A Tale of Two Prophets
The story of the Man of God from Yehuda and the Prophet from Beit El described in Melakhim I 13 ranks high on the list of the most enigmatic tales in Tanakh. The chapter describes how the Man of God (אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים) relays a prophecy of destruction against the altar in Beit El and its priests. He is then offered, but declines, an invitation to eat by the king, explaining that he is Divinely prohibited from dining in the city. Yet, not long afterwards, he is persuaded by another prophet (הַנָּבִיא הַזָּקֵן מבֵּית אֵל) to do exactly that, transgressing his own word. Though it is the Prophet from Beit El who deceives the Man of God, it is only the latter who is punished.
Almost every aspect of the story raises questions:
- Yerovam's invitation –What leads Yerovam to invite the Man of God to his home? Considering that just a few minutes earlier the king had attempted to apprehend the prophet, it is hard to imagine that he suddenly had a change of heart and simply wanted to enjoy his company. Is the invitation an attempt to appease the Man of God, or, perhaps, a trick to silence him?
- The prohibitions – Why is the Man of God prohibited from eating and drinking in Beit El? Why is he not allowed to "return the way he came"? Are the prohibitions symbolic acts with some underlying prophetic message or are they a practical measure? Is the reason for the two prohibitions identical?
- The Prophet from Beit El – Who is the נָבִיא הַזָּקֵן who deceptively invites the Man of God to eat by him? Is he a true or false prophet? Moreover, what motivated his invitation? Did he intentionally lead the Man of God astray or did he simply not recognize the potential ramifications of his deed? If the former, what did he have to gain by the Man of God's downfall?
- Easily deceived – What led the Man of God to be so easily deceived? Why was he not more wary of transgressing a Divine directive?
- Unjust retribution? Why is the Man of God punished so harshly if he only transgressed unintentionally? And, if he did deserve his punishment, why is his death so wondrous, and his body miraculously preserved? Finally, what role do the lion and donkey's unnatural behavior play in the story?
- The sinner benefits (חוטא נשכר)? Why, in contrast to the אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים, does the Prophet from Beit El not only go unpunished, but additionally benefits from the incident? Later in Melakhim II 23 we learn that his bones are saved due to his shared burial with the Man of God. Where is the justice in this?
Reaffirmation of Prophecy
After telling of the death of the Man of God, the chapter describes at length the various actions undertaken by the נָבִיא הַזָּקֵן in response. He troubles himself to retrieve the body, announces to all the reason for the death, buries the Man of God in his own grave and eulogizes him. Afterwards, he reaffirms the original prophecy of the Man of God, requesting to be buried alongside him since he is certain that his words are to be fulfilled: "הָיֹה יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר קָרָא בִּדְבַר י"י עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית אֵל". How are all these actions to be understood?
- Is the Prophet from Beit El distressed at the turn of events, and hoping to make whatever reparations he can? Or, is he only acting in his own best interests?
- Did he always believe in the truth of the original prophecy, or is that a new development? If the latter, what caused the change, and why does he decide to reaffirm the Man of God's words?
- How do the older prophet's motivations in this part of the story compare to his initial motivations when he deceived the Man of God?