Religion and Political Dissidence: The Politics of 1 Kings 19:1-18

The Politics of Scripture

Elijah’s ministry takes place during the reign of king Ahab in the 9th century BC. The narrative about the prophet is expressly political. It depicts a political dissident who speaks against the powers of his day, with the main focus on promoting the worship of Yahweh and fighting against the worship of Baal. The prophet’s actions must be understood against a wider Near Eastern context where religion was completely intertwined with politics and where Yahweh was the national god of the Israelites.

1 Kings 19
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; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’

The narrative about Elijah belongs to a special set of stories about this prophet and his successor Elisha that have been inserted in the books of Kings. The books of Kings otherwise relate the history of the ancient Israelite monarchy, starting from the accession of Solomon. After Solomon’s reign, the monarchy divides into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Their history is then related all the way till the destructions by the Assyrians and the Babylonians bring them to an end several centuries later. Elijah’s ministry takes place during the reign of king Ahab in the 9th century BC. The narrative about the prophet is expressly political. It depicts a political dissident who speaks against the powers of his day, with the main focus on promoting the worship of Yahweh and fighting against the worship of Baal. The prophet’s actions must be understood against a wider Near Eastern context where religion was completely intertwined with politics and where Yahweh was the national god of the Israelites. The worship of Yahweh was seen as deriving from his actions for the ancestors of Israel, including giving the Israelites the land they occupied at the time. In contrast, Baal was essentially an indigenous storm god who was also worshipped throughout the region. Above all, Elijah speaks against Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab has married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, who from her part has helped Ahab slide towards the worship of Baal (1 Ki 16:29-33). Elijah’s actions can then be seen as an attempt to restore the nation back on track in its worship of Yahweh. In the narrative context of the books of Kings which themselves draw their inspiration from the concept of covenant between Yahweh and Israel in the book of Deuteronomy in particular, the worship of other gods than Yahweh is the ultimate source of the demise of both the northern and southern kingdoms. Thus, the actions of Elijah can be seen as attempts to thwart an eventual disaster, and the reader of the book of Kings knows that these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. The narrative also highlights that most people did not see the issue of non-Yahwistic worship as a major problem, as Elijah is portrayed as one of few people who did not worship Baal (1 Kings 18:13; 19:14).

In the more specific narrative context of 1 Kings 19, Elijah has just triumphed against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), but is being persecuted for his actions and is now fleeing for his life (1 Kings 19:1-3). With great symbolic significance, he ends up travelling to Mount Horeb, the place where the covenant between Yahweh and Israel through Moses had initially been established. Elijah laments about his life as a political dissident, and his complaint about his plight reminds one of that of the later prophet Jeremiah in particular (see esp. Jeremiah 20). Yahweh then appears to Elijah in a manner that resembles that of the original Sinai theophany (Exodus 19) and his showing his glory to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 33:18-34:10). Yahweh’s communication however eventually takes place through a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:12). In contrast to the later prophet Jeremiah, Elijah is allowed to retire from his work. However, importantly, he is to appoint a successor, and this successor turns out be Elisha who continues Elijah’s ministry largely unchanged (2 Kings 1-9, 13), and, interestingly, no hesitation by Elisha about his ministry is implied (see also 1 Kings 19:19-21). The other two important tasks left for Elijah to do are to anoint Hazael as the king of Aram and Jehu as the king of Israel, with express political consequences.

For modern readers, this narrative inspired by Deuteronomy provides a glimpse into the life of a political dissident in an express religious context. It demonstrates in the context of ancient Israel that trying to effect societal change can be costly to the person involved. In this, we can think of political dissidents under Soviet and other communist regimes in the 20th century, and most recently in such places as North Korea. But even democratic societies have had political dissidents who have been ostracized and persecuted. Recently, the whistleblower Edward Snowden had to seek refuge abroad or otherwise almost certainly suffer a public humiliation and lifelong incarceration. The Israeli academic Ilan Pappe was not able to carry on with his life and work in Israel as he spoke vocally against Israel’s settler colonial actions towards the Palestinians and in effect had to escape to Britain. In a more passive sense, we can add here the Christians in many countries who have had to pay a heavy price for following a religious framework that is considered a threat by their respective authorities. And yet, the persecution of perceived communists during the time of senator McCarthy in the 1950s and the extraordinary renditions, killing without trial and the still continuing imprisonment of Muslims without charge in Guantanamo Bay, and the harassment of many Moslems after 9/11 demonstrate how America can act against those not fitting its political plans.

In a number of cases, like Elijah, those people who have taken an active role in speaking against power may give up and consequently find at least some relief from persecution. Others may be more like Jeremiah and feel resonance with his words, “Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, his word is in my heart like fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:8-9 [NIV]). Of those who speak out, many may find that their efforts of following their conscience bring suffering, and even death and destruction to themselves and their families. With others, such as the Old Testament prophets, their efforts may leave a legacy that is finally recognized by later generations who can look into the past in a more dispassionate and detached way. Some, such as Luther and Gandhi, may be able to see positive results of their political actions already in their lifetime, if they have been able to convince a sufficient number of people or powers to stand behind them, and, yet, Gandhi himself ended up being assassinated. In sum, the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 reminds us about the potential human cost of taking political action based on reasons of conscience. And yet, the wider story also portrays Elijah in a most positive manner and thus encourages its readers to act when the occasion calls for it. All this said, from a yet another angle, that Elijah’s actions against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 have been violent adds a layer of ambiguity to the story for a modern reader.

 

Pekka Pitkänen is a Senior Lecturer in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, UK. He is the author of Central Sanctuary and Centralization of Worship In Ancient Israel (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2004) and Joshua in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series (Leicester: IVP, 2010). His current research focuses on Pentateuch-Joshua and the early history of Israel, with a recent article entitled ‘Pentateuch-Joshua: a settler colonial document of a supplanting society’, published in the journal Settler Colonial Studies (2013).

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