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463

CHAPTER XLV.

AHAB'S INFATUATION.

1 Kings xx. 31-43.

"Quem vult Deus perire dementat prius."

The courtiers of Benhadad found it easy to flatter his pride by furnishing reasons to account for such an alarming overthrow. They had attacked the Israelites on their hills, and the gods of Israel were hill-gods. Next time they would take Israel at a disadvantage by fighting only on the plain. Further, the vassal kings were only an element of dissension and weakness. They prevented the handling of the army as one strong machine worked by a single supreme will. Let Benhadad depose from command these incapable weaklings, and put in their place dependent civil officers (pachoth) who would have no thought but to obey orders.725725   1 Kings xx. 24. LXX., σατράπας. And so, with good heart, let the king collect a fresh army with horses and chariots as powerful as the last. The issue would be certain conquest and dear revenge.

Benhadad followed this advice. The next year he went with his new host and encamped near Aphek. There is an Aphek (now Fîk) which lay on the road between Damascus on the east of Jordan on a little plain south-east of the Sea of Galilee. This may have464 been the town of Issachar, in the valley of Jezreel, where Saul was defeated by the Philistines (1 Sam. xxix. 1). Israel went out to meet them duly provisioned.726726   R.V., "and were victualled," not, as in A.V., "and were all present." Alex. LXX., διοικήθησαν; Vulg., acceptis cibariis. The Syrian host spread over the whole country; the Israelite army looked only like two little flocks of kids.727727   Why two? No explanation is given. It has been conjectured that Judah had sent a separate contingent to help them in their distress.

To strengthen the misgivings of the anxious king of Israel, another nameless prophet—probably, like Elijah, a Gileadite—came to promise him the victory. Jehovah would convince the Syrians that He was something more than a mere local god of the hills as they had blasphemously said, and Israel would once more be shown that He was indeed the Lord.

For seven days the vast army and the little band of patriots gazed at each other, as the Israelites and Philistines had done in the days of Saul and Goliath. On the seventh day they joined battle. In what special way the aid of Jehovah seconded the desperate valour of His people who were fighting for their all we do not know, but the result was, once more, their stupendous victory. The army of the Syrians was not only defeated, but practically annihilated. In round numbers 100,000 Syrians fell in the slaughter of that day, and when the remnant took refuge in Aphek, which they had captured, they perished in a sudden crash—perhaps of earthquake—which buried them in the ruins of its fortifications.728728   Some have supposed that an earthquake occurred, and Canon Rawlinson mentions (Speaker's Commentary) that the earthquake of Lisbon is said to have destroyed sixty thousand persons in five minutes. Rescued, we know not465 how, from this disaster, Benhadad fled from chamber to chamber729729   חֶדֶר בְּחֶדֶר. Comp. for similar phrases, (Heb.) Lev. xxv. 53; Deut. xv. 20; 1 Kings xxii. 25; 2 Chron. xxviii. 26. Klostermann, with one of his amazing conjectures, reads "by the spring Harod in Harod"! LXX., εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ κοιτῶνος, εἰς τὸ ταμεῖον; Vulg., in cubiculum quod erat intra cubiculum. Josephus makes it a cellar (εἰς ὑπόγαιον οἶκον ἐκρύβη), "like the modern serdaubs in which the inhabitants of many Eastern cities live in the summer" (Rawlinson). to hide himself from the victors in some innermost recess.

But it was impossible that he should not be discovered, and therefore his servants persuaded him to throw himself on the mercy of his conqueror. "The kings of Israel," they said, "are, as we have heard, compassionate kings; let us go before the king with sackcloth on our loins, and ropes round our necks, and ask if he will save thy life."

So they went, as the burghers of Calais went before Edward I.; and then Ahab heard from the ambassadors of the king who had once dictated terms to him with such infinite contempt, the message: "Thy slave Benhadad saith, I pray thee, let me live."

The incident that followed is eminently characteristic of Eastern customs. In rencontres between Orientals everything depends on the first words which are exchanged. It is believed that superior powers wield the utterances of the tongue amid the chances which are really destiny, so that the most casual expression is caught up superstitiously as a sort of Bath Kol, or "the daughter of a voice," which not only indicates but even helps to bring about the purposes of Heaven. A chance friendly greeting may become the termination of a blood feud, because something more than chance is supposed to be behind it!730730   The accidental sigh of the engineer was sufficient to prevent the colossal Egyptian statue of a Pharaoh from being moved to its destination. Even Rome shared the immemorial superstition. Once when a group466 of doomed gladiators gathered themselves under the Imperial podium of the amphitheatre with their sublimely monotonous chant, "Ave Cæsar, morituri te salutamus," the half-dazed emperor inadvertently answered, "Avete vos!" "He has bidden us, 'Hail!'" shouted the gladiators: "the contest is remitted; we are free!" Had the Romans been Orientals the twenty thousand assembled spectators would have felt the force of the appeal. Even as it was the significance of the omen was felt to be so great that the gladiators threw down their arms, and it was only by whips and violence that they were finally driven to the combat in which they perished.731731   Suet., Claud.

So with intense eagerness the ambassadors, in their sackcloth and their halters, awaited the Bath Kol. It came far more favourably than they had dared to hope. Surprised, and perhaps half-touched with pity for so immense a reverse of misfortune, "Is he yet alive?" exclaimed the careless king: "he is my brother!"

The Syrians snatched at the expression as a decisive omen.732732   xx. 33, יֲנִחֲשׁוּ, from נַחַשׁ, "an augury"; LXX., ἀνελέξαντο τὸν λόγον (οἰωνίσαντο); Vulg., quod acceperunt viri pro omine. It constituted an absolute end of the feud. It became an implicit promise of that sacred dakheel, that "protection" to which the slightest and most accidental expression constitutes a recognised claim.733733   Layard, Nineveh, 317-19. "Thy brother Benhadad," they earnestly and emphatically repeated. In accordance with Eastern custom and augury their whole end was gained. As far as Benhadad was concerned he was now safe; as far as467 Ahab was concerned, the mischief, if mischief it were, was irreparably done.

Ahab could hardly have drawn back even if he wished to do so, but perhaps he was swayed by a fellow feeling for a king. This strange uxorious monarch, with his easily swayed impulses, his fits of schoolboy sullenness and swift repentance, his want of insight into existing conditions, his—if the expression may be excused—happy-go-lucky way of letting questions settle themselves, was, no doubt, a brave warrior, but he was a most incapable statesman. His conduct was perfectly infatuated. Pity is one thing, but the security of a nation has also to be considered. It would have been a worse than insensate piece of pseudo-chivalry if the Congress of Vienna had not sent Napoleon to Elba, and if England had not confined him in St. Helena. To set free a man endowed with passionate hatred, with immense ambitions, with boundless capacities for mischief—or only to bind him with the packthread of insecure promises—was the conduct of a fool.734734   The compact is vainly dignified with the name of a בְרִית, or "covenant." If it was compassion which induced Ahab to give Benhadad his life, it showed either gross incapacity or treachery against his own nation not to clip his wings, and hamper him from the future injuries which the burden of gratitude was little likely to prevent. The sequel shows that Benhadad's resentment against his royal "brother" only became more hopelessly implacable, and in all probability it was largely mingled with contempt.

And Ahab's conduct, besides being foolish, was guilty. It showed a frivolous non-recognition of his duties as a theocratic king. It flung away the national advantages,468 and even the national security, which had not been vouchsafed to any power or worth of his, but only to Jehovah's direct interposition to save the destinies of his people from premature extinction.

When Benhadad came out of his hiding-place, Ahab, not content with sparing the life of this furious and merciless aggressor, took him up into his chariot, which was the highest honour he could have paid him, and accepted the excessively easy terms which Benhadad himself proposed. The Syrians were not required to pay any indemnity for the immense expenditure and unutterable misery which their wanton invasions had inflicted upon Israel! They simply proposed to restore the cities which Benhadad's father had taken from Omri, and to allow the Israelites to have a protected bazaar in Damascus similar to the one which the Syrians enjoyed in Samaria.735735   חֻצֹות. Compare the Lombard Streets, and the Jewries in London and Paris. On this covenant Benhadad was sent home scatheless, and with a supineness which was not so much magnanimous as fatuous, Ahab neglected to take hostages of any kind to secure the fulfilment even of these ridiculously inadequate terms of peace.

Benhadad was not likely to throw away the chance which gave him such an easy-going and improvident adversary. It is certain that he did not keep the covenant. He probably never even intended to keep it. If he condescended to any excuse for breaking it, he would probably have affected to regard it as extorted by violence, and therefore invalid, as Francis I. defended the forfeiture of his parole after the battle of Pavia. The recklessness with which Ahab had reposed in Benhadad a confidence, not only undeserved, but469 rendered reckless by all the antecedents of the Syrian king, cost him very dear. He had to pay the penalty of his dementation three years later in a new and disastrous war, in the loss of his life, and the overthrow of his dynasty. The fact that, after so many exertions, and so much success in war, in commerce, and in worldly policy, he and his house fell unpitied, and no one raised a finger in his defence, was doubtless due in part to the alienation of his army by a carelessness which flung away in a moment all the fruits of their hard-won victories.736736   Clericus says, rightly: "Factum Ahabi, quamvis clementiæ speciem præ se ferret, non erat veræ clementiæ, quæ non est erga latrones exercenda; qui si dimittantur multo magis nocebunt."

There was one aspect in which Ahab's conduct assumed an aspect more supremely culpable. To whom had he owed the courage and inspiration which had rescued him from ruin, and led to the triumphs which had delivered him and his people from the depths of despair? Not in the least to himself, or to Jezebel, or to Baal's priests, or to any of his captains or counsellors. In both instances the heroism had been inspired and the success promised by a prophet of Jehovah. What would convince him, if this would not, that in God only was his strength? Did not the most ordinary gratitude as well as the most ordinary wisdom require that he should recognise the source of these unhoped-for blessings? There is not the least trace that he did so. We read of no word of gratitude to Jehovah, no desire to follow the guidance of the prophets to whom he was so deeply indebted, and who had proved their right to be regarded as interpreters of God's will. Had he done this he would not have suffered the clannishness of royalty to plunge him470 into a step which was the chief cause of his final destruction.

He might ignore guidance, but he could not escape reproof. Again an unknown monitor from the sons of the prophets was commissioned to bring home to him his error. He did so by an acted parable, which gave concrete force and vividness to the lesson which he desired to convey. Speaking "by the word of the Lord"—i.e., as a part of the prophetic inspiration which dictated his acts—he went to one of his fellows in the school of which the members are here first called "the sons of the prophets," and bade him to wound him. His comrade, not unnaturally, shrank from obeying so strange a command. It must be borne in mind that the mere appeal to an inspiration from Jehovah did not always authenticate itself. Over and over again in the prophetic books, and in these histories which the Jews call "the earlier prophets," we find that men could profess to act in Jehovah's name, and even perhaps to be sincere in so doing, who were mere dupes of their own wills and fancies. It was, in fact, possible for them to become false prophets, without always meaning to be so; and these chances of hallucination—of being misled by a lying spirit—led to fierce contentions in the prophetic communities. "Since you have not obeyed Jehovah's voice," said the man, "the lion shall immediately slay you." "And as soon as he was departed from him the lion found him and slew him." There is nothing impossible in the incident, for in those days lions were common in Palestine, and they multiplied when the country had been depopulated by war. But we can never feel certain how far the ethical and didactic and parabolic elements were allowed, for purposes of edification,471 to play a part in these ancient yet not contemporaneous Acta Prophetarum, and at any rate to dictate the interpretation of things which may have actually occurred.

The prophet then bade another comrade to smite him, and he did so effectually, inflicting a serious wound.737737   The object and necessity of this for his purpose is by no means apparent. Perhaps it was to figure the wound which Ahab had by his conduct wilfully inflicted on himself or on Israel. This was a part of the intended scene in which the prophet meant for a moment to play the rôle of a soldier who had been wounded in the Syrian war. So he bound up his head with a bandage,738738   Verse 38. This, and not "with ashes upon his face," is the meaning of the Hebrew אֲפֵר. LXX., τελαμών, "a headband"; Vulg., aspersione pulveris; and so, too, Peshito, Aquila, and Symmachus. and waited for the king to pass by. An Eastern king is liable at any time to be appealed to by the humblest of his subjects, and the prophet stopped Ahab and stated his imaginary case. "A captain," he said, "brought me one of his war captives,739739   1 Kings xx. 39. שַׂר in the sense of סַר, according to Ewald's reading. and ordered me to keep him safe. If I failed to do so, I was to pay the forfeit of my life, or to pay as a fine a silver talent.740740   About £350. Evidently, therefore, the captive is supposed to be a very important person. But as I was looking here and there the captive escaped." "Be it so," answered Ahab; "you are bound by your own bargain." Thus Ahab, like David, was led to condemn himself out of his own mouth. Then the prophet tore the bandage from his face, and said to Ahab: "Thou art the man! Thus saith Jehovah, I entrusted to thee the man under my ban (cherem),741741   אִישׁ חֵרְמִי. and thou hast let him escape. Thou472 shalt pay the forfeit. Thy life shall go for his life, thy people for his people."

Anger and indignation filled the heart of the king; he went to his house "heavy and displeased." The phrase, twice applied to him and never used of another, shows that he was liable to characteristic moods of overwhelming sullenness, the result of an uneasy conscience, and of a rage which was compelled to remain impotent. It is evident that he did not dare to chastise the audacious offender, though the Jews say that the prophet was Micaiah, the son of Imlah, and that he was imprisoned for this offence.742742   סַר וְזָעֵף; Vulg., indignans, et frendens, a phrase only used of Ahab (xxi. 4-5). Josephus (Antt., XIII. xv. 5) says that Ahab imprisoned and punished the prophet, whom, with the Rabbis, he identifies with Micaiah. As a rule the prophets—like Samuel and Nathan, and Gad and Shemaiah, and Jehu the son of Hanani—were protected by their sacrosanct position. Now and then an Urijah, a Jeremiah, a Zechariah son of Berechiah, paid the penalty of bold denunciation, not only by hatred and persecution, but with his life. This, however, was the exception. As a rule the prophets felt themselves safe under the wing of a Divine protector. Not only Elijah in his sheepskin mantle, but even the humblest of his imitators in the prophetic schools might fearlessly stride up to a king, seize his steed by the bridle, as Athanasius did to Constantine, and compel him to listen to his rebuke or his appeal.


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