From Rape to Murder: 1 Kings 18:17-40
1 Kings 18:17-40
We went to a memorial service recently, of a beloved widow who lived a full life, but died rather suddenly. Each of her four children spoke. They all told different stories. Although there were commonalities, each adult son or daughter had his or her own perspective on what was an important memory. It took all four to round out the picture of who this person was.
And so we get to this difficult passage from the First Book of Kings. According to the book itself (First Second Kings were obviously one book broken into two scrolls), the authors had various sources, like a preacher giving a eulogy, who interviews surviving family members, but may also look at the internet or at church or community news articles and archives. Sources for the Books of Kings were the Books of the Annals of the Kings of Israel and the Annals for the Kings of Judah. Then there were the Book of the Acts of Solomon and sources dealing with the “Elijah Cycle” and the “Elisha Cycle,” Isaiah, and other prophets.
The children at the memorial service were making a point with their stories—they were giving evidence that a very good woman had lived and had done much to improve this world. Similarly, the authors of Kings, according to the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “selected, combined, and arranged the written and oral traditions of Israel and Judah to express their theological understanding of their histories” (p. 479).
We can imagine someone preaching a eulogy from the theological viewpoint that “everything has a purpose,” or—as one of my Spiritual Reflections on biblicaljoe.com is titled: “There Are No Coincidences.” Indeed, that reflection, written some years ago, refers to this very passage in the First Book of Kings!
What’s difficult about this passage, of course, is not that Elijah—God’s favored prophet—causes fire to come from heaven and consume an offering that has been doused three times with water—but that he has the crowds who then come to believe that his God is the “right” God, bring him the 450 prophets of the “wrong” God so that he can slit their throats. –A mass murder, right there in the Bible! –No moral comment, no justification offered, no sanctions afterward…all dead.
What are we to make of this? It was a time when the theological understanding was that illness and disease were the consequences of sin; epilepsy was a sign that you were possessed by a demon; blasphemy was punishable by death, and there was no greater crime than infidelity to the “right” God. There was no separation of church and state. Infidels did not deserve to live, especially since they were spreading the cult of Baal, the great false god.
So Elijah, in provoking this confrontation between himself and Jezebel, which because of there being no separation of church and state, was engaging in a battle fought between the God of Israel (represented by Elijah) and the Canaanite God Baal (represented by the prophets). The thinking was that all of the calamities, droughts, and genocidal attacks against Israel were BECAUSE of the infidelity of the King and his wife and their promotion of the Canaanite religion. After all, Ahab designated priests for their shrines and Jezebel cultivated a large group of their prophets. Elijah was acting to save his nation from destruction. For him, the covenant meant that God was on his side and would save Israel and give the Israelites the land God had promised to Abraham and Jacob.
In that culture, at that time, death was the only fitting punishment for idolatry.
This is not the way Jesus treated non-believers. He deepens our theological understanding by his teaching about enemies, and by his treatment of those deemed sinners or ‘unclean’ or ‘foreigners’or widows.
The question is whether or not our theological understanding has changed, grown and matured? Perhaps the MOST difficult part of reading today this passage from Kings is to probe where we are in our theological understanding. Do we still believe that certain people who have done certain things deserve to be killed? Do we believe that everyone should buy a gun so that, if sufficiently threatened, they can use it to kill someone? Do we still believe that God will condemn some people to eternal conscious torment in a place we call hell? Do we, in fact, curse people who have seriously offended us and pray that they go there? Do we insist on the right to stockpile weapons of mass destruction and to drop bombs, fire rockets, and engage in war those who are a threat to our national security?
These and similar questions are not easy to deal with. Some of us wrestle, wrestle with them, as Jacob did with the divine presence in Genesis 32. We wrestle with such passages to squeeze out compassion, as Karen Armstrong advocated in the TED award that inaugurated her Charter of Compassion.
What theological understanding makes you act differently when someone attacks you or your loved ones or your property? Those who are true pacifists have an answer for this, I’m sure. Maybe we should learn what it is, especially those of us who follow a man who let himself be executed when he could have raised an army to prevent it. What theological understanding did he have? And what are our favorite stories about him?
The violence stopped with him on that Friday we call “Good,” and it also stopped with those early martyrs who were killed for following his way. Then later, when religion was married to the might of the empire, the violence was initiated and justified by those who proclaimed him as Savior but felt duty- bound to kill those who did not believe. With what theological understanding do we tell that story?
In textweek.org, Nanette Williams in her blog discusses what it means for Elijah to be a murderer, and what the passage says about how the author perceived God. She feels it best to leave the questions the passages raises unanswered. One of her commentators noted how we are amidst all kinds of thieves, liars, addicts, criminals, deviates and murderers, and yet we have to live among them, attend to their needs, even love them.
Then I remembered Moses was a murderer, right/ And yet God chose him to a most important role in the history of the Israelites. And I combine that realization with Rev. Richard Rohr’s meditation of 11-2-13:
“God’s one-of-a-kind job description is that God actually uses our problems to lead us to the full solution. God is the perfect Recycler, and in the economy of grade, nothing is wasted, not even our worst sins nor our most stupid mistakes. God does not punish our sins, but uses them to soften our hearts toward everything.”
Isn’t that what God did with Elijah?