Monday, January 21, 2008

A Dry and Weary Land (I Kings 15-19)

While Asa, the great-grandson of Solomon, leads Judah into a long reign of relative peace and prosperity, Israel spirals into a frightful series of coups, purges, and civil wars. Jeroboam’s entire family is annihilated by Baasha, whose family is then slaughtered by his general Zimri, who is himself burned alive with his family in a siege by the commander Omri. This sets the stage for the reign of the infamous king Ahab:
Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. …Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.
Including, it seems, approving of his queen’s wholesale slaughter of the prophets of God. It is in these dark times that the prophet Elijah announces a drought throughout the land.

Elijah then escapes across the Jordan and finds refuge with a starving widow and her son. Though they have almost nothing, the Lord miraculously extends their food supply to sustain them. Later on the widow’s son slips into a coma. After the prophet prays over him three times, the boy recovers his life.

It’s a preview of things to come. Israel is starving under three years of drought and near death when Elijah suddenly returns to challenge Ahab. The king brings his 450 prophets of Baal to Mount Carmel, where they engage in a contest of strength between their gods.

The rules are simple and scientific: kill two bulls on two different altars, and have both sides pray to their god. The altar that is lit with fire from heaven is that of the true god. Elijah lets the prophets of Baal go first. Though they pray, scream, chant, and mutilate themselves for hours, nothing happens. Then it’s Elijah’s turn.
Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust… And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”
After Elijah and the indignant mob kill all 450 of the prophets of Baal, rain finally thunders down from heaven. But Jezebel soon hears of it, and Elijah must once again run for his life. Feeling depressed and defeated, Elijah asks the Lord to take away his life. What follows is a classic and memorable conversation between God and one his prophets:
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 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.”
Look not to the great wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but to the sound of a low whisper. Look to the still body of a widow’s dying son. Look to the landscape that is dry and lifeless. Look to the nation that has proved itself violently idolatrous. It is here that the Lord of Israel will come – pouring life on the unconscious child, water on the thirsty land, and his spirit on the people’s rebellious hearts.

I definitely like the pictures in your posts. Where did you find them?

As for the content, we probably won't agree ... but feel free to visit my blog as well!

Hi Daldianus,

The pictures on my blog are illustrations by the eighteenth century French engraver Gustave Dore. He is by far my favorite Biblical illustrator, at least for the Old Testament. You can order a collection of them on the link on my sidebar.

Thank you very much for that information!

And don't forget - pouring sustenance into an empty pantry, too! He not only saves; he satisfies.

I hadn't really noticed before that this short section of I Kings contains this repeated theme of absolute emptiness and desperation as a prelude to God's "pouring out." Thanks for pulling these episodes together this way.

I like Dore's illustrations of the OT too, but all the halos in the New Testament bug me.


why do the halos bother you? because they're of pagan origin?

I can't speak for writer2b, but I don't like Dore's style for the New Testament because it tends to lack the gritty dirt-under-the-fingernails realism of his Old Testament illustrations. Jesus is drawn in the late Europeon effeminate style to emphasize a kind of wispy ethereal spiritualism. Rather than being the culmination of Israel's story, it feels like a different story altogether - which is unfortunately consistent with a lot of Christianity that has forgotten its Jewish roots.

But, while we should treasure Israel's story as the core of our heritage, we don't reject something just because it comes from paganism either. I doubt anyone here objects to halos for that reason - any more than we'd want to stop using the word "gospel" because of its original pagan Imperial context.

Yes, my disappointment with the halos has nothing to do with their origin. It's just that they're both heavy-handed ("This one's a good character--see the halo?") and... bloodless. WFO already said it well. It's puzzling and disappointing to me after the confrontational prints of the Old Testament stories, which refuse to shy away from the violence or sordidness, and don't allow us to either.

I have 2 young children, and their Bibles are filled with cartoonish illustrations. We have one Bible with a few pictures that confront more troubling scenes; rather than the ark in sunshine with a rainbow, it shows desperate people looking pleadingly at the ark as the water rises and animals drown. There's even an attempt at Jesus casting Satan down in the New Testament. (On the downside, Jesus is blond-haired...)

It interests me that these, not the cartoon pictures, are what my kids want to look at. They dog-ear these pages. These are the pictures that confirm what they're hearing, unlike the cartoons that numb the more visceral, and in my opinion more trustworthy, emotion that these Bible stories inspire (even in children's form).

I do have the book in the sidebar here, but I keep it out of reach of little hands. They're too young for unfettered access.

Hi, just wanted to stop by and say that I am getting a lot out of your input to the discussion on the christian/atheist podcast. (I'm about halfway through listening to it right now.) Good going, Wonders. Keep up the good work. I am a skeptical Christian (?) tried to read the whole OT through last year and made it to Proverbs before I gave up. I may try again and read your commentary as I do it--would add a lot to the experience for me.

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