Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 5, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Why is this story in the Bible? Why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?
For those of you who have studied the story of Jonah, or remember me mentioning him at the AMOS action two weeks ago, there might be something familiar about Elijah’s behavior today. Jonah, having successfully called the nation of Nineveh to repent, retreats to a tree. There he asks God to kill him dead.
It makes no sense: Jonah is successful. Why isn’t he walking around, chest out, grinning, waving his arms at the people? Why isn’t he accepting lauds and honor? Why isn’t he tweeting about how great he is?
Because Jonah knows he is not great. Jonah knows how hard he worked to dodge God’s call. He is ashamed by the contrast between his reticence and the quick and total willingness of this faithless foreign nation to give obedience and praise to God. His request to die is petulant and fueled by shame.
Elijah, on the other hand, is just plain tired.
Elijah suddenly appears in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings with no backstory, no lineage, no character development.
He tells King Ahab, who has married outside of their faith and allowed other religions to be practiced, that such religious promiscuity has condemned Israel to a drought.
Elijah then retreats to the wilderness.
God assures Elijah that he will be safe because God has charged ravens to bring Elijah both meat and bread, both morning and evening. Carrion birds will bring him nourishment in the form that is most natural to them—animals—but also in the form that is so natural to God—bread.
Then Elijah’s water source dries up—whether by God’s doing or not, we do not know—so he has to move on. He comes upon a starving widow and her child who are preparing a final meal before death. When she agrees to include Elijah in that meal, the widow’s supplies of flour and oil remain steady.
Elijah lives like this for some time, even bringing the widow’s son back to life, before returning to King Ahab’s court. When he does, it is not in triumph. Elijah returns to his nation in order to do battle with those other religions. It is a battle of that literally includes fire and brimstone, blood and gore, much of it at Elijah’s own hands.
I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile the actions of those who say they love God so much that they will break the commandment not to kill in order to prove that love. This is particularly confusing to me because of how often people who are not followers of God’s covenant prove to be agents of the divine: The widow was a Phoenician, not an Israelite; ravens have no nationality.
Our scripture does not paint a consistent picture of God, or perhaps it reflects our inconsistent understanding of God.