Micaiah at the Citys Gate: on War and Dissent
By Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
Professor of History
Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
New York University
Micaiah, son of Imlah is not a particularly well-known biblical prophet. He is mentioned by scholars mostly in the context of false prophecythe 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 households, 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 Israels 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 kings 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 Judahs armies, would join the war. Jehoshaphats response comes right away: I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses. The responses 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 Jehoshaphats reaction.
Jehoshaphats 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 kinghated by biblical authors, but a great ruler neverthelesscontributed 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 wara war of choicewith 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 Jehoshaphats own response to the call of war was quite enthusiasticmy 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 IsraelI 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 approvalostensibly already given by Ahabs prophetsbut the political harmony of Ahabs 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.
Ahabs response to Jehoshaphats request of another prophets 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 Nabots 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 Micaiahs opinion and utterly rejects Ahabs 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 urgencythe war of choice can wait a little longerseems 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 citys 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 beggingI pray theethat 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.
Micaiahs 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 prophecyhis 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. Micaiahs 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 Ahabs demise.
Let us examine Micaiahs 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 episodethe 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 Jehoshaphats 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 messengers order/request that Micaiahs word be like the word of one of the four hundred other prophets, and the scene at the citys 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 pressurepressure produced by the majority, by the trappings of royal power, by violence and even artistic displaysand speak ones opinion. It is for this reason that Micaiah is relevant to our days. In the past decade we have witnessed the United Statesthe strongest democracy on earth and indeed in historywage 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 Saddams 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 yetshould we go to war with Iran? Astonishingly, despite recent history, we again witness scenes like the showdown at the citys 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 effectsthe 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 agoa Micaiah is terribly needed. Without one it may not just be the King and his house who perish.