2 Chronicles 21: Falling Bowels

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After Jehoshaphat’s death, his son Jehoram takes over. To avoid confusion between the kings of Judah and Israel, both named Jehoram, Kings refers to the northern monarch as Joram.

Jehoshaphat also had some other sons, who are named for poignancy: Azariah, Jehiel, Zechariah, Azariah, Michael, and Shephatiah. Jehoshaphat made sure that they were all well-provided for with riches and cities to control, but Jehoram got the crown for being the eldest.

This seems to have been a poor time to select an heir through primogeniture, because Jehoram is pretty awful. So awful, in fact, that he murders all of his brothers “and also some of the princes of Israel” (2 Chron. 21:4 – likely referring to the leaders of Judah, rather than the royal offspring of the northern kingdom) as soon as his power is established enough to get away with it.

This mass murder, which seems like it would be rather memorable, escapes mention in Kings. We did, however, see Solomon doing similar things in 1 Kgs 2, which the Chronicler forgot to mention.

Jehoram also undid the work of his predecessors, building high places around the hill country and leading the people into false faith. This was, it seems, because he was married to Ahab’s daughter. Though not exactly explicit, it’s implied that this marriage corrupted him, like some kind of religious contagion.

Enemies At The Gates

Jehoram’s brutal ways failed to buy him peace. During his tenure, Edom seceded, declaring their own king. The writing is a little unclear, but it seems that Jehoram was surrounded, possibly in a fortified town under siege by the Edomites. He seems to have waited until nightfall, then made a sortie, likely hoping to catch the Edomites unprepared.

From the 'Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum', by Guillaume Rouille

From the ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum’, by Guillaume Rouille

In the 2 Kgs 8:20-22 version, the attempt fails when his army flees, and because of this he was unable to bring the Edomites back under heel and they remained free “to this day.” Here, however, he succeeds in defeating the Edomites, and yet we get the same sentence about them remaining free “to this day” (2 Chron. 21:10). The change makes the story nonsensical, and it’s hard to imagine why the Chronicler would have wanted to give Jehoram the victory anyway, especially when his last addition is have Jehoram murder all of his brothers.

Libnah also revolted, which is mentioned in 2 Kgs 8:22, but the Chronicler adds an explanation: It’s because Jehoram had abandoned God.

For good measure, God raised the Philistines and Arabians against Judah. They loot the country, taking Jehoram’s stuff, his sons, and his wives, leaving him only his youngest son, Jehoahaz. I couldn’t help but note the order in which this list is presented: Stuff, sons, and wives.

In English, the usual convention is to list items in order of descending importance, rather insultingly making Jehoram’s stuff as the most important item taken from him. Another possibility is that the list saves the best for last, building up to the most important item, Jehoram’s wives. It seems odd, given the value placed on sons and how infrequently wives are mentioned, let alone named. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it just struck me as odd to bury Jehoram’s sons in the middle.

This pillaging and murder/kidnapping also escapes mention in Kings. Again, you’d think the elimination of most of the royal family would be a memorable event.

The Punishment

The Chronicler can’t let anyone’s sins pass without comment, so Elijah writes a nasty letter to Jehoram, giving him the usual godly message (though seeming to condemn Jehoram’s multiple fratricide only in afterthought). Incidentally, John J. Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible that the “reference to a letter is anachronistic. The use of letters only becomes common in Israel after the Babylonian exile” (p.233).

As punishment, God will bring a plague on Judah. This plague is rather special, as it will affect Judah’s people, its children and wives (mentioned as separate categories from people, which I choose to overlook as a possible translation issue), as well as its possessions. Even Jehoram himself will contract it, his bowels becoming diseased “until your bowels come out” (2 Chron. 21:15).

The inclusion of Elijah here seems unlikely. Commentaries all seem to agree that he would almost certainly have already ascended by this point (since, in 2 Kgs 3, we see Elisha prophesying during Jehoshaphat’s reign, and he would have been unlikely to be active on his own until after Elijah had left the scene).

This gives us a new perspective on the mention of Jehu son of Hanani in 2 Chron. 19:2. While I found ways to explain that anachronistic inclusion, seeing it happen a second time makes it all rather suspicious. It seems likely that the Chronicler is pulling in names of known prophets into whose mouths he can place his own condemnations.

In any case, the plague Elijah predicted never makes an appearance, but we do see God attack Jehoram’s bowels. Though never mentioned in Kings, the Chronicler tells us that Jehoram’s bowels finally came out after two years, killing him in agony.

On that horrifying note…

We learn that Jehoram “departed with no one’s regret” (2 Chron. 21:20), and his people didn’t even bother to light a fire in his honour. When they buried him, they didn’t put him in the tomb of the kings.

Jehoram was 32 years old when he became king, and he ruled for 8 years. He was pretty awful, but God spared his destiny for David’s sake.

1 Chronicles 8: False Start

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For this penultimate genealogical chapter, we turn back to Benjamin. The tribe has already been covered in 1 Chron. 7:6-12, and there seems to be considerable discussion as to why it should then be repeated here (one theory being that the chapter 7 version was originally intended to be about Zebulun and Dan, but was made to be about Benjamin through corruption).

Assuming that the chapter 7 version really is meant to be about Benjamin, the first thing that stands out is that the construction is different here. In chapter 7, the lineage followed a “the sons of A were…” formula, whereas here, we get a “A fathered B” formula. There’s no reason for the Chronicler to switch back and forth between these formulas, unless the Chronicler is simply copying whatever is being used by his source materials. This, alone, strongly suggests that two separate sources are being used for each of these lineages. (I mean, the fact that that the two contain rather extreme variants makes this rather conclusive, but I thought the note about formulas was rather interesting.)

Another detail worth noting is that the chapter 7 version had more commonalities with Gen. 46:21, whereas the version we get here seems more similar to Num. 26:38-41. Even so, there are more differences than common points. It seems that the Benjaminites were either terrible record keepers, or perhaps a certain usurping dynasty did a little expunging when it came into power.

We begin with Benjamin’s sons: Bela, Ashbel, Aharah, Nohah, and Rapha. Bela and Ashbel both appear in Num. 26:38, but the rest of the names, from either list, don’t match. My New Bible Commentary makes an interesting observation here: The construction in this passage names “Bela his first-born” (1 Chron. 8:1), whereas in 1 Chron. 7:6, we got “Bela, Becher, and Jediael.” According to the Commentary, “In Hebrew, ‘Becher’ and ‘firstborn’ have the same consonants” (p.375). It’s possible, therefore, that the source the Chronicler used in chapter 7 (evidently the same source as was used in Genesis 46:21) incorrectly interpreted the title of “first-born” as a proper name, the same of a second son.

We next move down through Bela (the only son of Benjamin who is named in all four of our lineages!), whose sons were: Addar, Gera, Abihud, Abishua, Naaman, Ahoah, Gera, Shephuphan, and Huram.

It’s perhaps getting redundant to point out that the sons of Bela bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sons listed in 1 Chron. 7:7. We do a little better in Num. 26:40, where his sons are named Ard and Naaman (Ard might be a corruption, or vice versa, of Addar, and Naaman is present in both lists).

The inclusion of two sons named Gera is likely yet another scribal error.

Ehud

We next come to the sons of Ehud. This, of course, poses a problem since no Ehud has been mentioned so far. According to my New Bible Commentary, this might be caused by a mistake similar to the one that birthed Becher. Abihud, named in 1 Chron. 8:3, may have originally been two separate words, which would replace “Abihud” with “[Gera] the father of Ehud” (p.375).

Some commentaries identify him as the left-handed Ehud the Benjaminite, who was the son of Gera, named in Judges 3:15. This would, of course, require that Ehud be Gera’s son, which would in turn require the assumption I mentioned above regarding Abihud.

The descendants of Ehud lived in Geba, and were taken into exile to Manahath. His sons were: Naaman, Ahijah, and Gera (of which the text says “Gera, that is, Heglam” – 1 Chron. 8:7). Gera fathered Uzza and Ahihud.

Shaharaim

From Ehud, we move on to someone named Shaharaim, whose connection to Benjamin’s lineage is not stated. We are told that he had sons in Moab, after he had sent away his wives, Hushim and Baara.

Benjamin and Joseph

Benjamin and Joseph

We might wonder what Shaharaim was doing raising a family in Moab, rather than in the Benjaminite tribal lands. The obvious answer was that he was escaping a famine, just like Elimelech in Ruth 1:1. We see the same famine-driven movements a few times in Genesis, as well.

More perplexing is the phrase “after he had sent away Hushim and Baara his wives” (1 Chron. 8:8). James Pate provides a few possible explanations, but I think that the most compelling is that he divorced Hushim and Baara, then later took a new wife (perhaps a Moabite) with whom he had children in Moab.

We then learn that he had sons with Hodesh, his wife (presumably the one he married after divorcing Hushim and Baara). These sons were: Jobab, Zibia, Mesha, Malcam, Jeuz, Sachia, and Mirmah. The name ‘Mesha’ stood out at me, since it’s the name of the king recorded in the Mesha Stele. It seems that Shaharaim was giving his sons good Moabite names.

He also had some sons by his earlier wife, Hushim: Abitub and Elpaal. Elpaal fathered Eber, Misham, and Shemed. Shemed is said to have built Ono and Lod.

Other Expat Benjaminites

Beriah and Shema are named, though disconnected from the previous lineage. I initially thought them further sons of Elpaal, but the grammar is rather tricky. Of them, we learn that they lived in Aijalon, and that they (or their descendants) fought against the people of Gath, which would mean Philistines.

The list continues, shifting to a different formula. In this one, we get a list of names first, then we are told whose sons they are. It’s a rather annoying way of presenting information, I must say! In any case, the sons of Beriah are: Ahio, Shashak, Jeremoth, Zebadiah, Arad, Eder, Michael, Ishpah, and Joha.

We then move back up to the sons of Elpaal, perhaps further sons or perhaps we are dealing with a different Elpaal: Zebadiah, Meshullam, Hizki, Heber, Ishmerai, Izliah, and Jobab.

Disconnected from Shaharaim’s lineage, we get the sons of Shimei: Jakim, Zichri, Zabdi, Elienai, Zillethai, Eliel, Adaiah, Beraiah, and Shimrah.

Then the sons of Shashak: Ishpan, Eber, Eliel, ABdon, Zichri, Hanan, Hananiah, Elam, Anthothijah, Iphdeiah, and Penuel.

Jeroham’s sons were: Shamsherai, Shehariah, Athaliah, Jaareshiah, Elijah, and Zichri. These, we are told, lived in Jerusalem.  (Perhaps along with the Jebusites, as per Judges 1:21, or perhaps during the Davidic dynasty, or perhaps even in post-exilic times – it’s rather impossible to situation the lineage in time.)

Living in Gibeon, we get Jeiel – named the father of Gibeon – and his wife Maacah. Their sons are: Abdon, Zur, Kish, Baal, Nadab, Gedor, Ahio, Zecher, and Mikloth. Mikloth fathered Shimeah.

There’s an odd verse here: “Now these also dwelt opposite their kinsmen in Jerusalem, with their kinsmen” (1 Chron. 8:33). It seems odd that this should refer to Jeiel’s family, right after we are told that they were living in Gibeon. One possibility is that the sons moved to Jerusalem from Gibeon. Another is that Gibeon is geographically quite close to Jerusalem, and perhaps either fell under Jerusalem’s authority, or there was at least a good deal of traffic between the two towns. Yet another is that this verse is meant to apply to the next lineage, and not to Jeiel’s.

The Genealogy of Saul

In the final section of the chapter, we learn the lineage of Saul, beginning with Ner, who fathered Kish, who fathered Saul (1 Chron. 8:33). This contradicts 1 Sam. 9:1, where Kish is the son of Abiel. Further, if we look to 1 Sam. 14:51, we find Kish and Ner listed as brothers, both the sons of Abiel.

Another detail worth pointing out is that 1 Sam. 9:1 goes further back. It begins with Aphiah, who fathers Becorath, who fathers Zeror, who fathers Abiel, and only then do we get to Kish. Did the Chronicler not have access to those additional generations? Or did he choose not to include them?

The sons of Saul are listed as: Jonathan, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Eshbaal. In 1 Sam. 14:49, Saul’s sons are listed as: Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua. This could be an error, or perhaps Ishvi was another of Eshbaal’s names; a nickname, for example. It could also be an error that Abinadab is omitted, or perhaps he died young and the author didn’t find him worth listing. This latter view is supported by 1 Samuel 31:6, where we learn that Saul and his “three” sons died on the battlefield. Either Abinadab was added to 1 Chron. 8:33 by error, or he was dead prior to the events of 1 Sam. 31:6 (or otherwise out of the picture, but I feel like David’s account would require an explanation for bypassing Abinadab in the succession).

Jonathan fathered Meribbaal, who fathered Micah. Micah fathered Pithon, Melech, Tarea, and Ahaz. Ahaz fathered Jehoaddah, who fathered Alemeth Azmaveth, and Zimri. Zimri fathered Moza, and Moza fathered Binea. Binea fathered Raphah, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Azel. Azel’s sons are: Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan.

Azel also had a brother, Eshek, who fathered Ulam, Jeush, and Eliphelet. Ulam fathered (directly or indirectly, sons and grandsons) 150 mighty warriors).

It’s worth noting that there is a son of Saul named Ishbosheth in 2 Sam. 2:8 and elsewhere. Ishbosheth would be translated as “man of shame”, as opposed to Eshbaal, which would be “man of Baal.” The son of Jonathan named Meribbaal (“Baal contends”) here is apparently the same person as Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (“From the mouth of shame”), appearing in 2 Sam. 4:4 and elsewhere.

The reason for the author of 2 Samuel to altar these names is theological, concealing the honouring of Baal in the names of the sons of Israel’s first anointed king, and the beloved of the second. It seems clear that Saul and Jonathan worshipped Baal, instead of or as well as YHWH, and that the author of Samuel wanted to fudge that over.

That much is obvious, but the more interesting question is why the Chronicler would keep the original names intact. He could be working with a different source, one that hadn’t bowdlerized the names.

Another possibility is that the Chronicler views David as the true first king of Israel, the perfect monarch to which all others must be compared. It’s “Golden Age” thinking, where there was a perfect time when everything was set up the way God wanted it, and that we fell from that state of grace. The existence of prior YHWH-approved king complicates that narrative, especially if our archetypal king overthrew that original dynasty in a coup.

This provides the motivation to disparage Saul and his dynasty, to deny its legitimacy and therefore to argue that David was actually the first true YHWH-approved king. Keeping hints that the Saulide dynasty worshipped Baal certainly achieves that purpose, if subtly.

2 Kings 10: Taking care of the competition

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We have a rather gruesome chapter here as Jehu, newly become king of Israel, solidifies his position. He begins with Ahab’s seventy sons (a number no dou bt inflated by counting all male descendants, including grandsons, though still rather impressive). Jehu writes to the rulers and elders of Samaria, as well as to the guardians of these princelings (I’m assuming that not all of them were underaged, though presumably a fair number would have been. He asks them to select the best of Ahab’s descendants and set him up on Ahab’s throne to fight in Samaria’s defense.

The rulers, elders, and guardians are rightly wary of this, since Jehu has just assassinated two kings. What chance would a brand new, untried king have? So instead of setting up a new king, which would only lead to war and sieges (we saw just how terrible those can be in 2 Kings 7: 24-31), they throw themselves at Jehu’s mercy. They will do anything he asks, they say, except instate a new king.

In his second letter, Jehu accepts the leaders’ submission and asks that they behead all of Ahab’s sons (again, this could refer to any male descendant) and bring them to Jezreel the next day.

The scene is a powerful one. The sons were “with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up” (2 Kgs 10:6), people they trusted, when Jehu’s letter arrived. Suddenly, the leaders turned on their charges, killing them and filling baskets with their heads. When they are brought to him, Jehu leaves the heads in heaps at the city gates overnight. The next morning, he addresses the Israelites, taking responsibility for killing Joram but reminding them that they were the ones who had killed his descendants. He reminded them, too, that Elijah had predicted that this would happen to Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs 21:21)… and his followers. And with that, it seems that he killed all of them as well (“So Jehu slew all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his great men, and his familiar friends, and his priests, until he left him none remaining” – 2 Kgs 10:11).

Not quite done yet, he came to Betheked of the Shepherds, where he found the kinsmen of the (now slain) king of Judah, Ahaziah. They were on their way to Samaria to visit their king, as well as the “royal princes and the sons of the queen mother” (2 Kgs 10:13) – which I take to mean Jezebel and the recently murdered seventy sons.

Jehu orders his followers to take the travellers alive. Which, we’re told, they do, but only in order to bring them to a pit. There, they murder all forty-two of them. This was, apparently, what Jehu had in mind when he told them to “take them alive.”

Though the reasoning isn’t explained in the text, King Ahaziah was the son of Athaliah, who was related to Ahab and possibly Jezebel – she was either their daughter, or possibly Ahab’s sister (2 Kgs 8:26 only tells us that she was a daughter of Ahab’s dynasty). So I’m seeing the argument being made that the whole dynasty of Judah was made complicit in Ahab and Jezebel’s sins through their unfortunate marriage alliance.

Cultic Concerns

After all this bloodshed, Jehu meets up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab. They great each other, and it seems that Jehu asks Jehonadab if he’s on board with Jehu’s “cleansing” of Israel. Not to give away too many spoilers, but it seems that we’ll learn about the Rechabites later on (such as 1 Chr. 2:55). According to my Study Bible, they “fiercely maintained the old desert way of life, believing that only thus could they properly worship the Lord.” It makes sense, then, that Jehu would approach a man who appears to be their leader for help as he turns his attentions to wiping out the worship of Baal in Israel.

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

It seems that tradition also gives the two men more of a relationship. My New Bible Commentary cites a reference in Josephus (Ant. ix.6.6) to Jehu and Jehonadab being “friends of long standing” (p.355).

When Jehonadab answers that his goals align with Jehu’s, Jehu stretches out his hand and lifts Jehonadab onto his chariot. Together, they ride off into the sunset so that Jehonadab can see Jehu’s “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kgs 10:16). Presumably with Jehonadab watching, he rode all the way to Samaria and, there, killed Ahab’s remaining supporters.

With that done, Jehu assembles all the people and announces: “Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu will serve him much” (2 Kgs 10:18). He calls for all the prophets, priests, and worshippers of Baal to attend a great sacrifice he’ll be hosting. We’re quickly informed, however, that it was all a trick (though, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already guessed as much from Jehu’s weasel-y words – he’ll serve Baal much, eh?).

The set up is clearly meant to be read humorously, a point reinforced by what seems to be a play on words. My New Bible Commentary says that, in Hebrew, the word used here to mean “served” is very close to a word meaning “destroyed”. “To a person not paying attention, the words would sound alike” (p.356). I think we can assume that Jehu may have been smirking while he delivered this little speech.

Baal’s followers all came and filled his temple. They brought out special vestments and everything.

Jehu and Jehonadab addressed the throng, making sure that only Baal worshippers were present. Jehu presided over the sacrifices while, outside eighty soldiers guarded the exits with instructions not to let any of the Baal worshippers escape (if any did, the punishment was death).

When the sacrifice is done, Jehu gives the order and his soldiers rush in, slaughtering all the worshippers. Done, they brought out “the pillar that was in the house of Baal” (2 Kgs 10:26), presumably an object of some sacral significance, and burned it. After tearing down Baal’s temple, they made it into a latrine.

A Retrospective

Jehu may have wiped out the worship of Baal from Israel, but he still failed at achieving proper cultic purity. What this means, of course, is that he failed to tear down Jeroboam’s golden calves, located in Bethel and Dan.

This is a sore point for the Deuteronomist, for whom idolatry was a focus. It seems likely, however, that the charge is anachronistic. There’s little evidence that the YHWH cult at the time had rejected the use of idols. If we expand that to include symbolic imagery (I’ve seen the argument made that the golden calves were not meant to represent YHWH, but rather to form a seat on which he was to sit – much as the cherubim function in Solomon’s temple), we have a fair bit of evidence to the contrary.

It’s also possible that the later Deuteronomist condemnation of the calves had its roots at this time, in which case we seem to be looking at competing geographic variations of the YHWH cult. The Jerusalem/Judah variation seems to have begun forming a more rigid, urban, centralized, top-down cultic structure, and may well have seen the more rural, disparate, folk-based Israelite variation as a serious threat.

The text tells us that God told Jehu that, because of this oversight, his dynasty would only last four generations before it, too, would fall. The construction, “the Lord said to Jehu” (2 Kgs 10:30) struck me. For the last little while, God’s messages have all either been issued to prophets or relayed through them, suggesting that the messages were connected to stories about those prophets. Here, however, the prophet is omitted. To me, this suggested that the author of this chapter was not referencing a pre-existing tradition, but rather adding in new material.

In this case, the author would have known that Jehu’s dynasty would fall in four generations, and sought an explanation. After all, the Jehu material so far casts him as a sincere and zealous worshipper (I’m a little too cynical to take that slant at face value, since getting rid of the Baal worshippers would have also meant getting rid of a lot of potentially influential competitors, many of whom may have enjoyed the support of the previous royal dynasty, while solidifying Jehu’s control over the YHWHist base – especially when we see his two named supporters being Elisha and Jehonadab, both apparently religious leaders). That a fall was to come would have required some explanation, and the calves were convenient scape-cattle. And, of course, the message suits the Deuteronomist’s motives quite neatly.

The final few verses give us some more of the chronology. We learn that pieces of Israel were being shaved off as Hazael, the Syrian king, seems to have been taking advantage of Israel’s political upheaval. It seems that, in this time, Israel lost everything east of the Jordan to Syria.

Jehu held onto Israel (or, at least, parts of it) for 28 years before he was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

2 Kings 9: Coup

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In our last chapter, we read that King Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah were fighting against King Hazael of Syria. While they were fighting at Ramoth-Gilead, Joram was injured, so he and Ahaziah retreated to Jezreel until Joram’s recovery. We can gather from this chapter that a fair portion of the army was left behind. And it’s there that we find Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army that Elijah had been told to anoint as king way back in 1 Kings 19:15-18 (his reign is intended as a punishment for Israel, which is perhaps not the most desirable quality to be hired for).

Elijah failed to carry out most of the jobs God gave him, though at least in the last chapter (where Elisha anointed Hazael), we could chalk it up to a conflation of the two prophets. Here, however, even Elisha outsources the work.

In what looks extraordinarily like a set up for a practical joke, Elisha tasks one of the sons of the Prophets with going to Ramoth-Gilead, splash some oil at Jehu, then run away. Which he does, inviting Jehu into a house and pouring oil over him. He delivers a quick speech about bringing down the house of Ahab and getting vengeance on Jezebel, then flees.

Jehu’s servants are obviously confused by their leader now dripping with oil and the weird guy who just dashed off toward the horizon. At first, Jehu refuses to explain (displaying the typical humility we’ve been associated with our prophet-anointed leaders), but at least explains that he has been anointed the new king of Israel. His followers respond by removing their clothes and putting them “under him on the bare steps” (2 Kgs 9:13), apparently as a way of declaring their support for Jehu. Finishing off the ceremony, they blow some trumpets and proclaim him their king.

It points to the fluidity of the monarchy. We saw Saul anointed by a prophet and then, separately, accepted by the people in 1 Sam. 9-11. While he was still king, the same prophet then anointed David in 1 Sam. 16:13. More recently, Hazael was anointed while another king of Syria still ruled (2 Kings 8). It seems that getting anointed by a prophet was an important step in a successful coup.

My New Bible Commentary suggests the possibility that Jehu and his commanders had already been considering a coup (prompted by the mention of the commanders being “in council” in 2 Kgs 9:5). Whether or not that’s the case, Jehu is certainly quite amenable to the suggestion – just as Hazael was in the last chapter.

To Jezreel

Having been declared Israel’s new king by its army, Jehu immediately locks Ramoth-Gilead down to prevent word of it from getting to Joram. When he rides out toward Jezreel, it’s under the cover of secrecy, giving Joram no chance to prepare a defence.

Jehu can’t hide from Jezreel’s watch, however, and they see his army’s approach. Unfortunately for Joram, the messenger he sends out to ask if Jehu comes in peace is convinced to switch sides, joining the advance on Jezreel. When the same happens with a second messenger, Joram decides that he needs to talk to Jehu for himself. If you want something done right…

When Joram leaves the protection of Jezreel, he brings Ahaziah along with him. As it just so happens, the two kings meet the rebels on Naboth’s vineyard – the stealing of which led to the cursing of Jezebel and her husband’s dynasty in 1 Kings 21. When they come face to face, Joram – ever hopeful – asks again if Jehu has come in peace. “What peace can there be, so long as the harlotries and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?” (2 Kgs 9:22) is the reply. So, basically, that’s a no.

Realizing that he’s in big trouble, Joram reels around and tries to flee, but Jehu shoots him in the back with an arrow. The death is perhaps a little more honourable than Hazael’s suffocation of Benhadad, but only by a smidge. Jehu has his aide, Bidkar, toss the body onto Naboth’s old land to fulfil the curse from 1 Kings 21:17-19.

Ahaziah remains, at least for now. When he tries to flee, Jehu pursues him and his men manage to shoot the king of Judah as well. He doesn’t die instantly as Joram had, however. Instead, he makes it all the way to Megiddo before he falls, and is then conveyed back to Jerusalem for burial. We also get a rather out-of-place verse telling us that Ahaziah began his reign in the eleventh year of Joram (2 Kings 9:29), which is not only appearing at the wrong end, but also conflicts with 2 Kings 8:25.

The Fall of Jezebel

It’s hard not to feel for Jezebel as she sees Jehu coming, presumably knowing that he’s just killed her son and is now coming after her. Instead of trying to run away as both Joram and Ahaziah had done, she dresses herself in queenly regalia and faces Jehu from her window. She knows what’s coming, yet she meets her fate head on and in the full dignity of her station.

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Or she’s a dirty dirty whore who was so vain that she took the time to put on her whore paint and shriek out of her window before getting her totally justified comeuppance. Either interpretation is perfectly valid. Really. (Does my eye-roll transcend the information superhighway?)

As Jehu approaches, Jezebel calls him a “Zimri” – a reference to another Israelite military coup leader who murdered his king. The accusation is both an apt comparison and a curse, since Zimri was himself deposed after only seven days. The story can be found in 1 Kings 16:8-20.

Rather than respond to the accusation, Jehu calls out to any of Jezebel’s servants who might be on his side, asking them to throw her down. Two or three eunuchs respond, tossing their mistress from the window, after which her body was trampled by Jehu’s horses.

Jehu took the time to eat and drink, presumably in celebration, before finally calling for Jezebel’s body to be properly buried, as befits her status as a king’s daughter (she was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon, 1 Kings 16:31). By that time, however, her corpse had been eaten by dogs, leaving nothing more than that her skull, feet, and the palm of her hands. Basically, it’s the exact opposite of a mob hit.

To close off the story, we get Jehu justifying his actions by calling it all the will of God, as prophesied by Elijah in 1 Kings 21:23 (though Jehu’s version adds a few gruesome details).

2 Kings 3: The Sheep of Moab

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We begin the chapter on a rather confusing note, as our narrator tells us that Jehoram succeeded Ahab in the 18th year of Jehoshaphat’s rule in Judah. This presents us with a problem, since it conflicts with 2 Kings 1:17, where Jehoram succeeded Ahaziah (who is here skipped over) in the second year of Jehoram, king of Judah (the son of Jehoshaphat).

This works in terms of Omri’s dynastic lineage, since Ahaziah and Jehoram were brothers, and therefore both Ahab’s sons. It’s also conceivable that a chronicler skipped over Ahaziah because of the shortness of his reign (easily forgotten, hardly worth mentioning). However, none of this can square with the matching against Judah’s chronology.

For that, the dominant explanation seems to be that there was a co-regency period during which both Jehoram of Judah and Jehoshaphat were kings (perhaps while one did the battle thing, the other stayed home and did the statecraft thing). It seems more likely, however, that we just suffer either from shoddy chroniclers and/or  from our poor author trying to piece together the records found in two (or more) separate books and feeling just as frustrated as we are when the numbers just won’t add up no matter how many times he shuffles the beads around on his abacus (I am certainly familiar with those feelz).

Yet while our author may be confused about the dates, he’s quite clear when it comes to his assessment of Jehoram. Spoilers: He was just awful. But at least he wasn’t the same sort of awful as his parents, and did put aside his Baals (hopefully before he got hairy palms). Unfortunately, he walked the way of Jeroboam, which I suppose means that he either built multiple unsanctioned shrines, or allowed worship to take place in them. In the end, he ruled, Baal-less, for twelve years.

On to Moab

What’s really interesting about this chapter is that we actually have two versions of the story – one from the Hebrew side, and the other from the Moabite side. The frustrating thing is that there don’t seem to be any accessible authoritative translations of the Moabite version, found in the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone). I’m finding claims about its contents, but I can’t confirm them against anything other than Wikipedia’s own claims, which leaves me rather vulnerable to circular evidence chains.

From what I can glean, however, both agree that Israel lost the conflict (sorry, spoilers) and both seem to credit Moab’s victory to their god, Chemosh. I know, I know! But more on that when we get to it. First, the set up.

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

It seems that Moab was a vassal state, and required to pay an annual tribute of 100,000 lambs, plus the wool of 100,000 rams. The numbers seem rather excessive, and I’m seeing some conjecture that it was only a one-time payment, or that it was meant to be spread out over a number of years, but I think it likely that this is just a nice big-sounding number used as a stand in to indicate that it was, like, totally a lot of lambs and wool.

After Ahab’s death, however, King Mesha of Moab decided that maybe he didn’t have to make those tributes any more. The testing of a new leader is certainly not uncommon. Jehoram responds by mustering his army and calling on King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. When they decide to go through Edom, it seems that its king and army joined in the fun (with the strong implication that Edom was also a vassal state, and perhaps did not have much choice in the matter).

Unfortunately for these combined armies, they were unable to find enough water to sustain them. So they decide to consult with God, calling on Elisha to serve as their telephone. Elisha initially refuses, sore over Jehoram’s dynasty’s infidelity toward God. In response, Jehoram argues that the drought that is about to win Moab the war is God’s doing, so yes, they’d like to speak with God, please. The whole exchange sounds like it would have been delivered with sneers.

Elisha does query God in the end, however, with the help of a (trance inducing) minstrel. God promises that the dry riverbeds will soon be full of pools and that Israel will defeat Moab.

Well, the first part comes true, anyway. By morning, pools had formed in the riverbeds, and the Israelite (plus allies) army was able to water itself.

God seems to have really tried to fulfill the second portion as well. When the Moabites saw the water, it appeared red – tricking them into thinking that the various encamped armies had turned on each other, and it was their blood pooling in the riverbed. My study Bible thinks that the colour comes from the “red sandstone of Edom” (pointing to the connection between Edom and the colour references in Genesis 25:30), while my New Bible Companion proposes that it was a reflection of the sunrise.

Figuring that they’d just scored a really great looting opportunity, they head out to the Israelite camp, only to find it full of very much alive Israelites. The Israelites attack, and thoroughly smash the Moabites. They start taking cities, and there’s a bit in there about throwing stones. It’s all very victorious-y.

It’s also all very short-lived.

Realizing that he’s beaten, King Mesha pulls his Hail Mary move – sacrificing his eldest son, his heir, on a city wall. Chemosh isn’t named here, but Mesha is a Moabite, so it seems fair to assume that the sacrifice was made to that God rather than the Hebrew one. The sacrifice is effective and causes a “great wrath” (2 Kings 3:27) on the Israelite army, forcing them into retreat.

This appears very much to be a conflict between gods, with God having promised the Israelites a victory and Chemosh having denied it. Of course, my New Bible Commentary calls this “a highly unlikely suggestion” (p.351), but they would, wouldn’t they? The explanation they give is that it might have been disgust at the act – which, done on the wall, would have been fully visible by the attacking Israelites – that drove the Israelites away. A few commentators connect the verse with the one before it, in which we see Mesha meeting Edom on the battlefield, to conclude that it was the king of Edom’s son who was murdered on the wall rather than Mesha’s. If seen this way, Israelites retreat would have been a morale issue.

Either way, it seems undeniable that Israel lost its attack and Moab was freed from its vassalage, and both sides’ records tell us that same story. What’s really interesting here is that Israel’s victory was promised by God yet not granted, and that this wasn’t somehow turned into some sermon on the sins of Israel.

2 Kings 1: The Fires of Heaven

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This is a strange chapter that seems to have been cobbled together from multiple sources. It begins by telling us that war broke out between Israel and Moab after Ahab’s death. Moab isn’t mentioned again in the chapter, so it seems our chapter separator with shoddy aim strikes again.

The chapter begins for real when Ahaziah falls out of a window. Bedridden, he sends messengers to ask Baalzebub, the god of Ekron, if he will recover from his injuries. It’s clear from his use of the name “Baalzebub” that the story has been the subjected to at least a little fictionalizing (“Baalzebub” meaning “Lord of the Flies” – a nickname that is clearly meant to poke at the rival god). The proper name was Baal-zebul, which, according to my study Bible, means something like “lord of the divine abode” or “Baal the prince” – far more fitting designations.

2 Kings 1We know from 1 Kings 18 that there was a tradition of Baal prophets in Israel, even if the individuals in that chapter would have needed replacing (and with Jezebel in court, it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have been). So why send all the way to Ekron? It seems that there was a particularly noted sanctuary to Baal there, and perhaps it’s a testament to the severity of Ahaziah’s injuries that he sent out for prophecy (there’s a sense in which the act of prophecy is both a foretelling and a curse/blessing that alters the future, as we saw in 1 Kings 22, when Ahab neglected to ask for Micaiah’s prophecy because Micaiah never prophesied anything good – so there may have been a sense that going to a more powerful source would be more likely to bring about a desired outcome).

Unfortunately for Ahaziah, his messengers are intercepted by our old friend Elijah, who asks them why they would be sent all the way to Ekron rather than a “God in Israel” (2 Kings 1:3)? The criticism here is two-fold: Firstly that Ahaziah would seek his prophecy outside of Israel, which I suppose would acknowledge the primacy of an external shrine. Secondly, it hints at Yahweh as the “God in Israel,” reducing Baal – despite a clear local presence – to a foreign interloper.

Also, adds Elijah, there’s no need to go so far. Ahaziah is definitely going to die.

The messengers are convinced to turn around, and report the incident to Ahaziah. Once they describe the prophet as wearing a haircloth garment (presumably fur clothes, rather than a cilice popularized later on) with a leather belt, Ahaziah recognizes Elijah.

A captain and his fifty

Ahaziah sends a captain with fifty soldiers back to deal with Elijah, whom they call “man of God” and order him to come out from his hiding spot. To this, Elijah replies that if he truly is a man of God, may fire come down from heaven. Predictably, it does, killing the soldiers.

So Ahaziah sends another captain with another fifty, and the same thing happens.

When Ahaziah sends a third group, it becomes rather clear that he’s a slow learner. Not so the soldiers, though, who try a different approach. Rather than ordering Elijah down, the captain falls on his knees and begs for their lives. Elijah responds to this new approach and comes down. He repeats his earlier prophecy that Ahaziah will die, but this time he says that Ahaziah’s injuries will kill him because he sought to consult with Baalzebub.

As predicted, Ahaziah does die, and he is succeeded by Jehoram – his brother, since he had no sons. Jehoram is not to be confused with King Jehoram of Judah, in whose second reigning year Jehoram of Israel ascended the throne.

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 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.

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.