Israel leading up to Omri

If we were to look at some children’s material for the period of the Divided Kingdom, we would likely find 2 lists of kings: one for the kings of Judah, another for the kings of Israel. Each king would be represented by either a smiling face for a king that followed God or a frowning face for a king that disobeyed God. Judah’s list would have a few smiling faces found among the frowns; no smiling faces would be found among Israel’s kings. It did not have to be that way.

Many will remember God’s displeasure with Solomon because “his heart was turned away from the Lord” (1Kings 11.9). As a result, God declared that He was ripping part of the kingdom from Solomon. The Lord’s choice to lead the northern tribes of Israel was Jeroboam and God promised that if Jeroboam would follow His commands, He would establish his kingdom (1Kings 11.37-38). As we know, Jeroboam did not follow the commands of Jehovah.

As a result of Jeroboam rejecting the ways of God, his house would not endure (1Kings 14.7-10). In fact, Israel was doomed to political instability especially during the early part of her history. (All dates taken from FF Bruce, Israel and the Nations)

  • Dynasty of Jeroboam
    • Jeroboam (930-909 BC)
    • Nadab (909-908 BC)
  • Dynasty of Baasha
    • Baasha (908-885 BC)
    • Elah (885-884 BC)
  • Zimri (884 BC, ruled for only 7 days after assassinating Elah)
  • Tibni (884-881 BC, half of the people followed Tibni during a 4 year civil war following the death of Zimri)
  • Dynasty of Omri
    • Omri (881-873 BC)
    • Ahab (873-852 BC)
    • Ahaziah (852 – 851 BC)
    • Joram (851-841 BC)

The house of Omri

Several chapters are devoted to the reign of Ahab while a mere 10 verses are devoted to Omri, the founder of the dynasty (1Kings 16.16-17, 21-28). Yet, we must not underestimate his importance. There is some debate as to whether Omri was an Israelite given that his father is not named, nor is there any family or tribal association given (contrast with Tibni in 1Kings 16.21). Omri had served as the commander of Elah’s army (vs. 16) and it was not unheard of for foreigners to rise to prominence in the army. Consider that David enlisted Ahimelech the Hittite (1 Sam 26:6), Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 23:39), Zelek the Ammonite (2 Sam 23:37) and Ittai the Gittite (2 Sam 18:2). However, this line of reasoning is not conclusive. What we can know for sure is that Omri did much to strengthen the kingdom of Israel.

The choice of Samaria as capital (vs. 24) would prove to be an enduring one as it would remain Israel’s capital until the destruction of the kingdom in 720 BC. It was strategically located from both military and commercial standpoints.

Omri expanded Israel’s borders via conquest, in particular by suppressing Moab (see 2Kings 3.4). Note this inscription from the Mesha Stela: “Omri was the king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Kemosh was angry with his land.”  

He allied Israel with Phoenicia by choosing Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal, to be the wife of his son Abah (vs. 31). “This reestablishment of Phoenician-Israelite ties secured inland markets for the Phoenicians and Mediterranean trade for Israel. It effectively cut Aram-Damascus out of the trade routes passing from Arabia and the Red Sea up the King’s Highway of Transjordan and on to the Mediterranean Sea. This alliance is one of the major causes for the century of warfare between Aram-Damascus and Israel in the ninth and eighth centuries b.c.” (Zondervan Illustrated Biblical Backgrounds Commentary)

Assyrian records would refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” until Israel’s destruction in 720. Even the Biblical writers would sometimes refer to a member of Ahab’s family by their relation to Omri (see 2Kings 8.26; 2Chronicles 22.2). 

The reign of Ahab

We will look at Ahab’s reign in some detail in this study, but there are a few things to note as we get started. First, Israel remained a military power during his reign. This is best seen in the Kurkh Monolith inscription of Shalmaneser III, describing the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. Ahab is said to have brought 2000 chariots and 10,000 infantry to the battle, second only to the Syrian force. Yet, the Biblical writers portray Ahab as personally weak. We will note this aspect of Ahab’s character in such accounts as the Mt. Carmel showdown (1Kings 18) and Naboth’s Vineyard (1Kings 21).

Of great significance is what the text says regarding Ahab leading Israel further into apostasy: “It came about, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went to serve Baal and worshiped him. So he erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal which he built in Samaria. Ahab also made the Asherah. Thus Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:31–33, NASB95)

It should be noted that Ahab was not looking to replace worship of Jehovah with worship of Baal, rather he was instituting a syncretic system of worship where both were worshiped. Note that Ahab references Jehovah in the naming of his children:

  • Jehoram: Yahweh is high
  • Ahaziah: Yahweh has taken hold
  • Athaliah: Yahweh is exalted

While the worship of Baal had already been a problem in Israel’s history, what Ahab and Jezebel did was to make idolatry a part of Israel’s national identity. “In accepting Baal, Ahab was simply bringing his kingdom closer to the mainstream of ancient Near Eastern thought and practice. In fact, most cities and kingdoms in the region had their local versions of Baal… Under Ahab Israel became yet another Baal-worshiping nation state.” (Zondervan Illustrated Biblical Backgrounds Commentary)

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the conclusion of 1Kings 16: “In his days Hiel the Bethelite built Jericho; he laid its foundations with the loss of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates with the loss of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which He spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.” (1 Kings 16:34, NASB95) On the surface, this passage demonstrates the ambition of Ahab, as would numerous other building projects. However, we also know that this was done with blatant disregard for the Lord’s command (see Joshua 6.26). Could the passage also demonstrate a deeper issue? Why would God command that Jericho not be rebuilt? For centuries the city had stood watch over the pass into the interior of Canaan. Could it be that the Lord was saying Israel should put its trust in Him, not in fortifications? Thus, Ahab put his trust in fortifications, not the Lord.

Rise of the prophets

While the popular conception of prophecy is that of relating information concerning future events, that was not the only function or even the main function of Biblical prophets. A prophet was a spokesman for God, delivering any message God chose to give, whether relating to events in the distant future, to the current status of God’s people or even the reminder of God’s gracious acts in the past.

Israel had prophets scattered throughout her history going all the way back to Moses (see Deuteronomy 18.15-18). However, once the kingdom divided following Solomon’s death, prophets come to the forefront of God’s dealing with His people and with their kings. Note how the prophets began appearing even before Elijah is introduced:

  • A prophet, a “man of God”, rebuked Jeroboam after he erected the golden calves at Dan and Bethel (1Kings 13) 
  • Ahijah the prophet foretold the ending of Jeroboam’s dynasty (1Kings 14)
  • Jehu prophesied how Baasha’s dynasty would end (1Kings 16)

So, it is significant that right after we are introduced to Ahab and Jezebel who “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1Kings 16.33), we are introduced to Elijah (1Kings 17.1). This man of God, who would risk his life by confronting kings, is given little introduction other than stating that he was from Tishbe in Gilead (on the eastern side of the Jordan River) and that his family still worshipped Jehovah (his name means, “My God is Yahweh”). His background and history are secondary to the fact that he was a faithful spokesman for the Lord. 

The work of Elijah and Elisha would continue throughout the reigns of Ahab and his two sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram. Israel’s rulers and her people may have forgotten God, but He had not forgotten them! “Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah through all His prophets and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep My commandments, My statutes according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you through My servants the prophets.””
(2 Kings 17:13, NASB95) 

Where We’re Going

On the surface, this class is an examination of Israel during the days of Elijah and then Elisha. But while men and women such as Elijah, Ahab, Naaman, Jezebel and the widow of Zarephath play roles in the narrative, the key figure is Israel’s God, Jehovah. So, we are not going to be looking at the text chapter by chapter, rather we are going to look at what this time in Israel’s history says about God in relation to idols, what it says about God and His people, and what the text reveals about God and the nations.

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