Thursday, March 25, 2010

1 Kings 17-22: Ahab v. Elijah!

Ready to hear about a prophet you've actually heard of?  Well, look no further, because Elijah the Tishbite is here!  Now, I think "Tishbite" is a really funny word.  But even people with funny names can serve God and do awesome things.  Check this out.  The first thing Elijah does ans go to Ahab and tell him that there is not going to be rain or even dew unless he says so, and that it's going to last a few years.  Luckily, God has a secret hiding place for Elijah where he can get food and water.  First God uses ravens to give Elijah food, but later he uses more traditional means, namely, a person.  There's a widow in a place called Zarephath that God wants to provide for him.  But when Elijah finds her, she's getting ready to bake the very last food she has in her house, and there's only enough for her and her son, and after that they're just going to starve to death.  So Elijah says something really inconsiderate considering that: he asks the widow to make food for him first, and then for her and her son, and he tells her that she won't run out of flour or oil.

Now, if I were in this widow's position, I would probably think this was a crazy guy.  Maybe she knew who Elijah was.  But amazingly, she immediately does exactly what Elijah asked, and sure enough, her flour and oil jars don't run out for the entire length of the drought.  You know how I said maybe she knew who Elijah was? I'm not sure, because once the miracle happens, then she says "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."  She didn't know that for certain before, but she still obeyed.  Now, I have a feeling that if she'd made food for herself and her son first, and then for Elijah, the results would not have been the same. What do you think?  Also notice that the miracle allows the widow to continue making bread, but nothing else.  Elijah doesn't promise for a stray deer to wander onto her property, or for a vegetable truck from the future to slip through a wormhole and land on her doorstep.  Sometimes God's miracles are overwhelmingly huge, and sometimes God's miracles are just keeping us alive.

Now three years have passed, and God tells Elijah that he's finally going to send rain, but first he's got a project.  On his way to tell Ahab, Elijah runs into Obadiah.  Obadiah is one of Ahab's people, but he worships the true God and even saved the lives of 100 prophets when Ahab's wife Jezebel (we'll hear more about her; she's a real gem) is killing them all.  Remember that fact, by the way.  So anyway, Elijah has Obadiah tell Ahab that he's on his way, and very reluctantly, he does.  Elijah tells Ahab to assemble all the people of Israel, including the prophets of Baal (all 450 of them) and the prophets of Asherah (all 400 of them) on Mount Carmel.  So he does, except the prophets of Asherah don't show up for some reason.

This is my favorite story in this book.  Elijah calls the people out and says they need to decide whether to follow the LORD or Baal, and they're going to have a test to see which one is the true God.In true Mythbusters fashion, Elijah sets up identical experiments: two altars, two oxen, no fire.  The god who sends fire from heaven to burn the offering, is really God.

The prophets of Baal spend all day long trying to get Baal to answer him.  They take so long, in fact, that Elijah starts making fun of them.  They even cut themselves because they believed that Baal was drawn to the scent of blood (part shark?).  But the Bible tells us "there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention."  Whatever celestial beings may be up in heaven, Baal is not one of them.

Then it's Elijah's turn, and he tips the scales against his favor by dousing the entire altar with several gallons of water.  He prays one time, in two sentences, and immediately fire comes from heaven and not only burns the offering, but also burns the wood, the stones, and the run-off water that Elijah had poured on the altar.  That would have been freaky.  The highly intelligent people of Israel immediately cry, "The LORD, He is God!"  I'm glad they came to that conclusion given the evidence.  So then Elijah takes all 450 prophets of Baal down the hill and kills them, and he tells Ahab that it's going to rain pretty hard soon.

Ahab goes home to the wife and tells him what the big mean prophet did to him.  Now, Jezebel is a witch.  She's not even Jewish.  Jezebel sends a sweet little note to Elijah that basically says, what you did to the prophets of Baal, may the gods do all that and more to me if I don't kill you by tomorrow.  Now, Elijah has been pretty tough up to this point.  He's faced down 450 prophets of Baal and an evil king without so much as flinching.  He knows God is on his side.  But one telegram from the wicket witch of Israel, and Elijah runs for his life.  He runs to Beersheba, and then he goes into the wilderness, and finally he walks all the way down to Mt. Sinai (also known as Horeb).  So it's no wonder that when he gets there, the first thing God says to him is, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"  Elijah whines that he's done everything for God and Israel has been bad and has killed all the prophets and he's the only one left and they're trying to kill him too.

Now, remember that guy Obadiah?  Thanks to him, there are at least 100 prophets of God alive still.  Maybe Elijah just doesn't know about them.  But the person who wrote this book knew about them, so somebody knows what he did.  Do you ever feel like you're the only one of your kind?  Like you're the only person in the world trying to do the right thing and follow God and you're all by yourself?  I've felt like that.  But the truth is, you're not alone.  Chances are, there are other people in the exact same situation, but you might have to look for them.  This is why I think that it's important for Christians to be part of some kind of church.

God does something interesting next.  He tells Elijah that he's going to pass by.  There's a huge earthquake, but God's not in the earthquake.  Then there's a fire, but God's not in the fire.  And after that there's a tiny, tiny wind - my Bible says "a gentle blowing," and others call it a "still, small voice."  When Elijah hears it, he knows that it is God.  Now, I don't know exactly why God did this, but I think it means that God doesn't always appear with a band, like He did at Mt. Carmel.  Maybe God is telling Elijah that He's going to provide for him the same way He provided for the widow at Zarephath - not with a lot of fanfare and bells and whistles, but by just quietly keeping him going.

So God doesn't even answer Elijah's pity party, except to say that when all is said and done, there will still be 7000 in Israel loyal to Him.  Instead of a "poor baby" and a pat on the back, God tells Elijah to go all the way back to Israel, and stop in Damascus to anoint a new king over Aram (not part of Israel), a new king of Israel, and a new prophet/apprentice for himself.  God says that Hazael (new king of Aram) will kill a bunch of people, and the people Hazael doesn't kill, Jehu (new king of Israel) will kill, and the people Jehu doesn't kill, Elisha (new prophet) will kill, and after all that there will still be 7000 followers of God left.  So Elijah goes back and does those things.

In the next chapter, Israel has a couple wars with the aforementioned country of Aram.  At the time, the king is named Ben-hadad.  Ahab actually wins, and Ben-hadad escapes.  His servants tell him that the Israelite kings are merciful.  Isn't that cool, that even though Israel has turned bad, they still have a good reputation?  Anyway, so Ben-hadad goes groveling to Ahab, and Ahab makes a covenant with him and lets him live.  But then a prophet tells Ahab that he was supposed to kill Ben-hadad and now he and Israel are going to be in trouble because of it.

Next, we have a lovely story about Ahab.  It seems there's this guy named Naboth who has a vineyard near Ahab's palace.  Ahab wants the vineyard, not because it's a good vineyard - he wants to turn it into a vegetable garden - he just wants it because it's close to his house.  Naboth says no, because it's his inheritance.  That might not make a lot of sense to us today - I mean, I were Naboth, and the king offered me money and a better vineyard for it, I would say sure! but inheritance and land were really important to people back in the day.  They were things you just did not give away.

So Ahab goes home to mope, and delightful Jezebel hears the story and says she will get the vineyard.  Unlike Ahab, though, Jezebel is not a fair player.  She just sets up for Naboth to be murdered, and that's what happens.  So then Ahab gets his precious vineyard.  But then Elijah comes back and tells Ahab that, like Jeroboam and Baasha before him, every male in Ahab's family is going to be cut off, and that dogs are going to eat Jezebel's body.  Then the Bible has rare bit of commentary: "Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him."  How would you like that legacy?  Ahab, it seems, didn't so much set out to do evil, as he let evil happen and didn't say a word.  He married a woman who served false gods, he let her set up 850 false prophets who ate at her table, he let her go after Elijah, and he had to have known what she was going to do to Naboth.  Ahab sold himself to the devil so that he could plant a vegetable garden next to his house.  What a dip.

Fortunately for Ahab, he realizes he's a dip.  When Elijah tells him this, he tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth and fasts.  Beloved Jezebel probably kicked him and told him to get up and be happy, but if she did, he finally didn't listen to her.  Anyway, God is so impressed by Ahab's humility that He decides to be merciful and not to cause this rampant destruction in Ahab's days, just in the days of his son.

Finally, another war with Aram.  Israel and Judah go out together.  The king of Judah at this time is Jehoshaphat, who's a good guy, and he wants to ask one of the LORD's prophets whether they'll win.  All the other prophets in the world are telling them that they're going to win.  But along comes another prophet, named Micaiah, and he says they're going to lose.  What's weird about this story is that the people act like it's Micaiah's decision for Aram to win.  When he comes to the king, the messenger tells him to prophesy favorably because that's what everybody else has been doing.  And when he does otherwise, Ahab tells Jehoshaphat, see, I told you he'd say something negative.  And he has him thrown in prison until his safe return.  But I guess he's going to stay there a while, because just like Micaiah said, Aram wins - I assume the king of Aram is the same one that Ahab let live - and Ahab gets randomly shot  and killed.

Last of all we hear more about this Jehoshaphat guy.  He was the son of Asa, a good king, remember?  Jehoshapat is also a good king.  Finally! Asa has succeeded where so many other leaders of Israel have failed, in raising a godly son.  So Judah is on the mend.  In contrast to that,. Ahab's son becomes king, and he's bad just like his father.  Ahab's humiliation may have been sincere, but the text doesn't say anything about repentance or about Ahab serving only the LORD after this point, so in the end, nothing changes in Israel.

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