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Who Is King Ahab in the Bible?

The Bible doesn't say King Ahab was a moderately bad king: it calls him the evilest king that the People Israel ever had. What did King Ahab do that was so wrong?

Apr 14, 2022
Who Is King Ahab in the Bible?

Why is the name Ahab familiar to you?

It may be familiar because of your history—for example, what were you doing as a teenager? You might have been rocking to the Ray Stevens’ song Ahab the Arab, sheik of the burning sand who, around midnight, would hop on his camel named Clyde and ride to the sultan’s tent and meet Fatima of the Seven Veils. Or you could be reading your copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and be distressed by Captain Ahab of the whaleship Pequod, thinking that man was a demon. Or you could be equally distressed at the historical King Ahab of Israel, from 1 Kings 16:29 et seq. (reigned ca 874-852 B.C.).

In the last case, you might be distressed because King Ahab was the evilest man among all the Kings of Israel (attested biblically in 1 Kings 16:33b).

What Made King Ahab the Evilest King of Israel?

The People Israel became the People Israel when Yahweh (their sovereign God) gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. Which of the Ten Commandments (literally in Hebrew, “The Ten Utterances”) are most absolutely required? Answer: you must believe Number One and act on Number Two. Number one is “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.” Number Two is “You shall have no other gods but me.”

That’s where King Ahab fell. Though he was the seventh king of Israel and ought to have known better, King Ahab took up another god than Yahweh, worshipping that god as equal to or greater than Yahweh.

Why Would King Ahab do That?

King Ahab had two problems. One, he could be manipulated. Two, he had a forceful wife. He was married to none other than Jezebel.

Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians. Ethbaal became king by murdering his predecessor at Tyre, thus providing him the kingship of all the Phoenician cities. The royal marriage between Ahab and Jezebel may have benefitted Ahab by binding Israel with Tyre. It also may have occurred at just the right time for King Ahab—when Aramean powers of Syria were threatening Israel’s coastal cities.

So, modern readers may consider King Ahab’s marriage a political triumph. But is that so? Were all of Jezebel’s gifts to her husband and urgencies to manipulate his behavior equally beneficial?

Nowadays, Jezebel is often condemned. Who would want her as a wife? Her seductive ways, excessive personal beautification, manipulation of others even to the extent of having them killed, and excitement to acquire whatever power she could. These may be accurate historical characterizations. Jezebel was, after all, a woman who seethed to be Queen and was the daughter of a murderous father (a father whose family history illustrated at least one way to become ruler). However, from the biblical point of view, Jezebel’s most appalling sin was worse than murder. It was idolatry.

The People Israel may have been affronted by Jezebel’s sexual, political, and criminal behavior. Among other things, she engineered the murder of Naboth, whose orchard King Ahab wanted for his garden and could not get legally. So, Jezebel got the orchard for her husband any way by having the man Naboth killed (1 Kings 21:1-16). That was bad. But what may have been even worse was Jezebel’s theological cluelessness or, even worse, her rebelliousness.

Jezebel was clueless because she forced her husband to build altars for the Canaanite god Baal. She also forced him to erect Asherim near the altars (sacred pillars that symbolized fertility and represented the pagan mother goddess Ashera, the consort of the pagan senior god El). Jezebel was rebellious because, along with forcing her husband to build the altars and the Asherim, she also forced him to worship Baal and Ashera.

Can you believe it? Jezebel made the King of Israel worship pagan gods!

Is Idolatry So Very Bad?

Yes, it is.

Think about it. If your own sovereign God should appear to you, or a predecessor of yours, from within a cloud of thunder and lightning and should charge you that you may have no other gods except him, what should you do? The wise thing to do is to pay attention and comply.

On the other hand, what if your people’s queen should dissuade you from worshiping your sovereign God and instead require you to worship other gods. Further, the acts of pagan worship include eating meat sacrificed to those gods and sacrificing children. What should you do then?

You would have two choices. Either comply with your Queen’s edict or make sure your sovereign God knows how much you love him and that you will withstand your Queen’s requirement. The first way leads to life, but a life of enslavement to evil gods. The second way may lead instead to death at the hands of the queen. But, that doorway to death leads to the satisfaction of your sovereign God.

The profane and the sacred are the obverse of one another. In Judaism, their polarity is the theological and sacramental nerve center. Today, in Orthodoxy (and likely in former patriarchal and Mosaic times), the two poles must not intrude upon one another.

For example, meat sacrificed to a pagan god should not be eaten when the god invoked at your table is your own sovereign god Yahweh. To offer such meat would be treif (unholy, non-kosher, forbidden).

As another example, Shabbat (the time of the holy) begins exactly—yes, exactly—at the moment when the sun sets on Friday night. The Shabbat comes not one minute earlier or later, and when it arrives, you must leave the profane behind you. At that moment, you light the Havdalah candle. Your demeanor and all of your actions and practices—yes, all of them—change at that moment. You have entered a different factual and temporal reality than you inhabited during the week’s previous 144 hours that were profane. That reality of sacredness won’t change back to the profane until the moment when the sun rises, the Havdalah candle is snuffed out, and now it is Sunday morning, after sun up.

Whatever Happened to King Ahab, Now the Idolater?

Ahab was King of Israel for twenty-two years. He was the son of King Omni, who had no better reputation for exactitude in the worship of Yahweh than Ahab eventually built for himself. As reported in 1 Kings 18:1-46, one famous early event during Ahab’s kingship was the challenge between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. During King Ahab’s early years, a drought plagued Israel, occasioned by Jezebel’s forced pagan worship. During the drought’s third year, 867 B.C., the prophet Elijah went to Samaria to confront King Ahab. Elijah persuaded Ahab to offer a challenge to the 450 priests of Baal.

The 450 priests of Baal, and the one and only Elijah, as a single follower of Yahweh, would each be given a bull to sacrifice, and whichever of the gods sent down fire must undoubtedly be the real god and the most powerful. The Baal worshippers danced and sang and called down fire from their god, but they got no response. So, they cut themselves with knives and lances, but even with all that human blood, no fire came down from Baal.

Elijah then called the People Israel together to witness what would happen on his side. Using twelve stones, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, he built an altar, cut his bull into pieces, and laid the pieces on the altar. Then he dug a trench around his altar and required the people to fill four successive large jars of water and, three times, pour the water over the sacrifice, the altar, and into the trench, soaking them all. Once done, Elijah called upon Yahweh, and the Lord sent down fire which consumed everything, including all the waters. The People Israel witnessed this, and they fell on their faces and chanted, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord he is God” (1 Kings 18:39).

Elijah caused the People Israel to round up all the 450 priests of Baal, and he brought them to the brook of Kishon, and he slaughtered all of them there.

Then Elijah went to King Ahab and told him that the Lord was about to send the rains, which the Lord did. When Jezebel learned of the challenge Elijah had officiated, at her husband’s request, against her priests of Baal, she was furious, and she swore to kill Elijah. Elijah fled.

What Came Later for King Ahab?

Much of the rest of Ahab’s kingship was filled with on-and-off war (or on-and-off threats) with Syria, particularly its king Ben-Hadad.

For example, Ben-Hadad sent word to Ahab that Ahab should send all his best wives and children and all his silver and gold to Ben-Hadad. If that were done, peace would ensue.

Ahab called his advisors together, reported the demand, and heard that he should not respond. When Ahab sent no response to Ben-Hadad, it was fortunate that the latter had drunk himself into a stupor along with the thirty-two allied kings who partied with him. The possible war between Syria and Israel did not occur that autumn, but, in the spring, Ben-Hadad issued forth with his army to fight Israel.

King Ahab took up the challenge and defeated the Syrian forces of Ben-Hadad. When Ben-Hadad was brought before the triumphant King of Israel, Ben-Hadad promised to restore all the property his father had formerly destroyed (which had belonged to Ahab’s father Omni and which should now belong to Ahab). King Ahab stated that if that occurred, he would let Ben-Hadad retain his life and return as he had come.

The End of King Ahab

Jeremiah, who wrote 1 and 2 Kingsprovides ongoing stories of the intricate plotting, threatening, and executing of feints, as well as the clashes of arms, between Syria and Israel during the subsequent years, sometimes Israel being in conjunction with Judah, sometimes not.

Remember Jezebel’s murder of Naboth? Yahweh was angry about this, and he sent word to King Ahab as a prophecy. Since Ahab had taken possession of Naboth’s orchard unjustly, the Lord said, in the spot where dogs had licked up Naboth’s blood after he was stoned to death, so, too, would dogs lick King Ahab’s blood.

A time came when King Ahab and King Jehoshaphat of Judah went to battle against Syrian forces at Ramoth-Gilead. Ahab persuaded Jehoshaphat that he, Ahab, would disguise himself and go into the battle so he could not be identified, but that Jehoshaphat must ride into the battle in his finest robes and armor. When the Syrian forces saw the glorious-looking king in his magnificent chariot, they assumed he must be King Ahab, and they attacked him. But Jehoshaphat persuaded them that he was not the king, so they turned away. At about that point in the battle, a Syrian bowman shot a random arrow, penetrating the disguised chest of King Ahab. Ahab ordered his charioteer to take him out of the battle and prop him up in his chariot so he could watch the battle.

Later in the evening, that is where Ahab died. The blood of Ahab’s death wound flowed onto the bottom of the chariot, and when his body was returned to Samaria for burial, his blood was washed away with water drawn from the Pool of Samaria. The dogs licked up his blood from the same place they had licked Naboth’s blood, and the prostitutes washed in it, too.

Dr. Dikkon Eberhart lives in the Blue Ridge area of SW Virginia. He and his wife have four grown children and five grandchildren. He has written all his life, both fiction and memoir, and his academic interest is the connection between religion and the arts. His most recent book is the popular memoir The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told (Tyndale House, 2015). He writes memoirs, and he assists those who wish to write memoirs, for the purpose of coming closer to God.  Learn more about his interests at www.dikkoneberhart.com.

Photo Credit: © Alexander Rose Photography, LLC

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

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