Micaiah at the City’s Gate: on War and Dissent

By Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
Professor of History
Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
New York University
July 2012

Micaiah, son of Imlah is not a particularly well-known biblical prophet. He is mentioned by scholars mostly in the context of “false prophecy”—the central theological issue addressed by the biblical episode in which he features. There is, however, also a great deal of politics embedded in the episode; in this regard I will suggest here that over the past decade, and perhaps for the coming one as well, the little-known Micaiah is one of the most relevant prophets for our times.

Micaiah, or Mikayhu (Heb., “who is like Y.H.W.H”?), lived and prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel and during the reign of king Ahab (mid 9th century BCE). He appears briefly in 1 Kings (chap. 22), in which Ahab is planning to go to war with the neighboring kingdom of Aram (Syria) with the goal of reconquering the territory of Ramothgilead (Ramot Gilad), which had been captured by the Syrians three years earlier. Micaiah is mostly remembered for the chilling prophecy he delivered to Ahab about his, and his household’s, terrible fate.

Let us revisit the episode in 1 Kings 22, focusing mostly on its political aspects. It opens with Ahab wanting to go to war. The biblical authors make it clear at the outset that the situation is clearly about a war of choice, that is, a war that could be avoided; there is no immediate threat to Israel’s safety. Chapter 22 opens with the assertion: “And they continued three years without war between Syria and Israel.” The context of lack of direct threat is crucial for what follows, since it means that King Ahab must prepare the hearts of his people to go to war. And indeed he does. The occasion for doing so is the visit of Jehoshaphat: “the king of Judah came down to the king of Israel.” The two kings have just sealed an alliance between the House of David and the House of Omri by marrying their children to one another, and the southern king’s visit looks like a good opportunity. Ahab begins lobbying for war: “And the king of Israel said unto his servants, Know ye that Ramoth in Gilead is ours, and we be still, and take it not out of the hand of the king of Syria?” The biblical authors highlight that this is a war of choice – after all, Ahab needs to remind his servants about lost territory that he wants to reclaim. At this point, before he even has his servants’ response, Ahab also turns to his new ally asking if he, and Judah’s armies, would join the war. Jehoshaphat’s response comes right away: “…I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses.” The response’s poetic tone suggests that the biblical authors signal to us that they are “playing” with the episode, dressing a serious issue with rhetorical ornaments exemplified in Jehoshaphat’s reaction.

Jehoshaphat’s answer should remind us that Ahab knows a thing or two about building coalitions before going to war. Extra-biblical sources tell us that this king—hated by biblical authors, but a great ruler nevertheless—contributed no fewer than 2000 chariots and 10,000 men to the coalition of small Near Eastern kingdoms that fought the Assyrian empire at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE. But the issue at stake here is not about physical power. It is about going to war—a war of choice—with divine approval. Despite his apparently knee-jerk, loyal response, in truth Jehoshaphat want to know what god thinks about the plan. So he asks Ahab, “enquire, I pray thee, at the word of the Lord to day.” The response to this request is decisive: “the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said unto them, Shall I go against Ramothgilead to battle, or shall I forbear? And they said, Go up; for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king.” Four hundred prophets speaking with one voice seems an unequivocal message of divine approval. But this is precisely what alarms Jehoshaphat, who asks again: “Is there not here a prophet of the Lord besides, that we might enquire of him?” Evidently, Jehoshaphat seeks a second opinion precisely because of the lack of dissenting voices in the huge camp of prophets. In a way, a more hesitant, nuanced recommendation would have seemed more reassuring. This is remarkable if we consider that Jehoshaphat’s own response to the call of war was quite enthusiastic—“my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses.” He not only agreed with Ahab, but also in effect declared that he was “one” with the king of Israel—“I am as thou art.” Only when faced with four hundred prophets screaming war does Jehoshaphat realize that he should question the decision; unanimity is a problem. The issue at stake is not divine approval—ostensibly already given by Ahab’s prophets—but the political harmony of Ahab’s court. This is the moment, I would argue, that story sets itself up not only addressing a theological issue, but also a decidedly political one, as well.

Ahab’s response to Jehoshaphat’s request of another prophet’s opinion makes it clear that he understands this. His response is remarkable in its honesty: “There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the Lord: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.” Ahab, as the hostile biblical authors insist, was capable of doing all sorts of evil things (e.g. the scandal with Nabot’s vineyard, 1 Kings 21), but despite this (or perhaps because of it) he seems strangely honest. He hates Micaiah, but is honest enough to say why. Micaiah is too critical for his taste. This is remarkable, if we consider that even modern rulers in democracies are rarely, if at all, fond of critical opinions. When Jehoshaphat requests to have Micaiah’s opinion and utterly rejects Ahab’s prediction that the prophets will “not prophesy good,” the Israeli kings obliges; he “called an officer, and said, Hasten hither Micaiah the son of Imlah.” The order to “hasten” Micaiah, when there is no clear and present urgency—the war of choice can wait a little longer—seems strange, but makes sense. Ahab wants to put the fear of royal power in the heart of the prophet that he hates. This becomes evident when we learn how the scene is set for his arrival. “And the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah sat each on his throne, having put on their robes, in a void place in the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets prophesied before them. And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the Lord, With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them.”

One can imagine the sight, specifically staged in a “void place,” that is, a place not normally used for royal gatherings but now chosen precisely in order to create the image of a mob scene. Two kings in their robes sitting, “each on his throne,” at the city’s gate, a crowd of prophets beating the drums of war in front of them, the imagery of weapons. One would have to be really strong to defy that. Even the person sent to fetch Micaiah understands this well: “And the messenger that was gone to call Micaiah spake unto him, saying, Behold now, the words of the prophets declare good unto the king with one mouth: let thy word, I pray thee, be like the word of one of them, and speak that which is good.” Note how the wording here changed from “officer”-- implying power -- to the softer sounding “messenger.” Here we also understand what Ahab meant by “hastening” Micaiah. The officer was not merely sent to fetch the prophet. He was also sent specifically to elicit from him the right opinion. At first, like an officer, he speaks with authority: “behold now.” But soon thereafter he is begging—“I pray thee”—that the prophet will give a good prediction. To be sure, he makes it clear what is at stake: all the prophets “declare good unto the king with one mouth.” Micaiah is urged, begged, to make sure that his word “be like the word of one of them.”

Micaiah’s response, as we by now are able to suspect, is defiant. All he is says in response to the ordering and begging is a laconic “what the Lord saith unto me, that will I speak.” This does indeed eventually come to pass; Micaiah speaks the word of god even when he is struck with horns of iron by the aforementioned war-enthusiast Zedekiah, the son of Chenaanah.

But before that there is another scene. When Micaiah arrives at the “void space” at the gate of Samaria and observes the scene he at first seems to cave. In response to the question, “shall I go to war?” he readily answers, “Go, and prosper: for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king.” But of course, everyone can see that Micaiah is not really caving. He uses the exact same words as the drum-beating prophets in order to make a mockery of the whole scene. Even Ahab is able to understand and he rejects the good news: “How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the Lord?” It is at this point that Micaiah tells the truth and reveals all: the war will be lost. “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd…” At this point Micaiah also addresses the question of false prophecy—his own initial prediction and that of the 400 other prophets. His explanation rests entirely on theological grounds; he describes the Lord sitting on his throne seeking ways to “seduce” (in the Hebrew original) Ahab to go to war. According to this account, the Lord had decided to destroy Ahab by an elaborate scheme: seducing him to go to war and then defeating him in the battlefield at Ramothgilead. Micaiah’s description of the deliberations at the Heavenly throne is quite elaborate. First there is some confusion: “one said on this manner, and another said on that manner.” But eventually “a spirit” comes forth, offering to be “a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” “Behold,” concludes Micaiah, “the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee.”

The end is known. Despite hearing the prophet, the King of Israel and his allies go to war, and lose it and Ahab and his house are killed. Micaiah himself was beaten and arrested right after the scene at the gate, with the king promising to deal with him after returning in peace from the war, but Micaiah had still insisted: “If thou return at all in peace, the Lord hath not spoken by me.” (Many years later the prophet Jeremiah was to be arrested in Jerusalem for exact same reason, when he would advise against going to war with Babylon and caution the king against relying on Egyptian support despite everyone else saying the opposite. Jer. 32-39).

But I would like to conclude with a comment not about the end of this story, but rather about the goings on before the war that was to lead to Ahab’s demise.

Let us examine Micaiah’s initial apparently false “prediction” that the war would be won and, above all, the prediction of four hundred other prophets. In a way, the four hundred are in fact all telling the “truth,” at least in the sense that it is divinely mandated that they should lie, or at least mislead. But this does not explain everything in the story. For instance, if the lord wanted to “seduce” Ahab to go war, why was king Jehoshaphat induced to trigger the chain of events that brings Micaiah to the court? Or, why does Micaiah first provide a “seductive” prediction but then “expose” the truth, as well as the divine evil scheme. Rabbinic commentators would square this by saying that the Lord wanted to give Ahab one last chance to “repent” before destroying him. But this would in turn raise many other theological problems.

We should therefore focus on what rests “beneath” the theological account offered in this episode—the story about decision-making at the court. As I suggested at the outset, it may be about politics more than about theology. Let us recall that Jehoshaphat’s concerns are first raised when he witnesses the four hundred unanimously shouting, “war” and “victory.” Let us also recall the honesty with which Ahab explains his hatred of Micaiah: he hates him because the prophet does not tell him what he wants to hear. Finally let us recall the messenger’s order/request that Micaiah’s word “be like the word of one” of the four hundred other prophets, and the scene at the city’s gate. All send a clear message against the culture of collectively beating the drums of war and the incitement that accompanies it.

We can now also better appreciate the verse with which the whole episode opens. The story begins with mention of the fact that for three years there had been no war between Israel and Syria. It is strange that the biblical authors choose to mention this fact. It seems at first blush irrelevant to the moral story they tell about the demise of the evil king Ahab. It is equally irrelevant to the theological lesson they wish to teach about false prophecies. But it is highly relevant to the story about decision-making before going into a war of choice.

At the center of the story is the issue of the dissent: the right and ability of the individual to stand up against an enormous amount of pressure—pressure produced by the majority, by the trappings of royal power, by violence and even artistic displays—and speak one’s opinion. It is for this reason that Micaiah is relevant to our days. In the past decade we have witnessed the United States—the strongest democracy on earth and indeed in history—wage a war of choice. This has happened in the past, as well, but what is new this time is the amount of drum beating and incitement, and the utter lack of reasoned discussion to which they led. The case of the war against Iraq, in particular, rushes to mind. Despite the fact that Saddam’s Iraq did not pose a direct and present threat to America, and despite serious doubts about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in its possession or its involvement in the catastrophe of 9/11, the US Congress, the mainstream media, and the general public opinion all as one talked themselves into “declaring good unto the king with one mouth.” America went to war with very little opposition or nuanced discussion at the centers of power. Opposing voices were silenced and the congress voted overwhelmingly to go war. Many policy makers later admitted they knew very little about that on which they were deciding.

That was 2002. In 2012 we face a far more serious situation yet—should we go to war with Iran? Astonishingly, despite recent history, we again witness scenes like the showdown at the city’s gate. Think for instance about the declarations about “nuking Iran” that Republican candidates made during the primary debates, and at hearings before cheering audiences. The result of this drum beating has already secured the commitment of the Republican presidential nominee to go war with Iran. This promise could easily be dismissed as one of those promises politicians make before elections, but it has already had very real effects—the winds of war are strongly felt both in certain corners of the Middle East and in America.

But now that we know the results of the wars of the past decade we should wish that US Congress had a “Micaiah” who would make a mockery of the drum- beating speeches and expose that “lying spirit in the mouth” of the speakers. Now that the world faces another war whose consequences are potentially far worse than even the one we waged a decade ago—a “Micaiah” is terribly needed. Without one it may not just be the “King and his house” who perish.

Comments (4)

The finally edited version of IIK is slightly surreal in overall effect, since Ahab wins a terrific victory over the Syrians in chapter 20 yet shortly afterward in 22 cannot succeed even in capturing a border town. In the meanwhile he has claimed, under Jezebel's pernicious influence, what was not his own, Naboth's vineyard, and now fails with suitable dramatic irony to secure what might be his own, ie Ramothgilead. (I don't have a dedicated commentary on Kings and am not sure whether the emphasis in 'Ramoth is ours' is on 'ours for the taking' or 'ours by right'.) The story has a wonderful moral rhythm and all its elements are haunting.
Still,I wonder whether the Ramoth episode is a later addition, superseding a more realistic story in which Ahab dies triumphant but his family is doomed, at first by supernatural forces released by the sacrilegious Mesha, later by political forces released by Elisha, the man of God. I even wonder, perhaps very idly, whether the Ramoth story is late enough to be influenced by Greek culture as it spread through the Levant, since the role played by the lying spirit and the role played in the Iliad by the evil dream are so alike.
I found your remarks about mob influence in favour of war very interesting. They reinforce the point for which I was arguing on another thread here, that there is no image in Kings of a godly people as in the ideology of many seventeenth century Protestants and seemingly of some modern archaeologists. This ideology lies at the very root of modern democratic sentiment and of many would-be liberating theologies but is still a misreading of the Bible.
May God indeed defend us from another war in the Middle East.

#1 - Martin - 07/22/2012 - 15:12

Very interesting and still very relevant.

#2 - Michael O'Hara - 08/08/2015 - 07:49

It wasn't easy to find commentary on the web about this Micaiah. Yes, I do like the mob scene you detailed. One question I can't find is if Micaiah was put in prison and fed only bread and water until Ahab returned, was Micaiah released when the King's body was brought back to the city or was he left there to die?

#3 - Rev M Rattenne - 08/25/2016 - 01:56

This reminds me of the verse Proverbs 19:21...Man can think and plan whatever he wants but God can control the situation in a spiritual and not fleshly way to make sure that his Will...will be the final outcome!!!

#4 - Tillie Ostermiller - 02/08/2017 - 02:50

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