Abide: 1 Kings 17-19

  • Solomon’s reign was glorious, but what he gained in wealth, wives and infrastructure he lost in spiritual standing. He had not been faithful to the God of Israel. Instead, he adopted a cosmopolitanism that accommodated the religious preferences of his wives. However, God kept faith with David and Solomon, and the kingdom was split in two, with the ten northern tribes, the new Kingdom of Israel, being led by Solomon’s servant Jeroboam, and the southern Kingdom of Judah being led by Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.

  • As we progress through 1 Kings, we find ourselves in the midst of divided kingdoms. There we also find the wild man, Elijah the prophet, the wise widow of Zarephath and other figures from whom we can learn. What does it mean to expect miracles? What does it mean to have faith that God will deliver us and that he will live up to His promises? We explore that and much more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute, and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture blog posts to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. Today we are once again joined by Julia Evans, one of our research assistants who is pursuing a degree in linguistics and preparing to attend law school. Before joining our research team at the Maxwell Institute, Julia worked at the MTC for a year as a Norwegian teacher and then as a training supervisor. She is currently involved in undergraduate research in several areas of linguistics and has strong interest in religion and philosophy.


    Joseph Stuart: Welcome back, Julia.


    Julia Evans: Thank you Joey.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for being here. Now Kristian, we’re looking at 1 Kings 17 through 19 today, a much shorter block of scripture than we’ve been going through recently. What’s going on in these chapters?


    Kristian Heal: So to understand this section, we have to go back to Solomon’s glorious reign. His reign was indeed glorious but what he gained in wealth, wives, and infrastructure, he seemed to have lost in spiritual standing. He had not been faithful to the God of Israel and instead he adopted a cosmopolitanism that accommodated the religious preferences of his wives. However, God kept faith with David and Solomon. And instead of losing the kingdom, the kingdom was split in two with the 10 northern tribes, the new kingdom of Israel, being led by Solomon’s servant Jeroboam, and the southern kingdom of Judah, being led by Solomon’s son Rehoboam. After the secession of the northern tribes as described in 1 Kings 11, the narrative alternates between the two kingdoms, evidently drawing upon records from both royal archives. The northern kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 as described in 2 Kings chapter 17. The rest of the book of 2 Kings, just to look ahead for a moment, recalls the story of the kingdom of Judah until its fall in 587. So we’re in a process of steady decline as we tell the story of kings. I mean, it’s the story of the kings of the northern kingdom are accounts of two great prophetic ministries that of Elijah and his disciple Elisha. Elijah’s ministry is described in 1 Kings 17 through 19, also 1 Kings 21 and the beginning of 2 Kings in chapter one, with his transfiguration described in 2 Kings chapter 1 through 18. Elisha’s ministry begins immediately after that and is described in 2 Kings chapter 2 through 9 with his death recounted in 2 Kings 13. So this week we’ll look at the ministry of the prophet Elijah and next week, we’ll turn our attention to Elisha. So Elijah bursts on the scene like so many of the prophets we’ve encountered before. But unlike them, Elijah is not a mysterious bit part in Israel stories, but disrupts the dominant narrative of the kings of Israel with the word and power of God. Elijah the Tishbite was described as a hairy man with a leather belt tied around his waist. He was a fearless advocate of faithfulness to the Lord. One author describes Elijah as, “…a zealous champion of God, a radical monotheist who fought for his cause fearlessly, and at such personal risk that even Ahab held him in regard.” Ahab was the king who ruled during Elijah’s life. The son of Omri, he had a long reign but did what was displeasing to the Lord more than all who preceded him. He married Jezebel, a Phoenician Princess, served and worshiped the Canaanite god Baal, built a temple to Baal and erected an altar in it. He also erected an ashura or sacred post, the symbol of Baal’s consort, the goddess Asherah. Hence the assessment, Ahab did more to vex the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kings of Israel who preceded him. Israel is astray and needs to be called back to their covenant path. Hence, Elijah’s arrival in the court of Ahab. There are four main stories of Elijah. The first is about the drought brought on by Ahab’s Baal worship, which culminates in a prophetic showdown on Mount Carmel. There we witness the dramatic failure of the Baal priests to call down fire and Elijah success in doing so and his subsequent slaughter of the priests of Baal. Set within this story is the poignant tale of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The second story of Elijah relates to his flight to the wilderness of Mount Horeb to escape from Jezebel’s threats to kill him. The third relates to the land dispute between King Ahab and Naboth, and the fourth, relates to Elijah’s interactions with Ahaziah, the three captains that Epifty sent to apprehend him, and finally his translation and the ascension.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that overview, Kristian. Julia, who is the widow of Zarephath?


    Julia Evans: That’s a very good question, because we actually don’t know a whole lot about her. We just know that she’s a widow who Elijah is actually commanded to go and visit at a certain point in his ministry. She was very poor. She did not have very many physical means to sustain life for her and her son. She was visited by Elijah and she was preparing or she was, I think gathering sticks is what it says in the account where Elijah asks, could you give me some water from the well? And she does. And then he asks her to feed him and she was about to prepare her last meal, her and her son’s last meal before dying. So that was her plan. And then Elijah goes and says, feed me first. Make this food and give it to me. And we don’t actually get any sort of reaction from her in the scriptures. But all we know is that she did it because he promised that if you do this, that she wouldn’t starve, her and her son would not starve for the rest of their lives.


    Joseph Stuart: If I remember correctly, her son also dies and is brought back to life. There seems to be a clear message here about trusting in God. But how do you relate to the widow of Zarephath?


    Julia Evans: I think that initially, it seems that this story is a very clear message following the prophet. You can see how it kind of resonates with Book of Mormon themes, like if you’ll keep the commandments will prosper in the land and those sorts of things. But I think that something here is a lot deeper, maybe. I relate to her because it was really hard for her. And I think this is something everyone can relate to is that it was very difficult for her to give him that food before her own. And then later, when she saw Elijah again, her son had just barely died. She expresses a lot of bitterness, and maybe a little contempt toward the prophet. She says, “What do I have to do with thee o, thou man of God.  Art thou come to me to call my sins to remembrance and to slay my son?” And so the reason I think I relate with her is because she’s so real. Like she expresses it, it’s really hard. And sometimes it causes a lot of suffering and pain to try to follow Elijah and sustain him and support him for her whole life.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it also reminds me of the widow who gave her mites in the New Testament where Jesus says that she gave more than those who are giving great sums because she gave all that she had to the kingdom to build it. I also noticed that there’s a lot of pain expressed here and thinking about how to be good disciples, we don’t have to silently suffer. We can tell others about the difficulty that we’re going through and give them an opportunity to minister. Although in your ministering assignments, I wouldn’t recommend saying please give me all you have before I help you. You were reading Susan Cain’s book. What did you find in her writing that you found interesting?


    Julia Evans: Yes, it’s beautiful. She just finished a book called Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes Us Whole. I really love this quote, about pain that she shares. She says, “We live in a culture that only wants to talk about what’s going well. Anything that’s not going well is positioned as a detour from the main road. The truth is that pain is not a detour from the main road. Pain is part of the road we walk as human beings.”


    Joseph Stuart: It reminds me of something that the Duke professor, Kate Bowler talks about where she says that everyone liked her when she was shiny. But when she had a cancer diagnosis, no one quite knew how to treat her anymore. No one knew how to minister because she was in so much pain, and they were in so much pain because of it, that everyone had to relearn that this has paraphrasing or at least my understanding of it, that she and those around her had to learn how to minister as Christians again because of witnessing this great pain. It seems important to me that the widow of Zarephath and speaking out in her pain, that Elijah’s response to it seems important to recall in our own lives as Latter-day Saint Christians as well.


    Julia Evans: I also love what C.S. Lewis says about pain in his book, The Problem of Pain. He speaks a little bit about how God talks to us through our pain, and we can learn a lot. He says, “We can ignore even pleasure. The pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”


    Kristian Heal: There’s a lovely narrative poem about the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in Syriac that recasts in an interesting way, this last scene with Elijah and the widow’s son. And it does it in such a way in which this is acting as a moment to kind of educate Elijah. And what we’re presented with in the story is an Elijah who is this sort of fiercely loyal, kind of very strict, very kind of clear boundaries of what is right and what is wrong and has been given because of his loyalty, this sealing power to seal the heavens, they will rain or not rain and people are now dying from this famine. And at the moment in which just before this widow’s son dies, this poem says, The Lord looked upon the race of man who failed to look on their companions, and beheld a man who had no compassion on his fellows, and he sent an angel to take away the soul of the widow’s son.” And so part of this, what was going on in this kind of reimagining of this story, is that the death of the widow’s son becomes an immediate sort of intimate death for Elijah. And that through this, and through the pleas of this woman who were taking care of him who risked her own life to bless him, Elijah kind of wakes up to the suffering of all of those around him. And this is what sort of precipitates or prompts him to open the heavens again and to kind of to bring back the rain so that the suffering wouldn’t continue on the earth. And it’s a really interesting way to think about how different characters develop through different experiences that they have and start to see these prophets as people who are growing who are not sort of monolithic, but are growing through the experiences that they’re having. And that it responds to this notion of pain as educative, perhaps, and it’s educative in a way which is difficult. I think there’s no, it’s difficult to kind of learn the lessons of pain, we don’t want to learn the lessons of pain. We don’t want this particular megaphone to wake us up. And I think that’s kind of an interesting, kind of additional insight or additional way to kind of think about the story of Elijah, that particular story.


    Julia Evans: I love how you say that Dr. Heal. It reminds me of just thinking about laws that were given in the law of sacrifice. I think that pain might be part of the point of the law of sacrifice. And it’s also the beauty of it. It’s what sanctifies us and can make us whole. “Can” is the keyword, if we turn to God, and if we’re humbled through it. So I love that.


    Joseph Stuart: President Eyring once said in a new mission presidents training seminar that one of the reasons that there are so many rules for missionaries is so that missionaries continually understand how difficult it is to repent, and to become better. And I think about that all the time. That as we are called to be witnesses, we cannot be separated from the growth that comes from witnessing for the Savior. Elijah as a Prophet also encourages those whom He has called to teach and to witness to become better to recognize what they are doing wrong, and to make it right. And he does that with Ahab, who as you mentioned was quite a wicked king, but is not irredeemable. He sees growth. Can you tell us about Elijah, Ahab, and Naboth?


    Kristian Heal: So this is one of these perhaps lesser discussed stories in the ministry of Elijah, but a very interesting tale. And so we have to picture ourselves in the court of a king and queen who are used to getting their own way. They wield a great deal of power and they have a great deal of influence and are really, I think, thoroughly spoiled. This is the sense that we have. And the scene is set that Ahab in has an adjoining neighbor, Naboth, who owns a vineyard. Ahab looks at this vineyard and says, you know that would make a really nice garden for my palace. So he approaches him and says, I want your vineyard. And Naboth says, these are my ancestral lands. Like I can’t, I’m not going to sell you this. These, you know, have been in my family for generations. And so he refuses to sell his vineyard. And Ahab goes home and is sulking, essentially. And at this point, Jezebel kind of turns up and she is everything that we picture of Jezebel, everything that we’ve sort of heard about is true it seems, about Jezebel. So this is what she says. His wife Jezebel said to him, “Now is the time just show yourself king over Israel and exert some power. Rise and eat something and be cheerful. I will get the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you.” And so she doesn’t tell Ahab to exert some power. She tells him to sort of stand back and watch me work my magic. Watch me do what I’m going to do. And she concocts a plan. Essentially, it’s kind of a smear campaign against Naboth which in those days, if you will, the smear campaign which has you committing blasphemy is going to end up with you being stoned. And so Naboth —she has this plan, she finds two people who are willing to bear false witness against him. He’s convicted of blasphemy and is stoned. And then Ahab, happy now, goes down to his vineyard and enjoys his new plot of land which his wife has kind of won for him. And it’s at this point as we can imagine, it’s at this point, just when Ahab is thinking that all is right when the world again, that he has the thing that he wants, that God sends Elijah to come and disturb his sensibilities. And when he meets him, Ahab said to Elijah, “So, you have found me my enemy.” And so there’s this kind of tension between them. Ahab has this kind of grudging respect. He knows who he is, but he’s very happy for his wife trying to kill him and to get him out of his hair. And so we have this situation in which Elijah calls Ahab to repent and tells him what he has done. And when Ahab heard these words, he rent his clothes, put a sackcloth on his body, he fasted and lay in sackcloth and walked about subdued. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his lifetime.” So the warning that had come, he saved from because he sort of repented. So we have this thoroughly objectionable person, who through the ministry of this prophet is called to repentance and actually listens. Now, what I find interesting about this story is both what is kind of going on here, but also the way that it’s then reimagined in the Christian tradition. And this creates a greater sense of the kind of the characters. One of the ways, that one of the things that was going on when early Christians, early Syriac Christians were reimagining biblical stories is that they’re trying to sort of set the characters in stark relief. And also imagine bits that didn’t happen. So I wanted to share a couple of bits from this sermon by Jacob of Sarug, on Naboth the Jezreelite. So this is at the moment when Jezebel is about to go to her husband to solve the problem of Naboth. And this is just lovely. Jacob’s going to call lots of names. “Then to Jezebel the associate of carves, the fashioner of images, beloved of demons, sister of all the goddesses, celebrant of all the worthless gods share a two of the mysteries of all the pagan altars priests, servitor of the idols of the Amorites, offerer of sacrifices to the lifeless images of the Jezubites, renovator of all the divinities of the Tyre and Sidon, the rotten soul birthing daily evil actions, then did this hugely famous pagan approach her husband Ahab, with a question.” I mean, this has to be one of the most remarkable sort of series of epithets that’s ever been given in ancient literature. But so this is the woman that he’s talking about just in case we were unaware of Jezebel’s precise characteristics.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, not a run of the mill pagan. This is the worst of the worst.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah this is —exactly. She was hugely famous. That sort of idea. ‘What is it that troubles you, O King? Hide it not from me.’ So then the godless one began to speak with her in pain. ‘I asked for Naboth’s vineyard for a price but none would give it to me. I even would have given something for it, but he would not accept it from me.’ Jezebel says, ‘If this is the case, your distress is a laughing matter. For a great king made a minor request and was refused. I shall take care of your business and fix it in the way you want. The vineyard is as good as mine, then I shall give it to you. It’s easy for me, I am smart. I am tricky. I am crafty and well versed in deceit, murder, and falsehood. Any act involving murder, leave it to me and I will resolve it without any trouble. But I am skilled. You have a wife. Do not bother yourself with solutions. For all these iniquitous problems are easy and trivial for me. I’m going to give you Naboth’s vineyard just as you requested. Eat, relax and prosper O King and rule the people.’” Now suddenly, the story has become something entirely different, right? This kind of building up to this moment in which Ahab is going to repent and also kind of establishing these into these fascinating characters. This becomes something which is a kind of a new story, a new experience, as it’s kind of retold and reimagined for a new generation.


    Joseph Stuart: So Jacob of Sarug is clearly pretty upset here, essentially making her the combination of all Disney Villains at the same time. Why is he so concerned about Jezebel in particular of all the bad examples in the Hebrew Bible? Why is he so focused on Jezebel?


    Kristian Heal: Jacob, I think here is ministering to a congregation for whom paganism is a live issue. This is a we’re still in that sort of later Roman Empire that Christians have been in the region that he was preaching in for several centuries now but there are still pagan tribes. There are still cities around him. Heran for example, was a famous pagan city, even in the fifth and sixth century of Jacob of Sarug. And so he’s aware of and trying to indirectly kind of undermine the appeal of any other gods than the god the Christians worship.


    Joseph Stuart: I mean, this strikes me as a sort of scared straight sort of tactic. Like, if you explore paganism, you will end up like Jezebel and kill your neighbor every single time.


    Kristian Heal: Exactly. This is sort of, I mean, this is not a subtle technique, but probably an effective one. He has a kind of a pastoral imperative, right? to get the congregation on the right path and to keep them there. And I find this to be particularly engaging.


    Joseph Stuart: Part of the grandness of Elijah is that he is translated. He does not taste death. But it’s not the last that believers see of him. There are reports of him ministering to others after his translation, right?


    Kristian Heal: Exactly. Elijah becomes this figure in Jewish tradition, much like the three Nephites among Latter-day Saints. He becomes this figure who is as Louis Ginzburg’s classic Legends of the Jews describes it. “Elijah’s removal from the earth, so far from being an interruption to his relations with men, rather marks the beginning of his real activity as a helper in time of need, as a teacher, and as a guide.” And Ginzburg gives several stories of different kinds, in which Elijah comes and intercedes. And of course, in good sort of folklore fashion, these are all kinds of different natures. We all have our own story in which we have been saved by often three, if you’re a Latter-day Saint, sort of unknown helpers. I actually was on my way to teach institute coming from a rural town in Suffolk, driving up to Norridge, the capital city and managed to crash my car. I was stuck in a hedge in somebody’s garden. And three cars sort of pulled up around me, jumped out, kind of pushed me out, the car still worked, and I kind of carried on dutifully because I wanted to get to institute on time. And it’s only after looking back, I thought that was a strange experience that had these three people suddenly appeared and sort of helped me. And so I kind of made me think about, you know, the activity of the three Nephites in the UK, which clearly they like to take holidays there. Hopefully that’s the case.


    Joseph Stuart: Fish and chips. That’s what they’re there for.


    Kristian Heal: Exactly. So one of the stories, for example of Elijah, relates to the famous Rabbi Akiva. A great scholar says, “…lived in dire poverty.” And he had nothing, but his wife was the daughter of a wealthy person. But they’re living with her in this sort of absolute poverty. And all she has to sleep on is a straw mattress. And so he describes Elijah coming in. And this is the way that he sort of ministers to them. He comes in and says, “Can I have some of your straw? We don’t even have that much.” And so all of a sudden Rabbi Akiva is like, Oh, hold on, it could be a lot worse. And so Elijah sort of does this kind of small act of service in helping improve and relieve even psychologically, the situation of this great rabbi. The other way that Elijah was seen to have an afterlife in Jewish tradition, is as the forerunner of the Messiah. And Louis Ginzburg again says, “As many sides of Elijah’s participation in the cause of historical events is, it cannot be compared with what he is expected to do in the days of the Messiah. He is charged with the mission of ordering the coming time or right and restoring the tribes of Jacob. His messianic activity is to be twofold. He is to be the forerunner of the Messiah, yet in part, he will himself realize the promise scheme of salvation. His first task will be to induce Israel to repent when the Messiah is about to come and to establish peace and harmony in the world.” So all of a sudden, we’re now in a comfortable territory as Latter-day Saints with an Elijah coming for the great and terrible day of the Lord. And we have our own stories of Elijah, our own ways that Elijah has come in the latter days and is part of our tradition and our vision for this for the future world. So more or less in the same world in which Jews were telling stories about Elijah, Christians were also starting to or had a series of their own expectations for Elijah, particularly related to the second coming of Christ. And they connected Elijah to John the Baptist as a forerunner and saw him coming specifically to fight against the antichrist. There was Elijah who would come and waged this battle and then Christ would come and win the battle. And so there’s a lovely homily on Elijah by Narsai who lived for much of the fifth century on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire and the western edge of the Persian Empire, a great Christian and teacher in the school there and teaching the Old Testament and interpreting it. And we’re going to read through a little bit of this homily on the end of days. And Julia has kindly agreed to read through this bit. So sort of enjoy these words from the fifth century Mesopotamia about Elijah the prophet.


    Julia Evans: And so it starts. “The rebel fulfills his entire will through the son of perdition and then the Creator gives a sign of mercies upon the earth. Elijah dons from the silence and restrains the violence of the deceiver and stops him from his course lest he increase and trip up all mankind. Elijah is sent with this covenant at the end of time to come and prepare everything before the revelation of Christ. Elijah comes first to silence the sound of error and return the hearts of the fathers which had been turned away from their sons. The King sends a peaceful ambassador to civilization, that by the openness of his words he may weaken the lordship of the wrathful one. In him like a lamp, he enlightened those in darkness toward knowledge and like a guide in him, he turns the loss to the path of life. Through the words of Elijah, the sounds of the deceiver are blotted out. The nets of the captive are cut apart and they turn and come back from evil. Elijah increases and sows the sounds of repentance and he grows through the dew of his words, repentance of the people and the nations. In the order that John served before his earthly dawning, thus comes Elijah before the heavenly dawning. He chose two fleshy preachers for his two revelations that he may prepare lambs of soulful love upon the earth. John proclaimed his birth and Elijah his revelation, and the goal of both is one to return the lost toward him. Elijah increases and admonishes, ‘Lo, the end is now near. Turn from wandering you lost to clear the path of my words.’ The rebel persists in his impedance, erring and misleading mankind until spring springs up over all the earth. That revelation keeps the evil one and then destroys him, that humans and angels may see the vengeful judgment he accepts. For that day, the signs that our Savior gave are seen and all that was written will be fulfilled and the world will rest from its running. The rays of the sun will darken and the moon will not show forth its light, the stars will fall like leaves in the course of the lights will end. Thousands of the ranks of heavenly powers will celebrate as their authorities provide for the preparation of the king of the heights.”


    Kristian Heal: This is a profound and prophetic sermon giving this expectation for Elijah’s role, drawing upon the scriptures and articulating it in such as a beautiful and deep way, showing how Elijah who played such a sort of bold part in proclaiming the worship of Yahweh, the worship of Jehovah, comes again to prepare the way for the return of Jesus Christ. It’s really kind of profound to me and really sort of very beautiful.


    Julia Evans: I think it’s really fitting that Elijah was a prophet during the height of wickedness under King Ahab, and then also that he’s a prophet to restore a lot of these truths. In the last days where we’re also at another sort of peak of wickedness in the world. I love this poem. I think it’s beautiful. What stands out to me the most is overcoming deception, whereas in ancient days it was overcoming idols. Don’t worship Baal. And now I think that idolatry takes many, many forms and that the gospel can help us to overcome deception and that Elijah plays a major role in that.


    Joseph Stuart: It’s a wonderful place for us to end today. Have a blessed week, y’all.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu? Thank you and have a great week.