Wibble Wednesday: The Caves of Steel (1 Kings 16–17)

We’re actually nearing the end of 1 Kings, and getting into a fairly extensive narrative about a single king.

Short snarky summary: Israel, continuing to be screwed up, goes through an awful lot of kings. The one who manages to end up on top is an idolator, so the entire nation is punished.


The text will focus exclusively on Israel for a while at this point. When we last left, the rebel Baasha had overthrown the House of Jeroboam and continued to induce sinfulness in Israel (the actual sin isn’t named, but presumably we’re meant to imagine the usual unspeakable acts). So, just as with every previous evil king, God’s decided to depose Baasha. I don’t know why he never grooms someone better for the job instead of just destroying them on the off chance the next guy might be OK. But I’m starting to think God kind of enjoys the smiting. Certainly if he wanted kingdoms run by good and righteous people, he could achieve that with a lot less vengeance.

Anyways, God announces his plans to destroy the house of Baasha through the prophet Jehu (confusingly, a different character by the same name will become relevant in a few generations). Baasha himself reigns for twenty-four years, so God’s revenge is evidently slow, and it’s meted out on Baasha’s son Elah, because God’s aim is kind of lousy. Elah’s captain of chariots Zimri murders a drunken Elah early in his reign, usurps his throne, and then proceeds to kill Elah’s entire family. Granted, that’s exactly what Baasha did to Jeroboam’s family line, which probably ties into the usual Deuteronomic theme of Judaic kingship: the kings of Judah are descended, despite occasional meaderings, in a more or less direct line from David, whereas the kings of Israel, less than a century into Israel’s existence, are already on their third dynasty, and who knows who their ancestors were?

Then again, it might be a bit of an exaggeration to call the line of Zimri a dynasty at all, since a mere seven days after his usurpation, the rival commander Omri declared his own kingship marched his own forces on Zimri, conquering the royal city of Tirzah while Zimri himself burned to death in the palace. Yet another splinter group apparently followed a completel obscure claimant named Tibni, but at the end of the whole dust-up, Zimri and Tibni were both dead and Omri sat on the throne uncontested.

To absolutely no reader’s surprise, the authors condemn Omri as a bad and sinful king. In fact, he’s apparently the worst yet! God really isn’t very good at getting the guys he actually likes into positions of power. Omri apparently established Samaria, which is a bit of a dogwhistle: in latter Jewish history, Samaria was inetricably linked with the reviled Samaritan sect, an ethnic and cultural group well outside the mainstream of Judaism and thus detested both by the Deuteronomic authors and their intended audience. So linking Omri with a Samarian (or Samaritan) bent is not meant to reflect well on him.

Despite Omri’s sins, God doesn’t do the usual prognostications of wrath (spoiler alert: the house of Omri’s going to end up destroyed anyways); instead, Omri dies peacefully, leaving the throne to his son Ahab.

And at last we come to a pretty familiar, although not very popular name. Ahab is, of course, most strongly associated with Moby-Dick‘s obsessive captain, but the Biblical figure of that name doesn’t come across as an obsessive. He is, however, in a twist which shocks and surprises readers, a bad king! In fact, he’s worse than all the others! Even Omri, who himself was worse than all the others! We’re all facing wickedness exhaustion at this point, so the authoors finally throw us a bone and tell us about Ahab’s specific sins. He not only countenances idolworship, but actually builds a temple and a grove to the god Baal, presumbly at the instigation of his foreign (and thus evil) wife Jezebel.

Chapter 16 ends with a coda which I suppose is mean to further call attention to Ahab’s wicked inattention to Gods laws, for he dispatches a man named Hiel (a character who hasn’t appeared before, and I don’t think he will again; exactly who he is in the power structure of Israel isn’t at all clear) to fortify Jericho. Hiel’s firstborn son perishes as the work begins, and his eldest with the hanging of the gates (presumaly the final act of the fortification). It’s not clear whether the intervening sons die in between, but the whole episode is presented as a fulfillment of a prophecy of Joshua’s. It’s goot that my Tanakh is annotated, because here I get a footnote reference back to Joshua 6:26, wherein Jushua curses the fortifier of Jericho with this exact punishment. Contextually, I read both Joshua’s original curse and its fulfillment as not having to do with fortificartion so much as rebuilding: with regard to Jericho, the first city to fall to the Israelite invasion, Joshua adopted quite a “scorched earth” policy, neither taking spoils nor sparing citizens nor, apparently, ever having anything to do with the site of the destroyed city ever again. But here it reads just as a cheap shot: Ahab’s so very evil that he flouts God’s word and in so doing curses his own agent.

In Chapter 17 we meet Ahab’s primary antagonist, a figure at least as well-known as Ahab himself: Elijah the Tishbite. Incidentally, with Elijah and Jezebel around, it’s probably as good a time as any to mention that, even though he’s not yet come up in the chronology, the reigning king in Judah at this time was Jehoshaphat, so Isaac Asimov took all the Biblical references in his “Robot” series from a very chronologically tight section of history. Anyways, Elijah warns Ahab that God will strike Israel with drought and then flees to Transjordan, where, in a colorful bit of stage-setting, he is fed by ravens which bring him bread and meat. This doesn’t last very long, because the stream where Elijah’s camped out runs dry (which, y’know, he should’ve seen coming). Elijah then decamps, on God’s orders, to hole up with a widow in Sidon. Sidon actually seems a kind of unusual choice here: back in Solomon’s reign we got a distinct impression that Lebanon would have been in a quasi-colonial vassalage to Israel, but it’s hard to imagine that state surviving the Israel-Judah split and resultant weakening of both states. So presumably the Sidonians are not Israelites, not worshipers of the Israelite God, and presumably aren’t all that friendly towards Israelites (I suppose they might be indifferent or friendly to Judahites; they share no border so war is unlikely, and they have a common foe in Israel). Anyways, the widow to whom Elijah has been sent can’t really help him; she has barely enough for herself, and her household is on the brink of starvation, but Elijah promises a miracle, that her near-empty jars of flour and oil will never give out. This then happens, and the whole household (the widow, her son, and Elijah) can survive.

The final episode of Chapter 17 perhaps puts a different context on the above-noted likelihood that the Sidonians aren’t actually of Elijah’s religion. The widow’s son dies, and several episodes following this suggest specifically that Elijah is serving in some sort of embassy or evangelical position towards the widow, because she reproaches him specifically for “recalling her sin” with the death of her son. The sin in question is hardly clear, but in context it is at least plausible to read it as her former and perhaps continuing allegiance to other gods (and, really, that’s the only sin the God of Israel seems to care about). When Elijah, who has in this one chapter performed pretty much more amazing feats than anyone since Moses, convinces God to return the boy’s soul to his body, we see another bit of evidence that the widow is being actively converted, because her response to Elijah is a declaration of new-found faith. Now, it’s still not clear why Elijah is sent on a ministry to the Sidonians. I’m pretty sure it never comes up again.

But next week he’s going to confront this idolworship in Israel head-on.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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