Friday, December 28, 2007

Salvation is of the Jews (I Kings 13)

In my last post on I Kings 11-14, I skipped one of the stranger and more troubling stories I have come across in the Bible so far. For days it baffled me, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had the mark of something important. I couldn’t leave the story behind.

It begins with a “man of God” leaving his home in Judah to confront king Jeroboam in Bethel for his idolatry. He offers a dismal prophecy of a king of David’s line burning the dead bodies of the priests there on their own alter. After pacifying the initially furious Jeroboam with a demonstration of God’s power, the king begs the man to dine with him. The man of God refuses, saying:
If you give me half your house, I will not go in with you. And I will not eat bread or drink water in this place, for so was it commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water nor return by the way that you came.’
So the man of God departs. However, on his way, he is intercepted by a local prophet who also asks him to stay for dinner. The man of God refuses, but the deceitful prophet insists that the Lord himself commanded him to issue the invitation. So the man of God stays the night.

As they sit together, the same prophet who lied to him is suddenly overcome by the Spirit of the Lord, and pronounces a message of judgment against the man of God for disobeying his explicit orders. After he leaves, the man of God is killed by a lion on the road who leaves his body uneaten.
And the prophet took up the body of the man of God and laid it on the donkey and brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him. And he laid the body in his own grave. And they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” And after he had buried him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the saying that he called out by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria shall surely come to pass.”
The story concludes with a statement that Jeroboam would continue with his idolatry, leading to the total annihilation of his house.

I honestly had the hardest time making heads or tails of this incident. On the face of it, it seems horribly harsh for the Lord to kill the man of God from Judah for what appears to be an honest mistake. And the behavior of the prophet in Bethel just doesn’t make sense. Most commentaries I turned to weren’t terribly helpful. I was assured that obeying God is good, that lying to people about God is bad, that falling for lies about God is bad, and that repenting of lying to people about God is good.

Yet the whole thing has the subtle feel of national allegory: prophets acting out the fate of the people before the Lord. Finally, I stumbled across a treatment by Karl Barth that helped get me on the right track. Barth saw the two men as representing the two kingdoms – Judah and Israel – with their interactions foreshadowing the rest of the story of the book of Kings (and ultimately the story of Jesus).

In this light, we see Judah as the faithful bearer of the word of the Lord. The hammer of God’s judgment is to fall most heavy and decisively against Israel for the sin of Jeroboam. It is the role of Judah to stand as a witness against the house of Israel and demand harsh unconditional repentance. Israel, on the other hand, will continually tempt Judah toward the more friendly and congenial way of compromise.

In the end, Israel will drag Judah down into his sin, for which Judah will face the judgment of God. Judah will lie desolate and be cut off from his ancestral homeland. But compare the unmolested body of the man of God with the burned bones of the idolatrous prophets (or the promise that Jeroboam’s offspring will be eaten by dogs and birds). Burial symbolizes hope – hope that though a man die in exile, his bones may once again be taken back to the land of promise.

If Israel is to be saved, despite his multitude of sins, it will be by clinging to this lifeless but somehow preserved corpse of Judah. It is in being buried with the son of David, who brought Israel’s sin upon himself after pronouncing God’s judgment, that Israel will ultimately find redemption. Salvation is of the Jews, and from the king of the Jews it will come.

Hi there,

Thanks for wrestling with this strange story. I always have mixed feelings about heavily symbolic readings like Barth's. On the one hand, his interpretation offers a very sensible way of understanding a baffling and troubling passage. On the other, I find myself wondering whether all the symbolic import would have registered with the immediate audience for the event/story...? This isn't an instance of God using the familiar symbolism of a Jewish religious ritual to get His point across, but an obscure, almost private occurrence.

I suppose it's not out of the question. But there's always that tension between the Bible as a literary "artifact," to be studied long after the events occurred, and the Bible as a record of God's actual dealings with His people in space and time--dealings in which He always has a purpose then and there, and not just for future generations of readers. Barth's reading is satisfying in the former sense. But I feel skeptical about the latter.

Hi Writer2b,

Let me push back on this a bit, because I don't see how it couldn't be both, in this case. The lives and actions of prophets, after all, were generally not private. Every action has a symbolic meaning for the people as a whole. Their lives live out the divine drama for all the people to see. My hunch is that the original audience would actually have been far more in tune with such readings than we ourselves - who are always looking for transcendent moral principles or personal examples.

Hmm. What you're saying makes a lot of sense. "In the former days God spoke through the prophets; in the latter days, through His word." God didn't depend on these people literately pulling out the family scroll for their morning devotions; He used other means to communicate. And any event that makes it into the Bible can't properly be called "private."

This reminds me a little of the bizarre dramas God gives Ezekiel to act out in front of the people. But when I read them, I think, "Hmm. Odd." When I read this story, I think, "Horrible!" Maybe it's because the prophet seems to have been divinely set up. But if the story were told from his perspective, rather than that of an outside observer, maybe it would come across differently.

Thanks for tangling with this difficult story. I'm inclined to agree with you WFO and say that this story can be both symbolic and historical without problems.

Looking at this story, along with the other odd/repulsive things that folks like Isiah, Ezekiel and even Hosea had to do in order to deliver God's message, I confess that I am not so fully regnerate that I would desire the gift of prophecy.

Hi again,

I'm sorry if I'm being a pest. (Being a pest is my spiritual gift.) It's just that I find myself still struggling with this story.

You've convinced me that some of the symbolic aspects of the story could have registered with the immediate audience. (Though the long-term aspects, like the foreshadowing of redemption, seem meant more for us than for them.)

But how does Barth's reading resolve what really troubles us about the story? Don't we still have the man of God from Judah violently killed for an honest mistake? And a calculating prophet who lies--falsely invoking God's very name in the process--and yet keeps his life?

It's intellectually interesting to see God make a symbolic point out of it. And its great if he communicated the importance of unconditional obedience instead of compromise for Judah. But what does his treatment of the individuals involved say about his--personality (for lack of a better word)? Or justice? I'm still not sure what to do with that.

The story is in the Bible as is. So presumably there's something here that I'm not seeing.

Hi Writer2b,

Discussion and dialog on my blog, of all places? I can't conceive of anything more pesky. ;-)

I've certainly been no stranger to those questions here as I blog through the Bible, because they are my own. At this point I cannot offer concrete answers (or solutions) to them, but I do think I have discovered a few good guidelines for how to wrestle with and come to terms with such passages.

1. Approach them with the honesty and loyalty of Job. We absolutely must not grab onto quick-fix interpretations in order to absolve God of injustice. Many of the other commentaries I looked blissfully treated this troubling story as if it were a clear moral lesson. This just leads to intellectual dishonesty. But neither should we conclude, as many dogmatic fundamentalist-turned-atheists do, that such passages therefore warrant our condemnation of God and his scripture. Perhaps, if the Bible contained only these passages, we would be justified in doing so, but his continuing faithfulness to Israel and the world (culminating in the triumph of Christ) renders such reactionary hubris absurd. Uncomfortable as it may be, we must grasp hold of these passages until they bless us. Though they slay us, still must we hope in them; yet we must argue our words to their face.

2. Understand that the scripture is contextual, but that we ourselves are no less so. Much of the Old Testament is written against a backdrop that is simply anathema to modern western culture (like collective guilt), and this is not necessarily to its credit or its fault. He reveals himself to us as we are, and thus all revelation is contextual.

3. Always look for Christ (even where you least expect him). The scripture is first and foremost a story, not a collection of isolated events. This is not mere wishful revisionism - the ancients understood themselves in this way, and this is how the new Testament writers read their scriptures. When we insist on deducing timeless ethical principles out of every story, we are bound to be disappointed. But when we see the story as a movement (both of revelation and redemption) toward Christ, all these things will be added to us as well.

So how does this help with the story of the entrapment of the unnamed man of God from Judah? Well, first be brave enough to ask the question and see the implications (#1). Then try (as best we can) to read it through ancient eyes (#2). What did the prophet in Bethel see? That God had disciplined his man by taking away from him the honor of being buried with his fathers, and yet that by doing this God had vindicated him as a true prophet. By keeping his body uncorrupted, the prophet knew that, though dead, the man of God will have the honor of lying at rest, while the priests of Jeroboam will be utterly consumed in the piers of the abominable alter. Thus he asks that he share the fate of the man of God, rather than that of idolatrous Israel.

What about individual justice to the man of God? Is this not a travesty of justice for him to, through little fault of his own, embody the sin of Judah? But here we must look to the greatest of all prophets (#3), who took the sins of the people upon himself in a fate far crueler and more cursed than that of the man of God from Judah, and which offered far more sinful men than the prophet of Bethel the chance to repent and believe in him. The calling of a prophet is not to get what's coming to us, but to be agents of God's activity in the world. It is in dying that the man of God gained repentance for the deceitful prophet, and it is in having him buried with him that he most clearly resembles our Lord. As amtog pointed out, it may not seem desirable to us, but then we ourselves are not exempt from the call to come and die. And at the resurrection of the dead, we and he will together proclaim "just and true are your ways oh Lord!"

Hi wfo,

You've given me a lot to think about.

Thanks for spelling out the part about the prophet from Judah not being "buried with his fathers," and the other prophet's reaction, a bit more fully. My modern western mind hadn't gotten totally around that.

Thanks also for the link to your comments about Job. Much food for thought there.

It had occurred to me that the prophet from Judah's death was redemptive like that of Jesus, but I kept brushing that off because unlike Jesus, this prophet didn't know he was going to be a sacrifical lamb of sorts. (I don't mean this at all to diminish what Jesus did. The fact that he went into it willingly, with his eyes open, does just the opposite.)

But when all is said and done, the man of God from Judah is a pretty flat character. We don't know much about him. We don't have the story of his calling, or his acceptance of his calling, as we do with Samuel or Isaiah or Ezekiel or Jeremiah... The story of Jesus growing from an infant into consciousness of his identity and mission isn't given to us, but we have his baptism.

Anyway, my point is that this story doesn't give us the luxury of seeing inside the man from Judah's head. Why have I assumed he didn't have any understanding at all of God's role for him--beyond being a mere mouthpiece--here? We can be sure he had willingly and wholeheartedly accepted his calling at some point or he wouldn't have been in these circumstances. We don't know what levels of understanding may have been glimmering within him, but we see that even the deceitful prophet read the events pretty quickly and surely. Maybe the man from Judah had a clearer sense of it all than I've given him credit for. This helps me to see more fair play on God's part. Sacrificing someone without their knowledge or consent looks more like murder, and I was really balking at that.

I'd have to say that I share amtog's opinion that being a prophet doesn't look all that appealing. Jeremiah didn't like the job much either, and even Jesus has his moments ("Oh you foolish generation, how much longer must I be with you?")But I find your distinction here extremely helpful, wfo: "The calling of a prophet is not to get what's coming to us, but to be agents of God's activity in the world."

A quick thought, writer2b:

I was struck by your comment about the man of God making an "honest mistake." I'm not so sure about that: he knew that God had spoken to him, but then he believed a contradictory statement. God told him not to eat or drink, but then the lying prophet told him that God wanted him to eat and drink. I wonder if his suspicions ought to have been higher, particular if our God is one where there is "no shadow of turning."

Actually, I was quoting wfo's original post there. So, take it up with the Oyarsa. :-)

Okay, here's my real answer: the God in whom there is "no shadow of turning" (a phrase from the hymnbook, but is it in scripture?) actually changes His mind quite a bit. Not His nature, but His mind. Moses convinces Him to change His plans more than once where the Israelites are concerned. Jesus changes water into wine after saying His time has not yet come when His mother won't take no for an answer. And there's the parable about the landlord who comes to the door when his initial answer was "go away" only because the person knocking persists.

These are all examples of God being influenced by prayer, not being merely capricious. (Sometimes in the OT He looks capricious, but that's a bigger issue than I'm capable of biting off here.) So technically this story doesn't fit into the same context. There's no evidence that the deceitful prophet claimed to have petitioned God.

However, the man of God from Judah had every reason to believe that a truth speaker would be telling him the truth. The deceitful prophet belongs in that category of people Jesus said would be better off at the bottom of the sea with a millstone around their neck, than facing the Living God.

Not trying to be unduly feisty here. Just trying to understand what the Bible actually says. God invites us into relationship with Him as He is, not as man-made creeds say He is.

This story has always baffled me as well. I had read the Barth commentary, but somehow never seemed to understand the force of ongoing prophesy. That is something to think about, and thank you for that.

There is another prophetic aspect of the story that you haven't addressed. The story has a specific allusion to the future actions of the reforming king Josiah, and the only other place in the Bible where this story is repeated is 2Kings 23:18, where Josiah destroys the sanctuary at Bethel as a prelude to the rededication of the Temple. This can be viewed in a number of different ways.

In many ways, Josiah prefigures Jesus, only his sacrifice at Megiddo was not sufficient to atone for the sins of Judah. The whole saga raises a lot of questions.

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