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by Al Maxey

Issue #838 -- January 18, 2022
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

Isaiah 2:17 - English Standard Version

Where the Prostitutes Bathe
A Powerful, Poignant Parenthetical

The American author and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), one of the famous "Hollywood Ten" who refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (for which he was sent to prison for a year), made this interesting observation, "There is nothing noble in death. What's noble about lying in the ground and rotting? What's noble about never seeing the sunshine again? What's noble about being an idiot? What's noble about being blind and deaf and dumb? What's noble about being dead?" Scripture, especially the NT writings, depicts the state of death as being an enemy. There is nothing pleasant about dying or being dead, so our Lord Jesus came to conquer this enemy and all the horrors associated with it. Thus, for all those who are in Christ, there can indeed be a pleasant prospect associated with one's death: i.e., the promise of a resurrection to life eternal, which is the hope (confident expectation) of all who place their trust in Him. Paul wrote that he had a "desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better" than living on in this present time and place (Philippians 1:23). On the other hand, I doubt that Paul viewed the process of death as being in any way attractive or pleasant. It can, for some, be terrifyingly ignoble in nature, as it most certainly was for Israel's King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Although we may not readily recall many (if any) of the details of their life and reign, we most certainly remember the shame of their demise, a shame highlighted by certain details the Bible associates with their deaths. It is one of these parenthetical details that we will examine in this study.

King Ahab of Israel was not a very nice guy, to put it mildly. Ahab was the son of King Omri, who was also an evil man (1 Kings 16:25), and Ahab became the ruler over Israel "in the 38th year of Asa king of Judah, and Ahab reigned over Israel in Samaria 22 years, and he did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him" (vs. 29-30). A contributing factor to the evil nature of his reign was his wife: "Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and he went to serve Baal and worshipped him. So, he erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal which he built in Samaria. Ahab also made the Asherah. Thus, Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him" (vs. 31-33). It was at this moment in time that the Lord called the prophet Elijah to confront King Ahab for his many sins, and to inform him that God would be sending a great drought and famine upon the land (1 Kings 17:1). Over the course of the next few years, we find several of the memorable stories that most of us learned as children, such as Elijah raising the widow's son from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24 - see my recent study of this in Reflections #833 - "The Prophet and the Widow: A Reflective Study of 1 Kings 17") and Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal and the Asherah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:19-40). We also meet a few very interesting servants of God during this time: Obadiah (1 Kings 18:3f), Elisha (1 Kings 19:16f), who was to be Elijah's replacement, Naboth, whose vineyard Ahab coveted, and which led to a particularly devious and deadly incident for which Ahab and Jezebel would be punished severely (1 Kings 21:1f), and Micaiah (1 Kings 22:8f). These six chapters in 1 Kings make for some fascinating reading and reflection, and you would all benefit from taking some time to consider them. I would also refer you to a study I did about 15 years ago on the prophet Micaiah's interaction with Ahab: "The Magnificent Micaiah: Fearless Prophet vs. Faithless Potentate" (Reflections #321).

But let's jump forward to the death of Ahab. It was prophesied that he and his wife would both come to a rather inglorious and ignoble death for their many acts of wickedness, especially with regard to their treachery toward Naboth (1 Kings 21:17-24). Elijah told Ahab that "the dogs will eat Jezebel" (vs. 23) and "the dogs will lick up your blood" (vs. 19). The account of her death is a brutal one, and it may be read at 2 Kings 9:30-37. She was thrown from an upper window and Jehu trampled her to death under the hoofs of his horse (vs. 33). Later when they went to get her body in order to bury it, "they found nothing more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands" (vs. 35), for the dogs had consumed the rest, just as it had been prophesied. Thus, "the corpse of Jezebel will be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so that no one can say, 'Here is Jezebel'" (vs. 37). This was certainly not the manner of death and the disposition of her body that Jezebel had envisioned! Nothing "noble" about this death! But, Ahab, her husband, fared no better. A soldier (Josephus says the name of this soldier was Naaman) drew his bow and fired a single arrow "at random and struck the king of Israel in a joint of the armor" (1 Kings 22:34). Ahab didn't immediately die, but was taken out of the battle "which raged all that day; and the king was propped up in his chariot in front of the Arameans, and died at evening, and the blood from the wound ran into the bottom of the chariot" (vs. 35). "So, the king died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried the king in Samaria" (vs. 37).

This brings us to the passage in question: 1 Kings 22:38 - "They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed), and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared" (New International Version). As noted above, it was prophesied by Elijah that the blood of the king would be lapped up by dogs. That fate was realized, just "as the word of the Lord had declared." It also makes sense that the king's chariot would be covered in blood, and thus in need of being thoroughly cleaned, for his bleeding body had been propped up for many hours in that chariot as the battle raged around him. It would have been a mess! "Lest the troops become discouraged, Ahab's servants propped him up in the chariot. Unable to attend to his wounds, the king slowly bled to death. At evening Ahab died and his blood poured out into the floor of the chariot" [Dr. James E. Smith, I & II Kings, p. 441]. "Although he had many shortcomings, cowardice in battle was not one of them. So that the soldiers would not become discouraged by his death, Ahab had his dying body propped up in his chariot. As the sun set on the day's battle, Ahab's life blood gave out" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 166]. The body of the king was taken to Samaria and buried (1 Kings 22:37), which was a better fate for his body than his wife's!

The king's chariot, on the other hand, was taken to a particular pool in Samaria, and there it was washed (vs. 38); presumably being made ready for use by the next king of Israel, who was Ahab's son Ahaziah (vs. 40). Precisely which pool of water this was is not made clear, for most cities had one or more such pools. We are simply told it was in Samaria. "In the course of time, bathing pools were built in most villages" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 490]. The American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author, Dr. Albert Barnes (1798-1870), informs us that "a large tank or reservoir, probably identical with this pool, still remains on the slope of the hill of Samaria, immediately outside the walls" [Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. "The water supply of large cities, stored up in pools or large cisterns, was available to some degree for bathing" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 439]. Some scholars suggest that using water from these pools to bathe the body was not a common practice among the ancient Jews, and that most such "bathings or washings" were more ritualistic and ceremonial in nature. Other scholars disagree, and they provide evidence that "indicates the practice was fairly common and widely practiced and not exclusive to members of the upper class" [from an article in the Archaeological Study Bible titled "Cultural and Historical Notes on Bathing," p. 456]. It is rather safe to say that such "pools" were used in ancient times for a number of different purposes. On this occasion, in our text (1 Kings 22:38), it was being used to clean the king's chariot of his blood.

It is at this point in this passage, however, that things "start getting weird," with speculations regarding interpretation abounding. Notice this phrase in the text: "They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria..." (NIV). Okay, so who washed the chariot? Who are "they"? Some say it was probably the soldier assigned to be the driver of the chariot, and perhaps an additional soldier or two who rode with the king as personal bodyguards. After delivering Ahab's body to Samaria, they immediately took the chariot to the pool to clean it. The Contemporary English Version reads, "Some workers washed his chariot," which, of course, could still have been these soldiers. The Easy-to-Read Version says, "the prostitutes washed the chariot." Most translations and commentaries, however, don't try to get too specific here, for such specificity is sheer speculation at best. Instead, they just say "they" washed it; "someone" washed it; "the men" washed it; or, even more non-specifically: "the chariot was washed." Who washed it is really a minor point in the narrative (if it's even "a point" at all); it doesn't really matter. What matters is what is described as happening around this cleaning of the chariot: hounds lapped and harlots bathed. More about this later.

A few scholars don't like the idea of prostitutes (whether they be common whores or cult priestesses from an idol's temple) being included in the passage, and so they remove the reference to these women. Instead, they say the Hebrew word should be translated to mean the king's armor, which would have been quite bloody also. The King James Version, for example, makes no mention of harlots; instead, the text is changed to read: "And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up his blood; and they washed his armour." This rendering by the KJV is "a manifestly incorrect reading" [The Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary, e-Sword]. Very, very few translations followed the lead of the KJV on this. Even the New King James Version broke away, reading instead, "while the harlots bathed." Dr. Charles Ellicott wrote, "There seems little doubt that this is a mistranslation, and that the Septuagint rendering (supported also by Josephus) is correct: 'And the harlots bathed in it'" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 3, p. 96]. In a footnote to this passage, the NIV suggests an alternate reading: "weapons." Dr. Jesse C. Long, Jr., who taught at Lubbock Christian University (I once had an associate minister who studied under Dr. Long), wrote, "There is no need to translate 'prostitutes' with the unusual connotation of 'weapons' (as in the NIV text note). ... Coupling prostitutes and dogs in 1 Kings 22:38 reminds the reader, by association of ideas, of the whole idolatrous career that has brought Ahab to this ignominious end" [The College Press NIV Commentary, p. 270]. The word "dog," by the way, is used figuratively in the Bible at times (though these here were literal dogs) to represent a male prostitute. The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition goes in another direction: they too remove any reference to harlots, and instead say, "they washed the reins."

I agree with the vast majority of theologians and translators: the reference is to prostitutes, not to the armor the king wore, or to his weapons, or to reins. This particular word in the Hebrew "occurs in the Old Testament only in the sense of 'harlots'" [The Pulpit Commentary, e-Sword]. "This Hebrew word occurs often in the Old Testament and means nothing else but 'harlots,' while the verb in the sentence is not one applied to washing articles that need cleaning, but only to bathing the body" [The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, e-Sword]. A new, and strange, twist to this view is that the Jewish spiritual leaders understood the word to mean "harlots," but they did not believe the text spoke of real women. Instead, "they suppose that Jezebel had made Ahab two images of prostitutes, which he had with him in the chariot, although it is not worth inquiring into the use for which they say these images were made" [Dr. Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 478]. "Some say two whores were painted on Ahab's chariot, by the order of Jezebel, to inflame his lust, and these were what were washed" [Dr. John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, e-Sword]. Interesting speculation, but there is really no evidence for this view.

Matthew Henry (1662-1714), a pastor who was born in Wales, but lived mostly in England, believed that the dogs lapping up the blood was a figure for the future eternal torment of the lost. He wrote, "The dogs licking the guilty blood was perhaps designed to represent the terrors that prey upon the guilty soul after death" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. The Septuagint (the Greek OT) says that it was "the swine and the dogs" that licked up the blood of Ahab at this pool of water. Adding "swine" in with "dogs" and "harlots" just serves to deepen the shame associated with the disposition of this wicked king's life-blood. The Septuagint also states, as do some English versions of the Bible, that "the whores bathed themselves in his blood." Just imagine the image this conveys to the Jewish mind. The Contemporary English Version reads, "and prostitutes washed themselves in his blood." Whether they actually applied his blood to themselves (which seems unlikely), or whether this indicates some harlots were there bathing when the chariot was being cleaned, and thus some of the blood entered the water they were using, is often debated. I believe the latter makes more sense. It is also very likely that no prostitutes were actually present at the time, but the parenthetical statement merely affirmed that the water used to clean the king's chariot was in fact unclean because this was the pool where the harlots came to wash themselves. If these prostitutes were additionally cult priestesses at some nearby idol temple, whose sexual favors were considered worshipful sacrifices to their idol, then the water of this pool would have been (to most Jews) doubly unclean and polluted. Thus, this chariot of the king of Israel would have been washed with unclean water, thereby rendering it "unclean," and the blood of the king of Israel would have been befouled by being lapped up by both dogs and swine! "The dog and the harlot are the animal and human types of uncleanness," to say nothing of "swine," if one accepts the addition provided by the Septuagint [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 3, p. 96].

Again, just imagine how all this would have impacted the faithful Jews of this time! They would have been horrified, appalled, disgusted. And that is exactly how the Lord God wanted them to feel. This passage, 1 Kings 22:38, was placed in this narrative for exactly this reason! It is a wakeup call to all who might desire to live as wantonly as Ahab and Jezebel. It paints a picture of how God views the sum of their lives, and how He would have us view the sum of their lives. It is a divine warning! "The fact that the dogs licked up the blood and the harlots were bathing in the pool, when the chariot that was stained with the blood of Ahab was being washed, is mentioned as a sign of the ignominious contempt which was heaped upon him at his death" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, p. 281]. May we all take heed to this warning from our God!


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Many thanks, Al, for your article "A Pauline Problem Passage: Does Paul Promote the Doctrine of the Trinity of Man in 1 Thessalonians 5:23?" (Reflections #837). Your understanding of the topic was well-explained, well-researched, and well-documented! As always! I recently saw an article on Facebook regarding Amos 5:23 and 6:5, from which the author supposedly "proved" the sinfulness of using musical instruments in worship. Contextually, the problem there seems to be with people's hearts, as often was the case, and also the idea of substituting or replacing what God really wants with external things. So, context is important. Thoughts? God bless, brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, your point in your article "A Pauline Problem Passage" is very well made! It was comprehensive and also condensed with the statement, "being made wholly holy." Peace, brother.

From a Reader in California:

Hi, Al. Great article this week on one of Paul's problem passages. Also, I just finished reading your latest book "From Ruin to Resurrection." What a great piece of work! I feel like for the first time (and I'm 60) many things finally made sense that were problem areas before! I have another problem passage that I could use your thoughts on: John 1:12. Why does John use the wording "right to become children of God"? He could have plainly said (as he usually does), "As many as believe ... or all who believe ... become children of God," or something more direct like that. But, he uses the word "right" or "power." Is he trying to preserve the notion of free will? Is it just poetic (albeit confusing) language? Is he trying to express the thought that we have the "right," yet we must somehow actually exercise that right? I don't get it. Maybe I'm just overthinking it.

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, I have been extremely busy lately (in the process of selling our current property and relocating). I mention this only to let you know that I took the time out to read your excellent article "A Pauline Problem Passage." I don't see a single thing I would disagree with in this article! The quotations are very good. I have long believed this way, and I recall discussing some of this with our mutual friend (now deceased) Curtis Dickinson. This would have been around 1978 when he and I were both speakers at a conference at Glen Eyre in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He picked me up at the airport and, because the plane was late, he got a parking ticket. I felt bad about this; he told me he was going to contest it. Something that stands out to me about this verse is that Paul was speaking to a group of people (plural), not an individual. If he had said, "A man (singular) is composed of body, soul, and spirit," then that could have one meaning. But, he was speaking to a group of believers. There are a number of passages that use body, soul, and spirit of a group of people (plural). Examples: "The soul (not souls) of the people was grieved" (1 Samuel 30:6). "Them that believed were of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). The Philippians were to "stand fast in one spirit and one mind" (Philippians 1:27). If the soul of a man was inherently immortal, then surely, with the word being used in hundreds of Bible verses, somewhere in the Bible we would read at least once about an "immortal soul." Yet, that phrase never appears in the Scriptures!! Thank you, Al, for your study!

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