Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: Elijah's Wager

When we continue through the Old Testament during the years of the Kingdom, there is always certain sadness in my soul reading this narrative. We see once again a confirmation of God’s plan, and man’s rejection of that plan. After establishing David (and for a time Solomon) as King of a growing state meant to teach the nations of God, Israel is instead influenced by the nations. They go from great power to divided kingdoms, divided kingdoms to vassals, vassals to nothingness.

Each time this occurs, they are given ample opportunity to repent. In the case of the Kingdom of Judah, they sometimes do, although it is always very brief. Within one generation, they turn their backs on God again. God sends them the prophets during this time to provide them with another resource towards Him, and they reject (and in some cases) murder the prophets. The sins of the Kingdom of Israel were so grave the people are wiped off the face of the earth. (Becoming “The Lost Tribes of Israel”) Judah’s kingdom becomes so depraved in her sins, she is called “worse than Israel” by the prophets, and the glorious Temple is destroyed, and their fate is exile. I would like to spend the next few segments reflecting upon this period in Israel’s time, and what it ultimately means for our study.

When discussing the two Kingdoms, it is good to remember one thing. Neither are treated very favorably by the authors in the Scriptures. Of the 39 Kings of Israel and Judah after the split of the kingdom, 7 are spoken of with a general positive image. Out of those 7, only two or three are praised highly. In the Kingdom of Israel, every King is spoken of with greater or lesser contempt with the exception of two of them. (The best that can be said was they did evil “not as much as their fathers.”) Indeed, the writer of Kings can barely be bothered to mention them, since he gives the frequent retort “as for the rest of their works, are they not mentioned in the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel?” In other words “don’t make me waste my time speaking of them beyond what is absolutely necessary.” For us, it is absolutely necessary to focus on the Kingdom of Israel. While an evil people led by mainly evil kings, some of the greatest events in Scripture happen in this Kingdom.

Let us offer a few passing notes on the Kingdom. First, we recognize that life as a King of Israel was a very dangerous job. Out of the 19 Kings, there are 9 different ruling dynasties. Since the kingdom existed for around 210 years, a “change in management” occurred roughly every 24 years. 9 of the kings were assassinated, 2 of them died early deaths not the result of natural causes. Jeroboam was promised a peaceful dynasty had he followed God’s will. Since he didn’t, the very opposite happened.

Following a series of civil wars and coup d’├ętat’s, Omri ascended to the throne of Israel. He brings not only political stability to the Northern Kingdom, but turns them into a regional power as well. Through his work and that of his son, he even manages to effectively control the Kingdom of Judah. (Via marriage alliance, and the fact that Israel was far stronger at the time, it can reasonably be deduced that Judah was essentially a vassal.) When he dies, it looks as if God’s plan has completely failed. Rather than a single kingdom set to bring about the light to the nations, the land is effectively ruled by a cruel pagan.

The cruelty of the Northern Kingdom intensifies under the leadership of Ahab. In addition to continuing the strengthening of the region begun by his father Omri, he married the Phoenician Jezebel, which led to an explosion of pagan worship within the lands, and the slaughter of many Jewish priests and prophets by Jezebel. In their place, worship of ba’al (meaning in Israeli culture a false god, in this case Hadad), the ancient regional god of rain, thunder, and lightning flourished. During this time, salvation history reaches another major event, the appearance of Elijah.

There is curiously little known about Elijah before this point. His name does not tell us much. (It simply means The Lord is God.) Unlike other major figures of the Scriptures, he is given no family background. We can infer he had to have been a man of at least medium importance (since he is introduced in the Scriptures as having an audience with the King), but little else is told.

I believe this to be by design. Just as the selection of David tended to defy the natural order, Elijah’s appearance is not based on nobility, talent, etc. He simply is there. He appears before the King, and delivers God’s message, and takes up the fight against pagan worship. While he may have lived in relative obscurity before, after this point we learn much about him. He enters the scene condemning the rampant paganism by pronouncing sentence upon the Kingdom of Israel, stating:

As the Lord the god of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. (1 Kings 17:1)

The choice of a drought I always found to be a curious one. While the standard message “they would be forced to trust on God so it would rain again” holds true, I think the modern eye misses a deeper understanding. As previously noted, worship of Hadad flourished in the land of Samaria. (Israel) Since he was the god of storms, this was a direct challenge towards their deity. As was noted before with the story of the Golden Calf, man had perverted the natural order. The seasons, just like the beasts of the earth, were ultimately created for man’s purpose, not for man to worship.

While this can be looked at as an act of punishment, I believe it to also be an act of mercy. God wishes Israel to follow Him, yet He does not wish to leave them ignorant as to why. If they wish to follow an elemental spirit they believe controls the seasons, God will demonstrate that the seasons occur and change at His command only.

In addition to this challenge, Elijah further demonstrates God’s power. The pagan Israelites believed the gods of the land provided food and life in addition to the weather. Elijah proves otherwise, promising a woman that not only would she be able to live indefinitely on a paltry amount of food and drink, but restoring life to her son when he dies. One by one the people begin to believe in Elijah’s mission, turning to God. A definitive clash was inevitable. Elijah decides to strike “first blood” if you will.

Elijah at this point is Israel’s most wanted man (King Ahab refers to him as “you troubler of Israel”), hunted relentlessly. He is hiding in the town of Zarepeth because of Ahab. Ahab even threatens war with whoever amongst the surrounding nations is harboring him. Rather than continue in hiding, he ambushes Ahab personally. He decides to confront Ahab on his own terms. Elijah challenges all the pagan priests and prophets of the Ba’al to assemble at Mount Carmel where he would directly challenge paganism in Israel.

Like Joshua before him and many others, Elijah demands Israel stop sitting on the fence. This day, they will either serve the gods of the nations, or they will serve Yahweh. In Elijah’s challenge, he gives them a reason to follow Yahweh. He pronounces himself as but one man, and points out his foes are 450. He then demands two bulls be sacrificed, one by him, and one by the pagans. Whichever sacrifice was consumed by fire, that would be the true God.

The priests of Ba’al go first. They pray their incantations and chants, and nothing happens. They process around the altar as their religious rituals demand, and nothing happens. Several hours later, they are still doing it. Showing his sense of humor, Elijah mocks them to pray louder, for perhaps their god is sleeping. This only increased their efforts, as they began mutilating themselves, pleading with their deity to respond. A full day and a lot of shed blood later, the bull is still laying on the altar. Elijah has proven the impotence of the pagan gods. Now he wishes to show the power of the true God.

Continuing his flare for the dramatics, it was not enough to have fire immediately consume the bull. First, he builds a brand new altar (refusing to offer sacrifice on the altar of a pagan) and then digs a massive trench. Continuing, he douses the offering in so much water the entire trench is filled. In a certain symbolic sense with all the water, Elijah is not just having a bull consumed by fire, but the very thing the pagans proclaimed their god controlled. As there was still a massive drought occurring throughout the land, the apparent wasting of so much water would only be further insult to injury to the pagans. If he fails, not only has he condemned them further (as there is less water), if he succeeds, they are still condemned. After all this, he asks that God accept the sacrifice.

The response was as dramatic as the challenge itself. Not only does fire consume the sacrifice, but it consumes the altar, and evaporates all of the water surrounding the altar and the trench. The people firmly convinced at this very dramatic display of power of Yahweh, rally to Elijah and execute every single pagan priest in the land.

In this story we see once again that God could have chosen to destroy the kingdom. Rather than destroy, He gives the people even more proof that they should be following Him instead. Through the actions of Elijah, he wins the repentance of King Ahab himself. Such repentance was short-lived, for Ahab and Samaria.

Just like that, Elijah’s ministry on earth abruptly ends. Designating Elisha as his successor, he is taken to heaven with a massive escort of horses and chariots of flame. He who entered in obscurity leaves with a big bang.

No comments:

Post a Comment

At this current time due to time constraints comments are moderated. Avoid flaming, chest-thumping and stick on topic and your comments will be quickly approved. Do the opposite and they stay in never never land.