“Get Up and Eat”: The Political Act of Feeding—1 Kings 19:1–15a

The Politics of Scripture

The posture that invites those who are struggling for freedom to “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” is a political posture laden with messianic power.

1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

1 Kings 19:1–15a (NRSV)

The plot of Elijah’s story in 1 Kings is political from its very beginning, set in the context of the marriage alliance of Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, to Ahab, the prince of Israel. Elijah, the prophet of the land, finds himself in opposition to Jezebel, a foreign woman. The situation is portrayed as a competition between the followers of YHWH and the followers of Baal and Asherah, which comes to a gory end. Elijah wins.

There are two obvious complications to the story. One, Ahab, the Israelite king, is presented as evil before his marriage to Jezebel. In other words, Jezebel is not the originator of his “problem.” Why, then, should Jezebel receive the blame? Two, we never hear from Jezebel in the first-person. This absence of self-representation complicates any easy interpretation that portrays Jezebel in a wholly negative light. These fundamental complications are fodder for a political-theological commentary. The works of Tamura Lomax [1], Stephanie Wyatt [2], Phyllis Trible [3], et al provide needed perspective on the matter.

Notwithstanding the disturbing gore and the narrative complications mentioned above, the text offers rich material to work with. After Elijah challenges Ahab and Jezebel, Jezebel, with Ahab as co-conspirator, threatens to kill Elijah. Elijah runs. He finds himself in the middle of the wilderness, thirsty and hungry.

We may take the figure of Elijah as a placeholder for those who are at the forefront of struggles in various movements for positive change in the world. While such persons in the struggle for positive change certainly include activists, they also include, importantly, those with whom activists are in solidarity.

Elijah, trying to find home in and through the desert, is symbolic of the many persons who migrate through harsh deserts and other lands in search of a place of safety and wellbeing. Such pursuits do not always meet their desired ends. Often, such migrants are punished for not abiding by the laws of the lands that demarcate boundaries. Punishment for crossing boundaries takes various forms. Two are worth making explicit.

First, punishment takes the form of constant, panoptical suspicion of the presence of “others” in a land deemed “not theirs.” Second, and even worse, often migrants are pursued in the desert so that these “others” may be put in their place before crossing geographical boundaries.

In search of another home or merely to escape precarious local conditions, persons who attempt to cross boundaries often meet horrific and fatal ends. A medical examiner in Pima County Arizona, has catalogued the remains of 2615 human bodies (between 2001 and 2016), individuals who probably died in attempting boundary crossings. At the time of this writing, Scott Daniel Warren is being tried (facing up to 20 years in prison) for exercising his religious freedom to provide water, food, and clothing to Kristen Perez-Villanueva and José Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday who were trying to cross the desert. [4]

One wonders what human remains Elijah may have come across as he was on foot in the desert. He was escaping for his life, tired and afraid. Sitting under a desert bush, Elijah prays, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (19:4). Perhaps, he is wondering if his attempt to cross the desert would be any more successful than some of his ancestors who may have died in their freedom attempts. Does Elijah’s agony expressed in the words, “Take my life,” arise from the sight of human (and other) remains in the wilderness? A political-theological imagination pauses to ask such a question.

As readers pause to reflect on this situation, the text informs us that divine figures encounter Elijah in his desperation and provide food and encouragement. When Elijah is tired, afraid, and ready to give up, an angel appears and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (19:5, 7).

Keeping this in mind, providing food and encouragement to those who are at the forefront in the struggle for various movements for positive change in the world may be seen as a political act.

Trying and convicting those who attempt to provide food and water to migrants crossing deserts and those making the attempt creates constricting political conditions. In the face of such constricting conditions, anyone who is able to say to those in search of home, “Get up and eat,” inhabits a sacred realm and embodies divine help.

Those running away from danger, revolutionary prophets unafraid to speak truth to power, ministers who preach the gospel of freedom and liberation, and a host of others occupy different positions along the freedom spectrum. Whatever one’s place in the movement for freedom and justice, the undergirding courage of these persons does not arise from some sort of solipsistic confidence in the power of the self. There is always a community that offers encouragement and support that enables such persons to find joy in the struggle.

While expressions of encouragement may be manifold, the posture that invites those who are struggling for freedom to “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” is a political posture laden with messianic power.

As in the story of Exodus, God might intervene in visibly powerful ways such as a strong wind that tears apart mountains and breaks open rocks (19:11) or through earthquakes and fires (19:12). Such divine intervention to send a message to the oppressed (encouraging them to keep on) and the oppressors (warning them to let go) might address the human longing that cries out, “I have had enough” (19:4). At other times, divine help comes through the form of a whisper that says, “Get up and eat.” Both (and possibly more) postures are political and imbued with theological power.

[1] https://www.dukeupress.edu/jezebel-unhinged

[2] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0309089212438020

[3] https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/presidentialaddresses/JBL114_1_1Trible1994.pdf

[4] https://rewire.news/religion-dispatches/2019/05/30/20-years-for-giving-water-to-migrants-a-religious-freedom-case-of-little-interest-to-religious-freedom-industry/?fbclid=IwAR0hFHXDPiiRTpNI3IeCzt7CSV5VND2iV_F0giHAjVaqCyjy6XYeP18e6Bo

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