Friday, August 15, 2008

1 Kings 17-22: Enter Elijah

Prior to this week's reading, I knew that there was a famous prophet, Elijah. That was the sum total of my knowledge about him: that he existed, and that he was important. I vaguely expected we would read about him in the Book of Elijah, but it turns out there's no such book. So, I'm ignorant. I guess that's why we're here.

Elijah and the Drought

So, when we left off last time, we had Ahab on the throne in Israel. He was married to that Jezebel, Jezebel, and despised by God for his rampant flirtation with other gods. So now we meet Elijah as he prophesies a major drought.

Upon delivering this curse, he immediately hightails it out of town -- he's not going to be popular with King Ahab -- and lives in the wilderness, where ravens bring him food. After a while, the local stream dries up, so he has to bid farewell to his ravens and lodge with a widow and her son; their little household is kept in food and water by divine favor, while the drought ravages the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Jezebel is having God's prophets persecuted and killed, and is patronizing prophets of Baal and Asherah. Elijah comes out of hiding and confronts Ahab, proposing a miracle duel. He appears at Mt. Carmel with 450 priests of Baal. Each set up wood for a bonfire and lay pieces of a sacrificial bull on top of it; the contest is to make the sacrifice burst spontaneously into flame.

The priests of Baal chant and incant and dance all day, but Baal doesn't come through for them. Then, as afternoon is getting on, Elijah has the people pour twelve large jars of water over his sacrifice -- one for each tribe -- and then asks God to make a fire. Which God does. The people are immediately convinced that they should return to worshiping God, and they spend the rest of the day busily slaughtering the hapless priests of Baal. But Elijah decrees an end to the drought, and climbs to the top of Mt. Carmel. That night, the rains come.

On Miracles

At the risk of stating the obvious, the whole idea of miracles is highly problematic. Here, to convince the Israelites that he does indeed exist, God is thought to have violated the laws of nature. He made the rules, and apparently he can break them. Fair enough. Yet everyone has, at one time or another, asked God for a demo, a little miracle just for them, to prove His existence, and of course He never complies. The only solicited miracles that come to pass are either strictly rhetorical in nature -- the "every time I look in a child's eyes, I see a miracle" sort of pieties -- or very, very, very easily conceivable as non-miracles -- the "I prayed for my son to come home alive from Iraq, and he did" sort of thing.

So, why does Elijah rate, and we don't? Should hearing about Elijah, about this mysterious spontaneous fire of long ago, really strengthen our faith in God? Or, should it weaken our faith in God that we are not able to replicate the experience? Could it be that God won't show me a little miracle because he just doesn't have the stuff anymore?

Too, offering proof through miraculous events puts God over a bit of a conceptual barrel. The reason a miracle is impressive is that it abrogates otherwise absolute laws of nature. Fire doesn't bloom spontaneously out of water-soaked wood; when it does, it's amazing. However, if miracles happened all the time, then laws of nature would no longer be so absolute, would they. A miracle, when repeated, is less and less of a miracle. It gradually degrades into a freak occurrence, then an anomaly, and eventually just one of those unexplained things that happens every once in a while.

And it's not like God could provide everyone with just their one little convincer miracle, either. You know how we are. After a while, we'd begin to wonder if we had remembered the original miracle right. "Did I REALLY see fire burst out of that soaked wood?" we'd ask. "Maybe it was some kind of freak chemical reaction. Maybe that Elijah guy was messing with us." And we'd ask for a confirming miracle. And the cycle of reaffirmation would mean that everybody eventually needed to be reassured a couple times a month, and the natural order would be completely haywire, and the study of physics would slide into deep decline.

And these are just the inherent logical problems of miracles as instruments of faith. We get these even before the moral questions rear their ugly heads. Moral questions, such as "If God can perform miracles at will, is it right for him not to eliminate the AIDS virus, tooth decay, and lite jazz?" The miraculous, as evidence for the divine, is just a big, problematic can of worms. And for this reason, when we saw the miracles of Moses, and now with this miracle of Elijah, I always feel like they do as much to hurt as to help the case for the existence of God.

The Whisper of God

Anyway. Having provoked the slaughter of all of the Queen's priests, Elijah knows that he will have continue to have some trouble with the authorities. He gets the heck bacl out of town. He wanders in the wildness for a while, has conversations with an angel, and finally ends up in a cave, where he has a conversation with God himself. To lift his spirits, God tells him to leave the cave and witness His passing. The description of this manifestation of God (in 1 Kings 19) is quite lovely, I think.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
As alien as it is to my background to consider God manifesting himself in a single location, I do like the concept of that manifestation being not a blazing light, or an earthquake or a fire, but rather just a gentle whisper. That the whisper turns out to be about putting people who have chosen other religions to the sword kind of kills the mood, but it was nice while it lasted.

Ahab Continues to Make God Mad

1 Kings 20 tells of a war between Israel and the powerful neighboring kingdom of Aram. Even though he is not crazy about King Ahab, God says that he will deliver a victory to convince the Israelites of his power. (See what I mean? That spontaneous fire only convinced them for a little while, and already they need convincing again!) Using a strategy suggested by the prophets, Ahab catches the Aram army unprepared in the hills, and sends them packing. The next year, the Arameans try again, and again the Israelites prevail. This time they capture the King of Aram, Ben-Hadad.

Ben-Hadad negotiates with Ahab, offering to return all the Israelite territory that Aram has captured over the years in exchange for his life. Ahab agrees. This angers God, however; apparently, he was expected to kill Ben-Hadad (although we are never told about any specific instructions on this point). Ahab, here, comes off much as old King Saul did; in seeming to embody positive qualities of mercy and skilled diplomacy, he angers God by not conducting a more thorough killing.

In 1 Kings 21, Ahab angers god on the domestic scene. He wants some real estate, but the owner won't sell. So, he lets Jezebel engineer a scheme where the owner is framed for treason and stoned to death. Voila! Free vineyard! For which scheme God is understandably not happy with the person who rules in his name.

Finally, in 1 Kings 22, there's another big battle with Aram, and this time the Israelites lose. Ahab is slain. Leading up to the battle, there is a confusing bit where four hundred prophets predict victory, and one predicts defeat, and of course the one nay-sayer turns out to be right. The point may be that the four hundred yes-men are not prophets of God, but rather of Baal or Asherah, but this isn't specified; without that piece of information, it's a little hard to decode the story.

And finally,

1 Kings ends with brief mention of two more kings. Jehoshaphat -- as in "jumpin' Jehoshaphat," perhaps? -- is Asa's son, taking over the throne of Judah at his father's death, and like Asa he is thought to be a good, righteous, effective king. Ahaziah, son of Ahab, rules Israel for a couple of years after his dad dies, and is considered another bad Baal-worshiping apple. It looks like we'll see more about him next time, as the narrative slides unbroken from 1 Kings into 2 Kings.

Next Time: More about Ahaziah! And other strange doings!


Jennifer said...

This morning around dawn, I went for a run. I ran by a lot of fields, all of which looked pretty unremarkable this morning. (That is, they had their usual beauty, which is pretty great.) And then I ran by a field that had a trace of haze over part of it, and in the middle of the field, there was what looked like a ramp made out of mist. Basically, it was the same size and shape as a one-story stairway (with a ramp instead of mist), and it was quite well defined, but less so at the top. You know how a cloud in a blue sky stands out? That's very nearly the kind of "solidity" it was giving off.

I immediately thought of the Old Testament and how this could appear supernatural, like an angel had spent the night wondering if he could find anybody to wrestle with and had just gone back up without having gotten any good exercise. I knew that hadn't happened. Mist is caused by, um, warm surfaces and cold air or vice versa, and the rising action would come from, uh, a source of heat, so maybe there was something about the ground that made that one patch warmer than the surrounding field--

As I tried to patch together enough science to work out the explanation, I thought about the people today who would still see God in that. I could have had a spiritual experience, but I didn't. (I think I know some people who would have.) I had the perfect opportunity. Maybe I would be happier if I saw mystery everywhere, but I don't think so. (I'm a pretty happy person, and it was a neat experience anyhow.) So I guess my musings right now are about what makes mystery more appealing to some people and explanations more appealing to others.

I read about a study (which I hope I don't mangle too badly) where small, happy, and unexplained things happened to people. I think they sent anonymous notes with dollar bills to some people, maybe. Something like that. The other group were sent, say, dollar bills but with an explanation, like a refund from a library fine they'd been overcharged for. The people whose good "luck" (I don't know a better word than that, though obviously it wasn't really luck) reported on average that they were much happier following this event than the people who received an explanation for their happiness.

Is it hardwired into our brains to be happiest with a little mystery, and what does that mean about religion?

Right. Well, this doesn't answer any of the good questions you were asking about miracles, really, but it was on my mind.

Jennifer said...

P.S. And re: the bit about God speaking in a whisper--I don't remember many at all of the thousands of sermons I've heard in my life, but the one that talked about God speaking in a whisper stuck with me.