Second Sunday after Pentecost

The wheels almost come off the wagon of the bold narrative known as the Elijah cycle, when the boy dies unexpectedly.

June 6, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 17:17-24

The wheels almost come off the wagon of the bold narrative known as the Elijah cycle, when the boy dies unexpectedly.

What saves the day is God’s surprising willingness to respond to human protest and do something unprecedented.

In the first two episodes of 1 Kings 17 (verses 1-7 and verses 8-16), things go strictly according to plan. In the first scene, after Elijah prophesies to Ahab that there will be no rain “except by my word” (17:1), God promises to provide for Elijah, using ravens and a wadi (verses 3-4). Ravens promptly and regularly appear with food and a wadi provides water (verses 5-6).

The second scene (verses 8-16) begins when the Lord tells Elijah to go and live in Zarephath, where God has commanded a widow to feed him (17:8). The widow says she had no food, but Elijah proclaims that her oil and her meal will not fail (verse 14). Again as predicted, the oil and meal containers replenish daily (verse 16).

Suddenly in verse 17, the opening of the third scene, it appears that things do not go according to plan. The widow’s son falls ill. There is no breath in him. It looks as if the boy has been saved from starvation only to die of a severe illness. Further, there is no word from the Lord. There is no explanation for the boy’s illness nor is there any authoritative word on how this event figures into God’s plan. This unexpected turn leaves both the widow and Elijah himself searching for an explanation.

The widow’s reaction is to turn on Elijah. What kind of “man of God” saves a mother and son from starvation only to allow the son to die of illness? As a mother myself, dying with my child seems a far kinder fate than living to watch my child die. In her grief, the widow says to Elijah, “What do you have against me, O man of God?”

I wonder if she says “man of God” with sarcasm dripping from her lips. If her son dies, then Elijah and his god, in spite of all this miraculous oil generation, are powerless. Or perhaps she thinks Elijah is powerful, a man of a cruel God. Perhaps this trick with the bottomless oil jug was part of a terrible set-up — in which she is given hope only to have it torn away — designed to punish her mercilessly for her sins.

Elijah seems shocked by this turn of events as well, for Elijah does not say, “Do not worry, widow — it is all part of the plan.” Or “God would not do such a thing.” He simply says, “Give me the boy.” Then Elijah takes the boy and steps into the upper room to have a private word with the deity. Behind closed doors, he protests, “What are you doing, God? You bring me to stay with this widow who has nothing and make me rely on her hospitality; and then you thank her by killing her son?”

Elijah is angry. God’s ways may be mysterious, but he puts his foot down here. He does not simply reiterate or obey God’s words as he has up until now. Instead of waiting and listening for God’s response, the all-powerful divine word, he performs what appears to be some sort of sympathetic magic, “stretching himself on the child three times.” Then he boldly commands God to “let this child’s life come into him again” (verse 21). NRSV translates this in a way that softens Elijah’s command to God with “let;” however, we could just as legitimately translate: “YHWH, my god, return this child’s life into him!” Elijah’s off-the-cuff, completely unplanned action works. God responds. The boy revives.

In the context of this narrative, I expect a recovery of sorts. I expect a divine answer — or at least a narrator’s commentary — that communicates, somehow, that this resurrection miracle was part of God’s plan from the beginning. God thought this would be a great way to show the world that God is not only more powerful than Baal but more powerful than death.

But this is not where the text goes. Instead of tying up the loose ends, we hear that the boy is saved because “God listened to the voice of Elijah” (verse 22). This is surprising because on the surface the story of Elijah seems to be about the power of God’s word. It is a story about getting people to listen to God’s voice. Yet, at this pivotal moment in the narrative, the tide turns because God listened to Elijah’s voice.

The boy’s breath returns to him because God recognizes the truth in Elijah’s protest. In turn, God does something God has never done in the Hebrew Bible (and will only do again through Elisha). God undoes death. Scholars argue about whether the boy was really dead or just close to death. I think that is because the text is not sure either. The Bible is in uncharted territory at this point. The notion of a resurrection is an unheard of experience. The writers are hesitant because they are trying to describe, tentatively and cautiously, something unprecedented.

In this moment of crisis, in response to the truth in Elijah’s words, God mobilizes the power of life and does something God has never done before. God attends to this seemingly small thing — the death of a poor boy — with an enormous act of reversal. God pulls a resurrection out of a hat.

When the widow sees her son revived in Elijah’s arms, she proclaims, “You are a man of God…. the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (verse 24). Elijah does not argue, but the reader knows that while her interpretation may be accurate, it does not capture what happened in the upper chamber. The boy’s life returns because God recognized that the word of Elijah was truth.

Even when Elijah protests against God, his word expresses God’s truth. Amazingly, God recognizes it too. Perhaps truth is not just the word of God delivered from on high. Because at least in this narrative, truth emerges out of a dialogue between God and humanity.