1 Kings 13
1 While Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the LORD to Bethel 2 and proclaimed against the altar by the word of the LORD, and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.'” 3 He gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘The altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.'” 4 When the king heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, Jeroboam stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, “Seize him!” But the hand that he stretched out against him withered so that he could not draw it back to himself. 5 The altar also was torn down, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign that the man of God had given by the word of the LORD. 6 The king said to the man of God, “Entreat now the favor of the LORD your God, and pray for me, so that my hand may be restored to me.” So the man of God entreated the LORD; and the king’s hand was restored to him, and became as it was before. 7 Then the king said to the man of God, “Come home with me and dine, and I will give you a gift.” 8 But the man of God said to the king, “If you give me half your kingdom, I will not go in with you; nor will I eat food or drink water in this place. 9 For thus I was commanded by the word of the LORD: You shall not eat food, or drink water, or return by the way that you came.” 10 So he went another way, and did not return by the way that he had come to Bethel.
11 Now there lived an old prophet in Bethel. One of his sons came and told him all that the man of God had done that day in Bethel; the words also that he had spoken to the king, they told to their father. 12 Their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” And his sons showed him the way that the man of God who came from Judah had gone. 13 Then he said to his sons, “Saddle a donkey for me.” So they saddled a donkey for him, and he mounted it. 14 He went after the man of God, and found him sitting under an oak tree. He said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” He answered, “I am.” 15 Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat some food.” 16 But he said, “I cannot return with you, or go in with you; nor will I eat food or drink water with you in this place; 17 for it was said to me by the word of the LORD: You shall not eat food or drink water there, or return by the way that you came.” 18 Then the other said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD: Bring him back with you into your house so that he may eat food and drink water.” But he was deceiving him. 19 Then the man of God went back with him, and ate food and drank water in his house.
20 As they were sitting at the table, the word of the LORD came to the prophet who had brought him back; 21 and he proclaimed to the man of God who came from Judah, “Thus says the LORD: Because you have disobeyed the word of the LORD, and have not kept the commandment that the LORD your God commanded you, 22 but have come back and have eaten food and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, ‘Eat no food, and drink no water,’ your body shall not come to your ancestral tomb.” 23 After the man of God had eaten food and had drunk, they saddled for him a donkey belonging to the prophet who had brought him back. 24 Then as he went away, a lion met him on the road and killed him. His body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. 25 People passed by and saw the body thrown in the road, with the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the town where the old prophet lived.
26 When the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard of it, he said, “It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of the LORD; therefore the LORD has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him according to the word that the LORD spoke to him.” 27 Then he said to his sons, “Saddle a donkey for me.” So they saddled one, 28 and he went and found the body thrown in the road, with the donkey and the lion standing beside the body. The lion had not eaten the body or attacked the donkey. 29 The prophet took up the body of the man of God, laid it on the donkey, and brought it back to the city, to mourn and to bury him. 30 He laid the body in his own grave; and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” 31 After he had buried him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. 32 For the saying that he proclaimed by the word of the LORD against the altar in Bethel, and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria, shall surely come to pass.”
33 Even after this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people; any who wanted to be priests he consecrated for the high places. 34 This matter became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.
To the modern mind this is a strange story. We rebel against the punishment that is given to the man of God from Judah who is tricked by the old prophet from Bethel. We puzzle at the inclusion of a prophecy about a king who will not come for three hundred years being brought into a scene immediately after the separation of Israel from Judah. The strange actions of both the lion and the donkey in the story acting contrary to their natures and the cursing and healing of King Jeroboam seem to come from a different world than our own lives. Even the prohibition preventing the man of God from Judah from eating or drinking until he returns home seems out of step with our way of thinking about food and drink. It is a strange story with strange characters, but it is also the beginning of the prophetic stories told in parallel the stories of the kings throughout the remainder of First and Second Kings.
In ancient storytelling repetition can often help us to understand the story and the world of the story better. The commands and the appeals to the LORD the God of Israel are continual throughout the story indicating a world where God’s power is potent and dangerous. The word of the LORD appears throughout the story along with appeals to the LORD, crying out to the LORD, and prayers to the LORD. The man of God from Judah is given a concrete message and a straightforward command not to eat or drink until he returns home and to return home by a different path.
The indication that, in the context of this festival where the king is acting as a priest, the man of God comes to Bethel with a word of the LORD for the altar starts the story with a distance between the altar at Bethel and God’s presence among the people. The LORD either chooses not to use one of the prophets in Bethel, which we learn exist in this story, or the worship in Bethel has deviated from the worship of the LORD. It is likely that prophets in Bethel would receive support from Jeroboam and would be expected to speak in ways that are favorable to their king. Later prophets like Amos would later be told to return to Jerusalem if their messages were not in alignment with the king and priests. The proclamation against the altar while the king is standing there, especially as a person from the neighboring realm of Judah would be a direct challenge to the policies of Jeroboam. Just as Jeroboam once lifted his hand against Solomon (1 Kings 11: 26-27) now he raises his hand against this man of God from Judah. Previously God had allowed Jeroboam to raise his hand against Solomon, now God protects the man of God by causing the king’s hand to wither and placing him at the mercy of this man of God’s entreaty.
First and Second Kings is a historical narrative that attempts to theologically wrestle with the heartbreaking fall from the hope at the beginning of the reign of Solomon to the destruction of both Israel and Judah from the perspective of those from Judah that are exiled to Babylon. One of the fundamental human questions that is asked in the aftermath of tragedy is why this happened. The narrative of the books of Kings is an attempt to answer this question. In looking at this broader perspective, King Josiah becomes for the writer of First and Second Kings, an important figure. Josiah, whose story is told in 2 Kings 22-23, is the primary example of what a king of Judah (and by extension Israel) should be and his reign delays the judgment of God upon Judah. The reforms of Josiah are a moment where from the perspective of Judah there is a potential for Israel and Judah to be reunited and the places of worship, like Bethel, are eliminated as the worship is centered around the temple in Jerusalem. The man of God introduces the actions of Josiah that will happen centuries later when he defiles the altar at Bethel as a sacrilegious place (2 Kings 23: 15-16). The proclamation of the man of God against the altar may also give temporary pause to the people who are being allowed to act as priests by Jeroboam.
The prohibition against eating and drinking was probably to keep the man of God from Judah from indulging in any type of activity which could be viewed as idolatrous or as an act of favor towards Jeroboam or the shrine at Bethel. Feasting, especially at festival times like this one, is often associated with worship and this concern continues into the New Testament as we see in 1 Corinthians 8. Meat in an era before refrigeration was often consumed at religious festivals and partaking in the food was also considered partaking in the worship of the deity being celebrated. It can also be viewed as an act of reconciliation between the man of God and Jeroboam, but no reconciliation has occurred because the actions of Jeroboam towards the LORD have not fundamentally changed. The man of God from Judah is not to become an authorized participant or supporter of the work at Bethel, and even the participation in a meal could be viewed as tacit support for the king or Bethel.
Most modern readers of scripture assume far greater uniformity of belief than the text bears witness to. Even if the law as we encounter it in Deuteronomy exists in the form we now have it, it would not be readily available to the people and its observance disappears for long periods of time. The practices at Bethel and the practices in Jerusalem were probably not identical, and the presence of a prophet at Bethel does not indicate complete Torah observance. It is likely that this prophet, like many people who hold the title of prophet, are authorized by the king or by the temple. Although the text does not give the motive of the old prophet in Bethel for seeking out the man of God from Judah those motives may not be collegial. The prophet in Bethel may feel that the man of God from Judah is interfering in his territory and undermining what he views as the acceptable practices of his fellow worshippers in Bethel. He seeks him out on his return home, and perhaps in light of the action against the altar, wants to attempt to bring this man of God in to bless, and reauthorize, the worship at Bethel and the dedication of a new altar.
The interaction of the man of God and the old prophet from Bethel under the oak tree reminds me of the interaction between the serpent and Eve in Genesis 3: 1-6. In contrast to this narrative where the serpent’s questions cause Eve to question, the old prophet tells a lie about an angelic invitation. The man of God from Judah apparently had a clear set of instructions about delivering this message in Bethel, but now the reported words of God by another prophet causes him to question these previous words. Morally we may find the trickster behavior of this prophet of Bethel unsavory and many readers of this text want this prophet to be punished rather than the man of God who is tricked. But the bible is full of strange stories of tricksters and seemingly righteous people led astray. But rather than return to Judah, the man of God returns to Bethel with this prophet.
We may question the morality of the prophet from Bethel, but while he feasts with this man of God he does receive a prophetic message. The man of God hears the declaration that he will not be buried in the tomb of his family. We may rebel at the punishment of this man of God for this simple trespass, but his return to Bethel may be viewed from the perspective of the temple and the king as the man of God sharing the feast with them and granting them favor.
The man of God departs on a donkey provided by the old prophet and is soon killed by a lion. Yet, neither the lion nor the donkey act like these animals normally act. The lion does not maul the man of God, nor does the donkey flee the lion as both stand a sentinels over this dead messenger of God. This strange story is remembered by the people and reported to the prophet of Bethel. In another strange turn of the story the prophet journeys to the fallen man of God, brings him once again to Bethel, mourns over his dead body and buries him in his tomb. The prophet and the man of God are linked together link Judah and Israel are supposed to be. (Israel, 2013, p. 176)
This is a strange story to modern ears, but it is a story that will echo across centuries and will be remembered by people when Josiah is king and decides not to use the bones from the tomb where the man of God and the prophet’s bones are laid (2 Kings 23:17). The words of the man of God, and the mourning of the prophet of Bethel do not lead King Jeroboam to repent and in the view of First Kings this leads to Jeroboam’s dynasty ending. Although First and Second Kings will follow both the northern and southern kingdoms the bulk of the text through the remainder of First Kings and the first ten chapters of Second Kings will focus on northern Israel. It is in the aftermath of the reign of Jeroboam that prophets like Elijah and Elisha will emerge and these wonder working prophets will exercise a powerful place in the memory of the people of both kingdoms.
 Many scholars assume the final form of many of the books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures reach their final canonical form during the Babylonian exile as a part of the collection and preservation of the traditions and stories to hand on to future generations. It is impossible to go back and historically document what textual resources were available three thousand years ago, but the historical recollection in Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings points to numerous points where the law is either unknown or forgotten.