‘Go up and triumph’ — Micaiah, Mitt Romney and Nate Silver

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic offered an in-depth look Friday at “The Internal Polls That Made Mitt Romney Think He’d Win.” (Ed Kilgore offers a good summary of how “Team Mitt Fell Prey to Two Big Myths.”)

Nate Silver, who’s famous for sorting out the accurate from the misleading in polling data, says that “When Internal Polls Mislead, a Whole Campaign May Be to Blame.”

Silver offers some thoughts on the perils of internal polling:

“He may worry about harming the morale of the candidate or the campaign if he delivers bad news.”

The problems with internal polls may run deeper than the tendency for campaigns to report them to the public in a selective or manipulative way. The campaigns may also be fooling themselves.

Our self-perceptions are very often more optimistic than the reality; 80 percent of people think they are above-average drivers, for example.

… A pollster working within a campaign may face a variety of perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results to his candidate. He may worry about harming the morale of the candidate or the campaign if he delivers bad news. Or he may be worried that the campaign will no longer be interested in his services if the candidate feels the race is hopeless.

This reminds me of one of my favorite biblical characters, the sulky, sarcastic prophet Micaiah, whose story is told in 1 Kings 22.

Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, is trying to recruit Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to join him in going to war against their mutual enemy. Being a good king, Jehoshaphat suggests that they first consult with the prophets of the Lord.

So Ahab assembles his internal pollsters, the flattering court prophets:

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about 400 of them, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?”

They said, “Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

Jehoshaphat is a bit skeptical of the prophets on Ahab’s payroll and asks “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” Ahab says:

“There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.”

Jehoshaphat won’t budge until he hears what Micaiah has to say, so the hateful prophet is summoned. He arrives to quite the scene, with all 400 of Ahab’s loyal yes-men enthusiastically cheering for Team Ahab.

The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing-floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.

Zedekiah son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron, and he said, “Thus says the Lord: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.”

All the prophets were prophesying the same and saying, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

Ahab asks Micaiah the same question that the rest of these prophets have already answered, “Shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?”

Micaiah looks around at all the other prophets, sees Zedekiah prancing about with his iron horns, and figures the king has already made up his mind. “Go up and triumph,” Micaiah says, “the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

The story in 1 Kings doesn’t say that Micaiah smirked or that he was being sarcastic. It doesn’t have to say that. Ahab’s reply tells us all we need to know about Micaiah’s tone of voice: “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”

Fine then, Micaiah says, you really want to hear the truth, I’ll tell you the truth: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’”

Ahab turns to Jehoshaphat and says, See?, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”

But Micaiah isn’t done yet. He has a thing or two to say to the 400 court prophets cheering for Ahab’s war:

Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the Lord pass from me to speak to you?”

Micaiah replied, “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.”

The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah, and … put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.”

Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, you peoples, all of you!”

I think getting thrown into prison and fed “reduced rations of bread and water” for delivering bad news is a pretty vivid example of the kind of “perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results” Silver described.

1 Kings goes on to tell us the rest of Ahab’s story. He went to war and it ended just as disastrously as Micaiah had prophesied.

But then we’re left with one of the most annoyingly fragmentary stories in the scriptures. We never come back to poor Micaiah in prison or hear what became of him. That portentously specific bit of foreshadowing he gives to the false prophet Zedekiah — “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber” — is just left hanging.

Frustrating, that. It’s just shoddy storytelling to write “You will find out …” and then forget to let your readers find out. This seems like fertile territory for a bit of biblical fan fiction. If the authors and editors of 1 Kings (and 2 Chronicles) couldn’t be bothered to supply us with a proper resolution to the stories of Micaiah and Zedekiah, then maybe we should just write one ourselves.

  • AnonaMiss

    My fanfic finger is itching, but I want to hear what the Jewish commenters have to say first!

  • Ross Thompson

    I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven
    standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord
    said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at
    Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until
    a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice
    him.’ ‘How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a
    lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You
    are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ So you
    see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your
    prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

    So the yes-men were real prophets, but the prophesy they were listening to came from an angel(?) that God  had instructed to lie to them, so that Ahab would wage war foolishly and be destroyed? Is that right?

  • http://twitter.com/MarySueTwiteth Mary Sue

    “Biblical Fan Fiction” is more properly called midrash. At least that’s the interpretation of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and I enjoy that interpretation

  • Magic_Cracker

    That’s about right. I’m interested in how Micaiah apparently infiltrated or otherwise got access to the Heavenly Host’s deliberations, thus learning of the Lord’s plan to get Ahab to indulge in some imperial overreach by way of a well-executed disinformation campaign. Was the Lord ignorant of Micaiah the Mole, or was it some back-end plausible deniability in case Ahab raised a stink at the Throne of Judgment?

  • Michael Mock

     I’m inclined to think that this wasn’t meant as a description of any actual state of Celestial affairs; it sounds to me like a vividly poetic way of asking, “Why are you listening to these guys? They wouldn’t know a divine revelation if it fell on them.”

  • Michael Pullmann

    So can we use this story to say the Evil Overlord List is biblically inspired?

  • LL

    Well, duh, Micaiah mysteriously died one night in prison (through no fault of the jailers, of course), lest he be able to tell anybody (that hadn’t already heard) that the war ended the way he said it would. That Zedekiah guy probably prophesied a couple of hot chicks for himself as wives (or concubines) and didn’t give Micaiah a second thought.

    That’s pretty much what happens to people who tell us stuff we don’t want to hear. We literally kill them or we damage their reputation to the extent that nobody believes what they say, even if they’re right. We say we hate it when people lie, but that’s not really the case. We really, really hate it when someone tells the truth. It really gums up the works when one guy (or chick) refuses to go along with the carefully constructed house of cards that is most societies in human history. 
     

  • Vermic

    400 prophets?  Talk about your bloated administrations.  Why does one kingdom need 400 prophets at a time?  Heck, why does one deity need 400 prophets at a time?

    I also feel the need to take Ahab’s side on this.  Just because Micaiah is the lone dissenting voice, it doesn’t automatically make him wiser, or right, or even sincere.  After all, playing the contrarian can be a great way to get attention and appear smart.  Micaiah may well be playing the same dishonest game as the 400 suck-ups, just coming at it from the other direction.  From Ahab’s point of view, how can you tell?

    All we are told about Micaiah before now is that he’s only ever predicted disaster for Ahab.  Well, obviously those predictions didn’t come true, because Ahab is still king and Israel is doing well enough to employ 400 prophets and plan invasions.  Seems to me that Ahab should have every reason to be skeptical of this guy.

  • JustoneK

    Hey, this was before standard postal services or cell phones.  Having a lot of prophets meant divine messages got around quicker and to more people.

  • histrogeek

    A couple of things. Ahab didn’t keep prophets on the payroll exactly; they were more like journalists and analysts, theoretically independent but preferring access. As far as the 400 for one deity, Ahab did tend to hedge his bets deity-wise.
    On the other hand, it is a bit mean for God to be sending deceptive spirits to screw with Ahab. Like hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus. I suppose the justification, such as it is, is that Ahab just wasn’t the sort to listen to anything he didn’t want to. (How much time did Elijah spend hiding out from Ahab and Jezebel’s assassins?) So God was doing the nemesis thing, use the twit’s weakness against him.

  • Magic_Cracker

    400 prophets?  Talk about your bloated administrations.  Why does one kingdom need 400 prophets at a time?

    Well, you’ve your Prophets, Deputy Prophets, Assistant Deputy Prophets, Executive Prophets, Consulting Prophets, Special Prophets, Prophet  for Agriculture, for Economic Affairs, for Phillistinean Studies, for Inter-tribal Relations, etc., and various Under-prophets and Sub-prophets of and for all of the preceding. Being king is hard and requires deep knowledge of the issues, close attention to detail, and a feel for the psycho-political mood of the kingdom,  and a large stable of advisers and analysts makes post-hoc justification of what you’ve already decided to do that much easier.

  • Robyrt

    Micaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne” etc. implying that it was a vision pretty much in the same style of divine visions/dreams throughout the Bible. It reminds me of Job 1 actually.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Yeah, but who sent him the vision, and why? Or was he that good a visionary that he could get in and out of the trance before the Lord noticed an unauthorized user on the psychic hotline? Was he working for someone, some known Adversary of the Lord or even the Lord Himself, or was he engaged in a bit of “free enterprise”? Fact: Ahab permitted a a number of temples to Baal constructed within his kingdom — what was their role in all this?

    And as Fred’s pointed out, the last few pages of the final reports on Operation Firepants have been completely redacted. By whom? For what purpose?Too many questions, and the answers have gone down the memory hole. I smell a cover up….

  • Robyrt

     I assume that God sent the vision, effectively as a press release: “The court of heaven is not affiliated with any prophetic predictions issued by these 400 purported spokesmen.”

    While it’s fun to imagine a cover-up, it’s probably a much more boring case of the author of Kings not having access to the end of the story either. The book is usually quite happy to provide the gory details of what it really means to “hide in an upper room”, especially when it comes to Ahab & co. so redaction is unlikely.

  • Magic_Cracker

    While it’s fun to imagine a cover-up, it’s probably a much more boring case of the author of Kings not having access to the end of the story either.

    That’s just what They want you to think, man! Wheels within wheels… Daniel knew the score.

  • Jessica_R

    I am a terrible person so that picture will always make me laugh and laugh. It’s so Rayford Steele discovers the Rapture isn’t actually going to happen. 

  • Magic_Cracker

    He looks a lot like Bruce Campbell in that picture.

  • MikeJ

    Did Micaiah write for Slate? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Albright/100001047690991 Michael Albright

     The Lord may well have just read enough Greek literature to figure nobody would listen to Micaiah, anyway.

  • Ken

    Micaiah could have left it at “the Lord will give it into the hand of the king,” without saying which king.  The Delphic oracle gave similar advice to Croesus, when that king planned to attack Persia: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.”  It turned out to be Croesus’ empire.

  • Tricksterson

    I thought it was Ezekiel who saw wheels within wheels?  And flaming ones at that.

  • Alex Martin

    Well hiding in an inner chamber in this context suggests to me hiding from an invading army, hoping the soldiers will content themselves with taking everything they see and not worry about murdering you, either for sport or because of some genocidal decree.

    Now Zedekiah asked Miciah about the actions of the Lord. I think given that, Miciah’s response is a veiled prophecy of Zedekiah’s death. “You’ll know the ways of the Lord when the soldiers about you’ve prophesied doom drag you out of your hole and send you to join him”, only more oblique, because, prophets they’re never totally specific about things like this.

  • rizzo

     OT God loves to play tricks on people like that, he’s a real kidder that one…

  • phranckeaufile

    That translation is inaccurate. On the linked site, the translators have both the 400 prophets and Jehoshaphat referring to “the Lord” written in small caps, indicating that in the original Hebrew both the 400 prophets and Jehosophat referred to “Yahweh.”  

    In fact, however, the 400 prophets said that “adonai,” the generic Hebrew term for lord or master, would hand over Ramoth Gilead to King Ahab. That is why Jehosophat was unsatisfied with the prophecy and asked “is there not a prophet of [Yahweh] still here?” He did not ask if there was “no other prophet” of Yahweh that could be consulted, because he had yet to hear from one. 

    See https://net.bible.org/#!bible/1+Kings+22:5 and accompanying notes.

    This story seems to me to be another version of the famous confrontation between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal (another Northwest Semitic term for lord) on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Sorry, filling in annoying holes that another mythological tradition has.  For example “What the hell happened to Leukippos after he disappeared by the will of the gods, and which gods will was it?”  (Not Apollo, and probably not Eros son of Aphrodite if you’re following Ovid, which leaves Leukippos out entirely because Ovid is more concerned with women turning into trees.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.mcirvin Matt McIrvin

    Sounds to me as if Micaiah was thinking you didn’t exactly have to be a prophet to know these guys were in big trouble.

  • reynard61

    “Did Micaiah write for Slate?”

    *For* Slate? Doubtful. *On* slate? Possibly…

  • hapax

    If the authors and editors of 1 Kings (and 2 Chronicles) couldn’t be bothered to supply us with a proper resolution to the stories of Micaiah and Zedekiah, then maybe we should just write one ourselves.

    Fred, you seem to forget that you issued this challenge once before, and Jo Walton took you up on it, with a heartbreaking poem : http://papersky.livejournal.com/538583.html

  • http://twitter.com/ScribeJay Jay H

    Technically the spirit does refer to the yes-men as *his* – Ahab’s – prophets. Not God’s.

  • Ross Thompson

    Technically the spirit does refer to the yes-men as *his* – Ahab’s – prophets. Not God’s.

    Granted, but Ahab’s prohets were decieved by some member of “the hosts of heaven”, on God’s instruction, and with God’s approval. The prophets are Ahab’s, in the sense that Ahab pays them, but they’re God’s in the sense that they’re saying what God [or at least, one of his subordinates] is saying through them.


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