Gleanings from the Text
1 Kings 19:4-8
Understanding the text from Kings for this week's Feast is served first by placing it in its wider contexts. Specifically, these five verses are lodged within the much larger story (as it now stands from the perspective of its last editor) of how Yahweh's chosen people managed to forfeit the benefits of their covenant with the God who had chosen them, and as a result land in bitter exile. Within that larger saga, fascinating and often colorful episodes that address the question of what roles Yahweh's prophets played in this divine-human drama abound. These verses present one of those episodes.
Elijah's calling and the providential interventions that have sustained him in it (See 1 Kings 17-18) have, by early chapter 19, run him thoroughly afoul of the Omride dynasty and its current infamous representatives, Ahab and Jezebel. In one of the most memorable scenes in scripture, Elijah (whose name means, "My God is God") has on Mount Carmel ("God's vineyard") demonstrated beyond any doubt, and to the acclamation of the witnesses gathered there, that Yahweh is the one God of Israel. Afterward, in the valley below that mountain, he dispatched 450 of Baal's (false) prophets to underscore this important point.
This upsets King Ahab, who, true to his nature, initiates vengeance that turns out to be as incompetent as his governance: Elijah outruns Ahab's chariots, and escapes. When Ahab reports the need for 450 funerals to Jezebel, she vows a more competent response. She has a messenger (mal'ACH) tell Elijah, in effect, "By this time tomorrow, at the very latest, I promise you a 451st funeral: yours."
Elijah takes her threat seriously, and in a superhuman feat inspired by his fear "for his life" runs the considerable distance from Jezreel ("God sows.") to Beer-sheba ("Seven wells") in the south! (Two chapters later, Naboth, owner of an attractive but small vineyard right around the corner from Ahab and Jezebel's palace, will choose to fight rather than take flight when he finds himself at odds with this royal couple, and will not live to tell his grandchildren about it.)
With this life and death conflict as their frame, these five verses then draw an exquisite portrait of Elijah – who has been faithful in his commission from Yahweh and triumphant in his encounter with the evil of nationalized Baalism – not relishing his faithfulness and Yahweh's victory, but utterly despairing. In successive verses Elijah is painted as increasingly forlorn: First, his servant falls away. Then the prophet alone moves beyond even the border town of Beer-sheba and takes a day's full journey into the wilderness, somewhat reminiscent of Hagar the Egyptian's lonely wandering in that same dramatic landscape.
In the wilderness he comes upon a sole broom tree. There, like Jonah, he asks that his life (nephesh) be taken from him. Unlike Jonah, he cites as his reason the searing conviction that he is a failure in a long line of failures. Exhausted, physically and in spirit, he finally collapses into sleep beneath the only tree (the only shade) he has managed to find. Many commentaries point out that his flight reverses in some respects Israel's journey to the Promised Land.
It is at this juncture, at the point of honestly confessed despair and exhausted sleep, that the narrative takes a turn. A messenger arrives. The term used to denote "messenger" here is identical (mal'ACH) to the one used in v. 4 to describe the messenger who delivered Jezebel's threat. But, the message in this case is quite the opposite. It is not an announcement of imminent death, but a call to life and renewed purpose. This heaven-sent messenger bears food, drink, and a refreshing of Elijah's commission quite beyond what the prophet could naturally do: "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will too much for you." Elijah obeys, rests again, and even enjoys seconds. Rising from such rest and feast, he is then able "in the strength of that food" to go "forty days and forty nights" (Recall the forty-year wilderness wanderings of the Hebrew tribes) until he comes, as once had his ancestors so very long before him, "to Horeb, the mountain of God."
Food for Thought
The juxtaposition of Elijah's vindication on Mount Carmel and his subsequent flight for his life is stark. One might have expected at least an interlude, perhaps an episode or two, describing how it felt finally to come out on top when opposing a monarchy and a system that bore so much responsibility for the devastating path toward national ruin and eventual exile. If it is too much to ask for a moment to savor his theological triumph over the prophets of Baal, where at the very least now that Elijah is running for his very life are the crowds that only verses earlier "fell on their faces" and cried out "The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God" (1 Kings 18:39), and who participated fully and repeatedly in the prescribed penalty for false prophets (Deut. 13:1-5)?
The text is, apparently, completely uninterested in such questions. What we are given, rather, between Elijah's fiery (and bloody) triumph and his forlorn flight, is a weather report. To be specific, we are told it rains. It rains a lot. The heavens, which had so recently sent down fire (1 Kings 18:38) and which had before that for three terrifying years closed their bronze will against all moisture to send down only drought and its fierce twin famine, now grow black with rain.
Elijah's success, or his failure for that matter, it turns out, is not the point. The point rather is the restoration of Yahweh's covenant relationship with the people of Yahweh, and the renewed future that yearns to burst forth from that in the return of rain, therefore the return of sowing, therefore the return of growth, therefore the return of harvest, therefore the return of sharing the harvest between haves and have-nots (Lev. 19:9; Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:19; Ruth 2), and therefore the return of God's gift of life.
Elijah, and I do not know who could blame him, will later famously but mistakenly express his belief that God's good purposes, which do include his life and his actions and decisions, have become no bigger than his life and his actions and decisions (1 Kings 19:10). The good news is that in this belief, prophetic gifts notwithstanding, he is 99.9857 percent wrong (1 Kings 19:18).
Sink Your Teeth into This
Authority is a lifetime member of the human condition; there are trains and all of us, at some level whether we like to admit it or not, need them to run. Therefore, there will be a Rome to see that they do. But, things "go south", as did Elijah, when Rome – as is too often the case – behaves badly by sending its trains not only to run but to run over anyone in their way.
The gift of faith, the Feast section this week from Ephesians rather audaciously claims (Eph. 4:25-5:2), produces its own social and personal structures of authority as it nurtures persons who and communities that are being made new in the image of Christ. Insofar as such individuals and communities are, in Ephesians' bold and rare (for the New Testament) image, "imitators of God" (Eph. 5:1), they will rise and stand, not to lift up sword as in our 1 Kings passage, but to "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15) wherever and whenever a system of power forgets or ignores the good news that the covenant-making God of Elijah's faith always intends life.
The issues may be complex, the particular steps to be taken subject to considerable debate lodged in high feelings and compelling arguments among persons of equally good intentions. The outcomes most certainly are not guaranteed, nor are the efforts at times without substantial risk, if not to life then perhaps to limb. The path is more often through the wilderness than up any ephemeral "crystal staircase" as the African-American writer Langston Hughes, who knew about exile, wrote.
But the direction of God's purposes, out of drought into harvest – for all – has been reliably declared, from a distance on Mount Horeb, with horrific and unacceptable violence in the valley below Carmel, as well as in a thousand other times and places, and finally with unspeakable vulnerability, preeminence, and grace on Calvary. Deeply amidst – not around – flame, flood, flight, fight, fear, and even forlorn hope, there is taking shape yet another and different and life-giving journey: "[Beloved] . . . live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph 5:2).
E. Carson Brisson is Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Associate Dean for Academic Programs at Union-PSCE in Richmond.
S. Dean McBride, Introduction to I Kings
Langston Hughes, Mother to Son
New Jerome Biblical Commentary
I and II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library)
I Kings (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries)
HarperCollins Bible Dictionary