July 18, 2019

It's Not Easy Being a Prophet

“his week’s haftarah (prophetic reading) from 1Kings 18:20-39 offers one of the greatest miraculous action sequences in the entire Hebrew Bible. But it is also set within a larger story of the conflict between the less-than-high-minded king Ahab and the less-than-entirely-stable prophet Elijah—a conflict that illustrates some essential patterns of the prophetic relationship with God, the kings who may not always serve Him, and Israel. At the end of this larger story, not read in the synagogue but essential to understanding the whole, it becomes clear that much more than king-vs.-prophet is involved here. Elijah confronts the Lord, and the response he receives tells you all the reasons why you don’t want a career in prophecy.

The story begins, like all stories in this biblical book, with a sketch of the latest king. Here it is Ahab, who ruled over the northern kingdom of Samaria a few generations after it broke off from the southern kingdom of Judah. While none of his predecessors has won divine favor, Ahab “did what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord more than all before him,” adopting the practice of his wife Jezebel and worshipping the Phoenician god Baal.

In other words, Ahab is not just the usual bad king—and by comparison with these usual bad kings, most Israeli prime ministers emerge in a highly positive light—but the worst of all. The narrator specifies that even Jeroboam, who split the northern tribes from the southern after Solomon’s death, and who went so far as to make another golden calf to draw people away from the Temple in Jerusalem, did not rival Ahab in wickedness. Together, both books of Kings, and the preceding book of Samuel, tell a single tale of the Lord’s unrelenting effort to cure the Jewish people of idol worship. Ahab, in case you’re wondering, marks the low point of the sequence.

Pitted against Ahab is Elijah the Tishbite, who tells him, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, whom I’ve stood before, there’ll be no dew or rain in these years except when I say so.” That is a declaration of war between the Lord and Ahab, and also the start of the duel between king and prophet. The prophet, like all prophets, is hopelessly outnumbered, and in this case especially so because of the queen’s 450 “prophets” of Baal.”

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