Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Jerome T. Walsh, Ahab: The Construction of a King (Interfaces; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006). Pp. xv + 125. Paper, US$14.95. ISBN 0-8146-5176-3.

Under the editorship of Barbara Green, the Interfaces series has the stated aim of focusing on a single figure within the biblical corpus, and has already published numerous volumes (featuring major personalities such as Saul and Jeremiah, in addition to more minor characters such the Cannibal Mothers and Herodias). Books in this series are not overly long, and explicitly have the classroom in mind; Green herself refers to them as “curriculum adventures,” and she aims to have original pieces of scholarship became the site for some collaborative exchange. Within this purview, the task of Jerome Walsh is to write on Ahab. Walsh already has written a substantial commentary on 1 Kings for the Berit Olam series (1996), and draws on that work throughout this present study.

Walsh's book is structured in three parts. After a short introduction that outlines the kinds of questions that will be asked, Walsh turns to “the Ahab of History” in Part One. Here he discusses how one goes about the task of historical reconstruction—mainly by evaluating written sources and archeological material—and although he concedes that in the case of Ahab there are limitations to the availability of outside evidence, the findings suggest an era of luxury and expansion. Such data must build, therefore, on the biblical text, so in Part Two he turns to the “Ahab of Narrative.” The chapters in this section review the main facets of Ahab's characterization, beginning with “first impressions” in 1 Kings 16. After an eight page overview of basic narrative analysis (highlighting especially the ways that characters are constructed, the role of the narrator's voice, and the place of the reader), Walsh notes that Ahab's introduction comes as the son of Omri. Since Omri falls under the sway of Jeroboam's cultic abuses, Ahab enters the story under a cloud of heterodox suspicion. Marrying the Sidonian princess Jezebel surely does not help. At the end of chapter 16, there is a curious note about the rebuilding of Jericho by Hiel of Bethel. As Walsh explains, this is not incidental, but rather demonstrates a dismissive attitude toward YHWH in the days of Ahab. The king himself, by extension, may display a frivolous posture towards God's word.

After these (not overly positive) first impressions, Walsh next explores the presentation of Ahab in 1 Kings 17-19, primarily defined in terms of his confrontation with the prophet Elijah. Walsh highlights the ideological struggle in this narrative: Elijah versus Ahab stands for YHWH versus Baal. Since one of Baal's appellations in Canaanite mythology is “Rider of the Clouds,” Walsh points out that a major question in this section of text is: who controls the weather? By contrast, Elijah is not quite as prominent in the next segment—1 Kings 20-22—where Walsh observes that different contours of Ahab's character emerge. In this next chapter Walsh discusses the key events, such as the Aramean wars with Ben-Hadad, the infamous annexing of Naboth's vineyard (with assistance from Jezebel), and the confrontation with the prophet Micaiah. The “Ahab of Narrative,” as Walsh concludes this section of his book, is a complex piece of work.

Part Three of the book (“The Construction of the King”) features three chapters that revisit some earlier issues, including matters of historical and redaction criticism, Ahab's interaction with various prophets, and the wars with Aram. His conclusion (“Of Methods and Meanings”) summarizes the earlier discussion of reading approaches and interpretive presuppositions.

If one were to use this book in a classroom situation, there are a host of questions that emerge here, allowing the instructor to go in a variety of directions. Why is it that so much attention—more than any other northern monarch—is focused on Ahab? Is it because they way this king is characterized in the narrative, or because this era in Israel's story is one fraught with idolatrous compromise? How does the portrait of Ahab contribute to the overall storyline of the Deuteronomistic History? Of course, I am not meaning to suggest that the Deuteronomistic History has to be the regnant hypothesis, but what happens when one gives further consideration to the contribution of Ahab (as a literary figure) in terms of the larger narrative complex of Joshua-Kings? Naturally, there are other kinds of inquiries that spring to mind. In terms of Ahab's cultural cache for the liberal arts undergraduate student, is the captain of Melville's ship in Moby Dick aptly named? Why does Northrop Frye—the great Canadian literary critic—refer to Ahab as a “sinister clown”? My hunch is that those who use this volume for a seminar-style discussion will have lots to talk about.

Keith Bodner, Atlantic Baptist University, Moncton, NB