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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Divine Coup Makers—1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 (Richard Davis)

Framed merely as a story about the call to discipleship, and omitting verses 17-18, the fact that God is instigating political coups through his prophets in this passage could easily be missed if we didn’t consider the scriptural context of this week’s lectionary reading. Reflecting upon this passage and the ensuing events, we can learn something about God’s relationship to political rule.

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.

19 So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was ploughing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. 20 He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?’ 21 He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.

The company this reading keeps in the lectionary and the selection of verses from 1 Kings 19 frame it as a simple passage about the call of Elisha to follow Elijah. Such a call is placed in the same reading week as Jesus’s call to potential disciples to follow him, and their reactions and excuses in not following Jesus immediately and without looking back (Luke 9:51-62).

Such an interpretation is not without merit when considering the call on the individual soul to be a disciple of Christ. This interpretation perhaps encouraged the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary to omit verses 17 and 18. These verses read:

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.

These omitted verses give us important information about the identity and capabilities of these characters. Hazael and Jehu, are both military men, they both have swords, and are expected to kill with them. Elisha may kill too, but as a killer of last resort. If we retain these verses, we open up a greater possibility of a political reading of the text, which already includes two kings, and two prophets.

We cannot fully comprehend this text without knowing something of the wider narrative. Without a fuller understanding, these events would be like watching a TV news report in a foreign country, where we cannot recognise the politicians and others appearing on the screens and have no knowledge of the political events in that place.

We may begin with the opening of the book of 1 Kings, in which we read the story of how Solomon gained the throne of Israel from his ailing father King David. At the time it was not obvious that Solomon would follow David. David’s heir could have been Solomon’s brother Adonijah, who initiated a failed coup against King David. It is notable that Adonijah “exalted himself” (1 Kings 1:5) and did not have the support of the priest Zadok or the prophet Nathan. There is no mention that God supported Adonijah.

King Solomon finally executed his rival Adonijah (1 Kings 2:25). But Solomon too had to work for the throne of David. In his own scheming to secure the throne, Solomon had the support of the court prophet Nathan and Bathsheba. His own rise to and consolidation of power involved them manipulating David, and Solomon killing his rival. The political narrative carries on throughout the remainder of both 1 and 2 Kings, showing how Solomon retained and ultimately lost power.

Our reading starts with Elijah being given a task from God. Our first question is: Where was this instruction given? Reading back a few verses we find that Elijah was in the wilderness. Why was he there?

In looking for reasons for this, we can read back earlier in 1 King 19. Here Elijah retreats to the wilderness, not as Christ does, in order to prepare for mission, but rather to retreat from his vocation and fearing for life, believing that he was the sole remaining follower of God. He wanted to die and be relieved from his role. Maybe he was suffering from burnout, as some commentators have suggested. Perhaps he was retreating from politics and the world, as an early desert father might. Whatever the reason, he was in something of a no-man’s land of barrenness away from political rule and the cities of political power.

In spite of his retreat from the world, God recommissions Elijah by giving him some specific tasks to perform. What are these tasks? Elijah is tasked with instigating two coups in Israel and Aram. God’s command suggests that God’s political interest is not limited to one political jurisdiction. God is no diplomat, reserving comment on another nation’s internal affairs. God wishes to bring new rule to Israel and Aram in order to rid the land of Baal worshippers. Despite God urging Elijah to leave his quiet retreat, there is also hope of relief for Elijah in God commanding Elijah to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place.

One of the curious things about this text is that Elijah does not complete these tasks, even though it was given to him by God. He does not anoint Hazael as king over Aram, nor Jehu as king over Israel. He doesn’t exactly anoint Elisha as his replacement either. We may ask: Why didn’t he complete these tasks? Was it an act of disobedience or neglect? Was Elijah scared to carry out this mission, as Jonah was scared to carry out his mission? Or did Elijah want to be rid of this thankless role, and pass on to Elisha his unfinished business? We do not know. There is also no suggestion that God in any way punishes Elijah for his tardiness or disobedience. Ultimately, however, these tasks are finally achieved, but not through Elijah.

Seeming to ignore the command to anoint the new kings, Elijah proceeds directly to Elisha, ploughing in the field. There is no forewarning of his arrival, Elijah abruptly arrives there and throws his mantle over him, enveloping him in such a way as to suggest a complete identity between the two men from that point onward. We know little about Elisha. He is probably a young man, as his parents are still alive and he is connected to them. He is farm worker, operating the twelfth plough, perhaps suggesting he was in last place (if we interpret this as the twelfth team with two oxen each).

Elisha barely hesitates to follow Elijah, making a final and radical break with his former role. Engaging in an act of industrial sabotage, Elisha kills and cooks the oxen over their burning yoke, and then distributes the meat to the people. He cannot return to this life, even if he wanted to.

If Elijah had completed his tasks in the order they were given, then Elisha would have been anointed after the kings. This would have lessened Elisha’s future political task and made him quite something of a different prophet with a different role. Elijah does not see his tasks fulfilled, he ascends to heaven in 2 Kings 2, making Elisha’s apprenticeship very brief. Some years may have passed before Elisha completes Elijah’s mission, and yet even he does not exactly do what was asked by God of Elijah. Elisha does not anoint Hazael, but simply tells him that he will become king (2 Kings 8:7-13). In the case of Jehu, Elisha delegates the task to an anonymous member of the prophets’ guild who anoints Jehu with olive oil (2 Kings 9:1-10).

In the cases of Hazael and Jehu there was no election cycle to find a new King for Aram or for Israel. Both kingdoms already had a king in place. Does God here initiate coups détat against existing kings and the establishment? Is God a coup maker? To see if this is the case we need to jump ahead into 2 Kings. In the case of Hazael we read in 2 Kings 8 that the existing king, Ben-hadad of Aram, was ill and was killed by Hazael using a method akin to waterboarding (2 Kings 8:15). Hazael then became king once his coup was complete.

In similar vein, God’s decision to elevate Jehu is not made in a vacuum of political power. Israel already had an established king, and so another coup d’état is needed for Jehu to ascend into power. With both Hazael and Jehu God does not lift up a ruler at random without reason, they are given a clear purpose, even if they don’t know it. This purpose was to cleanse the land of idolators who worshipped Baal.

The prophets Elijah and Elisha in the commands given to them and in carrying them out could be seen as agents provocateurs. Even so, God is the main actor in these stories, working through his prophets. But these prophets were not court prophets like Nathan. They come from the wilderness, not the ante-room. They are untamed by pomp and power and arrive and leave like the wind.

Without knowing the back story it may seem that the prophets incite or encourage Hazael and Jehu to conduct their coups based on their individual political beliefs. In reality, they are given the imprimatur or sanction for their coups by God’s prophets. The command comes first of all to Elijah who receives his order from God in the cave at Horeb in the wilderness. This command comes from outside the kingdoms of Aram and Israel. The prophetic word comes not only from outside these kingdoms, but from outside this world.

This is the stuff of nightmares for political leaders: outside interference that threatens their rule. God’s rule comes from outside, but with a worldly purpose hidden from the earthly rulers themselves. This is a reminder that God’s political schemes are not from this world and can make little sense by the world’s logic (cf. John 18:36).

Reading these texts in the context of the global south, where military men have made many coups, can be disturbing. Coups are very messy affairs that affect whole societies and impose great personal costs to many on the wrong side of political and military power. In coups people are killed, tortured, dispossessed, and deported. Economies can be ruined. Elisha can foresee what violent horrors the coup of Hazael will bring (2 Kings 8:12). In the end the coup makers themselves may end up running for their lives. What happens to our coup makers? Hazael dies of old age following years of oppressing the Israelites (2 Kings 13:24). Jehu eradicates Baal worship from Israel (2 Kings 10:18-28) and then dies of old age having ruled Israel for 28 years (2 Kings 10:35-36). Here God seemingly rewards them for fulfilling their political task in disciplining his people.

It is tempting for coup-makers to see God’s hand in their coup or believe themselves to be God’s agents for improving their nations. They are mistaken. These texts propose that only God knows why people ascend to political power, or are deposed from it. The most Elijah knew was that coups are bloody affairs and avoided them, preferring to anoint Elisha so that he could do this coup work for God instead. Elisha also knew what would come and also wanted little to do with it. All we can tell with hindsight is that God’s purposes were ultimately served by sinful men pursuing political power for themselves, and for which they were judged by God. As with life itself, God gives political power and God takes it away.

Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

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