Thursday, September 24, 2015

Elijah Bible Study

1 Kings 17:17-24
17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”
19 “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”
22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”
24 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:17-24

Amy Erickson  (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible Illiff School of Theology Denver, Colo.)

The wheels almost come off the wagon of the bold narrative known as the Elijah cycle, when the boy dies unexpectedly.
What saves the day is God's surprising willingness to respond to human protest and do something unprecedented.
In the first two episodes of 1 Kings 17 (verses 1-7 and verses 8-16), things go strictly according to plan. In the first scene, after Elijah prophesies to Ahab that there will be no rain "except by my word" (17:1), God promises to provide for Elijah, using ravens and a wadi (verses 3-4). Ravens promptly and regularly appear with food and a wadi provides water (verses 5-6).
The second scene (verses 8-16) begins when the Lord tells Elijah to go and live in Zarephath, where God has commanded a widow to feed him (17:8). The widow says she had no food, but Elijah proclaims that her oil and her meal will not fail (verse 14). Again as predicted, the oil and meal containers replenish daily (verse 16).
Suddenly in verse 17, the opening of the third scene, it appears that things do not go according to plan. The widow's son falls ill. There is no breath in him. It looks as if the boy has been saved from starvation only to die of a severe illness. Further, there is no word from the Lord. There is no explanation for the boy's illness nor is there any authoritative word on how this event figures into God's plan. This unexpected turn leaves both the widow and Elijah himself searching for an explanation.
The widow's reaction is to turn on Elijah. What kind of "man of God" saves a mother and son from starvation only to allow the son to die of illness? As a mother myself, dying with my child seems a far kinder fate than living to watch my child die. In her grief, the widow says to Elijah, "What do you have against me, O man of God?"
I wonder if she says "man of God" with sarcasm dripping from her lips. If her son dies, then Elijah and his god, in spite of all this miraculous oil generation, are powerless. Or perhaps she thinks Elijah is powerful, a man of a cruel God. Perhaps this trick with the bottomless oil jug was part of a terrible set-up — in which she is given hope only to have it torn away — designed to punish her mercilessly for her sins.
Elijah seems shocked by this turn of events as well, for Elijah does not say, "Do not worry, widow -- it is all part of the plan." Or "God would not do such a thing." He simply says, "Give me the boy." Then Elijah takes the boy and steps into the upper room to have a private word with the deity. Behind closed doors, he protests, "What are you doing, God? You bring me to stay with this widow who has nothing and make me rely on her hospitality; and then you thank her by killing her son?"
Elijah is angry. God's ways may be mysterious, but he puts his foot down here. He does not simply reiterate or obey God's words as he has up until now. Instead of waiting and listening for God's response, the all-powerful divine word, he performs what appears to be some sort of sympathetic magic, "stretching himself on the child three times." Then he boldly commands God to "let this child's life come into him again" (verse 21). NRSV translates this in a way that softens Elijah's command to God with "let;" however, we could just as legitimately translate: "YHWH, my god, return this child's life into him!" Elijah's off-the-cuff, completely unplanned action works. God responds. The boy revives.
In the context of this narrative, I expect a recovery of sorts. I expect a divine answer — or at least a narrator's commentary — that communicates, somehow, that this resurrection miracle was part of God's plan from the beginning. God thought this would be a great way to show the world that God is not only more powerful than Baal but more powerful than death.
But this is not where the text goes. Instead of tying up the loose ends, we hear that the boy is saved because "God listened to the voice of Elijah" (verse 22). This is surprising because on the surface the story of Elijah seems to be about the power of God's word. It is a story about getting people to listen to God's voice. Yet, at this pivotal moment in the narrative, the tide turns because God listened to Elijah's voice.
The boy's breath returns to him because God recognizes the truth in Elijah's protest. In turn, God does something God has never done in the Hebrew Bible (and will only do again through Elisha). God undoes death. Scholars argue about whether the boy was really dead or just close to death. I think that is because the text is not sure either. The Bible is in uncharted territory at this point. The notion of a resurrection is an unheard of experience. The writers are hesitant because they are trying to describe, tentatively and cautiously, something unprecedented.
In this moment of crisis, in response to the truth in Elijah's words, God mobilizes the power of life and does something God has never done before. God attends to this seemingly small thing -- the death of a poor boy -- with an enormous act of reversal. God pulls a resurrection out of a hat.
When the widow sees her son revived in Elijah's arms, she proclaims, "You are a man of God.... the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth" (verse 24). Elijah does not argue, but the reader knows that while her interpretation may be accurate, it does not capture what happened in the upper chamber. The boy's life returns because God recognized that the word of Elijah was truth.
Even when Elijah protests against God, his word expresses God's truth. Amazingly, God recognizes it too. Perhaps truth is not just the word of God delivered from on high. Because at least in this narrative, truth emerges out of a dialogue between God and humanity.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Elijah Bible Study

I Kings 17:1-16 

Elijah Announces a Great Drought

17 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe[a] in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Elijah Fed by Ravens

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”
So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath

Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lordsends rain on the land.’”
15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:1-16 (or 17:1-24)

Roger Nam (Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
George Fox Evangelical Seminary Portland, Oregon)
Elijah and a Phoenician widow find themselves in serious trouble.
Ancient Near Eastern histories were written by elites, for elites. With limited literacy and restricted access to writing resources and technologies, only royalty had the capabilities to write lengthy historical narratives. For this reason, ancient historiography served to support and legitimize royal rule. But biblical historiography is different in this respect.
In the midst of the narratives of Israel's kingship, the books of 1 and 2 Kings contain numerous accounts outside of the royal elite sphere. Such a chapter occurs in 1 Kings 17 about a disenfranchised prophet and a foreign widow in the midst of national calamity.
This passage centers on a few key themes as follows.
The chapter begins with a declaration of an absence of rain for an undisclosed number of years (1 Kings 17:1,7). Such a pronouncement comes as a punishment to King Ahab because he "did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him" (1 Kings 16:30). As king, Ahab incorporated Baal and Asherah worship, provoking God's anger. The punitive cessation of rain serves as a demonstration that the earthly king of an agrarian society stands at the mercy of the sovereign God.
Though not explicitly mentioned, the opening verse gives us a historical frame of severe drought and concomitant hardship. The Lord's instruction for Elijah to go eastward, and wait in the Wadi Cherith invites extreme risk to the prophet of God in regards to basic sustenance of food and water. The divine answer lies in the ravens and the wadi to provide for Elijah. It is enough to reassure Elijah for now.
But with the lasting effects of drought and the inevitable crop failures, exposure intensifies the natural bodily reactions of thirst or hunger. Elijah obeyed God and hid in the Wadi Cherith, somewhere east of the Jordan. But in accord with the prophetic judgment, the rains never came and God's promised water source was no longer flowing. Elijah was thirsty, hungry, and tired.
The narrative is tantalizingly silent on the state of Elijah's spirit. Was the prophet scared and doubting, or was he filled with faith and assurance? Perhaps he struggled between both responses? Elijah was a loyal prophet and a man of great faith. But such physical challenges could make even the most resilient person waver.
God faithfully provides, but sometimes from the unlikeliest of places. First, God provides through the ravens, an animal not known for particularly strong symbiotic behaviors. But after the ravens, sustenance comes from an even more remarkable being. Although the drought is a punishment for the Israelite king introducing idolatrous practices from Phoenicia, God instructs the prophet to obtain relief through a Phoenician widow.
No Fear
The foreign widow is the most disenfranchised person in ancient Israel. With severe drought, she lives at the brink of death for her and her son. Elijah understands this plight; perhaps his time of hunger and thirst while waiting for God at the wadi prepared him for this prophetic encounter. He instructs the widow, "Do not fear." This is not an easy one to believe -- with no rain, she had already resigned herself and her young son to death. Yet for some reason (again, the narrative is silent), she answers Elijah's request to share the last of her meager supplies. Elijah is fed. In reciprocity, he blesses the foreign widow with the miracle of bounty until the end of the drought.
The unique narratives of 1 and 2 Kings are so much more than royal historiography. The main characters of a thirsty prophet and a poor widow allow us to think and reflect on our own experiences waiting on God amidst fears and unknowns. It invites us to understand the lack of rain, drought, thirst, and fear. For the working preacher, the passage reminds us to reflect on our own journeys of faith, and think about the times when God called us to a wadi with no further instruction but to wait on him. Ultimately, God reveals that the wadi leads to an opportunity to serve the least among us.
For those experiencing fear, the passage invites us to walk in the shoes of the widow. We hear the voice of God through the prophet with the gentle admonition to not fear an invitation to hospitality and assurance of provision.
God meets our needs, feeds our hunger, and slakes our thirst. Ancient Near Eastern histories are written by elites, for elites. 1 and 2 Kings however, narrates a much more colorful, inclusive history not limited to royalty, but extended to wandering prophets and poor widows. Somehow, the margins give us a richer perspective on allowing God to enter our own experiences of thirst, sustenance, and fear.