1 Kings 17:1-7
1Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “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.” 2The word of the Lord came to him, saying, 3“Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. 7But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
Our story begins not in Ancient Israel, but in El Paso, Texas sometime around the year 1992, in the choir room at Coronado High School. The choir director had just handed out to the choir a new piece of music–an arrangement of the Negro Spiritual, “Elijah Rock.” I happened to be in that choir, and I remember two questions going through my head as the music was passed around: Who’s Elijah? and what’s the Rock?
As much as I enjoyed learning and singing the song, it doesn’t really answer either question. Most of the lyrics to the song consist of unrelated phrases, “Elijah rock, shout! Shout! Elijah rock, comin’ up Lord!” At some point there’s another line about a rock: “If I could, I surely would stand on the rock where Moses stood.” But that’s not much help, either.
After a lifetime of Bible study and four years of seminary, I think today I can probably come up with a halfway decent answer to the question of “Who is Elijah?” And in fact, that’s part of what this sermon series will attempt to do.
But if you’re waiting for the answer to the other question, “What’s the rock?” I have to admit, I still have no idea. There’s no shortage of theories out there, and I’m sure you’ll come up with your own, but as with many old folk songs, we will probably never know for sure. I chose to call this series “Elijah Rock” simply because in my own mind, in my first encounter with Elijah, those two things went together. And because the character of Elijah, like the rock, like the words to the song, is enigmatic, mysterious, and perhaps not completely explainable.
On to Elijah. We move next in our story back in time, to Ancient Israel…but…not to the Old Testament, not to the time of the prophets. Not yet. First we’re going to stop in 1st century Israel, the time of Jesus of Nazareth. In the gospel of Luke (chapter 9), we read that Jesus took some of his disciples with him up a mountain to pray. “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.” A cloud forms overhead, a voice speaks from the heavens, and then Moses and Elijah vanish, leaving Jesus and his disciples alone on the mountain.
This episode, which occurs in three out of the four gospels, is known as the transfiguration, and most scholars and theologians agree that the point of the story is to show that Jesus stands firmly in the tradition of the greatest leaders of Israel’s past: Moses the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.
What makes Elijah so great? On the surface, not much.
According to Jewish tradition, there were 55 prophets (including males and females) spanning hundreds of years and every corner of Israel. Some are named only in passing, and some, like Isaiah and Ezekiel, have entire books of the Bible named for them or attributed to them. No books or writings are attributed to Elijah, and his story takes place in six rather brief chapters in the books known as 1st and 2nd Kings. By contrast, 105 chapters of the Bible are either about or attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.
And yet, there are more references to Elijah in the New Testament (and in later Jewish writings) than any other prophet. So again, we’re left wondering, what exactly makes him so great?
When Elijah appears in today’s scripture passage, that’s actually the first time he appears in the Bible. We don’t get an origin story, like we do with the prophet Samuel. No story about how Elijah was called to be a prophet, or who his parents were. This is pretty unusual in Hebrew tradition–usually new characters are introduced as “the son of…” or at least “from the tribe of…” We do read that Elijah is from Tishbe in Gilead, but no one today really knows where Tisbhe is, or was. Gilead is on the other side of the Jordan river from Israel, so it’s kind of like saying “He was from over there…you know…far away.” In fact, the International Standard Version of the Bible translates this as “Elijah the foreigner.”
So Elijah appears out of nowhere in 1 Kings 17, and says to Ahab…
Let me digress for a moment. You’re probably wondering, “Who’s Ahab?”
Ahab is the wealthiest and most powerful man in all Israel. He is the King of Israel. Ahab is married to Jezebel (you may have heard of her!) and right about now the two of them are engaged in a religious crusade. Ahab and Jezebel worship the Phoenician god Ba’al. Ba’al is a fertility god–he makes things grow and reproduce. Things like crops and cattle and people. He’s an important, life-giving god. So important, that King Ahab and Jezebel want to make him the new national deity of Israel, and to wipe out all other religions, including the worship of Israel’s traditional God, Yahweh.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering whose side Elijah is on, the name Elijah literally means “Yahweh is my God.”
How does one go about eliminating an entire religion? Easy. Kill all of its prophets. This is what Ahab and Jezebel have been doing, and they’re almost successful. At one point later in 1 Kings, Elijah laments that he is the only prophet of Yahweh left.
So Elijah appears out of nowhere in 1 Kings 17, and says to Ahab… “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.”
Now, I don’t think you get the sense of how gutsy, how absolutely insane this is from the nice, polite NRSV translation. So a few corrections:
In Hebrew, the first word in this sentence is the verb “Lives” and in Hebrew grammar, when you want to emphasize something, you put it right at the beginning.
Also, the word “Lord” is not really in the original Hebrew. In later Jewish custom, it was regarded as improper to actually say the name of God, so the Hebrew word “adonai,” which means “Lord” is substituted. Most English translations follow this custom, and translate Yahweh (the proper name of God) as “Lord.” But Elijah, here, says “Yahweh.”
Also, the expression “before whom I stand” or in some English transations “whom I serve” is a common Middle Eastern expression used as a sign of respect when addressing…the King. As in, “my Lord the King, whom I serve, before whom I stand…thank you for hearing me out.” Only that’s not how Elijah is using this expression.
Elijah, the man whose very name flaunts his allegiance to Yahweh, shows up in front of the powerful King who is killing all the prophets of Yahweh, in order to kill Yahweh and the worship of Yahweh, and Elijah says… “Yahweh Lives!” And I serve him, not you. Oh, and you think that your god, Ba’al gives life and makes things grow, but you’re wrong. Water gives life, and rain makes things grow. You may be the king, but it’s not going to rain until I say so.
Pardon the crude analogy, but if there’s an an ancient equivalent of standing before the most powerful person in the country and raising both of your middle fingers to his face…that’s what Elijah does.
Why is Elijah the greatest prophet? Well, for starters, he has cajones. Courage.
Second, he demonstrates great loyalty, standing faithfully and steadfastly by his God, never wavering in his allegiance.
Immediately after Elijah confronts the King, we read in verse two that “The word of the Lord came to him, saying…”
Wait a minute. NOW the word of the Lord comes to him? You mean all that stuff Elijah just got through saying was just him out there on his own accord? Ok, that’s really cajones, then! And now God probably needs to rescue him.
The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
So here’s the third thing that makes Elijah so great. His complete trust in God.
Now, the part about hiding yourself, that’s easy. I suspect any of us would have figured out that one and said, “Ok, God. Good idea. Can we do that really fast?” But the next part…
You shall drink from the wadi. Do you know what a wadi is? I wasn’t exactly certain, but according to wikipedia, it’s a mostly dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy or intermittent rain. RAIN. I can almost hear Elijah saying, “Ummm…God, did you miss that whole conversation I just had with the king?”
You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.
Ravens. Of course, being Jewish, Elijah would have known that ravens are among those animals God considers unclean. There are only two ways a raven can carry food: In its claws or in its beak. Both unclean. And ravens are carrion birds. That means they like dead things. Highly unclean. Basically, I can imagine no possible way of obtaining food from a raven that is not inherently disgusting. And unclean.
Unclean food and dried up water. What does Elijah do? Verse 5:
“So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.”
Unbelievable courage. Unwavering loyalty. And unshakable trust in God.
In verse 7, when the wadi inevitably dries up, those three attributes will lead Elijah on to his next adventure, as well as his next place of shelter and provision.
There’s one more thing that makes Elijah great, although it’s not really part of his personality or even something he does. It’s something God does for him. We see it here in today’s scripture passage, but it’s also a pattern that repeats itself throughout all of Elijah’s ministry:
First Elijah does something bold or miraculous. But immediately after that, God whisks Elijah away to a place of isolation and retreat, where he is dependent upon the help of others to survive. There are these bursts of tremendous energy followed by stretches of mandatory rest; times of strength and power followed by times of weakness and vulnerability.
Interestingly, if you read the gospels, the ministry of Jesus follows the same rhythm. Jesus reveals himself to the world and is baptized by John, and then he goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights, where he is ministered to by angels. Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people, and then goes up a mountain alone to pray. He marches into Jerusalem with crowds cheering him on, and clears the greedy moneylenders out of the temple…and then he withdraws to an upper room for a quiet meal with his disciples, and a solitary prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.
We all want to be great at something. Great parent… great athlete… great teacher… great host… great crossword puzzle solver… great bagpipe player (okay maybe that last one is just me). We like great. We understand great. Make America great again.
But the way we go about pursuing greatness is all wrong. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of what we learn from Elijah.
Instead of courageously speaking God’s truth, we try to be great by playing it safe. Protecting ourselves from unnecessary risks.
Our loyalty to God is unwavering… as long as it doesn’t require more than two hours on Sunday morning.
And while our money says we put our trust in God, the truth is we’re far more likely to put our trust in money.
But worst of all, we equate being great… with being busy. All the time. And so we load up our schedules, and our children’s schedules, with one thing after another until we’re so busy, so important, so exhausted, that we don’t realize who we’ve become.
We are King Ahab and Jezebel. And then one day, into our busy lives steps a prophet, and he says to us:
God is alive. And you are not God. All of these false gods you’ve been chasing after–money, security, status, diversion–they won’t bring you life. They will only leave you all dried up inside.
And words of the prophet echo the words of the poet, who says:
Now come and seek with me a quiet place
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.
Where other hands, not yours, shall raise you up,
Where simple bread and water bring forth life.
Let go the worries writ across your face
The ones that burn and rage at close of day
Let God’s abiding presence be enough
To soothe your soul and bring, at last, the rain.