Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Pitiable Ahab

The Hebrew Bible presents Ahab as a sinful man like no other: “But there was none like Ahab which sold himself to work wickedness.” The Septuagint, on the other hand, does not contain such extreme words about Ahab's wickedness. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions of the story of Ahab contain his repentance/humbling after the prophet Elijah prophesies the grizzly outcome of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. However, in several places, the Septuagint reveals Ahab as a much more pitiable character than the Hebrew version does.
To begin with, after the confrontation on Mt. Carmel and the killing of all of the prophets of Baal, during the ensuing rain storm, the Hebrew Bible says that Ahab “rode and went” to Jezreel. But the Septuagint says that Ahab “mourned [wept] and went” to Jezreel (1 Sam./3 Kings 18:45). This reading shows a contrite Ahab, an Ahab weeping/mourning. After the awesome and public display of God’s power over the false prophets (who ate at his wife’s table), and during the first rain in three and a half years, Ahab is humbled, according to the Septuagint. The Hebrew reading, on the other hand, says nothing of Ahab’s emotional response to God’s manifestation of his power in response to Elijah’s prayer.
Then there is the matter of Naboth’s vineyard. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions are about the same except that the Hebrew places the story in Ch. 21 whereas the Septuagint places it in Ch. 20 (before the defeat of Benhadad in the Septuagint and after in the Hebrew). However there is a telling addition in the Septuagint’s version of Ahab’s response to the death of Naboth (or is it an omission in the Hebrew version?). In the Septuagint, after Jezebel tells Ahab of Naboth’s death, Ahab “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth.” Ahab’s initial response is repentant, humble, sorrowful; but not too sorrowful, for the next sentence says, “After that Ahab…took possession of the vineyard.” The Hebrew only says that he took possession of the vineyard. The Septuagint even emphasizes Ahab’s sorrowful response to Naboth’s death by mentioning it again at the end of the chapter (v. 27). The Hebrew only mentions Ahab’s tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and fasting in response to Elisha’s prophecy of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s demise. However, the Septuagint adds here, “He also put on sackcloth the day he killed Naboth the Jezreelite.”
A third difference between the two versions of this story is in verse 20/21:25. Here the Hebrew text includes the words, “But there was none like unto Ahab.” The Septuagint, on the other hand, not only doesn’t include these words, but adds the word “vainly/foolishly” to the text. Here is how it reads in the Septuagint: “Ahab sold himself to vainly/foolishly do what was evil.” The insertion of these words does not lessen Ahab’s guilt (at least from an Orthodox perspective). Ahab is guilty of doing what was evil. However, the Septuagint presents Ahab as pitiable because he acted foolishly or vainly (i.e. without reason or purpose: “emptily”) as he was led astray or incited by Jezebel.
These three variances in the story of Ahab as it is found in the Septuagint help us interpret other aspects of the story in a way that presents Ahab not as the worst of the worst, but as fool who has “sold himself” and was trapped. We begin with Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the King of Sidon. Sidon is the country just north of Israel and the buffer between Israel and Assyria, one of the major powers of the day; so Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was certainly one of political convenience. Although marriage to foreign women is condemned in the Law, one cannot be too harsh on Ahab because most of Israel’s kings before him, including David, married some foreign women. Because of the political nature of his marriage to Jezebel and his dependence on the King of Sidon (and ultimately because of his lack of faith in God), Ahab let’s Jezebel kill the Lord’s prophets and maintain at her table 950 false prophets. However, Ahab’s right-hand man, Obadiah, hides 100 of the Lord’s prophets in caves and feeds them during the drought. While Ahab lets his wife get away with murder out of fear of man, he lets his chief advisor get away with treachery, perhaps out of a weak, but present, fear of the Lord. Surely here is a weak and bifurcated man to be pitied.
How might an Orthodox Christian apply such a reading in his or her life? I think the first application is to realize that even the most wicked person may at some level “fear the Lord.” He may be trapped, or think he is trapped, in a terrible situation which compels him to acts that he regrets. Ahab wept, mourned and humbled himself at various times and sufficiently (according to both versions of the story) for God to postpone judgment; yet he is held responsible for all of the evil he lets his wife get away with, including the death of Naboth—which both versions make clear, in spite of Ahab’s initial mourning recorded only in the Septuagint. As Orthodox Christians, we must never assume that someone is too far gone to be touched by the Holy Spirit and a guilty conscience, even if that person is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even millions of people. There may indeed be such a thing as a conscience seared beyond hope, but only God knows. We don’t.
I think the second thing Orthodox Christians should take from the Septuagint’s telling of the story of Ahab is that “free choice” is never really very free; or at least it is only relatively free. How free is a fool? How free is a weak-willed man married to a strong-willed woman? How free is a double-minded man (c.f. James 1:8) who fears the Lord a little but fears man more? When I look at my own life, my mistakes, my weepings before the Lord, and my ensuing return to folly, I realize that I never want to sin. I am always enticed, deceived by my own rationalizations and driven by lusts and fear. It most often feels like an accident, a mercy from God, that I catch myself in sinful contemplation before it’s too late. I hear a word from a friend who might not have spoken, I read a passage that someone might not have written, I see an act of graciousness that might not have been. Somehow the Holy Spirit pricks my heart through one of His servants and I see my insanity, my foolishness, my Ahab-like tendencies. And of course this makes me wonder: how often have I refrained from speaking or writing or acting, how often have I let fear or laziness or hoplessness keep me from being a servant of the Holy Spirit in the life of one of my fellow Ahab-like brothers?
Lord have mercy on us sinners.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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