Elijah part 1: Game of Thrones
May 29, Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4):
1 Kings 18:20-39 & Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
The scene opens with King David, old, and shivering and wrapped in multiple blankets; a beautiful young woman, Abishag, at his side. He struggles for breath, but Abishag tenderly ministers to him.
Cut to a scene at the court: Adonijah, David’s fourth son is trying on his kingly robes… “Absalom had our older brother Amnon killed,” he says, “then he rebelled against our father, and since that rebellion failed and Absalom is dead, I am the rightful heir to David’s throne!” His toadying courtiers laugh and the prince makes makes his way onto the balcony. The crowd greets him with cheers of “long live the king!”
Cut to a darkened hallway: an aged Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan are in a tense conversation, conspiring to place Bathsheba’s son, Solomon on the throne instead of Adonijah. “David has promised to make Solomon king,” says Nathan…”but you have to make it happen, or all is lost.” Bathsheba nods then enters then room. She sees David for the first time in years…their eyes lock and David rouses.
Cut to a banquet: Adonijah and his retinue sit reclined in splendor…there is merriment and wine. Jonathan, son of Abithar the priest enters…he has a solemn look on his face. The music stops. All eyes turn to him, “Alas,” he says, “our lord King David has made Solomon king. Nathan has just anointed him. Solomon is now seated on the throne.” Guards enter and surround Adonijah—a look of terror comes over his face…the theme music swells…the opening credits begin to role. The Book of Kings: Game of Thrones.
We’re deep into season 4 when this disturbing but well-loved character of Elijah suddenly appears.
The Book of Kings doesn’t show up much in our Sunday lectionary. We get David’s death. We get Solomon’s dream and prayer for wisdom, and his reminder of the covenant, and we get Elijah…
We miss the really intriguing story of how this incredibly wise king, Solomon, becomes seduced by foreign women and foreign allegiances into almost destroying the kingdom. We miss the disintegration of the unified kingdom upon his death into the southern kingdom of Judah, and the northern kingdom of Israel. We miss the back and forth battles and struggles of the kings who “walk in the way of the Lord,” and those who “walked in the ways of their ancestors” (meaning they followed local pagan gods, instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). And we miss the ultimate destruction of both kingdoms and the beginning of the Babylonian exile. It really is very similar to Game of Thrones, but with fewer dragons.
The whole text of Kings sets up multiple tensions: tensions between the two kingdoms; tensions between those who follow God and those who don’t; and a powerful tension between the royal historical narrative—the powers and rulers of this world—and the extraordinary tales of the prophets—mainly Elijah and Elisha representing the power of God. It doesn’t fully resolve all of these tensions, rather it raises provocative questions in several different registers that we are invited to work on and wrestle with ourselves. Questions like: “whom do you follow?” “Do you ultimately put your trust the powers of this world, or do you ultimately put your trust in the power of God?” Questions that continue to be relevant today.
By the time we get to today’s reading, we’ve seen three monarchs on the southern throne, and seven on the northern one, where Ahab sits. The bloodshed has been HBO-worthy, and we’ve seen plenty of pretty awful people doing plenty of pretty awful things, but when Ahab arrives we’re told, that he “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” Yeah. He’s like Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, and Ramsay Bolton combined…the worst we’ve seen…And that’s when Elijah appears.
But the series of Elijah stories we get in the next few weeks is actually out of sequence. It makes a nice story arc on it’s own, I suppose…Elijah squares off against the prophets of Baal, then fearing Ahab’s wrath he flees to Sidon where he meets a widow, they’re miraculously fed by a single jar of meal, and he resurrects her dead son, then he returns to confront Ahab and Jezebel about killing Naboth and stealing his vineyard, and finally he retreats to Mt. Horeb for his epiphany of God at the mouth of the cave, and there he gets instructions for passing on his mantle to Elisha. It’s a nice neat arc—dramatic appearance, conflict, miracles, a bit more conflict, then a divine denouement…Trouble is, there’s a very different and much more complicated arc in the text itself.
In the text the arc goes like this: Elijah appears and pronounces to Ahab that there will be a drought. Then he goes east into the desert where ravens feed him, and then he goes north into Phoenician territory and meets a widow (whom we will meet next week). Having proven himself to be a miracle worker in this foreign land he returns three years later to confront the prophets of Baal, and end the drought. Then upon receiving a death threat from Jezebel, he flees to Horeb where he actually tries to give up his prophetic calling. God appears to him and gives him new directions. Two chapters later he reappears briefly at the end of the Naboth incident. And then begins to raise up Elisha as his protege. Not as neat, but I think, actually much more interesting. We’ll look at his trek into the desert next week as it establishes him as a “new kind of prophet,” different from any we’ve seen before. And then in three weeks when we get to Horeb, we’ll look at Elijah’s human side.
This week, it’s important to understand that the long but pretty enjoyable (and highly edited for family viewing) story we hear today is set in the context of a drought. Elijah pronounce a drought, leaves, then three years later returns to confront the king and the prophets of Baal—which given this context is probably a weather god, the local god of rain. After he humiliates them with this wonderfully staged rebuilding of the Altar: loaded with not only theatrics and humor, but symbolism—12 stones, 4 jars of water emptied 3 times (another 12)—and calling down the holy fire, he orders all of the prophets to be taken to the river where he slaughters them all, and shortly after that, the rains come.
The context of the whole story cycle, set as it is against the backdrop of a drought makes it clear that this isn’t a contest between Elijah and the prophets of a false god, but a profound statement that there is no other God. Only one God stops the rain, and only one God brings rain..the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel…in other words, the God of Elijah, whose name means “YHWH is my God.”
Read in isolation, out of context, there is a danger that this story can be interpreted as an encouragement to destroy those who oppose “our God.” We have far too much of that kind of scriptural misreading in our world today. We don’t need to encourage it. The real crux and challenge of the narrative for us, I think, is in letting ourselves be open to the tension between the royal narrative (which might be summed up as “might makes right”) and the prophetic narrative which we might call “God is right”). It’s the tension Elijah points to in his opening line: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” Or as Robert Alter translates it: “how long will you keep hopping between two crevices?”
If God is God, then we have to somehow get our heads and our hearts around the concept that only God is God and we are not. That we can neither coerce nor control God. We also need to be aware that when God doesn’t act the way we’d like, or when God acts on God’s timetable, not ours…idolatry—turning to some other form of power that we believe will get us what we want when we want it—is an ever present, but dangerous, option.
We’re human, and we tend to like our gods, our spirituality, just fine as long as it makes us comfortable? Some deities and supernatural forces are fine as long as they’re benign and we think we can control them. If it becomes too demanding or uncomfortable how many other gods, promising all kinds of instant gratification—permanent safety, eternal youth, perfect bodies—are there to turn to? A lot, right?
The tension between the seductive powers of this world, and the transformative power of God is a tension we all still wrestle with…and the questions: “whom do you follow?” “Whom do you trust?” “Do you ultimately put your trust the powers of this world, or do you ultimately put your trust in the power of God?” Are just as difficult and relevant today as they were on Mt. Carmel the day Elijah the prophet called fire down from heaven, and God ended the drought.
We’ll be with various prophets throughout the rest of the year…and the royal narrative will slip into the background, but it will be helpful to remember that this “Game of Thrones” is the backdrop for and the foil to all the prophetic literature that we will encounter. It’s the backdrop to Jesus’ prophetic ministry amidst and against the empire. It’s a tension we still live with, and how do we respond faithfully to the powers of this world continues to be one of the most important question we have to wrestle with. And we will continue to do that.
To be continued…