Politics and Civilization Evolves in Biblical Storytelling
We’ve been following the movement of God’s redemptive relationship with Israel through a series of men
Judges/Priests: Moses through Samuel
Kings: Saul, David, Solomon, Jereboam
With the transition to kings the tension moved from the rebellion of the people against follow the judges/priests, who were prophetic stand ins who spoke directly for God in priestly roles (Moses, Joshua, Judges, Samuel) into whether the kings would simply become a law unto themselves.
With Moses, who was really the first of the judges/priests, the state was weak, there was no standing army, there was no palace, they were, sometimes literally tent dwellers and God himself lived in a tent.
In the monarchy kings began to live in palaces and Solomon then builds a palace for the Lord. Focus shifts between not whether the people will follow God and his leaders but whether the leader will be above the law.
In Jereboam we saw quite clearly the leader above the law dehumanizes himself. In a sense the primate devolves into animal status, one who shall not be buried.
Ahab is a further development of Jereboam
Our focus now turns to a new king and with this new king the focus of the story will once again shift to the prophets. We’ve had prophets all along. the Judges themselves were prophets who actually ruled the rebellious people but now the focus of the prophets will be upon the kings. Why? The kings in a sense become, as kings do, the idealization of the people. The kings are the epitome of the nation, the embodiment of the ideal of the nation all into one head and so the status of the nation rises or falls with the one man or the one family as we’ll see in this case where it isn’t really just Ahab but Ahab and Jezebel.
The Walls of Jericho
The story begins with what seems insignificant, the walls of Jericho. If you know your history you know that these walls are archetypal for the whole story of Israel in the land. If you read the book of Joshua you’ll notice that so much of that book focuses on this one scene where the walls come a tumbling down.
Now its quite likely that Jericho had not ceased to be inhabited all the way back to when the walls came down, but the point of the curse was that the walls would not be built. Why was this important. The crumbled walls were sort of like the 9/11 memorial in a rather opposite direction.
Walls are a military technology of magnification. A wall of stone or even brick stops a strong man or a strong army where just a few within walls can resist an army outside of it. Until the invention of the canon civilizations built forts which were essentially walls that kept a few people dominating a far larger land. You can find the remains of this strategy even in the Western US today where you find cities that still retain the vestage of that strategy of conquering the West.
Jericho is also one of the world’s most ancient continually settled places simply by geography. When Katrina destroyed New Orleans people asked whether the city should be rebuilt because geographically it will always be succeptible to flooding. Many responded that the question was pointless. There will always be a city there because of the Mississippi. that huge waterway that connects so much of the North American continent will always be a shipping highway and there will always need to be a nexus point between that water way and the world’s vast waterway which is its oceans.
Jericho is in some ways the same thing. It is the gateway to the gateway that connects three continents. It was always the gate to the control and wealth of commerce. Not having walls there essentially meant that the land was like a house without a front door. Would you live in one? The point of the broken walls were a memorial that the Lord himself was their front door.
Mr. and Mrs. Baal
Now King Ahab was no fool. He was, in some ways, the next stage in the development that Jereboam started. Jereboam was a pragmatist who tried to improve the cult of the Lord by adding golden calves to draw people away from Jerusalem. Ahab was ready to simply abandon the whole enterprise that the Lord had begun in Abraham and Moses. His plans were a complete rejection of the Lord. He sought wealth and power in the same way as all the other nations. While in the days of the Judges Baal worship was like a skin rash or a fever or a cancer that plagued the people, in Ahab the disease became the system. This is epitomized in the rebuilding of Jericho and the building of the temple to Baal in Samaria. No longer was there even at attempt to pay lip service to the Lord through Jereboam’s golden calves at Dan and Bethel. No longer were the Asherah poles something outside of town that people would sneak off to to get their fertility cult needs met off the beaten path. Baal, the male partner of female Asherah had his house in the capital of the Northern kingdom and. Baal was the storm God who would bring the rains to water the fertile fields of queen Asherah. Asherah would make the plants germinate and the cows to calve and the women to bear children. In Baal and Asherah Ahab thought he had his formula for food and people production that were the key to prosperity in the ancient world an in the new walls of Jericho he had the military and trade power to bring them from wealth into wealth.
How will the LORD Respond?
Now what is God to do? This God who suffered the rebellion of Adam and Eve. This God who drowned the world to destroy our wickedness but in his mercy left a flaw, which was Noah. This God who invested himself in a long, slow process of leaving a witness through the family of Abraham and bringing that witnessing nation out of bondage through Moses. Should he simply throw up his hands and give up?
His new effort comes in the shape of a prophet whose name tells you everything you need to know. “Elijah” means “My God is Yhwh”.
There are a few people in the OT that are deeply tied to Christ. Christ is the second Adam. Christ is the child of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christ is the giver of the new law like Moses. Christ is the son of David. But Elijah is supposed to appear just before Christ comes. Elijah and Moses show up on the mount of transfiguration. Elijah doesn’t die, but goes up to heaven in his flesh. In terms of heroes of the old covenant, Elijah is right there at the top of the list.
Elijah, however, seems to show up seemingly at random. Here after the story of rebuilding the walls of Jericho and building the temple to Baal in Samaria this strange guy from an incredibly obscure place shows up and random and says to the king “It isn’t going to rain until I say it does.”
Now this is a seemingly crazy thing. To predict drought is not an act of prophesy especially in a land like Israel. It’s kind of like predicting floods for New Orleans or Sacramento or Hurricanes for Florida or Houston. they come. What is noteworthy is to imply that you are the one who will announce when the water comes back on. This is something akin to Jesus stilling the storm. No one, even us today with all of our technology, how we now track hurricanes and predict them with a degree of accuracy to the point that we evacuate millions of people before a storm. This gets even our jaded and cynical attention.
We might imagine Ahab and Jezebel hearing this and smirking, joking at the crackpot. But then when the rains don’t come, and it doesn’t rain, and it still doesn’t rain, and the cisterns run dry, and the crops start to fail, and it becomes hard to find water for your animals, and the economy starts to wither, and hunger begins to come… the word of this crackpot begins to gnaw at the imaginations of the powerful king and queen and anxiety begins to set in. They start to remember him, to think about him all the time, to wonder where he went, to begin to try to figure out how they can get in touch with him, just in case this isn’t just random and crazy. You all remember the drought that just ended. Do you remember our anxiety as the reservoir levels dropped? This began to gnaw at Ahab and Jezebel and their temple to the storm God Baal and his consort Asherah began to look impotent and foolish. “Go ahead Ahab, play with your little Barbie sized idols and see if you can make rain and babies with them…”
An Intimate Look at Elijah
We’ve noticed the suble change of focus on the Bible so far, from Judges/Priests Moses through Samuel, Kings Saul through Ahab, and now this prophet. We’ve seen prophets before but the focus is on them again. The text now brings us up close and intimate with the prophets like it had done for us with the kings. We now get a look at the personal life of the prophets.
I often ponder why after Jesus’ resurrection he didn’t stroll into the Antionia fortress in Jerusalem and knock and Pilate’s door and ask “How do you like me know you petty Roman tyrant?!” or show up unannounced at the Sanhedrin and say “Son of God as blashphemy huh?!”
I would love to imagine Elijah setting up a tent just outside of Samaria and saying “I’m going to sit here until old Ahab and his wife come crawling up to me begging for me to turn the water back on…” this imagination probably reveals my own heart and how I, like Ahab, deeply desire to wield the power of God for my own glory and wealth and prosperity and ego and advantage. Now we will see some stories with Elijah and his protege Elisha that are sort of like this, but it’s vital to note that the text brings us right away to a very different place.
We want to imagine the prophet being in a sense a resistance king who plots an overthrow of the regime but with some imagined pure, good, moral and true regime. We should note that this overthrow motif is very plain in Kings. Jereboam was the revolutionary that would correct the corruption of Solomon and Reheboam, but power corrupted Jereboam. The Northern Kingdom itself was just like all the nations with military coups upending one house for another, but no house ever brought peace or justice, each was as corrupt or worse than the one it replaced. In the story here you see the message that this human means of resistance and revolution does not bring justice because it is betrayed by its means. You can’t one day say “I’ll kill to gain power but once I gain people I will be about life” because you have to keep killing to keep power. That kind of power is, from start to finish all about killing the killing never ends. This is the point of why David doesn’t kill Saul and bloody David can’t build the temple. If you become king by being a butcher you’ll always be a butcher who for a time happens to be king. Augustine made the point in this great work City of God that the pirates made to Caesar. “you’re just a better established pirate after all. There really isn’t any difference between us.”
So the text brings us to the personal life of Elijah, and what we see is that he suffers with the people under the drought that he himself, as God’s hand is responsible for.
Now when we connect Elijah to Jesus we always look at the miracle, but it is in this point that we perhaps see Jesus most clearly. Even in fact when Jesus is on the cross, being mocked and they confuse his speach and mock him “He’s calling for Elijah” we can see the resonance.
Elijah announces the drought, announces his connection with it, drops the mike and gets out of town. Elijah will be only on God’s speed-dial.
Where does Elijah go? God commands his steps. He first goes to a place where God himself will keep him alive, and the he sends him closer to Jezebel’s home territory and tells him to find probably the only person in the land in worse shape than him, to a widow with a young son.
Now its important realize again that widow was a person out of options. This one apparently didn’t have family she could fall back on. She had to try to keep her young son alive. Her employment options were likely something like begging or prostitution. God says to find this widow and ask for an outrageous thing, food. The widow amazingly doesn’t deny him. I would have said “you get out of here. I’m not going to feed you crazy male stranger who can work for your bread by depriving my son before we curl up and die.” She explains she simply might not have enough and giving to him might bring the very near death of her and her son by starvation a bit early.
Elijah says “God will keep you and I alive together.” In a sense Elijah says “man shall not live by bread alone”, quoting both Moses and Jesus.
wow, you might say “wow, this is amazing”, but the amazing is only beginning.
For as powerful as Elijah is bad luck seems to stalk him. he is indeed a man of sorrows and those around him suffer. You might say he attracts bad news.
So happy moment when we realize that Elijah, the widow and the boy won’t starve, but then the boy gets sick and dies and the griefstricken woman figures this out and understandably asks why save them from starvation to just die of fever?
Elijah himself then, not more than the king embodies true Israel, goes to the dead body of the boy and cries out to God in complaint. Lord? Do you really want life? Lord, what are you doing?
He stretches out on the body of the boy physically identifying with him, becoming him, what might that have looked like? wouldn’t it have looked in some way like Jesus stretched out on the cross? how many crosses? Elijah becomes the dead boy and the dead boy comes back to life.
Why have Christians throughout the centuries seen Jesus in Elijah? It isn’t just miracle working, it is interplay, it is the embodiment of humanity in himself, it is the substitution and the resurrection. We see the form or shape of Christ in Elijah in that moment. Elijah is now becomes the revelation, the embodiment of Yhwh in the midst of his people as well as the taking on of our misery, of our pain, or our cry for mercy.
We can see the trajectory here that the lines will come together in Jesus. Prophet, priest, king, and now the new development of the suffering servant who stares down kings yet depends on widows and orphans even for his own food.
We’ve only begun with Elijah. We’ll see how the story progresses.