Avoid the Magic, View the Man I Kings 17:8-24

Avoid the Magic, View the Man I Kings 17:8-24 May 26, 2016

I have been teaching others about the wonders of the Hebrew Bible for nearly fifty years, and have had a marvelous time in the process. It is sheer delight to watch people’s eyes grow wide as they hear that that first testament is chock full of goodies that they had not heard, or had heard in such a jaundiced way as to force them to cease hearing altogether. I am nothing less than a Hebrew Bible cheerleader, and I have hoisted my megaphone and turned a back flip or two (at least figuratively!) in countless churches and conferences from coast to coast and around the world. Yay, Old Testament!

Still, there are parts of my beloved collection of books that need to be handled with great care, and this is so for many reasons, not all of which I will delineate today. The story of Elijah, the mighty prophet of ninth century BCE Israel, as found in I Kings, is a prime example of notorious difficulties of understanding that must be met head on if we are to explore ways to appropriate such material into our twenty-first century lives of faith and practice. Just how are we to read such folkloric material and discover meaning for our living?

Today’s text offers us two magical stories about the power of the prophet. In the first, the prophet is called by YHWH to go visit and live for a time with a widow of Zarephath. Two important considerations are on offer about this story. First, the woman is 792px-Bernardo_Strozzi_-_Prophet_Elijah_and_the_Widow_of_Sarepta_-_WGA21919a widow, and hence a marginalized person in the society. Time and again, prophets of the eighth century BCE provide a list of those for whom the society is particularly responsible and is to be judged. That list is: strangers (foreigners), orphans, widows. How these special persons are treated by the society will determine whether or not that society is practicing the will of YHWH. Hence, Elijah’s call to help a widow is squarely within YHWH’s special purview. Second, Zarephath is well outside the boundaries of historical Israel located in our day on the upper Lebanese coast. Jesus in Luke 4 makes much of this geographical fact, accusing the Jewish hearers of his first sermon that their ancestors had no regard for the widows of Israel, so God sent Elijah to a foreign widow instead. Yes, says the story in I Kings, Elijah has concern for the widow, but she is also a foreigner, which makes his concern doubly important, given the later prophetic lists of the marginalized.

The usual way to summarize what happens in the story is to say that due to the widow’s extreme and desperate poverty, she being about to cook her last meal before she and her son curl up and die of hunger, Elijah works his magic to provide for her a miraculous jar of meal that never runs out and a miraculous jug of oil that never runs dry. Thus, the widow and her son are saved from starvation and death and the three of them “eat for many days” (I Kings 17:8-16). That is the magical part of the story, and there once was a time, and still is among certain believers, that belief in the magic described was a test of faith for all believers. If one did not accept these acts as historical facts, and thereby accept the reality of the power of God and the prophet of God, then one was no true believer and risked in that unbelief the certain rejection of real believers or worse the fires of hell.

I say clearly to you that I do not accept these actions as historical in any way. In the narrative of Elijah, the magic acts are designed to prove to you that the prophet is no one to be trifled with; he has the power of God in him and he can prove it by breaking the natural laws of the limited quantities of oil and meal. Such acts of magical power are endemic to ancient folk stories, rather like Cinderella’s magic coach and Pinocchio’s magic nose. The magic makes the story work and gives the story its surface delight.

The second story of the text reemphasizes the wonder of the power of Elijah. Here in I Kings 17:17-24 the prophet outstrips the trick of the oil and meal by raising the widow’s dead son to life. He does so by employing what appears to be an act of sympathetic magic, stretching himself on the body of the deceased boy three times (a common numerical feature of the actionElijahByLouisHersents in folk stories). This action is accompanied by a fervent prayer to YHWH that God hears, enabling the boy to come back to life (I Kings 17:21-22). Again, some past believers, as well as some current ones, find this action historical, a test of faith for those who claim to believe in the power of God. But we know that people who die are not coming to life again in this world. We hold with David, king of Israel, who upon hearing that his first son with Bathsheba has died, dries his tears and tucks into a hearty meal, declaring, “I will surely go to him, but he will not return to me” (II Sam 12:23). Dead people stay dead, as any reasonable person must admit. Such a statement makes no claims for or against a life after death, but it states clearly that death in human life is real and inexorable and irreversible for all of us.

I hold that we need not focus our attention on these magic acts of Elijah as tests for a faith willing to believe “six unbelievable things before breakfast,” as the Queen in Alice’s Wonderland claims, saying to Alice that she practiced a half hour each day to attain the facility of doing just that. I do not recommend that we follow the Queen’s advice; perhaps a half hour spent in prayer and meditation would do us far more good. But then why bother with these old stories at all?800px-Walton_Mt_Sinai

Once we pass over the magic, we would do well to listen carefully to Elijah as a man, especially when he encounters YHWH on the sacred mountain in I Kings 19. The magic has now been quite deliberately stripped away as the prophet confronts his God one on one. After his enormous victory over the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel, a victory crowned with his bloody murder of all four hundred of the heathen (I hope you read my earlier blog about the horrors of that part of the tale), he finds himself running for his life from an enraged Jezebel, wife of Ahab, who vows to murder him for his actions against her Baal priests. Surprisingly, though he is carried off Carmel in triumph by the witnessing Israelites, he is now alone, all those claiming that “YHWH is God” now silenced and gone. He thus runs in terror to the scared mountain of YHWH, here named Horeb.

YHWH speaks to him and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah” (I Kings 19:9)? The emphasis of that question may fall on several places. If “what” is the focus, YHWH is asking Elijah just why he finds himself on Horeb with the possible implication that he ought to be elsewhere. If “you” is the focus, it may indicate YHWH’s surprise to see Elijah of all people on Horeb, again suggesting that Elijah is in the wrong place. If the focus falls on “here”, the implication that Elijah ought be elsewhere is made certain; “here” is clearly the wrong place! Elijah’s response to the question is instructive. “I have been very zealous for YHWH, God of the armies; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (I Kings 19:10).

Several features of this reply are interesting. Elijah first claims that he has given only single-minded attention to YHWH; that is the meaning of the word “zealous.” Note he addresses YHWH as if the God is not there; he does not say “you” but rather “YHWH, God of armies (traditional: “hosts”). Is this full designation for YHWH an attempt to curry favor, to butter God up, the better to get what the prophet wants? Then he says that the Israelites have “forsaken your covenant, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets.” Is not Elijah here reiterating to YHWH what has happened on Carmel with an interesting twist: the Baal prophets have rejected YHWH’s covenant, while YHWH has destroyed their altars, and Elijah himself has murdered their priests with the sword. He now claims that it is in fact the Israelites who have turned into the priests of Baal, rejecting covenant, destroying altars, while Elijah himself has killed prophets, albeit Baal priest/prophets. Is not all of this completely self-serving? “I am the only true and faithful prophet,” says Elijah,” and I deserve your protection.”

YHWH then invites Elijah to leave the mountain cave and witness some mighty divine acts, a show especially for the prophet’s benefit. In succession, wind, earthquake, and fire are displayed for Elijah, but each time he is told “YHWH was not in them.” But, we might say, was not YHWH in the fire on Mt Carmel, that fire that licked up water and altar as a direct display of divine power, that display that caused the people to proclaim that YHWH is God, YHWH is God? But after the three natural phenomena have died down, “there was a sound of sheer silence,” as the NRSV rightly translates, and “when Elijah heard it” (that is, the silence) he moved back to the entrance of the cave and waited.

And YHWH spoke again, using the exact question that was asked earlier: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Now we hear the implication: “Have you learned anything from my natural displays?” The answer is a clear no! Elijah proceeds to repeat verbatim what he said in response to YHWH’s first utterance of the question. Elijah has learned precisely nothing! But we can, I hope.

If YHWH is not in the fire, but is rather in the sound of silence, could it be that our focus on magic is precisely misplaced? All that magic oil and meal, and that trick of raising the widow’s son from the dead, are smokescreens for how YHWH actually works in that world and in our own. But Elijah, and too often we, cannot hear the silence of YHWH, because we are too caught up in our own fears and self-righteousness to pay enough attention to a God who refuses to appear on tortilla chips or in screen doors, or in clouds. Silence is often God’s chosen way, but we shout about ourselves too loudly to hear. Rather than await the supposed magic of God, we would do better to view ourselves first, to listen to our self-possessed selves first, if we are ever to hear what this wonderful and mysterious God has for us in that marvelous silence.

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