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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

3 Kings (1 Kings) Chapter 20

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:1

kg1 20:1

The First Victory. - Kg1 20:1. Benhadad, the son of that Benhadad who had conquered several cities of Galilee in the reign of Baasha (Kg1 15:20), came up with a great army - there were thirty-two kings with him, with horses and chariots - and besieged Samaria. The thirty-two kings with him (אתּו) were vassals of Benhadad, rulers of different cities and the territory belonging to them, just as in Joshua's time almost every city of Canaan had its king; they were therefore bound to follow the army of Benhadad with their troops.

Kg1 20:2-7

During the siege Benhadad sent messengers into the city to Ahab with this demand: "Thy silver and thy gold are mine, and the best of thy wives and thy sons are mine;" and Ahab answered with pusillanimity: "According to thy word, my lord king, I and all that is mine are thine." Benhadad was made still more audacious by this submissiveness, and sent messengers the second time with the following notice (Kg1 20:6): "Yea, if I send my servants to thee to-morrow at this time, and they search thy house and thy servants' houses, all that is the pleasure of thine eyes they will put into their hands and take." אם כּי does not mean "only = certainly" here (Ewald, 356, b.), for there is neither a negative clause nor an oath, but אם signifies if and כּי introduces the statement, as in Kg1 20:5; so that it is only in the repetition of the כּי that the emphasis lies, which can be expressed by yea. The words of Ahab in Kg1 20:9 show unquestionably that Benhadad demanded more the second time than the first. The words of the first demand, "Thy silver and thy gold," etc., were ambiguous. According to Kg1 20:5, Benhadad meant that Ahab should give him all this; and Ahab had probably understood him as meaning that he was to give him what he required, in order to purchase peace; but Benhadad had, no doubt, from the very first required an unconditional surrender at discretion. He expresses this very clearly in the second demand, since he announces to Ahab the plunder of his palace and also of the palaces of his nobles. כּל־מחמד עניך, all thy costly treasures. It was from this second demand that Ahab first perceived what Benhadad's intention had been; he therefore laid the matter before the elders of the land, i.e., the king's counsellors, Kg1 20:7 : "Mark and see that this man seeketh evil," i.e., that he is aiming at our ruin, since he is not contented with the first demand, which I did not refuse him.

Kg1 20:8-9

The elders and all the people, i.e., the citizens of Samaria. advised that his demand should not be granted. תאמה ולא אל־תּשׁמע, "hearken not (to him), and thou wilt not be willing" (ולא is stronger than אל; yet compare Ewald, 350, a.); whereupon Ahab sent the messengers away with this answer, that he would submit to the first demand, but that the second he could not grant.

Kg1 20:10

Benhadad then attempted to overawe the weak-minded Ahab by strong threats, sending fresh messengers to threaten him with the destruction of the city, and confirming it by a solemn oath: "The gods do so to me - if the dust of Samaria should suffice for the hollow hands of all the people that are in my train." The meaning of this threat was probably that he would reduce the city to ashes, so that scarcely a handful of dust should be left; for his army was so powerful and numerous, that the rubbish of the city would not suffice for every one to fill his hand.

Kg1 20:11

Ahab answered this loud boasting with the proverb: "Let not him that girdeth himself boast as he that looseneth the girdle," equivalent to the Latin, ne triumphum canas ante victoriam.

Kg1 20:12

After this reply of Ahab, Benhadad gave command to attack the city, while he was drinking with his kings in the booths. סכּות are booths made of branches, twigs, and shrubs, such as are still erected in the East for kings and generals in the place of tents (vid., Rosenmller, A. u. N. Morgenl. iii. pp. 198-9). שׂימוּ: take your places against the city, sc. to storm it (for שׂים in the sense of arranging the army for battle, see Sa1 11:11 and Job 1:17); not οἰκοδομήσατε χάρακα (lxx), or place the siege train.

Kg1 20:13-14

While the Syrians were preparing for the attack, a prophet came to Ahab and told him that Jehovah would deliver this great multitude (of the enemy) into his hand that day, "that thou mayest know that I am Jehovah," and that through the retainers of the governors of the provinces (המּדינות שׂרי, who had fled to Samaria), i.e., by a small and weak host. In the appearance of the prophet in Samaria mentioned here and in Kg1 20:28, Kg1 20:35. there is no such irreconcilable contradiction to Kg1 18:4, Kg1 18:22, and Kg1 19:10, as Thenius maintains; it simply shows that the persecution of the prophets by Jezebel had somewhat abated, and therefore Elijah's labour had not remained without fruit. מי יאסר הם, who shall open the battle? אסר answers to the German anfdeln (to string, unite; Eng. join battle - Tr.); cf. Ch2 13:3.

Kg1 20:15-16

Ahab then mustered his fighting men: there were 232 servants of the provincial governors; and the rest of the people, all the children of Israel, i.e., the whole of the Israelitish fighting men that were in Samaria (החיל, Kg1 20:19), amounted to 7000 men. And at noon, when Benhadad and his thirty-two auxiliary kings were intoxicated at a carousal in the booths (שׁכּור שׁתה as in Kg1 16:9), he ordered his men to advance, with the servants of the provincial governors taking the lead. The 7000 men are not to be regarded as the 7000 mentioned in Kg1 19:18, who had not bowed their knee before Baal, as Rashi supposes, although the sameness in the numbers is apparently not accidental; but in both cases the number of the covenant people existing in Israel is indicated, though in Kg1 19:18 and 7000 constitute the ἐκλογή of the true Israel, whereas in the verse before us they are merely the fighting men whom the Lord had left to Ahab for the defence of his kingdom.

Kg1 20:17-18

When Benhadad was informed of the advance of these fighting men, in his drunken arrogance he ordered them to be taken alive, whether they came with peaceable or hostile intent.

Kg1 20:19-21

But they - the servants of the governors at the head, and the rest of the army behind - smote every one his man, so that the Aramaeans fled, and Benhadad, pursued by the Israelites, escaped on a horse with some of the cavalry. וּפּרשׁים is in apposition to בּן־הדד, "he escaped, and horsemen," sc. escaped with him, i.e., some of the horsemen of his retinue, whilst the king of Israel, going out of the city, smote horses and chariots of the enemy, who were not prepared for this sally of the besieged, and completely defeated them.

Kg1 20:22

After this victory the prophet came to Ahab again, warning him to be upon his guard, for at the turn of the year, i.e., the next spring (see at Sa2 11:1), the Syrian king would make war upon him once more.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:23

kg1 20:23

The Second Victory. - Kg1 20:23, Kg1 20:24. The servants (ministers) of Benhadad persuaded their lord to enter upon a fresh campaign, attributing the defeat they had sustained to two causes, which could be set aside, viz., to the supposed nature of the gods of Israel, and to the position occupied by the vassal-kings in the army. The gods of Israel were mountain gods: when fighting with them upon the mountains, the Syrians had had to fight against and succumb to the power of these gods, whereas on the plain they would conquer, because the power of these gods did not reach so far. This notion concerning the God of Israel the Syrians drew, according to their ethnical religious ideas, from the fact that the sacred places of this God - not only the temple at Jerusalem upon Moriah, but also the altars of the high places - were erected upon mountains; since heathenism really had its mountain deities, i.e., believed in gods who lived upon mountains and protected and conducted all that took place upon them (cf. Dougtaei Analect. ss. i. 178,179; Deyling, Observv. ss. iii. pp. 97ff.; Winer, bibl. R. W. i. p. 154), and in Syrophoenicia even mountains themselves had divine honours paid to them (vid., Movers, Phniz. i. p. 667ff.). The servants of Benhadad were at any rate so far right, that they attributed their defeat to the assistance which God had given to His people Israel; and were only wrong in regarding the God of Israel as a local deity, whose power did not extend beyond the mountains. They also advised their lord (Kg1 20:24) to remove the kings in his army from their position, and appoint governors in their stead (פּחות, see Kg1 10:15). The vassal-kings had most likely not shown the desired self-sacrifice for the cause of their superior in the war. And, lastly (Kg1 20:25), they advised the king to raise his army to its former strength, and then carry on the war in the plain. "Number thyself an army, like the army which has fallen from thee." מאותך, "from with thee," rendered correctly de tuis in the Vulgate, at least so far as the sense is concerned (for the form see Ewald, 264, b.). But these prudently-devised measures were to be of no avail to the Syrians; for they were to learn that the God of Israel was not a limited mountain-god.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:26

kg1 20:26

With the new year (see Kg1 20:22) Benhadad advanced to Aphek again to fight against Israel. Aphek is neither the city of that name in the tribe of Asher (Jos 19:30 and Jos 13:4), nor that on the mountains of Judah (Jos 15:53), but the city in the plain of Jezreel not far from Endor (Sa1 29:1 compared with Sa1 28:4); since Benhadad had resolved that this time he would fight against Israel in the plain.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:27

kg1 20:27

The Israelites, mustered and provided for (כּלכּלוּ: supplied with ammunition and provisions), marched to meet them, and encamped before them "like two little separate flocks of goats" (i.e., severed from the great herd of cattle). They had probably encamped upon slopes of the mountains by the plain of Jezreel, where they looked like two miserable flocks of goats in contrast with the Syrians who filled the land.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:28

kg1 20:28

Then the man of God (the prophet mentioned in Kg1 20:13, Kg1 20:22) came again to Ahab with the word of God: "Because the Syrians have said Jehovah is a mountain-God and not a God of the valleys, I will give this great multitude into thy hand, that ye may know that I am Jehovah."

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:29

kg1 20:29

After seven days the battle was fought. The Israelites smote the Syrians, a hundred thousand men in one day; and when the rest fled to Aphek, into the city, the wall fell upon twenty-seven thousand men, ἵνα δὲ κακεῖνοι καὶ οὗτοι μάθωσιν, ὡς θεήλατος ἡ πλεεγεέ (Theodoret). The flying Syrians had probably some of them climbed the wall of the city to offer resistance to the Israelites in pursuit, and some of them sought to defend themselves by taking shelter behind it. And during the conflict, through the special interposition of God, the wall fell and buried the Syrians who were there. The cause of the fall is not given. Thenius assumes that it was undermined, in order to remove all idea of any miraculous working of the omnipotence of God. Benhadad himself fled into the city "room to room," i.e., from one room to another (cf. Kg1 22:25; Ch2 18:24).

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:31

kg1 20:31

In this extremity his servants made the proposal to him, that trusting in the generosity of the kings of Israel, they should go and entreat Ahab to show favour to him. They clothed themselves in mourning apparel, and put ropes on their necks, as a sign of absolute surrender, and went to Ahab, praying for the life of their king. And Ahab felt so flattered by the fact that his powerful opponent was obliged to come and entreat his favour in this humble manner, that he gave him his life, without considering how a similar act on the part of Saul had been blamed by the Lord (Sa1 15:9.). "Is he still alive? He is my brother!" was his answer to Benhadad's servants.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:33

kg1 20:33

And they laid hold of these words of Ahab as a good omen (ינהשׁוּ), and hastened and bade him explain (i.e., bade him quickly explain); הממּנּוּ, whether (it had been uttered) from himself, i.e., whether he had said it with all his heart (Maurer), and said, "Benhadad is thy brother." The ἁπ. λεγ. חלט, related to חלץ, exuere, signifies abstrahere, nudare, then figuratively, aliquid facere nude, i.e., sine praetextu, or aliquid nude, i.e., sine fuco atque ambagibus testari, confirmare (cf. Frst, Concord. p. 398); then in the Talmud, to give an explanation (vid., Ges. thes. p. 476). This is perfectly applicable here, so that there is no necessity to alter the text, even if we thereby obtained a better meaning than Thenius with his explanation, "they tore it out of him," which he takes to be equivalent to "they laid hold of him by his word" (!!). Ahab thereupon ordered Benhadad to come and get up into his chariot.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:34

kg1 20:34

Benhadad, in order to keep Ahab in this favourable mood, promised to give him back at once the cities which his father had taken away from Ahab's father, and said, "Thou mayest make thyself roads in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria." There is no account of any war between Omri and Benhadad I; it is simply stated in Kg1 15:20 that Benhadad I had taken away several cities in Galilee from the Israelites during the reign of Baasha. This cannot be the war intended here, however, not indeed because of the expression אביך מאת, since אב might certainly be taken in a broader sense as referring to Baasha as an ancestor of Ahab, but chiefly on account of the statement that Benhadad had made himself roads in Samaria. This points to a war between Omri and Benhadad, after the building of Samaria into the capital of the kingdom, of which no account has been preserved. לו חצות שׂים, "to make himself roads," cannot be understood as referring either to fortifications and military posts, or to roads for cattle and free pasturage in the Syrian kingdom, since Samaria and Damascus were cities; not can it signify the establishment of custom-houses, but only the clearing of portions of the city for the purpose of trade and free intercourse (Cler., Ges. etc.), or for the establishment of bazaars, which would occupy a whole street (Bttcher, Thenius; see also Movers, Phnizier, ii. 3, p. 135). - "And I," said Ahab, "will let thee go upon a covenant" (a treaty on oath), and then made a covenant with him, giving him both life and liberty. Before ואני we must supply in thought אחאב ויּאמר. This thoroughly impolitic proceeding on the part of Ahab arose not merely from a natural and inconsiderate generosity and credulity of mind (G. L. Bauer, Thenius), but from an unprincipled weakness, vanity, and blindness. To let a cruel and faithless foe go unpunished, was not only the greatest harshness to his own subjects, but open opposition to God, who had announced to him the victory, and delivered the enemy of His people into his hand.

(Note: Clericus is correct in the explanation which he has given: "Although, therefore, this act of Ahab had all the appearance of clemency, it was not an act of true clemency, which ought not to be shown towards violent aggressors, who if released will do much more injury than before, as Benhadad really did. God had given the victory to Ahab, and delivered the guilty king into his hands, that he might inflict punishment upon him, not that he might treat him kindly. And Ahab, who had allowed so many prophets to be slain by his wife Jezebel, had no great clemency at other times.")

Even if Ahab had no express command from God to put Benhadad to death, as Saul had in Sa1 15:3, it was his duty to punish this bitter foe of Israel with death, if only to secure quiet for his own subjects; as it was certainly to be foreseen that Benhadad would not keep the treaty which had been wrung from him by force, as was indeed very speedily proved (see Kg1 22:1).

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:35

kg1 20:35

The verdict of God upon Ahab's conduct towards Benhadad. - Kg1 20:35, Kg1 20:36. A disciple of the prophets received instructions from God, to announce to the king that God would punish him for letting Benhadad go, and to do this, as Nathan had formerly done in the case of David (Sa2 12:1.), by means of a symbolical action, whereby the king was led to pronounce sentence upon himself. The disciples of the prophets said to his companion, "in the word of Jehovah," i.e., by virtue of a revelation from God (see at Kg1 13:2), "Smite me;" and when the friend refused to smite him, he announced to him that because of this disobedience to the voice of the Lord, after his departure from him a lion would meet him and smite him, i.e., would kill him; a threat which was immediately fulfilled. This occurrence shows with how severe a punishment all opposition to the commandments of God to the prophets was followed, as a warning for others; just as in the similar occurrence in Kg1 13:24.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:37

kg1 20:37

The disciple of the prophets then asked another to smite him, and he smote him, "smiting and wounding," i.e., so that he not only smote, but also wounded him (vid., Ewald, 280, a.). He wished to be smitten and wounded, not to disguise himself, or that he might be able to appeal loudly to the king for help to obtain his rights, as though he had suffered some wrong (Ewald), nor merely to assume the deceptive appearance of a warrior returning from the battle (Thenius), but to show to Ahab symbolically what he had to expect from Benhadad whom he had released (C. a Lap., Calm., etc.).

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:38

kg1 20:38

With these wounds he placed himself in the king's path, and disguised himself (יתחפּשׂ as in Sa1 28:8) by a bandage over his eyes. אפר does not mean ashes (Syr., Vulg., Luth., etc.), but corresponds to the Chaldee מעפרא, head-band, τελαμών (lxx).

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:39

kg1 20:39

When the king passed by, he cried out to him and related the following fictitious tale: He had gone to the war, and a man had come aside to him (סוּר as in Exo 3:3; Jdg 14:8, etc.), and had given a man (a prisoner) into his care with this command, that he was to watch him, and if he should be missing he was to answer for his life with his own life, or to pay a talent of silver (as a punishment). The rest may be easily imagined, namely the request to be saved from this punishment. Ahab answered (Kg1 20:40), משׁפּטך כּן, "thus thy sentence, thou hast decided," i.e., thou hast pronounced thine own sentence, and must endure the punishment stated.

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:41

kg1 20:41

Then the disciple of the prophets drew the bandage quickly from his eyes, so that the king recognised him as a prophet, and announced to him the word of the Lord: "Because thou hast let go out of thy hand the man of my ban (i.e., Benhadad, who has fallen under my ban), thy life shall stand for his life, and thy people for his people," i.e., the destruction to which Benhadad was devoted will fall upon thee and thy people. The expression אישׁ־חרמי (man of my ban) showed Ahab clearly enough what ought to have been done with Benhadad. A person on whom the ban was pronounced was to be put to death (Lev 27:29).

3 Kings (1 Kings) 20:43

kg1 20:43

The king therefore went home, and returned sullen (סר, from סרר) and morose to Samaria.

Next: 3 Kings (1 Kings) Chapter 21