Hopping Between Two Opinions: Understanding the Biblical Portrait of Acha- Part One by Rabbi Hayyim Angel


This chapter is adapted from Hayyim Angel, “Hopping Between Two Opinions: Understanding the Biblical Portrait of Achav,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 35:1 (2007), pp. 3-10; reprinted in Angel, Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings: Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2009), pp. 107-116

Kol Torah has the honor and pleasure to share with our readers an important article by one of the leading Tanach scholars of our time Rav Hayyim Angel. Kol Torah thanks Rabbi Angel for generously sharing his Torah with the Kol Torah readership.


The Book of Kings records more about Achav than about any other Northern monarch (I Melachim 16:29–22:40). Its scathing introduction to Achav’s reign sets a decidedly negative tone for the six chapters that follow:

Achav son of Omri did what was displeasing to the Lord, more than all who preceded him. Not content to follow the sins of Yeravam son of Nevat, he took as wife Izevel daughter of King Etba’al of the Phoenicians, and he went and served Ba’al and worshipped him…. Achav did more to vex the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kings of Israel who preceded him. (16:30-33)

Much of the Achav narrative may be interpreted in light of this severe introduction. Under Achav, prophets of God were exterminated (18:4,13), altars to God were destroyed (18:30), and prophets of Ba’al and Asheirah became the national religious figures (18:19). Although he witnessed the drought and rain decreed by Eliyahu (17:1, 18:45), the spectacular miracles at Mount Carmel (Perek 18), and the victories against Aram (Perek 20), Achav stubbornly clung to his idolatrous behavior.

Achav had a stormy re­lationship with the prophets, calling Eli­yahu “troubler of Israel” (18:17) and “my en­emy” (21:20). Achav hated the prophet Michayehu (22:8) and imprisoned him after he declared that Achav would perish in battle (22:26-27). The murder of Navot (Perek 21) capped a ruthless career filled with idolatry and im­mo­rality.

Nevertheless, there are two domains that re­quire further scrutiny: the extent of Izevel’s influence over Achav, and the sur­prisingly positive aspects of Achav’s reign. The nar­rator’s nega­tive characteri­zation of Achav raises important methodological considera­tions. Must one read the en­tire episode in light of the summary statements? Should juxtapositions of narratives affect the interpretation of a given passage? Or must each episode first be understood independently and only later be woven into a more multifaceted picture of Achav?

A Talmudic debate captures the complexities in the Achav narratives:

Rabi Nachman said: Achav was equally balanced, since it is written, “The Lord asked, ‘Who will entice Achav so that he will march and fall at Ramot-Gil’ad?’ Then one said thus and another said thus” (22:20). Rabi Yosef objected: He of whom it is written, “Indeed, there never was anyone like Achav, who committed himself to doing what was displeasing to the Lord, at the instigation of his wife Izevel” (21:25), yet you say that he was equally balanced! (Sanhedrin 102b)

According to Rabi Nachman, Achav’s overall judgment was balanced. By considering each dimension of Achav separately, Rabi Nachman allows for a more favorable interpretation of many of Achav’s actions. In contrast, Rabi Yosef maintains that the negative summary statements of Achav’s reign should shape the interpretation of every element in the narrative. This article considers how both views together capture the comprehensive portrait of Achav.

Izevel’s Influence

The Book of Kings mentions Izevel in both summarizing statements condemning Achav’s unparalleled idolatry (16:30-33; 21:25-26). It specifically was Izevel who killed the prophets of God (18:4,13). It is unclear, however, whether Izevel acted on Achav’s orders, with his approval, or whether he weakly and passively looked the other way. The Navot episode presents a similar ambiguity. Izevel in fact orchestrated the murder. Achav may have actively manipulated her emotions, and certainly was guilty for inheriting the vineyard immediately after the execution (Abarbanel, Elchanan Samet[2]). On the other hand, Achav may have been more passively guilty when he pouted like a child, and Izevel acted as a protective mother:

Achav went home dispirited and sullen because of the answer that Navot the Izra’eli had given him…. He lay down on his bed and turned away his face, and he would not eat…. His wife Izevel said to him, “Now is the time to show yourself king over Israel. Rise and eat something, and be cheerful; I will get the vineyard of Navot the Izra’eli for you.” (21:4-7)[3]

The Jerusalem Talmud addresses this ambiguity re­garding Achav’s character and how much he or Izevel should be blamed for the atrocities of their kingdom:

For six months, Rabi Levi explained the verse: “Indeed, there never was anyone like Achav, who committed himself to doing what was displeasing to the Lord” (21:25), in a manner critical of Achav. Achav came to Rabi Levi in a dream, and protested: “How have I wronged you? Is there only a first half to this verse? [The second half reads] ‘at the instigation of his wife Izevel!’” Rabi Levi responded by teaching this verse for six months with a favorable slant toward Achav. (J. T. Sanhedrin 10:2, 28b)

To summarize, Izevel personally committed the greatest crimes during Achav’s reign. Achav may have actively manipulated her to carry out his agenda, or he may have been a weak character who tolerated his wife’s crimes of idolatry and murder.

Positive Elements Of Achav’s Career

Whether Achav actively influenced Izevel to implement the crimes or whether he passively tolerated them, Achav is still a negative character. However, other components of Achav’s career appear surprisingly positive. He retained a God-fearing man, Ovadiah, as a steward, he helped organize Eliyahu’s showdown against Ba’al, and he fought valiantly on behalf of his nation. In this section we explore those elements of the narrative.


Achav had summoned Ovadiah, the steward of the palace. Ovadiah revered the Lord greatly. When Izevel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Ovadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and provided them with food and drink. And Achav had said to Ovadiah, “Go through the land…. Perhaps we shall find some grass to keep horses and mules alive, so that we are not left without beasts.” (18:3-5)

If Achav were an unparalleled idolater, why did he retain Ovadiah — one who “revered the Lord greatly”as his chief steward? It appears that Achav recognized value in God-fearing people and kept Ovadiah as a counterbalance to Izevel (Malbim on 18:3)[4]. Alternatively, perhaps Ovadiah infiltrated Achav’s house without Achav’s realizing that Ovadiah was God-fearing. From this vantage point, Ovadiah’s presence says nothing positive about Achav’s religious portrayal.

Achav’s Participation in the Showdown at Carmel

After Ovadiah announced the arrival of Eliyahu, Achav could have attempted to seize Eliyahu or demanded that Eliyahu come to him. Instead, Achav went to greet the prophet. Upon seeing Eliyahu, however, Achav rebuked him for decreeing the drought. Eliyahu retorted that the drought was Achav’s fault and not Eliyahu’s. He then suggested a joint action at Carmel, and Achav cooperated (18:17-20). Thus the worst idolater in the Northern Kingdom helped organize the most dramatic battle against idolatry.

Aside from participating in Eliyahu’s confrontation at Carmel, Achav did not interfere with the massacre of the prophets of Ba’al. Further, the text is ambiguous as to whether Achav joined the nation in proclaiming that “the Lord alone is God” (18:39). The text also is unclear if Achav assisted in the massacre of the prophets of Ba’al (18:40). Malbim (on 18:41) maintains that Achav was indeed swayed by the fire from heaven and actively supported Eliyahu. Alternatively, Elhanan Samet asserts that the narrator’s silence on Achav’s presence during the showdown (18:21-40) casts Achav as a passive, secondary character. In his reading, one need not read in any active participation on Achav’s part[5]. In any event, Achav’s participation was sufficiently impressive to warrant Eliyahu’s honoring him by running ahead of his chariot for miles. The prophet’s preternatural speed indicates Divine approval of the reconciliation between Eliyahu and Achav and was one of the high points of Eliyahu’s career[6].

Rather than ending the episode on this happy note, however, Achav returned home and recounted the day’s events to Izevel (19:1). He likely could have anticipated her reaction: “Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you [Eliyahu] like one of them” (19:2). It appears that while Achav may have retained Ovadiah as a counterbalance to Izevel, he also used Izevel as a counterbalance in the other direction. The harmony created at the end of Perek 18 was shattered, and Eliyahu fled into exile. However, it is also plausible that Achav was so moved by the miracle at Carmel that he rode home excitedly to report everything to his wife. It may have been Achav’s naïveté, not malice, which led to Eliyahu’s banishment (Malbim on 19:1-2).

Next week, we will conclude Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s analysis of Achav’s dual personality.

[2] Elhanan Samet, Pirkei Eliyahu (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot Press, 2003), pp. 363-368.

[3] Cf. Jerome T. Walsh, Berit Olam: 1 Kings, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, ed. David W. Cotter (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), pp. 321-327.

[4] In a fascinating analysis of the miraculous nature of the Six Day War in 1967, Rabbi Menahem Kasher casts Achav as a model of the unrighteous king who was a military hero and therefore still earned some rabbinic praise. Rabbi Kasher points to Ovadiah as the God-fearing Jew who retained a relationship with the wicked Achav in order to exert some positive influence. He even credits Ovadiah for Achav’s gesture of repentance in Perek 21. In this polemical piece (which includes an extensive survey of Midrashim pertaining to Achav), Rabbi Kasher uses the Achav narrative as a means of (1) praising the predominantly nonreligious armed forces of Israel for their heroism in the Six Day War and explaining how they could merit miracles; and (2) encouraging religious Jews to befriend nonreligious Jews — as Ovadiah did — rather than writing them off. See Ha-Tekufah ha-Gedolah (Jerusalem: Torah Shelemah Institute, 2001), pp. 336-369. I thank Rabbi Shalom Carmy for referring me to this article.

[5] Samet, Pirkei Eliyahu, pp. 210-213.

[6] Cf. Samet, Pirkei Eliyahu, pp. 226-231.

Hopping Between Two Opinions: Understanding The Biblical Portrait Of Achav- Part Two by Rabbi Hayyim Angel

Relaxed Hillel - Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter