The Narrative Lectionary brings us to a very disturbing story in 1 Kings 18:20-39. The prophet Elijah confronts 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. He challenges them to a my-god-is-better-than-your-god duel. He taunts them and ridicules them. Then he puts the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the test. God grants Elijah’s request. Elijah is not satisfied with mere victory. Instead, he slaughters the 450 prophets.
Cold-blooded, vindictive murder.
Does Elijah represent the same God that Jesus called Abba, and John called Love?
Is this the same spirit in which Jesus faced his tempter and said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16).”
Is this the same spirit in which Jesus said, “Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44),” or in which the Apostle Paul said, “do not repay evil with evil, but repay evil with good? (Romans 12:17)”
How can we, as proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus, preach 1 Kings 18? How can these stories be in the same Bible and be pointing to the same God?
I have been wrestling with these questions all week. This led me to the sketch above. It is important to place the story of Elijah in its proper narrative context if we want to make any sense of it at all.
Here’s the spoiler: What if Elijah was just plain wrong to do what he did, and that is the point?
Allow me to walk through it thought by thought.
First, we need to place the story in the theological landscape in which the Children of Israel lived.
The God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and identified as “I AM” to Moses from the burning bush is Yahweh, or Jehovah. This theological imagination is placed in stark contrast to the two dominant theological imaginations that immediately surround the Children of Israel.
On the one side is the Imperial pantheon of Egypt (and all other Empires). This is a theological system of hierarchical power in which the supreme God rules over all the minions while the supreme human leader aspires to become a god. This system always leads to the oppression of the people.
Note: these texts were compiled and framed during the time when the Israelites had just returned from captivity to Babylon and are dealing with Imperial power structures and their own captivity. Egypt becomes the archetype for Babylon and all Empires.
On the other side is the theological imagination of the Canaanite tribes that worship the Baals and Ashteroths. These are the primal elements of the universe: storms, fire, fertility, etc. In this system, humanity was a byproduct of divine violence. The primal gods battled and humans sprung up from the blood. The gods were ambivalent toward humans. Some loved them, some tolerated them, some were annoyed by them like vermin.
All the gods demanded blood and kept humanity in fear and slavery.
Yahweh presented a new imagination.
God stood on the side of the oppressed and defended the weak and helpless. God stood against systemic evil and delivered the slaves into freedom.
God did not sit on a throne and replace an old Imperial System with a new one. Rather, God entered into a covenant with the people. God came down from the mountain and tented among the people and led with Promises and guidelines, not with Kings and power structures.
The people did not believe that God could deliver the Promised Land to them and so they wandered for a generation. God is patient.
God led the people into Canaan, to confront the oppressive systems of the Baals. The first confrontation was not a battle. It was a march of faith to demonstrate that this was not the invasion of a human army to insert an oppressive system. This covenant people was an instrument of God, dealing with God’s people in Canaan in a storyline to which we have no direct access (I realize this opens another can of worms regarding the violence against the Canaanites. It’s messy.).
The Children of Israel were not faithful to God’s promise, and things got violent and ugly quickly.
The book of Judges chronicles the downward spiral of a people who continually turned away from God’s promises and submitted themselves to the destructive systems of the Baals.
The cycle got so out of control that, by the end of the story, the judges that God raised up to deliver the people were horrible people. In other words, things were so bad that God did not have much to work with in order to keep the promises.
The cycle of Judges ends with Samuel. The people reject him and cry out for a King.
Here is where I had a new thought this week.
I have been working with the idea of the downward spiral of Judges for many years now, and it helps to make sense of the violence of characters like Samson.
When we come to Samuel, though, the tradition in which I was raised seemed to treat the movement toward a King as a step in a more positive, or “upward” direction. After all, didn’t David come from this story? Isn’t Jesus from the line of David and supposed to be the King?
OK, but how do you make sense out of Solomon and how much he royally (pun intended) messed up everything?
…the story of the Kings is a continuation of the downward spiral. God never intended the covenant people to have or need a king. God had already delivered them from an oppressive ruler.
But, God is patient and often gives us what we ask for, even if it isn’t the best thing for us.
What if one of the major reasons that God made another specific covenant with David was because God knew how bad things were going to get once the Kings wanted to build a beautiful building and try to stuff God into a box gilded with gold and power structures.
The nation divides.
Rehoboam oppressed the people, just like Pharaoh did and forced ten of the tribes to secede.
God gave the option to Jeroboam to rescue the people from Rehoboam. Take ten of the tribes and follow the ways of David. Start over. Jeroboam made an equal mistake. He set up golden bulls in Israel and called them their gods.
Rehoboam went the way of Egypt.
Jeroboam went the way of the Canaanites.
and things just went from bad to worse.
Ahab and Jezebel, the King and Queen of Israel, were the embodied fusion of the Children of Israel with the gods of the Canaanites.
This is the scene into which Elijah steps.
God does not have much to work with here.
Getting to Our Story, Finally
I don’t think we can tell the story of 1 Kings 18:20-39 without telling the story of 1 Kings 19:1-18.
These two images come from a sermon I preached a few years ago.
What if the point of this story is to contrast two mountains. Elijah used conventional wisdom on Mt. Carmel. He confronted his enemies in the way most humans would. He flexed his theological muscles. He lashed out in self-righteous anger and violence. He “gave them what they deserved.”
Look where it got him.
Jezebel was not defeated. She was ticked. She came after him.
Elijah ran for his life. He ran to Mt. Horeb. He ran to the place where Moses encountered “I AM” and where the people received the Covenant and the Tabernacle.
What if the point of 1 Kings 18:20-39 is to demonstrate how this is exactly the opposite of how God’s Promise works in the world?
God is in the sound of sheer silence.
The people, and Elijah, had wandered far away from the life that God preferred and promised for them.
Yet, God was still there. Still waiting.
May we be still, and know.
God is not in the violence.
God waits for us to be still.
I don’t know if this thinking holds water, but thank you for reading.