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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Elijah’s Seen Fire and He's Seen Rain

To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction.

I like the Hebrew prophets, most of them anyway[i]; where the priests stood as intermediaries between God and humans-bringing their offerings and prayers to the deity, and announcing heaven’s blessing and forgiveness to the people-the prophets stood between the people and their king, between the masses and their leaders. They were a protection for the people, a check against the potential of tyranny and despotism (Fritsch 1096), a check against power grubbing men of wealth and means, against exploitation and oppression.  The prophets were men and women (yes. There were a number of female prophets in the Hebrew tradition) of a noble profession – though they were susceptible to the same corruptions of all human professions – there were false prophets, “yes men” who worked for coin, selling favorable prophecies to princes and kings in order to curry favor and keep their place of privilege. But the true prophet, the true prophet was someone to respect.

The prophets were more than fortune tellers, more than doom and gloom prognosticators of the future, and had little in common with the writers of end of the world scenarios that so dominate the field of contemporary “prophecy” books. While they did, on occasion, make predictions and talk about the imminent future they were more forth-tellers than foretellers. They spoke the words that needed to be said in that moment, about that moment, for that moment. And if they did offer a description of soon-to-transpire events, it was in order to affect the present moment. “Any prediction the prophet might make had reference to the immediate future as a response to the present situation” (Hayes). It was a message about the present, a message about the now.

As I said, I like the prophets; they inspire and challenge me, but sometimes they are difficult to understand. Martin Luther wrote, “They (the prophets) have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at” (Luther 350). I like the prophets, but sometimes they’re difficult to comprehend, especially the early prophets who were more mystic seers than moralistic preachers; they were … weird, wooly-haired, wind-worn men shouting and shrieking the word of God.

The early prophets (sometimes called the non-literary prophets because they did not write down their messages as the later prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the rest of the minor prophets did) were a wild bunch, parading around with lyres, tambourines, pipes and harps, whirling and leaping in frenetic frenzies of spiritual ecstasy ( 1 Samuel 10: 5 – 6). They were given to dreams and visions, and the divining of secret answers… they were raving (Bullock 16). These men of God (ish hā-elohîm) were seers (rō’ eh) and visionaries (hōzeh).  They were prophets (nabi); they were the open mouths of God on earth, hollow men filled with the Spirit of God, hollow pipes through which the gushing Spirit flowed. Things like reason, self-control, and normative behavior were suspended (Hayes), but the Word of the LORD flowed out of them.

The prophets also acted as the conscience of the king, who otherwise would have gotten away with anything and everything. Kings are powerful and absolute. Their word becomes law. They are denied nothing; when the king says come, you come. When the king says go, you go. When the king says, “mine,” it’s his and you dare not say no. As King Louis XVI says in the movie, History of the World Part 1: “It’s good to be the king…” But the prophet, as the voice of God and the protector of the people, stood up to the king and said, “No.” The prophet denied the king’s lawless extravagancies; the prophet stood between the people and the king’s overreaching greed and ambition.

“To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction” (Heschel 17-18). The prophet (the true prophet) was sometimes revered by the people and the king – sometimes they sought the prophet’s advice, and valued his council, accepted his message from God. But sometimes the prophets brought word of criticism, words of rebuke; sometimes the prophets insisted that things must change – and this was difficult for people hear and to accept.

There was, at times, a combative sort of relationship between the kings and the prophets (the true prophets, anyway - false prophets were pleased be the king’s yes-men, prophetic flunkies giving religious support and a pious veneer to the king’s political will, so long as they were paid…). And this combative relationship between prophet and king seems especially contentious between King Ahab (along with his wife, Queen Jezebel) and the prophet Elijah. The prophet and the royal house sparred with each other again and again. Tempers flared; threats and curses were shouted in this bitter dispute between two powerful forces. And the issue that brought them into conflict again and again was the demand for exclusivity in religious worship.

King Ahab was pleased to worship Yahweh, the god of the Israelites; he consulted with the prophets of Yahweh (1 Kings 20:13 – 15; 22: 1 - 28), and even gave his sons names that honored Yahweh: Ahaziah (“Yahweh has grasped” – 1 Kings 22: 52) and Jehoram (“Yahweh is high” – 2 Kings 8: 16). But (and this was the sticky bit) he was also pleased to worship the Canaanite storm and fertility god, Ba’al. “Ahab son of Omri did what is displeasing to Yahweh, and was worse than all his predecessors… He serve[d] Ba’al and worshipped him. He erected an altar to him in the temple of Ba’al which he built in Samaria” (1 Kings 16: 30 – 32 New Jerusalem Bible). King Ahab did not see his endorsement of Ba’al as incompatible with his worship of Yahweh. (Day 547) It is likely that Yahweh and Ba’al were worshipped as the same god under two different names.  This is syncretism–the amalgamation, the merging of different religions and cultures-and Elijah hated it.

But Elijah (whose name means “Yahweh is God”[ii]) was intransigent, even fanatical on the subject: worship of the Canaanite storm god Ba’al could not be linked or equated in any way with the worship of the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the god of the Israelites.  In fact, Ba’al was so detested in biblical tradition  that the Hebrew word for shame, bōŝet was sometimes substituted for the gods name by the scribes, for example in the name Ish-bosheth; it would have been Ish-baal (man of Ba’al) but was changed to Ish-bosheth (man of shame) – 2 Samuel 2: 10 (Day 548).
And so the prophet Elijah announced that, because of the king’s idolatry, there would be a famine in the land; there would be no rain. “By the life of Yahweh, God of Israel, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these coming years unless I give the word” (1 Kings 17: 1 New Jerusalem Bible).

Three years of rainless drought followed this word of power from the prophet. Three years of struggling fields and desperate people, cloudless day after cloudless day. No rain. And why? A conflict of wills between a lone wild-man prophet making fanatical claims and a powerful royal house that passionately hated to be rebuked and disobeyed.

This drought, of course, directly challenged the perceived power of Ba’al the god of storms and fertility. If there was no rain, there was no life, no growth, no fertility in the land. And if Ba’al could not make it rain in Israel for three years, what authority did he have? What power? What religious credibility?

After three long and rainless years, King Ahab and Elijah met up again to declare a face-off, sudden death, fight to the finish between the two gods. At Mount Carmel, they would square off to decide who would be worshipped as God in Israel: Ba’al or Yahweh.  It would be a show down between the 450 official prophets of Ba’al and the lone prophet of Yahweh, Elijah. 

When they had all gathered there-the prophet of Yahweh, the king, the prophets of Ba’al and the people of Israel, Elijah said to the people, “How long will you hobble along, first on one leg and then the other? (New Jerusalem Bible) How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? (JPS) If Yahweh is God, follow him; if Ba’al, follow him.”  But, unmoved, unmotivated, the people had nothing to say.

The priests of Ba’al went to work, offering up their sacrifice on the altar, calling down fire from heaven. But there was no voice, no answer, no fire. The prophets of Ba’al called louder, danced faster, they cut themselves with swords and spears, “O Ba’al, answer us!”–but still no voice, no  answer.

Elijah began to mock them. “Call louder, for he is a god: he is preoccupied, or busy. Maybe he’s gone on a trip. Maybe he’s indisposed – on the throne, so to speak…”[iii]   All day long, they called, and shrieked, and danced for Ba’al but there was no response at all.

But when Elijah had built up his altar, and put the bull upon it, and dug a trench around it and covered it all with jar after jar of water, he prayed, “Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let them know today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant, that I have done all these things at your command, Yahweh answer me, so that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God and are winning back their hearts[iv]” (1 Kings 18: 37 -New Jerusalem Bible). Then Yahweh’s fire fell and consumed the offering, burned up the bull carcass, the wood, the stones, and licked up the water in the trench.

And when the people saw this, they finally made a choice. “Yahweh is God!” they cried out, “Yahweh is God!” (1 Kings 18: 39 – New Jerusalem Bible)

The religious syncretism of Elijah’s time and the religious pluralism of our day are not exactly the same; there may be some overlapping trends, but they are not the same. And we certainly are not called to treat the leaders of other religions in our day, the way that Elijah treated the prophets of Ba’al-following their showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah had them seized and dragged down to the Kishon valley where he slaughtered them (1 Kings 18: 40). We consider groups like ISIL to be barbaric and cowardly when they do that today… But still, there is something to be said for Elijah’s fanaticism, Elijah’s sold out devotion to the God of Israel. He was bold in his service to God. He took risks. He ventured into dangerous territory to assert what he believed.

It was only after the confrontation on Mount Carmel that the drought ended and the rains came back to Israel – when it was apparent to everyone who controlled the storms and the rain, when Yahweh’s dominance was asserted and demonstrated. But, “the proof of dominance of the one God is never fully accepted. It must be won in every generation against the temptations of the world. It is a living God; the struggle to believe is also a living thing – that is, susceptible to failure” (Gold, 132).
Are we as insistent with our faith, intransigent, fanatical even? Are we bold? Elijah was bold and brave – sometimes…sometimes he cowered and hid. Are we bold? Do we take risks? Do we confront the powers that face us? Do we challenge the forces that limit us? Are we confident in the power of the God we serve?

Bullock, C. Hassen. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books. Chicago, IL: Moody Press. 1986. Print.

Brooks, Mel. History of the World, Part I.  20th Century Fox. 1981.

Day, John. “Baal (Deity)” Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume I. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

Fritsch, Charles T. “The Prophetic Literature.” The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1980. Print.

Gold, Herbert. “1 Kings: Harsh, Hectic, and Full of Hope.” Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishers. 1987. Print.

Hayes, Christine. "Lecture 15 - Hebrew Prophecy: The Non-Literary Prophets." Yale University. Fall 2006. Web. 26 May 2016. 

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets Vol.1 New York, NY: Harper & Row. 1962. Print.

Johnson, Siegfried S. “Elijah” Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume II. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

Luther, Martin. Works Vol. XIX.  Weimar Edition.

[i] Though I like the prophets in general, I have little appreciation for Nahum in particular.
[ii] Is this name a symbolic name? A pseudonymic mask for a legendary, even fictional character? (Johnson 464)
[iii] The Hebrew here is uncertain…
[iv] The Hebrew here is also uncertain. 

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