“I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” — Elijah, 1 Kings 19.10 [ESV]
This passage has been one that has alternately bothered and encouraged me for more than a few years. I’ve visited and revisited it since I first came upon it in high school, from academic works to sermons to prior posts on my prior, erstwhile blog.
Many churchgoers may be familiar with the passage prior, the encounter at Mt. Carmel, and the passage after, where the fire, the storm and the earthquake pass through without any deeper meaning and God speaks afterward in a still, small voice. What generally remains unnoticed, though, is that our protagonist, the mighty prophet Elijah, is, in these texts, a clearly flawed individual.
If we take a look at what has happened up to this point on a flyover level, we see a number of miraculous acts: turning a little flour and oil into a bottomless supply, raising a widow’s son from the dead, then we have the confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Garden varietyTanakh prophet stuff. We religious types like to read our biblical protagonists as idealistic, archetypical heroes, and transpose that notion onto the characters without regard for nuance; this is probably one reason why we read the text with such static and fundamental disinterest in the story other than what we are supposed to get out of it.
The truth is that Elijah was clearly a person with a complex. How else are we to reckon the fact that, after performing several amazing feats–all while convinced that he was the last prophet of yhwh–when it came down to a queen, in the wake of his biggest feat to that moment, threatening his life, he doesn’t call down the fire of the armies of angels or unleash a word of power.
Instead, the man of God likely pees himself and runs for his life. And, in all his carnal frailty, wants to die, hides in a cave and complains about it. In short, this sounds like a guy with whom I can relate.
You see, I love running to my cave.
When confronted with existential crisis, a conclusion that likely won’t have a happy ending, a dark night of the soul, often the first thing we abandon is our sense of self. We’re not prophets or miracle people–perhaps not most of us, that is–and we resort to the familiar not because it is sacred, but because it is known. Here in the text, we have the story of a man who demonstrated God’s power to the marginalized as well as to the self-profaned, and even in the wake of these manifestations of power, the man flees the scene. This is the same man who taunted the false prophets and loudly proclaimed that Baal was taking a dump instead of answering prayers to consume the sacrifice. And this same man, whose ego was perhaps even justified by the walking of the walk, imploded within hours of his most impressive feat to date, ran to his cave, lamented his life and then proceeded to whine to God about his lot.
I understand the need to retreat every so often; some of us have that luxury while others do not. We don’t know what the circumstances might have been had Elijah not run for his life, but one thing is for certain: regardless of whether or not the story is true, the fact is that the character is unassailably human, and that mighty man of God was in reality just a person whose ego consumed him when things got tough.
I can’t relate to bringing down sacred fire or providing a widow with an unlimited supply of flour and oil. I can, however, relate to being confronted with my own frailty and weakness, hiding from the world, wanting to die.
And even in Elijah’s failure–my failure–God, yes, that nasty Old Testament one, demonstrates grace rather than judgment. God doesn’t hammer Elijah for running, but it’s clear God does not approve, either. Instead, he provides food for the journey and then whispers. It’s fight or flight: we can confront and embrace the unknown, or we can resort to the familiar and comfortable. Elijah showed us what was familiar and comfortable to him. In my own weakness, I show what is familiar to me. If anything, every single one of us is a horrible liar and the only one who ends up deceived is the self. We always show more of ourselves than we ever think we do. Truth always shines around, like an eclipse cannot negate the presence of that which is behind it. Even when we decide it’s better to pick out wallpaper patters for our caves or even die than to keep pressing forward with our lives.
It’s that whispered question that has always bothered me. In most translations into English, it says, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
The first time I encountered the question, though, it was in a medieval or more traditional English translation, and it continues to both comfort and haunt me. I am comforted in that weakness is a universal trait and mercy then is a necessity for all of us, and haunted the by the fact that I don’t have an answer.
What are you doing here, Elias?