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Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit

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James A. Diamond

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Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit

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Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit

Ahab’s 400 court prophets all assure him that he will defeat Aram, but the prophet Micaiah tells him that these prophets are being enticed by a lying spirit, sent by YHWH himself, for the purpose of destroying Ahab. If Ahab had been willing to face his own position vis-a-vis God honestly, he would have known who was telling the truth.

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Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit

Micaiah and Zedekiah in front of Ahab, king of Israel, and Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. Jan Luyken, 1708. Rijksmuseum.nl

Deuteronomy’s Criteria for Determining the Authenticity of a Prophet

Deuteronomy 18 offers what seems like a straightforward test to distinguish false prophets from true prophets:

דברים יח:כא וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְ־הוָה. יח:כב אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבוֹא הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְ־הוָה בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.
Deut 18:21 And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by YHWH?” 18:22 if the prophet speaks in the name of YHWH and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by YHWH; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.

This test has serious limitations. Prophecies often address a looming crisis necessitating urgent either-or choices, but Deuteronomy’s test is wholly ineffectual because the truth of a prophet’s oracle could only be determined ex post facto, after the choice is already made.

This problem is illustrated most poignantly in two biblical episodes which pit true prophets against “false”[1] or misleading prophets (1 Kgs 22; Jer 27–28), where each offers diametrically opposing counsel in the name of YHWH about whether to engage an enemy in battle.[2] Yet the Bible seems to hold the kings in these stories accountable for not correctly distinguishing the true prophecy from the false. To understand why, let’s look closely at the story of Ahab and the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22.

An Ambiguous Mass Prophecy

The king of Israel (Ahab)[3] is preparing for war against Aram, to repatriate captured Israelite territory. He invites King Jehoshaphat of Judah to join the campaign, who agrees, but adds a stipulation:

מלכים א כב:ה וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשָׁפָט אֶל מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל דְּרָשׁ נָא כַיּוֹם אֶת דְּבַר יְ־הוָה.
1 Kgs 22:5 Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Please, first inquire of YHWH.”

The King of Israel agrees:

מלכים א כב:ו וַיִּקְבֹּץ מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַנְּבִיאִים כְּאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם הַאֵלֵךְ עַל רָמֹת גִּלְעָד לַמִּלְחָמָה אִם אֶחְדָּל וַיֹּאמְרוּ עֲלֵה וְיִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי בְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kgs 22:6 So the king of Israel gathered the prophets, about four hundred men, and asked them, “Shall I march upon Ramoth-gilead for battle, or shall I not?” They said, “March, and YHWH will deliver it into the king’s hands.”

Hebrew University Bible scholar Yair Zakovitch suggestively notes that this answer is ambiguous, akin to the nature of Delphic oracles. Which “king” is it? Its ambiguity allows for the possibility that “king” here refers to the Aramean king, and therefore portends Ahab’s defeat rather than Aram’s.[4] Ahab does not notice that the answer isn’t definitive, deafened to the prophecy’s nuance by his self-absorption.[5]

What Is Bothering Jehoshaphat?

Jehoshaphat is unimpressed with this mass prophecy, and pushes for further clarification:

מלכים א כב:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשָׁפָט הַאֵין פֹּה נָבִיא לַי־הוָה עוֹד וְנִדְרְשָׁה מֵאוֹתוֹ.
1 Kgs 22:7 Then Jehoshaphat asked, “Isn't there another prophet of YHWH here through whom we can inquire?”

The text doesn’t clarify why Jehoshaphat was unsatisfied. It is possible that, unlike Ahab, he notices the ambiguity and feels like they have not received a clear answer from YHWH, so he wishes to dig further. But there is another possibility.

Jehoshaphat specifically requests “a prophet” in the singular, which may point to a level of suspicion against the mass prophecy. This fits with an observation the rabbis make about Ahab in this story (b. Sanhedrin 89a):

הוה ליה למיבדק בדרבי יצחק דא"ר יצחק: סגנון אחד עולה לכמה נביאים ואין שני נביאים מתנבאין בסגנון אחד.
He should have examined [the prophets] in accordance with R. Isaac. For R. Isaac said: “One image (Gr. σίγνον, Lat. signum) may be sent to multiple prophets, but no two prophets will use the same imagery.”[6]

Thus, Ahab should have noted that all of the prophets were using the exact same wording, and remembered that prophecy does not work that way.[7]

Micaiah vs. Other Prophets

While he seems content to rely on the 400 prophets, the King of Israel admits to King Jehoshaphat that there is another prophet they can consult:

מלכים א כב:ח וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יְהוֹשָׁפָט עוֹד אִישׁ אֶחָד לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה מֵאֹתוֹ וַאֲנִי שְׂנֵאתִיו כִּי לֹא יִתְנַבֵּא עָלַי טוֹב כִּי אִם רָע מִיכָיְהוּ בֶּן יִמְלָה...
1 Kgs 22:8 And the king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is one more man through whom we can inquire of YHWH; but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune—Micaiah son of Imlah.”

Ahab makes it clear that he distrusts Micaiah, since Micaiah always prophesies bad things for Ahab, though Ahab doesn’t mention whether these negative prophecies are fulfilled or not. In keeping with his respect for prophets, Jehoshaphat takes umbrage at this comment:

מלכים א כב:ח ... וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשָׁפָט אַל יֹאמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֵּן.
1 Kgs 22:8 …But King Jehoshaphat said, “Don’t say that, Your Majesty.”

Seeing that King Jehoshaphat insists, Ahab sends for Micaiah, who is brought before the two kings:

מלכים א כב:ט וַיִּקְרָא מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל סָרִיס אֶחָד וַיֹּאמֶר מַהֲרָה מִיכָיְהוּ בֶן יִמְלָה. כב:י וּמֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוֹשָׁפָט מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה יֹשְׁבִים אִישׁ עַל כִּסְאוֹ מְלֻבָּשִׁים בְּגָדִים בְּגֹרֶן פֶּתַח שַׁעַר שֹׁמְרוֹן וְכָל הַנְּבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים לִפְנֵיהֶם.
1 Kgs 22:9 So the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.” 22:10 The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were seated on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, on the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.

We have here a double contrast: Two kings, one wicked one righteous, sitting on their thrones facing two sets of prophets, the massive group of false prophets and the singular true prophet.

The Prophecy of Zedekiah

Before we are told Micaiah’s prophecy, the text introduces one of the court prophets by name, and this time, we hear an individual message:

מלכים א כב:יא וַיַּעַשׂ לוֹ צִדְקִיָּה בֶן כְּנַעֲנָה קַרְנֵי בַרְזֶל וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה בְּאֵלֶּה תְּנַגַּח אֶת אֲרָם עַד כַּלֹּתָם.
1 Kings 22:11 Zedekiah son of Chenaanah had provided himself with iron horns; and he said, “Thus said YHWH: With these you shall gore the Arameans till they are made an end of.”

Zedekiah’s imagery of a goring ox is known from other biblical poetry, specifically from Moses’ final poem when blessing the Joseph tribes:

דברים לג:יז בְּכוֹר שׁוֹרוֹ הָדָר לוֹ וְקַרְנֵי רְאֵם קַרְנָיו בָּהֶם עַמִּים יְנַגַּח יַחְדָּו אַפְסֵי אָרֶץ וְהֵם רִבְבוֹת אֶפְרַיִם וְהֵם אַלְפֵי מְנַשֶּׁה.
Deut 33:17 Like a firstling bull in his majesty, he has horns like the horns of the wild-ox; with them he gores the peoples, the ends of the earth one and all. These are the myriads of Ephraim, those are the thousands of Manasseh.

Zedekiah may be consciously appealing to Ephraimite pride—the name Ephraim is often used synonymously with the northern kingdom.[8] While the mass prophesying of the 400 prophets is automatically suspect, how is Ahab supposed to react to that of Zedekiah?

Simon Devries, professor emeritus of Old Testament at The Methodist Theological School, argues that this prophecy too is ambiguous. The final phrase עַד כַּלֹּתָם, “until they are made an end of,” can technically refer to either the Israelites or the Arameans, since the “pronominal suffix attached to an infinitive may be subjective as well as objective.”[9]

Nevertheless, rabbinic exegesis sees Zedekiah as the paradigmatic example of the Mishnah’s description of a false prophet המתנבא מה שלא שמע, “who prophecies about that which he did not hear” (b. Sanhedrin 89a).[10]

The Prophets Adjust Their Message

At this point, Micaiah’s prophecy is delayed further by what seems like a repetition of the mass prophecy of the 400 prophets:

מלכים א כב:יב וְכָל הַנְּבִאִים נִבְּאִים כֵּן לֵאמֹר עֲלֵה רָמֹת גִּלְעָד וְהַצְלַח וְנָתַן יְ־הוָה בְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kings 22:12 And all the other prophets were prophesying similarly, “March upon Ramoth-gilead and triumph! YHWH will deliver it into the king’s hands.”

This time, the prophets add the word “and triumph” (והצלח), taking away the ambiguity and giving Ahab the message he wants.

The Messenger Warns Micaiah

Far from making Ahab suspicious that perhaps his court prophets, including Zedekiah, are just telling him what he wants to hear, he is happy with this news. Certainly, that is the impression that the messenger gets, since he kindly offers Micaiah some advice:

מלכים א כב:יג וְהַמַּלְאָךְ אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ לִקְרֹא מִיכָיְהוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה נָא דִּבְרֵי הַנְּבִיאִים פֶּה אֶחָד טוֹב אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ יְהִי נָא דבריך [דְבָרְךָ] כִּדְבַר אַחַד מֵהֶם וְדִבַּרְתָּ טּוֹב.
1 Kgs 22:13 The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him: “Look, the words of the prophets are with one accord favorable to the king. Let your word be like that of the rest of them; speak a favorable word.”

This comment gives us further insight into how Ahab runs his court: From the messenger’s perspective, the job of court prophet is not to consult YHWH and bring the message, whatever it may be, but to make the king happy. Micaiah, however, does not see it that way:

מלכים א כב:יד וַיֹּאמֶר מִיכָיְהוּ חַי יְ־הוָה כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר.
1 Kgs 22:14 Micaiah answered: “As YHWH lives, I will speak only what YHWH tells me.”

The conversation here is reminiscent of the exchange Balaam the prophet has with King Balak of Moab in Numbers. There too, the Moabite king seems to have been working with the false notion that Balaam’s job is to prophecy what the king who hired him wants to hear—in that case, to announce the cursing of the Israelites by Balaam’s god:

במדבר כג:יא וַיֹּאמֶר בָּלָק אֶל בִּלְעָם מֶה עָשִׂיתָ לִי לָקֹב אֹיְבַי לְקַחְתִּיךָ וְהִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתָּ בָרֵךְ. כג:יב וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמַר הֲלֹא אֵת אֲשֶׁר יָשִׂים יְ־הוָה בְּפִי אֹתוֹ אֶשְׁמֹר לְדַבֵּר.
Num 23:11 Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!” 23:12 He replied, “I can only repeat faithfully what YHWH puts in my mouth.”

Like Balaam, Micaiah clarifies in advance that he says only what YHWH tells him to, something Ahab dislikes—as he commented earlier to Jehoshaphat—since these messages are negative.

Micaiah’s Prophecy

When Micaiah appears before Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat, the former begins by asking him the same question he asked the others, but Micaiah responds coyly, quoting exactly what the others said:

מלכים א כב:טו וַיָּבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵלָיו מִיכָיְהוּ הֲנֵלֵךְ אֶל רָמֹת גִּלְעָד לַמִּלְחָמָה אִם נֶחְדָּל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו עֲלֵה וְהַצְלַח וְנָתַן יְ־הוָה בְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kgs 22:15 When he came before the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we march upon Ramoth-gilead for battle, or shall we not?” He answered him, “March and triumph! YHWH will deliver it into the king’s hands.”

Here already, Micaiah appears to be trying to teach a lesson to the king, since Ahab knows that Micaiah is not telling him the truth.

מלכים א כב:טז וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הַמֶּלֶךְ עַד כַּמֶּה פְעָמִים אֲנִי מַשְׁבִּעֶךָ אֲשֶׁר לֹא תְדַבֵּר אֵלַי רַק אֱמֶת בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.
1 Kgs 22:16 The king said to him, “How many times must I adjure you to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of YHWH?”

Here, the king can see that Micaiah is simply telling him what he wants to hear and demands he speak the truth and not sugarcoat it. Even so, he doesn’t seem to question whether his other prophets may also be just saying what he wants to hear; he compartmentalizes, treating Micaiah one way and the rest of the prophets another way, further implying that deep down, he knows the difference.

Micaiah accepts the task and tells what he saw in a vision, which turns out to be the opposite of the other prophets:

מלכים א כב:יז וַיֹּאמֶר רָאִיתִי אֶת כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל נְפֹצִים אֶל הֶהָרִים כַּצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר אֵין לָהֶם רֹעֶה וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לֹא אֲדֹנִים לָאֵלֶּה יָשׁוּבוּ אִישׁ לְבֵיתוֹ בְּשָׁלוֹם.
1 Kgs 22:17 Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd; and YHWH said, ‘These have no master; let everyone return to his home in safety.’”

Now that the king has an alternative answer, he has an opportunity to choose which advice to follow. Yet instead of interpreting the debate as evidence that Micaiah’s prophecy is truly a message from YHWH and the rest of the prophets are sycophants—or, as we shall see shortly, deluded—he decides to go the other route and interpret Micaiah as the one lying for personal reasons:

מלכים א כב:יח וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יְהוֹשָׁפָט הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ לוֹא יִתְנַבֵּא עָלַי טוֹב כִּי אִם רָע.
1 Kgs 22:18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat: “Didn’t I tell you that he would not prophesy good fortune for me, but only misfortune?”

He thus discounts Micaiah’s words as reflecting Micaiah’s personal bias against Ahab.

A Lying Spirit Among the Prophets

Seeing Ahab’s reaction, Micaiah responds with a further prophetic vision, meant to explain to Ahab why he his court prophets are misleading him, offering several subtle critiques of Ahab’s sinful behavior.[11]

Heavenly and Human Courts

Micaiah relates his vision of the proceedings of a heavenly court, indicating that he is a true prophet, privy to the divine council:

מלכים א כב:יט וַיֹּאמֶר לָכֵן שְׁמַע דְּבַר יְ־הוָה רָאִיתִי אֶת יְ־הוָה יֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ וְכָל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם עֹמֵד עָלָיו מִימִינוֹ וּמִשְּׂמֹאלוֹ.
1 Kgs 22:19 [Micaiah] said, “Therefore, hear the word of YHWH! I saw YHWH seated upon His throne, with all the host of heaven standing in attendance to the right and to the left of Him. [12]

This parallels what Micaiah himself saw when approaching Ahab (v. 10):

מלכים א כב:י וּמֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוֹשָׁפָט מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה יֹשְׁבִים אִישׁ עַל כִּסְאוֹ מְלֻבָּשִׁים בְּגָדִים בְּגֹרֶן פֶּתַח שַׁעַר שֹׁמְרוֹן וְכָל הַנְּבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים לִפְנֵיהֶם.
1 Kgs 22:10 The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were seated on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, on the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.

This parallel likely implies that what is really happening in the lower court can only be understood properly by seeing what is occurring in the heavenly court. Micaiah may even be accusing Ahab of confusing himself with God, or at least appropriating God’s prerogatives as his own.[13]

The judicial setting of a heavenly tribunal brings to mind the previous chapter (21), in which, seeing that Ahab is distraught when Naboth refuses to sell him his vineyard,[14] his wife Jezebel conspires in Ahab’s name to present false testimony against Naboth before a tribunal, after which he is executed and his property escheated to the Crown. Notably, Jezebel’s characterization of her falsified charge against Naboth as בֵּרַכְתָּ אֱלֹהִים וָמֶלֶךְ, “you cursed God and the king” (1Kgs 21:10), implies that an offense against the king is synonymous with one against God.[15]

Who Will Entice Ahab? (מִי יְפַתֶּה אֶת אַחְאָב)

Micaiah continues by narrating what he sees occurring in the heavenly court:

מלכים א כב:כ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה מִי יְפַתֶּה אֶת אַחְאָב וְיַעַל וְיִפֹּל בְּרָמֹת גִּלְעָד וַיֹּאמֶר זֶה בְּכֹה וְזֶה אֹמֵר בְּכֹה. כב:כא וַיֵּצֵא הָרוּחַ וַיַּעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי אֲפַתֶּנּוּ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו בַּמָּה. כב:כב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵצֵא וְהָיִיתִי רוּחַ שֶׁקֶר בְּפִי כָּל נְבִיאָיו וַיֹּאמֶר תְּפַתֶּה וְגַם תּוּכָל צֵא וַעֲשֵׂה כֵן.
1 Kgs 22:20 YHWH asked, ‘Who will entice Ahab so that he will march and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said thus and another said thus, 22:21 until a certain spirit came forward and stood before YHWH and said, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ YHWH asked him. 22:22 And he replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You will entice and you will prevail. Go out and do it.’

The Micaiah story is not unique in describing God as using this strategy to fool the people. Deuteronomy 13:4 claims that YHWH will send prophets, speaking in the name of other gods, to test Israel’s loyalty.[16] Furthermore, in the story of Isaiah’s commission, God explicitly tells Isaiah that he wants him to convince the people of Judah of falsehood so that he can punish them (Isa 6:9–13).[17] Ezekiel also speaks of prophets being enticed by God:

יחזקאל יד:ט וְהַנָּבִיא כִי יְפֻתֶּה וְדִבֶּר דָּבָר אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָה פִּתֵּיתִי אֵת הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא וְנָטִיתִי אֶת יָדִי עָלָיו וְהִשְׁמַדְתִּיו מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Ezek 14:9 And if a prophet is enticed and does speak a word to such a man, it was I YHWH who seduced that prophet; I will stretch out My hand against him and destroy him from among My people Israel.

Although typically translated “entice,” “seduce” may be a better translation,[18] since the root פ.ת.י/ה has a negative valence.[19] Deuteronomy uses the term to describe what causes a person to turn to alien Gods (Deut. 11:16), thus betraying what is commonly portrayed in the Bible as a spousal relationship between God and Israel. In the Micaiah story, it is used in the opposite direction—Ahab is enticed (or seduced) by God to see the wrong image, or at least to misunderstand what he is seeing.

The word enticement has sexual connotations and is usually used to describe one side taking advantage of the other’s weakness, whether it is an adult man seducing a young girl (Exod 22:15) or Samson’s wife coaxing his secret out of him (Judg 14:15, 16:5), though it can also refer to robbers fooling gullible people (Prov 16:29) or spies flattering a king (2Sam 3:25).

The term, properly understood, thus suggests that Ahab is being led to believe that he will win because that is what he wants to believe. From his appropriation of Naboth’s garden in the previous chapter, we see that Ahab is used to getting what he wants, and his court prophets know this too. It is this trait that God will take advantage of to catch him and lead him to his destruction, Micaiah warns.

Lying Spirit (רוח שקר)

Micaiah ends by summing up the consequences of the heavenly court’s decision:

א מלכים כב:כג וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה נָתַן יְ־הוָה רוּחַ שֶׁקֶר בְּפִי כָּל נְבִיאֶיךָ אֵלֶּה וַי־הוָה דִּבֶּר עָלֶיךָ רָעָה.
1 Kgs 22:23 So YHWH has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours; for YHWH has decreed disaster upon you.”

The phrase “lying spirit” (רוח שקר) is unique to this story, but it partakes in the notion that prophets’ utterances reflect the divine “spirit” (רוח) bestowed on them. The biblical text thus suggests that these 400 other prophets are true, albeit misleading, prophets.

The rabbis, likely responding the problematic notion that YHWH can use prophets to mislead people, argue that these prophets still have a choice about whether to be misled or not (b. Sanhedrin 89a):

מאי הוה ליה למעבד? רוח נבות אטעיתיה! דכתיב... מאי צא אמר רב צא ממחיצתי, דכתיב דובר שקרים [לא יכון לנגד עיני]. מאי רוח א"ר יוחנן זה רוחו של נבות היזרעאלי.
What should he [Zedekiah] have done? The spirit of Naboth led him astray! For it is written (1Kgs 22:19–23)… What does “go” (v. 22) mean? Rav said: “[Zedekiah should have said to the lying spirit:] ‘Get out of my space!’” For it is written (Ps 101:7): “He who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes.” What does “spirit” mean? Rabbi Yohanan said: “It is the spirit of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

Thus, prophets can be seduced into presenting false predictions, but they are not forced. Moreover, by calling the lying spirit “Naboth’s spirit,” the rabbis clarify that God’s trick is a direct result of Ahab’s sinfulness; Micaiah’s subtle hints are meant to remind Ahab of his sin with Naboth. Ahab should thus be aware that the spirit of his victim will find him out, and that God is enticing him to his destruction on account of this sin.[20]

This is exactly what Elijah warned him of in the previous chapter, that God would have him killed for the sin against Naboth,[21] where Ahab responds by saying הַמְצָאתַנִי אֹיְבִי, “have you found me, my enemy?” Again, Ahab interprets the prophetic rebuke as the reflection of personal enmity instead of as a message from God.

The lying spirit (ruach sheker) also conjures Ahab’s own “perverse spirit” (ruach sarah) (21:5) that led to Naboth’s murder.[22] Micaiah’s reference to a “lying spirit” in a judicial-like setting should have conjured up Ahab’s own inducement of perjured testimony to convict Naboth and made him think twice about ignoring Micaiah’s warning. Instead, it merely offends him. Ahab ultimately has Micaiah locked up and heads out to war, where he is killed on the battlefield, just as Micaiah’s prophecy foretold.

Ahab Fails to Discern Truth from Falsehood

Deuteronomy’s description of how to determine true from false prophecy by waiting to see the outcome would have been of no use to Ahab. Nevertheless, the story assumes that Ahab should have been able to know which prophet was telling the truth.

The king is given multiple clues to help him discern the hard truth that the 400 prophets, including Zedekiah, are being seduced by a lying spirit. This lying spirit, however, is not from a capricious God. Rather, when understood in conjunction with the previous chapter, to which it is linguistically connected, it results from Ahab’s attitude of using others as instruments for personal benefit.

The message of Micaiah goes unheeded, and the story ends as the reader expects, with Ahab’s death on the battlefield. Ultimately, the lying spirit that enticed him to this folly was himself.

Published

August 20, 2020

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Last Updated

September 19, 2020

Footnotes

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Prof. James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies and Medieval Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto, and an LL.M. from New York University’s Law School. He is the author of Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider and, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon.