The Pitiable Ahab

by Fr. Michael Gillis

But if it is you who have to sit in judgment on someone pray to the Lord to give you a tender heart, which the Lord loves, and your judgment will then be sound; but if you judge purely according to deeds, there will be errors in your judgment, and you will not be pleasing to the Lord. The purpose of judgment must be that the one you are judging should mend his ways, and you must be compassionate with every soul then peace will reign in mind and soul. Let us live in peace and love. St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain

The Old Testament used in the Orthodox Church is the Greek Septuagint, translated from Hebrew from about 250 to 100 BC. It is similar in content to the Latin Vulgate, but based on an earlier text that in many ways differs from the Hebrew text that exists today. Not only does the Septuagint contain more books than the Hebrew Bible, but the books that they have in common are sometimes slightly different. Some of these differences give a fuller picture of the lives and struggles of the biblical characters. One such character is Ahab, king of Israel, who in the Hebrew version of the story seems to suffer no remorse for the wickedness promoted by his infamous wife, Jezebel. While both versions of the story present Ahab as a culpable participant in Jezebel's murders and other sins (because as king he could have stopped her, and, in at least one case, he benefitted from her act of murder), today's Hebrew version does not reveal Ahab's feelings about these acts. The Septuagint version shows a more complex picture of Ahab.

I would like to point out some of these differences and reflect on how an Orthodox Christian might interpret this other telling of Ahab's life. Particularly, I assert that many of us may see a bit of Ahab in ourselves, even as we are called be Obadiah, the servant of Ahab who acted in ways that brought salvation.

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. The words, "But there was none like Ahab" are not in the Septuagint. We will come back to this later. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions of the story of Ahab contain his repentance/humbling after the prophet Elijah prophesies the grisly end 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, primarily because the Septuagint shows elements of Ahab's remorse.

After the confrontation on Mount Carmel and the killing of all of the prophets of Baal and during the ensuing rainstorm, 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 and 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, while the Hebrew reading 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 afterward 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. The Hebrew only says that he took possession of the vineyard, which the Septuagint says too, but after a period of mourning. The Septuagint even emphasizes Ahab's sorrowful response to Naboth's death by mentioning it again at the end of the chapter (v. 27). Here it is repeated that "he also put on sackcloth the day he killed Naboth the Jezreelite." Ahab himself did not commit the murder Jezebel arranged it, only saying to Ahab, "I will get you the vineyard." Ahab is nevertheless held responsible, as though he, himself, had killed Naboth. The Septuagint makes clear that Ahab mourned his indirect participation in murder.

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" (as mentioned above); the Septuagint 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 vainly/foolishly to do what was evil." The insertion of this word does not lessen Ahab's guilt. Ahab is guilty of doing what was evil, or allowing what is evil to be done. 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 a fool who has "sold himself" and become 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 Jezebel kill the Lord's prophets and maintain at her table 950 false prophets. However, Ahab's right-hand man, Obadiah, hides a hundred of the Lord's prophets in caves and feeds them during the three-year drought. While Ahab lets his wife get away with murder, perhaps 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 man to be pitied.

How might an Orthodox Christian apply such a reading of the life of Ahab to his or her life? I think the first step 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 (or to allow acts) that he regrets. While we can sometimes judge certain actions as evil, we cannot judge the actors so easily. Ahab wept, mourned and humbled himself at various times and sufficiently so (according to both versions of the story) that God postponed judgment on Israel (20/21: 29); yet, he is held responsible for all of the evil he lets his wife get away with, including the death of Naboth.

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. God knows we don't. While Ahab let his wife murder almost all of the Lord's prophets, he also let Obadiah save a hundred prophets in a time of famine. One act does not "balance" the other. But that is not my point. Ahab will stand before God and answer for the murders he allowed. However, in the midst of an evil situation one that Ahab is partially responsible for Ahab at least weeps over his failures and allows someone to lessen the destruction.

When we speak prophetically to those responsible for terrible deeds, we must keep in mind that our goal is not to condemn the perpetrator, or the one we assume is the perpetrator, or the one who is the most visible among the perpetrators. Let God be the judge. Our job is to shine light, to show a way out, to lessen evil wherever possible.

How are we to know whether or not some modern-day Ahab, who could destroy everything, might find a way to allow our Obadiah-like actions to save some?

The first step toward being in an Obadiah-like position is to pity rather than condemn those who do evil. After all, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, "free choice" is never really very free at least only relatively free. How free is a man like Ahab, a fool, a weak-willed man married to a strong-willed woman, a double-minded man (see James 1:8) who fears the Lord a little but fears man more? Sure, he is guilty, but he is also pitiable and pity is a species of love, and love casts out fear and makes possible the ministry of righteous Obadiah even in the court of wicked Jezebel and foolish Ahab.

The second direction this Septuagint telling of the life Ahab cuts is in the direction of our own hearts. It is very easy to be a weak-willed fool who gets sucked into oppressive behavior. I have never been a king or a president or a gun owner. I have not been tempted to genocide, and I'm glad I haven't, for when a man cut into a long line in front of me at an airport, I didn't fare too well. I have also succumbed to buying lower priced goods in non-union stores just because it was more convenient. I didn't even need to save money. And, yes, there have been times when I have spent more on pet food than on alleviating homelessness.

In my own way, I am guilty of violence. My position of relative economic and political weakness makes my sins look minuscule in my own eyes compared to the sins of the powerful. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Perhaps we will have more pity on the powerful fools, if we recognize our own weak-willed foolishness. And perhaps, if we learn to weep for our own sins, we will be able to discern the weeping of the more powerful fools whose degree of sin reflects their powerful positions. And perhaps, just perhaps, if we cooperate with the grace of repentance in our own lives, God will grant us the opportunity to speak and act in prophetic ways that will open the gates of repentance to others.

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 fears. It most often feels like an accident, a mercy from God, that I catch myself 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 occurred. 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 hopelessness keep me from being a servant of the Holy Spirit in the life of one of my fellow Ahab-like brothers?

Fr. Michael Gillis is the managing editor of Again Magazine and pastor of Holy Nativity Antiochian Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, where he lives with his wife Bonnie, an iconographer.

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53