1 Kings 17 Elijah the Prophet Emerges

1 Kings 17: 1-7 Elijah’s Declaration

1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2 The word of the LORD came to him, saying, 3 “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 So he went and did according to the word of the LORD; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. 7 But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Particularly in the Northern Kingdom of Israel we have seen prophets occupy a large role in the transition between royal dynasties. Yet, these prophets have not been listened to by the kings of Israel as they kings have drifted further away from loyalty to the LORD the God of Israel. Now under King Ahab are actively promoting the worship of Baal. With the sudden appearance of Elijah we see a dramatic interruption of the narrative of the kings of Israel where the prophetic voice emerges as to challenge the unfaithful (in the view of the narrator of First Kings) stewardship of these kings. As Walter Brueggemann states of the emergence of these prophets:

It is impossible to overstate the historical, literary, and theological significance of this intrusion that features in turn, Elijah (1 Kings 17-21 along with 2 Kings 1-2), Miciah (1 Kings 22), and Elisha (2 Kings 3-9). The three are completely unexpected, uncredentialed, and uninvited characters in the royal history of Israel. According to the tale told, they enact the raw unfiltered power of Yahweh that lies completely beyond the command of the royal houses. Indeed, their presence in the narrative service to expose the inadequacy and lameness of the kings as shapers of history, in order to assert that real authority and real energy for historical reality lie outside the legitimated claims of monarchy. (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 207)

Elijah the Tishbite in an important symbol in the practice of Judaism. Elijah is present at circumcision ceremonies, the seder table, and is to be the herald of the messiah. In Christianity Elijah is associated with John the Baptist and many of Elijah’s acts which demonstrate the LORD’s power will be mirrored by Jesus in his ministry. Elijah’s name is a combination of the generic word for god ‘El’ and the name of the LORD the God of Israel ‘Yahweh” and means ‘Yahweh is my God.’ In Alex Israel’s description on the biblical persona of Elijah:

Elijah is a zealot (19:10, 14)—agitated, demanding, and passionate; he is the brusque, itinerant prophet who causes fire to descend from heaven to earth, and who ends his life by ascending heavenward in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). (Israel, 2013, p. 229)

There is some debate about Tishbe, the geolocation given to Elijah because there is no known site for this town. Some have speculated that Elijah is a foreign follower of the LORD the God of Israel who was in Gilead at the time of Ahab, but regardless of his origin he becomes the defender of the worship of the LORD of Israel and the challenger to Ahab’s promotion of Baal as the favored deity of the north.

Throughout the articulation of the law in Deuteronomy there are consequences for turning away from the worship and the commandments of the LORD the God of Israel. Drought and the failure of the land to produce the food needed for life is one of the frequently articulated consequences.

Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshipping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you. Deuteronomy 11: 16-17 (see also Deuteronomy 28:22)

Elijah invokes the LORD in his declaration that there will be neither rain nor dew until he calls for rain as a fulfillment of these consequences.[1] Elijah’s declaration challenges both the prosperity that Ahab’s reign has brought to Israel and the claims of Baal worship. Baal in Canaanite religion is a storm god and when there are periods of drought it is presumed that death (personified as a deity in Canaanite religion) has slain Baal and conversely when the rains come Baal has conquered death. (NIB III: 126) Much like the signs and wonders in Egypt where the LORD demonstrated power over the Egyptian gods (Exodus 7-11) now the LORD demonstrates mastery over Baal by withholding the rains.

Elijah’s withdrawl to the Wadi Cherith east of the Jordan returns the prophet to Gilead. Ravens become the strange providers of the nourishment that the prophet needs to survive in this wilderness environment. Although ravens are considered unclean birds and do have some negative associations in scripture[2] this scene also share similarities with God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness with manna and quails.[3] Ravens are a large bird and are capable of bringing a larger quantity of food than many other birds would be capable of. The Talmud adds the entertaining element that the ravens are either stealing food from the table of King Ahab or King Jehoshaphat in Jerusalem and bringing it to the wadi for the prophet. (Israel, 2013, p. 233) Yet, as the drought continues, and the prophet continues to remain hidden in east of the Jordan river the waters of the wadi dry up and the prophet begins to encounter the dangers felt throughout the land as the rain and dew are withheld. God will need to provide a new place where the prophet can survive the presumed threat from King Ahab and the lack of food and water in the drought.

1 Kings 17: 8-16 Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

Apparently the effects of the drought are not only being felt in Israel, but also in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Geographically this is not a long distance (approximately 40-50 miles as the raven flies depending on where East of the Jordan Elijah is coming from), and it is not surprising that they would encounter the same weather patterns. From a theological perspective, which is central to the narration of First Kings, it also extends the judgment against Baal into the land where Baal is expected to reign. Now the LORD the God of Israel will provide food in this Phoenician commercial city for the widow where King Ethbaal and Baal cannot. Yet, Elijah’s demonstrations of the power of the LORD will not be a public spectacle but will take place in small ways that would be unnoticed by many in this city. Elijah’s demonstration of the LORD’s power will be seen only by those who pay attention to the widow and her plight.

On arriving in Zarephath and discovering the widow that the LORD indicated he immediately asks her for water and then food. The widow still has some water to share, but she is preparing to make a final meal for herself and her son before starvation takes its course. The widow must recognize Elijah as an Israelite, for the oath she swears is by the LORD, Elijah’s God. She does not claim the LORD as her own God, but she recognizes Elijah as an Israelite and still is willing to share water with him. Elijah still demands her hospitality and to be served first before she feeds herself and her son, and the widow apparently complies. The promised provision of oil and flour continues to provide for her and perhaps those in her network during the drought as the LORD provides for the widow and her son, two individuals who are among the most vulnerable in the event of an extended drought. Elijah who has been isolated at the Wadi Cherith is now presented with a human face to the impact of the drought that he declared on the land.

1 Kings 17: 17-24 Elijah Revives the Widow’s Son

17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19 But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24 So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”

Although there is no correlation in the text between the desperate situation of the widow and her son prior to the arrival of Elijah and the onset of his mysterious illness, prolonged lack of sustenance can have significant physical impacts on the body. In many ways the widow and her son become representative of the impact of the drought upon the land and likely many mothers were seeing their sons (and daughters) suffer as food becomes scarce. Even with the grain and the oil now providing sustenance the crisis of a child who stops breathing places the future in jeopardy for this family and the presence of the worshipper of the God of Israel in the land around Sidon may be viewed by the woman as a reason for Baal to curse her son, or as the text indicates she may view Elijah’s God as judging her. Elijah has called for judgment but has never appealed for mercy until this incident where the widow’s son lies lifeless. Now, on behalf of the widow, he intercedes with God calling on God for healing. Elijah speaks to God first in accusation and then imploring God three times for the ‘life’[4] of the child to return and the LORD responds to Elijah’s requests. Elijah’s revival of the widow’s son allows her to proclaim that Elijah is ‘a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” Elijah’s LORD has demonstrated power over both famine and an illness that has led her son to death’s door. For the first time Elijah enters into the space between the people and God.

The struggle of the widow and her son put a human face on the drought. Other children are certainly dying as food and water become scarce. Elijah dropped from the public space and retreated first to the Wadi Cherith and then to Zarephath. In the aftermath of the revival of the widow’s son, he returns to confront both King Ahab and the prophets of Baal who have alienated the people of Israel from the LORD their God.

[1] Alex Israel has an enlightening discussion of the Jewish debate about whether Elijah initiates the drought expecting the support of the LORD or whether he is responding to God’s word. This is one of the benefits of seeking Jewish readings of the Hebrew Scriptures which often have insights often neglected in Christian biblical studies. Although I will not end up following either direction Israel highlights my thoughts were shaped by this discussion. (Israel, 2013, pp. 230-240)

[2] Leviticus 11: 15, Psalm 147:9, Job 38: 41

[3] Exodus 16

[4] This is the Hebrew nephesh which is often translated ‘soul’ is rightly rendered as ‘life’ here. The Hebrew idea of nephesh is not the Greek idea of an immortal soul which continues beyond the mortal body, nephesh is the essence of life itself.

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