1 Kgs 19:1-21
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Entire chapter. The odd picture of a near-suicidal prophet sitting beneath a plant suggests a parallel between this story and the one recorded in Jonah 4:3-9. Moreover, there are curious hints at a connection between the story here and the narrative of Isaiah's experience in the presence of God (in Isa 6). A tryptich of these three stories places the present text in between them, drawing through Elijah's experience some broad ties between Isaiah's prophetic call and Jonah's refusal of the same. Some exploration of these several connections seems called for. Any real work on these intertwining themes can only go forward fruitfully, however, after all of the details have been considered (hence, see the concluding commentary at 1 Kgs 19:21).
The relationship between Ahab and Elijah begins in 1 Kgs 17:1 and confirmed in 1 Kgs 18:1, where Elijah appears before the king precisely to establish the parameters of that relationship (Elijah has power in Jehovah; Ahab has none without Him). The relationship between Ahab and Jezebel appears in 1 Kgs 16:31-33, where Ahab surrenders the Israelite religion to the worship of Jezebel's people. The relationship between Jezebel and Elijah only begins with this verse, but because of the two relationships already at work in the story, much is implied before any of the action takes place. In both previous relationships, Ahab has been the weaker part: Elijah has simply overwhelmed Ahab in every encounter, and Jezebel turned Ahab from the worship of Jehovah in the first place. Ahab, as the weak member of each relationship, characteristically wavers back and forth ("halts between two opinions"). When Ahab hands his relationship to Elijah over to Jezebel at the beginning of this verse, the two strong-willed, overpowering influences are brought into direct confrontation: the new relationship that is formed is marked by the disappearance of all weakness, and two strengths come finally to battle.
It should be noted, at the same time, that the battle of the gods in chapter 18 is implicitly the battle between Elijah and Jezebel. All that keeps it from being precisely this latter battle is the dwindling mediation of Ahab. With the elimination of the middle term at the beginning of this chapter, the fuller reality behind chapter 18 is given place. At the same time, since chapter 18, as a battle, comes to a decisive finish, then the battle that opens implicitly in this chapter is, in a sense, already decided from the start. Elijah vs. Jezebel: Elijah has already won. The remainder of this first verse seems to confirm this: Ahab does not simply incite Jezebel against Elijah; he hands all matters over to her entirely concerning the prophpet. There is even a hint of admiration in the summary phrase that describes Ahab's words to Jezebel.
Immediately thereafter, the story turns from Ahab entirely, and Jezebel takes center stage against Elijah. The threatening tone of verse 2 (and verse 3 in its wake) seems to counter the thrust of the comments on verse 1 above: if Elijah had implicitly won already, why is the threat that Jezebel makes of even the slightest concern? The story to follow (beginning with verse 4) is shot through from the very beginning with a sort of irony, and with an explicit confusion. In other words, the story to follow is jarring, and apparently it is so purposefully: the crumbled self-assurance of the prophet comes as a surprise, and this according to the intention of the author.
Interestingly, even as Ahab disappears as the mediation between Elijah and Jezebel, the queen inserts another mediating factor that becomes her own downfall. Instead of coming immediately to Elijah and dispatching him herself, she gives him something of a warning through a mediating messenger, which announces a further mediation of about a day's time. Elijah is given, through this mediation, an opportunity to escape--and his taking up of the opportunity marks the irony that characterizes the remainder of the story. Striking the re-established mediation with still more curious a nature, Jezebel commissions the messenger to perform an oath (in fact, an oath bound by a ritual self-cursing) that is meant to bind Elijah to the priests of Baal. In other words, Jezebel re-imposes a mediation precisely to keep it, to keep her distance from Elijah: though she swears she will kill him just as he killed the "prophets" of Baal, she keeps this action at a mediated distance (not, "if I kill thee not," but "if I make not they life as the life of one them"). In short, Jezebel flees Elijah first. The implication: Jezebel herself retreats, recognizing the above-drawn conclusion, that Elijah has already implicitly won the contest opened by Ahab's stepping out from between them.
- Verse 3.
Jezebel's retreat marks this verse with a double irony, then. First, it is odd because, as already pointed out, Elijah has already implicitly won any battle he will have to face with Jezebel: his flight is, in advance, a retreat from an already claimable victory. But then this oddity/irony is doubled, since Elijah retreats after Jezebel does: Jezebel, in reinstating the mediation (thereby making a sort of "covenant with death"), has fled already from the battle. Elijah's retreat is perhaps an understandable flight from the real threat of Jezebel, but it is struck with irony because Elijah should apparently recognize, as the reader inevitable does, that Jezebel is ultimately no threat whatsoever. Elijah is running away without sense.
His flight first lands him in Beer-sheba, implying, perhaps, some connection with Abraham (as it will, a moment later, imply some connection with Moses). Perhaps more important is the obvious theme of growing solitude that marks his flight: from Israel, he goes to Judah, and from there he goes alone. His flight continues a sort of descent into perfect solitude: he retreats from all connections with the world, retreats into absolution (as does Jonah?).
- Verse 4.
Now out in the southern desert, Elijah sits beneath a juniper (a broom tree), where he requests his own death. The narrative interestingly points this out explicitly, even though it goes on to quote Elijah's more precise prayer. The sheer negativity implied in the narrative phrasing serves, however, to highlight the positivity of Elijah's petition. That positivity can only be felt and explored after the ramifications of the more negative theme of death has been explored.
Requesting death stands obviously in stark contrast to the self-preserving actions of Jezebel. The re-imposed mediation between Jezebel and Elijah was a sort of "covenant with death," meant to keep Jezebel at a distance from the implicit danger of Elijah. Even as she intends to preserve herself by threatening the prophet with death, the prophet himself seeks death, even as he would not, apparently, receive it at the hands of Jezebel. In other words, if Jezebel is ultimately no threat, as has been pointed out above, and if, as certainly should be the case, Elijah knows this, then Elijah's wish for death can only be fulfilled out in the Negev beneath a juniper tree. The mediation of the messenger/delaying-oath marks not only the distance (deferral) between Elijah and Jezebel, but also the distinction (difference): the very mediation itself introduces for Elijah the possibility of death (ironic already if one is aware of the end of the whole Elijah cycle), not because Jezebel threatens him with it, but because the reinstated mediation drives him to seek it; at the same time, the mediation itself is put in place by Jezebel precisely to postpone death, to keep it at bay, to covenant with it.
As is only hinted at in the above, Elijah's death--even by his own request--is ironic in another way: Elijah is the figure of everlasting life par excellence in the Old Testament. Not only does he not die at the hands of Jezebel, and not only does he not die according to his request to the Lord, he does not even die at the hands of nature, taken up, instead, into heaven itself. In a sort of resurrection before resurrection, Elijah overcomes death in what must have been a facet of this whole story that was widely familiar to those reading or hearing this text. The reader is, then, apparently intended to feel the irony of the moment: Elijah prays for a death the Lord will never give him.
It is in light of this theme that the parallel between this story and the Book of Jonah arises. Jonah finds himself in a similar situation: for his somewhat different reasons (but perhaps not so different in the end), Jonah flees his prophetic calling by retreating into the sea (out of the land of Jehovah's jurisdiction). When the Lord finds him and deals with him even beyond the borders of Israel, Jonah seeks death (asks the shipmen to cast him into the sea). Even as he sinks, ready to receive his desired death (death as absolution, contra prophecy as frustration of selfhood), the Lord thwarts Jonah, maintaining him in life (one must understand the song of Jonah's second chapter to be ironic or sarcastic). When Jonah is effectively forced back into the prophetic task, and the Lord thwarts his individual subjectivity (by the repentance of the people of Ninevah), Jonah does precisely what Elijah does here: he heads out into the desert and wishes to die. He even finds himself sitting beneath a plant while making that request. The parallel is obvious, and will perhaps help to clarify a later portion of this story, which is otherwise very difficult to interpret (see verses 9-14).
Doubling Elijah's narrative request for death is his explicitly more positive verbal prayer: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers." Translated "it is enough" is the Hebrew rb, "plenty," "abundant." Elijah begins by saying, "This is plenty," or "This is too much." He seems to be attempting to persuade the Lord, to convince Him that all that needs to be done has been done. This act of persuasion is interesting, to say the least. Elijah, the one generally understood to have the power to seal on earth and heaven, one, we assume, who had aligned his will with the Lord's to the extent that he would never ask amiss; here, such a prophet is working to win the Lord over, to persuade Him that the task is over, and that the Lord can now take his life. Obviously, there is something at work in the story here. If Elijah was really one who would only ask what the Lord wanted, his language seems to betray his own knowledge: he knows that the Lord will not take his life, but he sets himself to the task of changing the mind of the Lord. It won't, obviously, work.
His request is explicitly positive: take my life. Elijah uses a very strong verb here, one that would better be translated "seize" and can even be translated "steal": "seize my life." The implicit violence contrasts with the rather politically diplomatic oath Jezebel makes in verse 2, again emphasizing the non-threat of the words of Jezebel and that over against the very real threat Elijah is trying to invite the Lord to make. While Jezebel cannot even mention death, whether in a positive or a negative sense (she can only say she wants Elijah to be like those other priests), Elijah calls on the Lord to perform an act of violence, of radical imposition. That imposition is the question is significant: Elijah is, by his sorry act of persuasion, imposing on the Lord, and that precisely in order to bring the Lord to make an imposition. (Does the prophetic office here border on blasphemy? Elijah feels comfortable using and imposition to summon one from the Lord: does this amount to a sort of envisioned equality on the part of the prophet, if not a sort of superiority?)
After making the explicit, and explicitly positive, request, Elijah returns to the discourse of persuasion. Far more than just pointing out that he has done plenty, that his task is apparently accomplished, he now relates his broad office to that of his "fathers." Having just exited Beer-sheba, the implication is that he has Abraham (and hence Isaac and Jacob) in mind. He declares that he is not more twb than his fathers, not more "fruitful," "obedient," or just plain "good." But the connection to the fathers involves more still: Elijah requests death because he seems to assume that his prolonged life at this point would imply a sort of superiority to the fathers (to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!). Perhaps, in the end, Elijah recognizes his increasingly unique role in Iraelite history, and he might even have hints by this time that he will be taken into heaven without death. If these are the case, then Elijah's odd request is at once more sensible and yet odder than ever. Unwilling to made more than the great ancestors, yet knowing that so he seems necessarily to become, he prays for death. Whatever Elijah is to be understood to be thinking, it is at least clear that a rather problematic context lies behind the events that begin with the next verse.
- Verse 5. The events that begin here have a decidedly patriarchal feel to them. Sleeping under a sacred tree while on a lone journey, Elijah is awakened by an angel would takes him through an odd and totally unexplained ritual. That such a "patriarchal experience" is set so close to Elijah's "refusal" to be better than the fathers is suggestive. The Lord seems to respond to Elijah's request with a sort of refusal: though Elijah would die in the desert, the Lord provides--angelically--for him.
- Verse 12: Still. The word translated as "still" in verse 12 is the Hebrew dem-aw-maw', which can be translated as calm or whisper. It is also found in Job 4:16 and Ps 107:29.
- Verse 12: Small. The word translated as "small" in verse 12 is the Hebrew dak, which is the same word which is translated as "thin" when used to describe the scrawny ears of grain that Pharoah saw in the dream interpreted by Joseph in Gen 41:6-7, 23-24, as well as the word used to describe mannah in Ex 16:14.
- Verse 19: Twelve yoke. "Yoke" is sometimes translated team (see the Anchor Bible), though "yoke" typically is taken to mean two oxen.
- Verse 19: Cast his mantle on him. Compare Num 20:25-28. This is most likely an act calling Elisha to serve God with Elijah, and possibly even entails a calling for Elisha to succeed Elijah.
- Verse 19: Elisha's riches. The detail about Elisha's "twelve yoke of oxen" is like a sign of the riches that Elisha has, and therefore must give up to follow Elijah.
- Verse 20: For what have I done to thee? This phrase may be referring to the cloak that Elijah set upon Elisha in verse 19, symbolically calling Elisha to follow him. Elijah's posing this question to Elisha may be a challenge posed to Elisha to choose whether to accept the call that Elijah has extended to him. An alternate reading might take this phrase to mean that Elijah did not mean to seprate Elisha from his family (in which case the farewell feast in v. 21 might be read to include Elisha's father and mother).
- Verse 21: Farewell or dedication feast. Some scholars interpret this as a dedication feast where Elisha is dedicating himself to following Elijah. Others interpret this as a farewell feast.
Points to ponder
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- Verse 11. Why does the LORD tell Elijah to leave the cave and "stand upon the mount"? Why didn't the LORD just talk to him from the cave?
- Verse 11. If the "great and strong wind" and the earthquake clearly went "before the LORD", what does it mean to say that the LORD was not in the wind or the earthquake?
- Verse 13. After the LORD passes by, why does Elijah wrap his face in his mantle? Was he afraid to see the face of the LORD?
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- Verse 12: A still small voice. See "The Sound of Sheer Silence" by Mogget at the FPR blog for a discussion of a possible meaning and significance of this phrase (and the build-up in previous verses).
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