Beginning in Chapter 16 of the first book of Kings, we find the story of Ahab, the King of Israel, his wife Jezebel, and a prophet named Elijah.
Elijah is critical of Ahab and Jezebel and quickly finds himself at odds with their empire. To be clear, Elijah was not alone in his criticism. 1 Kings 16:33 states that Ahab “did more to arouse the anger of GOD than all the other kings of Israel.”
Ahab’s wife Jezebel was also up to no good. The story tells us that she’s seeking out and murdering faithful prophets so she can replace them with prophets of the gods Ba’al and Asherah.
Elijah confronts Ahab and challenges Jezebel’s pagan prophets to a showdown on Mount Carmel to determine whose god is better. 450 priests of Ba’al and 400 prophets of Asherah show up. Elijah mocks them, ridicules their gods, calls down the fire of his GOD, and—when the contest is over—has all 850 of them killed.
It's at this point that we read this portion of the story from 1 Kings 19:
Ahab told Jezebel about everything that had taken place. He told her how Elijah had executed all the prophets of Ba’al with a sword, and she became furious. Jezebel sent an urgent message to Elijah. “May the gods kill me and worse, if I haven’t killed you the way you killed their priests by this time tomorrow. Your end is near, Elijah.” Terrified, Elijah quickly ran for his life. He traveled the length of Israel and finally arrived at Beersheba, in Judah. He left his young servant there and then went into the desert another day’s journey. He came to a lone broom tree and collapsed in its shade, wanting to be done with it all—to just die. Elijah cried, “Enough of this, GOD! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” Exhausted, he fell asleep. While he was sleeping, a heavenly messenger came and instructed Elijah to “Get up and eat!” He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep. The heavenly messenger visited Elijah again—shaking him awake and saying “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.” He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to Mount Horeb—the mountain of GOD. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep. Then the word of GOD spoke to him saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for GOD—working my heart out—but the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” The ETERNAL ONE responded, “Leave this cave, and go stand on the mountainside in my presence.” Then, a mighty wind separated the mountains and crumbled every stone—but this was not a divine wind, because GOD was not within the wind. After the wind, an earthquake shook the whole earth—but this was not a divine quake, because GOD was not within the earthquake. After the earthquake was over, there was a fire—but this was not a divine fire, because GOD was not within the fire. After the fire, the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then the word of GOD spoke to him saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for GOD—working my heart out—but the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” The ETERNAL ONE responded, “Go back through the desert to Damascus. When you get there anoint Elisha son of Shaphat to succeed you as prophet. And, you’re not alone. There are 7,000 Israelites who have not bowed down to Ba’al or kissed his image.”
1 Kings 19:1-18
I once listened to a rabbi describe the orthodox tradition of Judaism by comparing it to a master-level chess match that had been played hundreds of years ago. Every move had been meticulously recorded and analyzed. The final resting place of all the pieces on the board had been preserved and placed under a large glass case—allowing each move to be referenced and remembered, and every game to be canonized and studied. The large glass case was then placed in a beautiful, extremely safe museum. In the protection of that museum, the pieces would not be touched, and the game would never change. Now, to be fair, I would submit to you that this rabbi’s description of a faith that is painstakingly protected and preserved is not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. Attempting to secure and safeguard the beliefs and practices of faith is something humans have been doing across all cultures and all religions for as long as we have been able to consider the possibility of a higher power. We all do it, and we always have. We prefer our faith finalized, formatted, and framed in a museum—where it can be reviewed and revered.
Friends, I do this.
I don’t really care for permeable borders. I much prefer for things to be defined and contained. I want to figure out the correct form, the best way, or the right way to do something or understand something, and then I want to master it, codify it, write it down in the discipline—get it under glass in a museum where it can be honored as the standard. Unlike me, however, the story of Elijah seems less interested in preserving and honoring the standard and more interested in disruption and change. In ancient wisdom literature…mountains were symbols for change. They represented the climb—an arduous journey that resulted in revelation, new information, or a different perspective. Mountains transform altitude and attitude.
Mountains, unlike museums, aren’t necessarily safe.
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