Zealous hero?

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess; she was the daughter of the king of Tyre, a port city on the Mediterranean, just north of Israel. She was married to Ahab, king of Israel, not because they were madly in love, but because their parents wanted to strengthen an alliance between their houses against rivals in the region. It was all part of the ancient game of thrones. The alliance meant that those with connections to Ahab’s court were doing quite well, due to new opportunities in trade. Those lacking those connections were dealing with increased economic and social stresses, due to the disruption of traditions.

Take, for example the story of Naboth.[1] He had a vineyard in Jezreel that was next to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. Ahab ordered Naboth, “Give me your vineyard so it can become my vegetable garden, because it is right next  to my palace. In exchange for it, I’ll give you an even better vineyard. Or if you prefer, I’ll pay you the price in silver.”

Naboth responded to Ahab, “Lord forbid that I give you my family inheritance!”

So Ahab went to his palace, irritated and upset at what Naboth had said to him. He lay down on his bed and turned his face away. He wouldn’t eat anything.

Jezebel came to him and asked, “Why aren’t you eating? Why are you upset?”

He told her about his conversation with Naboth, and Jezebel couldn’t believe it: “Aren’t you the one who rules Israel? Get up! Eat some food and cheer up. I’ll get Naboth’s vineyard for you myself.”

She arranged for false witnesses to testify that Naboth had cursed both God and king, so the people would stone him to death. It worked like a charm. As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take ownership of the vineyard of Naboth, which he had refused to sell to you. Naboth is no longer alive; he’s dead.” And so he did.

Elijah went to see the king and said, “This is what the Lord says: In the same place where the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will lick up your own blood.”

The people who recorded this story for future generations did not belong to Ahab’s court. At the end they added a comment,

Truly there has never been anyone like Ahab who sold out by doing evil in the Lord’s eyes—evil that his wife Jezebel led him to do. Ahab’s actions were deplorable. He followed after the worthless idols exactly like the Amorites had done—the very ones the Lord had removed before the Israelites.[2]

From the perspective of the people who wrote down these stories, Ahab’s actions were deplorable, but Jezebel was to blame, the foreign princess with her idols and her foreign ways. To them, she was the embodiment of all that led Israel astray — away from the covenant and the commandments and the righteousness of God. Jezebel and the prophets of Baal who ate at her table.

Elijah, however, was the champion of the Lord, and he issued a challenge to Ahab: Send a message and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel together with all the prophets of Baal and Asherah.

When they had gathered, Elijah said to the people, “How long will you hobble back and forth? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.”

The people gave no answer.

Elijah said, “I am the last of the Lord’s prophets, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire—that’s the real God!” They thought it was an excellent idea.[3]

The prophets of Baal prepared one of the bulls, and they called on the name of their god from morning to midday, but nothing happened. Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” They went on and on, but nothing happened.

When evening came, Elijah repaired the Lord’s altar, dug a trench around it, added the wood, butchered the bull, and placed the bull on the wood. Then he told the people to douse it all with four jars of water. And they did. “Do it again!” he said. So they did it a second time. “Do it a third time!” And they did. Elijah prayed. And suddenly the Lord’s fire fell and it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench.

The people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed. Elijah told them, “Seize Baal’s prophets! Don’t let any escape!” So they seized the prophets, and Elijah killed them.

Sounds like something made for HBO, doesn’t it? The evil queen, the pint-size king, the gawking crowd, and the lone hero of Mount Carmel, wiping off the blood of his sword. Parental discretion advised.

When Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done she sent a messenger to Elijah to tell him, “May the gods take my life if I have not taken yours by this time tomorrow.” 

Now we see a very different Elijah. He’s afraid. He flees for his life. He goes far to get away, all the way to Beersheba, way down south, ten days on foot, away from Jezebel. And then he walks another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down under a solitary broom tree, and tells the Lord, “It is enough; take away my life,” and lays down and falls asleep.

Is he exhausted from the showdown on Mount Carmel or from the long journey south?

If he’s ready to die, why didn’t he just let Jezebel take care of it?

And if she wanted to do to him what he had done to the prophets, why did she send a messenger to announce it, instead of an assassin?

Elijah wakes up when someone touches him, and for a second he doesn’t know if this might be someone sent by Jezebel or someone else. “Get up and eat,” the stranger says, and there is bread and a jar of water. It’s a moment of profound and simple grace; bread in the wilderness. Elijah eats, he drinks, goes back to sleep.

A second time the angel of the Lord touches him, and tells him to eat and drink, for otherwise the journey would be too much for him. And Elijah goes in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, the place where the commandments were given, the covenant place. It turns out he traced Israel’s steps all the way back to this place of promise. And here he the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I wonder why this word comes to him now, and why not earlier during the violent spectacle on Mount Carmel. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been very zealous for the Lord.”

I have stood up for you. I have spoken up for you. I have confronted the king for you. I have ridiculed idols for you. I have killed for you. I have been zealous, very zealous, for you. “For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He feels like he’s been left alone in the epic struggle. He sounds like he’s been expecting perhaps a little more zeal from the Lord. Some fire-from-above action to make Jezebel forsake her idolatrous ways, some display of divine power that would cause Ahab to repent and walk in righteousness, and God’s people to return to the Lord.

There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces — but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It was as though Elijah’s zeal, his rage, his desire for complete and lasting change was on display all around him in spectacular fashion, but the Lord was not in any of them. There was only the sound of their absence; the astonishing sound of sudden silence; the sound of no sound in the immediate wake of very loud sounds, a kind of presence that can only be described as the absence of all that. And from that silence again a voice, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

His answer was the same as before, but again he wasn’t commended for his zeal, nor confirmed in his assessment of Israel’s apostasy, nor comforted about his precarious circumstances. He was told to go back on his way, to make himself again available for God’s disruptions of the idolatrous royal routines of Israel and her neighbors in the name of God’s reign.

And perhaps that is one thing we can keep from these ancient super hero stories: to make ourselves available for God’s disruptions of our idolatrous routines; to seek to serve God’s purposes, and not to identify too confidently our own passion with God’s; and to take our hints for the character of God’s reign not from the palaces, not from any palaces, but from Jesus.





[1] See 1 Kings 21:1-19

[2] 1 Kings 21:25-26

[3] 1 Kings 17:19-24

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