The Old Testament explicitly states on two occasions that Ahab was the worst king ever of Israel. He’s also one of the more explained kings in the Old Testament; we get over four chapters mentioning him, rather than the usual one chapter or less that we get about other kings of that era. His life intersects with the prophet Elijah, so some of the stories that mention him are very famous Old Testament stories. Let’s look at what the Bible tells us about him.
Who Was Ahab in the Bible?
Ahab was a king of Israel, first mentioned in 1 Kings 16. At this point in history, the nation of Israel had split into two separate countries—one called Israel containing ten tribes and one called Judah containing two tribes. 1 Kings 16:15-20 describes how Ahab’s father, Omri, was the Israelite army’s commander, who rebelled against the king Zimri. Zimri died a dramatic death as Omri invaded his city, and then Omri defeated his competitor, Tibni son of Ginath, to become king of Israel. Ahab became king after his father died (specifically, the 38th year that Asa was king of Judah), and married a Sidonian princess named Jezebel. The rest of 1 Kings (chapters 17-22) focuses on the story of Ahab and the prophet Elijah, often fighting against each other as Elijah describes God’s will for Israel while Ahab fights against it.
What Was Ahab Known For?
1 Kings 16:30 states that “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” The first major story follows how he worshipped the pagan gods Baal and Asherah, and Elijah decreed there would be a drought to punish Israel for rejecting God (1 Kings 16:29-17:1). Elijah spent seven years in hiding, first at a brook and later in the town Zarephath (which was in Sidon, Jezebel’s home country). Then Elijah told Ahab to assemble priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, where he made a challenge: see whether God or Baal would set an altar on fire (1 Kings 18:16-24). After God set Elijah’s altar on fire, Elijah killed all the priests of Baal. Ahab told Jezebel what happened and she wanted Elijah killed (1 Kings 19:1-2). Fortunately, these plans failed and as 2 Kings 2 shows, Elijah never died—he went directly to heaven.
Later, Ben-Hadad king of Aram invaded Israel, and Ahab originally capitulated to his demands then fought back. Ahab allowed Ben-Hadad to live after defeating his forces, and a prophet condemns Ahab for doing this (1 Kings 20:37-43). Fighting against the kingdom of Aram would come up again later in Ahab’s story.
“Some time later,” as 1 Kings 21:1 puts it, Ahab tried to buy a vineyard from a man named Naboth who lived near his castle, so Ahab could turn it into a vegetable garden. Ahab sulked when Naboth refused his offer, then Jezebel mocked Ahab and had Naboth killed under false pretenses (1 Kings 21:2-16). Elijah appeared and told Ahab that dogs would lick his blood and his family would suffer terrible consequences for Naboth’s death. Ahab repented and God decided to forestall the destruction until the next generation (1 Kings 21:27-29).
1 Kings 22 describes how Ahab died. Having joined Jehoshaphat king of Judah to war against Aram, they considered retaking a place called Ramoth Gilead from the king of Aram. They sought prophets to advise them about going to battle, most of which said God would bless their fighting, but Micaiah son of Imlah said that Ahab would die in the battle (1 Kings 22:6-29). Ahab disguised himself to avoid death in the battle, but a random arrow hit him; while his chariot got him out of the battle, Ahab still bled to death (1 Kings 22:34-36). 1 Kings 22:37-40 observes that as Elijah had prophesied, dogs licked Ahab’s blood, and also that his chariot was washed in a pool where prostitutes bathed. Not exactly a dignified ending.
Why Were Ahab and Jezebel Such an Evil Couple?
The full answers to why Ahab and Jezebel were so corrupt aren’t known. For example, we don’t know anything about Jezebel’s upbringing, which might help explain her selfish and vindictive behavior. However, there are three factors that give us an idea of what went wrong.
First, Ahab and Jezebel’s behavior was similar to what previous rulers had done. By 1 Kings 16, there was an established pattern of Israel and Judah’s kings either succumbing to paganism (worshipping false gods, human sacrifices, temple prostitution, and so forth) or bringing the nation back to God and destroying all the pagan altars. Frequently the kingdoms swung back and forth between these two options from one generation to the next. So, it wasn’t exactly difficult for Ahab to start worshipping pagan idols, behave like a tyrant and ignore the prophets of God. He just had to take the status quo to a new low.
Second, Ahab was a particularly passive king. He started worshipping Baal because Baal was the god of Jezebel’s nation, Sidon (1 Kings 16:31). When Elijah showed God’s glory on Mount Carmel, Ahab stood by and let Elijah kill the priests of Baal, but didn’t do anything when his wife announced she would see Elijah dead. When Ben-Hadad king of Aram invaded and demanded tribute, Ahab acceded to his demands immediately and then complained when the invader demanded more (1 Kings 20:1-7). When a prophet foretold Ahab’s death because he went against God’s plans for Ben-Hadad to die, Ahab’s response was to go home “sullen and angry” (1 Kings 20:43). When Naboth refused to give Ahab his vineyard, his response was to sulk, and then take the vineyard after Jezebel arranged Naboth’s death (1 Kings 21:4-16). Ahab had a way of caving in to demands, following whoever influenced him, particularly Jezebel. Since Jezebel flaunted the fact that she wasn’t following God and encouraged Ahab’s bad behavior (1 Kings 21:25), his actions tended to be terrible.
Third, Ahab had a track record of blaming other people for the problems he caused. When he met Elijah after the seven-year drought, Ahab called him “the troubler of Israel,” and Elijah reminds Ahab that he is the one who troubled Israel by rejecting God (1 Kings 18:17-18). When Elijah appeared after Naboth’s death, he immediately declared that Ahab would pay for killing Naboth; rather than answer the accusation, Ahab replied, “So you have found me, my enemy!” (1 Kings 21:20). When Jehoshaphat asks about finding another prophet to consult before they go to battle, Ahab says, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah” (1 Kings 22:8). In Ahab’s mind, the problem was the prophets speaking against him, not his own behavior that prompted these warnings and judgments. Various studies (from sociological ones like the Milgram experiment to historical studies of atrocities) have found that once we believe we’re “not responsible” or blame things on someone else, we can behave poorly for a very long time without seeing the pain we are causing.
3 Lessons We Can Learn from Ahab's Life?
Given how many details we get about Ahab compared to other Old Testament kings, there are many lessons we can learn from his life. Here are three clear lessons to learn:
Know our influences. While Ahab wasn’t purely Jezebel’s stooge, she influenced him and many negative ways. Recognizing who we pay the most attention to and how they inform our choices is an important part of being mature adults who aren’t swayed in every direction.
Know what we are responsible for. Counselors and therapists talk about the idea that people and events shape us, but we still have a responsibility to own that knowledge and look for ways to grow. As noted above, one of Ahab’s big problems is that he loved complaining when people spoke out against him or things didn’t go well, but rarely owned up to the fact he had created problems.
Seek the truth, even if it hurts. As Ahab’s response to Elijah and Micaiah show, he had a way of ignoring whatever God was saying if he found it inconvenient. This only made things worse in the long run, and God’s will still happened. In the end, ignoring the truth about the mistakes we’ve made and what’s really going on just prolongs the pain and creates more complications.
Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus/Yurii Kifor
G. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.