Ahithophel’s bizarre behavior


The Torah frequently mentions ancient practices and historical ideas that were later changed and elevated to reflect their ideas of ethical ideals. Maimonides cites sacrifices and the lex talionis, the phrase “an eye for an eye,”[1] as examples. He writes in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that the Torah only “allowed” sacrifices that had become customary to the ancients “to continue” as a “concession” to their primitive notions. He writes in 3:41 that the rabbis explained that an “eye for an eye” should be understood as monetary compensation, not mutilation. Other examples of practices that were include slavery, discussed in the Bible, which Judaism later discontinued, and the requirement to nullify loans during the Sabbatical year that the rabbis changed, allowing the continuation of the loan to further commerce.[2]


Another change

Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848–1919) was a brilliant but iconoclastic rabbi and biblical scholar and the author of Mikra Kipheshuto, in which he presents interesting, original, frequently non-traditional Bible interpretations. He was shunned by many when he translated the New Testament.

He suggested that suicide be added to the list of post-biblical rabbinical changes made to reflect certain ethical beliefs.[3] He bases his conclusion on the suicide of Ahithophel related in II Samuel 17:23.


  1. What happened to Ahithophel?
  2. What did Ahithophel do before his suicide?
  3. How does the Bible describe Ahithophel?
  4. How did Ehrlich evaluate the rabbinical view of suicide?
  5. Is there support for Ehrlich’s idea?
  6. Why would Maimonides disagree with Ehrlich?

The Ahithophel Story

Chapters 13–19 of II Samuel relate the tragic tale of Absalom, the son of King David, who rebelled against his father. In chapter 17, Ahithophel, whom Absalom elevated to be his advisor, advises Absalom to attack David immediately, surprising him at night with a division of twelve thousand soldiers; Ahithophel himself would lead the attacking forces.[4] This clever advice seemed wise to Absalom and his senior advisors. It would probably have succeeded, but Absalom, in an over-cautious manner,[5] asked Hushai the Archite for his take on the plan.

Unbeknownst to Absalom, Hushai was loyal to David. Hushai argued that Ahithophel’s plan failed to take into account David’s past exploits. He asserted that David was accustomed to surprise attacks, which he used frequently, and would be prepared for one, easily defeating Absalom’s army of twelve thousand. He advised Absalom to wait a short time and gather a larger force from all over Israel for the battle. He added that Absalom should lead the forces himself.

Absalom accepted Hushai’s plan over Ahithophel’s more reasonable one; the idea that he should lead the military and assume the glory suited his vanity,[6] and the delay suggested by Hushai meshed with Absalom’s over-cautious tendency to procrastinate and postpone. Hushai’s reason for suggesting the delay was that it afforded him time to warn David, preparing him for Absalom’s maneuver, a tactic that ultimately worked; David defeated his son’s forces. Thus, Absalom’s vanity and nature triumphed over Ahithophel’s reason. It is also possible that Hushai suggested gathering a large number of soldiers because enlisting so many soldiers would cause much talk and David would thereby be warned of an impending attack.

Who Was Ahithophel?

In 16:23, II Samuel testifies to Ahithophel’s wisdom, saying that “the counsel of Ahithophel, which he counseled in those days, was as if a man inquired of the word of God; so was the counsel of Ahithophel both with David [when he counseled him] and with Absalom [when he abandoned David and joined his son].” Thus both a reasonable evaluation of Ahithophel’s plan and the Torah’s testimony seem to support the conclusion that his advice was wise. However, as stated, Absalom rejected it and listened to Hushai.

II Samuel does not reveal Ahithophel’s thinking following Absalom’s rejection of his plan. However, it is reasonable to conclude that he, a seasoned counselor and warrior, foresaw that Absalom was making an enormous error and would be defeated. It is also likely that he knew that when this occurred David would be told of his advice to Absalom and would take revenge by executing him. He must have foreseen that under the law, existing at that time and until the recent past in many countries, the king confiscated the property of a person that he executed. Therefore, since he would surely be killed, he opted to die by a means that saved his property for his family – suicide.

Ahithophel wisely decided to first set his house in order and advise his family about how to act following his death. Although unmentioned in II Samuel, he probably told them not to act antagonistically to David lest he use their antagonism as an excuse to kill them as accomplices to Ahithophel’s traitorous advice and seize the property he was leaving them.

A single verse, 17:23, describes Ahithophel’s end: “And when Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass,[7] and arose, and got him home, unto his city, and set his house in order, and strangled himself: and he died and was buried in the sepulcher of his father.” This verse does not judge or criticize Ahithophel’s suicide.

In chapters 16 and 17 of my Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, four other examples of biblical suicides are examined, demonstrating that there is no explicit biblical prohibition or condemnation of suicide. It was the rabbis who first condemned people who committed suicide.

The Rabbinical View

The rabbis interpreted Genesis 9:5, “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of ever beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man,” to include a prohibition against suicide, even though the plain meaning of the verse does not even hint at this prohibition.[8]

Jewish law today requires that a suicide be buried away from the burial ground of non-suicides, “behind the fence.” The early book Semachot, composed during the first centuries of the first millennium CE, states that unlike the usual mourning for dead, “There may be no rending of clothes, no baring of shoulders, and no eulogizing for him.” The middle practice of baring shoulders is no longer performed for anyone. Semachot states that these rules only apply when the suicide was performed beda’at, meaning that the suicide knew what he was doing and had control over the situation.

The Bible, as previously stated, does not criticize Ahithophel; indeed, it praises him in 16:3, quoted above, as being exceptionally wise, and states that he was buried “in the sepulcher of his father,” contrary to rabbinical law for suicides. Thus, Ehrlich seems to be correct in understanding suicide as another example of the rabbis changing biblical law to conform to their ethical beliefs.

Ehrlich’s View on Suicide

Ehrlich asks whether the rabbinical change in the law is reasonable. He argues that the rabbinical enactment is only reasonable when the suicide fails to properly care for his family and society. If suicides leave sufficient funds and property for their spouses to carry on after their death without any burden on the family and with no obligations on society, if the suicides leave no debts, they should, in Ehrlich’s opinion, be allowed to do with their bodies body what they will. He claims that the old practice, the biblical practice, is correct and should not have been changed.

This reasoning, he continues, applies to an average individual, one of the vast majority of humanity, who makes no significant present or future contribution to society. However, it does not apply to a wise person who has the competence to continue to contribute to society’s benefit. Wise people rob the community of their future possible contributions by their suicide, and it is wrong for them to kill themselves.

Errors in Ehrlich’s Thinking

Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Parhon (twelfth century) offered the now generally accepted theological view why the rabbis prohibited suicide: a person’s life and body do not belong to him or her but to God, and so people cannot do with their bodies and lives as they please.

This point aside, there are also some practical non-theological reasons for the rabbinical enactment, which Ehrlich did not consider. First, Ehrlich ignores the scientific finding that virtually all suicides are psychologically disturbed and overwhelmed when they kill themselves. It is the rare individual, perhaps Socrates taking the hemlock in 399 BCE, when he could have escaped and saved his life, who is an exception. The rabbis recognized this psychological factor when they said that the mourning rites are not voided for suicides when suicides do not know what they are doing or have lost control over themselves and their circumstances, and they said that the mourning restrictions for suicides are rarely if ever applied. Ehrlich should have also recognized this psychological fact and agreed with the rabbis that no one should be allowed to commit suicide.

Second, even in the possible rare case of a fully unemotional and reasonable suicide, Ehrlich completely overlooked the immediate trauma that a suicide has on his or her family. He did not consider the enduring loss that a family feels over the death of even a “non-productive” family member, their own sense of failure and guilt, as well as the shame that the family feels for years. This is another good reason to prohibit the act.

Third, it is wrong and even arrogant to say that there are people who can make no contribution to humanity.

My father, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, was a very smart man; among other feats, he knew the Bible by heart. Father asked the question: “Judaism stresses that people should be humble. It also tells us that we should speak truthfully. How is it possible for wise people, who know they are wise, to lie by acting humbly before a person less wise than they know they are?”

Father answered that truly wise people know that they do not know everything[9] and that all other people also possess some knowledge that they do not have. It is therefore not a lie to be humble before everybody. Ehrlich missed this understanding of the value of all people; everyone, not only the wise, has something to contribute to others.

Ehrlich also did not accept Maimonides’ final statement in his Guide of the Perplexed: humans should strive to develop their intelligence and acquire knowledge and use it to better themselves and society. “Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness.”[10]


Although many people think that current Jewish law was given at Sinai, numerous rules cited in the Bible differ from the practices existing today. The term “this is Torah from Sinai” indicates that the law or act under discussion is important as if God gave the law at Sinai, and not that all laws as they stand today were related at the time. The rabbis and others changed many biblical rules and practices. Ehrlich suggests that the laws of suicide fit into this category, proving his thesis using the biblical tale of Ahithophel who was praised despite his suicide, which contrasts with the current Jewish law that prohibits suicide.

Analyzing and criticizing the rabbinical suicide rules, Ehrlich said, among other things, that, contrary to the rabbinical rule, smart people should not be allowed to commit suicide because they can contribute to society; however, average people should be allowed to kill themselves because they are unable to contribute much due to their lack of sufficient intelligence.

Ehrlich was correct about the development of Jewish law, but was incorrect in criticizing the rabbis for prohibiting suicide. The distinction he made between intelligent and average people belittles the value of the vast majority of human beings and the possible contribution of everyone to the common good. It stands in stark contrast to Maimonides’ emphasis on loving-kindness and his teaching that the goal of the Torah is to present ideas to be used to improve oneself and others.



[1] Leviticus 24:20. The term lex talionis is Latin for “retaliation authorized by law.”

[2] My forthcoming book, “Mysteries of Judaism: How the Rabbis and Others Changed Judaism,” explains this concept in detail and gives many examples.

[3] Mikra Kipheshuto, 234–235.

[4] Presumably, Ahithophel was advising Absalom to recruit a thousand men from each of the twelve tribes, as Moses did in Numbers 31:3–5 in his battle against Midian. Interestingly, a division in the modern American army is approximately the same number, twelve thousand. It is likely that both Ahithophel and Hushai advised Absalom to secure soldiers from every tribe for psychological reasons. Once the tribes committed themselves to fight for Absalom they would begin to feel an increased attachment and commitment to Absalom.

[5] Absalom also displayed this same negative trait – over-cautiousness – when he waited a long time before killing Amnon for raping his sister.

[6] As shown by Absalom growing his hair long for a vain display. When Absalom fled from the later battle with David’s forces, his long hair became entangled in a tree limb, pulled him from his horse, and left him hanging from the tree. He was then captured and killed by one of David’s pursuing soldiers.

[7] The phrase “saddled his ass” is also used for Abraham in Genesis 22:3. Both Ahithophel and Abraham were going to a death scene – Abraham to what he understood would be the death of his son Isaac.

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 91b.

[9] We should be reminded of the Socratic paradox: a person’s goal is to know him or herself, but wise people know that they do not know everything. Thus, Socrates’ wisdom, by his own testimony, was that he did not know.

[10] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 3:54.