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Ahab by David Bokovoy

Ahab was the son and successor of Omri. According to the Bible, he was one of Israel’s worst kings. The Bible presents him as the seventh king of Israel since the beginning of the divided monarchy following Solomon’s death.

Who Was the Historical Ahab?

Ahab was a real person who reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel from 871-852 B.C.E. The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III indicates that he defeated Ahab and eleven other kings in the Battle of Qarqar. Ahab’s father Omri appears referenced in the Moabite Mesha Stele. In terms of the Bible, the stories about the reign of Ahab are part of a collection of traditions concerning the prophet Elijah. These traditions circulated in prophetic groups that opposed the royal house of Omri. Little else is known about Ahab beyond what appears in the Hebrew Bible. This presents historians with a significant challenge.

In the books of Kings, the Bible portrays the story of the kingdom of Israel through the eyes of Judean writers. For centuries, the kingdom of Judah looked upon the more powerful, wealthier kingdom of Israel with fear and jealousy. These writers therefore depict Israel and her kings as evil. They serve as a warning against angering the Judean god, Yahweh. As a result, scholars who wish to achieve a less biased understanding of Israelite kings such as Ahab must adopt a historical-critical approach to the text that combines careful linguistic and literary analysis with archeological evidence.

What Role Did Ahab Play in the Biblical Story of Israel’s Past?

Ahab’s story appears in 1Kgs 16:29 through1Kgs 22:40. This material has been placed into a collection known as the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). This was a massive literary work, unparalleled in terms of scale by anything yet uncovered from the ancient Near East. Since most Judeans were no doubt illiterate and could not afford to own copies of this work, the history was probably produced for the royal court. Though updated and edited after the exile, it was most likely created to instruct future rulers on proper governance.

The story of Ahab would have been especially helpful for this agenda. He appears as a king who listened to the counsel of his foreign wife, Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. According to the Bible, the two worked together to spread idol worship of Baal and fought against the prophets of Yahweh, including Elijah. According to the Deuteronomistic History, Ahab had five major conflicts with Yahweh’s prophets. These encounters appear in 1Kgs 17-18, 1Kgs 20:22; 1Kgs 20:34-43; 1Kgs 21:1-27; and 1Kgs 22.

The stories of Ahab’s conflict with these prophets provide a helpful illustration of the traditional role prophets fulfilled in ancient Israel and Judah. Prophets provided the checks and balance system for the monarchy, making sure that the king and his people behaved in ways that would appease their god. According to 1Kgs 22, the prophet Micaiah declared that Yahweh used Ahab’s prophets to trick him into going to battle at Ramoth-gilead so that Ahab would die. Hoping to avoid Micaiah’s prophecy, Ahab disguised himself, but fell mortally wounded by a random arrow. In accordance with Elijah’s earlier prophecy (1Kgs 22:19), dogs lapped up his blood, and whores bathed in it (v. 38; though the Greek Septuagint adds the detail that unclean pigs licked up his blood also).

This account was originally composed in the northern kingdom of Israel. It was probably taken to Judah by Israelite scribes fleeing the Assyrian conquest in 721 B.C.E. The story was then adopted and modified to match the agenda of the Deuteronomistic History, instructing Judean monarchs to avoid Ahab’s fate by remaining leery of foreign women and worshiping Yahweh in accordance with the standards of Deuteronomy. Ahab was a real, historical figure, but his story comes to us through a biased lens. If given the chance, he would have no doubt told his own story quite differently.

Perhaps with a goal of unifying his kingdom, Ahab embraced policies of compromise with traditional forms of Canaanite worship. Under his reign, the Canaanite cult of Baal attained equal status with the worship of Yahweh. According to 1Kgs 16:31-33, Ahab erected a temple in Samaria to Baal with a Baal altar and an image of the female goddess Asherah. As a result of these actions, the Bible states that Ahab did more evil in the sight of the LORD “than all who were before him” (1Kgs 16:30). Yet Ahab gave his sons the names Ahaziah and Jehoram, both of which contain the root of Yahweh’s name. This suggests that despite the Bible’s portrayal, Ahab maintained an attachment to the traditional god of Israel.

David Bokovoy, "Ahab", n.p. [cited 24 Aug 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/ahab

Contributors

bokovoy-david

David Bokovoy
Online Professor, Utah State University

David Bokovoy holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East and an MA in Jewish Studies both from Brandeis University. He is currently the online professor in Bible and Jewish Studies at Utah State University. David has published articles on the Hebrew Bible in a variety of academic venues, including the Journal of Biblical Literature, Vetus Testamentum, and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. His academic focus is on source criticism, historical Jesus studies, the divine council, and sexual imagery connected with divinities in Near Eastern and biblical traditions.

The Bible presents Ahab as the seventh king over Israel and as a man who did more evil in the sight of Yahweh than any who lived before him.

Did you know…?

  • According to biblical sources, Ahab was the seventh king of Israel.
  • The Bible states that Ahab was more evil than all of the kings before him (1Kgs 16:30).
  • Ahab embraced policies of compromise with traditional Canaanite religious traditions.
  • Despite biblical claims of Baal worship (1Kgs 16:31), Ahab demonstrated an attachment to the god Yahweh by naming his sons Ahaziah and Jehoram, which both contain references to Yahweh.
  • Ahab’s existence is supported by an Assyrian inscription of King Shalmaneser III.
  • Ahab’s father, Omri, was a great military leader mentioned in the Moabite Mesha Stela.
  • Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre.
  • Ahab had five major conflicts with prophets of Yahweh, including a famous encounter with Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (1Kgs 18).
  • Ahab was killed in battle trying to recover Ramoth-Gilead.
  • The Hebrew Bible states that in accordance with Elijah’s prophecy, dogs licked up his blood, but the Greek Septuagint adds that his blood was licked up by unclean pigs also.

The period from the late 10th through the early sixth centuries B.C.E., when the northern kingdom of Israel (until 722) and the southern kingdom of Judah (until 586) existed alongside one another.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

A city in northern Syria that was the site of a massive battle between the Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and an alliance of Northwest Semitic kings, including the king of Aram. The battle, which took place in 853 B.C.E., was a notable point in the ascendane of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Canaanite mother goddess

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

The history of ancient Israel contained in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which shows the influence of Deuteronomy's theology.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

1Kgs 16:29

Ahab Reigns over Israel
29In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, Ahab son of Omri began to reign over Israel; Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in S ... View more

1Kgs 22:40

40So Ahab slept with his ancestors; and his son Ahaziah succeeded him.

1Kgs 17-18

Elijah Predicts a Drought
1Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be ... View more

1Kgs 20:22

22Then the prophet approached the king of Israel and said to him, “Come, strengthen yourself, and consider well what you have to do; for in the spring the king ... View more

1Kgs 20:34-43

34Ben-hadad said to him, “I will restore the towns that my father took from your father; and you may establish bazaars for yourself in Damascus, as my father di ... View more

1Kgs 21:1-27

Naboth's Vineyard
1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.2And Ahab s ... View more

1Kgs 22

Joint Campaign with Judah against Aram
1For three years Aram and Israel continued without war.2But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the ... View more

1Kgs 22

Joint Campaign with Judah against Aram
1For three years Aram and Israel continued without war.2But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the ... View more

1Kgs 22:19

19Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right an ... View more

1Kgs 16:31-33

Ahab Marries Jezebel and Worships Baal
31And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel d ... View more

1Kgs 16:30

30Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A stone inscribed in the Moabite language, commissioned by the Moabit king Mesha to celebrate his accomplishments, including a successful revolt against the kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 3).

An upright stone slab usually inscribed or carved for commemorative purposes.

1Kgs 16:30

30Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

1Kgs 16:31

Ahab Marries Jezebel and Worships Baal
31And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel d ... View more

1Kgs 18

Elijah's Message to Ahab
1After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will s ... View more

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