June 2, 2013 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Here’s some of the back story for this morning’s reading from 1 Kings: After the reign of King David and then his son Solomon, the kingdom of Israel is split into two. There are a series of kings who rule in each kingdom. Many of whom are bad. But King Ahab, who we hear about in today’s reading, is one of the worst. The story says he “did more to provoke the anger of the Holy God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16.33) Chief among his failings was his marriage to a woman who was a Baal worshiper and then Ahab’s own allegiance to the Canaanite god Baal rather than the God of Israel.
Elijah, the prophet of the God of Israel, tells King Ahab that there will be a drought. There will only be rain if the God of Israel calls it forth. The implication is that the drought is because of Ahab’s worship of the god Baal and his abandonment of the commandments of the God of Israel. The drought lasts for three years and with it comes widespread famine.
Toward the end of those three years, Elijah and Ahab meet up. They both blame the other for being the source of drought and famine in the land. Ahab blames Elijah because he has called out the drought. Elijah blames Ahab because he has broken the covenant relationship with the God of Israel.
So Elijah proposes a contest between their gods. 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the god Asherah are to meet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Each side prepares a sacrifice and then calls on their god to send fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice. The god that sends the fire will prevail.
This sort of competition between gods is typically not in our direct experience so let me say a few words about it. In a world where there are multiple gods, there’s always a tension of which god is the most powerful. We have multiple gods in our culture: status, money, power, family, beauty, things we accumulate; but they don’t typically have a face-off in this manner.
In the ancient world, each god had a particular responsibility or trait and there were frequently competitions between them. Baal is the god of fertility and life and storms. A drought would signal the powerlessness of Baal and some other god’s victory. When there is rain (which enables life because food can be grown), it would be presumed that Baal is alive and the other god is defeated.1
So the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab, “Let’s see whose god–yours or mine–is more powerful.”
[Read: 1 Kings 18.20-39]
That’s the lectionary’s cut on this story but for those of you following along in the bible whose eyes might have wandered on to the next verse, which is actually the last verse of the story, here’s verse 40: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.”
In some ways this is a great story–lots of action, suspense and surprise. But toward what end? So that one god can be the victor and the loser god’s followers can be mocked and slaughtered? Doesn’t this reek of the centuries of religious wars that have been fought and the oppression and destruction that has been wrecked on the human community because some people worshiped the wrong god? And the “wrong god” being pretty closely related to whoever had the most power in the community to declare which was the “right god” to worship?
Now this story is in the Bible and that means we need to take it seriously but I have to say, in the scope of human history and the way that religion has been used as a cover for all kinds of evil, this story, first reading, offends my religious sensibilities.
And what do we do with a story that attributes weather–especially devastating weather–to the hand of God? The drought isn’t in this exact story but it precedes the Mt. Carmel competition and immediately afterward the rain returns to the land. But few of us these days see drought, tornadoes or hurricanes as punishment from God.
Additionally, we Presbyterians have a history of being part of ecumenical and interfaith endeavors and see ourselves as part of the larger work that God is doing in the world. We don’t see ourselves as the sole arbiters of truth but we are partners with others in uncovering the truth of God in the world. The constitution of the PC(USA) voices our commitment to conversation and understanding with other Christian groups and with non-Christian religious groups.2
So we have to think in a different way about this story. We can’t take it just at face value. We enter the world of this text with a very different worldview than those who compiled the stories in the book of Kings. Which doesn’t mean we can’t find truth and meaning here. But it does mean we will need to look deeper to find the meaning underneath the text as well as to look from a bigger view–almost like on an on-line map when you pull the view back to see more of the landscape, to see the bigger context, of your particular location–we’ll have to take those kinds of perspectives in order to sort out what the writers were trying to say.
Clearly, it seems to me, this story is about following God with singularity of heart. And the power of God above all other gods–which in this story is the reason to follow God with a single heart. Did you hear Elijah’s question to the people? “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” The Hebrew literally means “hobbling upon two branches” which could be the image of a bird going back and forth from one branch to the other. Our English idiom would be something like “sitting on the fence.”3 You’re not sure which side you want to commit to because you’re not sure which side has the greatest advantage. And in this story, Elijah says, “If the Holy One of Israel is God, then worship this one; if Baal if God, then worship Baal.” It’s similar to the story of Joshua who says to the Hebrew people, “Choose this day whom you will serve”4–the God who brought you out of Egypt or the god of the people who oppressed you. It’s the continual question all through the Bible. Whom will we serve?
And most of us, including the characters in the Bible, want to hedge our bets and serve a multitude of gods. But the Bible says there is one God who is to be served. Because there is only one God “who will have the final say when all is said and done.”5 That’s what Leong Seow, who teaches Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, says is the point of the Book of Kings in all the different ways the stories are told. And really, the point of the Bible: there is one God who will have the final say when all is said and done. And it is this God we are called to worship and serve. It is this God who made a covenant with the Hebrew people, who blessed Abraham and Sarah and their family that they might be a blessing to all the families of the world. It is this God who loves us even when we wander away and when we serve other gods. It is this God who calls to us through the voice of the prophets, who woos us with great love and mercy, who we meet in Jesus Christ–not in this story from Kings–but in stories to come. And in the life of Jesus who was born, who lived a truly human life, and who died and was raised from the dead, we encounter again the God who will have the final say when all is said and done. The One who takes the worst we can dish out and meets us with love and grace. Who transforms death into life and despair into hope and sorrow into joy.
And so we, too, can sing with the psalmist:
Sing to the Holy God, bless God’s name;
tell of God’s salvation from day to day.
Declare God’s glory among the nations,
God’s marvelous works among the peoples.
For great is the Holy God, and greatly to be praised;
to be revered above all gods.6
* * *
1 Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), p126.
2 The Book of Order, G-5.010 Ecumenicity: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels seeks to manifest more visibly the unity of the body of Christ and will be open to opportunities for conversation, cooperation, and action with other ecclesiastical groups. G-5.0102 Interfaith Relations: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels seeks new opportunities for conversation and understanding with non-Christian religious entities.
3 Seow, p135.
4 Joshua 24.15
5 Seow, p3.
6 This was the accompanying lectionary psalm: Psalm 96.2-4