Call to Ministry Series #14: Elijah, part 1
November 19, 2012
In the next few postings I am going to focus on the so-called non-writing prophets. Some have names, some are unnamed. Elijah is the best known of these prophets. He is mentioned not only in the stories of 1 and 2 Kings but also in Malachi and the New Testament. Walter Brueggemann compiles a series of sermons and notes on Elijah and Elisha in a little book entitled Testimony to Otherwise (St. Louis: Chalice, 2001) where he traces, among other things, the trajectory of Elijah through the Bible. His life bears a weight long after his death.
Our focus will spotlight the stories found in 1 Kings 17-19 and 21 and 2 Kings 1-2. In the first series, three stories emerge with multiple scenes. They show a composite picture of Elijah the prophet. He is an authentic mediator of the word of God (ch. 17), a spokesman or dramatic preacher calling the people to choose Yhwh if he indeed is deity (ch. 18), and a worthy person for epiphany, the appearance of God to him, when he doubted himself (ch. 19).
The second set of stories include three accounts with multiple scenes, Naboth’s vineyard (ch. 21), Ahaziah’s injuries and eventual death (2 Kings 1), and Elijah’s departure in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1-18). They provide additional glimpses of the prophet, but they also tell us more stories existed about Elijah. We just have these few looks at a very active man.
We have no information about Elijah’s initial call. This could be a short conversation. But we do have information about God’s instructions to Elijah that gives us insight into their interaction.
Elijah bursts on the scene with little introduction. 1 Kings 17:1 gives us his name, his area and region of origin, and his message, a prophetic message to the king, Ahab.
Elijah means simply “Yah(weh) is my god.” His name suggests a godly home or a re-naming as he embraced his prophetic role in contrast to the surrounding Israelites. He is a “Tishbite,” one who comes from Tishbeh, a place probably eight miles north of the Jabbok in the Gilead region. The Hebrew in verse one remains unclear exactly what is being said, but he evidently was counted among the “settlers” or “wanderers” to this region (John Gray, I and II Kings [OTL], Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970 [2nd ed.], 377). Some commentators have noted he came from a poor area. It is interesting that he may have had a poor economic background yet spent most of his recorded ministry with kings and the wealthy. Contrast that with Elisha, his disciple, who came from a wealthy family and whose ministry as it is recorded was mostly with the common people.
How did he become a prophet? After all, that is our intention in examining God’s call to people. No explanation is given. None at all. But his first words may give us an insight into his perspective.
Elijah says to Ahab, “As Yhwh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there will not be dew or rain these years except by my word.” First, note his affirmation of Yhwh as a living being, a living deity. In Elijah’s stories, this expression occurs from Elijah twice (here and 18:15), the widow once (17:12), and Obadiah, king Ahab’s servant (18:10). Elisha will use this expression, too (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). This phrase is used in Samuel and Kings, mostly by prophets or godly people. It is also a favorite expression of Jeremiah. It is formulaic, following a set form, but it is also revealing about Elijah’s understanding of Yhwh, his god. He is living.
Second, observe his statement “before whom I stand.” This expression demonstrates Elijah’s service to Yhwh. His proclamation comes from Yhwh and he is the messenger as a good servant. This picture may come as close as we possess to Elijah’s call. Of course, as the events of chapter 17 close, the woman whose son Elijah revived confirms the picture in her words, “Now I know you are a man of God, and the word of Yhwh in your mouth is true” (v. 24). Even without a record of his call we have his prophetic role affirmed by the truth of his words and actions. He stands in service to Yhwh.
Third, the proclamation to Ahab is directed against the king’s embrace of Baal and Asherah, his wife Jezebel’s deity, as briefly outlined in 1 Kings 16:31-33. Ahab married Jezebel, built a temple for Baal and worshipped him, and set up an Asherah pole for Jezebel.
Baal was a Canaanite deity represented by a lightning bolt because he was the god of thunder and rain. Power leaks from him in the lightning portrayal. He is also a fertility god for the rain brings life to the crops and thus to the people. Some iconographic representations show Baal with many breasts dripping rain on the land.
The prophetic message aims to show who the real deity is, who is really in charge of the rain, sovereign over all nature. The abruptness of Elijah’s entry into the paganism of Ahab’s reign dramatizes the contrast, but we do not learn how he received the instructions to pronounce this word. In other stories the interaction is clearer so we may suppose that Yhwh spoke to him on this occasion the same way. But the prophetic word does not explain its origin by giving the background on this occasion. It was better to burst on the scene with this pronouncement.
Did the drought start with this word from Elijah? The chronology is not easy to unwrap when you compare the timeline. It may have already started and everyone, including Ahab, was wondering why they were experiencing no life giving rain or heavy dew. Elijah comes with an explanation from Yhwh as his messenger. As Yhwh’s servant the word is that no relief will come until Yhwh’s servant is told it will come. He will relay it to everyone at the appropriate time. After all, Yhwh is really the sovereign, the one actually in charge. As the third year of drought comes, Yhwh tells him to tell Ahab that Yhwh is bringing the rain (18:1).
Even though there is no clear call exposition we can go back and look at Yhwh’s instructions to learn more about how the interaction between the one called to ministry and the one giving the call may work. That is the next blog.