The First Words of Ahab
Robert Alter taught us but the first words and the first actions of the characters are important for their characterization, revealing depths about who they are and not surface details.
The first words of Ahab come in first kings 18:5, “And Ahab said to Obadiah, "Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals."
This might prima facie appear to be a congenial characterization, a king, a man of the highest status, spending his time looking for food and water for the lowest of creatures in his kingdom. But this is actually an ironic portrayal.
Ahab was the seventh (Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, Ahab), climatically evil king who catalyzed the arrival of Elijah. And his catalytic action was idolatry and the murder of his own children, those who were closest to him.
With this as the background, Ahab’s care for the animals appears as the action of a psychopath, one who slaughters his children but saves his horses.
This also serves to contrast with David and parallel Saul. David was a good shepherd of sheep while Saul started his reign unable to find donkeys. Both Ahab and Saul cannot care for neither the lesser nor the greater.
Finally, Ahab should not be caring for animals at this point. David’s tenure as a shepherd prepared him for shepherding people. Abab is years into his reign trying to manage animals when he should be leading men. And when he tries, he ends up extinguishing them.