catch whether it were his mind (was really what he was thinking), and they said, “Your brother Ben-hadad.” Then he said, “Go you, bring him.” Then Ben-hadad came forth to him, and he caused him to come up into the chariot.’

Catching on to his tone the courtiers watched him carefully and in the brief time that they had available tried to work out its genuineness. Then they hopefully said, ‘Yes, your brother Benhadad’. To their relief Ahab, in what gave the appearance of an intention to show mercy, then told them to bring Benhadad to him. And the result was that Benhadad was brought out of his hiding place, and Ahab ‘caused him to come up into his chariot’. This may have been a gesture indicating equality, or it may have been a demand for submission.

1 Kings 20:34

And Ben-hadad said to him, “The cities which my father took from your father I will restore, and you shall make streets for yourself in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria.” “And I,” said Ahab, “will let you go with this covenant.” So he made a covenant with him, and let him go.’

Benhadad then ceded back the rights that he had previously claimed over Israel, and at the same time gave Ahab trading rights in Damascus. ‘The cities which my father took from your father’ probably refer to the invasion in the time of Baasha, with ‘your father’ being used loosely (Benhadad would not have a detailed genealogy), although it may be that during the civil war at the beginning of Omri’s reign further marginally owned border towns had been taken which he did not see as important enough to win back (he was busy elsewhere). The streets were streets set apart for trading, and along with the trade routes, control of which would pass back to Ahab, would enable him to build up his treasury. Something which it turns out he used to good effect in that when Shalmaneser III of Assyria invaded the area Ahab was able to contribute two large units of chariots to the allied forces that opposed him at Qarqar. Shalmaneser claimed it as a victory for his side, but as he then withdrew it was clearly not so. (Great kings in those days never suffered recorded defeats, and any closely fought battle was described as a victory. We can compare how when the Egyptians fought with the Hittites both sides are recorded by themselves as having won)

It is disputed whether Benhadad’s father was also Benhadad, this one now being Benhadad II, or whether Benhadad had a very long (but not impossibly long) reign with his father being Tab-rimmon (1 Kings 15:18). But as Baasha lost cities to Benhadad, and he is here called Benhadad’s father, two Benhadad’s are signified. Benhadad (‘son of Hadad’) was probably a dynastic throne name whereby the king was seen as adopted by Hadad The Thunderer, one of the gods of Aram.


Verses 35-43

Ahab Is Seen By The Prophets As Having Disobeyed YHWH By Not Putting Ben-hadad To Death, And Is Warned Of What The Consequences Will Be (1 Kings 20:35-43).

We have not actually been told that Ben-hadad was ‘devoted to destruction’ (as Agag had been in 1 Samuel 15:13-33) but it may well have been recognised policy in Israel when a captured king fell into their hands, on the grounds that he now ‘belonged to YHWH’. Or it may be that Ahab had been given instructions to that end. Either way his failure to execute Ben-hadad was seen as a gross sin. In those violent days there was good cause to execute such kings, lest they go away and plot revenge for having been humiliated. It will be noted that the prophet goes out of his way to stress the seriousness of Ahab’s failure. He emphasises that in the end it will bring destruction on Israel.

Analysis.

a And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his fellow by the word of YHWH, “Smite me, I pray you.” And the man refused to smite him (1 Kings 20:35).

b Then he said to him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of YHWH, behold, as soon as you have left me, a lion will kill you.” And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and killed him. Then he found another man, and said, “Smite me, I pray you.” And the man smote him, smiting and wounding him (1 Kings 20:36-37).

c So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with his headband over his eyes. (1 Kings 20:38).

d And as the king passed by, he cried to the king; and he said, “Your servant went out into the midst of the battle, and, behold, a man turned aside, and brought a man to me, and said, ‘Guard this man. If by any means he is missing, then shall your life be for his life, or else you will pay a talent of silver” (1 Kings 20:39).

e “And as your servant was busy here and there, he was gone” (1 Kings 20:40 a).

d And the king of Israel said to him, “So shall your judgment be. You yourself have decided it (1 Kings 20:40 b).

c And he hurried, and took the headband away from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognised him that he was of the prophets (1 Kings 20:41).

b And he said to him, “Thus says YHWH, Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life will go for his life, and your people for his people” (1 Kings 20:42).

a And the king of Israel went to his house heavy and displeased, and came to Samaria (1 Kings 20:43).

Note that in ‘a’ the man of the sons of the prophets was thwarted and displeased and in the parallel the king of Israel was displeased. In ‘b’ the man was slain for failing to obey the voice of YHWH, and in the parallel Ahab was to suffer for the same reason. In ‘c’ the prophet disguised himself with a headband over his eyes, and in the parallel he removed the headband. In ‘d’ the ‘old soldier’ lays out his case and in the parallel Ahab declares that he has passed his own judgment. Centrally in ‘e’ the failure was due to a careless attitude and being taken up with other things than the will of YHWH.

1 Kings 20:35

And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his fellow by the word of YHWH, “Smite me, I pray you.” And the man refused to smite him.’

The point behind this initial incident is the vital importance of obeying the word of YHWH even if we do not understand why it has been given, with the consequence of failure being death. We must presume that the prophet stressed that what he was being asked to do was ‘by the word of YHWH’, and the man certainly knew that he was a prophet. The man was thus flagrantly guilty of disobeying YHWH. At a time when Yahwists were suffering persecution it was necessary for the status of their prophets to be soundly upheld. (The death did, however, come about by natural means).

“A certain man of the sons of the prophets.” We are again reminded that there were still many faithful supporters of true Yahwism in Israel.

1 Kings 20:36

Then he said to him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of YHWH, behold, as soon as you have left me, a lion will kill you.” And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and killed him.’

Because the man refused to obey the word of YHWH he was seen as deserving of death, and the prophet foresaw his death at the paws of a lion. And sure enough as he went on his way a lion killed him. It would appear from this and 1 Kings 13:24 that deaths from a wayward lion were not uncommon (it may even have been considered to be ‘YHWH’s executioner’).

1 Kings 20:37

Then he found another man, and said, “Smite me, I pray you.” And the man smote him, smiting and wounding him.’

Then the prophet moved on to a second man who this time obliged, and hit him hard enough to leave marks.

1 Kings 20:38

So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with his headband over his eyes.’

Satisfied with how he looked the prophet then went and waited in a place where he knew that the king would shortly pass. The fact that he did it so openly may suggest that for the time being the persecution of the prophets of YHWH had ceased. Certainly Ahab appears to have become more amenable towards YHWH, something no doubt resulting from what he had seen on Mount Carmel, and from the encouragement that the prophets had given him during his wars.

But the prophet had disguised himself, covering his eyes with a headband. He may well have known that otherwise the king would recognise him.

1 Kings 20:39-40 a ‘And as the king passed by, he cried to the king; and he said, “Your servant went out into the midst of the battle, and, behold, a man turned aside, and brought a man to me, and said, ‘Guard this man. If by any means he is missing, then shall your life be for his life, or else you will pay a talent of silver.” And as your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.’

As the king passed by the prophet, pretending to be an old, blind soldier, called on him to give him his judgment. It was quite normal for kings in those days to be called on by individuals to dispense justice, and for them to do so. While it is not mentioned the prophet clearly intended that the kings should notice his injury, and his supposed blindness. As the injury does not play any part in the story that must have been because he was wanting to see if the king would be sympathetic to his case and enquire further.

He described how (theoretically) a fellow soldier on the battlefield had committed to his hands a captured enemy, presumably in return for some payment, and had charged him to keep him safe. If he failed in his duty it would cost him a talent. A talent was a huge amount of money to a common soldier, which both knew would take a lifetime and more to repay. The prophet was trying to arouse the king’s sympathy, and possibly wanting him to take into account his wound and his blindness, which could theoretically have been caused by the escaping prisoner.

1 Kings 20:40 b ‘And the king of Israel said to him, “So shall your judgment be You yourself have decided it.’

But the king’s judgment was callous. It meant nothing to him that this blind man would be burdened by his debt for life (or possibly he himself was not really aware of the value of a talent to such a person. He possessed many talents). His judgment was casual. The man had explained his own case. Let him abide by what he had said, and take the consequences.

1 Kings 20:41

And he hurried, and took the headband away from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognised him that he was of the prophets.’

The prophet then took the headband from his eyes and the king immediately recognised him for a prophet. This was probably because they had met before, although it is possible that prophets in those days bore some identifying mark.

1 Kings 20:42

And he said to him, “Thus says YHWH, Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life will go for his life, and your people for his people.’

Then the prophet made clear that he had been speaking about the king himself. He in his blindness had let go the very man whom YHWH had devoted to destruction. His judgment thus returned upon himself. He had failed YHWH and he and his people would have to pay the price of his failure.

1 Kings 20:43

And the king of Israel went to his house heavy and displeased, and came to Samaria.’

The king, who had probably been very pleased with himself at the treaty that he had made now recognised that he had indeed gone against the custom of YHWH, and became heavy-hearted and displeased. The fact that nothing is said confirms the fact that he was aware that he had done wrong. Benhadad should not have been spared.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Kings 20:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-kings-20.html. 2013.

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