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Drought in the Days of Ahab

Most of us are familiar with the episode of Naboth's Vineyard or Elijah's dispute with the prophets of Baal. What is less known, however, is the background to the dramatic occasion in which Elijah decreed the stoppage of rain in the days of Ahab.
Dedicated to the memory of
Hana Bat Haim
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1. There Shall Be Neither Dew Nor Rain
2. Encounter in the House of Mourning
3. Ahab's Insult
4. Elijah's Oath

One of the most dramatic stories in Scripture is the account of Elijah the Prophet's struggles with King Ahab. Is there anyone who is not familiar with the episode of Naboth's Vineyard and the famous accusation: "Have you killed, and also taken possession?" (I Kings 29:19), or Elijah's argument with the prophets of Baal: "How long will you hobble between two opinions?" (ibid. 18:21).

What is less known, however, is the background to the dramatic occasion in which Elijah decreed the stoppage of rain in the days of Ahab. How did events unfold and lead up to a situation wherein Elijah was forced to decree through oath that rains not fall?

"And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, but according to my word'" (ibid. 17:1).

Let us consider this episode in light of the words of the Sages of the Talmud (in Sanhedrin 113a and in the Jerusalem Talmud, ibid. 10:2).

Encounter in the House of Mourning
How are we to understand life's events and their hidden message? What is their lesson and meaning for man? Are they governed by Divine providence and guidance in keeping with the principals of justice and reward and punishment? Or perhaps no meaning whatsoever need be sought out, perhaps the world follows its blind course, subject the winds of chance for better or for worse? Is good fortune the result of good luck, or is it the fulfillment of unavoidable blind fate which was fixed in advance?

These are the sorts of questions people discuss in a mourner's house, when put face to face with death and loss. Each individual responds in accordance with his own starting point and his own outlook on life, with no advantage to any person in the world. "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart " (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Now Hiel the Bethelite sat immersed in his mourning, in shocked bereavement at the loss of all of his children, from his firstborn, Abiram, to his youngest, Segub. He struggled to understand the meaning of this event. Why did he not merit seeing through the construction of the city to its end and celebrating its completion? And why did these tragedies come upon him in such an unnatural manner, one after another, all of his sons dying in his own lifetime?

People have become accustomed to seeing death as part of life. This is the way of the world, the manner in which generations come and go, a cycle in life which cannot be halted . . . but Hiel could not understand why it had happen to him of all people, such a strange and terrible blow, one which ran counter to life's natural course? That all of his offspring be cut down so suddenly? Why and what for?

So Hiel sits and makes an accounting, considering his actions and the events of his life one by one, scrutinizing and examining them . . . where did he go wrong? He begins to meditate aloud. Perhaps his hardships struck him because he disregarded Joshua's curse prohibiting the rebuilding of Jericho . . . yet he immediately justifies himself: did he not call the city by a different name? Then he raises the possibility that Joshua's curse was of a two-fold nature: on the one hand, Joshua forbade the construction of any city upon the site of Jericho's ruins, even if it bear a different name; on the other hand, he forbade building a city and calling it Jericho even if it be in a different location.

Before Hiel sits the consolers, likewise pained and shaken. They find it hard to speak. How does one even begin to console a person who has seen all of his offspring cut down for no apparent reason? Amongst the consolers sits Hiel's dear friend Ahab, and, on the other side, his prophet Elijah who does not say a word.

Hiel waits for Elijah's response. He wants to hear what the prophet thinks of his explanation . . . and Elijah confirms Hiel's words: indeed, the prohibition was two-fold, and this is the reason that he is now being punished. He went against Joshua's ban. Elijah continues, saying, "Blessed be the Lord of the righteous who keeps and fulfills the words of the righteous!"

Ahab's Insult
As noted, amongst the comforters also sits Hiel's dear friend, Ahab. It was he who suggested that Hiel build the city. Now, as if bitten by a snake, Ahab springs up and attacks Eliyahu: how is it possible to even consider such a thing, to link an event which took place five hundred years ago to that which is taking place here and now? After all, so many things have disappeared since then, and any trace of love, hate, or envy harbored by previous generations for these things has already ceased to exist. Clearly a "law of limitation" must apply to Joshua's ban!

To support his position, Ahab points to his victories on the battlefield. After all, when the soldiers of his own generation go out to war they win. Yet, in the time of David, who was a righteous king, Israel would go out to war and fall in battle . . . so what strength could Joshua's ban really have?

"Who was greater," Ahab asks, "Moses or Joshua?"

"Moses!" everybody answers.

Ahab arrogantly continues, "Here, we find that Moses warns us in his Torah to 'beware, lest you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them. For He will become angered by you and shut up the heaven that there be no rain, etc.' (Deuteronomy 11:16,17). Yet there is no form of idolatry in the world that I did not worship, and, just the same, my generation has enjoyed unbounded goodness and comfort!

"There was never any shortage of rain in my days. Despite the fact that I erected idols on every single hilltop, rain falls without fail, and the soil yields its produce generously. We have tuned aside and served other gods, but the water has risen to our knees! Why, the abundant rains have given us so much water that people are unable to go to the houses of idolatry to thank the idol for all of his goodness! What do you say to this? If the words of Moses have not been fulfilled, how can the words of Joshua his disciple be fulfilled?"

Elijah's Oath
Initially, Elijah did not intend to go and console Hiel. He feared that if he were to join the comforters, he would end up hearing words of heresy and impudence towards God. He sensed that he would not be able to remain calm in the face of talk aimed at angering and belittling the Almighty. However, the word of God pressed him to go and participate in the condolences, for Hiel was a prominent individual, and it was important that Elijah appear before him during his mourning period to give him support in his time of pain.

And indeed, after hearing the words of the prophet, Hiel submitted; he acknowledged his sin and accepted his punishment. However, Ahab's words of heresy sullied the atmosphere and enraged Elijah, and he set about taking Ahab to task:

"Listen Ahab! And listen all of you as well, mourners and comforters! Why does the Torah describe the story of Israel's travels in the desert at such length, right down to the very details? It does this in order to strengthen the authenticity of these events, so that the story not turn into a mere folktale with the passing of time. Future generations must be made aware of just how miraculous Israel's survival in the desert was, that such a great assembly succeeded in enduring a barren and unsettled wilderness for forty years.

"This is also the reason that Joshua pronounced an eternal ban forbidding the reconstruction of the city of Jericho. The ruined city must remain an example for generations to come, and all must take note of the city's walls, sunken into the earth in a manner that defies nature. Future generations should know that these walls did not simply sink into the earth with the passing of time, but that they plummeted at once, by virtue of the miracle.

"When a person erases signs of the nation's past, detaching it from its roots, he effectively cuts off the sources of its vitality and endangers its continued existence. Even the punishment meted out in the case of Jericho done so measure for measure: he who chooses to rebuild Jericho will himself be bereaved of continuity, deprived of his offspring.

"This is the essence of the ban and oath which Joshua brought to bear upon Israel: leave the walls of Jericho as they are, sunken into the earth, in order that future generations see and take note. To create a Jericho 'substitute' in some new location would be an historical falsification. Likewise, reconstructing the ruins of Jericho would be like erasing the past. It must be left as it is without any restoration or reconstruction so that the signs of the nation not be erased.

"Now, regarding Ahab's argument. He points to the fact that though his generation turned aside and served other gods, it was blessed with rain, and from here he concludes that 'there is no justice and no Judge,' that one need not acknowledge any Divine providence in the world. This led his generation to worship the gods of fertility which exist in the world by establishing hilltop altars 'like heaps in the furrows of the fields' (Hosea 12:12).

"But I hereby swear - for God has permitted me to swear in His name - that if words of blaspheme be uttered here while Hiel mourns, if Joshua's curse be denied - a curse which has become evident as a result of Hiel's painful experience - if God's providence in the world be ignored, as Ahab has argued that it should be, then from the very place that you, Ahab, brought your proof, from the rain itself, will I prove that the world is not without an Overseer:
'As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, but according to my word' (I Kings 17:1)."

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Scriptural quotes in the above article were taken from, or based upon, the Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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