Elijah's story lends itself well to preaching, with plenty of miraculous deeds and his challenge of the ungodly authority of Ahab and Jezebel.
This particular section, however, may be overshadowed by the more dramatic or better known passages about Elijah, including those that immediately precede and follow it. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah calls down fire from heaven to demonstrate God's power over Baal. Immediately after our text, Elijah encounters God on Mount Horeb not in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, traditionally rendered "the still small voice." He then passes his mantle on to Elisha, whose subsequent deeds of might and power will even overshadow Elijah's. Indeed, it is significant that the lectionary asks us to pause and consider these lesser emphasized verses in Elijah's story and acknowledge their enduring relevance for today.
To set the stage, in the preceding first three verses of 1 Kings 19, we are told that Ahab has reported to Jezebel all that Elijah did, and specifically that Elijah killed all the prophets with the sword. Jezebel's response is to send a messenger to Elijah with a death threat that she vows will be fulfilled in one day. Elijah is afraid, flees for his life, and goes to Beersheba. 1 Kings 19:3 reminds us that Beersheba is under Judah's control, which means that legally, it is beyond Jezebel's reach.
Verse 4 begins by telling us that Elijah goes beyond Beersheba, another day, into the wilderness. In terms of geography, he is safe--he is in the land where Jezebel does not rule. In terms of time, he is safe--Jezebel's death threat was supposed to be fulfilled by this time. But Elijah's words and actions belie any sense of relief or safety. He sits under a large desert bush (NRSV and NIV: "broom tree") and asks to die, telling God, "It is too much; now, Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors."
Elijah's words have been understood in at least two ways: first, that he is referring to his dead ancestors and wishes to join them in death, and second, that he is referring to his "ancestors" in the prophetic vocation, and specifically Moses,1 who also complained in the wilderness and asked the Lord if he could die (Numbers 11:14-15). That is, Elijah is no better than his prophetic predecessors, who also had heavy burdens they had to bear on their own. Even if Elijah's reason is not entirely clear, that latter clause is conditioned by the first. Elijah is overwhelmed, and death is preferable to what he faces, to what he has to do, to his tasks.
After making his request, Elijah lies down and sleeps under the bush, but his sleep is interrupted by the touch of an angel who commands him to rise and eat. The Hebrew word for angel, mal'ak, is the same word for messenger used in verse 2, when a mal'ak was sent with Jezebel's death threat. Thus, there is some narrative tension with this first appearance of the angel. It is not until the mal'ak comes to Elijah "a second time" (1 Kings 19:7) that the text specifies this is an angel of the Lord, and the tension is relieved.
The food that is before Elijah is described as a "cake baked on coals, and a jar of water" (verse 6). The only other place in the Old Testament where we find the Hebrew word used for coals (resapim) is in Isaiah 6:6, referring to the coal that touched Isaiah's lips to purify him, when Isaiah expressed his dismay at his ability to accept God's commission. The word used for jar (sapphat) is another uncommon word, appearing only in 1 Samuel 26:10-16 and 1 Kings 17:12-16. In the latter set of texts, it refers to the jar of oil belonging to the widow of Zarephath. Because of God's provision, that jar miraculously remained full during the drought, and provided food for Elijah and the widow. Thus the very vocabulary used to describe Elijah's food and drink recall another prophet who felt unworthy, and reminds us of God's provisions for Elijah in the past.2
After Elijah eats and drinks the first time, he lies down again, and once again, an angel touches him and commands him to rise and eat (verse 7). During this second encounter, the angel explains the reason why Elijah must eat, "because the way is too much for you." The Hebrew points us back to Elijah's complaint in verse 4 that it was "too much" (rab), when the angel uses the same language in his frank assessment of what lies ahead. Elijah has had rab (verse 4), but he is sent on a way that is also rab for him (verse 7).
Many interpreters of this text see Elijah as discouraged, suffering burnout from his ministerial (or prophetic) duties, or even exhibiting signs of depression. Richard Nelson explains, "God's therapy for prophetic burnout includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a future that transcends the prophet's own success or lack of it."3 But Leong Seow observes, "Given his attitude, one should expect a divine rebuke. There is not one, however. Instead, there is a series of epiphanies...Elijah's perspective is strongly challenged, and a lesson is offered to him; but he is never rebuked for showing weakness."4
What Elijah receives are practical, tangible provisions that enable him to go "in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights" (verse 8). What is given, then, is sufficient and strengthening. The gospel lectionary for today identifies Jesus as the living bread that came down from heaven (John 6:51). Certainly, the bread of Jesus gives us strength for the journeys in our lives, however difficult or overwhelming they may be.
1Leong Seow, "1 Kings." New Interpreters Bible Volume III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 140.
3Richard Nelson, First and Second Kings. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 129.