For the first time in the Old Testament we have a new story form, a prophetic narrative that describe in speech and deeds the work of the Prophet. The stories of Elijah are the first to use such a literary device. And, as we soon learn, the Elijah narratives are unruly pieces of literature. Elijah enters sacred history from an unknown place and without pedigree. A Tishbite of Tishbe tells us nothing – except that he is a traveler, a stranger in the land. We are told that Elijah is the prophet who “stands before the Lord”. For one to ‘stand before the Lord’ is rare indeed. Only Abraham and Moses share this distinction. In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel that appellation is reserved for angels. Jewish Cabalist thought Elijah to have been an angel, others saw him as a priest of the timeless order of Melchizedek. Beyond Elijah’s need to eat, which even in parched and desolate land of thirst and hunger seems almost incidental – Elijah himself never seems worried about from where his next meal might come – , unperturbed by droughts and distances he strides the earth with little about him that seems human. Without divine warrant or credentials; no battles won, no patriarchal heritage, no miraculous birth narrative, he is a man who simply speaks.
Luke 7 “Soon afterwards he (Jesus) went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”
A great prophet indeed had been raised among them and they understood that this was – a new Elijah. Ron Allen describes how Luke uses this story of the restoration of the widow’s son. The story demonstrates that the ministry of Jesus and the witness of his followers signals the start of a transition from an old world order marked by inequality, sickness poverty, injustice, separation, violence, and death to a new age characterized by the purposes of God for all to enjoy health, abundance, justice, community, love, and peace. In that time the very identity and security of the woman came from being affiliated with a man. Now that this widow has lost her only son she is the epitome of the vulnerable and marginalized, and the more so since she is torn apart by grief. When Jesus sees the widow, Luke says that Jesus is moved with “compassion. In that, Luke calls his readers to compassion. Luke also uses this story to indicate that the ministry of Jesus is in line with the great prophets of Israel. Luke presents Jesus and his followers confronting the powerful and their falsehoods as did the prophets of old, he uses a story from 1st Kings as a model. For Luke, Jesus is a prophet in the tradition of Elijah. The ministry of Jesus was not a break from the story of Israel but a continuation of it.
Bible Students are aware that after Solomon’s kingship the people we call Israel divided into two kingdoms; Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the kingdom to the south. After fifty years of civil war Israel’s king Omri and his son Ahab entered a period of peaceful collaboration with Judah to secure the inland trade route and to dominate the kingdoms to the east of the Jordan River. They also allied with the maritime power of Tyre – which included a royal marriage of King Ahab to Jezebel. The biggest complaint from the Jewish purists was Ahab’s building a Temple to Baal and setting up a sacred pole that represented the feminine in Phoenician religion. For Ahab to build a temple to the god of his wife was no more than Solomon had done. Baal was the god of the indigenous people, the god whose shrines had been taken over by the conquering Jewish emigrants and turned into shrines to Yahweh. Baalism was a fertility religion with all the accompanying orgies and sacrifical practices and they came as a package when Ahab married Jezebel. Baal worship was given official status and Jezebel, a woman of missionary zeal for her god, was contemptuous of the cultural backwardness and the austerity of the religion of Israel. Most of Ahab’s subjects didn’t find this at all objectionable. Many had been absorbed by the conquering Hebrews and gave only lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Baal worship grew in strength. Seeing the threat of wholesale apostasy, the Yahwehists began feeling increased persecution, then faced reprisals for speaking the word of Yahweh and finally found themselves forced underground. The Deuteronomic historians say that during the years Ahab was king of Israel Ahab did more that was wrong in the eyes of the Lord than all his predecessors put together.
1st Kings 17
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2The word of the Lord came to him, saying, 3“Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. 7But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
17After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
For the first time in the Old Testament we have a new story form, a prophetic narrative that describe in speech and deeds the work of the Prophet. The stories of Elijah are the first to use such a literary device. And, as we soon learn, the Elijah narratives are unruly pieces of literature. Elijah enters sacred history from an unknown place and without pedigree. A Tishbite of Tishbe tells us nothing – except that he is a traveler, a stranger in the land. We are told that Elijah is the prophet who “stands before the Lord”. For one to ‘stand before the Lord’ is rare indeed. Only Abraham and Moses share this distinction. In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel that appellation is reserved for angels. Jewish Cabalist thought Elijah to have been an angel, others saw him as a priest of the timeless order of Melchizedek. Beyond Elijah’s need to eat, which even in parched and desolate land of thirst and hunger seems almost incidental – Elijah himself never seems worried about from where his next meal might come – , unperturbed by droughts and distances he strides the earth with little about him that seems human. Without divine warrant or credentials; no battles won, no patriarchal heritage, no miraculous birth narrative, he is a man who simply speaks. And, brazen enough, the first utterance we have from him occurs in a royal audience with King Ahab where he exerts his claim over nature. Without his word in the coming years there will be neither rain nor dew. A claim to such power is a claim control life and death. A careful reading says that the rain won’t return by the word of God – but rather by the word of Elijah. As the story begins it’s really hard to tell just where Elijah ends and God begins. To add to the intrigue, you’ll recall that Elijah doesn’t die, he is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Needless to say, Elijah is one of the most enigmatic figures in all of sacred history.
This dour, lonely figure, a reminder to most of us of John the Baptist, wearing his hair mantle haunts the waste places and as if by magic appears wherever Yahweh’s battles are to be fought. He embodied the strictest tradition of Yahwehism. His abrupt appearance in 1st Kings seems to be a divine response to the question of which of two gods control life, the God of the Hebrews who brought them from Egyptian slavery to the land of promise or the ancient Cannanite deity whose worship was thought to be indispensable to agricultural and human fertility. Elijah declared holy war on the paganized state of Israel and its pagan god.
Rather than calling down lightening bolts to destroy the temple to Baal the response was to say – O.K. have it your way – the God “I Am” of Hebrew pre-history will simply withdraw, taking away rain and dew. The drought that results leads directly to famine. Yet wherever Elijah goes, first to a remote hideout where a raven provides his sustenance or then to the kitchen of a poor widow who expects both she and her son to starve, there is a miraculous provision of food. The point of course is that wherever God isn’t is famine and death and wherever God is there is nourishment and life.
But I got ahead of myself – and the narrative. 1st Kings 17 tells three stories following Elijah’s pronouncement of drought. The first is a miraculous ongoing banquet where morning and evening a raven brings the prophet bread and meat and he is provided water from a stream. The second story begins as the stream bed dries up because of the drought and the prophet is sent to the land from which Jezebel had come. It is the story of the miracle of unending provisions from the kitchen of the poor widow of Zarephath. Like the raven, God’s word to Elijah was that this impoverished widow was commanded to feed him. The way the story reads you’d think that someone failed to tell her or she blithely ignored the command expecting instead to share the last of her oil and flour with her son and then for the two of them to starve. Obedience to the call to hospitality can be all consuming. At the lowest point of her life Elijah requests that she make him a cake and bring it to him. Was she expected to feed the prophet and deny her son and her self what little food she had left? But then a second pronouncement comes from Elijah “The jar of flour shall not give out nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.” And so it happened.
Things have gone pretty good so far. Elijah read the riot act to Ahab and though he had to flee, the promised drought ensued. He was well cared by the ravine in the ravine where he found refuge. The poor widow then had food enough for both she and her son as well as the prophet. Every thing had gone as predicted. But at chapter 17 verse 17, as one writer characterized it, the wheels all but fall off the wagon. Without prediction, without warning, with no explanation as to how or if this event figures into God’s plan, the widows son, after being saved from starvation dies of a severe illness. The bereaved widow turns on her guest. “What made you interfere, you man of God? You came here to bring my sins to light and kill my son!” What kind of man of God saves a mother and son from starvation only to allow the son to die of illness? Does she believe that despite all the miraculous providence of oil and flour Elijah is powerless? Was it all a set up, to give her hope only to have it ripped away? Or, does she believe him to be powerful but mean?
And what of Elijah? He is shocked at this turn of events as well. He doesn’t give her pious platitudes. He doesn’t tell her “Don’t worry, it is all part of God’s plan”. And he doesn’t say that “God wouldn’t do such a horrible thing.” He simply says to her “Give me your son”. He takes the boy up the roof chamber and places him on his own bed and then – for the first time we see the separation between Prophet and God. Up until now Elijah has simply reiterated or obeyed the Lord’s words. Not so here. Listen again to what he says to God. “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son? Then he cries out ““O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again!” A more straight forward translation instead of having Elijah petition the Lord with “let the breath of life return” actually has Elijah demanding that God return life to the child.
This week I listened to Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, Op. 36 commonly referred to as the “Enigma Variations”. It is a set of a theme and its fourteen variations written for orchestra by Edward Elgar. Elgag went to his grave never revealing the theme from which the variations are derived. As you listen the variations develop your mind causes you to anticipate a direction for the music to follow only to discover that it doesn’t do what you expect at all. That may have set me up to look so deeply into this Old Testament story of Elijah, because that is just what this story does. You would expect the narrator of the story would say that this resusitation of the child was part of God’s plan for the beginning – but he doesn’t. You’d expect some sort of recovery, a divine answer – like how God thought this would be a great way to demonstrate to the world that Yahweh is not only more powerful than Baal but more powerful than even death. But that is not where the text takes us. Instead of being told something like that we are informed that the child is saved because “God listened to the voice of Elijah”. What a surprise, here all along the story of Elijah seemed to be about the power of God’s word. It has been a story about getting the people to listen to God’s voice – yet, at this most pivotal moment the boy’s breath returns because God recognizes the truth of Elijah’s protests. For the first time God does something that God has never done in Hebrew history instead of Elijah listening to God, God listens to Elijah.
For the first time in Hebrew history, in response to Elijah’s words God mobilizes the power of life and does something God has never done befoe. God attends to a seemingly insignificant thing, the death of a poor boy with an enourmous act of reversal. When Elijah takes the child back down stairs to his mother, the widow proclaims: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Elijah knows something she doesn’t know. And you know something that she doesn’t know. While Elijah doesn’t argue with her analysis, we all know it doesn’t reflect what happened in that room upstairs. The boy’s life was restored because God recognized the word that Elijah spoke was truth.
Imagine, truth not being just the word of God delivered as if from on high. Here truth has emerged out of a conversation between God and a person. So it’s little wonder the response of Jesus’ contemporaries when they witnessed the event retold in Luke 7.
We can’t leave the story there because it raises questions about us and who we are as the body of Christ continuing this work in the world. It speaks of judgment, that is true, of not riding some cultural fence between toleration of contemporary expressions of Baalism and embracing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That question gets clearly answered later in the Elijah stories when we learn that Baal was no god at all. It speaks of our God being a God of providence, a God of life and the first clue to the presence of God is the presence of life. The second clue is that in God’s absence there exists only draught, famine and death. And it also speaks of the need to respond with compassion, a compassion demonstrated in the village of Zarephath to a woman whose loss of her son was almost considered collateral damage were it not for the compassion of the Prophet Elijah; a compassion demonstrated by Jesus to a woman whom the people in the little village of Nain considered insignificant. Compassionate intercession, – is this a task that God has left to God’s people?