Deconstructing Micaiah: Prophet, Coward, or Mastermind?
Micaiah is one of the most completely enigmatic figures in the Old Testament. Micaiah is the prophet mentioned in, and only in, 1st Kings 22. Traditional understanding of Micaiah is that of the “true prophet” of YHWH that is the only one of 401 prophets that stood up to Ahab and prophesied Ahab's downfall. With most forms of biblical criticism unhelpful or ambiguous, the post-modern, post-Watergate reader, might find a completely different understanding of Micaiah and his agenda if one analyzes the text as a whole story or through the lens of deconstructive theory. .
1st Kings 22 is a chapter of the bible that completely defies conventional forms of criticism. Scholars that follow such criticisms as historical, source, form, and even textual rarely agree with any degree of consensus exactly who or why the chapter was written or even appropriate translations of words (de Vries 4-9). Some historical critics do not even agree that Ahab was, in fact, the king that was involved in this incident at all, and suggest it was Jehu or one of the later kings of the House of Omri (Wiseman 144). Some critics count as many as eight different writers or editors in this chapter alone with who knows how many theological or political agendas (de Vries 100-107).
With all this scholarly confusion and conjecture as to what source wrote what subsection and when and why, the modern reader is essentially led back to simply having to read the text for what is says as a completed story (narrative criticism), which was what was intended to begin with. Also at the reader's intellectual disposal is deconstructive criticism, which searches for other possible meanings outside the mainstream understanding. The following analysis of Micaiah from 1st Kings 22 will, therefore, be from the lens of deconstructive narrative criticism.
One thing that the confusion as to whom or why this chapter of 1st Kings was written does suggest to the post modern reader is the issue of ambivalence. With so many potential agendas as to why it was written, one can at the least assume at the very least that the writers and editors could not even agree as to the motives of the main characters. This opens the door for expanded examination and possible deconstruction of Micaiah and what his motives could have been in relation to the story text itself. Deconstruction allows post modern biblical critics to do this by challenging the traditional understanding in order to seek out other possible meanings.
As stated previously, the traditional understanding of Micaiah and his motives were, in the end, generally understood as being of the highest moral and theological caliber (Honor 313-315). Micaiah certainly pulls off the appearance that he “speaks” for YHWH and is willing to sacrifice his freedom to put that belief to the test, as Ahab at the end of the encounter locks Micaiah up until he (Ahab) returns victorious. Certainly, if one accepts on faith that Micaiah is the epitome of the “good” prophet channeling the divine, there is no question as to the meaning of the story. Had Micaiah not given the reader any reason to doubt his word of being a true prophet, then any analysis and deconstruction of Micaiah as to other possible motives would be at the least hearsay and at the most revisionism. A careful look at the actions of Micaiah, however, warrants other possible interpretations of his overall motives and character.
To begin with, the very fact that Micaiah only appears in this one chapter of 1st Kings makes the reader a trifle suspicious to begin with that maybe there is more to this character than meets the eye. If he is such a well known and crucial “prophet,” for Ahab knows him both by name (v. 8) and reputation (v. 16), then why is this incident the only time we hear of the man? There is at least something logical about suggesting if Micaiah was such a “true prophet,” there would at least be some other accounts of his exploits in the bible.
Was Micaiah insignificant or was he historically ignored by the oral purveyors of this story when it originated in antiquity? This brings up the question of if he was forgotten or ignored by the original storytellers or later editors, why so? To the post-modern reader, two possible explanations present themselves. Micaiah may instead of being the true mouth piece of YHWH was, in fact, either a Machiavellian political mastermind or else just a coward who lied to cover himself.
The view that Micaiah might be simply a groveling coward is easily explained through the biblical text. The messenger in verse 13 advises Micaiah to tell the King what he wants to hear. Initially, Micaiah (v. 14) is non-committal, saying, “Whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” But immediately when given the chance, Micaiah loses his nerve and in verse 15b proclaims, “Go up and triumph! And the Lord will give it into the hand of the King!” An objection might be made to this logic by saying that Ahab called Micaiah's hand and Micaiah ultimately ends this escapade by telling a bizarre yarn of God sending a deceiving spirit to entice Ahab to his death by purposing lying through the 400 court prophets.
Achem's Razor, though for our purposes taken out of a scientific context and applied, perhaps dangerously, to theological analyses, says that all things being equal, the simplest answer tends to be the right one. For sake of rhetorical argument, what is the most likely? One the one hand, you have the irony of a prophet, who if he was a “true prophet, would not have lied when gotten the chance to prophesy. As stated above, this is not what happened. If Micaiah was a coward, reason would suggest that the strange story of Micaiah telling of God sending a lying spirit to deceive the 400 court prophets was actually the best story he could make up and the spot. He knew he was caught in saying something that was patently a lie, so he made up the first thing that came to his mind, an unbelievable yarn about God sending a spirit to lie to the court prophets and deceive .
Granted this analysis has many holes. Micaiah, if he was not telling the truth the first time, could have reclaimed his nerve and told the “true” prophesy about the lying spirit when given the second chance. Had he been a true coward, he would likely have stuck to his first story unless he thought his life or liberty was in danger because the King could not abide being pandered to by yet another “yes man” any longer. The question remains as to why he would have lied the first time. The analysis of Micaiah as a cowardly liar trying to save himself, though raising some interesting possible motives, is incomplete at best.
In light of modern events, an analysis of Micaiah is more likely to be viewed much more cynically by the post modern critic. The Nixon Administration was the number one political event in the later half of the 20th century in the United States. The Watergate scandal (Neal 164), Vietnam (Neal 129), and the Henry Kissinger foreign policy schemes (Hanhimäki 521) established the cynical lens through which all Post-Modern Americans view anything political (Olson 25-76), from voting to church social justice movements. With the absence of any coherent biblical criticisms for reference, the post-modern American biblical scholar, when thinking in terms of possible political intrigue, uses that lens through which Micaiah and his actions might very well equate Micaiah as a Henry Kissinger-esque figure, that is to say a political mastermind.
For instance, in 1st Kings 22:8, when Jehoshaphat asks if there is another prophet they might consult other than the 400 “yes men” court prophets, Ahab mentions Micaiah, but adds, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable...but only disaster.” To the cynical reader, that suggests one of two things, either God himself disapproves of Ahab and all his policies through Micaiah, or Micaiah has a long going political feud with Ahab personally. In either event, Micaiah never has anything positive to say and is obviously not welcome at the court. Again, if Micaiah was so well known, why is this chapter the only reference we have to such an obvious subversive?
Likewise, most scholars do not believe that the prophets merely went into some sort of trance and channeled the divine, having no sense of what they were saying. It would be a slur upon the prophets' intelligence to think that they did not know what they were saying (Robinson 247). Some texts even suggest Micaiah may have had other motives besides being against Ahab's kingship, to the extent that Micaiah (or the hand of Providence) wished to end the role of prophet as a mouthpiece of nationalism or court politico and instead change the role of prophet to one of political outsider and commentator (Anderson 243). What is most likely is revealed when Micaiah mentions in v. 14 that he will speak whatever the Lord tells him to. If he was truly just a prophet speaking for what he thought God wanted him to say, he would have immediately prophesied destruction instead of initially telling Ahab to go forth to victory.
If we are to assume he is not a coward, this is then a shrewd political calculation on Micaiah's part. If Micaiah simply tells the doom scenario immediately, this will confirm Ahab's suspicion, allowing him to write Micaiah off as simply a malcontent naysayer. Ahab knows all Micaiah ever comes up with is the proverbial doom and gloom, and Micaiah knows Ahab thinks this. Thus, Micaiah prophesies such an obvious falsehood that Ahab suspects it immediately, giving Micaiah an even bigger platform to not only condemn Ahab's forthcoming disaster but to ridicule the court prophets in the process by concocting a story about a lying spirit sent from God to deceive the 400 court prophets. Getting a jab at the court “yes men” is something Micaiah would not have been able to do had he simply come into the court and immediately went off into his usual negativity of Ahab.
Micaiah also cements his role as political schemer to the extent that he is willing to gamble on becoming a martyr to his cause(s) when Ahab sentences him to prison until his return. Micaiah yells out in true irony, no doubt as he is being dragged from the court, that “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken through me...Hear, you peoples, All of you!” These are not simply the raving of a condemned man but likely cunning but veiled political rhetoric in the form of the Great Shema, reminding the court to listen to the word of the Lord (in this case the Prophet himself), just as Moses had opened his great speeches in the Torah with “Listen (or obey) Oh Israel!”
Micaiah's previously known anti-Ahab agenda and his interesting use of court drama to drive his political agenda home would more likely lead a post modern deconstructionist toward a more Machiavellian view of Micaiah than to sheer character cowardice. In either scenario, the post modern reader is likely to view Micaiah as something more than a Godly prophet in light of his first prophecy of victory. The thought that a benevolent God sending a lying spirit to provoke someone to a violent death is not palatable to the post modern Christian. Such a story is more likely ascribed to last minute cowardice and desperation or a story driven by shrewd political manipulation and not the truthful account of a loving God lying or deceiving for the end purpose of violence.
Anderson, Bernhard. Understanding the Old Testament. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall (1998): 243.
Hanhimäki, Jussi. The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American foreign Policy. New York : Oxford University Press (2004) 521-550.
Honor, Leo. “1 Kings 22,” The Book of Kings 1, A Commentary. New York: Jewish Publication Society (1955): 313-315.
Neal, Arthur. National Trauma and Collective Memory, Major events in the American century. New York: Sharpe, Inc. (1998). 129-147, 169-180.
Olsen, Keith W. Watergate : the presidential scandal that shook America. Lawrence : University Press of Kansas Press (2003) 25-76.
Robinson, J. The First Book of Kings. Cambridge: University Press (1972) 247.
Wiseman, D.J., ed. “The Aramaeans,” Peoples of Old Testament Times. Oxford, Claredon Press (1973): 144.