Now Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his entire army. Accompanied by thirty-two kings with their horses and chariots, he went up and besieged Samaria and attacked it. 2 He sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel, saying, “This is what Ben-Hadad says: 3 ‘Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.’” The king of Israel answered, “Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.” The messengers came again and said, “This is what Ben-Hadad says: ‘I sent to demand your silver and gold, your wives and your children. 6 But about this time tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away.’”The king of Israel summoned all the elders of the land and said to them, “See how this man is looking for trouble!When he sent for my wives and my children, my silver and my gold, I did not refuse him.” The elders and the people all answered, “Don’t listen to him or agree to his demands.” So he replied to Ben-Hadad’s messengers, “Tell my lord the king, ‘Your servant will do all you demanded the first time, but this demand I cannot meet.’” They left and took the answer back to Ben-Hadad. Then Ben-Hadad sent another message to Ahab: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful.”( I Kings 21:1-8)
Israel was set at the very crossroads of the known world, a tiny nation situated between mighty foreign powers, and smaller but virulent rivals in the Ancient near East. God situated her there for His own reasons, among them being, that if Israel trusted in God, those mighty powers were kept at bay, and she(Israel) would hold her own as a witness to the Pagan world. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD’ saith the Psalmist.
However if she should prove faithless, she would have to rely upon worldly statecraft, appeasement (Vassalage) , inter marriage, and other dubious worldly means, just to survive. Just as she is today, Israel was placed in the worst, most hostile neighborhoods in the world.
Aram (Syria) was a perennial foe of Israel, and the Kings of Syria aged constant warfare against her, since the collapse and split of the Kingdom.
In this story, Ben Hadad imposes a humiliating demand, for Ahab’s silver, gold and the best of his wives and children! But notice how quickly Ahab complies, in a humiliating defference to this pagan King.
Ben Hadad, sensing weakness, came back with an even more humiliating demand; He would have his officials come and search Ahab’s palace, and the houses of his top ministers, in order to take “anything of value”. Ahab was expected to comply to that also, like a eunuch.
This was too much for his council, who urged him to refuse the demand, and this initiated another round of the long war between Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The king of Israel answered, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’”Ben-Hadad heard this message while he and the kings were drinking in their tents, and he ordered his men: “Prepare to attack.” So they prepared to attack the city. Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab king of Israel and announced, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.’” “But who will do this?” asked Ahab.The prophet replied, “This is what the Lord says: ‘The junior officers under the provincial commanders will do it.’” “And who will start the battle?” he asked. The prophet answered, “You will.”( I Kings 21:11-14)
Ahab in his indignation, and in the new found courage bolstered by the support and council of the advisors, admonishes Ben Hadad about being presumptuous.
God is good, even to the King of Israel, who vacillates between faith in God and submission to his pagan wife. A Prophet comes with a promise and instructions as to how to win the battle with the Syrians.
They were to strike while the Syrian General staff were drunken, and the audacity of Israel’s attack, caused a panic among the much larger Syrian army, which led them into a rout, and a retreat. The Syrian army was defeated, Horses and Chariots destroyed and Israel was victorious as in olden times.
But Ahab received another prophecy, to prepare for the next attack, in the Spring.
We are taken into the council of the Syrian army, which was preparing to attack Israel again in the Spring. Being Pagans, they misunderstood the nature of Israel’s victory over them.
Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they. 24 Do this: Remove all the kings from their commands and replace them with other officers. 25 You must also raise an army like the one you lost—horse for horse and chariot for chariot—so we can fight Israel on the plains. Then surely we will be stronger than they.” He agreed with them and acted accordingly.( I Kings 21:23-25)
Again Syria marched against Israel, and met them at Aphek, a battlefield of rich historical significance, (Where the Philistines had once captured the Ark in battle). There is a comparison between the two armies, Israel was split into two camps,”Like two small flocks of goats”. Aram (Syria) covered the valley with her hosts.
Again a Prophet of Jahweh brings the Word to Ahab,
The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”( I Kings 21:28)
The Arameans have blasphemed, in comparing Jahweh to the regional “gods” of the pagans, therefore they will be defeated. (What a message to Ahab!).
For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Aramean foot soldiers in one day. 30 The rest of them escaped to the city of Aphek, where the wall collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of them. And Ben-Hadad fled to the city and hid in an inner room.( I Kings 21:28)
There were massive casualties on the part of the Syrians, and even such Divine interventions such as a collapsing wall, it was all so obvious that God was helping Israel, even in spite of their unbelief. Eventually the Syrians are defeated, and their King Ben Hadad is trapped.
There is a council among Ben Hadad and his surviving staff,
His officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.” Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says: ‘Please let me live.’”( I Kings 21:30-31)
They had heard of the humane qualities of the Kings of Israel, and counted on it. “Put on a touching show of humility and go out to meet Ahab, and ask for your life”.
When Ahab hears that the King of Aram had survived, He is touched, and sends for him. There is a touching and emotional meeting, an alliance is formed, and Ahab allowed this idolatrous King to live and even to go home. After all, they had a lot in common, Ahab himself vacillated between true worship and idolatry. He made peace with evil. He had shown compassion to the cruel.
Ahab felt like he had the liberty to be magnanimous, he felt a unity with this pagan King, therefore he would let him live.
But the God of Israel had something to say about this also, for He had determined that this blasphemous idolater Ben Hadad should have died.
An elaborate prophetic enactment is set forth by a Prophet of God. ( Evidently the seven thousand who have not bowed their knee, are coming out of the woodwork!), The Prophet asks someone to strike Him to make him look like he had been wounded. He then finds Ahab and tells him a story about being told to keep watch on a captive,but through neglect, the captive escaped.
As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent[b] of silver.’ 40 While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”“That is your sentence,” the king of Israel said. “You have pronounced it yourself.”( I Kings 21:37-39)
This story is a recapitulation of Nathan’s parable to King David about a poor man’s sheep, taken by a more powerful man. It was designed to get David to judge himself, and this parable had the same design. Ahab made a snap judgment, not realizing he was condemning himself in the process.
Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. He said to the king, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die.[c] Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’” Sullen and angry, the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria.( I Kings 21:41-42)
This was Ahab’s foreign policy, it was humanistic, indulgent, touchy feely ‘compassion’ on the cruel. He refused to wage total war on evil, there would be no holy war against paganism in God’s name.
Ahab was ever ready to count himself among the elite, the “Kings of the earth” who look our for each other, and wage ‘civilized war’ sparing their counterparts, but letting other “lessers’ die as fodder. Very much like modern, never ending, irresolvable conflicts.