Wibble Wednesday: Triumphant Return (1 Kings 18–20)

Some of you may have been wondering where I’ve been. Probably not actively, so much as vaguely recalling that occasionally a guy who recounted the Bible and was frequently rude about it showed up on your feed. Anyways, it’s been a rough several months. Details are relevant to a book I’ve been reading recently, so maybe I’ll share them when I write about that. But trying to get back into this thing.

Short snarky summary: Elijah has a showdown with Ahab’s filthy foreigner priests, and wins, ending the drought. Ahab Does Not Get the Message and continues to behave in ways of which God disapproves.

Way back when we last decamped, Elijah had predicted a drought, which came to pass. Ahab was a bit irritated by this and Elijah fled to Sidon, which was probably not part of Israel at the time. But now we skip forward in time, three years. The drought is still raging, and presumably all Israel is suffering, although we aren’t given much in the way of details (Obadiah, who is Ahab’s steward, and is, presumably unknown to him, also a loyal Jehovite, has been sequestering prophets in a cave and sustaining them with what are not explicitly identified as stolen royal provisions). But now God is ready to lift the drought, as soon as Elijah delivers some righteous God-talk to Ahab.

On his way back to Israel, Elijah runs into the aforementioned Obadiah, whom Ahab has sent out scouting for water, and tells him to announce his return to the king. Obadiah seems to have a good handle on Ahab’s temperment and says that this is a terrible idea: Ahab’s been searching for Elijah for years, reacting with fury whenever a search comes up fruitless, and if Obadiah tells him this and Elijah fails to show he’s going to blame Obadiah. Elijah reassures him with a promise to appear before the king. And, indeed, Obadiah fetches Ahab, and Elijah meets with him. Oddly, this chapter does not involve Ahab murdering Elijah, which seems to be the logical conclusion to his three-year-long fugitive hunt. Instead they decide to go at it like they’re both in elementary school, “You’re a troubler of Israel!” “No, you’re a troubler of Israel!” “It rained until you said it wouldn’t!” “It rained until you started worshipping false gods! Let’s settle this in front of the playground tomorrow at noon, and bring your friends! Oh, that’s right, you don’t have any. Bring your wife’s friends instead.” Seriously, most kings just kill people who smack-talk them like this.

But, no, instead, Ahab actually does gather together all 950 of his pet priests and order all Israel to watch the showdown on Mount Carmel. Elijah appeals to the crowd, telling them to follow God wholeheartedly instead of Baal and Asherah. The people are unmoved by this plea, as you might imagine, so Elijah goes for a challenge instead: him versus the 450 priests of Baal, with bulls prepared for sacrifice, and whoever gets theirs to burst into flames first wins. The people enthusiastically agree. It’s not like there were a lot of entertainment options in Iron Age Israel. Watching a few hundred people try to make cows spontaneously combust is probably the most exciting thing they’re liable to see all year.

In fairness, Elijah does deliver a good show. Being a gentleman with a good eye for theater, he offers to let the Baalites warm up the crowd. This they do, spending the entire morning in prayers and ridiculous dances, and then Elijah provides the witty dialogue, suggesting that Baal might be hard of hearing, or out of the office, or something, and that they just need to try harder. The morning show ends with some ritual self-mutilation and continued frenzied prayer (violence sells, then as now), but it’s all for naught.

Then in the afternoon it’s Elijah’s turn. He heightens tension by building up the altar laboriously (with twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes, apparently) and with a large trench around. The function of the trench isn’t entirely clear, but next up comes an act to emphasize the miracle: preparatory to calling down fire, he has twelve jars of water poured over the altar. Even this exhibits the sort of laborious preparatory rhythm his showmanship seems to demand: four jars are poured over, and then he orders a second and third pouring. Finally, with his preparations ready, with a sopping wet bull-corpse atop a pile of damp tinder in the middle of a moat, he calls on God to prove his divinity, which of course happens promptly, with fire striking the altar, consuming the sacrifice and drying the moat. This display is convincing to the people, and they swear fealty to God, which will, judging by previous experience, last roughly 10 minutes. That is fortunately enough time for Elijah to order a mass slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal (the 400 prophets of Asherah, mentioned earlier in the story, do not figure in at this point for some reason).

Meanwhile, Ahab is just hanging out there, amongst an increasingly ugly mob, and here we have the second disappointing failure-to-murder in this chapter, when Elijah, who has now gained the upper hand, instructs Ahab to take some light refreshment, ’cause a storm’s a-coming. Not the troublesome kind of storm, mind, but the sort that brings with it the blessedly missing rain. I’m not sure I get Elijah’s (and/or God’s) motivation here. The dynasty of Ahab is eventually going to be overthrown in a Jehovite coup, so why not now? Why is Elijah inexplicably letting this chance to rebuild the faith of Israel go? The text doesn’t say, and as far as I can tell, neither do any of the usual exegetical sources.

The chapter ends with a peculiar tableau: Elijah climbs Mount Carmel and curls up into a fetal position. I don’t really get this part but maybe there’s a ritual significance elided; meanwhile he sends a servant out to watch the sea until clouds roll in. As the clouds approach, Elijah dispatches Ahab back home and himself runs before Ahab’s chariot. I continue to be perplexed by this behavior; running ahead of someone’s chariot has, everywhere else I’ve seen it in the Bible, been an act of veneration, but surely Elijah doesn’t mean to honor Ahab, does he? I am tempted to write off these last few verses as incomprehensible.

Chapter19 moves in akind of funky prophetic-vision direction. It starts with Jazebel, Ahab’s foreign wife, hearing about the slaughter of her pet priests at Elijah’s orders, and she sends a message to Elijah threatening to have the same done to him (see, no namby-pamby insults like her husband. Jezebel means business, although in her shoes I might not actually warn the dude I’m planning to kill). Elijah, being not completely stupid, decides to flee into the wilderness of Judah, where (presumably exhausted, starving, and thirsty) he sits down in the desolation and prays for death.

Now the dream-vision business starts, for he is woken from sleep by an angel who gives him food and water to fortify him for the journey ahead, and he is so invigorated he walks for forty days to Mount Horeb, where God’s voice challenges him for his purpose and he announces his continuing zealotry against the apostate Israelites. Pleased by his devotion, God calls him onto the mountain, where God raises up a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, none of which are divine but are all motivted by the divine (if this seems murky, it’s more or less a direct paraphrase of the text, which is no less murky — presumably it’s to set the worship of an invisible God who motivates the powers of the world apart from that of a God who is in the powers of the world).

God’s challenge and Elijah’s response are repeated, and finally God gives Elijah some specific real-world instrutions: he is to anoint three people into three roles: Hazael as king of Aram, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his prophetic successor. It’s worth noting that at least two of these actions are clearly symbolic: first, Elijah has no authority whatsoever in Aram, an independent nation which is on the complete opposite side of Israel from Judah, a hell of a long way from where Elijah is receiving this charge; and, second, Israel already has a king, Ahab, whom Elijah pretty much completely squandered his opportunity to depose. Of course, God promises that these three will serve to winnow the unrighteous of Israel, with each killing those of the idolworshippers which the previous had failed to root out. Notwithstanding my dubiousness about the legitimacy of two of these appointments, I will concede that Elijah does have the power to anoint his own chosen successor, though.

And so he in fact does, at the end of Chapter 19. Elijah finds Elisha plowing his field, and gives himhis mantle and blessing. Elisha is perfectly willing to follow Elijah, after bidding his parents farewell, and then and there he slaughters his oxen and feeds the locals. The significance of this act is presumably that of burning his bridges: by destroying the tools of his agricultural livelihood, Elisha is pledging himself fully to the life of the itinerant prophet.

Chapter 20 spends much of its wordcount of a topic unrelated to all this prophetic nonsense, shifting the scene radically to a war between Israel and Aram. The Aramean king Ben-hadad (not , as far as I can tell, the same person as the Hazael whom Elijah was told to anoint) invades Samaria and demands tribute from Ahab. In a peculiarly comic stroke, Ahab says, “OK, it’s yours,” and Ben-hadad, who expected to be given something more than words, says that he’sgoing to simply have to come into Ahab’s house and take it. Ahab, in consultation with the elders, refuses to submit, and messengers are sent back and forth with taunts and insults until Ben-hadad has had enough and finally besieges the capital (Jezreel, I assume).

Things look bleak for Ahab here, and this totally looks like it’s supposed to be his final comeuppance for being a bad’un, but instead a prophet pops in and says that, nah, God’s going to bail him out again, so that he can learn to fear God. Because apparently the last lesson didn’t take and God is uncharacteristically not willing to just turn Ahab into an idolatrous pile of ash. Instead, God will strengthen Israel, so that when a provincial muster of 7000 men turns out, they’ll rout the whole Aramean army while they’re resting and drinking and awaiting Ahab’s surrender. The nameless prophet congratulates Ahab and tells him to keep his defenses strong,b ecause Aram will return.

This is sage advice, as you’d expect from a prophet, since Ben-hadad had escaped unscathed and was advised to raise a new army and attack in the plains instead, because “their God is a God of mountains”. That’s not a bad conclusion, seeing as how many important mountains there are in the Hebrew tradition, but it doesn’t help. Even massively outnumbered (with the poetic contrast in the text between the Israelites “like two flocks of goats” and the Arameans “covering the land”), the Israelites defeat the Arameans again, driving them back to the city of Aphek, where the king and his most trusted courtiers barricade themselves up. Eventually Ben-hadad sends out penitential messages, and receives the favorable reply that he is the brother of King Ahab (I’m not sure whether this is a reference to an actual familial connection or simply a symbolic fraternity), whereupon they write up a treaty, with Ben-hadad giving a nice chunk of Aramean land to Israel.

At the end of this chapter we learn what God thinks of this treaty, altthough we’re told in a roundabout way. A prophet commands some rando to hit him; his intended assailant understandably hesitates to do this, and is cursed to be killed by a lion, which happens immediately. He then accosts another man, says “Hit me!” and receives prompt satisfaction (with the first person as an example, I think I’d take my best shot too). Then the prophet covers his face with cloth (a bandage? is that why he wanted to get beat up?) and tells the king a tale of being assigned to guard a prisoner in battle and having let the prisoner go accidentally. The king censures this behavior, and then the prophet reveals himself, and provides the meaning behind his oblique tale: Ahab, too, had one job to do and failed, and God is going to exact his vengeance because he let Ben-hadad get away. Ahab is understandably depressed by this.

I’ll admit I don’t wholly understand the above episode, particularly the bits with the nonviolent dude getting mauled by a lion, but little phantasmagorical elements like that remind us we’re reading myth.

That gets us to the end of Chapter 20. Hopefully it won’t take me two months to get to the next chunk, which will close out I Kings.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

3 Responses to Wibble Wednesday: Triumphant Return (1 Kings 18–20)

  1. gsanders says:

    I totally missed the “their God is a God of mountains” bit. Obviously that’s not going to save the day for Ben-hadad but it seems pretty sharp, nonetheless.

    • gsanders says:

      Although I suppose a really sharp enemy would go “let’s just back off for a decade or so until their relationship with their divine patron sours again, it’s probably just a matter of time.”

      • Jake says:

        Well, one of the mysterious bits is that God’s relationship with the leadership of Israel (if not the people, who have recently been converted) is actually terrible at this point in the narrative. God would be thrilled to see Ahab taken down a peg, and it’s authentically weird that he keeps cutting him this kind of slack.

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