These are some of my favorite chapters. Elijah and his fiery talents inspired our creative fire-building on many a scout trip, and even managed to get the back of my head quite singed once. For some excellent background on that story of the fiery showdown, see John Tvedtnes, “Elijah, Champion of Israel’s God”, Ensign July 1990.
As further background, here’s the link to my podcast on Lesson 28. (Transcripts link which may not work. I’m not in a position to fix these at the moment.) There’s a lot in there. I don’t know how many both read the post and listen/read to the podcast, but there’s inevitably some overlap as I revisit earlier material. Today, though, I am trying to cover separate topics, so read both to get everything.
The first thing to understand today is that we now have two different narratives going on, a Northern Kingdom/Israel narrative and a Southern Kingdom /Judah narrative. The Bible switches back and forth between them, much as the Lord of the Rings films alternate between showing Frodo/Sam/Gollum and Aragorn/Gimli/others. We have left behind the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, and now move into the period of the Divided Kingdom. Something interesting is that all the prophets we encounter, from the division of the Kingdom c. 930BCE until the Assyrian empire moves to siege the northern kingdom c. 734 (when Isaiah shows up in Jerusalem), are prophets in the north. There is no record of a prophet to the southern kingdom for that 200 years, even though it was the “legitimate” kingdom.
And so we move from the splitting of the kingdom c. 930 B.C. to the mid-9th century. We can date Elijah by Ahab, the northern King. Ahab was son of Omri, who, although king of a relatively small area, is mentioned outside the Bible in e.g. the Mesha Stela.
Omri was the king of Israel,
and he oppressed Moab for many days,
for Kemosh was angry with his land.
And his son succeeded him,
and he said — he too —
“I will oppress Moab!”
In my days did he say [so],
but I looked down on him and on his house,
and Israel has gone to ruin, yes, it has gone to ruin for ever!
Ahab is also mentioned in the record of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, as taking part against an Aramaen coalition. None of the little states (like the northern kingdom, southern kingdom, Aram, etc.) could stand against Assyria alone, but if they united, it was possible. Ahab joined such a coalition. This kind of thing will happen again in Isaiah 7, where Aram and Israel threaten to attack Jerusalem unless Hezekiah joins them against Assyria.
I am Shalmaneser, the legitimate king, the king of the world, the king without rival, the “Great Dragon,” the only power within the four rims of the earth, overlord of all the princes, who has smashed all his enemies as if they be earthenware, the strong man, unsparing, who shows no mercy in battle,—the son of Ashurnasirpal, king of the world, king of Assyria, (grand)son of Tukulti-Ninurta, likewise king of the world, king of Assyria, a conqueror from the Upper Sea… (you get the point)…[I]n the first year of my rule, I crossed the Euphrates at its flood and marched towards the Western Sea…I departed from Argana and approached Karkara. I destroyed, tore down and burned down Karkara, his royal residence. He brought along to help him 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalrymen, 20,000 foot soldiers of Adad-’idri (i.e. Hadadezer) of Damascus, 700 chariots, 700 cavalrymen, 10,000 foot soldiers of Irhuleni from Hamath, 2,000 chariots, 10,000 foot soldiers of Ahab, the Israelite, 500 soldiers from Que, 1,000 soldiers from Musri, 10 chariots, 10,000 soldiers from Irqanata, 200 soldiers of Matinu-ba’lu from Arvad, 200 soldiers from Usanata, 30 chariots, 1[0?],000 soldiers of Adunu-ba’lu from Shian, 1,000 camel-riders of Gindibu’, from Arabia, [ … ],000 soldiers of Ba’sa, son of Ruhubi, from Ammon—(all together) these were twelve kings. They rose against me for a decisive battle.
As for Elijah, he is not a corporate, an establishment prophet; There were prophetic guilds, prophetic disciples, and prophets semi-attached to royal courts. There were lots of prophets, and an Israelite could not determine true from false by their position or “office” (because there wasn’t such a thing), only by their message.
Elijah is kind of a post-apocalyptic prophet. The golden age is gone and 100 odd years in the past. He feels very alone, facing off against the hundreds of royal prophets of Ahab’s court. Ahab had married Jezebel, a princess from Tyre, and this, perhaps, had increased the amount of syncretism in Ahab’s court. These chapters
presuppose a period of violent persecution of Yahwism, especially at the hands of King Ahab’s Baalist queen, Jezebel of Tyre. Elijah is the hero of Yahwism, the prophet who speaks the word of the true God, the new Moses who withstands royal oppression and preserves the faith alive. –Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Elijah”
elsewhere, Ahab is on good terms with prophets of Yahweh and consults them (1 Kgs 20:13–15; 22:1–28); and his children bear Yahwist names (Ahaziah, Jehoram, Athaliah). It seems likely, too, that [these] stories’ demand for absolute exclusivity in the worship of Yahweh reflects, at this time, the views of an intransigent, not to say fanatical, minority. Religious syncretism was officially sanctioned as early as the reign of Solomon, if not of David; and it does not seem to have incurred effective resistance before the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah.
In other words, the later absolutist views are likely coloring by exaggeration the way this story is told, to emphasize absolute Yahwism. Even Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is my god.”
Elijah is presented as a new Moses.
Allusions to the stories of the Exodus pervade chaps. 17–19 and establish a parallelism between the ministries of Elijah and Moses. The geographical framework of the three chapters recalls Moses’ wanderings: each prophet begins his journey with a flight eastward to escape a king’s wrath; each lodges with a family. Each returns to his country to face and challenge the king, and to awaken faith among the Israelites. Each leaves the country again on a journey to Sinai/Horeb, where he experiences a theophany. Each then departs for Israel via Transjordan.
I love the depiction of Elijah’s theophany. He is depressed and dejected; “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (1Ki 19:10 NRS) and told to go to Horeb (=Sinai?). There, he experiences a wind storm (thunder storm?) strong enough to break rocks, an earthquake, and a fire.
These are the classic features of a theophany, the presence of the divine, that are beyond human abilities to control. The presence of the gods of Canaan, Egypt, Assyria, and the Hittites are all described with such language and in vivid iconography. Once again the Myth of the Baal Cycle as recorded at Ugarit attributes these qualities to Baal: lightning, invoking thunder, guiding primordial waters, shaking the depths of the earth, and so on (see 3:5–15; 18:38).
Though it is clear Yahweh controls them, he is explicitly not “in” any of them. Then, God speaks.
One of the things I like to point out here, is that although we can generally control our surroundings with quiet, peace, etc., to put ourselves (as we think or hope) into a spiritual state of mind, God can also speak to us in the aftermath of loud terrible fiery windy earthquake and destruction. As D&C points out (and as preached by Elder Holland), the paradigmatic example of revelation par excellence is Moses at the Red Sea. Surrounded by thousands of panicked people, animals, carts, with the sea before and the Egyptians behind, this is not a quiet, contemplative time for him. But this, explicitly, is “the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.” (D&C 8)
Lastly, as always, note that you can get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right) and the Support My Research links at the bottom of the About page. If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader.