Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 19 begins with Elijah fleeing, not only from Ahab and Jezebel, but also from his place of ministry and the struggles it entails.

August 10, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18

1 Kings 19 begins with Elijah fleeing, not only from Ahab and Jezebel, but also from his place of ministry and the struggles it entails.

He moves from the Northern Kingdom through Judah and then to Horeb. Horeb is the name Deuteronomy uses for the mount of God, elsewhere called Sinai. Horeb/Sinai may get Elijah closer to God, but ironically, it also moves him further away from his call from God.

The narratives depicting the reigns of the Northern kings are marked by the persistence of Jereboam’s sin; Ahab’s rule is not an exception (1 Kings 16:31). Ahab adds to that sin with the explicit introduction of the worship of Baal (1 Kings 16:31-33). And, on top of that, there is the reported attempt to undo the centuries old curse of Joshua (Joshua 6:26) on anyone who would attempt to rebuild Jericho (1 Kings 16:34). From several angles, there is a fundamental struggle for the allegiance of Israel to the LORD. In this regard, note that the 7,000 faithful left in Israel are characterized in the negative, that is, by what they have not done. They have neither bowed to nor kissed Baal (1 Kings 19:18).

Elijah’s individual story should be read in the context of this wider core struggle. As chapter 19 opens, Elijah is fleeing Jezebel who has threatened to kill him for his destruction of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. But fleeing Jezebel is also fleeing his call. Ironically, once at a safe distance from Jezebel, he asks God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). Instead, twice through an angel, Elijah is told to get up and eat. He has a forty day journey to Horeb ahead of him. The command to get moving is accompanied by provision for moving.

Given the historic significance of Horeb/Sinai, it is reasonable for the reader to compare Elijah’s experience to that of Moses (Exodus 32-34). For both, forty days is a significant number. Moses did not finally enter the land, even though he did manage to receive God’s pledge of God’s continuing presence with the people. Similarly, Elijah did not live to experience the destruction of the supporters of Baal (2 Kings 9-10) implied in the anointings he is commanded to carry out (1 Kings 19:15-17). We might also wonder if Elijah’s cave is the same as the cleft in the rock in which Moses stood as the LORD passed by.  But the similarity is not drawn out. Unlike Moses, Elijah does not intercede for the people. Perhaps the narrator only seeks to evoke the aura of Moses’ authority. Elijah is a champion in the prophetic tradition, but there is no template for prophets. Every prophet exercises the office in the particulars of the time and place in which they serve.

After a forty day journey to Horeb, the mount of God, we might expect Elijah to receive some solace or a sense of refuge. After all, an angel provided him with nourishment for the journey. Would it have been too much to expect a reaffirmation of his call or even a new prophetic commission? In a sense, the latter does occur before the narrative closes, but the first words from God are startling, “What are you doing here?” Clearly, “here” is not where Elijah is supposed to be.

Elijah’s response is defensive. First, he claims a virtue: “I have been very zealous for the Lord.” Yes, back on Mount Carmel he had been; he even killed the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Elijah justifies being “here” by charging the Israelites with the opposite of being zealous for the Lord: “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” In the next sentence Elijah repeats the points. “I alone am left,” underscoring his zeal for the Lord, and “they [the Israelites] are seeking my life, to take it away,” reiterating their zeal against the Lord. Elijah’s contrast is a far cry from Moses’ petition on behalf of Israel. Moses rejected a “me and you” proposal from God, whereas Elijah proposes a “me and you” to God in defense of his being “here” instead “there” where he had been called.

Elijah is told to go out from the cave and stand before the LORD. “Standing before the LORD” can be an ominous prospect. For example, Nahum 1:6: “Who can stand before his indignation?” (See also Psalm 76:7). The LORD is coming by. Is it for judgment or deliverance? Appearances that bring judgment are often depicted in terms of dark turbulent clouds, earthquakes, and fire (= lightening). But the LORD does not appear in the turbulent wind. Nor in the earthquake. Nor in the fire.

It is important to avoid an exaggerated contrast at this point. The alternative to these three is not without strength and it surely is not the equivalent to the Western notion of an inner conscience. What the KJV translated as a “still small voice,” the NRSV terms a “sound of sheer silence.” In the previous chapter, the LORD acts with destructive force in a fire (1 Kings 18:38). The kings to be anointed at the end of our text are marked by violence, as is Elijah’s prophetic successor (1 Kings 19:16-18). Perhaps Elijah desired the LORD to strike his current enemies with the same forcefulness as in the previous chapter. That God refuses to do. God will not become Elijah’s implement.

Instead, Elijah is the one who must be confronted. Elijah finally moves to the entrance of the cave as he had earlier been told to do. The ensuing dialogue (vss. 13b-14) repeats exactly the earlier exchange (vss. 9b-10). He is not allowed to linger. He is sent back north, not just to deal with Israel, but also with the foreign country of Aram. God’s horizon for Elijah exceeds Elijah himself. There is no easy way to speak of the destruction to be done by the kings that are to be anointed. God does not abandon the world; God is involved. The turmoil of nations does not exist independently of God or without God’s paying attention.

But not everything is brutal. God has a horizon of work beyond the machinations of kings. There are still 7,000 faithful. God is sustaining them as well. Elijah is not alone. No one’s importance to God turns into a story of “God and me” against the world. Elijah is important. You are important. But God always has surprisingly more at hand. There are always 7,000 more.