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?” 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.” 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 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?” 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.” 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. 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. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 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.”1 Kings 19:9-18
“Zeal for your house will consume me.” According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’s followers recalled this verse from Psalm 69 upon witnessing what we today might call his “direct action” in the Jerusalem temple – or, in less favorable terms, “domestic terrorism” (John 2:17). Indeed, his zeal is one characteristic that attracts many to the Jesus of the gospels, for he embodies the aphorism of Søren Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart means to will one thing.”
For those of us drawn to the Jesus portrayed in the earliest Christian texts, this zeal is a complicated matter. On the one hand, to follow Jesus entails imitating his way of being in the world, of being present with others, of affirming the good and speaking against injustice and evil. On the other hand, such imitation places his followers at risk of undermining all their highest aspirations by means of an unselfconscious and isolating self-righteousness.
In the U.S. context from which I write, many Christians have come to find faithfulness to Jesus increasingly in tension – if not incompatible – with the institutional church, especially when it comes to his teachings against possessing wealth. The church – it seems clear to many – is committed to maintaining the regnant economic and political structures that generate immense wealth for a small fraction of humanity by exploiting human labor and the gifts of creation, a system by which one class of humans dehumanizes and oppresses another, while extracting short-term wealth from the earth in a way that has led to a climate crisis that appears to be increasingly catastrophic.
David Bentley Hart describes the dynamic of this system, which functions both within U.S. society, and globally, between richer and poorer states: “A capitalist society not only tolerates, but positively requires, the existence of a pauper class, not only as a reserve of labor value, but also because capitalism relies on a stable credit economy, and a credit economy requires a certain supply of perennial debtors whose poverty – through predatory lending and interest practices – can be converted into capital for their creditors. The perpetual insolvency of the working poor and lower-middle class is an inexhaustible font of profits for the institutions upon which the investment class depends.”
As it seems to many of us who have been formed within Christian institutions, not only have they failed adequately to condemn this social order, but in fact, Christians – and often churches themselves – form a sizable part of the “investment class” Hart describes. And for many, the contrast between what they take to be the teachings of Jesus about wealth and society and this apparent affinity with capitalist exploitation renders institutional Christianity uninhabitable.
A friend told me that they found themselves unable to attend church after realizing how many of their fellow worshippers were members of the investment class, holding stock in corporations whose profits are built through exploitation. Another had been deeply attracted to the liturgy of a prominent Protestant denomination, but upon learning how much their bishops were paid – a salary several times higher than the wages of her own overworked parents – found herself unable to return.
Elijah’s story speaks to this context, reminding us that zeal for our own vision of what faithfulness looks like may have problematic consequences. In particular, it may cut us off from others with whom we otherwise may find common cause.
Elijah is an exceptionally zealous man, and his zeal for the purity of the cult of the Lord (YHWH) has led him to commit an act of tremendous violence. In the weeks preceding this scene, Elijah has challenged 450 prophets of Ba’al to a contest at the altar on Mount Carmel to determine which god the Kingdom of Israel should worship. After his god, the Lord, sends fire down from heaven upon the altar – a feat that the rival god, Ba’al has failed to do – all those gathered “fell on their faces,” confessing that the Lord indeed is God” (1 Kings 18:17–39). Elijah responds by commanding those gathered, who are in awe of the fire from heaven: “Do not let one of [the 450 prophets] escape.” “Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there” (1 Kings 18:40). As Robert Alter points out, the language is clear: the narrator employs a verb typically used to describe the slaughter of animals , while the singular verb indicates that it is Elijah who performs the slaughter (704).
In the wake of this violent showdown, Elijah has achieved a significant victory on behalf of Israelite religion. On the other hand, he knows that in this game of religious geopolitics, the advocates of Ba’al will take their turn next, and he is likely to suffer the same fate. Indeed, his chief antagonist, Jezebel the queen of Israel, is just as zealous for Ba’al as Elijah is for the Lord. She vows to kill him within 24 hours (1 Kings 19:1–2). Elijah then flees to the wilderness of Judah, where he asks the Lord to end his life. Instead, the Lord sends an angel bearing a simple meal of bread and water, on the strength of which Elijah fasts for 40 days and 40 nights as he journeys to Horeb, “the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:3–8). This journey evokes Moses, who also fasted for 40 days and nights when he was “with the Lord” on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). And for Christian readers, this evokes the story of Jesus, who fasts for 40 days and nights in the wilderness as he begins his Galilean ministry. In fact – like the fast of Jesus, which culminates in his encounter with Satan – Elijah’s fast culminates in a significant, if deeply puzzling, confrontation.
When Elijah has returned to the mountain where the Lord first established a covenant with Moses, he enters a cave. There, we’re told, “the word of the Lord” comes to him, a common expression in the Deuteronomistic narratives, and a common occurrence in Elijah’s career. The Lord poses a simple yet profound question, one that calls Elijah to account for himself: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9) Elijah replies with a brief summary of how he understands himself and his place in the world: “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” (1 Kings 19:10) Notably, he leaves out his own acts of violence, which he understands as an integral part of his own faithfulness to Israel’s covenant with the Lord.
The Lord does not respond directly to anything that Elijah has just said. Instead, the Lord tells Elijah to leave the cave “and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” What unfolds next are four distinct sensory phenomena: a supernaturally powerful wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks into pieces; an earthquake; a fire; and “a sound of sheer silence.” The narrator announces that the Lord was “not in the wind,” the earthquake, or the fire” (1 Kings 19:11–12). No such comment is made about the sheer silence, implying that the Lord might be present here in a way that was not true of the more spectacular events that just unfolded. In response to this meaningful silence, Elijah wraps his face in his mantle – evoking the veil of Moses, perhaps – and stands at the entrance of the cave.
Here, the Lord repeats – without any variation – the question posed to Elijah before he left the cave: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13) And Elijah – matching the Lord’s rhetorical strategy – reiterates his own response word for word (1 Kings 19:14). Again, the Lord does not directly address Elijah’s remarks. Instead, the Lord replies with a series of instructions and a promise: Elijah is to anoint two kings – one to rule over Aram, and another over Israel, to replace Ahab – and to anoint his own successor as prophet, Elisha. These kings, the Lord makes clear, will repeat the cycle of violence in which Elijah has been caught up. And those who escape their sword – presumably those who adulterate the Israelite religion to which Elijah is committed – “Elisha shall kill” (1 Kings 19:17).
The Lord then offers a promise that replies, if indirectly, to Elijah’s assertion that he alone is left amidst an entirely apostate religious community, which has utterly forsaken their covenant with the Lord: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). Far from being the sole voice of faithfulness to the covenant for which he is so zealous, the Lord informs him, Elijah is but one of several thousand in Israel who have remained faithful. Elijah’s zeal, it appears, has blinded him to the multitude of others who share his understanding of – and commitment to – what it means to respond faithfully to the Lord.
Here, in what may be a subtle rebuke to Elijah’s myopia, we find both a warning and a word of hope. Our zeal for the projects to which we commit ourselves, especially when we see them as responding to God’s call upon our lives, is liable to obscure our perception of reality. In the words of the poet Jack Gilbert, “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Elijah’s story thus speaks to those of us inclined to despair at what we perceive as the infidelity of the institutional church, reminding us that there are likely others who stand in solidarity with our deepest commitments, even if they remain invisible to us for now.