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SIDIC Periodical XVII - 1984/2
The Prophet Elijah (Pages 13 - 18)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Elijah - A Victorious, Persecuted, Discouraged Prophet - First of a Long Line (1 Jubgs 17-19)
Michel De Goedt


In what may appropriately be called the Cycle of Elijah, chapters 17-19 of the first book of Kings form a unit whose final edition gives a glimpse of their underlying sources or tradition. This brief study will concentrate on the apparent unity of the text. The exegete, who never ceases lingering over the distinctions between the original strata in the text, the stitching together and touching up of editors, resembles a geologist who might become incapable of seeing anything in a landscape other than land faults, specific formations, traces of earthquakes... A text resembles a landscape, with more than one hidden layer to speculate about; what may actually be seen is not always visible at first sight. If the literary layers do not easily "betray" their strata on the surface, the surfaces themselves are organized according to a logic which it is not always easy to discover.

The chapters under discussion are divided into two main units. The first of these, chapters 17 and 18, appear as the story of a curse and its consequences. The presuppositions upon which this story is based are given at the end of chapter 16. Under the influence of Jezebel, Ahab began to serve Baal and to bow down before him; he had an altar to Baal erected in a temple built in his honor in Samaria (verses 31-32). The drought is the curse which falls upon a land profaned by false gods. After an introductory verse which sets the scene for chapters 17-18, Elijah in the name of the Lord announces a drought whose end, as it were, depends on his prophetic word. Chapter 17 contains an account of the tests, in the semiotic sense, after which Elijah is shown to be qualified to undergo the great and decisive tests: at the word of the Lord he hides himself by the Brook Cherith; also at the word of the Lord, he goes straight to Sarephta and by a miracle ensures the survival of a widow; he finally raises the son of this widow to life. Verse 24, which is the climax of these qualifying tests, is a kind of acknowledgment of the hero's virtue: "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth."

Mount Carmel: The Lord, He is God!

In the same way as chapter 17, chapter 18 opens with a word of the Lord containing the pith of the narrative. Elijah must go and meet Ahab; only after this will the Lord send rain upon the earth. Verses 2-15 show us Ahab looking for fodder for his horses and mules. The king divides the country into two zones for the search; he keeps one for himself and gives the other to his major-domo, Obadiah. Verses 7-15 report the meeting which took place between Elijah and Obadiah, a meeting which prepares the reader for the one between the prophet and the king. This latter interview appears in verses 16-19. It is used to make known the will of the prophet: "Send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Cannel, and the prophets of Baal" (v. 19). Ahab carries out Elijah's behest; after this, verses 21-40 omit all mention of the king, The narrative recounts the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in the presence of the people. In reality, however, the confrontation takes place between the God of Israel and Baal, who are invoked respectively by Elijah and the false prophets. Elijah proposes: "The god who answers by fire, he is God." The people agree. When the Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel effectively gives answer with fire, the people cry out: "The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!" (v. 39).

The acclamation of the people forms the preamble to Elijah's prayer for rain. The land has been profaned by the cult of Baal; now that "all Israel" (vv. 19-20) recognizes that the Lord alone is God, the land given by God to his people can once again receive blessings from heaven. The people know that the Lord is God in Israel, that Elijah is his servant and does "all these things" at his word (v. 36). The decisive test of God's judgment on Mount Carmel has therefore two sides to it; it is both a decisive and a qualifying test which effectively allows the hero to face up to the true and ultimately decisive test. The obstacle to the blessing of rain was removed by the conversion of all Israel to their God; the servant of God, Elijah, having been recognized as such, is able by that very fact to intercede for this blessing. It can be affirmed that, even if the brevity of the text seems disproportionate to its importance, 18:41-45 is the passage which draws together the whole literary ensemble of chapters 17-18 and it is the text which in some way resolves the tension created by the first verse: "As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word" (17:1). The unified narrative which makes up chapters 17-18 can be presented in this way: at the end of the qualifying tests the prophet is recognized as a man of God, in whose mouth the word of the Lord is truth (cf. 17:24). A first decisive test, already prepared in advance in 18:26-19, results in the conversion of the people (18:2040), which in its turn makes possible the really decisive test which obtains the benefit which is lacking: rain (18:4-45).

Literary Unity: A Detailed Study

It is this last pericope of Elijah's prayer for rain which needs to be studied in more detail. The delimitation of literary unity is not a problem for the first part: after the massacre of the prophets of Baal, Elijah addresses Ahab, who has been absent during the whole account of the judgment of God; the people, one of the protagonists in the scene featuring Elijah and the false prophets, now disappear from the story. After the interlude of the massacre of the prophets of Baal on the banks of the Kishon, the action returns to Mount Carmel, where there are again three protagonists, this time Ahab, Elijah and his servant; of these only Elijah has featured in the preceding account.

The division of the Bible into chapters (a division which has neither literary nor canonical significance) puts verse 46 in this little pericope and modern translations freely use it as a literary demarcation. However, synagogal usage begins a bat (arab at verse 46. For the superficial coherence of the narrative, this verse can be omitted altogether without any apparent inconvenience. In fact, such an omission even makes the story more credible, at least at first sight. Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah to threaten him with reprisals because of the fate of the prophets whose blood has reddened the Kishon; Elijah flees and leaves his servant at Beer-sheba; but it is not said that the latter had been with Elijah when he acted as herald for the king's joyful entry into Jezreel. These remarks, which depend a little too much on a desire for coherence between events, must give way to other observations. Chapter 18 is tinged with irony. To Elijah's complaint in response to the question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God replies: "Go, return on your way..." The irony surfaces at the beginning of the story: the hand of God must be there (v. 46), Elijah must go to the city where Jezebel exercises her ascendancy over Ahab. He must be present there in such a way that his flight, instead of seeming the result of purely human weakness, is integrated into a whole where he can be redeemed from a terrible misunderstanding; a whole, moreover, which highlights the divergence between the prophet's misunderstanding and the plan of God.

Seven Narrative Sections

Thus we have a tiny literary unit of five verses. The division into verses is no more canonical or literary than the division into chapters and therefore our little story has to be divided yet again into narrative sections which are only divisible at a different level. A unit is taken to be a section which recounts the fulfilment of only one component in the narrative, the change of the component part being signaled by the appearance of a new action which does not simply depend on one already posited, nor on the deployment in stages, however brief, of the same line of action. Ch. 18:41-45 seems susceptible to this kind of division:

i "And Elijah said to Ahab: Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing of rain. So Ahab went up to eat and drink."

ii "And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees."

iii "And he said to his servant: Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up and looked, and said: There is nothing."

iv "And he said: Go again seven times. And at the seventh time he said: Behold, a little cloud like a man's hand is rising out of the sea."

v "And he said: Go up, say to Ahab: Prepare your chariot and go down lest the rain stop you."

VI "And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain."

vii "And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel."

Perhaps vi and vii appear to be only a development of v. But this conclusion is contrary to the fact that it is not presented as the carrying out of a wish, nor as the description of a phenomenon perfectly foreseen and foretold. As for vii, it is simply the execution of Elijah's word transmitted by the servant to the king. The servant does not feature in it; neither is mention made of the word of Elijah; the phrase: "and (he) went to Jezreel", has no place in the message given to the servant by Elijah to transmit to Ahab. We may count, therefore, seven narrative sections.

Elijah's Intercession

What is at stake in the story is clear: Ahab, representing both the people and the land of Israel, has need of the blessing of rain. The story takes shape like this: the prophet, who knows that the recognition of the Lord as the only God of Israel has fulfilled the conditions for the reception of the blessing, perceives prophetically that rain will come. But there must be two preceding actions: Ahab must eat and drink, not because he has been fasting (the hypothesis offered by exegetes who try to plug the gaps in the history of events), but because, in a kind of act of faith in the word of the prophet, he must anticipate the benefits that will follow the blessing of rain. The second required action is intercession on the part of the prophet. But the existence of this intercession cannot be affirmed until the pericope has been subject to a searching intertextual criticism, because the language of intercession and even the intercessory prayer is lacking. This silent intercession, inserted between two prophetic words about rain, makes sense when taken with the two announcements in 17:1: "There shall be neither dew not rain these years, except by my word", and in 18:1: "I will send rain upon the earth". The contrast between the apparently quasi-demiurgic word of 17:1 and the sovereign act of God evoked in 18:1 without any mention of the word of the prophet, is a contrast which is found again in 18:41-45 between the double assurance of the prophet and his humble and prolonged prostration.

This literary framework requires an attention to section iv, the central one in the narrative. The appearance of the cloud (iv) and the order given by Elijah to the servant in v are linked as signs and the certainty they create as signs. Because it is question of an urgent supplication, the sign must be bound up with the granting of the prayer. The important thing, therefore, is not the cloud but the man's hand to which it is compared. A man's hand with empty palm turned heavenwards evokes more accurately the idea of prayer. The psalmist likens prayer, signified by the lifting up of hands, to the evening sacrifice (Ps. 141:2). But the editor of 1 Kings 18 is intent on showing that Elijah's prayer before the people was addressed to God at the hour of this oblation (vv. 29, 36) by using the expression: "When the oblation is offered" (offered on the altar, or perhaps a metonymic allusion to the "offering" of the incense which accompanied the oblation). The upraised hand symbolizes answered prayer, pleasing to God, just as the oblation offered up on the altar, or the incense offered in the sanctuary, is pleasing to him.

Seven: Sign of Perfect Prayer

The reason why the servant must return seven times to watch the sea is now clearer. Seven times, the number of perfection, means that supplication needs time to become the perfect prayer of humility and dependence on God. Only God "gives" the rain (18:1); the word of the prophet (17:1) is ratified by God with the sign given by God himself, the cloud symbolizing Hs word: "I have heard your prayer". It is therefore interesting to notice that this pericope, which divides into seven sections, uses the verb "to rise" and "to say' seven times: Ahab, Elijah and his servant and the cloud all "rise". Elijah "says" four times, the servant "says" twice, and he is ordered once by Elijah to "say to" Ahab. Section iv is central, as it were pivotal, with the other sections organized around it.

Ahab appears in i and vii as beneficiary, in the name of his people, of the blessing of rain (in v he appears only as the potential recipient of something yet to be made known).

In ii and vi Elijah, bowed down upon the 'earth" (v. 42) which was rendered sterile by the curse of idolatry, "corresponds" as absence to presence, as desire to accomplishment, to the rain that his prayer will obtain from "the heavens" (v. 45).

Sections iii, iv and v form a unit distinguished by a dialogue between Elijah and his servant (three answers in the mouth of the prophet, two in that of the servant). Section iv is central, decisive, marking a turning point which leads to the second prophetic word about rain. After using °to rise" six times in sections i-iv, the seventh time in v is simply to make it possible to say to Ahab: "...go down...". The king can "go down" after iv, but he must learn of this possibility from the mouth of the servant.

The spatial logic of this pericope symbolizes the ultimate achievement of the sought-after or desired benefit: rain. The profanation of the land by idolatry has brought drought in its train. Ahab and Obadiah "passed through" the land in vain (18:6), dividing it between them to search for springs of water. There is nothing left except to "go up"; there is nothing left except prayer which can "go up" to heaven. When the prayer is answered Ahab can "go down" (cf. v. 44) and "he went" (cf. v. 45) to Jezreel. The Lord "gives" (the primary meaning of the verb used in 18:1) the rain. The rain comes down from heaven, making it possible again to "pass through" the land, for which it is a blessing. The people can once more use the land as a gift of God

From the point of view of narrative logic, chapters 17-18 are thus connected: a land given to a people is, as it were, under interdict because of the curse brought by idolatry; salvation lies in supplication addressed to the one who can once more send the rain. 1 Kings 17:2 - 18:40 is simply a long preparation for this supplication: the appointment of the "hero" who here is as much mediation of the peoples conversion as he is their intercessor (17:2-24); the conversion of the people precedes the blessing (18:1-40); supplication for the blessing of rain (18:41-45).

Elijah at Horeb

After returning to use of a land once more blessed by God, chapter 19 does not seem very credible either from a historical or a psychological point of view. Appearances are deceptive] Briefly, the essential thrust of chapter 19 is either to give some sort of legitimacy to prophetism in Israel or to integrate it into the covenant economy. Any historical elements that may be there are at the service of this thrust, not of a possible chronology or psychology. The subject to be considered is generally called the theophany of Mount Horeb.

A common exegetical opinion would see in verses 96-10 a doublet of 13-14. The soundness of this opinion will not he discussed here. All "geology" set aside (not in any negative sense), interest lies in the function of the doublet in the literary unit where it is found. "Doublet" is to be taken here in the strict sense, because verses 10 and 14 are identical. Elijah's complaint in response to a question similar to one posed by a judge to a plaintiff, is itself twice followed by a reply; first time, Elijah is invited to leave the cave where he has spent the night, to stand before the Lord; the invitation is followed by the Lord's passing by. The second time, a kind of intruction is given to the prophet. The similarity of the way in which the four elements are brought together is striking: the two occasions when Elijah complained, the passing of the Lord and the instruction given to Elijah. Each element comprises an introduction, a body of material in three parts and a conclusion which is linked to what precedes it, either to mark an exception, perhaps temporary, or to give contradictory material, or again to signify something new in a tradition. Elijah is the sole survivor among the prophets, but for how long! Elijah is not alone, God has kept seven thousand men for himself; the sound of a gentle breeze (still, small voice) is something new in the theophanic tradition of Exodus. We have two pairs: a and b (Elijah's complaint, the passage of the Lord vv. 10-12) and a and c (Elijah's complaint, God's reply, vv. 14-18). Since a is common to the two passages, and the same structure is common to a, b and c, it can be asked whether, through the mediation of a, b should be interpreted in the light of c? It might be helpful to set alongside one another a and b, a and c.

a (verse 10)


"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.
i For (they) have forsaken thy Covenant (other reading: have abandoned thee),
ii thrown down thy altars,
iii and slain thy prophets with the sword;

and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

a (verse 14)

"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.

i For (they) have forsaken thy Covenant (other reading: abandoned thee),

ii thrown down thy altars,

iii and slain thy prophets with the sword.

and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away."

b (verses 11h-12)
"and behold, the Lord passed by.

i And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;

ii and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;

iii and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;

and after the fire a still, small voice (gentle breeze)."

c (verses 15-18)

"Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.

i You shall anoint IIazael to be king over Syria;
ii And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to he kind over Israel;
iii and Elisha the son of Shaphet of Abel-meholah
you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."

A Still, Small Voice

In general, it is thought that the gentle breeze (still, small voice) symbolizes the theophany of a spiritual God. But is there really question of a theophany? Is it not rather the refusal of a theophany, brought about by the need to correct Elijah's misunderstanding? The prophet is not alone; there is a remnant which will listen to the words of the prophets which will come after him; Elisha being the first. It is not said that God is in the gentle breeze. Instead of the expected manifestation... according to the reading, a voice questions Elijah. In response to the prophet's complaint God says again: "There is nothing for you to do here, be on your way again." If there is a remnant, it means that God has not abandoned the people who have abandoned him, that God does not have to repeat the setting-up of a covenant that the infidelity of persons has no power to annul. Elijah has nothing to do at Horeb except to learn that in very truth he has nothing to do there: the covenant that God has establishedbetween his people and himself is always in force; the events which constituted the Hebrews as the people of God are not to be repeated; it is in the very history of the people that God makes himself heard through the mouth of the prophets. A passage from Deuteronomy which contains a similar tradition puts these words in the mouth of Moses:

"The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren — him you shall heed — just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, 'Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die.' And the Lord said to me, "They have rightly said all that they have spoken' I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak to them all that I command him." Dent. 18:1518

Apparently 1 Kings 19 has the same basic approach as the above passage from Deuteronomy in terms of a story-line and symbols. God has made a covenant once and for all; a covenant which has not been revoked does not have to be repeated. If there is still a rheophany in 1 Kings 19, it is that of a God who no longer has to shake his creation to mark the eruption of the Creator into the history of humanity, hut who now speaks through the voice of the prophets, in the ordinary course of history, whatever it is; this ordinary course, violent or otherwise, is symbolized in its ordinary, non-miraculous quality by the gentle breeze which blows after the tempest. The history of the chosen people, after the shattering event of Sinai, is mingled with the history of individuals and of empires, without anything to distinguish it in the eyes of those who only see the "flesh". The image of the breeze rather inconveniently evokes gentleness, which is very strange in this context. The only essential is to hold on to the contrast between a beginning marked by a break and a continuity which, throughout the upheavals of history, is in the hands of a faithful God.

Prophecy: An Ever-Present Sign

1 Kings 19 ties prophetism to this prophet who, rising up in a time of radical crisis, was the voice of God for the people. Ahab's reign E a crisis which, in the light of the blazing passage of Elijah, makes it possible to experience, at a depth never before achieved, that the fidelity of God is stronger than the infidelity of the people. The sign that God never abandons his people lies in the fact that he never ceases to speak to them by the prophets who followed Elijah. There is no longer any need for mountains to be rent and rocks broken in pieces, or for fire to erupt from the bowels of the earth. There is still a voice which makes itself heard in the gentle breeze of the course of history, a voice which is only perceptible to those who listen, to those whose hearts, attentive to God, recognize the words he puts in the mouths of his prophets. God will not fail to open the ear of his servants each morning.

* Fr. de Goedt O.C.D. is a frequent contributor to the SIDIC Review. He is a biblical scholar and theologian who spent many years in Israel. At present he is the Provincial of his Order in France, the Discalced Carmelites.


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