1 Kings 18:20-39
Over the summer and into the fall I want to spend some time looking at the prophets of Israel and Judah. Today I want to introduce you to Elijah. Elijah is what you might call a “colourful” character. A wild-haired, wild-eyed prophet who stomped around wearing camel’s hair clothes, he was courageous enough to go head-to-head with a powerful king and queen, compassionate enough to pray for a starving widow and restore the life of the son she thought she’s lost, human enough to doubt God’s will for his life and to be afraid for himself in the face of what God had called him to.
Elijah is one of the first of the great prophets of Israel. Unlike many, he doesn’t have his own book. His story is part of the story told in the books of Kings and Chronicles – tales of the rulers of Israel and Judah in the days of the monarchy, and how they and the people wandered between faith in Yahweh – the God of their ancestors – and flirting with the gods of their Canaanite neighbours. There’s archaeological evidence that the Israelites were not quite as monotheistic as we would like to believe – that the worship of fertility gods was widespread through most of this period. The Hebrews, when they came into the land they called the Promised Land, did what many conquerors do: they took the holy places dedicated to previous deities and rededicated them to their deity; they married the locals and adopted some of their ways; the cultures mixed and, from a certain point of view, the purity of their religion was diluted. This is the concern of many of the prophets. But what really bothered the prophets and drove them to speak in the name of God were the abuses that came with some of those cultural and religious practices: child sacrifice, temple prostitution and sex rites, the exploitation of the vulnerable by the mighty because they believed that was what their deities ordained, divination and soothsaying, and so on. The God of compassion, the God of justice, is firmly opposed to such practices, declared the prophets – and it was their job to call both the high and the lowly to account.
Elijah’s nemesis is an Israelite king named Ahab, and his Canaanite wife, Jezebel. Even people who’ve never heard a Bible story know that name. I remember a Biblical novel I read years ago, called “The Curse of Jezebel”, in which Ahab was portrayed as a weak and ineffectual king, manipulated by his dangerously attractive wife. Typical femme fatale stuff – rather PG13 for a Biblical story! Jezebel was the daughter of the King of Tyre, and her marriage to Ahab was a political one. Sidon and Israel shared a border at Mount Carmel. Jezebel used her marriage to exert political and religious influence over Israel. In an age when the basic understanding of life was that royalty was directly linked to the divine – could even in some cases stand in for the divine or be worshipped as divine – politics and religion were deeply intertwined.
So Elijahs’ words and actions on behalf of Yahweh were a direct challenge to the monarchy and to Jezebel in particular, and she became Elijah’s bitter enemy. That’s all the backdrop of today’s story. We have a challenge between a storm god and Yahweh – and the storm God can’t light a fire, while Yahweh lights a fire that burns so hot that meat, wood, water and even rock are consumed. It’s a vivid demonstration of what happens when one worships a false god.
But what does one do with such a story in a scientific age? One cannot test the validity of one’s faith on whether a deity performs miracles or not. One cannot engage in interfaith dialogue with a “my God is better than your God” approach. That’s a bit too much like a couple of kids in a school yard having an argument about whose Mom is the smartest or whose Dad is the toughest. It’s a bit childish, really. Besides which, this is a violent story – one of far too many in the Bible when it comes to how the Hebrews interact with their neighbours and vice versa. One doesn’t want to set up a story like this as some kind of moral model. So what do we do with it?
I do think that there is something useful to be found in this story, miraculous trappings and violent actions aside. It is useful for Christian teaching because it reminds us that not all religious practices are good or holy or healthy. We live in a relativistic age, where people tend to treat all religious activity as equally healthy or equally wrong-headed. But as one writer points out “some religious views and practices are clearly false, harmful, and even despicable. Aztec human sacrifice and Buddhist almsgiving don’t deserve equal respect. Nor do Hindu widow-burning, female infanticide, phallic worship, and the mass suicide of 913 people at Jim Jones’ “People’s Temple” in Guyana” deserve the same respect as the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca or Christian communion practices. (Daniel Clendenin, “If The Lord is God, Follow Him”:
Elijah and the Prophets of Baal , on Journeys with Jesus: Notes to Myself webpage, posted May 27, 2013)
This story we hear from Elijah begins to develop a theme that we will hear repeatedly from the prophets over the next few months of Bible readings. Elijah and others remind us that there are many paths that will lead us in false directions, cause us to take wrong turnings, teach us to place our hope in things and people and systems that will fail us or that will hurt others. We are unlikely to become Baal worshippers or practice human sacrifice; nor are we likely to get into contests with those of other faiths to prove that they are wrong and we are right. The great Canadian scholar of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith reminds us of our tendency when looking at other faiths to compare the worst of theirs with the best of ours. It’s important that we take a good, honest look at our faith – both the history of Christian tradition, our own practices, and the practices of Christians around the world – and be aware of whether they have been and are healthy, life-affirming and contribute to the store of goodness in the world. When we look at other faiths, we must do so with humility and with honesty. Only when we have recognized and affirmed what is good – when we have built up relationship and recognized our common ground – can we critique both our own and theirs.
A Muslim friend of mine posted an article on Facebook this week in which a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia argued that women who work alongside men should be molested! Nini was horrified, and was deeply saddened that this is, for many, the public face of Islam. I feel the same way when I see pictures of the members of Westboro Baptist Church chanting hate outside the funeral of a young gay man, or hear fundamentalist Christians blaming natural disasters in the US on gays or feminism or whatever else they can find to attack. Actions and groups like these are legitimately open to critique, and most of us would agree on that.
But there are other, more subtle issues to which we are called to pay attention. A quotation I came across a few weeks ago – one that I expect I will return to over the coming weeks, is from Dr George Caird, a British churchman, theologian, humanitarian, and biblical scholar. ‘The most difficult choices in life are not primarily between good and evil, but the most difficult choices in life are between what is good and what is best.'” I find that in the Christian walk – and probably for all people of faith and of good will – these are the toughest choices of all. It is not hard to turn aside from the worship of gods that demand human sacrifice or obscene acts; it’s a lot harder to turn aside from other things that command our attention – things that in and of themselves may be harmless or even very good things. Our journey with the prophets over the next few weeks and months will take us into those places, and challenge us along the way. So…to be continued. Amen.