Friday, July 25

First Kings 17: Although the “institution” of the northern throne, unlike the Davidic throne, is blessed by no covenant, God does not forsake His people in the north. As we see throughout these chapters, He continues to bless them through the non-institutional ministry of the prophets, several of whom are anonymously mentioned in the story of the Northern Kingdom. Of those who are named, special attention is given to Elijah, Micaiah, and Elisha. In First Kings, the dominant prophetic person is Elijah the Tishbite, who is introduced in the present chapter.

These next three chapters are united around the theme of the drought that took place during the reign of Ahab. It was invoked by the Prophet Elijah as a divine punishment against the infidelity of the Northern Kingdom, chiefly through its compromising alliance with the Phoenicians and their god, Baal.

We observe that Elijah, rather like John the Baptist in the Gospel accounts, receives no adequate introduction in the narrative. We find him shouting as soon as he appears. Elijah appreciates the irony of this punitive drought; the people have forsaken the Lord and given themselves over to this Phoenician-Canaanite divinity, Baal, who is a rain god. Now, as a result of this new adherence, the rain suddenly stops for three and a half years. And Baal is powerless to do anything about it! The ensuing famine also hits Phoenicia (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 8.13.2).

When the crisis of the drought is resolved, at last, it will be resolved in a very dramatic way. It will not simply start raining again. It will start raining only after Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a sensational “rain match” in chapter 18. When Elijah is on the scene, there is never a boring moment.

Meanwhile, for the next forty-two months, everybody suffers the drought, including Elijah himself, who finds a bit of water in small Wadi Cherith and is fed daily by two ravens that bring him meat and bread. We have here a clear parallel with the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert during the time of Moses. Elijah is certainly aware of this parallel. His mental association with Moses is so sharply a feature of his identity that we will find him, in just a few chapters, standing before the Lord on the very mountain where Moses received the Torah.

When the wadi dries up, Elijah must seek other arrangements. As he travels in search of sustenance, he comes to the village of Zarephath, on the Phoenician coast, south of Sidon. Here he meets a widow—clearly a pagan —with a son, whose resources have been reduced to their single meal. Elijah requests the gift of that meal, and the compassionate widow gives it to him. From that instant on, the woman and her son are miraculously provided with food until the end of the drought. Here there is a parallel with the earlier experience of Elijah himself, who was daily fed by the ravens.

When the widow’s son dies, Elijah’s prayer brings about his resuscitation. Jesus, in his first sermon in Luke’s Gospel, refers to this woman (cf. Luke 4:25-26). There is also a parallel with the widow who gave her last bit of resources to the Lord in the Gospel story (cf. Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).

Saturday, July 26

Mark 9:38-50: The Apostles still resist the Word of the Cross, here exemplified in their challenge to the man who cast out demons in Jesus’ name (verse 38). The reason given is “he does not follow us.” Us? He does not follow us?

Once again we find these Apostles, who are supposed to be following Jesus, worried about being the big shots on the block. Whereas they should be concerned about the driving out of demons, they are bothering themselves about their own importance in the matter.

There is a special irony here. Exactly 20 verses earlier, the father had said of the demon that possessed his little boy, “So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” Now, twenty verses after demonstrating their own inability to drive out demons, we find them stopping someone who could drive out demons!

These Apostles have clearly lost their way. Not heeding the Word of the Cross, their entire view of the Gospel has been seriously skewed. In the words of our Lord, the salt has lost its taste. It is no longer good for anything (verse 50).

The Evangelist Mark, writing in the context of the Neronic persecution that followed the fire in Rome in A.D. 64, is intent on reminding his Christian readers of the true cost of discipleship, based on the Word of the Cross. If a man does not take up his cross and follow Jesus, Jesus’ own cross is of no avail. If a man does not have Jesus as his Lord and Leader, he does not have Jesus as his Savior.

Acts 16:25-40: When God hears in heaven the prayers of His faithful, dramatic things begin to happen on earth. Paul and Silas are singing their hymn, and immediately God answers their prayers with an earthquake (16:25-26; Revelation 8:4-5). The jailer, who evidently lives nearby, is roused from his slumber (exs-hypnos) and comes running at the disturbance, only to find that the door of the jail is ajar. Presuming that his prisoners have escaped, and knowing that his own life is forfeit if this is the case, he draws his sword to kill himself. Paul, his eyes better accommodated to the darkness, sees all this, as the view from the “inner cell” of the double-cell prison (16:24) takes in the front door and the area immediately outside.

This jail was excavated beneath the ancient church of Saints Paul and Silas. I was able to enter it on July 17, 1973, but in recent years it has not been open for the public to enter. Still, it is possible to examine it visually through the grating that now guards the outer entrance.

Sunday, July 27

First Kings 19: In the Books of Kings it is not difficult to perceive the ways in which the prophets Elijah and Elisha resemble the great Moses. Indeed, emphasizing that resemblance pertained very much to the author’s purpose, for he had in mind to portray them both as Moses’ latter-day successors, each providing some measure of fulfillment to Moses’ own prophecy that he would be succeeded by a prophet like himself (Deuteronomy 18:15–18). This perspective is likewise part of the Bible’s more general care to regard the prophetic corpus as the proper sequence to the Law. In fact, the expression “the Law and the Prophets” is sometimes employed to mean simply the whole Hebrew Bible.

In due course we shall explore the ways in which Elisha (introduced in the present chapter) resembles Moses. For now, let us limit our consideration to Elijah, who resembles Moses in several particulars of his story: a miraculous provision of meat and bread in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4–7), a fast of forty days while journeying through the desert on the strength of miraculously provided bread and water (19:4–8), and, in the present chapter, an encounter with the Lord on Mount Horeb, complete with all the sounds and sights associated with Moses’ own experience in that place. Elijah receives his prophecies on the very mountain where Moses received the Law. Like Moses too, Elijah covers his face in response to his mountaintop experience (19:9–13). Then, when the time comes for Elijah to leave this life, he repeats Moses’ act of parting the waters and then disappears east of the Jordan, where Moses disappeared (2 Kings 2:8–18).

As the present chapter begins, Elijah is afraid, this same Elijah who acted so fearlessly in the preceding story. He flees the vengeance and wrath of Jezebel, whose prophets he slew after the episode on Mount Carmel. Elijah is also very tired from the exertions of the previous day, to say nothing of the ordeals associated with the long drought and famine. As he flees southward, he comes to Beersheba, at the southern boundary of Judah. Even for northerners this city is a popular site of pilgrimage (cf. Amos 5:5; 8:14). Here he leaves his servant, for Elijah has in mind to go much further south.

He proceeds another day into the Judean desert and sits under a tree, feeling very discouraged. In this respect Elijah resembles two earlier discouraged travelers in the desert, Moses and David. Totally distressed, he falls asleep from the heat and great fatigue. Twice an angel from the Lord feeds him with bread and water in the wilderness. Strengthened by these modest meals, he travels another 40 days—reminiscent of Moses’ forty years in the wilderness—until he comes to Mount Horeb (Sinai), where the Lord entered into covenant with Israel. He climbs the mountain to the place where Moses met the Lord, amid earthquake, fire, and whirlwind. Elijah’s own revelation from the Lord, however, takes place in a still small voice.

The prophet is warned about the dangers of isolation and self-pity. He is instructed to go back down the mountain and make contact with some of the seven thousand of the Lord’s loyal servants. Elijah must stop all this I-alone-am-left nonsense. There is still work to do. First, he must anoint two new kings, Hazael over Syria and Jehu over Israel. We take note that the Lord has a covenant with neither of these men, but He does choose them.

Finally, Elijah is to anoint Elisha to be his own replacement in the prophetic ministry.

Monday, July 28

First Kings 20: This chapter starts with a Syrian siege of Samaria (verses 1-6). The fortress at Samaria, constructed during the reigns of Omri and Ahab, was almost impregnable; when it later fell to the Assyrians in 722, the latter force needed siege machines and three years to accomplish the task.

In response to the demands of the besiegers, King Ahab takes counsel of the tribal elders, who have taken refuge within the fortress. These encourage the king to resist boldly.

What happens next may surprise the reader, who knows that the Lord has already rejected Ahab (cf. 19:16). In spite of this rejection, the king still receives positive prophetic messages from the Lord (verses 13,28). That is to say, in spite of Israel’s schism from the covenanted throne at Jerusalem, in spite of the people’s continued infidelities, and in spite of the apostasy of Ahab, the Lord sustains His faithfulness.

This divine fidelity to the people of the Northern Kingdom—the schismatic kingdom—is of a piece with the material in the surrounding chapters, particularly the ministry of Elijah. The lesson drawn from this entire account indicates that the God of the Covenant does not suddenly lose interest in His people when a schism occurs. This lesson should be a source of comfort and strength to all Christians today, who are heirs to the many schisms which have divided them over the centuries; when schisms occur among the people of God, God is certainly displeased, but this in no way implies that redeeming grace is limited to just one side of a schismatic situation. Throughout the Book of Kings, we see grace poured out in both the south and the north, notwithstanding the schism between them.

Ahab, encouraged by the counsel of the elders and the word of the prophet, makes a very successful sortie against the Syrians, who have let their guard down—“Benhadad was drinking himself drunk in the encampment.” The armies of Syria’s vassal states panic, and the rest of the Syrian army retreats, but Ahab is warned that they will try again (verses 16-22).

The do try again in the spring, this time east of the Sea of Galilee, on the road joining Israel with Damascus. Once again, Ahab receives prophetic assurance (verse 28), apparently from the same prophet who had encouraged him earlier (says Josephus, Antiquities 8.14.3). When King Benhadad of Syria (known in Assyrian sources as “Hadadezer”) is captured, he agrees to a politically expedient treaty with Ahab (verses 30-34). Actually, these two men need one another, because the region is about to be invaded by a king more powerful than either, Shalmaneser III of Assyria. Israel and Syria will be parts of a coalition assembled to oppose the Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar in 854 B.C.

Tuesday, July 29

First Kings 21: Naboth was a conservative. He could even be called a hopeless conservative, because he was also an anachronism. The moving times had passed him by, and his desperate cause was doomed from the start.

But even to speak of Naboth’s “cause” is probably misleading, for he was certainly no activist nor agitator, no reactionary nor leader of a movement. On the contrary, Naboth was a quiet, private man who wanted only to be left alone, free to grow his grapes on the little plot his fathers had planted for roughly three centuries.

There had been a time—and not so very long before—when Naboth’s modest aspirations represented an ideal. Even a century earlier, during the reign of Solomon (961–922 BC), it was said that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Truth to tell, the Mosaic ordinance, taken literally, prescribed that no man’s farm, the land bequeathed by his father, should ever pass definitively out of the family. In due course, rather, those same inherited fields would be handed on to the next generation, so that household and real estate would remain forever inseparable (Leviticus 25:23; Numbers 36:7).

But by Naboth’s day the times had changed, and fewer folks felt tied so to their land. Indeed, in large measure Solomon himself, by introducing new mercantile enterprises and fiscal policies, had been responsible for the change. Thanks to the peace that David’s sword had brought to the region, international trade started to boom in the second half of the tenth century before Christ. By shrewd geopolitical maneuvers, Solomon joined the vast shipping interests of the Mediterranean to the extensive mercantile empire of Sheba, spread through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and waters more exotic still.

As a consequence of these adventures, new and lucrative employment was to be had in Israel’s expanding cities, jobs much easier than the long hours and back-bending labor of the small family farm. Little wonder, then, that many Israelites began to adopt a less-than-literal understanding of the ancient rules about not letting their land be lost from the family. Attracted by the prospect of a brighter future in the city, working at any of the scores of new professions spawned by Solomon’s economic success, many citizens simply forfeited the inheritance of their fathers.

This rich economic development meant, of course, fewer farmers and larger farms. This adjustment created no immediate problems of labor, nonetheless, because the larger farms were more efficiently cultivated with tools made from a recently smelted metal called iron. Plowshare blades, axes, hoes, and scythes were sturdier than ever. Furthermore, farmers learned to seal the walls of their wells and cisterns with calcium oxide, thus preserving the precious water needed for irrigation. Food production increased enormously.

The enhanced nutrition not only lowered the infant mortality rate, it also led to earlier puberty and menarche, thus increasing the birth rate. The larger and healthier population provided the expanding work force needed for the economic boom. In short, as far as the bankers and financiers were concerned, the times were bright, and the future looked brighter. Seldom any more did one hear his elders talk of “the good old days” prior to this new, advanced era.

Not every man, however, fell into step with the march of progress, and a hundred years later there were still some stubborn, godly souls who, reading the Mosaic mandates rather close to the letter, maintained the homesteads very much as their forebears had done. Naboth, whose story is told in 1 Kings 21, was one of these dogged holdouts. When King Ahab, coveting Naboth’s vineyard in Jezreel, sought to buy or swap for it, he was met by the owner’s emphatic “No!”

Because Ahab’s queen was a ruthless woman, not scrupulous about such matters as suborning perjury and shedding blood, Naboth paid for his conservatism with the price of his life. Like his contemporary Elijah, this brave vine-grower stood defenseless but defiant before raw power and cruel injustice. This baffling Naboth’s hearty answer to Ahab (21:3) may serve as a battle cry for every true conservative: “The Lord forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!”

Wednesday, July 30

First Kings 22: Besides surprised, Micaiah ben Imlah was feeling more than faintly puzzled. A messenger had just arrived from the palace in Samaria, summoning him to a large consultation of prophets that King Ahab had assembled to consider some new military option. Ahab, for reasons Micaiah could only guess, wanted him to be a part of that consultation. Why? After all, the king had never been especially happy about Micaiah’s earlier prophecies.

The time was 850 BC, roughly three years since King Ahab had joined forces with Ben-Hadad of Damascus, along with other allies in the region, to withstand the forces of the Assyrian emperor, Shalmaneser III, at the battle of Qarqar. So far, their ad hoc military league had been successful in discouraging further invasions from Assyria, and as long as there was a possible threat from that quarter, it seemed, peace would continue between Israel and Damascus (1 Kings 22:1).

But Ahab learned that peace with Damascus came at a price, and, notwithstanding the advantage he enjoyed by maintaining this good relationship with Ben-Hadad, it truly rankled him that the latter still occupied an ancient Israelite city, Ramoth Gilead. The secure return of all Israelite cities had been one of the pledges exacted from Ben-Hadad several years earlier, when Ahab had defeated him at the battle of Aphek (20:1–34). The pledge was not being honored. Besides, Ahab recalled, even at the battle of Qarqar, when he had joined forces with Ben-Hadad to meet the Assyrians, he himself had put no fewer than two thousand chariots on the field, eight hundred more than came from Damascus. Ahab was confident, then, that he could settle accounts properly with this Ben-Hadad with sufficient show of force.

Micaiah ben Imlah knew most of this already. What puzzled him was the fact that King Ahab was seeking his own prophetic word about attacking Damascus. After all, there were four hundred “yes prophets” at court already, who would tell his majesty exactly what he wanted to hear. Chief among them was Zedekiah ben Chenaanah, a thoroughly uncivil and surly fellow much given to theatrical flourish on matters of prophecy (22:11).

The royal messenger indicated to Micaiah that Ahab had little choice. King Jehoshaphat of Judah, he explained, on whom Ahab was relying for military assistance, was apparently having second thoughts on the business. Recently arrived at court in Samaria, the king of Judah was not entirely convinced by the enthusiasm of these four hundred “yes prophets” encouraging Ahab to go to war. Suspecting them to be nothing more than groveling sycophants, Jehoshaphat wanted to make certain that the planned attack on Damascus was really God’s will. So he requested that a new voice be added to the discussion. Ahab agreed to summon Micaiah, but reluctantly, for he added, “I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil” (22:2–8).

The king’s messenger to Micaiah pleaded with the prophet, then, not to upset the royal plans. Four hundred prophets, surely, could not be wrong. “Please,” he said, “let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak encouragement” (22:13). But Micaiah made him no such promise.

Arriving at the gate of Samaria, where the two kings were enthroned in regal splendor, Micaiah resolved to be sarcastic with Ahab. This fool of a king was determined to wage war? Well, then, let him. “Go and prosper,” Micaiah announced in a singsong voice, “for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!” Ahab, however, would not let the matter rest. When he insisted on knowing “the truth in the name of the Lord,” Micaiah gave him an undiluted dose, prophesying not only Israel’s defeat at the hands of Ben-Hadad, but also Ahab’s own death in the battle. Turning to Jehoshaphat when he heard these words, Ahab exclaimed: “Did I not tell you he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” (22:15–18).

Micaiah was promptly dispatched to prison until Ahab should return from battle, but he knew that the king would never come home. His own prophetic efforts that day had gone for naught, faced as he was with a moral buffoon forcing him, by a “no-win” question, to make a “no-win” prophecy. The Lord had determined Ahab’s destruction (22:19–23). Realizing this, Micaiah headed off to prison. At least he would never again be called to court!

Thursday, July 31

Second Kings 1: The death of Ahab, because it effectively served as a death knell for the dynasty of Omri in the north, appropriately closed the First Book of Kings. Ahab’s two sons, Ahaziah (854-852) and Jehoram (852-841), will not amount to much. Already, on Mount Horeb, the Lord revealed to Elijah who would rule Israel next; indeed, this next part of the monarchical history presupposes the instructions Elijah received on Mount Horeb. There will be new dynasties in Syria and Israel, and a new prophet, Elisha, enters the scene.

The kingdom of Moab, east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, has been chafing under Israelite control for a long time, first under Jerusalem and then under Samaria. Learning of Ahab’s death, the Moabites declare their independence. As we shall see when we come to the story of King Mesha in chapter 3, they will have to fight for this independence.

Ahab’s son and successor, Ahaziah, when injured by a fall, seeks counsel about his injury from a prophet of Baal (whom the narrator—or perhaps a copyist—mockingly calls “Baalzebub,” or “lord of flies”). Elijah, instructed by an angel, meets the king’s delegation and gives them God’s view of this consultation. Evidently, the prophet does not identify himself. Consequently, when the delegation returns to the king, he questions them about the man’s appearance. Their description removes all doubt that the melancholy message the king receives—“you will surely die”—comes from the man Ahaziah’s father called “the trouble-maker of Israel” (First Kings 18:17).

Ahaziah determines to speak with Elijah in person, and to this end he dispatches other delegations, summoning the prophet to the royal presence. Until the Lord tells him to accept the summons, however, Elijah declines to go to the king, no matter how urgent and forceful the pressure to do so. In addition, the first two delegations themselves come to a bad end. The captain of the third delegation, desperate not to suffer a similar fate and reluctant to return to court without Elijah, pleads with the prophet. It is then that the Lord tells Elijah to go to Ahaziah and deliver the divine decree in person.

Ahaziah, accordingly, dies; the year is 852, two years after the Battle of Qarqar. His passing testifies to the authenticity of Elijah’s mission to Israel—“according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken.” As the deceased king has left no heir, the throne comes to Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram (852-841), who is also a son of Jezebel.

Friday, August 1

Second Kings 2: We come now to one of the most memorable scenes in Holy Scripture, Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire. No comment about the event could possibly be as interesting as the event.

Jewish and Christian imaginative tradition has always been fascinated by the simple fact that Elijah never died. Like Enoch, he was taken up by the Lord into heaven. Later on, the last of Israel’s canonical prophets, Malachi, foretold his return. This prophecy led to vast religious speculation, which has continued to the present day. Let us consider a single example of such speculation:

In Mark’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration (9:2-10), one of its most notable features is the curious way the evangelist speaks of the arrival of Moses and Elijah. Whereas Matthew and Luke say simply, “Moses and Elijah appeared” on the scene, Mark lays a special stress on Elijah. He writes, “Elijah appeared to them with Moses.” Not only does Mark mention Elijah before Moses, but the verb he uses, “appeared” (ophthe), is singular, not plural. Mark’s account is about the arrival of Elijah, Moses playing a rather secondary role.

Why is Elijah so prominent in Mark’s story of the Transfiguration? This emphasis can hardly be insignificant. To throw light on the question, I suggest three steps:

First, let us observe that Mark’s version of the Transfiguration is followed immediately by a question about the return of Elijah. Speaking of the three apostles that had just witnessed the scene, Mark writes, “And they asked Him, saying, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’”

As it stands in Mark, this question strikes one as curious, a bit odd, in context. Why, right between the Transfiguration and the healing of the little boy at the bottom of the mountain, do the apostles suddenly become inquisitive about the return of Elijah? It is rather strange.

Second, if their question is rendered odd by its context, perhaps we should look more closely at that context. What I propose to do here is remove the Transfiguration from Mark’s story and have a look at the context without it. If this procedure seems unusual, let me explain. I don’t intend to alter or rearrange the biblical passage. On the contrary, I simply want to understand how the Transfiguration story is set within its context in Mark. This is why I propose to examine that context without the Transfiguration. This is something on the order of picturing a ring apart from its gem, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for a jeweler to do.

Now, if we remove the story of the Transfiguration from Mark’s sequence for a moment, we will notice something very peculiar and interesting. Without the Transfiguration, here is the way chapter nine of Mark begins:

And He said to them, “Amen, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Then He answered and told them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.”

We immediately notice that this hypothetical narrative sequence flows more logically (if this is the word I want) than the actual story as Mark tells it. The apostles’ question about the return of Elijah no longer seems odd or abrupt. It appears, rather, as a natural and expected response. The Lord predicts, “there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power,” and the disciples answer, “Well, all right, but isn’t Elijah supposed to come first?” That is to say, the narrative sequence makes perfect sense without the Transfiguration.

Third, if the sequence is completely logical without the Transfiguration, then what does the Transfiguration add to the story? This question brings me to the substance of my argument; namely, in Mark’s account the Transfiguration seems to have been inserted (whether by Mark or by an earlier source on which he relies—this question is not important to our purpose) into an earlier narrative sequence, because it does, in fact, directly address the question of the return of Elijah. Indeed, this is exactly what Mark says with respect to the Transfiguration: “Elijah appeared”!

We see, then, how the Transfiguration story functions in the sequence of Mark’s narrative. Its position serves to answer a question about Elijah’s return. He came back at the Transfiguration! In the theology of Mark, Elijah’s arrival at the Transfiguration of our Lord places that event into the context of a specific prophecy abut Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).

As the story flows in Mark, moreover, this appearance of Elijah at the Transfiguration scene not only fulfills the prophecy of Malachi; it also identifies Malachi’s “day of the Lord” with the Resurrection. We see this very clearly in Mark’s sequence, where the question about Elijah expresses the apostles’ puzzlement about the Resurrection. Mark writes,

Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Finally we may comment that this Markan emphasis on Elijah in the Transfiguration story is very different from that in Matthew and Luke. Although Matthew (17:1-12) follows Mark in the sequence of these two stories, he does not give a special emphasis to Elijah in his account of the Transfiguration. On the contrary, he adds an explanatory note that symbolically identifies Elijah with John the Baptist (17:13). Luke, who makes the same identification (1:17), completely omits the apostles’ question about the return of Elijah.

Although the full meaning of Elijah’s return has never been completely settled in Christian theology, it is worth remarking that St. Ambrose followed Mark’s lead in seeing the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5 in the Lord’s Transfiguration (De Virginibus 1.3.12).