1 Kings 21: A vineyard to die for

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We return to the sins of Ahab and his household for this chapter. This time, we find him coveting a neighbouring vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. Fairly reasonably, Ahab offers to either buy or trade for the land. Also reasonably, Naboth refuses. In this case, he’s refusing on religious grounds, as selling land is prohibited in, for example, Numbers 36:7 and through much of Leviticus 25. So far, so good. Ahab’s reaction, however, is not exactly flattering. He takes to his bed and refuses to eat in a dramatic hiss-fit worthy of the most assiduous toddler. But it is Jezebel who gets to be the convenient baddie in this story.

After finding out what’s eating Ahab, she comes up with a plan to secure the desired vineyard. What’s really interesting, and more than a little surprising, about this story is how deftly Jezebel uses Jewish law to achieve her goals. Far from being the colonialist foreigner who simply dismisses the local religion as she brings over her own traditions, she is portrayed as someone who has taken the time to become completely fluent in the local customs – and she deftly uses that knowledge to her husband’s advantage.

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

Using Ahab’s seal and in his name, Jezebel writes to the elders and nobles of Jezreel, instructing them to find “two base fellows” (1 Kings 21:10) willing to testify that Naboth had cursed both God and king. The crime she accuses Naboth of is prohibited in Exodus 22:28 (and a case study found in Leviticus 24:10-16). The requirement that two witnesses be produced is found in Deuteronomy 17:5-6 and Deuteronomy 19:15.

Naboth is, of course, found guilty and stoned to death, freeing up his vineyard for a new owner. (It seems that someone wondered why the vineyard wasn’t simply inherited by Naboth’s sons, resulting in 2 Kings 9:26 having the sons die along with their father.)

Thankfully, God isn’t well pleased with all this. Unfortunately, rather than finding a way to save Naboth, he merely sends the prophet Elijah over with some stern words for Ahab. That’ll show him.

Specifically, Elijah curses Ahab, saying that his own blood will be licked up by dogs in the same place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood. He definitely gets points for vivid imagery. After a bunch of the usual promises to bring down Ahab’s dynasty, he comes back to the dogs: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23).

Staying on a image that is clearly working for him, he then pronounces that any of Ahab’s followers who die in urban areas will be eaten by dogs, while Ahab’s followers who die in rural areas will be eaten by birds. This threat is nearly a word-for-word repetition of the threat given to Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:11. Either God’s running out of material, or an editor said “oh hey, dogs! I love dogs! I read this other thing about dogs once that would go really well in this passage!”

There’s a very odd passage that reads strongly as an insert reminding us that Ahab was just the worst. I suppose that after all that stuff about dogs eating people, an editor was concerned that we might start to feel sorry for Ahab?

Ahab, prone to dramatic displays, hears this and has another episode – this time rending his clothes, fasting, wearing sackcloth, and going “about dejectedly” (1 Kings 21:27). This time, it’s precisely the right thing to do. Taking this display as repentance, God decides to spare Ahab and to punish his kids instead. Thanks, God!

1 Kings 20: A Wild Lion Appears!

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Elijah disappears from our narrative for a while, leaving us with a chapter that is surprisingly favourable toward Ahab – at least at first. We find Ahab as King Benhadad of Syria decides that he will invade Samaria. When the Syrians arrive, Benhadad demands that Ahab give him all his gold, silver, and fairest wives and children (or, perhaps, fairest wives, and children). Ahab immediately acquiesces. Perhaps realizing that Israel is being led by a pushover, Benhadad figures he can get away with more: the next day, he will send in some servants to just take whatever they want.

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

This goes too far, and Ahab balks. With the backing of his elders, he sends word that he is still willing to comply with the first demand, but he does not consent to the second. Benhadad, of course, is enraged and declares that his followers will not be going home with nothing but handfuls of dust. To this, Ahab replies: “Let not him that girds on his armor boast himself as he that puts it off” (1 Kings 20:11) – in other words, this ain’t over.

I was trying to figure out why Ahab so readily conceded to the first request, but stood firm on the second. After all, if the Syrians are already going to make off with all the gold, silver, wives, and children, what is Ahab worried about them getting? My first thought was that the difference might lie in who is robbed – in the first, it is Ahab’s household that will be plundered (Ahab’s gold, Ahab’s wives, Ahab’s children). In the second request, Benhadad is saying that he will loot “your house and the houses of your servants” (1 Kings 20:6). So one possibility is that Ahab was willing to give away his own possessions, but unwilling to allow the whole city to be looted.

Tim Bulkeley proposes an alternative – that the whole interaction is a misunderstanding between Benhadad, who is just here to plunder, and Ahab, who believes that Israel is being made a vassal state. In other words, when Ahab answers that “I am yours, and all that I have” (1 King 20:4), what he meant was that he would agree to being placed under Benhadad’s control, not that all that he has would literally be carried away. In this interpretation, Benhadad’s second message is not adding to his original demand, but clarifying it.

Israel Fights Back

With Benhadad unwilling to compromise and Ahab unwilling to let Samaria be looted bare, war is inevitable. What’s really interesting about this chapter in context is that the prophets, and God, are on Ahab’s side (at least for now). The two obvious explanations for this are: a) the story is presented out of chronological order, and actually occurs before Ahab started slaughtering all the prophets, or b) the story’s source was generally more sympathetic toward Ahab, excluding the final few verses that we’ll come to later.

So an unnamed prophet comes to Ahab and tells him that he will win the upcoming battle, and that he must be the one to initiate the fighting. Ahab gathers 7,000 soldiers (an interesting number, as that is the same number of true believers who were set aside to be spared in 1 Kings 19:18, though I have no idea if this is just a coincidence), and marches forth. Benhadad, clearly not expecting the Israelites to show pluck, was busy getting drunk.

When he finds out that the Israelites are advancing, he gives the following order: “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; or if they have come out for war, take them alive” (1 Kings 20:18), which is rather silly and redundant. The Tim Bulkeley podcast I linked to above discusses the various purposes that this verse might have had. In particular, he notices that the word order has been changed from: “If for peace they have come out, seize them alive, and if for war they have come out, alive you shall seize them.” Referencing the 19th century Rabbi Malbim, he wonders if the word order is meant to draw particular attention to the words in bold.

Bulkeley also discusses a theory put forward by the Bible commentator Abrabanel, who suggested that the line is meant to be confusing and absurd, an indication of Benhadad’s inebriation.

Of course, with the Syrians drunk, unprepared, overconfident, and lacking in God’s favour, the Samarians win, though Benhadad himself escapes with his cavalry.

Try, Try Again

Another unnamed prophet, or perhaps the same one, warns Ahab that Benhadad will be back in the spring. Sure enough, Benhadad’s advisors convince him that the Syrians only lost because the Israelite gods are gods of hills, their power at its strongest in the hill country. Therefore, if Benhadad were to engage the Israelite army in the plains, they’ll lose their divine advantage and will lose. They focus their mustering on chariots and cavalry, which are extremely effective in flat country where they can really get up speed and ram through infantry lines.

But they underestimated God! A prophet tells Ahab not to worry. Because Benhadad believes that God’s power is lacking in the plains, the Israelites will win the conflict and thereby prove that God’s genitals are the biggest (for such a powerful deity, he really does go on about how much he has to prove, doesn’t he?).

The two armies set up camp next to each other, but wait seven days before fighting. When they do, as predicted, the Israelites win (slaughtering an impossible number of Syrians in the process), but Benhadad escapes again.

Realizing that the jig is up, Benhadad and his followers wear sackcloth and put ropes on their heads, which apparently signals that they are very very sorry that they ever bothered Samaria. The kings of Israel, they say, have a reputation for being merciful. Sure enough, Ahab decides to spare Benhadad, and the two form a covenant in which all lands that Syria has taken from Israel in the last few generations are to be returned, and Israel gets to set up a bazaar in Damascus.

“Hit Me”

Which is just awful because, as we well know, there are few things that God hates more than mercy. In a story that is reminiscent of 2 Sam. 12:1-7, an unnamed prophet (who is at first referred to as a “certain man of the sons of the prophets” – 1 Kings 20:35 – apparently signifying that he was only a disciple) asks someone to hit him. When that person refuses, he is eaten by a lion. The prophet asks a second person to hit him, and the second person immediately complies. Sadly, there is no twist ending where the second person realizes that the prophet was a figment of his imagination all along.

Bruised and bandaged, the prophet goes to Ahab and tells him a story about having been entrusted to guard a man and letting him escape, tricking Ahab into passing judgement on himself by getting him to judge the prophet. You see, says the prophet as he rips off his disguise, Ahab was entrusted by God to kill Benhadad, but he showed mercy. God hates mercy. Because of his failure, Ahab’s life will have to serve as a substitute for Benhadad’s.

And there it ends. Perhaps God didn’t really mean it after all.

My Way or the Hellway

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My way

(h/t: Cheezburger)

1 Kings 19: Meditation Retreat

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Following from the story in the last chapter, Ahab rushes home to tell Jezebel about the slaughter of the prophets. I think we’re supposed to understand something about the power dynamics at Israel’s royal court.

When Jezebel vows to come after Elijah, he flees the country again, this time going to Beersheba in Judah. He stops just long enough to deposit his servant before walking off into the wilderness, finding a tree to sit under, and ask God to let him die.

The accuracy of this description of depression is quite accurate, right down to the part where Elijah falls asleep and refuses to get up again for what appears to be a rather long time. During that time, an angel wakes him, gets him to eat a bit of miracle food, and Elijah goes back to sleep. A little later, the angel wakes him again to eat, saying that he must make sure to eat or else “the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7).

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Apparently on those two meals alone, Elijah is able to walk for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness to Horeb. This is a clear reference of the Exodus story, and is perhaps intended to lend some vicarious credibility to Elijah.

Once Elijah finds himself a cave to live in, the same encounter repeats itself, nearly word for word. In both, God asks Elijah what he’s doing there. Elijah responds that he has been very jealous for God because the Israelites have forsaken the covenants, slain the prophets, and thrown down the altars – the latter being rather amusing in light of the Deuteronomist “smash the altars” position.

Similar to Moses’s sighting in Exodus 33:21-23, God tells Elijah to come out and look look at him. Of course, there’s a lengthy pre-show to get through first, complete with great winds, the rocks in God’s path smashing into pieces, an earthquake, and a fire. Lest readers get the wrong theological idea, we’re told explicitly that God is none of these things.

Rather, God is… something. Various translations give it as “a still small voice,” “a gentle whisper,” “a gentle blowing,” “a whistling of a gentle air,” and “a voice of gentle silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah covers his face with his mantle and emerges from the cave, suggesting that perhaps he hadn’t actually seen all the natural disasters that preceded the voice. Since this is where the narrative loops, it seems that two traditions were stitched together, or perhaps this detail of Elijah emerging from the cave migrated a little.

The voice repeats the question: “What are you doing, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). I think it would be a mistake to take this question literally. It’s more like when you walk into the kitchen and find your preschooler, as well as the entire kitchen, utterly covered in flour. You know what he’s doing, you’re not asking to find out.

After Elijah confesses to his jealousy (again), God sends him to the wilderness of Damascus so that he can anoint Hazael as king of Syria. After that, he’s to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel. Finally, he’s to anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, as his own successor. The idea is to destroy Israel. Hazael will take the first swing, anyone who misses while fall to Jehu, and Elisha will sweep up the remainder. Only seven thousand Israelites, those who never bowed to Baal, will survive.

Disregarding God’s wishes, Elijah instead heads straight out to where Elisha is ploughing with twelve oxen. I doubt that the number of oxen is a coincidence.

Rather than anoint him (unless we take “anoint” metaphorically), Elijah places his own mantle over Elisha. Elisha then becomes Elijah’s servant, signifying that he will be Elijah’s successor as Joshua served Moses in Exodus 24:13.

But before Elisha leaves, he slaughters his twelve oxen and throws a feast for the people.

1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls

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The following chapter is a strange one, and I’m really not surprised that I never heard about Elijah in Sunday School. While the story is one of Yahweh’s triumph over Baal, it functions as a blueprint for dismissing all gods (sort of, but I’ll go into more detail when we get to the right spot in the narrative).

Three years later, we’re introduced to Obadiah, a faithful Hebrew and Ahab’s steward. When Jezebel ordered all the prophets of Yahweh killed, Obadiah sheltered a hundred of them in caves, sneaking them bread and water. It seems in this chapter that the word “prophet” is used somewhat interchangeably with “priest.” If there’s a distinction, I’m not picking up on it.

The famine has been particularly hard on Samaria and, in an attempt to save at least some of his animals, Ahab decides to search for water springs. He has Obadiah go one way while he goes the other. It’s during this search that Obadiah happens upon Elijah, who has been sent back by God to confront Ahab.

When Elijah tells Obadiah to go fetch Ahab, Obadiah has a little freak out. Ahab has been looking everywhere for Elijah. If Obadiah tells him that he’s found him, and then they find that he’s disappeared again, Obadiah will be killed! There seems no possibility, in Obadiah’s mind, that Elijah intends to remain. But Elijah convinces Obadiah to go by promising to stay put.

And he does! When Ahab arrives (Obadiah is not dropped from the narrative), Elijah is waiting for him. They have a one-liner exchange in which Ahab calls Elijah “troubler of Israel” (1 Kgs 18:17) and Elijah turns it back against him with a clever “I know you are, but what am I?” Followed with an invitation to gather all the Israelites, including 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, at Mount Carmel. Surprisingly, rather than just killing Elijah on the spot, Ahab complies. As usual, his motivations are never explained.

Interestingly, the prophets of Baal and Asherah are specified as the ones who “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), and I have a feeling that that’s significant. There’s no mention in our readings so far as a table being described as belonging to a woman rather than to her husband, so it seems clear that the author is trying to highlight something. I’m thinking that there are two plausible ways to read this: a) Jezebel is the true ruler of Israel, not Ahab, or b) Ahab tolerates his wife’s religion, but has not converted himself (therefore they are her prophets, not his).

The Contest

The location appears to have been chosen to make a point. According to my New Bible Commentary, “Carmel was one of the heights on which were located places of worship to Baal, and in choosing this Elijah moved into Baal’s own home territory” (p.343).

Ahab arrives, along with all the Israelites. Interestingly, though, the 400 prophets of Asherah are never mentioned at Mount Carmel. It could be that they had been added into the earlier reference, or perhaps Elijah simply never bothered to challenge them. Or maybe they just didn’t show up. For the purposes of the story, it seems clear that this is about a battle between very similar gods, gods who were clearly in competition for the same niche. From a narrative standpoint, this becomes a sort of mirroring, so challenging Asherah as well just wouldn’t have fit.

Elijah addresses the crowd, telling them that they can’t keep waffling between God and Baal. They must choose their god, and they must do it now. The people remain silent, so Elijah proposes a contest: They will fetch two bulls, each cut one bull to pieces and lay it on a pyre. They will then each pray to their god and, whichever sacrifice ignites and consumes itself will declare which god is true.

So the 450 prophets of Baal select their bull and prepare it, and dance around it for hours. At around noon, Elijah starts mocking them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). It could be that Elijah is being literal, asking if Baal really did fall asleep on the job. It feels more like plain mocking, making up absurd excuses to pre-emptively attack the prophets of Baal for what they must surely be preparing to do themselves. Also interesting here is whether Elijah believes that Baal used to be a god who has now been defeated, if he believes that there is and has always been only one god, or if he believes that this is a further demonstration of Yahweh’s power because he is blocking Baal from being able to perform the miracle.

Regardless, I imagine that this passage must be troubling for any adherents who give it some thought. If we challenge God, if we demand a miracle, is failure proof that He has gone aside? That he is asleep?

The prophets of Baal, predictably, react by redoubling their efforts. They cry out and cut themselves, which the text tells us was their way. This reference to self-harm may be intended to be more than just a description of their religious practices. In Deut. 14:1 and Lev. 19:28, where the practice is forbidden (possibly as an attack on Baal worship), it is connected with the worship of the dead. So it could be that the prophets of Baal are starting to lose faith, perhaps they believe that their god has already been defeated and have begun mourning.

Tim Bulkeley mentions the Canaanite Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, in which Baal is taken to the underworld by Mot. According to him, Anat and El call Baal back to life by cutting themselves. If this is the case, it could be that the use of mourning rituals might have become part of Baal worship. However, I was not able to find this detail in the time I spent Googling (it seems instead that it is Mot who is cut up). What I did find was that the story may be intended as a drought myth, rather than a seasonal myth – which seems more than a tad relevant here.

But no matter how hard the prophets of Baal try, the pyre will not self-ignite.

Elijah’s Turn

Elijah begins by rebuilding God’s altar, which we’re told had been torn down. It’s interesting that Elijah, though clearly presented as a proper prophet of God in the middle of a Temple period, is able to build an altar without any sort of condemnation. The rules seem rather flexible when it comes to putting Baal worshippers in their place.

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

He builds the altar using twelve stones, which our pedantic narrator feels the need to tell us represent the twelve tribes. Once this has been done, he digs a large trench around the altar, piles on wood, and lays cow bits over top. To make his magic trick even more astounding, he has the Israelites pour twelve jugs of water over top – soaking the wood and filling the trench that surrounds the altar. That the people were willing to waste so much water is rather surprising.

When Elijah summons God, fire bursts out on the altar, consuming the bull pieces and even moving into the trenches to evaporate the water.

People who really want to see the Bible as a reliable historical record but don’t want to admit that miracles are real have found several ways to explain this one. The most obvious, that Elijah used water from near a fracking site, is a little anachronistic (but I won’t fault the person who came up with it because it was me). That said, some have seriously proposed that Elijah used some hyper flammable liquid instead of water, or perhaps combined two liquids that exploded on contact. Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that the fire was caused by lightening, a first sign of the rain that will come later in the chapter. To all these speculations, I think my New Bible Commentary has the perfect response: These are “only the frenzied attempt to hold on to the Bible without having the faith to believe it” (p.344).

The case is closed, the contest one, and the Israelites are convinced (for now). On Elijah’s orders, they chase down the 450 prophets of Baal and slaughter them.

His blood lust sated, Elijah climbs back up Mount Carmel and puts his face between his knees. He sends his servant to look out toward the see seven times and, on the seventh, the servant sees a little cloud. The drought is about to end.

Elijah tells Ahab to head home quick, because the rain is about to start. That one little cloud doesn’t wait long, though, and the downpour begins. Elijah then girds his loins and runs, managing to beat Ahab back to Jezreel.

One of Jesus’s Parabolas

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wpid-Photo-Jul-12-2013-118-PM

(h/t: Exploring Our Matrix)

1 Kings 17:Precipitative Impotence

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In this chapter, we’re introduced to the prophet Elijah. Or, rather, we aren’t. We’re told that he was a Tishbite from Gilead. According to my study Bible, the sudden entrance may indicate that the cycle’s beginning was lost from the source material. It seems that the story is a northern one, perhaps brought to Judah by refugees. “It must be remembered,” continues my study Bible, “that all final redaction was done in Judah.” As for why the Judahite scholars would have chosen to keep the story of Elijah yet skim so much through the reigns of the kings, it seems rather clear. Elijah is no friend to the Israelite king, Ahab. His message, therefore, is well in line with the Deuteronomist thesis. So it makes sense that Elijah only enters the scene when directly confronting Ahab.

Another attractive aspect for the Deuteronomist is that Elijah is attacking the worship of other gods. Sticking strictly to the text, he appears to merely be informing Ahab  that there will be no rain without God’s say-so. However, we learned in the last chapter that Ahab had been tolerating the worship of Baal, that his wife Jezebel brought with her (1 Kings 16:31-32). Since Baal was a god associated with rain and fertility, saying that the rain would not happen without YHWH’s say so was a direct challenge to the Baal cult in Ahab’s court. There’s far more going on than a simple prediction of coming drought.

Incidentally, James McGrath wrote a post about biblical prophecy not too long ago, titled Prophetic Blizzard. In it, he claimed that the Hebrew prophets were not threatening people with some post-life punishments, but rather with earthly events: “Plagues, famines, pestilence, earthquakes, war, and so on.” He also notes that the punishments were all perfectly ordinary, expected disasters. Here, we have Elijah announcing a drought, not “blizzards. Freak snowstorms.”Of this, McGrath says:

That is worth reflecting on. The prophets are not predicting things that will happen, which otherwise would not have happened – God miraculously bringing an ice storm to their Eastern Mediterranean setting. They are not so much “predicting” as interpreting things which happen regularly, and will inevitably happen again.

Let me say that again. They are not predicting that God will do something miraculous. They are interpreting the kinds of things which happen, based on the assumption that God is behind them.

According to my New Bible Commentary, Josephus “records that according to Menander there was a full year’s drought in the time of Ethbaal, father of Jezebel” (p.342). It’s beyond the point to argue whether it’s the same drought event or simply an indication of how immediate and relevant the threat of drought would have been.

The Ravens

There’s no word on how Ahab reacted to his encounter with Elijah, or how the two met in the first place. Instead, we skip straight to God telling Elijah to go to the brook of Cherith and there to drink straight from the brook and be fed by ravens, who bring him bread and meat twice a day (what sort of meat is not specified, but we might hope that there weren’t any battlefields nearby).

The fact that Elijah appears to be hiding out in the wilderness seems to suggest that Ahab didn’t take too kindly to being denounced, and that perhaps Elijah was on the run. In this case, we’re to understand that God sustains him with a miracle while he is on the lam.

Unless, of course, he was sustained by Arabs, not by ravens. While very nice, it wouldn’t be quite the same miracle. According to my New Bible Commentary, the word for “Arabians” has the same consonants as the Hebrew word for “ravens” (p.342). This seems absurd, since the story is clearly meant to illustrate both God’s power and his favour for Elijah. However, Elijah will soon be fed by a Sidonian woman, so it’s not inconceivable that, in its original telling, the story was of Elijah’s run from Ahab, and was only made miraculous through misunderstanding. That said, given how common stories of important people being miraculously sustained by animals in the wilderness are, trying to explain it away seems unnecessary.

God’s miraculous sustenance doesn’t last long, however, as the brook Elijah has been drinking from dries up. God’s drought-bringing powers lack finesse, it seems.

The Widow

With his prophet no longer able to survive in Cherith, God sends Elijah instead to Zarephath. This was a Sidonian settlement, and so would have been outside Ahab’s control. This continues to support the conclusion that Elijah was on the run. There, God tells Elijah that he will find a widow who has been commanded to feed him. No one appears to have told this widow, however.

When Elijah arrives, he finds her (as assume it’s her, though the text only tells us that she was “a widow” – 1 Kings 17:10 – this gives us the amusing possibility that there was another widow on the other side of town who was really confused when the prophet she was supposed to look after never shows up).

While the first part of the section makes it seem that God cleared his plan with the widow ahead of time, that’s clearly not what happened. Elijah just shows up, finds a widow out by the city gates collecting sticks, and commands her to fetch him some water. Rather than sock him right there, she actually does it. As she’s bringing him the water he asked for, Elijah commands her to get him so bread. No ‘thank you’ or anything.

With saintly restraint, the widow gently explains to Elijah that there’s a drought on, that food is rather dear, and that she needs the bread for herself and her son (though acknowledging that, since it is the last of their store, they will certainly die soon after they finish it). In fact, she was out collecting sticks with which to bake it. Undaunted, Elijah tells her to bring him a cake from the meal she has anyway, but that in exchange her ingredients will replenish themselves so that she and her son won’t starve. She obeys, the store never runs out, and the three of them live together for a while.

Of course, the spin here is that Elijah wasn’t being selfish when he commanded the widow to give him a piece of what little she had. Instead, it is argued, he was testing her faith. This is the same excuse so many people give abused wives – continue to submit, this humiliation and suffering is only a test! Fine, it appears to have worked out for this one widow in a story, but any extrapolation seems rather horrible.

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

My New Bible Commentary presents the possibility that the replenishing jar might not have been a literal miracle. Rather, the widow’s generosity and self-sacrifice moved her better-provisioned neighbours (or shamed them) into providing for her family. While possible, this interpretation is not indicated, and it seems clear that the author intended the event to be miraculous.

Not all goes well for the family, however, as the widow’s son takes ill and “there was no breath left in him” (1 Kings 17:17). She blames Elijah for this, apparently believing that his presence was a spotlight of sorts, leading to her being punished for some unnamed past sin. More like, something like this would be perfectly ordinary in a drought. Malnutrition weakens populations, making it much easier for diseases to spread.

Elijah asks the widow to give him her son’s body, and he takes it up to his room. He lays the boy’s body down on his bed and stretches himself over the corpse three times. While what he’s doing is likely just meant to be some mystical ritual, it looks remarkably like someone performing CPR (while anachronistic, it’s not inconceivable that someone blowing “the breath of life” into a body or accidentally doing chest compressions as part of a ritual might not, on occasion, lead to the victim reviving, thereby cementing the actions as part of a ritual – again, though, this is all a stretch).

While doing all this, Elijah calls out to God, asking him to return the child’s soul. God does so, the boy is brought back to life, and the widow then attests that she now knows that Elijah is truly a man of God (the refilling meal jar did not, apparently, tip her off).

The mention of the soul here is interesting. If we wanted to get theological about it, we might take from this story that the soul is a thing that leaves the body at death and can be returned to the body to reanimate it. It could also be that the term here is used to mean breath or even life, and that it’s return is poetic rather than literal.

The Ides of March Knife Holder

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Joke - Caesar Knife Holder

I need this in my life…

1 Kings 15-16: A House Divided

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The following chapters take us into the first few decades after the deaths of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Important dates are given as references to the Xth year of the other half’s king’s reign – an interesting relational dating system that could only work in a divided monarchy. By necessity, this means that we skip around in the chronology a little. The story begins in Judah for Abijam and Asa, then moves up into Israel for Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab.

Abijam

Abijam came to power in the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, and ruled a total of three years. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom, who seems to be identified by some with Absalom, making Maacah David’s granddaughter.

Of Abijam’s reign, we’re told only that he failed to live up to David’s greatness – though at least here, for once, the narrator admits that David’s greatness was slightly complicated by that whole Uriah business (1 Kgs 15:5). We also learn that hostilities continued between Israel and Judah during his reign, with the rather out-of-place verse: “Now there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (1 Kgs 15:6). It may be possible to explain away by seeing Rehoboam as a reference to his family rather than to the individual, but this seems a stretch. Given that the wording is very similar to 1 Kgs 14:30 and that the verse is not found here in the Septuagint, it seems likely that it’s inclusion here was in error.

No information is given about the circumstances of Abijam’s death, but he only ruled for three years.

Asa

Asa gets the best assessment of anyone in these two chapters. He is crowned king in the 20th year of Jeroboam and ruled for a rather impressive forty-one years. Weirdly, though he is described as Abijam’s son, his mother is also Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom. Either this is an extraordinary coincidence, terribly incestuous, or there’s an error somewhere – it could be that Maacah’s name is duplicated, or that Asa and Abijam were brothers.

The narrator’s principal definition of an awesome king is that Asa cracked down a bit on non-approved cultic practices. Namely, he put away the male cultic prostitutes (no word on the female ones), and removed his mother from her position as Queen Mother because she had commissioned an Asherah – which Asa had cut down and burned. He also brought votive gifts to the Temple, both his own and some from his father. His only failing was that he didn’t take down the high places.

During Asa’s reign, the king of Israel – Baasha, whom we’ll learn about shortly – built Ramah, barring the border between the two nations and apparently serving a defensive function. Given its proximity to Jerusalem (about 8km, or 4 miles), this may have been an aggressive structure as well, or at least perceived as such. In response, Asa took all the silver and gold from both Temple and palace treasuries, and brought it to King Benhadad of Syria. It seems that Benhadad had been supporting Baasha, but he was successfully bribed to switch sides – conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelbethmaacah, all of Chinneroth, and all of Naphtali.

Defeated, Baasha stopped building Ramah. It’s also implied that, as a consequence of this defeat, he dwelt in Tirzah – suggesting that perhaps he was building Ramah with the intention of moving Israel’s capitol there and had to retreat back to Tirzah, which we know from 1 Kgs 14:17 was the current capitol. Once Baasha had retreated, Asa ordered all of Judah (“none was exempt” – 1 Kgs 15:22) to carry away the stones and timber of Ramah, using them instead to build Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah. It seems that few lessons were learned regarding the dangers of conscription.

In his old age, Asa suffered from diseased feet, which my New Bible Commentary speculates may have been dropsy (p.340). After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jehoshaphat.

Israel

Nadab

Back in Israel, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Nadab, in the second year of Asa’s reign. The narrator found him unworthy, and so, apparently, did others. He only managed to rule for two years before Baasha, the son of Ahijah of Issachar, revolted and killed Nadab at Gibbethon. It’s not spelled out, but since we are told that Gibbethon belonged to Philistia, it seems probable that Baasha took advantage of the battle to turn on his king.

Baasha

Baasha was crowned in the third year of Asa’s reign, and his first act as king was to slaughter all the remaining members of Jeroboam’s house – not an uncommon practice when trying to found a new dynasty. He ruled a total of twenty-four years, with Tirzah as his capitol. Of course, our narrator was no fan.

During Baasha’s reign, there was a new prophet: Jehu, son of Hanani. He was no fan of Baasha either. He prophesies that God is displeased that Baasha is no better than his predecessors and, as punishment, will see his house utterly destroyed.

Elah

In the 26th year of Asa, Elah inherited the crown of Israel from his father. Unfortunately, his reign was troubled from the start. While he was getting plastered, Zimri – the commander of half of Elah’s chariots – murdered him. It seems significant that Zimri commanded only half of the chariots – I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, or if this is meant to signify that there were already divisions happening.

Either way, Elah was deposed in the 27th year of Asa.

Zimri

While clearly a go-getter, Zimri failed to get all his ducks in a row before taking the crown through murder. After only seven days, during which he just barely had time to murder every male kin and friend of Baasha’s dynasty, he fell.

Elah’s troops had been encamped at Gibbethon, perhaps continuing the conflict that saw Nadab’s death. When they heard of Elah’s murder, they made their commander, Omri, king. Omri brought the army back to Tirzah and besieged the city. Clearly seeing that he wasn’t going to hold on to the power he’d only just taken, Zimri set the citadel of the king’s house on fire, with himself inside.

Just as a point of interest, the term used for the men associated with Baasha’s dynasty in 1 Kgs 16:11 in the King James Bible is “one that pisseth against a wall.” This is, apparently, how men are to be defined by people who clearly never met a woman who does a lot of hiking or camping.

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Omri

Despite having the support of the soldiers under his command, Omri’s transition was not particularly smooth. Half of Israel followed Tibni, son of Ginath. While Omri defeated Tibni, the fact that Zimri’s rise and fall occured in the 27th year of Asa yet Omri’s reign is not said to have begun until the 31st year of Asa, it seems that the conflict between the two men lasted four years.

We’re told that Omri reigned a total of twelve years, six of which were in Tirzah. Yet to make the numbers of work, four of those years would have been the years of civil war, giving him only two solid years in Tirzah. After that, he bought land from a man named Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on it the city of Samaria. Not only was this the new capitol of Israel, Israel itself soon came to be known as Samaria.

Despite the text’s assessment of Omri as evil, he seems to have been quite important. From Micah 6:16, it seems that he was known for instituting some kind of legal reform, though no details are preserved. Omri is also the first Hebrew king for which we have direct non-biblical evidence:

The Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868, tells of the conflict between Mesha, king of Moab, and Omri, who humbled Moab for many years but was eventually defeated (ANET, 321). The inscription is remarkable for the similarty it shows between the religion of Moab and that of Israel. Mesha acts at the behest of his god, Chemosh, just as the Israelites act at the behest of YHWH. Most remarkable is that Mesha boasts of having slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Nebo, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” Omri’s son, Ahab, is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser as having contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers to an Aramean coalition that halted an Assyrian advance (ANET, 279). Assyrian records continued to refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” long after Omri’s descendants had ceased to rule. Omri and Ahab were kings to be reckoned with. There is much more evidence outside the Bible for their power and influence than was the case with Solomon. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137,138)

Ahab

In the 38th year of Asa, Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab. Though described by the text as just the absolute worst, Ahab seems to have been able to maintain a bit of stability in the unstable nation of Israel, ruling for an impressive twenty-two years. He was married to a woman named Jezebel, whose name should be familiar to any cultural Christian. She was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia and, through her, Ahab came to serve Baal. Not only does he make an Asherah, he also builds a temple for Baal in Samaria. As in the case of his father, we have an independent attestation of Ahab’s existence.

Somewhat out of place in this narrative, we get a note about a man named Hiel of Bethel who rebuilt Jericho. We’re told that the foundation of the city came at the cost of his first-born son, Abiram, and that the gates were built at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. This is all, says the narrative, a fulfilment of Joshua’s prophecy, given in Joshua 6:29. The most charitable reading has the two boys either having their deaths attributed to the construction (as we saw Bathsheba’s first son’s death attributed to David’s sin in 2 Samuel 12), or perhaps both sons assisted in the construction and died accidentally. There’s no reason to assume that Joshua’s prophecy predicted a future event, as opposed to Joshua’s prophecy, written after the events, describing events that it full well knew would come later when Jericho was rebuilt.

A third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, was that these were ritual killings, human sacrifices intended to bless the construction. These sorts of sacrifices (both human and animal) have been found in much of the world, and knowledge of them survived in folk mythology even longer (as we see in this German legend). The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying quotes a book by Nigel Davies:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981, p. 61)

Heart Problems

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jesu-and-heart-problems

A few years ago, I went to see David Sedaris at a book signing. As a requirement for getting his signature, we first had to provide him with a joke. Of course, I choked and couldn’t think of any good ones, so I defaulted to the old “two tomatoes were crossing the road” standard. When I was done, he blinked, then said “how about I tell you a joke instead?”

The joke he told me was this one: Why is Jesus such a bad lover? Because he’s always trying to come into your heart.

(h/t: Scotteriology)

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