1 Kings 15:32-16:34 Unrest in Israel

1 Kings 15: 32- 16:7 King Baasha of Israel

32 There was war between Asa and King Baasha of Israel all their days.

 33 In the third year of King Asa of Judah, Baasha son of Ahijah began to reign over all Israel at Tirzah; he reigned twenty-four years. 34 He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of Jeroboam and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit.

16:1 The word of the LORD came to Jehu son of Hanani against Baasha, saying, 2 “Since I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel, and you have walked in the way of Jeroboam, and have caused my people Israel to sin, provoking me to anger with their sins, 3 therefore, I will consume Baasha and his house, and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat. 4 Anyone belonging to Baasha who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the field the birds of the air shall eat.”

5 Now the rest of the acts of Baasha, what he did, and his power, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? 6 Baasha slept with his ancestors, and was buried at Tirzah; and his son Elah succeeded him. 7 Moreover the word of the LORD came by the prophet Jehu son of Hanani against Baasha and his house, both because of all the evil that he did in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger with the work of his hands, in being like the house of Jeroboam, and also because he destroyed it.

King Baasha of Israel reigns for twenty-four years, but the only real information that First Kings relays to us is the length of his reign, that he is the recipient of a prophetic denouncement, and “the stereotypical data including a predictable negative verdict of as a Northern king.” (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 197) This is reported as a time of continual strife in Israel, but the battle lines do not seem to change since they will be engaged with the same Philistine city twenty-five years later. Although it is unclear whether Baasha’s father is the aged prophet Ahijah, it is clear that he will receive a nearly identical prophetic utterance as his father gave to Jeroboam. Like Jeroboam he will finish his reign and be buried, but his son’s reign will be short and in a violent overthrow the line of Baasha will end. If Baasha is the son of Ahijah the prophet[1] it is even more disturbing that upon assuming the mantle of king he changes to follow the path of Jeroboam nor changes after the declaration from Jehu son of Hannai. It is clear that prophets in Israel will be instrumental in the rise and fall of dynasties that are, in the perspective of First Kings, a result of the God of Israel’s actions.

The brief reports on the five kings in this chapter of First Kings quickly bring us to the next major focal point. The prophets have already emerged in the life of Israel, but this succession of kings and their decline in covenantal faithfulness will lead to the emergence of the two great prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Although the books of 1 and 2 Kings are named for the progression of kings, the kings will often be the antagonists while the prophets will be the protagonists of the narrative (especially in Israel).

1 Kings 16: 8-14 The Brief Reign of King Elah of Israel

8 In the twenty-sixth year of King Asa of Judah, Elah son of Baasha began to reign over Israel in Tirzah; he reigned two years. 9 But his servant Zimri, commander of half his chariots, conspired against him. When he was at Tirzah, drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza, who was in charge of the palace at Tirzah, 10 Zimri came in and struck him down and killed him, in the twenty-seventh year of King Asa of Judah, and succeeded him.

11 When he began to reign, as soon as he had seated himself on his throne, he killed all the house of Baasha; he did not leave him a single male of his kindred or his friends. 12 Thus Zimri destroyed all the house of Baasha, according to the word of the LORD, which he spoke against Baasha by the prophet Jehu — 13 because of all the sins of Baasha and the sins of his son Elah that they committed, and that they caused Israel to commit, provoking the LORD God of Israel to anger with their idols. 14 Now the rest of the acts of Elah, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?

The house of Jeroboam and the house of Baasha are portrayed in parallel methods in the book of Kings. Both houses receive a nearly identical prophetic judgment that will be delayed until the reign of their sons. Both sons will reign roughly two years (technically Elah will reign less than two years before he is assassinated). Both houses will be brutally massacred by the new house seizing power. Elah is portrayed drinking with some of his forces while the remnant of the forces of Israel are engaged in the siege of Gibbethon. There is an implicit criticism in the text for Elah who stays behind in Tirzah drinking himself drunk while his forces are engaged in warfare. Ironically Elah finds this safe space away from the continual warfare of his reign the place of his greatest danger.

Although text may indicate Zimri acted alone in both assassinating the king and then culling his family and friends, it is unlikely he would be able to do this without support from either his troops or the cohort at Tirzah. In the bloody manner of power transitions in the ancient world, he removes any possible ‘redeemer’[2] from the household of Elah. This act of betrayal within the confines of a private party would be a breach of both trust and hospitality etiquette, but this type of trickery has happened before in Israel.[3] Azra, the steward of the palace at Tirzah and the person in whose house the murder occurs, also does not attempt to avenge the death of Elah. Azra either actively assists Zimri in his murderous plot or passively allows this to occur under his roof.

1 Kings 16: 15-20 King Zimri’s Week Long Reign

15 In the twenty-seventh year of King Asa of Judah, Zimri reigned seven days in Tirzah. Now the troops were encamped against Gibbethon, which belonged to the Philistines, 16 and the troops who were encamped heard it said, “Zimri has conspired, and he has killed the king”; therefore all Israel made Omri, the commander of the army, king over Israel that day in the camp. 17 So Omri went up from Gibbethon, and all Israel with him, and they besieged Tirzah. 18 When Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king’s house; he burned down the king’s house over himself with fire, and died — 19 because of the sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of Jeroboam, and for the sin that he committed, causing Israel to sin. 20 Now the rest of the acts of Zimri, and the conspiracy that he made, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?

The ending of the dynasty of Jeroboam initiates a power struggle in Israel. The forces deployed in the siege of Gibbethon maintain their allegiance to Omri their commander, and this force turns from its focus on Gibbethon to dealing with the internal unrest in Israel. Now the forces that were engaged in a long siege against a foreign city quickly overpowered the defenses of Tirzah in less than a week. Zimri’s weeklong reign comes to an end when the forces loyal to Omri quickly enter the city and Zimri ends his life and destroys the royal complex in Tirzah. Zimri’s conflicted and brief reign which began with treachery and quickly reaches its fiery end is viewed in the same light as all the previous kings of Israel (evil in the sight of the LORD) although Zimri probably didn’t have any time to make any significant changes in the trajectory of the life of Israel. Presumably Zimri’s entries in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel would be brief if this record was ever discovered. Zimri’s name will become synonymous with treachery and betrayal.[4]

1 Kings 16: 21-28 The Beginning of the Omri Dynasty in Israel

21 Then the people of Israel were divided into two parts; half of the people followed Tibni son of Ginath, to make him king, and half followed Omri. 22 But the people who followed Omri overcame the people who followed Tibni son of Ginath; so Tibni died, and Omri became king. 23 In the thirty-first year of King Asa of Judah, Omri began to reign over Israel; he reigned for twelve years, six of them in Tirzah.

24 He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver; he fortified the hill, and called the city that he built, Samaria, after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill.

25 Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he did more evil than all who were before him. 26 For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and in the sins that he caused Israel to commit, provoking the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols. 27 Now the rest of the acts of Omri that he did, and the power that he showed, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? 28 Omri slept with his ancestors, and was buried in Samaria; his son Ahab succeeded him.

The elimination of the treacherous Zimri does not bring peace to Israel. Omri, who conquered Tirzah, will struggle with the people loyal to Tibni son of Ginath for four years prior to eliminating this challenge to his authority. Omri’s twelve years as the king of Israel emulates aspects of both King David and King Solomon. Like David claiming Jerusalem as the city of David, now Samaria will become the city of Omri, and we know from the archeology of Samaria that an impressive city was constructed on the site. (Cogan, 2001, p. 419) The change in location for the capital from Tirzah to Samaria also facilitates trade connections with Israel and Tyre, and Omri places Israel on a path to be a trading nation like it had been under Solomon’s united kingdom, and once again Phonecia (Tyre and Sidon) becomes a primary partner.

Mesha Stele: stele of Mesha, king of Moab, recording his victories against the Kingdom of Israel. Basalt, ca. 800 BCE. From Dhiban, now in Jordan. Shared by Neithshabes under CC 3.0.

We know from archeology that the time of Omri was a time when Israel was able to oppress Moab for many years. Samaria was a city built to withstand a siege and would later endure for three years against a siege by the Assyrian army. It seems to be a time where Israel’s wealth, power and influence are on the rise while the nation continues its spiritual decline. The prosperity that Omri experiences through trade and military might seems to make Omri and his dynasty less concerned with maintaining the covenant faithfulness desired by the LORD the God of Israel, and in adopting the trading practices of the surrounding nations he also invites in many of the forces that led to Solomon’s eventual foolishness.

1 Kings 16: 29-34 The Beginning of the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel is Israel

29 In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, Ahab son of Omri began to reign over Israel; Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him.

31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho; he laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which he spoke by Joshua son of Nun.

Assyrian stela of Shalmaneser that reports battle of Qarqar By Yuber – from en wiki, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=869262

King Ahab in international circles was well known and we know from the Assyrians that he contributed a sizable force to the anti-Assyrian coalition at the Battle of Qarpar in 853 BCE. (NIB III:124) His marriage to Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon forges a political and economic alliance with the Phoenecians. Like Solomon who entered into numerous marriages to seal economic and political alliances, Ahab becomes both trading partner, relative by marriage, and ally of Ethbaal. Also like Solomon who eventually allowed his wives to build worship sites for the gods of their homelands, Ahab allows the introduction of the worship of Baal. Jezebel comes to Israel with the beliefs and values of her upbringing in Phoenecia.

Jericho, the fortress city destroyed when the tribes of Israel entered the promised land was cursed by Joshua in Joshua 6:26. Generations later Hiel of Bethel rebuild Jericho and finds the curse in place. Some have conjectured that Hiel is participating in human sacrifice as a way of appeasing the gods, but the text views the deaths of his oldest and youngest sons as the result of the curse uttered upon the destroyed city. The waste of Jericho was an enduring witness of the power of the LORD who brought them into the land, but now it is one more walled city of a kingdom trusting in its own power.

Ahab seems to follow the paths of Solomon that lead both to prosperity but also to foolishness. Israel under Ahab may be indistinguishable from the surrounding nations. Yet, the LORD is unwilling to abandon Israel. Previously God has used prophets to announce to the kings of Israel their unfaithfulness, and now with at the apex of this turning away from the LORD the prophet Elijah arises to be a thorn in Ahab’s side, but also to reorient the people away from Baal and to invite a return to their covenant with the LORD the God of Israel.

[1] It is likely that the text attempts to differentiate between Ahijah the Shilonite and Ahijah of the house of Isachar.

[2] Male kindred is the NRSV’s translation of the term that means redeemer. Although accurate in a familial sense, the term redeemer also indicates the one who is responsible for righting the wrong done to the family member.

[3] For example the story of Ehud and King Eglon in Judges 3.

[4] See 2 Kings 9:3

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