The Book of 1 Kings
During the Passover Seder, Jews pour an extra glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and leave the door open so he can come in. But there's no need to wait for Pesach this year! Grab a shot of Manischewitz and crack open the front door, because Elijah has come early. He arrives at the beginning of Chapter 17, sent by God to make life miserable for King Ahab, who, quite frankly, deserves it.
Elijah shows up, warns Ahab that God is sending a drought, and immediately disappears into the wilderness, taking refuge in a wadi, one of the riverbed canyons common in Israel. In an unexplained but mesmerizing couple of verses, God orders the wadi's ravens to feed Elijah. The ravens deliver bread and meat twice a day, a kind of happy reversal of The Birds.
Elijah is a proto-Jesus figure, performing miracles that Jesus will repeat in the New Testament. You've heard what Jesus did with loaves and fish? Check out Elijah's trick with flour and olive oil! After Elijah leaves the wadi, which has dried up in the drought, the prophet begs some bread and water from an old woman. She apologizes that she has no food left to give him. Her olive oil jug is almost empty, and she's down to her last few crumbs of meal. No problem for Elijah, who conjures up a never-ending oil flagon and an all-you-can-eat flour jar.
But he's not finished. The woman's ailing son dies, and she blames Elijah. Elijah lies down three times upon the corpse and prays for God to revive the boy. God brings him back to life. Take that, Lazarus!
This chapter has one of the Bible's most thrilling me-against-the-world, cinematic climaxes. When the chapter starts, the drought is still raging. There are also much worse, man-made crimes occurring in Israel, as a parenthetical note informs us. The note tells us that Ahab's chief of staff, Obadiah, is a holy man: "When [Ahab's wife] Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took 100 prophets, hid them 50 to a cave, and provided them with bread and water." The queen was committing mass propheticide! Jezebel, we've already learned, worships Baal. The parenthetical makes it clear what kind of royal couple we're dealing with—a Lady Macbeth with a somewhat wicked, but mostly weak, husband.
Elijah visits King Ahab. As soon as Elijah walks in the room, the king and prophet start slinging insults like they're playing the dozens. Ahab greets the prophet, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" To which Elijah responds, "I have not troubled Israel, but you have." Elijah explains the reason for his visit. He wants a showdown with Jezebel's priests, her 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. So, Jezebel's prophets and the people of Israel gather at Mount Carmel. Elijah issues his challenge—my God vs. yours, for all the marbles. "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." Elijah proposes an incineration contest. He'll get one bull and the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah will get another. Both will call on their gods, and whichever incinerates the animal is the true Lord.
The rival priests go first. They shout to Baal all morning long, to no effect. Elijah interrupts their fruitless prayers with perhaps the first insult-comic routine in history, a hilarious, sardonic attack on Baal and his silence. "At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, 'Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.' " Reading this, you can imagine exactly what kind of man Elijah was—brilliant, blunt, and sarcastic. (Have you ever heard Barney Frank interviewed? That's what Elijah sounds like.)
(Update, Nov. 29: Several readers have e-mailed me this glorious, pungent detail. When Elijah scoffs that perhaps Baal "is on a journey," that may actually be an ancient euphemism for "he's in the bathroom.")
The Baal priests grow increasingly frantic, cutting themselves with swords and raving to their god. But, of course, Baal doesn't answer. Then, Elijah takes center stage. A superb showman, he has the Israelites gather close around him, heightening the drama. Then he builds an altar with 12 stones—one for each tribe—and soaks the altar and the bull three times with water, so there will be no charge of spontaneous combustion. (For all you animal rights fans, I should note that the bull is already dead.) Elijah prays to the Lord, "Let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me." The Lord ignites the bull, the stones, and even the water. The Israelites fall on their faces and pray to Him. At Elijah's urging, they seize the 850 false prophets and slaughter them. Then, in a glorious denouement, a small cloud on the horizon grows bigger and bigger and bigger, and a heavy rain falls, ending the terrible drought.
This is a marvelous story—inspiring and funny, cruel to the pagan priests yet merciful to the Israelites. And it's told with extraordinary dramatic skill and eloquence, all the way from Elijah's sarcastic asides to the vivid description of the rain cloud appearing in the west: "A little cloud no bigger than a person's hand is rising out of the sea. … "
After Elijah executes her false prophets, Jezebel vows revenge. He flees to the wilderness, where an angel feeds him johnnycake. Say this for Elijah—he certainly knows how to cadge a meal, whether from ravens, a starving woman, or an angel. Elijah takes refuge in a cave till the Lord summons him to meet on a mountain. A huge wind blows on the mountain, then a giant earthquake shakes it, then a fire rages, but Elijah knows that the Lord is in none of them. After the fire dies down, Elijah hears a soft murmuring sound. That whisper, Elijah recognizes, is the Lord. This is a powerful moment. So often in the Bible, God appears in an awesome way, marking his presence with an earthquake, or a fire, or a plague, or a pillar of smoke. This gentle murmur reminds us that He is also a god of small things, a Lord who cares as much about the little as the great, who is—implicitly, I suppose—the God of love and beauty and not just fear and might.
God commands Elijah to anoint Jehu as the new king of Israel and Elisha as his own successor as prophet. Elijah finds Elisha, who's a boy plowing a field way out in the sticks. Elisha immediately slaughters his team of oxen and holds a feast for his neighbors. This meat party illustrates the Carnivorous Law of the Bible. Whenever the book mentions a domestic animal, you can be pretty sure that beast is going to have a knife in its neck and its corpse in the fire within a couple of verses. Vegetarians they weren't, those Israelites.
Ahab isn't quite finished yet. The Aramean king invades Ahab's Samaria, but Ahab musters an army and throws him out. This prompts a fantastic discussion about the nature of God. After their first defeat, the Aramean prophets tell their king to attack again, saying that the only reason the Israelites won was, "Their God is a God of the mountains." So, if the Arameans fight their next battle in the lowlands, they will surely win. They array their mighty army on the lowland plains, where Ahab's troops promptly rout them. This reinforces the underlying message of 1 Kings: God is the only God and the omnipotent God. Baal's prophets couldn't ignite their bull, because Baal is a figment. God speaks as a murmur to Elijah, because He is the God of gentle whispers as well as the God of earthquakes. God's army wins in the mountains and in the plains, because He is the God of everywhere.
Here is the first "takings" case in history! Americans are up in arms about the recent Supreme Court ruling granting expansive rights to governments that want to seize private property. As usual, the Bible got to the issue first—and got it right. Here's the story. King Ahab covets the vineyard of his neighbor Naboth, which the king wants to turn into a vegetable garden. Naboth, speaking for property owners everywhere, tells him to buzz off: "The Lord forbid that I should give up to you what I have inherited from my fathers." Ahab, who's kind of pathetic, gives up easily and goes home to sulk. But his wife Jezebel tells him she'll get the land.
(She says to her moping hubby, "Rise and eat something, and be cheerful; I will get the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you." Her exhortation reminds me of something I love about 1 Kings: Its dialogue is incredibly realistic. Much Bible speech is stiff and formal. But in 1 Kings, people speak very casually. Here Jezebel combines informal wifely concern—"eat something"—with sinister plotting. Elsewhere, 1 Kings offers us the jaunty sarcasm of Elijah, the swaggering insults of Elijah and Ahab, and Ahab's self-indulgent, histrionic soliloquies. These plausible conversations make the book one of the most expressive in the Bible.)
Anyway, back to the land-grab. Jezebel writes a letter to the town elders, instructing them to frame Naboth for blasphemy. (Pause to consider the irony of Baal-worshipping Jezebel accusing anyone of blasphemy. Also chilling is Jezebel's canny manipulation of the Mosaic legal code. She makes sure to get two men to testify to Naboth's blasphemy, ensuring the charge will stick.) The elders frame and convict Naboth, and then have him stoned to death. Ahab immediately seizes the vineyard.
The Lord is appalled. He sends Elijah to issue His threats to the king: "In the very place where the dogs lapped up Naboth's blood, the dogs will lap up your blood too." (This is certainly a more creative punishment for wrongful takings than the Cato Institute and its allies have devised.)
But then, the Lord oddly wimps out. Ahab puts on sackcloth and ashes. The Lord accepts his humility and delays revenge.
Ahab's last act, finally. Ahab makes an alliance with King Jehoshaphat of Judah to take back a town captured by the Arameans. All the prophets but one advise them to launch their attack. (Incidentally, how come there were so many prophets back in Bible times, hundreds and hundreds of them? These days, I can't even find one rabbi who I like!) But the last prophet, Micaiah, warns Ahab that the other prophetical advice is flawed and that he will die taking the town. Ahab ignores the caution, instead sending Micaiah to prison with orders that he not be released "until I come home safe." To which Micaiah wittily and cruelly responds, "If you ever come home safe, the Lord has not spoken through me."
Of course, Ahab dies in the battle. As the Lord predicted, "the dogs lapped up his blood." Even worse, "the whores bathed [in it]." Though an extraordinarily gruesome image, this does not actually make sense. Why would a whore—or anyone—bathe in blood?
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