1 Kings 19:1-15a

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1 Kings 19:1-15a

Background to the Book of 1 Kings

What's happening in Judah at this time?

The books of Samuel tell us in great detail about the rise of the kings, how they came about and the role of the prophet in this new form of government. The decline of Saul, the rise of David and the relationship between Saul's son Jonathon and David is given many chapters. The second book of Samuel describes the rise of David and the gradual defeat of the countries surrounding Israel. The geographic size of the kingdom is the greatest it will be until the advent of the Six Day War in the 20th century. The Philistines are particularly difficult to overcome if the records in the Hebrew Scriptures are in chronological order. It appears as though they are defeated once and for all and then pop up as a threat in the next chapter. David has problems within his own household which indicate also the union of the twelve tribes is on a very fragile footing. (More detailed description is given in previous Lectionary Readings)

What is happening in the surrounding great empires? (Extracts from the Anchor Bible Dictionary)

Babylonia and Assyria (ca. 1000-627 B.C.). a. A Period of Weakness (ca. 1000-748 B.C.). During the 2d millennium Assyria increasingly became an important background presence in Babylonian history, and in the 1st half of the 1st millennium this was even more evident. Other peoples and powers, such as the Arameans and Elamites, had a significant impact upon Babylonia, but it was Assyria which gradually gained the leading control over Babylonia. At the beginning of the 1st millennium Babylonia was independent once again, for Assyria was struggling against the Arameans for its very survival. The Arameans penetrated Babylonia, too, winning land and wealth and causing much chaos.

Egypt: Third Intermediate Period

The era immediately succeeding that of the New Kingdom (NK) witnessed varied developments in society, culture, and economy (Kitchen 1973). Notwithstanding the apparent paucity of royal inscriptions, much has been revealed by recent research concentrated on this hitherto presumed Dark Age of Egypt. However, the paramount and consistent trend in the dynasties following the fall of the NK is one of political decentralisation and corresponding lack of a firm unified monarchy (Yoyotte 1961). Foreigners, too, made an impact on the Nile valley, and not one but three different contenders for the prize of Egypt left their mark. First, there were the Libyans, who had already settled in the north during the reign of Ramesses III; then Egypt was faced with a southern incursion, that of the Kishites; finally, the mighty Assyrians attempted to conquer the land. As a result, the political history of this time is difficult to view as a whole if only because Egypt was not unified as before. For the sake of simplicity and ease of comprehension, modern scholarship now uses the term "Third Intermediate Period" to cover Dynasties 21-25 (ca. 1069-664 B.C.). This, in turn, was followed by the Saite Period, Dyn. 26 (664-525 B.C.), an era of unity (De Meulenaere 1951; 1967; all dates follow Kitchen 1982-83). However, it should be stressed that the 3d Intermediate Period is purely a global designation, revealing little about the 400-year span of Egyptian history, a time that witnessed the emergence of a society quite different than any preceding.

As it can be seen from the brief paragraphs describing the scenarios in Egypt and Mesopotamia there was little time or energy for intrusion into Palestine which allowed David to extend his empire without interference from the Empires either side. This does not deny the military acumen and charisma that David needed to weld the tribes together and fight as a cohesive unit.
Context of 1 Kings 19:1-15a
This story, like that of last week, is part of the Elijah cycle of stories which begins in 1 Kings 17 when Elijah has the first of many conversations with the King Ahab who had not long come to the throne. Ahab was condemned in the writings because he did evil in the sight of the Lord, married a foreign princess and encouraged the worship of foreign idols. Elijah spoke the word of God to the King and the people. He spent three years with a widow in Sidon who was provided with food by a miracle performed by Elijah who later performed another miracle when he raised the widow's son from the dead. The drought which had been prophesied by Elijah was broken after Elijah went to speak with the King. On the way he met Obadiah who had hidden and fed a hundred of his prophets from the Jezebel who wanted to kill all the prophets of Yahweh.

Elijah declares that he, Ahab, has forsaken Yahweh and Elijah challenges him and his 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to a contest on the top of Mount Carmel. The people are challenged also about which god they will follow. Elijah wins the contest when the sacrifice is burnt by fire after it has been soaked by barrels of water, to prove the power of Yahweh. The prophets of Baal are killed as was the custom of those times when a victor killed the challengers. Rain came to break the drought and Elijah went with Ahab to break the news to Jezebel about the loss of her prophets.
Our reading this week picks up at the point of Jezebel's threat against Elijah which frightens him so much that he flees into the wilderness. We will look in detail at this chapter under Literary and Message.
After his experience of God in the wilderness Yahweh commands Elijah to return and anoint a foreign king in Damascus. He is to anoint Hazael King of Syria. This is most unusual to anoint a foreign king in a foreign court. He is also to anoint the successor of Ahab who is Jehu and his own successor Elisha. Prophets were an active part of the political scene. They were never coy about this involvement. 1 Kings 20 describes the battle with Benhadad King of Syria, and the resultant covenant made between the King of Israel (Ahab) and Syria. Apparently because Ahab spared Benhadad whom he was supposed to kill he was condemned by one of the prophetic band (1 Kings 20:42). The Elijah saga continues in 1 Kings 21 with the story of Ahab and Jezebel who cheat and kill Naboth in order to get hold of his vineyard. We looked at 1 Kings 21 in detail in the Pentecost 2 readings. This treachery of Ahab is the final seal on his House and when Elijah confronts Ahab with his actions he prophecies that Ahab will die and Jezebel be eaten by dogs. The chapter following picks up the conflict with Syria and now Judah comes on the scene when Ahab asks the King of Judah (Jehoshaphat) to fight with him to reclaim some territory which Syria occupies.
The Kings of Judah and Israel do the right thing and consult the Lord through the prophets who say it will be all right to go into battle, but Jehoshaphat is still nervous and so they consult with Micah ben Imlah who agrees that it is the right time to go against the King of Syria. Along with these prophetic words was the prophecy that Israel would be without a leader. This came true when Ahab was struck by a stray arrow and carried from battle mortally wounded.
Several times in the Elijah stories we hear about a prophecy which later is shown to come true,for example, Elijah prophecies the end of the house of Ahab and a couple of chapters later the story demonstrates how this comes to pass. This was an important aspect of the Deuteronomistic writings. We must never forget that the Prophets were part of the political, social and religious life. There was no separation of the political and religious spheres in the life of Israel and Judah.
Insights/Message of 1 Kings 19:1-15a
These verses fall into 3 sections: vv.1-3 = Jezebel's threat to Elijah, vv.4-8 = epiphany beyond Beersheba, vv.9-18 epiphany at Horeb. Verses 1-3 act as a bridge between the events from 1 Kings 18 to those now described in 1 Kings 19.

The overall structure is determined by two distinct features: an "itinerary" motif which has Elijah moving from one place to another (vv.3,4a, 8b, 9a), and a series of divine manifestations, angelic epiphanies (vv. 5-6, 7-8, 9-11a, 11b-18), Long, 198.

Ahab's account of the events on Mount Carmel to his queen are brief to say the least, but her response is swift and conveys her displeasure very clearly to Elijah via a messenger (vv.1-3). The naming of Beersheba indicates that Elijah is in Judah and out of danger from Jezebel.

The two scenes with the angel occur while Elijah sleeps and are doublets in their form, but the second appearance indicates to Elijah that he has to eat sufficient to give the strength for a long journey into the wilderness (vv.4-8). There are a couple of Hebrew words used in vv.4-8 which are quite rare. For example, the word for 'hot coals' (resapim) is only found elsewhere in Isaiah 6:6, and the word for 'jar' (sappahat) is found only in 1 Sam 26:10-16 and 1 Kings 17:8-16 (Seow, 140). The same word is used of the messenger is v.2 who brings a message of death as that used of the angel in v.5 who brings life.

The motif of journey comes to the fore and Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb (known as Sinai in other traditions). Again the this section (vv.9-18) is set out in two scenes which begin with Yahweh asking the question of Elijah, "What are you doing here?" Elijah answers with words which indicate his strong support for Yahweh and are in the form of a lament. The response of the Lord gives direction to Elijah in vv.11a and 15-18. These scenes in which Elijah and the Lord have dialogue surround the major appearance of God passing by in vv.11b-13a.

The structure of 1 Kings 19 indicates that the divine appearances are the centre point in vv.4-8 and 9-18 and we must see the appearance of God and God's angels as the narrator's high point for this story about Elijah. The "still small voice of God" is in sharp contrast to the great strong wind which broke the rocks, the earthquake and fire and it is the "sound of fine silence" which causes Elijah to hide his face in his cloak.

The form is that of narrative and its bridging verses (1-3) indicate with the use of the Hebrew 'waw' consecutive that we are to understand it as part of an ongoing story. The symbolism of theophanies - wind, earthquake & fire warn us that God is present, but the surprise is the denial of God's presence in the usual. Instead, we have a still small voice or as the Hebrew calls it, "sound of fine silence". The lament form of vv.4, 10 and 14 indicate the depth of feeling which Elijah is experiencing in relation to his task. Later prophets experience similar feelings. Elijah appears to have forgotten that Obadiah saved 100 prophets and he wasn't the only prophet left (v.10).
Elijah can only flee for so long before he is confronted by God and commissioned to return to the task to which he is called (vv.15-18). He will forecast the end of those who have opposed the worship of Yahweh and indeed have supported the worship of Baal. The setting at Mount Horeb and Elijah's sense of hopelessness is in direct contrast to the triumphalism on Mountt Carmel in the previous chapter.

Prophets are called to be instrumental in the political forum whether confronting a king or anointing new ones. Religion and politics are never separate in the world of the Old Testament. Although the set lectionary reading ends before v.16 it is worth noting that Elijah is called also to anoint his successor. Some people see this as indicating that there were schools of prophets, a subject which has no definitive answer.

Elijah's encounters with God range from the fire which consumed the water drenched sacrifice in 1 Kings 18, to dialogue, to visitation by angels and then the 'sound of fine silence'. I can remember a colloquium early in my time as a private student at Parkin-Wesley College when the Principal (Rev Ken Leaver) asked all students to share how they received their call to ministry. I had limited church experience and was amazed to discover the variety of ways which encompassed the unusual to the very ordinary. This experience of hearing that God spoke in many different ways was instrumental in acknowledging my own call to ministry.

The themes of fear and flight and even despair are part of most people's journey in life. There are times when we flee from the hard things of life and there is no condemnation. Instead, we find that God provides and is present even we complain (lament). Often there is a challenge to return to the scene and take up life again, but in a different space after experiencing something of the presence of God.

I find this a very positive message that no matter what our calling we can feel despair and still know that God will provide and care especially if we are open to seeing it.

Elijah is linked to the great prophet Moses by a number of references which would be very familiar to the audience of this story. Mountt Horeb is another name for Sinai where Moses received the ten commandments and encountered God. As Elijah hid in a cave so Moses hid in the cleft of a rock and both hid their faces in their cloaks. In the New Testament Elijah and Moses are the two who talk with Jesus as he was transfigured on the mountain.

Resources/ Worship for 1 Kings 19:1-15a
Resources: Commentaries
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.
The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.
Childs, B.S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. London: SCM Press, 1993
Devries, S.J. 1 Kings. WBC. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985
Gray, J. 1 & 11 Kings. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1964
Jones, G.H. 1 and 2 Kings, NCB. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.
Long, B.O. 1 Kings, with an Introduction to Historical Literature. FOTL. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.
Nelson, R.D. 1 and 2 Kings. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987.
Seow, C-L, The First and Second Books of Kings, NIB 111. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: