A Tast of the "Former Prophets": Elijah and Micaiah

We Asked for Signs: 1 Kings 22.1-36

With this story we seem to be in a different world from that of Elijah. The conflict is no longer between the followers of YHWH and the followers of Baal, but among those who follow the same God. Here we see a struggle over what it means to be YHWH's prophet. Yet we also see a story about what it means to ask for a sign.

The dynasty founded by Omri, Ahab's father, was the most successful in Israel and under its leadership there was peace and even co-operation between the two formerly united kingdoms of Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Omri succeeded first in uniting the Northern Kingdom under a single strong leader, in carrying out a major building programme, and in establishing strong relationships with other regional powers. As a result the border clashes between Israel and Judah, that had been taking place since the united kingdom of Israel split after the death of King Solomon, and the attempts by one side or another to forcibly reunite the kingdoms came to an end.

Thus we see in our story that after consulting with his courtiers about the traditionally-Israelite territory of Ramoth-gilead, which had become the subject of dispute with the kingdom of Aram, Ahab invites Jehosaphat, the visiting king of Judah and his in-law, to join a campaign to reclaim Ramoth-gilead. Jehoshaphat is quite enthusiastic about the venture, suggesting that the visit may have been intended to plan or at least discuss such a campaign from the start. But he does insist upon consulting YHWH, to determine YHWH's word. There was likely some jockeying for position behind this apparently purely pious question, for the normal method for consulting the will of YHWH was to call upon the priests to use the now-mysterious Urim and Thummim as a tool. This of course Ahab could not do because like all the other cultic objects used in the worship of YHWH, the Urim and Thummim were in the Jerusalem Temple, under the control of Jehoshaphat.

However, Ahab has a way of consulting the Lord which does not involve deferring to Jehoshaphat -- he will ask the prophets. The prophets are summoned and they one and all prophesy in favour of the kings' campaign. This unanimity seemed suspicious to both kings, especially to Ahab. But even Jehoshaphat wondered if there were not some other prophet to ask. Ahab knew that Micaiah son of Imlah had not yet been asked because, he said, Micaiah would never provide a positive answer to any question from the king.

Well, Micaiah is asked but only after being forewarned that he should go along with the others. At first he does, but when Ahab can't believe it and presses the prophet for the truth, Micaiah prophesies disaster. There's a lot going on under the surface here -- Jehoshaphat likely had more on his mind than discerning God's will, as we have seen; Ahab's dealings with the 400 prophets suggests he was accustomed to getting the answers he wanted from them; the attempt to "fix" Micaiah almost works, suggesting a history of intimidation. Why does Ahab persist? Does he just want to show Jehoshaphat what he has to put up with from a hostile naysayer? Despite Ahab's conviction that the words he wanted to hear from Micaiah could not be the truth in the name of the Lord, the kings continue with their planned campaign.

The prophesied disaster follows and Ahab himself died in the battle. As the poet sings, "We asked for signs / the signs were sent: / ... signs for all to see." But it's not enough to ask for a sign or even receive it: those things alone will not help. You have to take the sign seriously and follow it for it to do any good.

Only one prophet was actually speaking the truth. The others, as he said himself, were moved not by the words of YHWH, but a lying spirit, a spirit of deceit that brought Ahab to ruin. This is partly a dig at the old style of ecstatic prophecy that had originally prevailed in Israel as in the rest of the ancient Near East until it was replaced by a new kind of Israelite prophecy based upon receiving and handing on the word of YHWH to king and people. But it is also I think a sincere attempt by Micaiah to understand how all his fellow prophets could agree on something that he knew was not the word of the Lord that had come to him. Rather than attribute malice or corruption to the others, Micaiah believed them to be deceived.

The world of the classic Hebrew prophets came to an end as the political subordination of Israel as a province within great empires hardened into reality. New times needed new relationships and new means of communication between YHWH and YHWH's people and in the New Testament community, for example, prophecy was always a very different institution. But the teachings of the prophets and the lessons of stories like this one are not unique to that world We still need discernment, to tell the difference between what is a lie and what is the truth in the name of YHWH. And we still need to act on what has been discerned -- it's clear that both kings knew on some level that Micaiah telling the truth and yet they followed the path they had already determined.

Micaiah's role, like that of Elijah, is not an easy one. His adherence to the word of the Lord that comes to him has clearly put him into constant collisions with the king. But even in the face of imprisonment he cannot betray the truth that he feels within himself. It is not easy to be the crack that the light gets in, but that is the role and calling of the Hebrew prophets. Not all of them succeeded all the time but the best of them would not compromise, as Micaiah in the end would not and as Elijah would not.

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