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September 12th, 2016

Just Like Us?

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Your story is far from over. 

1 Kings 16:29-17:6

 

Not your best friend

From now through December, I’m going to (re-) introduce you to one of the most theatrical and mysterious figures in the Bible. Elijah is the best known of the prophets who never wrote a book. Most prophets don’t do miracles; Elijah’s miracles are dramatic and memorable. He appears and disappears in the Bible like Endora in Bewitched.

elijah-slide

He’s not the kind of guy you’d want to cozy up with and watch Monday night football. You wouldn’t like his sermons if we invited him to preach. He’s confrontational, eccentric, and moody. He can be bold for God one day and suicidal the next…literally. He’s a hermit from a town so small it’s only mentioned in the Bible once, and no one has found archaeological remains.

The last mention of Elijah in the Bible occurs in James 5:17-18. As James teaches about prayer, he says, “Elijah was a man just like us,” and yet his prayers were powerful and effective. How, exactly, was Elijah “just like us?” We will come back to that question.

The Prince, the Lord of the earth

The story of Elijah begins with Solomon, the last king of the United Kingdom of Israel.[1] He is known for his wisdom, but we should also remember that the kingdom knew unprecedented unity, peace, and stability under Solomon. This made possible Solomon’s most enduring physical legacy – a new and impressive temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem. No Israelite had seen such a building since the centuries of slavery in Israel. He also built his own palace, repaired and fortified the wall of Jerusalem, and accomplished much else. These building projects required high taxes and forced labor. One of his key construction overseers was a man named Jeroboam.

Solomon’s accomplishments came with a price. Solomon allied himself with foreign kings to reduce external threats, mostly by marrying 300 wives. He also brought the religion of his wives into Israel. So the LORD appeared to Solomon and said, “Because you have not kept my covenant, I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. For the sake of your father David, I won’t do it until after you die.” The “subordinate” was Jeroboam.

Jeroboam took the matter into his own hands, attempting a coup that failed. A prophet named Ahijah told Jeroboam he would rule over ten tribes, and his dynasty would endure like David’s if he would follow the Lord. Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam after the rebellion, but he escaped to Egypt, where he apparently learned the ways of pagan gods.

Some years later, Solomon died and his son Rehoboam took power, gathering the people in a town called Shechem, about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. Jeroboam returned from Egypt and joined the gathering, leading the people in making what seems like an innocent request: “Lighten our load. Lower our taxes and reduce the forced labor so we can live normal lives.” Rehoboam had two sets of advisors – an older set who had surrounded his father Solomon, and a younger set of his peers. The older set advised Rehoboam to listen to the people. His peers said, “You need to maintain control. Tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’” Guess whom he listened to?

The ten northern tribes declared their independence from the line of David in keeping with what God had told Solomon and Jeroboam. There was an attempt at forcing them back into the fold, but it failed and Rehoboam almost died.  So the kingdom split.

divided-kingdom

Now the story gets interesting, or you could say tragic. The southern kingdom had three primary spiritual advantages – the dynasty of David on the throne, the God-appointed priestly line of Aaron, and the temple Solomon had just built a generation before. The initial theory was that both kingdoms would remain loyal to Yahweh.

Jeroboam realized, however, that if his people continued to cross the border into Judah to worship at Solomon’s temple, they would be drawn back into loyalty to King David’s line. So he set up two shrines within his own borders – one in the south at a town called Bethel, and one in the north in the town of Dan. He placed a golden calf at each shrine and told the people, “These are the gods who brought you out of Egypt.” If you visit Israel today, you can visit the site where Jeroboam set up the golden calf in Dan. Jeroboam also appointed priests “from all sorts of people” (not Aaron’s line), so the religious split was as complete as the political.

Jeroboam’s dynasty was short-lived, a 22-year reign followed by 2 years of his son, Nadab. Nadab was assassinated by Baasha, who killed all of Jeroboam’s family in keeping with ancient practice. Baasha ruled 24 years, and then his son Elah ruled 2 years, until Zimri killed him and all of Baasha’s family members. But the army was not with Zimri, and its commander, Omri, surrounded Zimri’s town. Knowing the inevitable, Zimri committed suicide after only 7 days of rule by setting fire to his own palace.

Then Omri took power. He ruled twelve years, but accomplished three primary things. First, although it’s not recorded in the Bible, he established a name for himself in the entire region. A regional power, Assyria, was growing in the area, and Omri formed alliances with his neighbors to ward off the Assyrians. He was so strong that Assyrian literature refers to Israel as “Omri-land.” Second, Omri established a new capital for Israel in Samaria, a high hill that overlooked the flat lands. He built a palace and surrounded the four acres atop the hill with a wall 5 feet thick. Third, the Bible says he continued all the ways of Jeroboam, “provoking God to anger with worthless idols.” The biblical record makes the same evaluation of Nadab, Baasha, Elah, and Zimri. We have now had six kings from four different families in little more than half a century.

Next we are introduced to the worst one of all, a man named Ahab. The Bible says he “considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam.” His conscience was seared generationally. Not only that, the Bible continues, but “he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians.” This probably began as a political alliance, reinforcing the treaty his father had made with Phoenicia, since Sidon was their capital. Beautiful woman, royal family, wealthy, closer ties with your neighbors… what’s to lose, right?

“Ethbaal” means “with Baal.” Baal (BAY-ahl if you’re a good southerner or Bah-AHL if you’re sophisticated) was the chief among many gods worshipped in the cultures preceding and surrounding Israel. He’s the storm god (or rain god), and in an agricultural society you can’t get more important than that. Without rain, you die, so he’s the god of life. His consort is Asherah, the goddess of fertility. The Canaanites had a poem –

Let the heavens rain oil,
The wadis run with honey
Then I will know that Mightiest Baal lives,
The Prince, the Lord of the earth is alive.

baal

So when it doesn’t rain, or they can’t bear children, or they’re afraid of whatever, they pray to Baal and Asherah. They build temples to them and erect statues and poles. They do what their gods want, even if it means sacrificing (literally) their own children. Children would be burned to death to fulfill a vow to their pagan gods.

When Ahab married Jezebel, he brought those detestable ideas and practices right into Israel. Prodded by his wife, right in the middle of that walled palace city of Samaria his father had built, Ahab set up an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole. During that same time, a man named Hiel from Bethel (one of the two sites Jeroboam set up high places) defied a curse from the time of Joshua[2], rebuilding the walls of Jericho. Apparently in connection with this work, he fulfilled a vow by sacrificing his own two sons.

As we will see, the Bible has a special contempt for Ahab and Jezebel. If you rank the bad people in the Bible, they’re in a class with Pharaoh and Judas. But like his father Omri, Ahab is known outside the Bible as a powerful king and alliance maker who helped repel the Asssyrian advance in 853 BC. We can only imagine that in Samaria and throughout Israel there was a sense of security and prosperity in the early years of his reign. Nothing bad has happened in Israel through these years of turning away from God to idols. There is life all around. Babies are being born. Battles are being won. Rain is falling and food abounds. “Thanks be to Baal! Let’s build another pole for Asherah!”

My God is Yahweh

Then Elijah happens. He bursts on the scene from nowhere, almost literally. Well, he’s from Tishbe in Gilead, but that’s so nowhere that nobody today knows exactly where Tishbe was. Gilead lies across the Jordan River. It’s a rocky, mountainous region, inhospitable to crops and normal life. Its primary natural resource is an oil drawn from evergreen trees that has medicinal value – the “balm of Gilead.” But you can’t eat it. The people there are rugged and not filled with social grace. The word “Tishbite” in Jewish literature means “dwellers” – sort of like when you get mail addressed to “occupants.” They’re nobodies to the advanced culture in the fertile plains of central Israel.

Faith was more pure in Gilead, and when he was born Elijah’s parents gave him a name that means in Hebrew, “My God is Yahweh.” That alone marks his identity as dramatically different from Jezebel’s father, “I’m with Baal.” I can only imagine the day that this rugged man appears in Samaria and requests an audience with secure, strong, prosperous Ahab.

Ahab:  “Where’s he from?”

Guard:  “Tishbe in Gilead, across the Jordan.”

Ahab:  “Tishbe? You’re bringing me a nobody, an occupant of nowhere?”

Guard:  “He said he only needs a moment of your time, your majesty.”

Ahab:  “Bring him in.” “He smells as bad as he looks. What’s your name?”

Elijah:  “My God is Yahweh.”

Ahab:  “I didn’t ask your religion. What’s your name?”

Elijah:  “My God is Yahweh.”

Ahab:  “OK, My-God-is-Yahweh, I’m the son-in-law of ‘I’m with Ba’al.’ I’ve built some fine temples for Ba’al here in Samaria and all across Israel.”

Elijah:  “I know. As Yahweh lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Ahab:  “Get him out of here. That’s absurd. We had a storm just yesterday, thanks be to Baal. Life is good.”

I would imagine Ahab paid little attention to that encounter for the next week. Perhaps then, since it hadn’t rained, he thought about it a little. A month later, six months later, two years later, Elijah’s words burned into his memory. “As Yahweh lives.” Oh, he was implying Baal does not live. “Whom I serve.” I suppose we all have our own gods. Why does he think his is better than mine? “There will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Who does he think he is?

Meanwhile, God told Elijah to hide. As we will learn about Elijah, he prefers hiding so he was fine with that. Yahweh sends him back east, across the Jordan, to one of those rocky ravines. It’s called “Kerith,” which means “Cut,” as in “cut off.” All Gilead was cut off, but this was a rocky gully cut off from the land that was cut off. Nobody lived there. Nobody went there. Nothing grew there.

kerith

Elijah went to “Cut Off Gorge” in obedience to the word of the Lord. God supplied him food in the wilderness, bread and meat, just as he had done for Moses and the children of Israel. He also had fresh water in abundant supply, for a while. (Stay tuned on that one.) His waiters were ravens, cousins of the crows, not known for sharing. His carriers are carrions who normally would rather eat Elijah than feed him. God instructs these ravens to do something very counter-instinctive – and to bring him bread and meat (from who knows where), sustaining him in his isolation. And there we leave the story for now.

 

Just like us?

From here on out, Elijah’s life is filled with remarkable stories. A boy raised from the dead. A dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal where he calls down fire from heaven. Then he calls down rain. His life story ends not with death but with the famous “chariot of fire” that swoop down from heaven to carry him to the presence of God. Both Jews and Christians believe this means his story does not end there.

For now, though, how exactly is Elijah “just like us”? The newer translations, even the updated NIV, say this a little differently. Usually you’ll find the word “human” in there. The Greek is a compound word – “the same as” + “passions.” Elijah is a fellow human subject to the same emotional and spiritual needs as we are.

So what do we take home from this first chapter of Elijah’s life?

First, your story is far from over. If you sense you have been set aside, overlooked, marginalized, sent into the wilderness, undervalued, made far more vulnerable and needy than you’re comfortable with, stay tuned. Stay tuned as we talk about Elijah this fall, but stay tuned to your own story as well. It’s not over.

Second, don’t measure your success by your success. Ahab thought he had it made. He was on top of the world. He had friends, he had fame, he had position. Successful on the outside, he had no idea how his world was getting ready to crash. He ignored a clear warning that day, and it would haunt him for years to come.

Third, God almost never follows your plan. Have you noticed? God takes care of Elijah in the wilderness, but nothing in his previous experience (or anything before or after in the Bible) prepared him for the unique way in which God took care of him. You can’t plan God’s provisions. You can just trust that he will not abandon you.

Finally, remember who your God is. Your name may not literally be “My God is Yahweh,” but your identity is exactly that as a believer in Jesus Christ. Elijah’s story going forward will challenge us to examine every aspect of our lives to see if we trust the gods of this world or the God who lives. Amen.

 

[1] Most of what follows in this section is a summary of 1 Kings 11-16.

[2] Joshua 6:26.

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