Friday, 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!”
Saturday, 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!
Sunday, 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.
Monday, 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).
Tuesday, August 2
Second Kings 3: The present chapter, concerned with Israel’s dealings with the Moabite nation, testifies to Elisha’s prophetic involvement in geopolitics.
Omri, the father of Ahab, had subjected the Moabites thirty years before. Indeed, the Moabite king in the present chapter, Mesha, left us an important inscription, which speaks of that subjection and of his own rebellion against Israel. That inscription reads, in part, “Omri, king of Israel, had oppressed Moab for many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him, and he also said, ‘I will oppress Moab.’ In my days he said this, but I have triumphed over him and his house, and Israel has perished forever.” Needless to say, the present chapter of Kings gives a somewhat different version of Mesha’s rebellion.
What Mesha did accomplish was the fortification of the northern routes from Israel, which obliged Jehoram to approach Moab from the south—“by way of the wilderness of Edom” (verse 8). For this venture, he needed the cooperation of Judah and Edom; this he secured by establishing a coalition with King Jehoshaphat and the Edomites (verse 7). The formation of this coalition is to be dated between 852 and 848.
The southern approach to Moab lay through the desert, through which the coalition force was obliged to march for a whole week, exhausting their water supply. In desperation they sought prophetic counsel from Elisha, whom they knew to have been the servant of Elijah (verses 9-12).
Elisha, who knew a thing or two about Baal worship in Israel, first suggested— sarcastically—that these three kings seek counsel from Baalist prophets. In the context of the current shortage of water, this sarcasm recalled the famous drought of Ahab’s time, the drought that ended when Elijah killed the prophets of Baal.
At last, however, Elisha prophesies an abundance of water to supply the needs of the coalition army, and the next morning a flood flows from the south—that is, from the very desert. The besieged Moabites, when they saw the water on the red sandstone hills to the south, imagined it was blood, and they concluded that the three partners of the coalition must have slaughtered one another during the night. (In Hebrew the very word, “Edom,” means “red” and is a cognate of dam, which means “blood.”
Rushing out to despoil the besieging camp, the Moabites were routed by the forces of the coalition. King Mesha, in desperation, offered his own son in sacrifice, thus bringing “a great wrath on Israel.” Apparently this terrible gesture rallied the forces of Moab, so that they dispersed the coalition and gained independence from Israel. Contrary to Mesha’s claim, however, it is not true that “Israel has perished forever.”
Wednesday, August 3
Second Kings 4: Having already examined the ways in which Elijah resembles Moses, let us look at the signs of a similar resemblance in the case of Elisha. These have to do chiefly his ministry as a worker of miracles. Indeed, Moses and Elisha are clearly the Old Testament’s two great thaumaturges. This is not to say that Elisha is portrayed as a miracle-worker in order to make him look like another Moses. Indeed, the very opposite presumption is made here. That is to say, it is presumed here that the Bible portrays Elisha as resembling Moses the miracle-worker because he did, in fact, work miracles, as Moses had done.
Nonetheless, that point understood, it is reasonable to suggest that the author of Kings does tell his story in such a way as to accentuate the similarities between the two men in this matter of miracles. In this respect it is worth examining the context and sequence of 2 Kings 2—6 rather closely.
First, the prophetic ministry of Elisha begins where that of Elijah left off; namely, with the miraculous parting of the waters (2:14), this repetition of the miracle putting one in mind, of course, of both Moses and Joshua. Next, in grudging response to the persistent requests made by “the sons of the prophets,” Elisha authorizes a search for Elijah’s body. Knowing what had happened to Elijah, Elisha is hardly surprised at their failure to find it (2:15–17), and the attentive reader will remember that, among the last recorded facts about Moses, it was said, “no one knows his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
Such is the context in which Elisha begins his ministry as a worker of miracles. These latter immediately come in a fairly rapid sequence reminiscent of the ten plagues of Moses. And, like those Mosaic plagues, these recorded miracles of Elisha are also ten in number: the purification of the spring at Jericho (2:19–21), the efficacious cursing of his foes (2:23–25), the wondrous flow of water (3:16–20), the miraculous production of oil (4:1–7), the raising of the dead boy (4:18–37), the purging of the pot of stew (4:38–41), the multiplication of food (4:42–44), the cleansing of Naaman’s leprosy and its transferal to Gehazi
(5:1–27), the floating ax head (6:1–7), and the blinding and enlightenment of the Syrian soldiers (6:8–23).
As both prophet and miracle-worker, Elisha stands in Holy Scripture as a very special foreshadowing of Christ. In truth, except for Moses, no other Old Testament figure so completely combines both of those characteristics of our Lord as does this ninth-century prophet, who was also a healer of leprosy, provider of food and water, and raiser of the dead. It is particularly proper, then, that Elisha appears as an illustration in Jesus’ first recorded public words, the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. In that sermon, the Lord recalls that “many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).
Thursday, August 4
Mark 14:12-21: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
Christian believers are baptized in Christ in order to enter into the table fellowship of the Holy Eucharist. That grain of wheat, sown in the earth on Good Friday, sprang forth as the infinite Paschal harvest and now abides forever in the granary of heaven. Christ our Lord is not content, however, simply to abide in his glorified body. In this body, Christ can be found in only one place. He is needed, however, in many places, and this is the reason he provided a new, sacramental mode of presence. In the Holy Eucharist, he lives on thousands of altars at once, available—edible!—for the myriads of believers who draw near in the fear of God and with faith and love.
In the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, the wheat, which is Christ’s glorified body, is baked in the oven of the Holy Spirit, so that the nutritive Energies of God may pass into those who receive him in faith. Through the cells and sinews of our own flesh there course those divine Energies that transform and deify our bodies and souls—our whole being—with the power of immortality.
Acts 23:11-22: During the night after his hearing before the Sanhedrin, Paul was visited by the Lord in a dream, in which he was encouraged by the explicit assurance that he would be going to Rome. Consequently, in spite of outward appearances, Paul knew that his life was not in danger for the moment (23:11).
Such encouragement was exactly what he needed, for a new trouble arose on the next day. More than forty men, conspiring to murder him, vowed not to eat or drink until the deed was done (23:12-13). It is instructive to note that the plotters involved the Sadducees, the priestly party, in their conspiracy (23:14-15), but not the Pharisees. It was this latter group, we recall, that expressed sympathy for Paul’s message.
A plot involving so many people is hard to keep secret, and Paul, not confined by maximum security, was able to learn of it and, using the services of a nephew, to take steps against it (23:16-17). We are probably correct in suspecting that Luke’s source for this account was the boy himself. About nine o’clock that very night, Paul was moved out of the city under armed guard, Indeed, the large retinue included nearly half of the forces garrisoned at the Fortress Antonia. We are not told whether or not the frustrated plotters actually persevered in their vow of starvation!
Friday, August 5
Second Kings 6: The saga of Elisha continues. After the miracle of the floating ax head (replicated later on in the life of Saint Benedict, according to Saint Gregory’s biography of him), there follows an account of Syrian military activity against Israel and the victory of Elisha over Israel’s enemies (verses 8-23).
The story of the ax head must not be separated from its context, which is the building project of “the sons of the prophets.” These men, who lived hidden in caves during the time of Ahab and Jezebel, are now out in the open; they no longer fear for their lives. This simple fact indicates the recent popular ascendancy of the prophets, along with the diminished power of the throne. We observe that the kings now consult with the authentic prophets, something Ahab and Jezebel never did when Elijah was still around.
Indeed, in the story that follows—of war between Syria and Israel—the prophetic ministry is so dominant that the author neglects even to mention the names of the respective kings. We must piece together other information to discern that they are Jehoram of Israel and Benhadad of Damascus.
Because this is a story of the prophetic ministry, there is considerable attention paid to sight. Thus, Benhadad instructs his men to “see where [Elisha] is” (verse 13). Elisha prays that his opponents will be struck blind (verse 18), and two times prays that someone will see (verses 17, 20). That is to say, the prophet finds his advantage through the medium of light. When he wishes, Elisha’s enemies are submerged in darkness, like the men of Sodom and Egypt. As for the prophet himself, he seems always aware of the invisible world that surrounds him and his contemporaries; he is especially conscious of the presence of angels, who have charge over the Lord’s loyal servants. Indeed, it appears that the angels in this story are charged to serve and guard the prophetic mission of Elisha.
This angelic guardianship leads to the great reversal, in which the Syrian forces, dispatched to capture Elisha, become his prisoners! There ensues the ironical scene in which King Jehoram of Israel seeks to take advantage of the captured Syrians, whom his own army had been unable to defeat. Elisha, however, will not permit it. He it was—not the king—who took these men captive. He will treat them with the respect due a prisoner-of-war after the fighting is over. He feeds the prisoners and sends them home (verse 23). Israel’s king has nothing to say about it. Clearly, the prophets are now more powerful than the kings.