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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Elijah in the Cave: Encouragement, or Maybe Not

I recently heard a very good sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-18.  Delivered to a couple thousand people engaged in front-line ministries, the preacher found in the story "teaching, reproof, correction, and training unto righteousness" that could encourage the hearers in their work.  I am not going to reproduce that sermon here, but it was a well-structured exposition of the text.

It is not uncommon for me to have a sermon and a biblical text set my mind to racing in various directions.  This was one of those times when I was listening and reflecting on the sermon at the same time that I was puzzling over the text.  My imagination kept pushing me to look at other paragraphs in this section of 1 Kings, sections which this particular sermon did not highlight.  I'm not criticizing the hermeneutical decisions or homiletical strategies for the evening.  I appreciated the message I received from a pastor worthy of my admiration.  But an impeding thought kept interrupting my concentration.  A divergent trajectory kept pushing its way around my reading of the stories.

I can thank some of my former students like Sam Ewell and Vincent Chun-Pang Lau for helping guide me onto this trajectory of biblical narrative.  As good readers of James W. McClendon and John Howard Yoder, they facilitated my deeper understanding of these theologians on whose shoulders I stand.  Particularly in For the Nations, Yoder describes a way of reading the biblical narrative that locates a critical interpretive key in two events which bracket the Bible's historical presentation of the Israelite monarchy.  These events are
  1. the people's demand that Samuel appoint a king over them, with Samuel's warning of their folly, and
  2. Jeremiah's presiding over the end of the failed monarchy with a theological "told you so."
This framing of the monarchy helps to offer a counterhistorical arc of the biblical narrative, embedded in a historiographical presentation which maintains a dual agenda:  it is constantly critical of the monarchy's failures while at the same time it retains an element of conventional histories with their heroic kingship story lines.  Against this dual agenda, the counterhistory places front and center the conviction that power structured by domination, violence, and economic oppression will never achieve what God intends for humanity in the world.  For Israel to be the pilot project of human social existence, it must not give in to the temptation to be like the other nations.  It must understand power in a different way and live in different forms of social structuring.

This is not an easy hermeneutical place to arrive for cultures shaped in the mission of European world domination and the white man's burden.  Leading theologians who helped to provide grounding for modernity (even our beloved Jean Calvin) came to believe that, with all its flaws, the Israelite Monarchy and its legal system should be the model of human society in the temporal world.  (Modern Reconstructionists still hold this, perhaps more literally than Calvin himself.)  In the wake of such reasoning, God remains, for so many of our churches, the political manipulator, willing to assassinate rulers, starve cities, and demand genocide in the name of some higher purpose.  You know I'm not exaggerating.  Many of you who attend Bible studies and listen to preaching regularly have heard people explain why God would do such things in biblical times, and perhaps now.  Pat Robertson has certainly made much of his beliefs that any particular disaster can be interpreted as a direct act of God to bring judgment on Pat Robertson's enemies and call the world to Pat Robertson's agenda.  Of course, Pat saw them as God's enemies and God's agenda, because it all fit neatly into his narration of the character of God.

So how does this pertain to Elijah near the end of 1 Kings?

The standard interpretation I have heard over the years when preachers have spoken or written of Elijah's flight to the cave takes the following path.  In the time of terrible drought, Elijah arranged to do battle with the false prophets by calling for a demonstration of God's power.  After the prophets of Baal prayed, shouted, and otherwise acted out to no avail, Elijah made a show of calling for God to send fire and burn the sacrifice on the altar.  Once this great challenge had gone his way, Elijah incited the crowds, and together they killed hundreds of prophets of Baal.  Jezebel grew angry, and her threats struck fear into Elijah.  Therefore, Elijah fled far from the antagonistic rulers to a cave to hide and feel sorry for himself.  It is told as a story of Elijah's greatest triumph suddenly followed almost immediately by his deepest despair.  Many a preacher characterizes Elijah's defeat (killing) of the prophets of Baal as his greatest triumph.

This story arc is what was troubling me that evening as I kept rereading the passage.  So I went looking for any textual clues that the reader should think of this event as Elijah's greatest triumph.

The first thing I noticed was that God sent Elijah to meet Ahab, but God did not specify anything about having a contest against the prophets of Baal.  While we appropriately conclude that God blessed Elijah's demonstration of YHWH's power and supremacy by sending down the fire to burn the wet sacrifice and evaporate all the standing water, there is no recorded command to take up this strategy.  I'm not saying that people seeking to serve God, whether Elijah or someone today, must have a direct command in order to take any action.  Certainly it could be that Elijah was acting in accord with his understanding of the calling of God.  He sought to publicly demonstrate what God had often shown in smaller venues:  God has power over all.  God can keep the hungry fed in times of famine.  God can raise the dead.  So why not call a convocation and demonstrate that God can light a fire on an altar, unlike the impotent false gods that the royal family has helped to promote in the land?

On the other hand, Elijah may not be much more pure than the rest of us in calling forth this great public demonstration.  It certainly made him look like the hero he imagined himself to be.  Through several chapters, Elijah repeatedly refers to himself as the only one left who is faithful to God.  He repeatedly finds out that he is exaggerating his significance.  Obadiah, a servant of Ahab, has risked his life to save many persecuted prophets of YHWH.  Even having been told that, and having won the crowds on his big fireworks demonstration day, Elijah still describes himself as the lone faithful follower of God.  This ongoing discrepancy ought to raise our suspicions.  Perhaps it should remind us of the counternarration.  It certainly shows a kinship between Elijah and Samuel, both of whom get a little confused about whether the people should follow them or follow the God they serve.  Both have to be reminded by God of their place in the larger scheme of things.

Having let suspicion urge us to look behind the veil of the triumphal narrative, an even more disturbing element pushes itself upon us.  Having seen the glorious work of God, Elijah's ecstasy does not lead him to sing a praise song as Miriam did, or to dance before the altar as David danced before the Ark.  He does not call the people to prayer as Solomon did, nor does he instigate  a festive celebration of God's goodness as the Torah prescribes for many annual feasts and other holy days.  What does Elijah do?  He incites mob violence.  He lets the ecstasy of seeing God's power demonstrated become warped into blood-lust.  He leads a mass execution of those he deems his enemies.  He exterminates the officials who stand for his arch-enemy, Jezebel.  As the story is told, he leaves no quarter.  His thirst for blood is not sated until all lie dead.

Again, we have to notice that there is no command from God to kill these false prophets.  Was Elijah acting out of his conscientious devotion to YHWH, or was he acting out of his human desire for vengeance against those who had usurped his "rightful place" as the prophet and judge of Israel?  There is enough uncertainty in the narration to incline me toward the latter conclusion.  Elijah got carried away with his victory and gave himself over to violence.  Now many would argue that Elijah was simply following the trend of the biblical narrative in which God metes out reward and punishment upon the faithful and unfaithful.  Humans become God's instruments of punishment through violent acts in many of these narratives.  Of course, many other violent acts are judged to be outside the divine will.

It is a complex narration of theme and antitheme, story and counterstory.  In the midst of the historiography, one may discern that the people of Israel, their prophets, their griots, their chroniclers, their historians, their compilers and editors, are passing through moments of recognition and misapprehension, of vision and blindness, of enlightenment and opacity.  Like their forebear Abraham, who began his pilgrimage not even knowing who this God is who sent him to a strange land, they live in the midst of a slowly unfolding understanding of God.  They compare God with what they have heard, what they know about the gods of the nations.  They assume who God is, and experiment with God's expectations.  Often they are wrong.  Amazingly, they often are right.  But the truth and falsehoods about God remain mixed in their faith.  Perhaps Elijah mistook the God of Israel for a god of bloody revenge.  Perhaps he glimpsed another possibility, but chose to cling to the vengeful idol.

Am I second-guessing the great prophet?  Of course I am.  But what else is expected of us as we grapple with the word of God in Scripture?  Moreover, if we believe the word of God is in Scripture, we must also remember that our primary confession of the Word of God is the eternal Son, incarnate in Jesus Christ, revealing the true and full picture of the Holy One of Israel, the Triune God who is Alpha and Omega, superabundant in goodness and love from everlasting to everlasting, the Prince of Peace.  Is this the God whom Elijah longed to know and diligently sought to serve?

Yes this the same God, but Elijah had not the benefit of Jeremiah's backward look upon the failure of the monarchy.  He did not see the vision of the suffering Servant of Isaiah, of Ezekiel's fantastic glimps of the Majestic On enthroned on a chariot throne to reign over any and every land.  He had not come to see that it would not be in magnificent spectacle, but in a minor village of Bethlehem that God's salvation would arise.  He did not yet realize that the longing would outlast the monarchy and be replaced by a hope for a servant-king, riding on a colt of a donkey.  Yes, Elijah listened for the word of God, but in all his faithfulness also remained far off from knowing what it would take his people centuries more to begin to discern.  Standing in the dawning of the prophetic line, he did not yet see what his descendents would come to know.  They stood on his shoulders, and from that height they saw even greater vistas of divine revelation.

So where does that leave me in reading the rest of this story of Elijah.  It is worth noting again that in his flight from Jezebel, Elijah repeatedly whines about his mistreatment.  He claims that he only has been faithful, and challenges God for not rewarding him in the manner he thinks that he deserves.  Having made this claim once, he has a long time to meditate on what God has done to take care of him, only to repeat the very same whining complaint again.

How does God respond?  Many a preacher or teacher would have us think that God comforts Elijah in his despair.  That may not be completely wrong, but I think it is a pretty big stretch to let that be one's primary conclusion from the text.  What does God say to Elijah?  God does not praise Elijah for massacring the prophets.  God does not tell Elijah not to worry, that Elijah will have many more years of fruitful ministry.  The text explicitly says that all the spectacle and whoopdeedoo are not the place to look for the work of God.  Should one conclude that God is more interested in a steady faithfulness, obedience to the Torah, neighbor love, and justice rather than frenzied acts of violence in defense of a God who needs no human defender?  That is part of what occurs to me in this text.

A harsher reading is certainly defensible.  Has God listened to this whiny prophet who is too full of his own desire for status until God has had enough?  What are God's words to Elijah after the last time the prophet claims to be the only faithful one?  They are final instructions:  Go anoint a king of Syria and a king of Israel.  Then go appoint your successor.  I have no more need of you.  Pass on the work.  You have become an instrument of violence rather than a healer of my people.  You took up the same strategy as Jezebel--killing the prophets.  You have cared too much for your status and too little for the building up of the faithful.  Don't you realize there are thousands more who are faithful?  The prophets Obadiah saved, of whom you are well-informed, are just a drop in the bucket.  YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE!  So Elijah, let's call it a day.  Wrap it up.  The mess in Israel was not fixed by your frenzy of violence.  The people you anoint will continue their violent ways, killing each other in a cycle of violence that never seems to end, unless someone has the courage and love and devotion to say no to violence.  It's a wrap, Elijah.  You gave it your best most of the time, but this last debacle has worn me out.  It's time to give someone else a chance.

Now maybe that harsh reading is not the best one.  My mom certainly thinks I've pushed it too hard.  She listened to me talk this through for long time over the kitchen table.  She was not convinced.  She might be right about that.  Mom is a good Bible teacher who has never led me astray.  So let's say God was not that harsh.  Even so, God did not offer comforting words.  At the most, God told Elijah things will not get better anytime soon, so why not let someone else carry the load.  Come on over and let's have a cup of coffee together and remember old times.  Even if they were hard times, we were in them together.

Frankly, trying to understand scripture has become both harder and easier over the years.  I have reason to hope that I have come to know and love God better through the years, but I have also come to know my limitations better.  I have no imprimatur to offer on this textual reading, but I also do not offer it without some degree of confidence that it sheds light on the Scripture.  I also have come to trust that when the text of Scripture troubles me, I had better try to pursue that troubling Spirit to see where it leads me.

May the Holy Spirit illuminate and guide our reading in community, that the Spirit and Word may bear witness together to the mysteries of God and our calling to live as God's people.  Amen.
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