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THE MIRACLES OF ELIJAH AND ELISHA       

                

Series Archive

 

III. The Giver of Life (1 Kings 17:17-24)

 

Context

            At the center of the fertility cults of ancient Canaan was the desire to have children, not only for the survival of the family and the inheritance, but also because it was a gift from the deity. Barrenness was a reproach; to die childless was a curse. One can recall the words of Rachel, "Give me children or I die" (Gen. 30:1).

            Oracles at the sanctuary often foretold the birth of a child, both in the Bible accounts and in the texts of Ugaritic. In the Canaanite material the deity promises Keret sons and daughters. The sons would be most important, because only they could carry on the name, the inheritance, and the possessions of the family; and they would be able to defend the family in strife and ensure the prosperity of the clan. Also, men had to take care of the funeral rites in the pagan world, supplying food for the dead in their graves. If a family had one son, that was a blessing; but if anything happened to that son, the hope of the family would be gone.

Text

            In 1 Kings 17 we read how the prophet Elijah was staying with a widow in the Canaanite town of Zarepath. He had rewarded their hospitality and faith by the miracle of the grain and the oil, showing that it was Yahweh and not Baal who could provide these products. In time the son of the widow became ill, and his situation became worse and worse, until he stopped breathing altogether.

            The widow felt cursed. 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?" After all, he was a prophet of Israel, and the followers of Baal were hated enemies of Israel. She knew that he was a prophet of God, and so could only interpret this death as something God did to her.

            Elijah, however, was undaunted by this. He took the boy and carried him to the upper room where he had been staying and laid him out on the bed. Then he prayed, "O Yahweh, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?" Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to Yahweh, "O Yahweh my God, let this boy’s life return to him." There is probably nothing mysterious about the three times--it is a way of demonstrating the intensity. To pray to God intensely or to praise intensely one would use such repetition--the priestly benediction uses the holy name three times, and the angelic praise repeats "holy" three times to express that God is infinitely holy.

            The text states that Yahweh answered Elijah’s prayer and the boy’s life returned to him--and he lived again. Elijah carried the boy down and gave him to his mother, saying, "Look, your son is alive."

            Her response was the expected response of faith: "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of Yahweh from your mouth is the truth."

            We would probably say that the LORD did indeed take the boy’s life in order that Elijah through prayer would be able to restore him to life--to demonstrate that it was Yahweh who can give life back to the dead. And her words set a tone for others who likewise would have to endure suffering and even death like Mary and Martha had to, before they could fully acknowledge, "Now I know that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

The Child Giving Motif

            In the Ugaritic texts we have two texts that credit the giving of a son to their gods, the story of Keret and the legend of Aqht. The latter deals with the king Dnil (not connected with biblical Daniel, etymologically or theologically), who longed for a male heir. After a good deal of ritual, Baal drew near and declared, "May he have a son like his brothers, even a root like his kinsmen" (2 Aqht I, 21, 22). Then gods then ate and drank the offerings Dnil gave to appease them. The gift of a child is apparently from the high god El on the appeal of Baal--but it may be that the text reflects that the true power now rested with Baal and El was banished to the netherworld. So Baal had the power to give life, and the request was a mere formality. This is what we can make of the 14th century texts; 500 years later in the time of Elijah Baal’s power and importance had completely overshadowed the old gods.

            Dnil returns home and is joined by the goddesses who accompany births. Their title in Ugaritic, ktrt, may be interpreted by the root word "multiply," appropriate for goddesses who assist in childbirth. So a son is born, and it is Aqht.

            In the story of Keret, we read how the hero was bereaved of his entire family, wife, brethren, and progeny. While he was weeping and sobbing, he received a vision from El, asking about his distress. The man is told to stop crying, wash and rouge himself, and bring sacrifices to the gods. Here too the text says that Baal will respond to the sacrifices: "Lift up your hands to the heavens, sacrifice to bull, your father El, Make Baal come down by your sacrifice, Dagan’s son with your oblation" (Krt 74-79). Keret is told to go and besiege Udm whose king Pbl has a daughter Hry, who will give him a child.1 He did so, and the gods attended the wedding festival. In the feast Baal called on El to bless the couple so that they would have seven sons.

            In the stories of Elisha we have the counterpoint to this (2 Kings 4:12,13). The prophet encountered a woman of Shunem who had no child, a "great woman" perhaps of noble birth. Moved by her care for him, the prophet asked what he could do for her, what influence in court perhaps that he might extend. Her response was that she lived among her relatives and had no need for assistance. The prophet left, but still was not satisfied; and so enquiring he discovered her greatest wish--to have a child. Her husband was too old. So Elisha promised her a son, and in time the child was born. So the prophet of Yahweh acts as the intermediary for childbirth, as Baal was thought to have done in the texts. But those tales were myths--who ever knew if there even was a birth to Keret or Dnil. But there was a birth in time and space, a real birth, to the Shunemite. The text therefore shows that it was not Baal, but Elisha, the prophet of Yahweh, who promised the birth. The prophet prayed; thus, it was Yahweh who gave the child, not the prophet. The passage is similar in wording and sense to the story in Genesis 18.

The Resurrection Motif

            All ancient religions have considered the question expressed by Job, "if a man dies, shall he live again?" They all believed there was life after death, a continuation of life in some form in another place. The tombs and the pyramids with their contents speak to this belief, because people took their furniture, possessions and gold with them. But in some texts the idea of a resurrection was more pronounced. In the Bible we have passages like Psalm 16, Job 19, Isaiah 26, and 53, and Hosea 6, to name but a few of the earlier ones. Of course Ezekiel and Daniel make the case even clearer.

            The Ugaritic texts focus on the idea of a dying and rising god Baal, the rain and fertility deity. Baal was to go down into the netherworld to meet Mot ("Death"), to be counted among those who descend into the earth: "and the gods shall know that you are dead." Baal was terrified at the prospect, but went nonetheless. The text then describes Baal lying dead in the field: "We came upon Baal prostrate on the earth, dead is the mighty one, Baal, perished is the prince, Lord of the earth." At this news El went through all the mourning ritual, sitting on the ground, pouring ashes on the head, lacerating the body, weeping and mourning. Baal’s consort Anat also mourned for Baal, before burying him. After he was gone they chose a successor for Baal, Athtar the Terrible, but since the drought continued, he was considered a failure.

            In time Anat went to war against Mot and eventually killed him. Again, the language is that of agriculture: "she seized Mot, with a sword she crushed him, with a pitchfork she winnowed him, with a fire she burnt him, with millstones she ground him, in the field she planted him." Thus Baal lived again: "Behold, Baal is alive, and the prince, lord of the earth exists." Then the heavens rained oil and the wadis ran with honey as proof that Baal lived again.

            This myth is only mentioned once, but it has been interpreted as a seasonal explanation of the cycle of life. But however the myth is taken to explain the culture of Canaanite religion, the motif of dying and returning to life is at the center of it. And because he was resurrected, Baal was said to have dominion over the earth.

            The legend of Aqht also has a resurrection motif in it. Anat desired Aqht’s bow, and so tried to persuade the lad to trade for it. She promised eternal life for it:

                "And the maiden Anat replied,

                    Ask for life, O Aqht the youth

                    Ask for life and I will give it to you,

                        For deathlessness (blmt) and I will bestow it on you.

                    I will make you count years with Baal,

                        With the sons of El you shall count months."

The word blmt is the word for "death" (mot) negated (compare Hebrew beli, "without"). Anat was promising eternal life, a victory over death.

            So the myths of Ugaritic claimed for their gods the power of immortality, of being able to overcome death. It also claims that the gods do not die. However, Baal did die in the texts, and so there is no logic or consistency to the texts. Baal’s revival made him appear immortal to the pagan worshipers. It is interesting in the legend that the lad Aqht does not believe Anat--he knows he will die. But since Aqht insulted Anat, she had him murdered and took the bow anyway. The legend may indicate that Anat later restored Aqht to life: "Him I will revive, only let his bow be given to me."

            The prophets of Israel were well acquainted with these beliefs that prevailed in Ugarit, that Baal who died and was resurrected could resuscitate. But those were mythical tales about gods and goddesses. When Elijah raised the dead boy from death, it was actual and factual. And the act of resurrection convinced the woman that Elijah was a true prophet--he could perform godly acts--to resurrect humans.

            Elisha also did this. The son that had been born to the great woman grew up, but fell ill and died also (2 Kings 4:28). The grieving woman reproached the prophet for giving her a son and then taking it away. The prophet sent Gehazi to guard the body from burial til he arrived. Gehazi apparently tried to raise the lad with the rod, but could not do it. Then, when the old prophet arrived, he prayed fervently to God and then stretched himself out on the land as if to pour his life into him. Finally, he succeeded in raising the lad.

            Then again, even the lifeless body of Elisha revived a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-22). A group of men were trying to bury a man when they were attacked by a band from Aram. They quickly threw the corpse into the grave of Elisha fled. But as soon as the dead man touched the body of Elisha, he was revived and stood up. The point is that it is Yahweh who kills and makes alive, he brings down to the grave and brings up again." But the more significant point here is that even the body of a dead prophet of Yahweh can give life. Baal cannot, not when he is dead, not when he is said to revive.

Conclusion

        Thus both Elijah and Elisha, through their prayers, were able to demonstrate in fact that it was Yahweh who gives life, by restoring dead sons to life, or causing a dead man to rise when he touched the dead prophet, or by providing sons to women who could have no children for one reason or another. The claims of the Canaanites in their mythological texts were hollow--they were not proven in human experience. They remained descriptions of the gods recorded to convey a belief, a false belief as it happens, that Baal has the power to give life. Only Yahweh, the God of Israel, can do that. Here again the works of Elijah and Elisha establish the true faith at the expense of pagan religion.