The Return of Elijah The Return of Rain
Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He got up and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 1 Kings 19:4-8
All of us have been guilty at times of "speed reading" passages of Scripture and failing to notice all the details contained by those who wrote the narratives that are contained in the Sacred Text. This prophetic narrative of Elijah is no exception. There are many things that shape and form the skeletal structure of this narrative on which the events that took place are fleshed out. Taking notice of them is vital if we are to be shaped and formed by the reading of the Text under the guiding light of the Holy Spirit who seeks to shape us and form us even as He shaped and formed the author of the Text and the Text itself.
While this story can be told as a "stand-alone" story, it is a freeze-frame if you will, a snapshot amidst a collage of many photos that connect the dots from Israel's formation as a nation in the wilderness. There are 40 days and nights on a journey that is reminiscent of 40 years of the wilderness wanderings first by Moses in exile from Egypt and the wrath of Pharaoh, then by the entire nation of Israel post the Exodus. It is followed by their journeyings in their encampments, being fed the bread of angels, and drinking water that appeared miraculously in places where there was no water, and an historic arrival at the mountain of God, at Horeb / Sinai, where Moses brought them to receive not only the Decalogue, rather also God gave the pattern for the "work of the people" (the liturgy). This is revealed in the pattern of the Mosaic Tabernacle and how Israel was to approach the Living God.
Elijah had just accomplished a decisive victory on Mount Carmel, following the directive of the Lord to return from his own exile in Jezebel's own home town of Sidon, in Gentile territory, where for 3.5 years God has kept him hidden in the one place Ahab and Jezebel would never think to look. Upon his return he encounters Obadiah, who has managed to hide 100 prophets from the slaughterous Jezebel, hiding them in caves and sustaining them through the entire famine with, bread and water.
The precarious situation that is posed by Elijah's return is that Obadiah is being told to inform Ahab of having seen Elijah. This could result in both the death of the prophets he has hidden (who are part of a faithful remnant), and the death of Obadiah himself. He will be held suspect by Ahab and Jezebel, since careful search has been made by the king and queen to apprehend Elijah.
We often speak of Elijah as being a faithful servant "outside the court" of Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel had seen to it that most of the Lord's prophets were executed already. For whatever reason, Ahab kept one prophet, Obadiah, as a "representative" in the court of Yahweh, perhaps as a political move. While Obadiah was not a prophet of Ahab or Jezebel's "party-line", Yahweh had placed him there strategically, albeit dangerously, in order to hide 100 prophets for a hopeful future, under the very noses of the king and queen.
Obadiah's great concern is that if he reports to Ahab that Elijah is present and will appear, he himself will lose his life. He is deeply, deeply distraught. Once the showdown on Carmel is over, and the rain returns, Ahab tells Jezebel "all" that Elijah has done (1 Kings 19:1), and "all" is the operative word; Jezebel is now determined to slaughter Elijah. The question however is this: Was Obadiah correct when he said he himself would die as a result of Elijah's appearance when he is asked to inform Ahab of his return (1 Kings 18:9-14)?
Once Jezebel sends a message to Elijah that she is going to have him executed, he begins to head south towards Judah, away from the northern kingdom, to find a refuge from her wrath. Is it possible that Elijah is deeply distraught not merely for himself, rather also for the fate of Obadiah and the 100 prophets? Has his return put the lives of other faithful leaders of the remnant in jeopardy? While the text is silent on the fate of Obadiah, the questions Obadiah himself raises lend credibility to the possibility that indeed, his own innate sense of what will happen to him may indeed have been accurate. Remember, he is a prophet who stands in the courts of the king, so he has inside-information. He knows how things work in the son of Omri's dynasty, and how Jezebel doesn't hide her hatred for the prophets of Yahweh. Obadiah was there at Ahab's behest, while Jezebel simply tolerated a prophet she would have preferred to have eliminated. Politics is a dirty business. It always has been, and it always will be.
It is quite possible that Elijah isn't merely weary from all that has transpired at Carmel, rather he may deeply troubled and grieved over the possibility that a comrade-in-arms has lost his life because of him. If Obadiah has indeed been executed, Elijah has to be feeling the weight of it all. He will indeed say to the Lord, "I alone am left" (1 Kings 19:10), which leaves room for that possibility. I have come tend to doubt that "I alone am left" is a cognitive distortion (ways in which our mind convinces us of something that isn't really true) based on self-pity (while that seems to be the popular approach to preaching this story). Preachers, including myself in the past, have been all too ready to psychoanalyze Elijah, when we have no clue if we are accurate in our diagnosis. Mind you, while I have a graduate degree in psychology, I am not sure I can "make" the text support a 21st Century psychological evaluation. I tend to think there is reasonable evidence within the story itself to indicate the weight of the possibility of Obadiah's demise weighs heavily on Elijah's own heart and mind.
Jezebel is brutal in her bloodlust and has no sense of remorse about what she will do for the sake of maintaining power. She already has murdered the Lord's prophets (1 Kings 18:4), so if she has indeed found the 100 hiding in caves post the slaughter of the prophets of Baal by Elijah, then Obadiah and company are in dire straits, and Elijah has certainly been involved in what resulted in their demise. When Elijah offers his argument to the Lord on Mt. Horeb, he will reiterate that Jezebel and Ahab have "killed Your prophets" (1 Kings 19:10). This indeed could include not merely the original group, rather also now in light of the events at Carmel, Obadiah and the 100 he had hidden. If we are going to actually "wrestle" with the Text, we have to at least leave room for that possibility.
At this point, what choice does Elijah have but to seek shelter in the southern Kingdom of Judah, where Yahweh is still worshipped and glorified? The text makes it clear that he is exhausted, and you and I would be as well. The adrenaline rush that has been flowing through his veins in the showdown on Carmel with the prophets of Baal, the prayer for and the return of the rain, and his outrunning the king's chariot, has worn off, and the retaliation, backlash, and threat by Jezebel has hit his heart and mind with brutal force. He now runs for his life.
When he gets far enough into the wilderness regions of where nomadic shepherds will drive their sheep and goats, the heat is overwhelming, his energy has dissipated, and a broom tree, which offers little to no shade at all, is his only shelter from the scorching heat. He lies down totally drained of vitality, in the pain and place of total isolation, and asks for the Lord to take his life. He falls off to sleep, feeling like his life is over, feeling like there is no other reason to stay alive. He wants to die, not at the hands of Jezebel, rather maybe Yahweh will 'take him home' in his sleep. Sleep is a rejuvenating gift that we often take for granted in our hectically-paced culture. God gives sleep to those he loves (Psalm 127:2). Those who for various reasons battle insomnia, and long for sleep when it doesn't come, realize how much of a gift it truly is when it returns to us. Sleep helps restore our perspective and renews our souls. At some point an angel awakens him and commands him to both arise and to eat. God's answer to Elijah's wish to die is that he needs to eat something because he needs fuel in his body to arise, because he has to go on a journey to the same mountain where Moses saw the glory of the Lord revealed to him.
Bread baked on hot stones (literally "stones" which were used in that day for paving - implying he has a "walk" or a "run" that he has yet to make) and a jar of water, strategically placed "at his head" (the place of his decision-making) reveal that the God who through angels provided manna in the wilderness and water out of the "rock", is renewing Elijah's mind and body for the same journey. Elijah needs a double-portion, so the angel will awaken him a second time and tell him he hasn't eaten enough of the sacramental meal yet, and his journey is a long one, that requires he go in the strength of the food he is being given. This is indeed "the bread of angels" (Psalm 78:25). This is a miracle meal, not unlike the Table of the Lord whereby Christ is made manifest to the saints. Elijah will walk in the strength of that food for the "40-day" symbolic transitional season, to Horeb, where God will recommission him for a future he has lost sight of. He might just be as Dick Mills once shared a generation ago, that Elijah was being brought to Horeb to be "brought back to basics".
When it comes to the move of God in history, and the work of the Spirit in our lives, we tend to be addicted to the "next big thrill", which is so contrary to Scripture and what is means to live in and by the Spirit. If we could simply get "back to basics" we just might discover the empowering presence of the Spirit makes us resilient enough to bounce back from even the most difficult challenges and the adversities that we face. Signs and wonders aren't about a thrill show to get us worked up. They are grace-gifts to keep us moving forward into the powerful pull of the future where Jesus is calling us to.