The Lying Spirit Which Deceived Ahab

I Kings 22 records a very strange incident. Ahab wanted to go to battle in Ramot Gilad and all his prophets predicted he would succeed. But then another prophet comes and says that God sent a “lying spirit” to the other prophets to trick them into prophesizing falsely. What is this strange “lying spirit”? And does it really happen that sometimes prophecies are fake, sent by false messengers to trick people? If so, how can we ever trust prophecy? And further, isn’t falsehood detestable to God?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the important issues. You are right that the episode raises some fundamental issues in Jewish theology. I will first summarize the episode, and then I’ll discuss the relevant issues.

In I Kings 22 (and II Chronicles 18) the wicked Ahab, King of Israel, asks Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, to accompany him to battle in Ramot Gilad against the Kingdom of Aram. Ahab produces around 400 of his false prophets, who all predict that they will be successful. When this does not satisfy the God-fearing Jehoshaphat, a true prophet of God is called, Michayhu ben (son of) Yimlah (for some reason transliterated into English as Micaiah ben Imlah).

After some hesitation, Michayhu describes what actually occurred in Heaven. A great gathering was convoked, with God seated upon His throne and the host of Heaven to His right and left. God’s Heavenly court was clearly in session. God called out for a spiritual being to seduce Ahab to go to Ramot Gilad to be killed. A spirit came forth and volunteered, saying it would be a “lying spirit” in the mouth of all Ahab’s prophets. This is what was causing all of Ahab’s false prophets to lie and say Ahab would be victorious. But in fact, only death awaited him in battle. Ahab impetuously has Michayhu locked up, and then goes out to battle and to his death.

This episode raises some fascinating issues. We often hear in Scripture about the false prophets of Ba’al who led the people astray. But we typically imagine them to be simple charlatans, perhaps even drug addicts who would whip themselves up into a false high. But in this case God Himself appears to send a “false prophecy” down to earth? Can prophecies sometimes be false, deceptions God sends to punish people? If so, how can we ever trust prophecy? And finally, who is this “lying spirit” which volunteered to fool Ahab? Are there really such wicked spirits floating about in God’s heavenly court, prepared to make such trouble?

I’ll begin by answering the final question. Who was the lying spirit that stepped forward? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89a, 102b) explains that it was the soul of the recently deceased Naboth the Jezreelite. Jezebel, Ahab’s wicked queen, recently had him framed and killed so that Ahab could take his vineyard (see I Kings Ch. 21). Naboth's soul was now in Heaven. Yet it sought revenge for the wickedness perpetrated on it. And so it volunteered to become the tool God would use to lead Ahab to his death.

It is true that this is very atypical of God to punish a person via such means, by deceiving him with false oracles. According to the Talmud, it was really Naboth, who seethed for vengeance, who volunteered to act in such a lowly manner. God had intended to use other means of deceiving Ahab, without resorting to lying (Maharsha to Talmud Sanhedrin 89a). Yet God permitted Naboth to do so once he requested it – no doubt because the wicked Ahab was so deserving of punishment. But it cost Naboth as well. God responded to him, “Go out and do so.” The Sages see an allusion in God’s response “go out” that God further meant “Go out of My vicinity.” I.e., now that you have acted on your desire for revenge, you can no longer dwell so close to God in Heaven. Falsehood cannot dwell before God. Go out – and stay out.

(This entire incident also carries an important message for us. Naboth was not instantly transformed into a lofty angel upon his death, who cared for nothing but God and saintliness. He still carried the same anger and vindictiveness as during his lifetime – and it caused him to lose his closeness to God, in spite of the circumstances of his undeserved death. We too, after 120, will still possess the bad qualities we never corrected in our lifetimes, and they will hinder our ability to fully cleave to God.)

What about the false prophecies? Does God really sometimes send such to the world? And if so, how can we ever trust prophecy?

The answer is that what occurred to King Ahab’s prophets was nothing like the overwhelming experience of true prophecy. And anyone objective could have seen this. Ahab’s false prophets were not falling into a deep trance as occurs to prophets, and they were not being elevated by an overpowering spiritual encounter. It was simply a deceased soul imparting fake information to them – almost like a bad dream. They did realize that something more was happening to them than their usual charade – and in fact this may be why they took such exception to Michyahu’s rebuke (see v. 24 that a false prophet went so far as to strike him). But anyone who had any idea what prophecy truly is knew that theirs was an empty experience.

In fact, the reason Jehoshaphat asked for another prophet of God (v. 7) is because he recognized fakes when he saw them. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89a) explains that Jehoshaphat was familiar with the principle that two true prophets do not speak in the exact same manner. Every prophet has his unique style. Thus, since all the prophets were saying the exact same thing, he could tell that he was not witnessing true prophecy. (See Derech Hashem 3:4:11.)

Thus, in conclusion, although the episode of Kings 22 was very unusual, it does not contradict our belief in the authenticity of prophecy. The utterances of Ahab’s prophets were clearly false. They were only authentic enough for the rash Ahab to allow himself to be fooled – and to march off to his well-deserved death.

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