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Elijah: "The Troubler of Israel"

For Sunday August 10, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28 or 1 Kings 19:9–18
           Psalm 105:1–6, 16–22, 45b or Psalm 85:8–13
           Romans 10:5–15
           Matthew 14:22–33

Elijah receives bread from the angel, Paul Rubens, 1625-1628.
Elijah receives bread from the angel,
Paul Rubens, 1625–1628.

           The story of Elijah confronts readers with the Realpolitik of Israel's ancient kings. In a Bible that we consider a sacred narrative of salvation history, 1–2 Kings make for strangely secular reading. Elijah is a welcome exception. He was a lonely prophet, alternately manic and reclusive, who faced down the political powers of his day.

           The political panorama of 1–2 Kings encompasses the reigns of forty kings and one queen (Athaliah in 2 Kings 11). The chronicle begins with the death of King David and the accession of his son Solomon; it ends 400 years later with Israel's exile to Babylon in 586 BC. Only two kings receive unqualified approval by the narrator, Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:3 and Josiah in 2 Kings 22. With dreary regularity we read about coups, assassinations, civil wars, marital alliances to consolidate power, and idolatry. Over thirty times the writer renders the ominous judgment that a king "did evil in the eyes of the Lord." Instead of glorifying or celebrating political power, his sacred history of secular politics is uniformly pessimistic.

           How should we read these ancient texts about a territorial god who slaughters his pagan enemies? In what sense are these pages inspired? Can we draw parallels to our own pathologies of political power today? Is it possible to connect the politics of man with the politics of God, whether in ancient Israel or in modern America, Zimbabwe, or Afghanistan?

           In his commentary 1&2 Kings (2006), the Reformed pastor Peter Leithart suggests that 1–2 Kings are not merely historical, prophetic, or wisdom literature. He reads them as "gospel texts" that inform our church experiences today. There's the inseparable interplay between a king's private life and his public office. Idolatry looms large in these stories, especially the "guns, gold, and girls" of Solomon. The violent partition of Israel and Judah is redolent with applications for divisions in the church and the nature of genuine ecumenicity. The narrator uses flattering descriptions to describe the prominent role of "outsiders" among the "insider" elect — the military commander Naaman from Aram, for example, or the widow of Zarephath in Sidon who tenderly cares for Elijah. The providence of God over the history of humanity is also a major theme.

           So far, so good. But Leithart also uses the historical narratives of the kings to inform his doctrine of God. Yahweh, he says, is no "great marshmallow in the sky. He is not a God who plays softball. Nor is he the god of the philosophers, a gorgeous but impotent force in heaven. He is a warrior who fights to win, and deception is part of his art of holy war" (164). He is a God, says Leithart, of enmity and enemies (146–151), of violence and vengeance (157), and not merely by way of accommodation to human sinfulness or passive permission in the divine will. Leithart endorses the violence of the kings as not only a necessary evil but as a "redemptive" and "positive good" (41). This is where he loses me.

Daniel Berrigan.
Daniel Berrigan.

           I prefer the reading of the Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan (b. 1921). In The Kings and Their Gods (2008), he interprets 1–2 Kings as self-serving imperial records that portray Israel's kings as they saw themselves and wanted others to see them — God favors my regime and hates my enemies. He blesses us with their booty. No war crime is too heinous as a means to the delusional ends of these kings, and so on page after page political hell descends to earth.

           There is one political end in the book of kings, says Berrigan: extra imperium nulla salus, "outside the empire there is no salvation." There are many pathological means to this end: untrammeled imperial ego, political retaliation with absolute impunity, military might, revisionist history, manipulation of memory and time, grandiose building projects, economic exploitation, virulent nationalism, and, sanctioning it all with divine approval, legitimation by religious sycophants. In 1–2 Kings, "the medium itself is the message."

           A few dissenting voices object to imperial power, but they are silenced as unpatriotic and seditious. Only with the eighth-century prophets like Amos are these "official" imperial texts amended so that we see and hear the real perspective of Yahweh about justice, kindness, and humility for all peoples everywhere. Elijah is just such an exception. He arrives on the scene in 1 Kings 17 "as though, after an endless night, the longing of the saints summoned a dawn light" (93).

           King Ahab had good reasons to despise Elijah as "The Troubler of Israel" (18:17). Elijah had construed the prolonged drought as divine punishment for Ahab's idolatry. After Elijah publicly humiliated Ahab on Mount Carmel, his wife Jezebel boasted that she would assassinate him, just as she had slaughtered so many other prophets: "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them" (19:2). Nor was this an idle threat; Jezebel had already butchered many prophets.

           Elijah fled for his life and confessed, "Lord, I've had enough" (19:4). But with a "gentle whisper" that spoke louder than a violent earthquake, a powerful wind, and a raging fire, God assured Elijah that he was not alone in his prophetic stand against political corruption: "I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him" (19:18).

           When we connect the horizons of these ancient texts and our contemporary context, 1–2 Kings function as mirrors in which we see our own reflection today. "Do our leaders differ, in any large degree, from the rulers of old?," asks Berrigan? "They are hardly different at all." And when we silence or ignore the prophetic critique of contemporary politics today, we live under divine judgment just as much as Ahab and Jezebel did with Elijah's rebuke. Thus Berrigan invokes the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004) and his poem "A Task":

In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

Czeslaw Milosz.
Czeslaw Milosz.

           In her memoir Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher recalls meeting Daniel Berrigan in the spring of 1986. When she asked how many times he had been jailed, he responded, "Not enough." A poet, playwright, peace activist, and Jesuit priest, Berrigan has spent a long life obeying the good news of Jesus rather than the bad news of caesar. He and his brother Philip did time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. In 1968 he and eight other activists stole 378 draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam, dumped them into two garbage cans, poured homemade napalm on them, and burned them in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board. In 1980, he trespassed into General Electric's nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, poured blood on some warhead nose cones, then hammered away to punctuate his prophetic point.

           On the final page of his reflections on the kings and their gods, Berrigan challenges us: "One must urge (to his own soul first) a firm rebutting midrash; bring Christ to bear. Read the gospel closely, obediently. Welcome no enticements, no other claim on conscience. Mourn the preachers and priests whose silence and collusion signal plain revolt against the gospel. Enter the maelstrom, the wilderness; flee the claim that would possess your soul. Earn the blessing; pay up. Blessed — and lonely and powerless and intent on the Master — and, if must be, despised, scorned, locked up — blessed are the makers of peace."

For further reflection

* Peter Leithart, 1&2 Kings; Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).
* Daniel Berrigan, The Kings and Their Gods; The Pathology of Power (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
* Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation; How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
* Contemplate from Greg Boyd's book: "the path through politics is not the road to God."

Image credits: (1) WebMuseum, Paris; (2) Wood's Lot; and (3) the Republic of Poland Embassy in Berlin.

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