THE MIRACLES OF ELIJAH AND ELISHA
The activities of the prophets Elijah and Elisha in the Books of Kings have captured the attention of Bible students for ages. There is no section of the Bible quite like this; there is one miracle after another without much explanation for each one, other than the underlying message that these are prophets of Yahweh living in a time when the nation was turning to worship false gods. Our study will focus on the meaning of these events in the biblical accounts; and to assist in this understanding we shall draw upon the religious and cultural background of the material.
In the 1920s a large collection of tablets was discovered in Syria in the location of ancient Ugarit, called Ras Shamra in the modern times. These tablets were written in cuneiform, the small wedge-shaped writing baked into the clay tablets, similar to ancient Akkadian writing in the way it was done, but not in substance, for Ugaritic is much simpler. Whereas Akkadian was a syllabic script with hundreds of signs, Ugaritic was a linear alphabet, and the language very similar in construction to the later Hebrew. From these tablets we have gained a tremendous amount of information about the ancient Canaanite culture; it not only confirms what the Bible and the classical writers said about the Canaanites, but adds so much more detail. Here we learn a good deal about the worship of Baal and the other gods of Canaan, the whole corrupt religious system that Elijah and Elisha had to deal with.
The setting for these stories is in the ninth century B.C. The kingdom of David was divided into two kingdoms at the death of Solomon in 931 B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah began with Solomonís son, Rehoboam; four kings later the good king Jehoshaphat came to the throne and reigned from 873 B.C. to 848. The northern kingdom of Israel very quickly defected to false worship under its first king Jeroboam I (931-910 B.C.). After a series of usurpers, Ahab came to the throne and reigned from 874-853 B.C. He married Jezebel of Phoenicia, and the troubles began. It was in this time that Elijah began to minister. Elijah was translated to glory somewhere before 841 B.C. in the reign of Jehoram (there was a Jehoram in Judah and a Jehoram in Israel from 850 or so until 841). Elisha ministered in the time of Jehu of Israel (841-814 B.C.) And his wicked successors Jehoahaz (814-798 B.C.) And Jehoash (798-796 B. C.). So we shall be looking at the events in these two kingdoms for a period of about 80 years, from 875-795 B.C.
I. Withholding the Rain (1 Kings 17:1-7)
The background for this episode is the last paragraph of chapter 16. It tells us that Ahab was a very evil king in the eyes of the LORD. It was bad enough that he continued the false religious practices of Jeroboam (who set up the golden calves in Dan and Bethel so the people would not go to Jerusalem, he also married Jezebel, the Phoenician daughter of the king of Sidon. When she came to Israel, she brought her religion, the worship of Baal. And Ahab, whom we shall see was a very weak man, began to worship and serve Baal in the temple he built for Baal in the city of Samaria. Moreover, he made an Asherah, a pole that was erected to the worship of Asherah.
We shall be learning more about these religious ideas and gods through the lessons; but essentially Baal (which means "lord") was the god of fertility, the storm god (equivalent of the god Hadad of Damascus, and Adad of Assyria); and the Asherah pole was a symbol of the fertility rites.
The text simply reports that Elijah the Tisbite (from Tishbe in Gilead across the Jordan) came into the palace and announced to the king that there was not going to be rain or dew for several years, except by his word. This is an amazing declaration, one that a normal person would not dare to make. No rain unless he said so! One might think that only someone who is naive, or a fool, would say this. But Elijah is a prophet of the LORD, and his announcement comes from God.
The meaning of this announcement is in the Law--after all, a prophet cannot simply do signs and wonders without harmonizing his message with the Law (cf. Deut. 13). The Law was put into a covenant form, and the end of the covenant listed the blessings of God for obedience, and the curses for disobedience. According to Deuteronomy 28:12, if the people obeyed the LORD, he would send the rains so that they could have bountiful harvest; but if they disobeyed, he would withhold the rain and curse the ground with drought (vv. 23, 24). The nation of Israel has been living in rebellion for over fifty years--it was time to withhold the rain. And so the prophet marched into the palace and boldly declared that there would be no rain or dew.
Then the word of the LORD told the prophet to go back across the Jordan where he could drink from the brook and be fed by the ravens. He did this, and it worked fine for a while. But after a while the brook dried up--there had been no rain. So the prophet, who was obedient, would have to endure the drought that he announced on the northern kingdom. If God withheld the rain, everyone would suffer; or in other words, if the kingdom was predominantly evil, everyone would pay the price.
The Rain Motif
In the land of Israel there are two times a year that the rain comes, the former rains and the latter rains. The early rains came in October and November, and the latter rains started December and January and continued to March or early April. There was no rain at all through the summer. So the people of the land, largely farmers, needed the rainy season to supply enough rain to produce sufficient crops for the year. The Bible made it clear that this regular rain was a provision of the LORD, one of his blessings to the people (see both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). In their minds, the Israelites knew that fertility of the field came from Godís provision of rain.
But in Canaanite religion, especially in Phoenicia and Israel under Ahab and Jezebel, Baal was the one who controlled the rain. The stele that depicts Baal as god of fire, earth and water, shows him holding a club in his right hand. This may very well represent thunder, since he is called the god of thunder who sends the rain. He holds a spear, and the spearhead holds a plant, which also shows that with Baalís approval the rains would fall and vegetation could flourish.
The Ugaritic tablets credit Baal with sending the rains that make the land fruitful. He is called, "Prince, the Lord of the Earth," and "Baal, the Mighty One." In the texts Baal is also connected to the morning dew. 1 Aqht I, 42-46 says,
"Seven years shall Baal fail,
eight the rider of the clouds.
There shall be no dew, no rain;
no surging of the two depths,
neither the goodness of Baalís voice."
Since Baal was said to control the dew as well as the rain, then this is not merely a seasonal role he has. Dew is connected with fertility as much as the rain.
Baal has the power to produce rain on the earth and make it fruitful, so they thought. When he was alive, it was fruitful; when his brother Mot ("death") vanquished him, there was drought and destruction. The texts alert the reader that Baal and his followers feared this time of drought (text 67, II, 3-7):
"Baal will enter his inward part,
yes, descend into his mouth;
Like a single olive,
the produce of the earth
and the fruit of the trees;
Sore afraid was the mighty one, Baal;
filled with dread, the Rider of the Clouds."
When Baal is vanquished to the netherworld, the place of death, he must take his clouds and his rain and his dew with him. After the dry season, the goddess Anat rescues Baal from Mot and restores him to his power; the resuscitation of Baal is seen in a dream by El ("god"), the head of the pantheon. In text 49, III, 4-9, we read,
"In a dream, the kind one, El, the benign one,
in a vision the creator of creatures:
The heavens rain oil.
the wadies run with honey;
So I know that the mighty one, Baal, lives;
lo, the Prince, the Lord of Earth, exists."
Baal would send rain that would cause things to grow, so that they would have olive oil and honey as products.
There are many other texts in Ugaritic that give Baal the power over the rain, when to send it, and when to withhold it. It is tied to the seasonal cycle to explain the times and seasons of the years when the crops will grow and the harvests gathered in. But it is also connected to the sending of the dew which sustains plants with life in all seasons. The rain is described as coming from a window in Baalís house, through which he pours abundant rain (see later 2 Kings 7:1-3).
But Elijah began his public ministry by declaring that it was not going to rain for years until he said so! This declaration is not only an application of the warning of a curse for disobedience; it is also a polemic against Baal worship. A polemic is a travesty, a destroying of a false belief in order to establish the truth. If it rains, it is the LORD, not Baal; if the rain is withheld, it is the prophet of the LORD who determines how long, not some seasonal myth of a lifeless and impotent god. This withholding of the rain will cross seasons, something Baalís routine did not do. And it would prevent the dew as well.
Elijahís declaration is in the form of an oath: "As Yahweh God lives . . . ." The use of the oath impart solemnity to the warning and expresses intense earnestness. The choice of this particular curse had, therefore, the additional intent of destroying the religion of Baal. The people had been confused over who sent the rain--Elijah makes it clear that for the next few years they will learn it is Yahweh, the Lord of heaven and earth.
The point of the passage in the light of the Law is that if people disobey the Lord he can take away the very things that they need to live. In this case, because the people refused to give God the glory for providing the rain for their crops, and gave the credit to the pagan god, God would not let them have the rain. The people of God must not take the blessings of life for granted; they must acknowledge God in all these things. He will not allow others to rob him of his glory.
And if we promote the truth in this pagan world, that is, if we declare that God is the one who provides all the necessities of life, we will find opposition from the present evil world system, which now has other gods different from Baal. But we may have to rob the modern gods of their glory to give the proper credit to God.