Wednesday, July 02, 2008

These are the Days of Elijah: 1 Kings 17-19

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

We interrupt the sad procession of failed kings to bring you the prophet Elijah, who really kicks ass as far as prophets go. Elijah the Tishbite appears out of nowhere before Ahab and proclaims that for "the next few years," he and he alone has the power to decide when it will rain and when it will not. Then Elijah turns on his heel and walks out. He moves to a ravine east of the Jordan, where, of all things, he has ravens bring him breakfast every morning and dinner every evening. Eventually, the lack of rain causes his creek to dry up, so he moves out of the ravine and starts getting food from Sidonian widows instead. (As compensation for this, he blesses their flour jars and oil jugs so they become magic and never run out of food.)

Elijah can be a bit of an obnoxious asshole when he's angry, but at least he has God on his side, which is more than pretty much anyone else in this part of 1 Kings can honestly say about themselves. We know this not just because God routinely talks to him - which he does - but also because of Elijah's impressively varied repertoire of miracles, which include everflowing oil jugs, psychic control of ravens, control of the weather, and - for the first time in the Bible - raising the dead. Yes, Elijah raises his supportive woman friend's deceased son who dies of a strange illness. Unlike Jesus, however, Elijah's resurrection spell is rather complicated, requiring an intricate ritual in which he "stretches himself out on the boy" three times while praying. God, I hope that isn't a euphemism. Eventually the boy recovers and Elijah happily announces his progress to the boy's mother.

After a few years of clowning around in Sidon, Elijah decides to go back to Ahab. On his way, he meets a fellow prophet named Obadiah, who has spent the last several years hiding prophets in caves so that they won't be killed by Ahab. Elijah's been withholding the rain, so Ahab tells Obadiah - who apparently he's still on speaking turns with, despite the whole hiding-prophets issue - to go to find some springs and rivers somewhere. "Go tell your master that Elijah is here," Elijah says ominously. Obadiah complains at length, apparently fearing that Ahab will kill him upon hearing such news, but Elijah tells him to go and do it anyways.

Ahab meets Elijah in person, calling him a "troubler of Israel," which is a cool title for a malcontent, I suppose. I wouldn't mind being a "troubler of Canada." Elijah is unperturbed, proposing what amounts to an early interfaith debate - actually, one that I think should be the model for all future debates on the subject of "does God exist?" or, more appropriately, "which gods exist?" because that's the one really at issue here. Elijah will represent God and no less than 850 pagan prophets, handpicked by Ahab, will represent Baal and Asherah. Elijah doesn't seem troubled at being so heavily outnumbered.

Elijah asks for two bulls to be brought. Then he summons the pagan prophets and sets down the ground rules for the debate: each side gets to build an altar using only the wood available on hand, and place a dead bull on that altar. The victory conditions are pretty basic: whoever's god sets fire to the sacrifice first, wins. This game, he adds, is for all the marbles. Whichever god wins gets the complete devotion of everyone in Israel.

Elijah, always generous, spots the Baal priests an eight-hour head start, which the pagans use to pray and call upon Baal. During this time, he gleefully mocks them, suggesting that perhaps their god is meditating, or working, or on vacation, or even sleeping.

After their head start time is up, Elijah casually begins building his altar, which apparently he hasn't even started yet. He decorates the altar with a shallow trench and twelve marker stones, one for each tribe - "my altar is called Israel," he declares as he sets the stones in place. He lays the bull on the wood, then he dumps twelve large jugs worth of water onto the altar, so that the wood is drenched and the trench is full.

Finally he points triumphantly at his creation and prays confidently for divine intervention. God promptly strikes the altar with a pillar of fire, burning the sacrifice, the wood, and even the stones, and leaving the soil scorched black.

"Thus my argument prevails," Elijah says, or something to that effect anyways, after which he tells the Israelite onlookers to storm the debate floor and kill all the pagan prophets. Then, at long last, he calls down rain. And then, hilariously, he tells king Ahab to go have a drink. Alone except for a servant, Elijah climbs up a hill and sits, hanging his head between his knees, to await the coming rain.

It's brilliant. Except for the mass murder bit, I definitely think we should institute this format for religion debates. It's certainly going to be a lot less annoying than watching Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort arrogantly tell ridiculous stories about bananas and soda cans. I promise you today, the first priest I see who can call down fire from heaven to burn up a stack of logs will win me as a convert for life.

Unfortunately, Jezebel isn't nearly as impressed, and plots to have Elijah murdered. He flees from Israel into Judah and, somehwat depressed, actually prays for God to kill him. Instead, an angel gives him food and drink to lift his spirits. He lives in a cave for a while, then hears from God that it's time for another impressive performance.

This time, Elijah stands on a mountain and proclaims the "presence of the Lord." God's presence comes, preceded first by a "great and powerful wind" so strong it "tore the mountains apart," and then by a powerful earthquake, and then a wildfire. Finally there is "a gentle whisper," which apparently is the "presence of God." Very nice, author of 1 Kings.

Next, God sends Elijah to Damascus, where he's supposed to anoint someone named Hazazel as king of Aram, then anoint Jehu of Nimshi as King of Isarel, and finally appoint Elisha of Shaphat as his own successor as prophet. Somewhat ominously, God is apparently planning a massacre: he says that Jehu will murder any who Hazazel doesn't, and Elisha will murder any who Jehu doesn't, and then there will be seven thousand left who "have not bowed down to Baal." Elijah promptly goes out, finds Elisha plowing a field, and makes him "his attendant." Naturally, Elisha responds by throwing a feast and killing all the oxen he was just using to plow the field - all twelve of them.

Elijah is brilliant, cruel, and sarcastic, the Dr. Greg House of ancient prophecy. If he wasn't so bloodthirsty, I'd really love him.