One naturally assumes that a prophet knows of what or whom he speaks. Yet no matter how powerful the revelation, few prophets seem able to free themselves immediately, if at all, from their own humanity and limited understanding; and that freedom, if it comes, usually lives in only short bursts of transcendence. Such is the case with perhaps the most glamorous of Old Testament prophets, Elijah the Tishbite, whose growth as a prophet could be seen as the central drama of the continuous and carefully structured narrative running from I Kings 17 through 19.
On the one hand, no can doubt Elijah’s stature. In the New Testament he is identified with John the Baptist and with Jesus himself, and during Jesus’ transfiguration it is he and none other than Moses who appear together with Christ. (1) Elijah kept good company. His Old Testament doings are equally spectacular, so that one often feels that anything less than his ascension to heaven in a fiery chariot would have been anti-climactic. His servant Elisha’s words, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof!” are among the most thrilling farewells in all literature (II Kings 2:12). Yet when one looks at I Kings 17-19, one is strangely impressed not so much with Elijah’s greatness as with his odd cowardice. Not the prophesying of the drought, nor the miracle of the meal barrel and cruse, nor the reviving of the widow’s dead son, nor even the victory over the prophets of Baal seem capable of sustaining this personal courage or his faith in the God for whom he purports to prophesy.
Our narrative in I Kings begins suddenly and ironically with the images of miracle and flight. Elijah appears, with no fanfare, to announce a drought as punishment for King Ahab’s wickedness, and thereafter God commands him to hide by the brook Cherith. There God sends ravens to feed him, and apparently all is well—until the brook dries up. Only six verses have elapsed since he prophesied the drought, so one can’t help but sense keenly that Elijah is himself victim of the very thing he prophesied. This little irony prepares us for a major one: Elijah, prophet of God, is ultimately victim of his limited view of God.
As rain water falls on the just and unjust, so brook water dries up on both, too. In our narrative God does indeed perform miracles involving earth, wind, fire, and water—not to mention oil, bread meal, and life and death, when he is with the widow and her son—but the God of Israel’s main distinction is not as a manipulator of the natural world. Everyone seems, however, to realize this truth only dimly. Truth, or faith, or moral commitment cannot long live on miracles (2), and because Elijah looks too much to the miraculous he, of all people, seems to comprehend poorly that God must work at deeper levels of the human heart to achieve lasting effects. Of course, one can’t blame Elijah too much.
Each succeeding miracle in chapters 17 and 18 places Elijah center stage with more and more prominence. Because he exits so quickly after prophesying the drought, we get little sense of what he is. The unwasting meal and oil, however, is a prolonged miracle linked directly to his presence with the widow. When he brings her son back to life she exclaims, “…by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth” (I Kings 17:24). And on Mt. Carmel Elijah is in full glory, holding center stage intensely, zealously, and with a nearly vulgar chutzpah bordering on the comic. But given Elijah’s growing stature both in the reader’s mind and in Israel’s national life, one is stunned that at a word from Jezebel (I Kings 19:2) his fortitude caves in so quickly.
Although on Mt. Carmel Elijah reverently repairs the altar of the Lord, taking “…twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob” (I Kings 18:31), his main pronouncement is, “…the God that answereth by fire, let him be God” (I Kings 18:24). Now, the people may have listened to nothing less—Jesus complained of people always demanding signs—but Elijah himself seems also to be too much taken with the God who manipulates nature rather than the God who should, because He is true, own peoples’ hearts. In fact, Jezebel seems to display more strength and conviction than the true God’s prophet. From that strength Elijah flees.
Elijah’s second flight (I Kings 19:3) recalls his first flight at the beginning of the narrative, but with one important difference: God commands the first flight, Elijah’s cowardice the second. Elijah is God’s man, no doubt, and God again ministers to his needs, this time through angels. But God also asks this convicting question: “What doest though here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:9) Elijah answers out of the depths of despair, but one feels his answer to be self-centered, and certainly misinformed. More about this in the last paragraph of this essay.
Immediately following Elijah’s answer comes the famous scene (I Kings 19: 11-13) where God passes by causing gale winds, earthquake, and fire. Chapter 17 began with an implied rejection of God’s deep saving presence in water: droughts come, brooks dry up. Now the other three members of the elemental quartet are also repudiated. Wind, earth, and fire are not the deepest vehicles of God’s work. In the Judeo-Christian concept, the God who gives rise to nature is also above it, separate from it. Though this implies no license to treat nature irreverently—for nature is a manifestation of God—it does mean that one must rise above nature worship to worship God in truth. In the larger Biblical context of God’s progressive revelation of himself, this passage is a milestone. It is a high point in God’s struggle with both the Chosen People and the others to impress upon them the distinction between a transcendent God and a man-made nature god, of whom Baal (a sun god) and Asherah (represented by Jezebel’s prophets of the grove in 18:19) were two popular examples. I Kings 19: 11-13 has drawn much comment, the main message being that God speaks most profoundly not in thunderous accents which address man’s natural senses, but in quiet, powerful whispers addressing the heart.
We may hope that Elijah’s courage and moral fiber have been deepened by the expansive vision that God’s “still small voice” does and must exceed miracles of earth, wind, fire, and water. The man who prophesied the drought and called down such natural marvels as he did on Mt. Carmel needs to know how preliminary those miracles are. The lack of that knowledge is probably the root of his odd cowardice.
We are not directly told that such growth has occurred. In fact, he gives the same answer when God asks a second time what he is doing here, why he has fled a second time. The symbolism of the story, however, seems to indicate a kind of rebirth for Elijah. The place to which he has fled is Horeb, the Mount of God, a mountain not only far away from Ahab at the Promised Land’s southernmost extreme, but also the place where God identified himself to Moses as the Great “I Am (see Exodus 3). After a fast of forty days and forty nights, he arrives at Horeb to receive another lesson about the Great “I Am,” and some have speculated that the cave he lodges in is the very same “cleft of the rock” God puts Moses in (Exodus 33:22). Elijah leaves Horeb strengthened, hopefully, by his encounter with God, and further bouyed by God’s news that many faithful await to join him. On his way back, Elijah chooses his servant Elisha in a scene closely paralleling Christ’s calling of his disciples. We also note that Elijah performs no miracles here but appeals solely to Elisha’s sense of moral obligation and commitment to God. Elijah’s fight against Israel’s wickedness and false gods is about to begin in earnest.
Perhaps the question of Elijah’s growth is left ambiguous because the demand for wondrous signs is one of humanity’s permanent weaknesses. Certainly, in the face of such wickedness as Ahab and Jezebel’s, courage without miracles seems problematic. Yet if we ask if that kind of courage occurs anywhere in our text, the answer is, yes. At the beginning of chapter 18 as Elijah returns to Ahab to propose the contest on Mt. Carmel, he runs into Obadiah. Elijah tells Obadiah to tell Ahab that he wants to meet him. The scene that follows (verses 9 to 15) seems at times to cast the protesting Obadiah in a slightly comic light, even though he protests out of a real fear that Elijah will again disappear and Ahab will slay him for bringing a false, taunting message. Yet we learn from a parenthesis in verses 3 and 4—a parenthesis which could remind us of God’s whispered voice—that Obadian, out of fear and devotion, has, on his own, “…took a hundred prophets of the Lord and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.” This, God tells Elijah at Horeb, is why he will not be alone, even as Elijah, crying “poor me,” wrongfully complains that he is. As God fed Elijah, so Obadiah fed God’s prophets—again, on his own, no miracles here. Elijah had to journey to Horeb to understand such courage.
NOTES: (1) Identified with John the Baptist: Luke 1:17. In fact, the penultimate verse in the Old Testament (Malachi 4: 5) promises that God will send “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Identified with Jesus: Matthew 11:14 and many other places. At transfiguration: Matthew 17: 1-3. All quotes from the King James translation. All other references given in parentheses. (2) I do not speak of the miracle of life itself, or of the Incarnation or Resurrection. Such miracles are different in kind than those “minor” ones we see in our narrative and elsewhere.