1 Kings 19 Elijah Encounters the LORD at Mount Horeb and the Appointment of Elisha

Elijah in the Wilderness By Frederic Leighton (1877-78) – uQG9WGfbc10kDw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21878932

1 Kings 19: 1-18

1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Elijah’s triumph over the prophets of Baal and triumphal run before King Ahab quickly dissolves before the vengeful fury of Jezebel. Jezebel becomes the primary opponent of Elijah, not King Ahab, and although she may be unable to act openly on the day of Elijah’s triumph when the rains have returned and the memory of the fire of the LORD consuming the altar and the sacrifice still is fresh on Ahab and the crowd’s memory, she acts through a messenger.[1] The messenger relays Jezebel’s promise of death. Her threat has already eliminated many prophets of the LORD and has sent many others into hiding.[2] Ultimately Jezebel’s warning enables Elijah’s escape, but as Alex Israel points out, “She need not actually kill him; she is happy to see him disappear for another three years!” (Israel, 2013, p. 260) Jezebel views Elijah as a singular threat to the values she represents.

Jezebel as she is represented in the narrative of 1 Kings is the antithesis of the values of the covenantal way of the Torah (the law of Israel). Some have speculated that the canonical portrayal of Jezebel is another example of a patriarchal silencing of a powerful woman, but the issue for the author of 1 Kings is not the power Jezebel wields but how her use of it leads people away from the ways of covenantal faithfulness. Jezebel’s name will become a symbol for all that leads away from faithful adherence to the way of God in both Jewish and Christian thought. For example, Jezebel’s name will later be used in the book of Revelation for a figure who is leading the faithful astray. [3] For the narrative of 1 Kings, Jezebel and Elijah represent the opposing poles which Israel continues to ‘limp’ between. Jezebel represents faithfulness to the Phoenician gods and values of her family while Elijah represents fidelity to the worship and covenantal values of the LORD the God of Israel. Israel often attempted to combine elements of both into their communal life but both Elijah and Jezebel are violently opposed to this accommodation.

There have been many who have speculated on Elijah’s mental state as he flees the threat of Jezebel and heads into the wilderness outside the territory of Israel. He passes over the border into Jerusalem and then leaves behind his servant and heads alone on his journey. In Brueggemann’s words,

He arrives in the wilderness completely spent. He has mustered enormous energy for the dispute at Carmel. And though he has won, he is permitted no chance of exultation. His wish-prayer of v.4 is for death. He is distressed and dismayed. And then he sleeps. He has no energy for anything else. (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 234)

It is possible that after the contest with the prophets of Baal and the run to Jezreel that Elijah is physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted but the scriptures rarely share these details in their narration of the story. Others have speculated that Elijah is in a deep bout of depression as he asks God to end his life, and that is possible although ancient people would not have thought of depression as a clinical issue but merely as a state of melancholia. I would suggest another alternative, one that does not rule out exhaustion or depression, Elijah’s heart is broken. Elijah presided over the defeat and destruction of the prophets of Baal, rallied the people, ran before the king, and still, no one in Israel seems to be able to protect him from Queen Jezebel. Israel’s turn back towards the LORD the God of Israel seems to Elijah to have been washed away by the returning rains and forgotten once they left Mount Carmel. Three years of drought and hiding, the people’s suffering, the prophets’ death all seems to count for nothing and Elijah, for all his zeal, has not managed to change the course of the people. In his words he is no better than those who came before him and failed to change things.

The journey[4] of Elijah has been difficult. The journey that takes him into the wilderness is merely one part of this exhausting journey, but now alone he is content to leave the people behind and appeal to his God for death. Finding a solitary tree in the wilderness, Elijah is ready to renounce his vocation and his life. A messenger set him on this flight, and now another messenger replies to his plea for his journey and his life to end. One messenger threatens death, the second brings nourishment and comfort that brings the prophet back from his wish for death. This angelic messenger from God meets him as he sleeps. Sleep is often a time where God or God’s messengers interact with the faithful. We often discount this space of sleep and dreams but in the scriptures it is often a place where the divine draws close. Yet, this angelic messenger does not bring just guidance but brings tangible food and drink to help restore the prophet’s strength. This passage uses a number of uncommon Hebrew words to talk about the cake, ‘hot stones,’ and jar of water that link us to other critical scenes in the scriptures. The words for ‘cake’ and ‘jar’[5] are the same words that are used when Elijah asks the widow for water and a cake of bread in 1 Kings 17: 8-16, and now Elijah is like the widow and her son nearing the point of death and needing divine provision in a place where no food grows. ‘Hot coals’ or ‘hot stones’[6] is only used here and in Isaiah 6:6 when the seraphs bring a hot stone to purify Isaiah’s lips. (NIB III: 140) Food, drink, and rest are the divine answers to the prophets who has been worn out on the way. The second time the angel awakens Elijah he encourages him to eat again “or the way will be too much for you.” The NRSV’s translation indicates that the food is for the journey ahead to Mount Horeb, but the Hebrew is more ambiguous.[7] It may refer to the forty day and forty-night journey to and sojourn on Mount Horeb[8] but it also may refer more broadly to the way that Elijah will be called to walk as the prophet of God.

Mount Horeb is a sacred space in the imagination of Israel. Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai refer to the same mountain, the mountain where God first spoke to Moses, where the people receive the commandments of the LORD, and critically where Moses goes to appeal to God after the people worshipped the golden calf. The cave that Elijah journeys to is likely the same cleft where Moses hid while God passed by (Exodus 33:22). Elijah is coming to a place where he can encounter God directly. God is bringing Elijah to a place where he can be reoriented to the way of Moses.

In the commandments, the explanation for making not making an idol is, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,” and the words[9] translated ‘zealous’ when referring to Elijah is the same word in the commandment for God’s ‘jealousy.’ A close reader might begin to question if Elijah is taking too much responsibility on his shoulders, attempting to be ‘jealous’ in God’s stead. As mentioned above I do believe that Elijah is heartbroken over the seeming inability of Israel to maintain faithfulness to God his own seeming ineffectiveness as a prophet. Elijah is jealous on behalf of God and perhaps angry at feeling left alone to complete this work. Although we know that there are at least one hundred prophets who were rescued by Obadiah, Elijah’s complaint that he is alone to bear the burden of Israel’s unfaithfulness and it is a burden he can no longer bear.

The LORD grants Elijah’s wish for an audience, but it does not transpire as Elijah probably hoped. Baal is a storm god in Canaanite mythology and so the approach of a great wind would be associated with a god of storms, but the LORD was not in this wind which breaks rocks apart. The earthquake and the fire are also forces of immense power and places where God’s presence may be expected but God appears in none of these destructive forces. These things are driven before the LORD as the LORD approaches[10] but when they have passed the LORD is present in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’ The ‘sound of sheer silence’ comes from three Hebrew words: kol -voice or sound, demama- silence, and daka-thin, withered, or granular. The voice can be emerging from the silence or present in the silence, but it is not the terrifying, destructive thing that preceded it. Elijah wraps his mantle around his face and walks into the sound and silence.

Twice Elijah is asked “What are you doing here?” and twice he responds, “I have been zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” Unlike Moses who goes up the mountain to plead for the people, Elijah goes up the mountain to accuse the people. Elijah had earlier mocked the prophets of Baal for their god’s inactivity, now Elijah is frustrated with the LORD’s response to the unfaithfulness among the people.

He cannot stand that God will sit by and watch as the nation adopts Baal as its deity… God wishes to function in the world via the “still, small voice”; Elijah wants fire, thunder, and earthquake. He cannot accommodate a world in which Jezebel can rule with a free hand, and does not understand why god will not bring the world to order. (Israel, 2013, pp. 266-267)

Elijah is brokenhearted with both the LORD and with Israel and stands caught between both. The world no longer makes sense to this prophet who sees his work on behalf of God met with threats of violence. Elijah is seeking a world where either the LORD acts against Jezebel and those who oppose the prophets or he no longer bears this burden.

The LORD will act and will grant what Elijah wishes, but not in the way that Elijah expects. Elijah does receive a mandate to return to his way, but it is a journey where he will be setting in motion the forces that end the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. The LORD is not going to act through wind, earthquake and fire, nor will the LORD summon the heavenly host, instead the LORD is going to work through the movement of forces within and external to Israel. God will work behind the scenes of history in the transitions of power. Elijah has perhaps in his jealousy overestimated his own significance in feeling that he is the only faithful one left, while God discloses a remnant of seven thousand and has designated another to bear his mantle. Elijah’s wish for his service and life to be at an end will be granted by God, but he is given three final tasks to prepare the way for the future. Ironically, the prophet who has complained about the unfaithfulness of Israel will not fulfill his final directive in the way the LORD directs.

1 Kings 19: 19-21

19 So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. 20 He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” 21 He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.

Elijah never makes it to Damascus. Instead he approaches his replacement first and casts his mantle upon him. Abel-meholah is closer to Mount Horeb than Damascus and it may reflect an exhausted and broken-hearted prophet ready to pass the mantle of prophecy to another. Elisha, whose name means ‘God is my salvation’, is presumably coming from a wealthy household since he has twelve yoke of oxen to plow with. Yet, when Elijah throws the mantle over him Elisha is willing to leave this life behind, he only asks Elijah’s permission to say farewell. Although Jesus will later say to a disciple who wishes to bury his father, “let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:21), there is no judgment expressed by Elijah. There may be a note of regret as Elijah says to Elisha, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” The brokenhearted prophet may not wish for another to leave behind a life of prosperity for a life of deprivation and hardship, a life hunted by those in power. Yet, Elisha in saying farewell not only to his parents, but also the community, sacrifices the oxen and sets out to join Elijah on the way.

[1] The Hebrew mal’ak is used for both the messenger of Jezebel and the angel of the LORD in this passage.

[2] Notably the 100 prophets hidden by Obadiah in the previous chapter.

[3] Revelation 2:20

[4] Journey and way throughout this passage are the Hebrew derek which generally means way, road, distance, or journey.

[5] Hebrew ‘uga and shappahat

[6] Hebrew reshapim

[7] Hebrew mimmeka haddarek (NIB III: 140)

[8] The forty-day journey can be literal, but forty days is also frequently a way that the scriptures refer to a long and complete time. The number forty in Jewish thought often designates completeness, hence forty years in the wilderness, forty days Moses spends on Mount Sinai receiving the law, forty days of temptation, and many other examples.

[9] Quanno qunneti

[10] This imagery is common in scriptures, for example Judges 5: 4-5, Psalm 18:7-10, and Isaiah 29:6

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