This article 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.
Rabbi Hayyim Angel is the National Scholar of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org). He also teaches advanced Bible courses to undergraduates and rabbinical students at Yeshiva University, and lectures widely. He received his B.A. in Jewish Studies from Yeshiva College, his M.A. in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, his M.S. in Jewish Education from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, and his Rabbinical Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He has published over 100 scholarly articles, primarily in Bible, and is author or editor of eleven books. He lives in New York with his wife and twin daughters.
Last week we began a discussion of the dual nature of Achav in Sefer Melachim. This week we will conclude our analysis by looking at more of his life as recorded in Tanach.
In Perek 20 of I Melachim Achav defended the honor of his nation against Aram. Strikingly, he had a favorable relationship with an anonymous prophet (20:13). Achav attacked the Arameans in broad daylight against superior forces, demonstrating that he completely trusted the prophetic promise that God would help (Abarbanel on 20:16). One may conclude that the war against Aram brought out a positive dimension in Achav. With national security and honor at stake, Achav’s allegiance to God and his nation came to the fore.
Alternatively, this chapter may be read in light of the negative characterization of Achav from the surrounding narratives. He listened to the prophet only as long as he was a bearer of good tidings. The moment a prophet rebuked him, however, Achav turned away (20:35-43). This story is followed immediately by the Navot episode, and then by Achav’s testimony that he hated Michayahu for forecasting bad news (22:8).
Even according to the more favorable reading of Perek 20, however, Achav’s faithlessness described in the broader narrative enters this chapter through the words of the prophet. God intervened in the battle against Aram so that Achav would become a believer: “Thus said the Lord: ‘Do you see that great host? I will deliver it into your hands today, and you shall know that I am the Lord’” (20:13; cf. v. 28). Achav entrusted his nation to God and the prophets, yet at the same time he lacked faith in God and the prophets when they brought him bad tidings. Chapter 20 captures the extent of the complexity of Achav’s beliefs.
In the Septuagint, the Navot story precedes the battles against Aram. This sequence places the Eliyahu stories (Perakim 17-19 and 21 in the Masoretic Text) in one block, and Achav’s wars against Aram (Perakim 20 and 22 in the Masoretic Text) in another. However, the Masoretic organization—which inserts the Navot episode between the two chapters on Aram—invites comment. Abarbanel (on 21:1) observes the irony of Achav’s being referred to as a magnanimous king (20:31) followed by his murderous behavior in the Navot incident. Additionally, he derives from the juxtaposition of chapters 20-21 that Achav did not learn anything from the prophetic rebuke in 20:35-42. Rather than improving, he went on to have Navot murdered.
The Masoretic order may affect the interpretation of chapter 22 as well. By reading it immediately after the murder of Navot in Perek 21, one may perceive selfish motivations behind the attack against Aram. Achav greedily initiated the war at the expense of the lives of others, similar to what he did with the murder of Navot. Without bringing the Navot episode into account, however, one may view Chapter 22 as a justified campaign to retrieve lost territory (22:3).
Another fascinating issue of placement is the summary condemnation of Achav’s behavior:
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. He acted most abominably, straying after the fetishes just like the Amorites, whom the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites. (21:25-26)
Although this passage sounds like a summation of Achav’s behavior that belongs at the end of Achav’s career, it is followed instead by Achav’s repentance after the Navot affair (21:27-29) and an additional chapter about Achav’s battle against Aram. Had the summary condemnation appeared at the end of the Achav narratives, his reign would have been enveloped by harsh criticism. Instead, the narrator appears to distinguish multiple facets of Achav.
Chapter 22 presents further complexities as Achav consulted prophets before going to battle:
So the king of Israel gathered the prophets, about four hundred men, and asked them, “Shall I march upon Ramot-Gil’ad for battle, or should I not?” “March,” they said, “and the Lord will deliver [it] into Your Majesty’s hands.” Then Yehoshafat asked, “Isn’t there another prophet of Hashem here through whom we can inquire?” And the king of Israel answered Yehoshafat, “There is one more man through whom we can inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune—Michayahu son of Imlah.” (22:6-8)
How did Yehoshafat know to ask for a second opinion? Radak, Ralbag, and Abarbanel surmise that he must have recognized those 400 prophets as prophets of Ba’al. Upon seeing the righteous Yehoshafat, they fraudulently used God’s Name in an attempt to persuade him to listen. It appears that these commentators were swayed by the summary statements of Achav’s reign that cast him as an idolater.
Following the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89a), Rashi asserts that the 400 were prophets of God but were giving the identical message, indicating a conspiracy. Surviving prophets of God had, by and large, learned to support Achav so they might live. In this episode, only Michayahu had the independent courage and resolve to serve as a true prophet.
Achav apparently wanted to listen to prophets of God but preferred that they say what he wanted them to say. Thus Achav’s messenger prodded Michayahu: “Look, the words of the prophets are with one accord favorable to the king. Let your word be like that of the rest of them; speak a favorable word” (22:13). Michayahu mocked the king by mimicking the false prophets: “March and triumph! Hashem will deliver [it] into Your Majesty’s hands” (22:15). Achav, who had been insistent that Michayahu say what he wanted him to, now scolded him, “How many times must I adjure you to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” (22:16). It is clear that Achav recognized Michayahu’s integrity and the truth of his message.
Achav was caught in a paradox: He knew that the 400 others were supporting his decision, whereas Michayahu was a true prophet. At the same time, however, Achav wanted true prophecy to support him. Unwilling to renege on his battle plans, Achav imprisoned Michayahu (22:26-27). Although Achav did not heed the prophet, he disguised himself in a failed attempt to outmaneuver the prophecy that he believed to be true (22:30; see Ralbag on 22:18, Abarbanel on 22:30).
Achav’s behavior during the battle reflected his full complexity:
Then a man drew his bow at random and he hit the king of Israel … he said to his charioteer, “Turn the horses around and get me behind the lines; I’m wounded.” The battle raged all day long, and the king remained propped up in the chariot facing Aram; the blood from the wound ran down into the hollow of the chariot, and at dusk he died.… Thus the dogs lapped up his blood and the whores bathed [in it], in accordance with the word that the Lord had spoken. (22:34-38)
In mortal pain, Achav did not want his troops to be demoralized. As he was dying of his wounds, dogs licked his blood and whores bathed in it, tying together the punishments of 20:42 (that Achav would be killed in battle against Ben-Hadad) and 21:19 (that dogs would lick Achav’s blood). Thus Achav’s career ends with a striking combination of heroic dedication to his nation and Divine punishment for the murder of Navot and his lack of concern for his nation in sparing Ben-Hadad.
Achav believed the prophets but still wanted control over their messages and despised them when they maintained their integrity. The Navot story condemns Achav, yet even that episode ends with God’s praising Achav’s repentance. In most cases, Achav was unable to remain consistent on the side of either God or Ba’al. He may have unwittingly instigated Izevel in threatening Eliyahu (19:1-2) and passively allowed her to murder Navot. At the same time, he retained Ovadiah and contributed to Eliyahu’s dramatic victory at Karmel. He defended the honor of his nation and died a military hero on behalf of his people.
Then again, perhaps Achav was purely evil. The complexities in the narrative may allow him to hide behind his wife’s crimes and other ostensible virtues, but the summary statements capture his true essence. Achav, the monarch of Israel, truly represented the people of his time: he was the one who needed Eliyahu’s rebuke at Karmel: “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Ba’al, follow him!” (18:21).
While Achav and his nation were hopping between two opinions, the reader similarly must vacillate between interpreting each element separately and considering the components of the narrative in light of the summary statements unequivocally condemning Achav. This tension results from the magnificent narration that brings the multifaceted personality of Achav to life.
 Cf. R. Walter L. Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Michayahu ben Imlah as a Test Case,” Harvard Theological Review 96 (2003), p. 4.