The Prophet from Beit El
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 Judean Man of God ("אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים מִיהוּדָה") 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 from Beit El ("הַנָּבִיא הַזָּקֵן מבֵּית אֵל") to do exactly that, transgressing his own word. Though it is the Prophet from Beit El who deceives the Judean prophet, 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 Judean prophet 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 Judean prophet, or, perhaps, a trick to silence him?
- The prohibitions – Why is the Judean prophet prohibited from eating and drinking in Beit El, and 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 Prophet from Beit El who deceptively invites the Judean prophet to eat by him? Is he a true prophet or a false one? Moreover, what motivated his invitation? Did he intentionally lead the Judean prophet astray, or did he simply not recognize the potential ramifications of his deed? If the former, what did he have to gain by the Judean prophet's death?
- Easily deceived – What led the Judean prophet to be so easily deceived? Why was he not more wary of transgressing a Divine directive?
- Unjust retribution? Why is the Judean prophet punished so harshly if he transgressed only 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 Judean prophet, 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 Judean prophet. Where is the justice in this?
Reaffirmation of Prophecy
After telling of the death of the Judean prophet, the chapter describes at length the various actions undertaken by the Prophet of Beit El in response. He troubles himself to retrieve the body, announces to all the reason for the death, buries the Judean prophet in his own grave, and eulogizes him. Afterwards, he reaffirms the original prophecy of the Judean prophet, 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 acting only in his own best interests?
- Did he always believe in the truth of the original prophecy, or is this a new development? If the latter, what caused the change, and why does he decide to reaffirm the Judean prophet's words?
- How do the older prophet's motivations in this part of the story compare to his initial motivations when he deceived the Judean prophet?
Purpose of the Story
A final question relates to the role of this story in the larger Yerovam narrative. Why was it necessary at all for Sefer Melakhim to include the interaction between the Judean prophet and Prophet from Beit El? What message is the reader supposed to take from it?