August 29, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The great prophet Elijah enters history

John F. Fink(Thirty-fourth in a series of columns)

Beginning with Chapter 12 of the First Book of Kings, the Old Testament tells us what happened to Israel after King Solomon’s death in 922 B.C. Specifically, the kingdom broke in two, with 10 tribes forming the kingdom of Israel in the north and two tribes becoming the kingdom of Judah in the south. The two kingdoms warred against each other.

Jerusalem remained the capital of Judah. As far as the authors were concerned, Jerusalem’s Temple was the only legitimate place for worship and the kings were judged according to their loyalty or disloyalty to the Lord in terms of worship there. This meant that the worship of those in Israel, where King Jeroboam established shrines in Dan and Bethel, was illegitimate.

Chapters 12 through 16 tell us about the reigns of three kings in Judah and six kings in Israel, the latter usually dying violently because of the sins they committed. This culminated with the beginning of the reign of Israel’s King Ahab in 869 B.C. Ahab “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than any of his predecessors” (1 Kgs 16:30). He married Jezebel and went over to the worship of the pagan god Baal, building a temple to him in Samaria.

That’s when the great prophet Elijah, one of the most important figures in the Old Testament, entered history, in Chapter 17. He struggled to preserve the worship of the Lord against Ahab and Jezebel.

First, we learn that Elijah told Ahab that there would be a severe drought. He went to a place east of the Jordan River where he was fed by ravens. Then he moved to Sidon (in modern Lebanon) where he stayed with a widow and her son, miraculously providing enough flour for them to live for a year. Then, when the widow’s son died, Elijah restored him to life.

With all that as an introduction to Elijah, Chapter 18 tells the famous story of Elijah competing with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, another pagan god, on Mount Carmel. He challenged them to call upon Baal to send down fire to consume two bulls. After they tried all day long, Elijah had them pour jars of water over the sacrifice several times before praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. God then sent fire down to consume the holocaust and lapped up the water in the trench.

As the people praised God, Elijah had them seize Baal’s prophets. They took them to a brook where Elijah slit their throats.

When Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done, she vowed revenge, so Elijah fled for his life. He went first to Beer-sheba in Judah and then walked 40 days and 40 nights (reminiscent of the 40 years the Israelites were in the desert) to Horeb (or Sinai), the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

The authors want us to know that it was fitting that Elijah, whose mission it was to re-establish the covenant, should return to Mount Horeb. There he experienced wind, storms, earthquakes and fire before hearing a tiny whispering sound that signified the presence of God. †

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