Ancient Near Eastern kings often allied themselves with one another against other kings, cementing these agreements by sending monies to their allies. We saw this with King Asa of Judah, who paid King Ben-hadad of Syria to help him in his wars against King Baasha of Israel. Breaking his earlier treaty with Baasha, Ben-hadad attacked and conquered several cities in the northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 15:16–24).
Today’s passage tells us that Syria was not content with what it took from Israel in the days of Baasha but moved against Israel again when King Ahab was on Israel’s throne. Allied with thirty-two kings, Ben-hadad invaded Israel up to the capital city of Samaria. Ben-hadad demanded Ahab’s silver and gold, as well as his wives and children, but then further called for Ahab to let him loot his palace and the homes of his servants. Ahab refused this latter demand, and Ben-hadad promised a destruction so thorough that there would not be enough dust left for his soldiers to each have a handful (20:1–12).
Given Ahab’s wickedness (16:29–19:18), Israel certainly was getting what it deserved. We would not ordinarily expect them to be rescued, but the God of Israel regularly shows grace to the most undeserving. A prophet told Ahab that the Lord would defeat Syria, and so He did (20:13–21). Syria regrouped, and Ben-hadad’s servants concluded that Israel won because the “gods” of Israel controlled the hills, where the battle took place. Syria would win if it were to fight Israel on the plains, for the “gods” of Syria were stronger there (vv. 22–25). Again we see the common ancient Near Eastern theology that tied gods to particular regions, holding that they were stronger in one place than another. But for those who know the God of Israel, the one true Creator Lord, such beliefs are amusing. Yahweh “created the heavens and the earth”—He is the strongest everywhere (Gen. 1:1). So, unsurprisingly, Israel then defeated Syria on the plains, for God was fighting for His people (1 Kings 20:22–30).
Syria’s persistent invasions proved it was not a foe to be reasoned with but one that had to be destroyed as an act of holy war. But Ahab spared Ben-hadad. Ahab had not learned that Yahweh is Lord—not merely that Yahweh is the only God but that Ahab owed him obedience, particularly in kingly responsibilities such as holy war. Thus, Ahab would be punished by God and lose his life (vv. 31–43).