1 Kings 20: The Syrian War

1 Kings 20 tells us about the beginning of a war between Syria and the northern kingdom. As we saw in the previous chapter, God was setting up a revival of the nation through Elijah, Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu, but in order to accomplish this, Benhadad, the current king of Syria, had to be dealt with.


1 Kings 20 tells us about the beginning of a war between Syria and the northern kingdom. Despite Ahab's idolatry and difficulty leading the nation, God steps in to save Israel from defeat. As we saw in the previous chapter, God was setting up a revival of the nation through Elijah, Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu, but in order to accomplish this, Benhadad, the current king of Syria, had to be dealt with.

Syria Attacks Israel

Photocredit: Wisbey
Before Elijah anoints Hazael, God's choice for king of Syria, the king of Syria is Benhadad. Benhadad attacks Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, with a vengeance. Victorious, he tells Israel to surrender and lays claim to their wealth, wives, and children. King Ahab initially agrees, but recants after consulting with the elders. It seems odd to agree before consulting with anyone, but it seems odder still to consult someone after the decision has been made. Nonetheless, this fits the character of Ahab who has already proven to be a terrible king. Willing to put up a fight, the elders tell Ahab not to consent to Benhadad's request. When Ahab sends messengers to refuse the king, Benhadad's reaction is violent. If he hadn't been trying to start a war, he was now; Benhadad sends an entire an army against Israel.

Prophesied Victory

An unnamed prophet comes to Ahab to tell him that God has said Israel would be victorious. We know this prophet isn't Elijah, because Elijah was in hiding and Jezebel, Ahab's wife, wanted him dead. Given that prophets of the true God were in short supply in the northern kingdom, it makes me curious as to who the prophet actually was. At this point in time, we don't know if Ahab knows who Elisha is or that Elisha is working with Elijah, so it is possible the prophet is Elijah. It is also possible that this prophet was a an ordinary person suddenly moved by God to further His Will. We must also consider that this prophet is actually pagan (like Balaam), since it seems unlikely that Ahab would consult a real prophet.

First Battle

Israel is able to assemble an army of 7000 men, led by 232 princes of the tribes. I find it interesting that the number of men in the army matches the number of men God tells Elijah He still has in Israel in 1 Kings 19. Assured the victory, according to the prophet, Israel attacks at noon, to find Benhadad and his 32 kings were drunk. The 32 kings of Benhadad were likely leaders of tributary nations (i.e., nations that had fallen to Syria).[1]

Needless to say, this a surprise to the Syrian army. Benhadad commands his men to take the Israelites alive regardless of their intentions. This was probably a hard command to follow, considering the leadership was drunk; perhaps some of the soldiers were too. Weapons and units were likely not in place or set for battle. Instead of being taken captive, the Israelites kill most of the army and force them to retreat. Careful not to give them the opportunity to regroup, Israel pursues the army and Benhadad as they retreat. The battle is described as a great slaughter with even horses being killed as Israel destroyed the army's weaponry. After proving a miraculous victory at His hand, God has the prophet return to inform Ahab that the Syrians would be back at the beginning of the next year.


Benhadad believed that like him, Israel had multiple gods and that their gods were tethered to Earthly objects. In this case, he figured God was a god of the hills and attributed his loss to the location of the battle. Following this thought, Ben-hadad assumed he would have better success fighting them in the plains. What he didn't know was that the God of Israel is the God of the world, He is not confined to a particular location.

Following his own flawed logic, however, Benhadad gives the order to rebuild the army. As God told Ahab, at the beginning of the next year, Benhadad was ready to fight against Israel once again. Since the army was just as large as the previous army, Israel was still out numbered.

Second Battle

Ahab wasn't a good king, but God had pledged His loyalty to the people of Israel long before the nation even existed. Each time He pledged His allegiance, He reminded them that they would drift away but that He would still be there when they returned. When Benhadad relegated God to a particular location, He provoked God to once again come to Israel's rescue whether they repented or not.

God tells the Israelites that He will prove the Syrians wrong in their assessment that He was not God of the valleys. To do this, Israel had to be successful in battle. The two armies set up camp in the valley and the battle begins 7 days later. The Israelites were able to kill 100,000 of Syria's soldiers that very day. Assuming Israel was still fighting with an army of 7,000, this means that on average, each Israelite killed 14 or 15 people.

Many of the soldiers who weren't killed fled to the nearby city of Aphek. While there a wall falls on them, killing the 27,000 men that were left. Can you imagine? You barely escaped from the battle only to be flattened by a wall! We know that God had a hand in this because what are the odds of something like this happening? Benhadad was probably just realizing how wrong he was about God. Deserting his men, Benhadad flees.


Benhadad's servants suggest he should broker a treaty because Israel has merciful kings. The servants were right because Ahab makes a covenant with Benhadad, after Benhadad pleads for his life under the guise of being his brother. In the covenant, Benhadad promises to restore cities to Israel that his father had taken previously. Benhadad also gives Israel trading privileges in Syria.

God Rebukes Ahab

While it may have been merciful, and perhaps even prudent for Ahab to agree to the covenant, God did not authorize this covenant. Ahab had been ordered to kill Benhadad and he had failed.

A prophet is sent to Ahab to send a message. Interestingly, he asks a stranger to "smite" him (meaning injure) and the stranger refuses. When the stranger refuses to assist the prophet's mission, God smites the stranger! A second stranger obliges the prophet who gains an audience with the king by way of his injury. Disguised with ashes, he presents a scenario which represents Ahab's disobedience. Eventually, he condemns Ahab for letting Benhadad go when God had commanded his destruction.


  1. Jamieson Fausset Brown. "1 Kings 20 Commentary", via; visited January 2017

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