4. Ahab's Syrian Wars (1 Kings 20)

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Frederic Leighton, 'Jezebel and Ahab Met by Elijah' (about 1863)
Frederic Leighton, 'Jezebel and Ahab Met by Elijah' (about 1863). Oil on canvas, 231x238 cm., Scarborough Art Gallery, Scarborough, England. Larger image.

The focus of our study is on Elijah himself. However, Ahab figures as one of the chief antagonists in Elijah's story. Ahab is an interesting case study in character and faith. This chapter gives us a fuller picture of his faltering faith as well as his actions that affect the destiny of both Ahab's monarchy and the nation of Israel itself.

This is a shorter lesson than most, but in it we'll consider Ahab's wars with Ben-Ben-Hadad, king of Aram (or Syria), with a special focus on the prophets God sends.

The kings of Israel and Judah fought many wars, some against each other, some defending themselves against expanding kingdoms around them, some in order to conquer neighboring kingdoms. Ahab was no exception. The Scripture mentions only three of his conflicts, but other historical records reveal others.141

In the times we're examining now, we get hints of an Assyrian expansion142 that will, a century later, culminate in the utter destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and exile of its people to Assyria (721 BC).

4.1 The Syrian Siege of Samaria (1 Kings 20:1-22)

Ben-Hadad, King of Aram (Syria)

King Ahab's Syrian Wars
King Ahab's Syrian Wars (Larger map)

The first battle described in our passage between Ben-Hadad and Ahab probably occurs about 855 BC.143]3

"Now Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his entire army. Accompanied by thirty-two kings with their horses and chariots, he went up and besieged Samaria and attacked it." (1 Kings 20:1)

Ben-Hadad is identified as "king of Aram." Aram is an older word for what we call Syria today.144 Here are the kings of Aram (Syria) during our period:

  • Ben-Hadad I (about 900-860, 1 Kings 15:1, 20)
  • Ben Hadad II (about 860-841, 1 Kings 20)
  • Hazael (about 841-806, 2 Kings 8:15)145

Ben-Hadad II is the king in our passage. He is a powerful regional king or suzerain, with many vassal kings under him. As vassals, these kings are required to muster armies and fight alongside their overlord

The Kurkh Monolith. It recounts the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC), Shalmaneser III's (859--824 BC) and names King Ahab as part of the Syrian alliance.
Ahab is a sometime vassal of the king of Syria, as recorded on the Kurkh Monolith. It recounts the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC), Shalmaneser III's (859--824 BC) and names King Ahab as part of the Syrian alliance.

Ahab also seems to be a sometime vassal of Ben-Hadad himself. Ahab calls him, "my lord, the king" and himself as "your servant" (verse 9). Apparently, Ahab has been trying to distance himself from his suzerain. Ben-Hadad's attack on Samaria may have been an attempt to force Ahab's submission and to shore up Syria's defenses on its western flank in the midst of increasing pressure from Assyria. (We know that a few years later Ahab fought as a vassal of Ben-Hadad against the Assyrians in the Battle of Qarqar in northern Syria in 853 BC.)146

The Syrian Attack on Samaria (1 Kings 20:1-12)-12)

"Now Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his entire army. Accompanied by thirty-two kings with their horses and chariots, he went up and besieged Samaria and attacked it." (1 Kings 20:1)

Ben-Hadad besieges Israel's capital city of Samaria. This doesn't seem to be an all-out battle yet, where the city is being locked down and starved into submission. At this stage, there have probably been some skirmishes and the looming threat of a vast army at its doors.147

Ben-Hadad, along with the combined armies of his vassals, of thirty-two city-state kings and tribal princes, begins the negotiations by demanding tribute and beautiful women, such as a suzerain might demand of his vassal.

"2b 'This is what Ben-Hadad says: 3 'Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.' 4 The king of Israel answered, "Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.'" (1 Ki 20:2--4)

Ahab agrees to the demand, but sends nothing as yet.

The next day Ben-Hadad demands to enter the city and sack it.

"Tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away."(1 Kings 20:6)

Ben-Hadad wants to utterly humiliate Ahab, who politely refuses this demand on the advice of his counselors. Ben-Hadad responds with a fierce oath to reduce the city to dust (verse 10). Ahab responds with a proverb:

"One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off." (vs. 11)

Don't boast until you actually win the battle. In the West, we have a similar proverb: "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." Ben-Hadad is enraged by this haughty response and calls for his soldiers to prepare to attack the city.

A Prophet Declares Victory (1 Kings 20:13-21)

At this point, when Israel's very existence is threatened, God sends a prophet to Ahab, Israel's corrupt king:

"13 Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab king of Israel and announced, 'This is what the Lord says: "Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord."'

14 'But who will do this?' asked Ahab.

The prophet replied, 'This is what the Lord says: "The young officers of the provincial commanders will do it."'

'And who will start the battle?' he asked.

The prophet answered, 'You will.'" (1 Kings 20:13-14)

The prophet isn't Elijah or he would be named. But this anonymous man of God enters the panicked king's court as the siege is about to begin with a word from Yahweh, Israel's true God.

He promises that the vast army surrounding the city will be defeated by Ahab's forces this very day! What an audacious statement! It's crazy! It's impossible! But it is the promise of God. Why would Yahweh intervene to do this impossible thing? The reason is clear:

"Then you will know that I am Yahweh" (verse 13b)

Just like the contest on Mount Carmel, Yahweh is contending for the soul of his people.

Ahab's Response to the Prophet (1 Kings 20:14-15)

I am fascinated by Ahab's reaction. He doesn't call the prophet crazy. He doesn't ask him for some proof that he is Yahweh's spokesman. He seems to assume that the prophet is legitimate. There is some kind of faith here. From the names of his sons,148 Ahab still seems to be a Yahweh-worshipper, at least nominally.

  • Ahaziah means "Yah[weh] has grasped (sustained)."
  • Jehoram or Joram means "Yah[weh] is exalted."
  • Joash means "Yah[weh] has bestowed."

Ahab doesn't question the prophet's declaration of victory. He only asks clarification of operational details: who, how, when? Who will accomplish this? Answer: "The young officers of the provincial commanders."149 These are the junior officers, who number 232 men, perhaps corresponding to the captains, and lieutenants in Western armies.150 Perhaps they are "shock troops" or "commandos," an "elite corps" that will form the first battle line or perhaps a decoy force. Behind them would be the king's army of 7,000 men.151

I am sure that Ahab's generals objected loudly to shifting leadership away from them. But Ahab follows the prophet's directions fully, with his forces setting out at noon before the opposing army is ready for them.

"19 The young officers of the provincial commanders marched out of the city with the army behind them 20 and each one struck down his opponent. At that, the Arameans fled, with the Israelites in pursuit. But Ben-Hadad king of Aram escaped on horseback with some of his horsemen." (1 Kings 20:19-20)

They overcome the leading edge of the vast army, and their successful foray panics the troops of the Syrian alliance which begin to flee. The Israelite army attacks as they retreat and cuts them down.

A Prophetic Warning (1 Kings 20:22)

After his victory, the prophet returns with another direction and prophecy from Yahweh:

"Strengthen your position and see what must be done, because next spring the king of Aram will attack you again." (1 Kings 20:22)

Why would Yahweh care enough about this vacillating, unfaithful king that God not only tells him how to win a battle, but encourages him to prepare for the next battle and tells him when it will occur? Mercy. That's the only explanation. God loves his errant people in spite of their corrupt rulers and the people's weak faith.

Q14. (1 Kings 20:13-14) Why would God send his prophet to instruct a corrupt king and an apostate people so they might win a battle against the Syrians? What purpose is stated in verse 13? What is Ahab's reaction? What does that tell you about his religious piety or faith?

4.2 The Syrians Attack Aphek (1 Kings 20:23-43)

Yahweh has miraculously delivered Israel from a vast army arrayed against the Syrians. But the Syrians aren't finished yet. They, too, prepare their forces for next spring's battle when the ground is firm enough for their chariots.

"The officials of the king of Aram advised him, 'Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they.'" (1 Kings 20:23)

King Ahab's Syrian Wars
King Ahab's Syrian Wars (Larger map)

These polytheists attribute the Israelite victory to a regional deity of the mountains who will be weak on flatter ground. It is an insult to Yahweh, King of kings and Lord of lords, Creator of all the earth (verse 28). It is true, however, that chariot warfare isn't particularly effective in hilly country. The flat plains and plateaus of the Near East are the sites of the great chariot battles of history. So Syria decides to confront Israel on the somewhat less hilly terrain around the contested city of Aphek, an Israelite city probably controlled by the Syrians at this time.152

The next spring when the two armies confront each other, the Israelites are again vastly outnumbered, as the author's word-picture conveys:

"The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside." (1 Kings 20:27)

It is portrayed as a David-and-Goliath kind of battle. The prophet appears again to let Israel know that Yahweh will fight for them.

"This is what the Lord says: 'Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.' " (1 Kings 20:28)

Notice again the purpose of the Lord's intervention: "And you will know that I am Yahweh!" (verse 28). God is seeking to firm up the faith of his people. It is the same goal as the confrontation on Mount Carmel:

"So these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again." (1 Kings 18:37)

Miraculously, when the battle is joined, the chariots seem to have no part in the battle. The Israelites slay thousands of the enemy, and the remaining Syrian army escapes into the city. There, the city walls fell in upon them (1 Kings 20:29-30a). This could have been a miraculous falling as at Jericho, but it could also be the result of a common siege tactic where sappers undermine the city walls so they collapse. At any rate, Israel wins an astounding victory against all odds.

This reminds me of Gideon. He starts out with 32,000 troops to fight the Midianite horde, and when God is finished sorting, Gideon ends up with a mere 300 men. Why? The Lord tells him the reason: "In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her" (Judges 7:2).

Q15. (1 Kings 20:23-30) Why do you think God seems to enjoy helping the Israelites in impossible situations? Why do you think God whittled Gideon's army down to 300 men? (Judges 7:1-8). What impossible situations are you facing in your life that need God's intervention?

Ahab Spares Ben-Hadad's Life (1 Kings 20:30b-34)

Ben-Hadad hides himself in an inner room within the fallen city. He decides to appeal to Ahab for mercy and dresses in mean goatshair or sackcloth with a rope around his head as a sign of humility and submission.153

Ben-Hadad's emissaries plead for the king's life, referring to him as "your servant." Ahab is surprised to hear that Ben-Hadad has survived, refers to him as "his brother" (an expression of equality compared to "servant"), and invites him to ride beside him in the king's chariot, a sign of honor.

Nevertheless, Ahab extracts important concessions from him. Ben-Hadad promises:

  1. Return of the Israelite cities that the Syrians had taken from Ahab's father Omri, and
  2. Special access to the rich markets of Damascus, fattening Ahab's own bank account with his cut of the profits.

On the basis of this treaty or covenant, Ahab releases Ben-Hadad.154

Obviously, Ahab believes that he has something to gain by freeing the powerful Ben-Hadad. Israel isn't powerful enough to extend control over Syria itself, but favors from Syria will strengthen Israel both militarily and economically -- that is the hope, at least. Ahab has gotten something tangible from Yahweh's victory. He is proud of his good fortune and shrewd bargain.

The Prophet Rebukes Ahab (1 Kings 20:35-43)

The Lord gives a word to "one of the sons of the prophets" -- a member of one of the band of prophets who seemed to live together. This seems to be a different prophet than the one who spoke to Ahab previously, but a prophet whom Ahab knows.

This unnamed prophet asks one of his fellow prophets to wound him for an "enacted prophecy" before King Ahab. When one fellow prophet refuses, he is killed by a lion. The next prophet he asks to wound him, obeys immediately!

The prophet disguises himself as a wounded soldier just back from the war against Syria, with a bandage over his eyes so the king won't recognize him.155 When the king passes by, the prophet calls to him and tells him his "story," which turns out to be a parable and a prophecy. The disguised prophet claims that he allowed a war-prisoner to escape through his own negligence. Still pretending to be a wounded soldier, he asks the king to intervene in his punishment. He tells the king of the penalty he is facing:

"If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver....
'That is your sentence,' the king of Israel said. 'You have pronounced it yourself.'" (1 Kings 20:40)

A talent of silver would be a huge fortune. Without the money, the wounded soldier faces execution. Ahab refuses to commute his sentence. This reminds me of Nathan's parable of coming before King David with the story of a rich man taking a poor man's ewe to feed his guests. David erupts with: "The man deserves to die." Nathan retorts, "You are the man," and reminds him of his murder of Uriah in order to cover up his affair with Uriah's wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-14).

The prophet has told his story and Ahab has refused mercy. Now the prophet removes his bandage and the king recognizes him as one of the prophets. The prophet declares:

"42 This is what the Lord says: 'You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.' 43 Sullen and angry,156 the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria." (1 Kings 20:42-43)

Devoted for Destruction (1 Kings 20:42)

God had placed Ben-Hadad under his ban. Apparently, the prophet who spoke of the victory in battle had told Ahab, since Yahweh is holding him responsible for not executing his command. Ben-Hadad was "devoted to destruction."157 Yahweh has apparently decreed Ben-Hadad's death because he had insulted Yahweh by comparing the Lord of Hosts to the gods of the hills and plains.

We see this kind of ban in the case of the taking of Jericho. Joshua declared:

"The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared." (Joshua 6:17)

The army was not to plunder the city, but completely destroy it. When a man named Achan took some plunder for his own use, guilt for it caused Israel to lose at the Battle for Ai. Achan and his family were found out and condemned (Joshua 7). While that may seem harsh to us, it was part of God's plan to root out pagan practices from Canaan.

Through his prophet, Yahweh accuses Ahab of freeing a man who was under God's ban. Instead of obeying, Ahab decides to use Ben-Hadad to his own personal and political advantage, and God holds him to account for his disobedience. Not only will he forfeit his life over this, God's people also will suffer for the king's disobedience.

A Matter of Obedience

The difference between a religious adherent and a disciple comes down to consistent obedience.

In a similar incident regarding things devoted to the Lord in 1 Samuel 15, King Saul had disregarded Yahweh's ban on the Amalekites. "Oh, I obeyed the Lord," says Saul. "I sacrificed the best of their flocks to the Lord." Samuel replies by the word of the Lord:

"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king." (1 Samuel 15:22--23)

Ahab believes enough in the Lord to obey God's prophet in breaking the Siege of Samaria using the 232 junior officers to lead the army, and he finds success (1 Kings 20:13-20). But when the prophet says something he does not want to do, regarding executing Ben-Hadad, Ahab ignores God's command and substitutes something that will bring his own short-term advantage (1 Kings 20:32-34). Discipleship is more than belief. It is the kind of loving devotion that motivates obedience. If we claim to be disciples, but won't live obedient lives, we are kidding ourselves, not God. Ahab's disobedience should serve as a lesson to us.

Let us remember the sin of Ahab in the Old Testament and of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11) -- of outward obedience combined with deceitful self-advancement -- and learn from it. As the writer of Hebrews warns us, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a Living God" (Hebrews 10:31, ESV).

Lessons for Disciples

Even though this chapter doesn't focus on Elijah, we can still discern several lessons, some explicit, others inferred.

  1. God will sometimes assist even corrupt rulers to aid his people and his purposes (1 Kings 20:13-21). Sometimes he assists corrupt rulers to punish others (1 Kings 20:28). We shouldn't mistake God's help as his endorsement of our lifestyle.
  2. Ahab obeys a prophet's instructions to relieve the siege of Samaria (1 Kings 20:14-15) and win the Battle of Aphek (1 Kings 20:23-29), but disobeys the prophet's command to execute Ben-Hadad (1 Kings 20:30-34). He is a sometime-believer in Yahweh, but not a devoted disciple. When his perceived self-interest conflicts with Yahweh's command, he disobeys.
  3. God seems to enjoy helping Israel in impossible situations to show that the battle belongs to the Lord and not to man (1 Kings 20:23-30).
  4. Ahab's failure to execute Ben-Hadad as a man devoted to destruction (1 Kings 20:42) reminds us that God is jealous of what is holy to him. We should not mess with what belongs to God.

Elijah: Rebuilding Yahweh's Altar, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.


Father, so often we take your holiness lightly. So easily disobey you. Forgive us. Correct us. Help us to be both devout believers and obedient disciples, for your Name's sake. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"This is what the Lord says: 'Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.'" (1 Kings 20:13, NIV)

"This is what the Lord says: 'Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.'" (1 Kings 20:28, NIV)

"This is what the Lord says: 'You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.'" (1 Kings 20:42, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[141] Ahab is mentioned on the Mesha Stele or Moabite Stone about 840 BC (Wikipedia article).

[142] Assyrian expansion in this period is under Ashur-nasir-alpi II (883-859 BC) and his successor Shalmaneser III (859-829 BC).

[143] Jones (1&2 Kings, p. 337) discusses three possible dating scenarios during Ahab's reign.

[144] Where the Hebrew text reads ʾarām, the Greek Septuagint translates it Syria. In the genealogies of nations of Genesis, Aram is listed as the fifth son of Shem (Genesis 10:22).

[145] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Paul D. Wegner, A History of Israel (Revised edition; B&H Academic, 2016), p. 462; R. K. Harrison, "Ben-Hadad," ISBE 1:458; R. K. Harrison, "Hazael," ISBE 2:635.

[146] The Kurkh stela later erected by Shalmaneser describes the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC) on the Orantes River in northwest Syria, about 65 miles (105 km.) southwest of Aleppo, just prior to Ahab's death in an unrelated battle. Mentioned in the stela in the alliance of kings that fought against the Assyrians is Hadadezer of Damascus who led the alliance (reigned about 841-806 BC). Another mentioned is our Ahab of Israel (reigned 873-853 BC), who is said to have sent 2,000 chariots and 10,000 men (though that number seems high).

[147] "Closed in on" (ESV), "besieged" (NIV, KJV), "laid siege to" (NRSV) is the Qal imperfect of ṣwr, "enclose, besiege" (Holladay 305, 3; TDOT #1898). "Attacked" (NIV, NRSV), "fought against" (ESV), "warred against" (KJV) is the Niphal imperfect of lāḥam, "come to close quarters, do battle with, fight" (Holladay 175; TWOT #1104).

[148] 1 Kings 22:26, 40; 2 Kings 1:17.

[149] The plural of the noun naʿar refers to a marriageable aged male while still single. Here, "boy, (man-)servant, weapon-bearer, plural, in a military context, "personal retinue" (as in 1 Samuel 21:3, 5) (Holladay 241, 3). Milton C. Fisher (TWOT #1389a) sees the meaning extended to "soldier" in this context. The noun śar is "chief, ruler, leader," often leader of a military group of specific size. (Holladay 354, 6). Mĕdînâ is "province, district" (Holladay 183).

[150] Wiseman thinks Ahab is putting forward these men for individual combat with an equal number of Ben-Hadad's men, though I'm not convinced (1&2 Kings, p. 177).

[151] Jones, 1&2 Kings, 2:343, citing de Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 221; Rice, 1&2 Kings, p. 168.

[152] Most scholars believe the site of Aphek is the village of Fiq near Kibbutz Afik, three miles east of the Sea of Galilee, the site of Tel Soreg. A more recent claim is for Tel 'En Gev/Khirbet el-'Asheq, a mound located within Kibbutz Ein Gev (Wikipedia article, "Aphek").

[153] Wearing sackcloth is a common sign of humility. However, the rope around the head is not seen elsewhere in the Old Testament. We don't know its exact meaning. It has been speculated to be the sign of willingness to be a porter, a Syrian manner of supplication, or a sign of poverty in that only the ropes of a Bedouin headdress are worn (Jones, 1&2 Kings, 2:345).

[154] "Treaty" (NIV, NRSV), "covenant" (ESV, KJV) is bĕrit, "agreement, alliance, covenant" (Holladay 48; TWOT #282a).

[155] "Headband" (NIV), "bandage" (ESV, NRSV), "ashes" (KJV) is ʾăpēr, "covering, bandage" (TWOT #151a), only occurs here in the Old Testament.

[156] "Sullen" (NIV), "vexed" (ESV), "resentful" (NRSV), "heavy" is sar, "stubborn, rebellious" (TWOT #1549a); "dejected, discouraged" (Holladay 260); "stubborn, resentful, sullen, implacable" (BDB 711). "Angry" (NIV), "sullen" (ESV, NRSV), "displeased" (KJV) is zāʿēp, "out of humor, vexed," from zāʿap, "fret, be sad, be wroth," with the idea of storming within oneself (Gerard Von Gronnigin, TWOT #569b); "raging" (Holladay 91). The same phrase is found in 1 Kings 21:4.

[157] The phrase, "whom I had determined should die" (NIV), "whom I had devoted to destruction" (ESV, NRSV), "whom I appointed to utter destruction" (KJV) uses the Hebrew noun ḥērem, "devoted thing, ban." The basic meaning is the exclusion of an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God (Leon J. Wood, TWOT #744a). Our word "harem" derives from a similar Arabic root, ḥarīm.

[158] Ahaziah means "Yah[weh] has grasped (sustained)." Jehoram or Joram means "Yah[weh] is exalted." Joash means "Yah[weh] has bestowed."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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