Wednesday, August 05, 2009

lies in the end of 1 Kings, when the Lord lets someone else use your sins to crush you

Long ago one of my mentors in high school brought up something that troubled him, it was how David could offer such bloodthirsty advice to his son Solomon from his deathbed. Perhaps that was the beginning of a lifelong curiosity, admittedly often a passing curiosity, about the moral ambiguity in biblical narratives. I don't here reer to Yahweh at all but to the people who were ostensibly held up as the heroes or villains in Israelite history.

But the most famously weird story after the prophet lying to the other prophet, and arguably more easily remembered, is the strange story about the demise of Ahab with Micaiah saying that a spirit volunteered to be a lying spirit before the Lord. This puzzled me when I discovered it and it still puzzles me and yet I have lately considered the relationship between the volunteerism of that lying spirit and the lies Ahab allowed to be said in his name to obtain what he wanted.

See, Ahab wanted Naboth's vineyard so that he could turn it into a vegetable garden. Naboth refused to give up the plot of land because it had been given to his father and his family, it was an inheritence from the Lord and he would not give it up either for money or for the offer of a better vineyard. For Naboth to have given up his land would be to disobey God (Numbers 36 for those who want to look it up). For an Israelite to give up his portion of the inherited promised land was unthinkable. Wasn't this land the land received by God's kindness and promise, a promise given as far back as the days of Abraham, that had been fulfilled through the exodus? Why would Naboth give up land inherited through his fathers just because the king wanted it, especially when the law of Moses did not permit it?

Ahab was bummed and went home sulking and wouldn't even eat. When Jezebel saw this she said, "Aren't you the king? This has to be fixed." And fix it she did, she arranged to send letters in Ahab's name to establish a fast and to have two scoundrels bear false witness against Naboth by accusing him of cursing Yahweh and Ahab. Naboth gets killed and the vineyard is taken by Ahab.

I hope by now you are, if you know the narrative, grasping the irony. Ahab lets his wife Jezebel lie about Naboth through proxies who accuse of him of cursing both Yahweh and the king. God turns it around and asks the court of spirits how Ahab shall be enticed to his death. A spirit volunteers to be a lying spirit in the prophets of Ahab. God approves. Just as Ahab, through Jezebel, condones lying to use established channels in the society as the means to have a man put to death, God permits a lying spirit with a lot of volunteerism go and do EXACTLY the same thing to Ahab's prophets to bring about HIS death.

There are times, it seems, when God punishes the leaders of His people by using the means through which they abused their power. In this case the irony is specifically that God brings about Ahab's demise by letting a spirit lie to his prophets to entice him to his death just as Ahab let Jezebel concoct lies in her conspiracy to take away Naboth's vineyard by having him subjected to capital punishment for blasphemy and insubordination on false charges. Jezebel thought the name of the Lord could be treated lightly enough to be used to accomplish her own ends and the goals of her husband. Ahab permitted it and God, so it would appear, decided that turnabout was fair play. Ahab was guilty of many, many terrible things but it is significant, perhaps the signal crime Ahab was guilty of, that he let his wife, an idolator, not only dictate national policy but also do so simply to use the power of the royal family to arrange for the murder of one man.

But, it may immediately be noted, did not David do precisely the same thing to have Uriah killed so as to take his wife? Yes, exactly ... but David didn't use the name of the Lord as part of false charges. David feared the Lord, Jezebel didn't. Invoking the name of the Lord to have someone murdered to obtain a vineyard for her husband to turn into a vegetable garden was nothing to her. Invoking the name Yahweh to have someone killed on false charges to obtain land that by the Mosaic law was never supposed to be sold or given to you was a dogpile of breaching Mosaic law, using the Lord's name in vain to bear false witness and then having a godly man killed. It was a breach of conduct fit for an Israelite king so severe it received an immediate prophetic rebuke.

A reader could be easily forgiven for not seeing quite how this evil among all of Ahab's evils would seem like such a big deal but the bigness of the deal becomes evident when we consider the name of the Lord and how Jezebel puts it to use to have a man killed. God's response in this case is to have a judgment measured out to match the nature of the sin. Ahab receives bad advice from his retinue of divine oracles who really don't know what the Lord has decreed.

Now there is a fascinating subplot in here when we get to the point where Jehoshaphat asks "Is there not a prophet of the Lord ... ?" It can be read as "Is there not another prophet of the Lord here?" or it can be read as the earleir form. In other words there's some word play at work with some wiggle room where the Judean king asks "Is this it?" of those who have spoken earlier and also "Let's get a second opinion from someone we can be more sure is attentive to the Lord." Ahab explains that there IS such a prophet but that he only speaks terrible things about him. Sure enough, when Micaiah shows up the verdict is eventually terrible. And yet Micaiah lies! Ahab sees through the lie immediately and demands the truth, which Micaiah gives.

Yet before Micaiah arrives we hear from Zedekiah, son of Chenaanaah, that the Lord has promised victory. Zedekiah even produces iron horns to enact the expected victory! A prophet with props! Who could doubt that? Or, on the other hand, how could you take that seriously? Well, Micaiah clearly didn't take it seriously. What makes this prophecy unusual is that instead of just being a word from the Lord we get the story behind the scenes that reveals how God settled upon the form the judgment would take. We are shown that the host of heaven was gathered on the right and left side of the Lord and that when the Lord asked who would entice Ahab to fall that one spirit said this and the other said that and that finally a spirit came forward and said, "I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets". THe Lord said, "That is what you will do. Go entice him and prevail."

Then Zedekiah freaks out. He goes to Micaiah and hits him and says, "How did the Spirit of the Lord pass from me to you?" The meaning is fairly simple but it evokes a response of anger, outrage, disbelief, and confusion. Which way did God's spirit go when it went from one prophet to the other? Zedekiah believes Micaiah is lying. Both of them can't possibly be right. Micaiah replies that he will be proven right when Zedekiah hides himself. Ahab orders that Micaiah be kept on minimal food until his safe return to which the prophet says, "If you safely return then the Lord has not spoken through me."

We are not told a whole lot about Zedekiah except that he prophesied in the name of the Lord and was proven wrong. We don't know if he was a false prophet because he just up and presumed to speak for the Lord having never done so before or not. I am slowly immersing myself in narrative literature and am learning as I go. I'm not sure that Zedekiah just decided he was going to prophesy on behalf of the Lord but it can come off that way. While Micaiah was being sent for Zedekiah spoke up. In the end he was proven a false prophet either way.

It is tempting to attempt to apply all of this stuff. We want the biblical narrative to somehow "apply" to us, to me, and that is one of the great temptations an individual Christian faces, the earnest desire that God will beam some special personalized message to you regarding something in a biblical text. Much harder is to read the biblical text not so THAT you can see your life in it but so that, at the risk of seeming to say the same thing in another way, the biblical text is read for what it says and to consider how it may (or even may not, at that time) address your life with Christ but also the people of Christ.

I'm going to be rather unsparing in my example, the example of the first, stupid method of reading OT literature is best exemplified by Mark Driscoll's mostly self-aggrandizing Nehemiah series. "And this is just like Mars Hill" was unfortunate because it was reading Driscoll's story and the story of Mars Hill on to Nehemiah. To be fair, lots of pastors suck by reading themselves, their own agendas, and their own churches on to OT narrative so it's not like Driscoll is special or unusual for making that kind of mistake in placing himself above a biblical text. And I promise when he's teaching from the New Testament he doesn't suck by doing that nearly as much.

On the other hand, I'm grateful Driscoll has so often proven himself to be a lazy and irresponsible scholar of Old Testament literature because it inspired me to take the Bible more seriously precisely because in narrative literature he doesn't take it seriously but takes himself seriously (Nehemiah, again). I trust the Lord will gently correct him and make him a better man on those issues but it is the Lord and not Driscoll that I trust is kind and merciful. Let the reader understand or not.

What fascinates me about Ahab is how much mercy he received from the Lord even in his idolatry and his lying. He did not accept that mercy. When David was confronted with his wickedness by Nathan he immediately grasped the significance of his sin, he saw that he was the one who took the little lamb that he didn't even really need. Ahab did not see that the lying spirit that had deceived his prophets was a form of revealing his own sins against himself. Ahab allowed lies to be told about a godly man, and he allowed his own power and influence and name to be used by Jezebel to accomplish the task.

The significance of name is hard to explain in some ways for such a culture. In biblical periods to have one's name was to have knowledge and power over that person. "Why do you ask my name?" said the man with whom Jacob wrestled. To use a more modern example from the film Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence is asked his name he declines saying, "My name ... is for my friends. None of my friends is a murderer." Ahab allowing Jezebel to use his name to arrange for the death of Naboth was to participate in that sin at its essence. That is precisely the nature of the rebuke given to Ahab by the prophet.

Now technically speaking Ahab had not lied at all, he simply allowed lies to be told on his behalf to obtain what he wanted. A conspiracy to hide the real truth is still deception, whether that conspiracy is to obatin by force something one wants or to present an image of yourself that does not match reality. Among all the wicked things Samarian kings did in terms of idolatry Ahab represents the low point not only be doing the same idolatrous things his forbears did but also by going them two or three steps toward the worse. Letting his non-Israelite wife invoke the name of the Lord to kill an innocent, God-fearing man to obtain a vineyard to turn into a vegetable garden reveals both the greatness and pettiness of sin. The greatness of the blasphemy and deceit and murder and conspiracy that can be employed and the pettiness of the thing for which all of that sin is embraced. A vegetable garden, perhaps the evocation of Cain murdering Able is too subtle a thing to consider here but it may bear mention in passing.

A person might read all of the narrative of Ahab and see him as the bad guy, which would be true, but you could also miss how even in His harshest oracles God is surprisingly patient with Ahab. The goal of the prophetic rebuke is to challenge people to return to the Lord. God offers Ahab a number of chances to turn from his path and seek the Lord. When Ahab doesn't God eventually lets him be crushed by the means through which he let others be crushe

The rebuke of the Lord comes from two places for Ahab. One is from the question of the Judean king and the other, of courser, is from Micaiah. The other prophets, including Zedekiah, bear the voice of falsehood. Now for Ahab the Lord had actually delivered him through battle before. Things had gone fairly well up to that point. Those who prophesied success and victory were going on what appeared to be an established track record. Of course that didn't make them right. The vocal minority in this case was telling the truth despite the words from the majority saying "All is well, go forth and be victorious." Only one prophet is willing to say that what is taken for victory will be ultimate defeat.

But Micaiah has a history of ripping on the king and being disrespectful and he is just one prophet among hundreds. So Ahab attempts to have it both ways. He goes out into battle but in disguise. He is ambivalent about the word of the Lord through Micaiah. He believes it enough to think he needs a disguise but disbelieves it enough to go into battle anyway.

Throughout Samuel and Kings there has been a metatheme at work. God has disciplined His people by giving them what they asked for on their own terms through Saul. When they realize their folly He gives them a king after His own heart, the deeply flawed but God-revering David. David hopes his throne shall be established forever and imparts that concern to Solomon, who is a bit dodgy in the beginning and apostate at the end. Prosperity became a snare to Israel and very quickly the kingdom divides after a mere two generations of one dynasty. The two kingdoms move toward apostasy either immediately (Israel/Samaria) or slowly (Judah). Three dynasties have preceded the house of Ahab, son of Omri, while David's house has been preserved not because David's house was particularly good but because God was kind and kept his promise despite the faithlessness of David's house.

In Ahab's case God sends Elijah from some nowhere to rebuke him. Elijah is rarely at the center of things but speaks to things from the corners, the outskirts, and spends time even in the land of non-Israelites. God may send rebuke to His people from places and people who are not, it seems, even really connected to His people. Elijah feels alone and does not quickly realize that his role in rebuking Ahab is just part of a larger thing God has in mind. It is Micaiah who actually foretells the death of the wicked king.

It is easy, very easy, to not see what God has at work. We can't see it, I can't see it. God installs wicked rulers to rule wickedly for reasons I don't understand. God shows kindness and mercy to wicked rulers for reasons I can sort of understand. It is when Ahab declines to turn to the Lord after being shown both rebuke and mercy that God lets him, as the phrase goes, reap what he sows. Or that might be misconstrued. It seems that God provides even lethal discipline to Ahab by subjecting him to what he subjected others to. The man who took for himself by the lies of others is undone by the lies told to his prophets. He has the opportunity to believe the truth in this rebuke and see how it is a rebuke to his wickedness, to see his own evil in the evil of his prophets and the spirit that lied to them, but he chooses not to see it. He therefore went to his death.

Paul wrote that God is not mocked and that we reap what we sow. If I sow to the flesh I reap corruption and when I sow to the Spirit life eternal. Eventually the wages of sin are death but God permits a lot of sin to happen in the life of a person before that death manifests. You can go a long while thinking that God is blessing you or not harming you when you are sowing a harvest of corruption. For quite some time Saul was victorious where ever he went but not necessarily because the Lord was with him. God permitted Saul a variety of victories but the scriptures do not say that Saul prevailed in most cases "because the Lord was with him". Success is not an indication of the blessing of the Lord or of obedience. One of the most obedient saints was obedient through humiliating loss and failure, Job.

Now here is the part where I consider how this may or may not manifest in our lives. There are times when God allows us to fall upon hard times to test us. There are times where God brings disaster on us to rebuke us. There are times when God lets us simply be overtaken by the bad consequences of foolish decisions and habits of the heart we have not observed so as to repent from. But there are times in all these things where He is with us in our suffering, however small we may find it ourselves or however small others may tell us our suffering is compared to theirs or in general.

It can be too much like karma, of course, but as Ahab's deceit and abuse of God's name through his wife to get what he wanted was rebuked through lying prophets who enticed him to his death, we may find ourselves rebuked for our sins through someone else who sins in the same way. A proud man may be humbled by another proud man. A greedy woman may be shamed by the greed of another. A fearful mother may see the consequence of her legacy of fearfulness in her children. A man who finds his identity in his wife may discover how frail she is. Parents who invest their whole selves into their children discover what terrible gods those children make when they reveal they are simply human. Yet like Elijah God meets us both in what we believe to be our greatest failures as well as our greatest victories. God extends opportunities to repent even to Ahab, the most wicked of Samarian kings. God reveals through a prophet that Ahab's prophets are liars, even the one Zedekiah who claims to have heard a word from the Lord.

Instead of just reading this as a story of God crushing Ahab in fulfillment of an earlier oracle let's consider that even here God has displayed mercy. Ahab had the opportunity to confess his deceit, his murder, his wickedness, and to call off the battle God had ordained to fail. Instead of going into the battle he'd resolved to fight in disguise, as though that could thwart God's judgment, Ahab had the opportunity to choose to repent. Each of us may face a moment where one or two lonely voices warn us of the pending disaster we are choosing in contrast to a herd of people who tell us things are going to be fine. There are moments where the godliest thing you can do is doubt yourself and your virtues and your plans. There is a time for holy confidence and there is also a time for holy doubt, doubting that you are as smart or as able as you think you are.