A Taste of the "Former Prophets": Elijah and Micaiah

The Lights in the Land of Plenty: 1 Kings 17.1-24

This is, on the face of it, a rather odd little story, or series of stories, about Elijah. Like the story we will hear next, it focusses on the conflict between YHWH and Baal in the hearts and minds of the people of Israel, the northernmost of the two kingdoms that came into being when King Solomon's son Rehoboam could not hold on to the realm that his father had inherited from King David. As a result, the nation was split into two sometimes warring kingdoms, the smaller, southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, ruled by David's descendents, and the larger, northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria, ruled over by a series of dynasties.

The most successful of these dynasties was that of Omri, father of the King Ahab in whose reign Elijah lived. For geo-political reasons, Ahab allied with the kingdom of Tyre through a marriage with Jezebel, the king of Tyre's daughter. Like Solomon before him, Ahab allowed his foreign wife to worship her ancestral god Baal and have altars and priests and even prophets of Baal in her household. There's no real evidence that Ahab personally worshipped Baal but if the account in Kings is to be believed, a lot of Israelites did so. Many may have done so without actually ceasing to worship YHWH, at least on the surface.

The Hebrew Bible (and indeed the New Testament as well) is presented from so uncompromising a position of monotheism that it can be hard for us to remember that the whole idea that there is one God and one God alone, as is proclaimed in the Ten Commandments and the Shema ("Hear o Israel that the Lord your God is one..."), had to start somewhere. That there was a time when this was a new idea whose implications had yet to be fully understood and absorbed. But such was very much the situation at the time that the early prophets like Elijah were active. These two stories of Elijah that we will hear tonight both concern this issue of monotheism, and what it really means to say that YHWH is God alone. The prophet's struggle to win back the people to YHWH is more even than a struggle for their hearts and minds, it is a struggle for the foundation of our belief -- this is the innermost decision, what's left of our religion at the end of the day.

This helps to explain some elements of this story, which I want to consider in turn: why a drought? Why does Elijah go to Zarephath? Why do both Elijah and the widow react as they do to the son's illness and his healing?

Why focus on a drought? Well, in the paganism of the time and place, deities were often seen as specialists. You didn't worship just one, although you might have a favourite god, but you spread your worship about according to a god's speciality and your particular needs. The land into which the people had come was not an easy one to settle in -- the climate was harsh and drought was common. Baal, one of the chief gods of the region, was in origin a weather god, to whom sacrifice was made for rain and for fair weather in its season. It is not difficult to imagine Israelites who added a little insurance, as it were, to their efforts at farming or raising stock by sacrificing to Baal for the right weather at the right time. Through Elijah and in the face of Ahab who has permitted and facilitated the worship of Baal, YHWH lays claim to sovereignty over the weather instead. It is the word of the prophet that governs the rain and dew, not the actions of Baal or Baal's worshippers.

Why Zarephath? Well, on one level that seems like a foolish question to ask -- reading between the lines here and at the start of chapter 18 strongly suggests that Elijah needed to "get out of Dodge" because Jezebel was killing the prophets of YHWH. So that the Lord would send him far from Jezebel and Ahab makes sense, until we consider where Zarephath is -- in the territory of Sidon, part, in fact, of the kingdom of Tyre (where Jezebel comes from). So after hiding him for a time east of the Jordan, at the Wadi Cherith, YHWH sends Elijah deep into the land of Baal. Furthermore, YHWH remains sovereign even here. It is YHWH who, through the prophet, offers the widow of Zarephath hope and because of her act of trust in taking in the prophet at a time when she and her household were down to their last meal she is rewarded with the means to survive in the face of drought.

There's an ironically-fitting complementarity here -- in Israel, men and women who are ostensibly worshippers of YHWH suffer from drought that could be ended by YHWH's prophet, except that he is on the run because of his fidelity to YHWH's word, whereas in the region of Sidon there is a household of Gentiles, ostensibly worshippers of Baal, who are protected from the worst effects of the drought by an act of trust in YHWH. But in the midst of this, the widow's son becomes ill and dies. This unlooked-for calamity undermines not just the widow's trust in Elijah and Elijah's God, it also undermines Elijah's own trust.

We hear in their reactions the same kind of uncertainty that we have heard in the poet's song with which we began: 'I don't know why I've come here' and 'And I don't really know who sent me'. But Elijah finds at his core the faith to raise his voice in prayer as well as in reproach, and that prayer restores his faith in YHWH as well as hers, even as it restores the son to his mother. Even in Sidon, YHWH is sovereign not just over the weather but over the fruits of the land and the lives of those who trust him. In this way, the prophet's story shows the foolishness of turning to Baal for what the Lord already provides, the hope of the lights in the land of plenty.

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