Meme: Jack Nicholson, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"

400 Prophets Can’t Be Wrong! Or Can They? Part 2

In the last post, we began a story about Ahab, King of Israel, in 1 Kings 22. At some point, the Arameans had taken a city called Ramoth-gilead from Israel, but the two kings reached a truce. They were at peace for three years, but Ahab wanted to take that city back. Of course, if the king of Aram defeated him before, it would not be easy, so he enlisted the help of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. As kings would normally do before going into battle, they inquired for a word of Yahweh. Ahab brought in 400 prophets of Yahweh, and every one of them said, “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king” (1 Ki 22:12).

But Jehoshaphat did not trust those prophets, because they seemed more concerned with saying what the king wanted to hear rather than speaking the word of the LORD. He asked for another prophet of the LORD. There was only one the king could call, Micaiah son of Imlah. Ahab summoned him, though he really did not want to, because he never spoke favorably of him but only disaster. But Jehoshaphat insisted. Micaiah has been coy with Ahab up to this point, but Ahab commanded him to drop the sarcasm and tell him the truth. We pick up there, verses 19-23.

Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’

Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’

‘How?’ the LORD asked him.

He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’

Then the LORD said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’

So you see, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has decreed disaster for you.”

(1Ki 22:19-23 NRSV)

Micaiah received the word from Yahweh and told him. So of course, Ahab was grateful. He said, “Boy, Micaiah, I’m sure glad we asked you. Thanks for warning me. I almost started a fight that would have killed me. I wanted to get that city back, but I know better than to go into a battle where the LORD is against me. Why is the LORD so bound and determined to destroy me? Maybe it’s because I haven’t been living up to God’s standard of justice and righteousness. What I did to Naboth proves that. In fact, I wonder if he was the one who volunteered to put a lying spirit in my prophets. He is there before the throne of the LORD still seeking justice for what I did to him. Oh, Naboth, please forgive me. LORD, I repent, and I promise from now on to uphold the rights of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, and to honor our laws that protect family farms and release people from slavery every sabbatical year.

“Micaiah, I’m sorry I treated you the way I did. From now on, you will be my chief advisor, because I need a prophet who will speak the truth to me.

“And as for all of you, you lied to me. You succumbed to a lying spirit, and this is not the first time. You have never spoken the truth to me. You do not even know how to speak the truth because of the lying spirit the LORD has put on you. Micaiah son of Imlah is the only one who hears the word of the LORD and the only one who speaks the truth. What do I need 400 false prophets for when I have Micaiah son of Imlah? Can anyone find such a one as this, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? I want all of you gone from my palace by sundown, and I order all your schools of prophecy to be closed. Your license to prophesy in my kingdom is revoked. Micaiah and only Micaiah will speak the word of the LORD to me.”

By the way, in case you were wondering, that was sarcasm. Here’s what really happened. Verses 24-25.

Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?”

Micaiah replied, “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.”

(1Ki 22:24-25 NRSV)

Zedekiah was the only one of the 400 court prophets mentioned by name, because he stood out by taking iron horns and charging like a bull and saying, “Thus says the LORD: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed” (1Ki 22:11 NRS). He knows this doesn’t make him look good. So he slapped Micaiah on the cheek, and he’s like, “I don’t have a lying spirit. You have a lying spirit!” So here’s a classic he said-he said between two competing prophets.

“He’s a false prophet.”

“No, he’s a false prophet.”

How do we know who’s telling the truth? One says (along with 399 others) the king will be victorious in battle. The other says the king will meet with disaster if he goes into battle. In King Ahab’s mind, the prophet(s) who speaks favorably of him is always right. So who do you think he believes? Verses 26-27.

The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, and say, ‘Thus says the king: Put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.’”

(1Ki 22:26-27 NRSV)

Ahab throws him in prison for daring to speak against him. And just for spite, he orders reduced rations of bread and water, just enough to keep him alive until he comes in peace. Micaiah’s answer to this is my favorite line in the story.

Micaiah Sums It Up

Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, you peoples, all of you!”

(1Ki 22:28 NRSV)

Micaiah knows the rules. He prophesied something in the name of Yahweh. If it does not come true, that is a word that Yahweh did NOT speak. According to the law of Moses, that means he should be put to death (Deu 18:20-22). Some of the most powerful statements are not in what someone says but in what they leave unsaid. If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me. That’s what he said. But what is left unsaid there? “If the LORD has spoken by me, you will not return in peace.” More like, “You will return in pieces.”

The last thing he says as he’s being taken away is, Hear, you peoples, all of you! Remember, this is not happening within the walls of a palace. This is happening out in the open at the city gate. A spectacle like this was sure to attract a crowd. He’s telling the people to remember what the prophets of the king said versus what he said and watch to see which one comes true. That is how they will know who the true prophet of the LORD is.

Now, remember, Ahab does not have to do this. He can take Micaiah’s counsel and not go to battle. But he is bound and determined to get this city back and prove Micaiah is “fake news.” The problem with kings and others who have a lot of power and are used to getting what they want is when they can’t get what they want, they often do not take it well. Continuing with Verse 29.

So the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead.

(1Ki 22:29 NRSV)

Wow, Jehoshaphat went with Ahab after what the prophet of Yahweh, that he asked for, said? Oh yeah. He must have been thinking, “He said it would be a disaster for you, not me. If you still want to do this, it’s your funeral.” Literally.

“I Will Disguise Myself and Go into Battle”

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” So the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle.

(1Ki 22:30 NRSV)

So he called Micaiah fake news, but now he’s not so sure? I guess I can’t blame him for wanting to hedge his bet. But does he really think he can disguise himself from Yahweh? It’s worth a try, I guess.

Now the king of Aram had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with no one small or great, but only with the king of Israel.”

(1Ki 22:31 NRSV)

The king of Aram must really be pissed. “I made a truce with that fool, and now he wants to break it? He thinks he can beat me because he’s got a friend with him? We’ll see about that.” Chariots were one of the most powerful weapons in the ancient world. The king of Aram could do some damage to the flanks of Israel with them. He could maybe send half against the armies and half against Ahab, but no. He wants all of his chariots to hunt down one man, the king of Israel. You’ve really gotta hate someone to do that.

Imagine you’re going into battle. You are one of thirty-two Apache helicopter pilots. And your general says, “Forget about everyone else. Forget their tanks, infantry, planes, helicopters, and artillery. I want every one of you to target their general. Seek and destroy him.”

Now Verse 32.

I’m Not the King of Israel!

When the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out.

(1Ki 22:32 NRSV)

Ahab told Jehoshaphat to wear his own robes (v. 30), but he still looked like the king of Israel. I guess Ahab and Jehoshaphat’s robes looked similar, because they saw him and thought, “That’s our guy! Get him!”

Jehoshaphat cried out. What did he cry out, I wonder? Did he say, “It’s not me! It’s him!” Did he know the orders the king of Aram gave them?

I guess they look similar.

"Coin" image, black and white, inscribed R(ex) Israel Achab
Rex Achab Israel (Ahab, King of Israel). Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Coin-like image, black and white, incribed Iosaphat Rex Iud(ea)
Jehoshaphat, King of Judah. By Guillaume Rouille – Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85736029

When the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him.

(1Ki 22:33 NRSV)

So the king of Aram was serious. He does not want them going after anyone but the king of Israel. Even the king of Judah gets a pass from them. Fortunately, for Jehoshaphat, they knew the king of Israel well enough to see this was not him. Verse 34.

But a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate; so he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around, and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.”

(1Ki 22:34 NRSV)

A certain man? They don’t even tell us which side he was on. For all we know, he could have been an Israelite soldier. They make it sound like it was an accident, like the confederate soldier who shot Stonewall Jackson. Maybe he was fooled by the king’s disguise. Wouldn’t that be ironic? In trying to fool God, he outsmarted himself. It could have been one of the Aramean soldiers, but then it wouldn’t have been an accident, would it?

Verses 35-37.

Ahab, King of Israel, Dies

The battle grew hot that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Arameans, until at evening he died; the blood from the wound had flowed into the bottom of the chariot. Then about sunset a shout went through the army, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!”

So the king died, and was brought to Samaria; they buried the king in Samaria.

(1Ki 22:35-37 NRSV)

The driver of the chariot must have been getting more and more worried as the floor of the chariot got ankle deep in blood. Kings often rode chariots with a driver, so they could shoot arrows. They often got very accurate, hitting targets at full speed while making it difficult for the enemy to shoot them. Ahab must have survived many battles that way.

Kurkh stela of Shalmaneser III that reports battle of Karkar, 853 BC.
Kurkh stela of Shalmaneser III that reports battle of Karkar, 853 BC, names King Ahab

In the ancient world, you couldn’t continue a battle after sundown, so they declared an end for that day. The king died. So who was the true prophet, Micaiah or the 400?

The epitaph of king Ahab in the Bible would not be kind. If you can say anything good about him, it was that he was courageous in battle. The Spartans would say he went down on his shield. The next verse describes what happened after he was brought home. It’s pretty graphic, so for sensitive listeners, I won’t read that.

But it did say that it happened according to the word of the LORD that [Elijah] had spoken. (1Ki 22:38 NRSV). This refers to an incident from the previous chapter. Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, had a man named Naboth murdered, so they could take his vineyard from him and his family. Again, this is exactly what Samuel warned the people kings would do to them. Here is what Elijah told him was the judgment from the LORD.

You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (1Ki 21:19 NRSV)

In the minds of the Israelites, this was poetic justice. Just as he did to Naboth, it was done to him. I don’t want to encourage vengefulness, but for the ancient Israelites, this was like the Wicked Witch of the West melting.

Gif: Wicked Witch of the West, "I'm melting!"
“A certain girl” threw water on her.

(sing) “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead. Da da, da daa. Da da, da daa.”

An ignominious end to a controversial ruler (1Ki 22:38-40). Jehoshaphat, not surprisingly, gets a much more favorable assessment of his rule (1 Ki 22:41-46).

How Do We Know the Prophet Is False?

Some of you may ask, how was Ahab supposed to know who to believe? Many prophets spoke in the name of Yahweh, but only one got it right. The only way to know for sure was to go into battle. I used to think that with all the competing prophets and schools of prophets back then, how was anyone supposed to know which one to believe? If he was victorious, the 400 were right. If he died, Micaiah was right. So the only way Ahab could know was to die.

But now, I am convinced this was not the first time Ahab’s court prophets got it wrong. He saw them prophesy things that did not come true, but he continued to believe them anyway. Why? Because they only spoke what was favorable to him. They learned quickly he could not handle any truth that was not what he wanted to hear.

Meme: Jack Nicholson, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"

Now let’s imagine we are there at the city gate, watching all the prophets competing to be heard not just to say that the king will win, but how big a landslide victory it will be. “You will defeat them, for God is with you.” “You will annihilate them, for God is with you.” “With these horns, you will gore your enemies until they are no more, for God is with you.”

And then Micaiah son of Imlah comes along and says in effect, “God has decreed disaster for you if you go.” Who should we believe? Without the benefit of hindsight, how can we know? Micaiah actually gave the answer to that. If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me. Ahab might not know which one is correct before he goes into battle. But we are not going into battle. All we have to do is wait and see. At sundown, does the king return in peace or not?

The driver of the chariot brings him back and shows his body to everyone. Can you tell the difference between a live and a dead body? That’s all you have to do to know who spoke the word of the LORD. You don’t need to be a prophet yourself. You don’t need any gift of discerning of spirits. You don’t need a vision from angels. You don’t need to go off into the wilderness and fast for forty days until you are so near death you can hear God. And you don’t need any propaganda from false prophets and Ahab’s supporters saying he really won when he lost. Just answer that one question. Is Ahab alive or dead? He is dead. There’s your answer. Every prophet who promised victory for the king is false. You don’t need supernatural or spiritual vision. You just need to see the facts. The two eyes and the brain God gave you will do just fine.

“But the prophets had to be right. They speak the word of the LORD.” That’s probably what Ahab thought. “My prophets have to be right!”

Remember, Micaiah reminded us of the rules. If the king returns in peace, the LORD did not speak through him. The other 400 prophets could then claim the LORD spoke through them, and no one could prove them wrong. Did the king return in peace? No. The king did not have the victory the false prophets promised. Micaiah knew the rules, and he was the only prophet willing to play by them. Because even though Micaiah knew he could die if he was wrong, I guarantee not one of the king’s prophets was put to death for speaking falsely in the name of the LORD.

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; 

(Deu 18:22 NRSV)

So you’ve seen the king’s dead body. He’s dead. The chariot driver is washing the blood out of the bottom of the chariot. But a mob pushes the driver of the chariot away, props the king up and says, “Look! The king is alive! He returned in peace! Victory is ours!”

Then the corpse slips out of their hands and collapses. They pick him up again and say, “Victory is ours, just like the prophets said.” And it happens again and again, and each time they claim the king won

No, the king is dead, just like the prophet Micaiah said. What Micaiah said proved true. What the false prophets said did not come true. Yes, every prophet who promised victory for the king was false. It doesn’t matter how many times you prop him up. You can’t bring him back to life. You can’t have a do-over of the battle. It’s over.

God Told Me the King Is Not Dead

At what point do we admit the Trump prophets were false? When the votes are counted and Biden is the winner? When every legal challenge to the results has failed? When the electoral college casts their votes and Biden is the winner? When Congress certifies the results, despite an attempted coup, and Biden is still the winner? The king is dead. No matter how many times you prop Trump up in the chariot and decree, declare, or prophesy that he is the winner, he lost. I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad. I’m saying those are the facts. And the facts are how you know if the prophet is false.

What about when he is inaugurated? If Biden is inaugurated (which any other time in history was never even questioned), should we accept then that the prophets were false?

The prophets are not false! The election was stolen!

The “400 prophets” (I think that’s what I’ll call them from now on) didn’t say he would really win, but the election would be stolen. They said Donald Trump would win. The facts do not match the prophecy. And no, the election was not stolen. Your vote was counted along with 155 million other votes. You voted for the candidate who got fewer votes. He lost. That’s how democracy works. The votes have been counted, the electoral college has cast its votes, and Congress has certified the results, all in keeping with the Constitution. Biden won, Trump lost. You can try again in four years. That system has worked since 1789. No, it’s not perfect, but more than anything it is what makes this nation great. I know the prophets promised he would win, but he lost.

But we walk by faith, not by sight (2Co 5:7 KJV). You can’t see it now except through the eyes of faith. But Donald Trump won, and God will reveal it, and God will defeat every plan of Satan to put Joe Biden in the White House.

Gif: Saturday Night Live, Church Lady to Colin Jost, "Satan!"

2 Corinthians 5:7 was never meant to be an excuse for denying the facts. How did the Bible say to identify false prophets?

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; 

(Deu 18:22 NRSV)

If it does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. I know I keep repeating that, but you seem to have a hard time accepting it. Micaiah told the people to watch what happens and see which prophet’s word comes true. That’s how you will know which prophet is true, and which prophet is false. You don’t need to “walk by faith not by sight” to know if the 400 prophets are false. Just compare what they said with the facts. The king is dead, and  306 electoral votes is still more than 232. At this point, no one can change the results of the election without overturning the Constitution.

All the prophets said Trump would win. How could all those prophets have been wrong?

All 400 of Ahab’s prophets were wrong. How did that happen? According to Micaiah, the LORD sent a lying spirit to them because he was sick of King Ahab’s injustice and unrighteousness. Did the LORD send a lying spirit to the false prophets of Trump? Or did the prophets simply speak presumptuously, as Deuteronomy 18:22 says? Did they presume to think their own wishful thinking was “the word of the LORD”? I don’t know. All I know is what they spoke did not come true, and Deuteronomy 18:22 and Micaiah both say that means God did not promise any victory to Trump, no matter what the 400 prophets said.

God shouldn’t even have had to put that in the Bible. Just use the brain God gave you. A prophet whose prophecies don’t come true is literally the definition of a false prophet. Simple common sense should tell you that. When God, the Bible, and common sense all agree, you’d better pay attention. You may even need to repent, like I did years ago.

“Hear, you peoples, all of you!”

I’m spending so much time on this, because even after the horrific events of January 6, there are reports that some people are planning even more violence on Inauguration day. If you are considering that, let me ask you. Even if by some crazy turn of events you are successful in stopping the inauguration and overturning the election by force, is that really a win? If that happens, we lose much more than one presidential election. We lose the greatest legacy of the Constitution, the peaceful transfer of power. And with that, we lose the world’s longest running constitutional democracy. That is not how you make America great again. That is how you become a fascist state.

Meme: Tom Cruise, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "I want the truth!"

400 Prophets Can’t Be Wrong! Or Can They? Part 1

I had written this post before the incidents of January 6. Ironically, that is Epiphany, the day many churches celebrate the visit of the wise men. But it looked like wisdom decided to take a holiday from Washington, D.C. I don’t have a lot to say that hasn’t already been said. But I will say my goal as a Christian is to follow Jesus’ commands, specifically, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Do unto others as you would have them to do you”, “Love one another as I have loved you”, “Love your enemies”, and “Turn the other cheek.” I don’t see any way to reconcile that with insurrection, terrorism, and storming the Capitol to stop our democracy from doing what it has done since 1789. But what do I know? I’m just a Bible scholar.

The House and Senate did their duty in spite of it, and for that, I commend them. Maybe some people need to take a lesson from how God handled losing an election, as I talked about in my last post.

I know for some of you, the idea of Trump leaving the white house without a second term is very upsetting. You think it’s the end of the world. But let me ask, does the reason you are so upset about losing an election (welcome to democracy, by the way) have anything to do with the prophets who promised God would give Trump the victory? If so, then there is a story from the Bible I want to point to you. You thought so many prophets all saying the same thing could not possibly fail. What if I told you one time 400 prophets all prophesied the exact same thing and got it wrong? That is the story I’ll bring you today.

Quick Background: A United Kingdom Now Divided

In the previous episode, I told you that while Samuel was judge, priest, and prophet in Israel, the people demanded a king. God did not like it, but God told Samuel, if the people voted for a king, give them a king. You see there? God did not agree with the results of the election, but God accepted them. When you finish this, maybe you’ll want to go back and read my post on that.

This story takes place about 160 or 170 years later. The people got their king. David ruled from about 1000-960 BC, and at first it worked out like the people hoped. He succeeded in uniting the twelve tribes into one nation and beating all of Israel’s enemies into submission. With stability within and peace with the surrounding nations, his son Solomon built on David’s success, and the nation enjoyed peace and prosperity under him (ca. 960-920 BC). Hail to the king!

But it came with a cost. Solomon used forced labor for his many building projects, one of several things Samuel warned the people a king would do to them. It is a testament to Solomon’s popularity that the people did not complain too much while he was king. But when Solomon died, they asked his successor, Rehoboam, to ease up on the forced labor. Rehoboam responded by telling the people in effect, “You thought my father was tough? I will be ten times tougher!”

The people rebelled, particularly the northern tribes, and the end result was the nation split into a northern and southern kingdom (ca. 920 BC). Rehoboam remained king in the south, but Jeroboam, the leader of the rebellion, became king in the north. From then on, the name Israel referred to the northern kingdom, and Judah referred to the southern kingdom.

As two nations instead of one, each of them became more vulnerable to enemy invasion.

The Relationship Between the Kings of Israel and Judah

Ahab was one of the northern kings from about 871-852 BC. He is perhaps best known for being married to Jezebel and being the king at the time of Elijah’s duel with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Ki 16:29-34; 18:1-46). He had been in conflict with the king of Aram (modern day Syria), but they came to a truce. For three years, he was at peace with the Arameans. But he still had an axe to grind with them, so he called Jehoshaphat, the king of the south (ca. 870-849 BC), to his capital city of Samaria. We’ll pick up the story in 1 Kings 22.

For three years Aram and Israel continued without war. But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the king of Israel. The king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, yet we are doing nothing to take it out of the hand of the king of Aram?”

(1Ki 22:1-3 NRSV)
"Coin" image, black and white, inscribed R(ex) Israel Achab
Rex Achab Israel (Ahab, King of Israel). Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Coin-like image, black and white, incribed Iosaphat Rex Iud(ea)
Jehoshaphat, King of Judah. By Guillaume Rouille – Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85736029

The notes in my study Bible say Ramoth-gilead had been a tax center for Israel before the Arameans took it from them. Back then, certain cities were designated for collecting taxes, most of which came in the form of agricultural products like grain, wine, and olive oil. These cities had the main storehouses for all of that, so this was a significant loss for Ahab’s kingdom. He wanted it back. Verse 4.

He said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?”

Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are; my people are your people, my horses are your horses.”

(1Ki 22:4 NRSV)

The study notes say Jehoshaphat’s response indicates he was a vassal of Ahab, so the northern kingdom was more powerful than the south at that time. Ahab wants to take Ramoth-gilead back from the Arameans. But if they took it from him before, he does not want to fight them again without an ally. If Jehoshaphat was his vassal, did he have the right to say no or not? Ahab asks as if he does, but maybe this was a formality. Still, Jehoshaphat did at least have some wiggle room, if not a right of refusal, as we see in the next verse. Also, you’ll note that in this story, the narrator never calls king Ahab by name. He only refers to him as “the king of Israel,” indicating he does not have a high opinion of this king.

Inquire First for the Word of Yahweh

In the ancient world, you always wanted to inquire of your gods before a major undertaking, like war. King Leonidas of Sparta went to the oracle of Delphi, and Jehoshaphat wants to ask the prophets of the LORD before he commits to this. Verse 5.

But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.”

(1Ki 22:5 NRSV)

It’s important to note in this verse that LORD is in all capital letters. In the NRSV that I use, and most English translations, when LORD is in all caps like this, it refers specifically to Yahweh, the God of Israel and Judah. This is key because at that time, the Canaanite god Baal was also called “the Lord.” The prophets frequently denounced the kings and the people for worshipping Baal along with Yahweh. You cannot serve two lords, to paraphrase Jesus. What was the first commandment?

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

(Exo 20:2-3 NRSV)

The prophets constantly reminded them Baal did not bring you out of slavery. Yahweh did. Baal did not give them this land. Yahweh did. Baal is not your God. Yahweh is. But both Israelites and Jews wanted to have it both ways. They thought Yahweh was good for some things, but Baal was more reliable for other things. So it was not uncommon for there to be shrines both to Yahweh and Baal, even in the same city. So when they ask for “a word of the LORD,” do they mean Yahweh or Baal? If “lord” is in all caps, as it is throughout this story, that means the original text says Yahweh. Verses 6-7.

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred of them, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?”

They said, “Go up; for the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?”

 (1Ki 22:6-7 NRSV)

LORD is in all caps in both cases, so Ahab brought in prophets of Yahweh, not Baal. But Jehoshaphat still doesn’t trust them. He wants to hear from another prophet of Yahweh.

Jehoshaphat Dares to Question the Prophets

What’s your problem, Jehoshaphat? You asked to inquire of a prophet of Yahweh, and Ahab brought you 400 of them. And you still want to inquire of another prophet of Yahweh? Why do you need one more? Every prophet is in perfect agreement. Doesn’t that tell you this has to be the word of Yahweh?

For some reason, this does not pass the “smell test” for Jehoshaphat. The reason becomes clearer a few verses later, so I’m going to skip ahead to verse 10.

Now the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.

(1Ki 22:10 NRS)

Two Thrones at the City Gate

You might have assumed, as I did at first, that if one king is in his capital city (Samaria) and receiving another, they would discuss their business in the palace. But they were actually at the entrance of the gate. A lot of important business took place at the gate of a city back then. The elders would usually gather there to counsel people, settle disputes to avoid going to court, or be witness to some official transaction. Here, it says both kings were sitting on their thrones. Remember, this is Ahab’s capital. He has a throne here, presumably in addition to the one in the palace. But there is a throne for the king of Judah as well. I don’t know if it was for him specifically, or if it was for any king who had come to negotiate with the king of Israel. But if Ahab had a throne for the king of Judah, I think it speaks to the fact that even though they were no longer one nation, they were on friendly terms. The two kingdoms had a shared history and, for the most part, a shared religion. True, they had been through a pretty nasty divorce, and they were “never ever getting back together” (as Taylor Swift would say), relations at that time were amicable.

This is a different scene than what I pictured at first. If you don’t read the Bible regularly, just know that this will happen sometimes. Continuing with verses 11-12.

Writer’s Tip: Don’t do what this writer did here. If you realize halfway into a scene you have to add details to make it clear, that’s jarring for the reader. They had pictured the scene one way, but then they have to tear that down and rebuild it, and then reimagine what has already happened in order to catch up.

Prophecy or an Echo Chamber?

Zedekiah son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron, and he said, “Thus says the LORD: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.”

All the prophets were prophesying the same and saying, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

(1Ki 22:11-12 NRS)

Before, it sounded like the king asked if he should go and attack the Arameans at Ramoth-gilead, the prophets said yes, and that was it. Why would that look suspicious? But in these verses, we see the prophets had been speaking the whole time. And not just speaking either. In true prophetic fashion, they were all dramatizing how the king would utterly defeat the Arameans, each one trying to make their voices heard over all the others. One called Zedekiah son of Chenaanah stood out by making himself horns of iron, probably so he could charge like a bull and trample and gore imaginary enemies. And this is all happening by the gates of the city for everyone to see.

Now are you starting to see why Jehoshaphat did not trust these prophets? This was not 400 prophets who each heard the word of the LORD independently, and lo and behold, they all agree! This was an echo chamber of 400 clamoring sycophants who have learned that when they prophesy, “the word of the LORD” had better be favorable to the king and whatever he wants to do. So with 400 prophets each trying to be the most enthusiastic supporter of the king, Jehoshaphat leans over to Ahab so he can hear him speak. Now, we go back to verses 7-9.

Is There No Prophet of Yahweh Here?

But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?”

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.”

Jehoshaphat said, “Let the king not say such a thing.”

Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah son of Imlah.”

(1Ki 22:7-9 NRSV)

Jehoshaphat wants a prophet who will actually inquire of the LORD and tell the truth, whether it is favorable to the king or not. Ahab says, “Yeah, there is one, but he is fake news.” Why is he fake news? Because his prophecies do not come true? No, because he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.

So he is “fake news” because he knows God is under no obligation to speak favorably of the king. Jehoshaphat is like, “That’s the one I want to hear from.”

One of the responsibilities of a prophet was to speak truth to power, whether they liked hearing it or not. Jehoshaphat understood that, but Ahab did not. He only wanted to hear from prophets who would tell his itching ears what he wanted to hear. He demanded loyalty. Micaiah gave him honesty. He did not want to hear the minority report, but he knew Jehoshaphat would not agree to anything without it. Reluctantly, he sent for the prophet, Micaiah son of Imlah.

Micaiah: Not a Team Player

The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king; let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.”

But Micaiah said, “As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that I will speak.”

(1Ki 22:13-14 NRSV)

Come on, Micaiah. All the other prophets have already spoken favorably to the king. Just go along with them. Can’t you be a team player for once?

And Micaiah is like, “That’s not how it works. I don’t speak favorably or unfavorably to the king. I only speak what the LORD tells me.”

When he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?”

He answered him, “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

But the king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?”

(1Ki 22:15-16 NRSV)

I think Jehoshaphat must have got a good laugh out of this. I mean, technically, he said what the king wanted to hear. So why did the king get angry and tell him to say nothing but the truth?

Meme: Tom Cruise, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "I want the truth!"

When I was in the Word of Faith, they placed so much emphasis on being careful with your words. Never say something you don’t mean or that you don’t want to come to pass, so sarcasm was out. God doesn’t understand sarcasm. God only understands the literal meaning of the words you speak. But here we have a prophet speaking the word of the LORD with sarcasm. The problem with sarcasm is it doesn’t always come across on the written page. But there is no other reason for Ahab to think he doesn’t really mean what he’s saying. I picture him giving a smirk before he speaks and mimicking the enthusiasm of Ahab’s prophets.

How ironic is it that Ahab orders him to tell nothing but the truth in the name of Yahweh, but he told Jehoshaphat he did not want to bring in Micaiah because he spoke the truth. Okay, Ahab. You want to hear the truth? Micaiah son of Imlah is about to lay it on you. Verse 17.

Then Micaiah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’”

(1Ki 22:17 NRSV)

It’s kind of a roundabout way of saying, “Don’t go up to Ramoth-gilead.” But the message is still clear to Ahab. In Biblical language, saying all Israel is like sheep that have no shepherd is a critique of his leadership, which someone like Ahab hates. And if he says everyone should go home in peace, that doesn’t sound like getting ready for battle, does it? Verse 18.

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”

(1Ki 22:18 NRSV)

Disaster? He said let each one go home in peace. You haven’t heard disaster yet. He says he wants the truth. Can he handle it?

This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll stop here and continue it in the next post. In the meantime, enjoy this classic clip from the movie, A Few Good Men.

Writing Advice from an Award-Winning Author

badge, 2019 Writer's Digest 1st Place Winner, Self-Published Ebook Awards
Thank you, Writer’s Digest. #WDwinner

And no, I don’t feel guilty about bragging, because it took (not telling how many) years for me to be able to say that. Winning an award from Writer’s Digest is a dream come true, and I plan to milk it for all it’s worth. When you are trying to make writing your career, you should take advantage of anything that makes you stand out from your competition. So I guess, that’s my first piece of advice. Now here is some other things I’ve learned through the process.


Writing is both an art and a craft. As a craft, there are rules to good writing style. The art sometimes calls you to break the rules, but know the rules before you break them. That’s the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Learning how to write well will ruin reading for you (at least temporarily), and frustrate the snot out of you when you see bestselling authors breaking the rules. Learn anyway. An amateur breaks the rules because they don’t know them. Professionals know the rules. So when they break them, they have determined they are gaining something more than they lose by breaking the rules.

Chances are, you want to write because you fell in love with your own writing. At some point, you will reread it and realize (if you haven’t already) it is not nearly as brilliant or original as you first thought. That’s okay. We all have to go through that before we uncover our true brilliance and originality.

Find a critique group. My upcoming novel would never have been publishable without it. The first draft was riddled with signs of amateurism: weak verbs, unrealistic action and dialog, unnecessary words, a prologue, too much exposition, head hopping, too many exclamation marks, and telling when I should have been showing. The folks in my critique group not only pointed out these errors (some of which I didn’t even realize were errors). They also demonstrated ways to fix them.

Your writer’s voice = your passion + good writing style. No one can teach you passion, but they can teach writing style. I had plenty of passion, but my writing style was not where it needed to be. I read Writer’s Digest magazine. I took fiction writing courses to learn the craft. So at first, don’t worry about your writer’s voice. Learn how to use the rules of style, a.k.a., the craft first. When you combine that with your passion, then you will find your voice.

Even the greatest writers were amateurs once. It’s hard for me to imagine Flannery O’Connor or Ron Rash were ever amateur writers. But we all start out with more desire and passion than skill. The best example I ever saw was from my first critique group. The others in the group were more advanced than I was in using the elements of style, and their work was much more enjoyable to read than mine as a result. One man in particular, Ricky, gave great examples of “show don’t tell,” realistic action and dialog, and I fell in love with the characters, which is always what you want from your readers. More than anyone in the group, he had a style I wanted to emulate.

We always emailed our chapters ahead of the critique session. One week, he accidentally sent a chapter from his first draft. Let’s just say it was as amateurish as anything I brought to the group. The dialog and action were not realistic. I couldn’t connect with the characters at all. To see how much he had improved since then was the greatest encouragement I could have received. If he was this bad at the beginning, and he could improve like this, so could I. The reason he got so much better was he learned the elements of style and how to apply them. That made all the difference for him, and for me as well.

Never stop learning. That’s the most important rule for great writing and a great life. I don’t think I’m a great writer. I think I am a good writer, but I can become a great writer as long as I keep learning and practicing. And I hope I always think that way.

So now, my writer compatriots, you beginners have some things to learn, just like I did, just like Ricky did, and just like your favorite author did. So lose those rookie mistakes. I don’t care how much you love them. As Hemingway said, sometimes you have to kill your darlings. Here’s another article for further help. Top Signs of Amateur Writing.

Speaking of Hemingway, here’s a bonus lesson from him. As he was getting started as a writer, he traveled with a foot locker. Inside that foot locker was his entire collection of unsubmitted manuscripts. On one flight, the foot locker got lost. How do you think he felt? If I lost all my manuscripts, I would be devastated. But later he said it was the best thing that could have happened to him. With all of his amateur writing gone, he became a professional from that moment on.

If you want to reach your potential as a writer, keep learning the craft, keep practicing, submit your manuscripts to critiques from people you trust, revise, and repeat. One day, you might write that heartbreaking work of staggering genius you know is inside you.

For Writers: Making the Impossible Believable

In my Abraham series, I have included writing tips that are illustrated in Abraham’s stories. We came to the end of his story in my last post. This post continues that series, but it is all for writers. How can these stories help you improve your technique?

The challenge for any writer of fiction is to tell a good story that keeps the reader/audience’s attention from beginning to end. There is an unspoken agreement between the storyteller and the audience: They will suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story, as long as you keep it believable to them. The trick is to know what is believable and what is not to your audience. Or perhaps, whether you have made it believable to them.

As fiction writers, we sometimes create moments when we could easily lose the reader, because we stretched their suspension of disbelief too far. So we should always consider whether we have succeeded in making that moment of “impossible” believable. In that regard, I think we can learn a few things from the author of this saga I’ve been following for the last several weeks.

The author/editor of Abraham’s saga was most likely not so much an author as an editor. These stories had circulated orally for centuries before they were written down in what we call today the book of Genesis. So instead of creating these stories out of nothing, the writer decided to put the individual stories together into one narrative. It’s a little easier when you’re working with stories your audience is already familiar with and has accepted as part of their history. Still, there are moments when the author has to overcome the disbelief any rational person would have. Perhaps the greatest of those moments is how and when Isaac is born.

Here it is to review.

The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.

And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:1-3, 7 NRS)

Remember, Abraham is one hundred, and Sarah is ninety-one. How did the author make that moment believable to his original audience?

Know Your Readers’ Expectations

The original readers of this story probably had heard these accounts of Abraham and his family before, but not exactly the way the author presented them in this written account. This author wanted to collect all those disjointed stories into one narrative. In sewing together these different patches, sometimes the seams show. While there are a few plot holes, his audience forgave him that. I think that is because,

  1. He ordered the individual stories in a way he knew would be satisfying to his audience. This is why it is good to know how to plot. The story arc this author used was familiar to his audience.
  2. Each genre carries certain expectations. These stories primarily come from the Origin Story genre, and they fit the expectations of that genre.

Expectations and believability for the reader/audience often depend on the genre. In a murder mystery, for example, the audience expects that there is a murder, and by the end of the story, the murderer is revealed and caught. In a fantasy, the audience expects there will be magic, sword battles, and mythical creatures. A dragon as the murderer in a modern mystery would not be believable. But in a fantasy? No problem. Knowing what your audience will accept, and what they won’t, is the first step to making your story believable to them.

Use Foreshadowing, Subtly

The author is skillful in how he uses foreshadowing. He doesn’t give away too much too soon. He used the genealogies to create just enough uncertainty that the reader could think they might be able to have a son, even at their advanced age, before telling us they were too old. God hinted to Abraham his son Ishmael would fulfill his destiny apart from him before it happened. If Ishmael was not the child of the promise, then who? His heir would come through Sarah.

And beyond this story, Isaac’s role in the story foreshadows many things that will happen later in the Torah.

  • Meetings at a well that lead to marriage (Jacob and Moses).
  • Wives who have difficulty conceiving and bearing a child (Rebekah and Rachel).
  • Wives giving handmaids to their husbands to conceive and bear a child (Rachel and her handmaid, Zilpah).
  • Parents’ favoritism or rejection leads to dysfunction among siblings (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers).
  • Covenants that involve name changes (Jacob to Israel).

Foreshadowing, when used well, will help the reader/audience maintain their suspension of disbelief and accept the “impossible” as the natural outcome of your story.

Show the Heroes’ Humanity

When God appears to Abraham at ninety-nine years of age and says he will have a son with Sarah, who was ninety, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom 4:19-20 NRS).

That’s the “hero of the faith” version, which is totally unreal and not how the story tells it originally. How did Abraham really react? “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (Gen 17:17 NRS), and that’s how any human with a brain would have reacted. Sarah also laughed, and who could blame them? Any of us would have laughed at that as well. They know as well as we do this is impossible.

Sarah overhears three angels promise her a son
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen 18:14 NRS)

When the promise is fulfilled, we see Sarah’s humanity in her joy as she holds her newborn son. She lets us know everything she went through to get to this moment was worth it. The author shows their humanity in so many other ways as well. In contrast, Paul presents them as believing God, and it being accounted to them as righteousness (Rom 4:3, 9; Gal 3:6), as if this were a 24/7/365 reality. God said it. They believed it. And that settled it, once and for all.

That is not usually what a life of faith looks like, and Abraham and Sarah are prime examples. When God commanded, they obeyed. But for years, they struggled to understand what God really wanted from them. They said things like, “How do I know this is true?” (Gen 15:8). God said things that made them laugh. They wavered between belief and disbelief in the long time between promise and fulfillment.

Another thing to remember is even heroes have faults. I have talked about failings in the character of both Abraham and Sarah. Whatever character flaws your characters have, you don’t need to hide them. They make your characters more human. Some of the most fascinating characters are those who infuriate us one moment and inspire us the next.

Prepare the Reader for the Big Moment

Abraham and Sarah are going to have a son. That is the most crucial event of this story. It has to happen, and it’s impossible. Everyone knows it is impossible. So how can the reader believe it when it happens? In this case, they are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah, so they know it happened. The big question they had was not if but how.

Getting back to genre expectations, origin stories often involve interactions between human heroes and divine beings. In this case, when God announces the big moment to Abraham, God has already appeared to him twice. God has made big promises to him, but none of them can come true unless he has a son with Sarah. That is the one promise God absolutely must fulfill in this story. The rest can happen later, but this has to happen now.

The author has helped prepare the audience for this moment by how God has guided Abraham thus far. God only hinted at the promise before. They did not understand what God meant at first. Then, at this crucial moment, God promises much more specifically to both Abraham and Sarah. And when they actually did “weaken in faith” and “waver concerning the promises of God” momentarily, God made sure there was no misunderstanding this time. God made specific promises, not that this will happen sometime in the future. It will happen “by this time next year.”

They had hoped for this sooner. They had given up hope of it ever happening. But God keeps God’s promises at the time God chooses. And now, I, the angel of the LORD, am telling you, this is the appointed time.

Bring in an All-Powerful God

Origin stories often use a technique called Deux ex Machina, literally “God of the Machine.” Just when everything is lost, some divine being—a god, goddess, angel, etc.—swoops in and fixes everything. Today, that is considered an amateur move. This author avoids that pitfall, however, by having God appear to Abraham before this and make promises that are not specific enough. The audience knows more than Abraham and Sarah. They know God wants this to happen, even when Abraham and Sarah have given up on it.

This is God’s third visitation to Abraham, so the big pronouncement does not come out of the blue. It is consistent both with the previous appearances and what God has promised before. “I am El Shaddai,” God tells Abraham this time (Gen 17:1). That is a name Abraham has not heard before, so that alerts him and us the story is about to take an important turn.

This particular name is usually translated “God Almighty.” Another meaning I found was “God the Overcomer,” meaning that God can and will overcome any obstacles when it’s time to fulfill a promise. In this case, the obstacles were pretty significant. To review,

  • Though they were still in good health, the text makes it clear they were not having sex anymore. Not because they were unwilling, but because they were both unable.
  • The deadness of Sarah’s womb. She never had a child nor got pregnant, even when she was young.
  • Even if somehow God made her barren womb fertile, Abraham still had to rise to the occasion. That hadn’t happened in years, because (D’uh!) he was nearly a hundred years old.

But God addressed those objections even before Abraham had a chance to raise them by saying, “I am the God who overcomes every obstacle that exists and any that will exist.” And when God tells Sarah, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” that signals to her and the audience this is going to happen, in spite of any obstacles that would normally prevent it.

If your type of story allows it, you can bring in a god, goddess, angel, or superhero to make whatever needs to happen happen. Just be sure you’ve set the reader up to accept it, so you don’t look like an amateur.

Have Your Heroes Make Missteps along the Way

It was twenty-five years from when God promised Abraham a son of his own issue to when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. When God first promised, Abraham had no problem believing it. He was still a “young man” of seventy-five. He and Sarah still were active in the bedroom. Sure, she was sixty-six and had not yet had a child. But if God promised he would have a son, he would have a son. God would do God’s part in fulfilling the promise as long as they did their part (keep having sex).

But after ten more years of trying, still nothing. Sarah concluded if Abraham was to have a son of his own issue, it would have to be through another woman. So she convinced her husband to go in to her handmaid, and he had a son, Ishmael. On the one hand, it was a misstep. They stopped believing that they would have a son together. On the other hand, this misstep was not a product of doubting the promises of God.

God had not yet promised that Abraham’s heir would come through Sarah. God only promised that he would have a son of his own issue. Sarah was seventy-six before she resorted to bringing in a surrogate. She had no reason to believe at that point there was any other way. They gave up only after giving every reasonable chance, and then some, for God to make it happen. And that makes the big moment even bigger.

Heroes Recognize the Moment When It Comes, Even after Hope Is Lost

God shows up again when Abraham is ninety-nine and says now is the time, and Abraham is elated. He jumps for joy that the hope he had been living for was about to happen. Sarah is ninety when God tells her this is it, and she forgets the deadness of her womb and her husband’s flesh. She believes immediately and does not doubt it, because God said it. You know I’m kidding, right?

Sarah and Abraham react the same way at first. They laugh, not for joy, but because the very idea is utterly ridiculous. They had given up on this happening years ago. If God wanted this to happen, God should have done it before now. But note that God did not say, “You don’t believe me? Then forget it. I won’t do this for you, because you doubted my word.”

Instead, God makes it clear this is no joke. For Abraham, God repeats the promise and lets him know Ishmael is not forgotten. God will make him a great nation as well. But his heir would come through Sarah, “by this time next year.” Then God appears again and repeats it so Sarah can hear.

Last time God promised this, God was totally vague about how and when it would happen. This time, God is totally clear. You, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. And God says, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” When God makes a promise, nothing is too wonderful to prevent God from fulfilling it. God even incorporates their laughter into the promise by saying, “You will name him, ‘He laughs.’”

How did they recognize now was the time? God finally told them so. But did they believe immediately? No, they laughed. Even if they did, that was not enough to make it happen. If Abraham was not able, he was not able. If Sarah’s womb was barren, it was barren. There was nothing either of them could do to change it. The only thing they could do at this point was be open to the possibility. And that was all God required of them.

And there was one other way they recognized it was time. After all God did to tell them to be ready, there was one particular sign they needed to see. One day, for the first time in years, Abraham was able to get it up. Sorry for being crude there, but we’re adults. We know without that, there was no way God’s promise could be fulfilled. Somehow, God brought both their dead flesh back to life. Sarah conceived and bore a son at ninety-one, and they named him Isaac (“he laughs”).

Irony Makes for Memorable Stories

Sarah laughed again (Gen 21:6-7), but the meaning of her laughter changed from disbelief to joy. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” to remind both Abraham and Sarah they once thought this was impossible. When a story turns in a way either the characters or audience doesn’t expect, that creates irony. I’ve talked in previous posts about how the author uses irony effectively. The irony happens when they go from laughing at God to laughing with God. For the Israelites who first heard this story, the irony was a reminder that their very existence was once considered impossible, just like Isaac’s.

As I’ve examined how the author used irony in Abraham’s story, I was struck thinking how many of my favorite stories, the ones I come back to time and again, make effective use of irony. And it is not just in this story. Across many different authors and thousands of years going back to when these stories were first told around campfires, the stories in the Bible use irony as much as O. Henry. When it comes to making the impossible believable in your stories, irony says to the reader, “I know you didn’t expect this. I know you thought this was impossible. Now, I just showed you it’s not.”

From generation to generation, this and all the stories in the Bible have been passed down, because they are so memorable. They make us believe the impossible is possible. Or if not believe, they at least make us question whether “impossible” really is an absolute term. They open us, like Abraham and Sarah, to possibilities we had once dismissed. I think one reason is because this author and all the others represented in the Bible saw and highlighted the irony in the stories they passed down to us.

Whether or Not This “Really Happened” Really Doesn’t Matter

Anne Rice is a bestselling author who first became famous for her vampire novels. After a conversion, she turned her attention for a while toward religious fiction. In an interview, she said she used to have readers call her at 2:00 AM, begging her to reassure them that her vampires really were made up. In fiction, it doesn’t have to be real. It has to be believable.

Perhaps the same can be said of Abraham’s saga. I’m not saying it’s fiction. I’m saying it is an origin story. The reason we study origin stories is not to learn historical fact so much as to learn about the personality and culture of the people who produced those stories. What experts have found is they often began with some historical event. Over time, legends and myths grow around that event. Homer’s Iliad, for example, was once thought to be pure myth. Then archaeological excavations of the city of Troy revealed it was once a prosperous city that underwent siege and destruction around the same time as Homer said.

That does not prove that everything it says about the gods and goddesses and Helen’s abduction/escape launching a thousand ships all “really happened” as well. But it appears the whole saga began with a real event. Experts still study the Iliad to learn about the character of the people who produced those stories.

The Hebrew Bible was written primarily in what they called the land of Canaan. However, those authors were familiar with Babylonian myths. They showed some influences from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian sources. The story itself says Abraham immigrated to Canaan from cities in Mesopotamia. Could that point to a historic migration of people from Mesopotamia who eventually became part of the Hebrews and Israelites? He left the city and became a nomad and herder, so perhaps they were herders as well.

Tissot, the Caravan of Abraham
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. (Gen 12:5 NRS)

What is most important in origin stories is usually the moral and theological lessons they teach. What lessons did this author want to teach?

  1. God called their ancestors to this land with the intention that they would inherit it.
  2. God chose them to bring justice, righteousness, and the fear of God to this land.
  3. God preserved offspring through their ancestors so that through them, at the right time, the Messiah would come into the world.
  4. Remember all of God’s promises, and make sure your children know them. One day, they will all be fulfilled.
  5. Remember “nothing is too wonderful for the LORD” when it is time to fulfill a promise.
  6. Do not despise the Ishmaelites, because God had a purpose for them as well.

So what about your WIP?

Do you know the expectations of your genre? Are you meeting them? If you want your readers to believe something impossible, how are you going to make it believable? If you do it right, they should see the “impossible” become “inevitable,” just as it was inevitable that Sarah have a son at the tender age of ninety-one.

Abraham’s Story Ends

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Southern View
Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham and Sarah are buried. Photo by Utilisateur:Djampa – User:Djampa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7964820

It was very important that Isaac have a wife. That has been done. The next episode is written like an archive record according to my NRSV Study Bible (Genesis 25:1-18). This is an example of how the Bible was not written simply by divine dictation. The authors had written and oral sources they used and maybe edited as well. The archive gives Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, their descendants, his death and burial, and the descendants of Ishmael.

Another Wife, Whose Name Was Keturah

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.

(Gen 25:1-2 NRS)

Another wife, and he had six children with her. I assume this was after Sarah’s death, and after Isaac married Rebekah (Genesis 24:66-67). This would make him over one hundred forty years old. It took one hundred years for him to have one child with Sarah. Now he has six with his new wife in just a few years, relatively.

Not sure why he felt the need for it. He was too weak to travel in the previous chapter, but then he’s healthy enough to marry again and start bearing children to another woman? Again, the details of Abraham’s story are not always consistent. But if we allow that he had another revival of health, like the one that produced Isaac, what will become of these children?

Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah.

(Gen 25:3-4 NRS)

The sons of Midian are the most significant of this group. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, was a Midianite. Despite that, they often tried to thwart the Israelites during their wandering in the Wilderness (Num 22:4; cf. Jdg 6:1).

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

(Gen 25:5-6 NRS)

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. We saw how stingy Sarah was about giving anything to Hagar and Ishmael, even food and water, when she sent them away. Abraham gave nothing to his other sons as far as inheritance. But he gave them gifts while he was still living. I think, without Sarah to oppose him, he was probably more generous with these gifts than he was with Hagar and Ishmael. But Sarah’s word, “The son(s) of the slave woman will not inherit with my son,” prevailed (21:10).

The sons of his concubines; why does it give the plural, concubines? Hagar was called both Abraham’s wife and his concubine. The same is happening with Keturah. Maybe that means both Hagar and Keturah. Did he give any gifts to Ishmael after Sarah died? As a writer, I would like to play with that possibility and imagine Ishmael’s reaction when he receives the gifts.

An Old Man Full of Years

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.

(Gen 25:7-8 NRS)

One hundred seventy-five years was believed to be an above average, but still normal, life span in the age of the patriarchs.

Abraham breathed his last …. There are a number of English expressions that come from the Bible (see v. 17; 49:33). I think this might be one of them.

…and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years. This is the fulfillment of the promise God made him in the covenant. “As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (Gen 15:15 NRS).

…and was gathered to his people, a biblical euphemism for death and burial. Cf. Gen 25:17; 35:29; 49:29, 33.

Isaac and Ishmael Buried Him

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with his wife Sarah. 

(Gen 25:9-10 NRS)

Despite his troubled history with his father, Ishmael was there to bury him with Isaac. In the cave of Machpelah…the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. See 23:16-18. He was buried there with his wife Sarah.

tomb of Abraham, northwestern view
Tomb of Abraham, photo by By A ntv – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12042233

There is a lot left out, particularly any tension between Isaac and Ishmael. Compare that with all the detail of how Abraham bought this cave as a family burial plot, or how Abraham’s servant vowed (TMI there), went to Haran, and brought back a wife for Isaac. Those conversations are recorded in detail. There is literally nothing of the conversation between these two half-brothers. The archivists who recorded this were not concerned with that. They were only concerned with the facts: How old Abraham was when he died, where he was buried, and who was there.

After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

(Gen 25:11 NRS)

Beer-lahai-roi, the place where the angel of the LORD saved Hagar when she was still pregnant with Ishmael (16:10-14), is where Isaac settled. Did Ishmael see this as one more thing his half-brother took from him?

The Twelve Princes of Ishmael

These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes.

(Gen 25:12-16 NRS)

This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

(Gen 17:20 NRS)

… and Hagar:

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

(Gen 16:10 NRS)

Ishmael had twelve sons, who became twelve princes according to their tribes, like Jacob later. The descendants of Ishmael are called Ishmaelites and Hagrites (Psa 83:6; 1 Chr 5:19). The names are also recorded in Chronicles, along with each of their descendants (1 Chr 1:29-43).

The Handmaid and Her Son

Depending on the situation, Hagar is referred to as Abraham’s wife, concubine, or Sarah’s slave girl. It reminds me of how Offred was treated by the Waterfords in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fred sometimes wanted a relationship with Offred and at times engaged in activities outside the bounds of her role as a “concubine,” almost like he wanted her to be a second wife. Serena treated her at best like a concubine and at worst like a slave girl. The impression I get from the texts regarding Hagar is pretty much the same in her relations with Abraham and Sarah.

The Ishmaelites were known as nomads, but they also had villages and encampments, like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones. {Yeah, I’m a nerd. You got a problem with that?}

From Havilah to Shur

(This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.)

They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

(Gen 25:17-18 NRS)

Ishmael’s death is recorded in archival fashion similar to Abraham’s (cf. vv. 7-8). They settled from Havilah to Shur. Just prior to King David, this territory was settled by the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7).

The land of Havilah has several possible locations, as this map indicates.

Map of ancient tribes includes various Havilah locations
Havilah shown in modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.

Here, it appears to be the territory in present day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is mentioned as part of the Garden of Eden, where the river Pishon once flowed (Gen 2:11). A ancient source called Pseudo-Philo said this land exported jewels to the Amorites, who used them in making their idols.

Shur means “wall.” The location is given as opposite Egypt.

Map, likely location of Shur
They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; (Gen 25:18 NRS)

In the direction of Assyria would indicate the northeastern border of Egypt, as Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1893) says.

Shur is “a part, probably, of the Arabian desert, on the north-eastern border of Egypt, giving its name to a wilderness extending from Egypt toward Philistia (Gen. 16:7; 20:1; 25:18; Ex. 15:22). The name was probably given to it from the wall which the Egyptians built to defend their frontier on the north-east from the desert tribes. This wall or line of fortifications extended from Pelusium to Heliopolis.”

-cited in Shur, Wikipedia

He Settled Down Opposite All His People

The Egyptians are his people, because his mother was Egyptian. The land of Shur borders Egypt to the northwest. Isaac and his descendants are his people, because they have the same father. The land of Havilah borders the Negeb desert, where Isaac settled. Is this location information only?

There is another possible definition of this sentence. It could read “He fell down in opposition to all his people,” according to my NRSV Study Bible note. This is reflected in some translations.

“He settled in defiance of all his relatives” (Gen 25:18 NAS).

“And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them” (Gen 25:18 NIV).

Alongside of, or against His People?

Like the word “opposite” in English, the Hebrew phrase `al-penei can be benign, “alongside,” or “facing towards.” In that sense, it would only mean they share a border, like Georgia is opposite Alabama and South Carolina. Or it can carry the more malevolent sense of being “in opposition to” or “at odds with.” It is used twice in this verse, where the Ishmaelites settled “opposite” Egypt and “all his people.” Did they simply live alongside Egypt and Isaac (later part of Israel)? Or is this referring to the hostile relations they had at times with both Egypt and Israel?

My conclusion is this verse means the Ishmaelites shared a border with Egypt and Isaac’s land, which would later become part of the nation of Israel (See Translation Notes). However, there are other texts that indicate hostile relations between the Ishmaelites and their neighbors. Even the name Shur (meaning “wall”) refers to a border wall Egypt built for protection against raids from its neighbors, who could be the Ishmaelites, or alternatively, the Hyksos or the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7). Kedar and Nebaioth (two tribes of Ishmael) sometimes were hostile to the nation of Israel (Isa 21:16-17; 60:7; Jer 49:28; cf. Gen 28:9; 36:3).

So perhaps the double meaning of `al-penei is intentional. During times in their history when relations were friendly or at least neutral, it would mean “alongside of.” During times when relations were antagonistic, it would mean “in hostility.”

The End

Abraham’s saga began with a genealogy (Gen 11:10-32) and now ends with a genealogy (25:12-18). “The emphasis here is on the secondary lines of Abraham’s—those displaced by Isaac” (HC Study Bible, 25:1-18 note). We have his children by Keturah and the descendants of Ishmael. This completes the character study of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Lot and his daughters, based on the Biblical material. There are other sources we could consult about them: Rabbinic commentaries, the Koran, archeology, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET). But the Biblical material has given us quite a bit. There are others I’m not naming, like Isaac and Rebekah, because their stories have not finished.

For Writers: Choosing a POV Character

If I were to make a work of fiction based on these stories, I would look for a Point of View (POV) character. Abraham would be difficult. Even though he’s the main character, and he was there for all of it (except his death and burial), it’s a bit daunting to try to get inside the head of someone who plays such a big role in the Bible. Sarah would be difficult for the same reason, and because after going through this story in detail, I have less sympathy for her overall. Notice, I didn’t say no sympathy. I said less sympathy. I would want to portray them both honestly, flaws and all, not excusing their bad behavior at times, but trying to make the reader sympathize with them in spite of that.

Most of my favorite biblical or historical fiction is not from the POV of one of the big names but rather from someone close to them. Eliezer of Damascus would be a good candidate in that vein. Or one of the unnamed slaves of Abraham or Sarah. Or one of the co-religionists, who followed Abraham and Sarah from Haran because they worshiped the same god. If I chose Hagar or Ishmael, I would have to make the story about them, with Abraham and Sarah as secondary characters, who could recede into the background after they were sent away. I would have a hard time making Hagar the POV character. She is much more fascinating than I realized. But I feel Margaret Atwood has already done a great job capturing all the complexities of her character in June/Offred. {Disclaimer: Atwood never claimed June was based on Hagar, but I say the similarities are undeniable.}


Who would you choose as a POV character? Would you choose more than one (that will make it more difficult to publish today, just so you know)? Personally, I know I couldn’t do Abraham’s whole story from Ishmael’s point of view (He was only with his father for about seventeen years). But he would make a great POV character at least for the time he was with Abraham and Sarah.

“Props” for Ishmael

I think Ishmael would make a fascinating character, because I haven’t seen a serious in-depth story done of him as biblical fiction, and because he is the unwanted stepchild in this story. A troubled childhood has so much potential for character development. It could not have been easy growing up knowing he was his father’s plan B. Plan C, actually, because before he was born, Abraham had made his servant, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir in lieu of a son of his own issue (Gen 15:2). As his stepmother, Sarah probably loved him until Isaac was born. What happens to Plan C when Plan A suddenly becomes reality? If he picked on Isaac a little, it was probably the frustration of losing Abraham and Sarah to their natural son.

Then he learned at an early age that masters have absolute power over their slaves when Sarah insisted casting them out into the Wilderness, along with his mother, and Abraham obeyed. He learned then he was going to have to be tough to survive in this world. There were only two people he could count on, his natural mother and himself. And one other, El-roi, “the God Who Sees.” And so he spent about seventy years of his living “alongside” his father and half-brother. And after all that, he showed up for his father’s funeral.

That rough childhood prepared him for life in the wilderness (Gen 21:20). All that happened to him, fair or not, made him into the man he became: a wild ass of a man, strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions. Those details alone are enough to create a fascinating character.

Conclusion

I will save any further conclusions for the next post. I thought I already knew these characters, but they have all surprised me again and again on this extended in-depth character study. I hope you got something out of it as well.  

Translation Notes

I include these notes for people who (like me) love dissecting the original languages. If that’s not your bag, I put the pertinent information in subheadings and bold text.

They Settled from Havilah to Shur

וַיִּשְׁכְּנ֙וּ מֵֽחֲוִילָ֜ה עַד־שׁ֗וּר (Gen 25:18 WTT)—vayyishkenu mechavilah `ad-shur.

They settled from Havilah to Shur.

Hol8596  שָׁכַן (shakan) Settle or dwell. {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine plural}

It looks like there is a puncta extraordinaria over “Shur.” In some cases, this can indicate a significant difference, as you saw if you read my post on Lot’s Daughters. However, none of the commentaries pointed it out here, so it’s probably not important. My guess is it only calls for a defective spelling (without the vav).

Opposite Egypt

עַל־פְּנֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם (Gen 25:18 WTT)– `al-penei mitzrayim.

Opposite Egypt, or alongside Egypt.

`al-penei, lit. “against the face of.” Halladay’s lexicon says,

15. in the face of, in the sight of, before 2S 1518; in front of 1K 63; opposite to Gn 2319; against = to the disadvantage of Dt 2116.

(pg 294)

BDB says,

(d) of localities, in front of, mostly (but not always: v. GFM:Ju., p. 351) = east of, 1 K 6:3 the porch in front of, etc., v:3, 7:6, 8:8, 2 Ch 3:17, Ez 42:8; Gn 16:12 על־פני כל־אחיו ישׁכן (cf. 25:18 b), perh. (Di al.) with collateral idea of defiance;

The “collateral idea of defiance” is most significant. He could have been both alongside of his people and in defiance of them.

In the Direction of Assyria

בֹּאֲכָ֖ה אַשּׁ֑וּרָה (Gen 25:18 WTT)—bo’achah ’ashshurah.

Hol838  אַשּׁוּר  (‘ashur) a proper noun referring either to the city of Asshur or (most likely in this case) the territory of Assyria; “directional heh” at the end makes it “to Asshur” or “to Assyria.”

In the direction of Assyria, lit. “as you go to Assyria” (or “to Asshur”).

Hol975  בּוא (bo’) Go in, come, or arrive. {verb qal infinitive construct; suffix 2nd person masculine singular}  

BDB says,

e. † in phr. עַד־בּוֹאֲךָ עַזָּה Ju 6:4 cf. 11:33, 1 S 17:52, 2 S 5:25, 1 K 18:46 (עַד־בֹּאֲכָה) until thou comest to = as far as; so also בּוֹאֲךָ (בֹּאֲכָה) alone, = as far as, or in the direction of, Gn 10:19, 10:19, 10:30, 13:10, 25:18, 1 S 27:8 (all sq. ךָה loc.) 1 S 15:7; so לְבאֹ חֲמָת Nu 13:21, 34:8, Ez 48:1, cf. Ez 47:15 (in a different connexion לָבוֹא אפרתה Gn 35:16, 48:7);

He Settled Down alongside of All His People

עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו נָפָֽל׃ (Gen 25:18 WTT)—`al-penei kal-echav naphal.

…he settled down alongside of all his people.  (Gen 25:18 NRS)

`al-penei, see above.

kal-’echav, lit. “all his kindred.”

The wording is almost the same as 16:12, the only difference being the verb is shakan “to settle” rather than naphal “to fall.” There, the footnote reads:

The same phrase is used of the lands of Ishmael’s descendants in 25:18. It can be translated “in opposition to” (Deut 21:16; Job 1:11; 6:28; 21:31), but here more likely means that Ishmael’s settlement was near but not in the promised land.

-YouVersion, NABRE Gen 16:12 note

He “Fell” or He “Settled”?

Naphal, lit. “he fell (down or upon),” can carry the meaning of death (1 Sam 31:8; Deut 21:1; Jdg 3:25). In fact, it was translated that way in the King James Version, … he died in the presence of all his brethren. (Gen 25:18 KJV). John Calvin commented that was how most translations read it in his time.

The Geneva Study Bible reads that way, but adds the note, “He means that his lot fell to dwell alongside his brothers as the angel promised [Gen 16:12].” They stress he died there because it was his home.

The NRSV is consistent with most modern translations, where the verb is understood to mean “he settled (down),” or perhaps “he fell upon,” as in “he raided” or “he plundered,” rather than “he died.” Though it is a consensus, it appears to be a recent development.

Halladay’s lexicon says naphal can mean “fall,” in both literal and metaphorical senses. This can include “fall upon,” as in “make a raid” or “attack” (Jos 11:7; Job 1:15).

Hol5626  נָפַל  (naphal) “abs. make a raid Jb 115; … settle opposite Gn 2518.”

However, with `al-penei, it means “settle opposite.” BDB also believes naphal here means “settle Gn 25:18 (J).”

So while naphal can in certain contexts mean “raid” or “die,” these two Hebrew lexicons believe it carries the benign sense of settling in a place opposite all his people.

This could also apply to Genesis 16:12, which is perhaps best translated, … alongside all his kindred shall he encamp (Gen 16:12 NAB), rather than … and he shall live at odds with all his kin. (Gen 16:12 NRS). See https://www.bible.com/bible/463/GEN.16.nabre, note on v. 12.

References

Genesis, the Land of Havilah, and its Gold.” (A paper prepared for Christian businessman Graham Daniels, retrieved from Genesis Science Research).

Joshua J. Mark. “Hyksos.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 15, 2017.

Topical Bible: Havilah.” Biblehub.com

Topical Bible: Shur.” Biblehub.com

Verse by Verse Commentary: Genesis 25:18.” Studylight.org.

Where is the Land of Havilah in the Bible Located?” Answers.com.

Who Were the Amalekites?” Got Questions.

Wikipedia

Havilah

Shur