1 Kings 18 and Deuteronomy

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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INTRODUCTION

The storyline of 1 Kings begins with the king by which all others would be measured, King David.  It is the end of his life and the kingdom is passed down to Solomon.  Under Solomon, Israel grows in wealth and stature.  However, this story is far from “happily ever after.”  Solomon was considered very wise, but ruled, according to the text, very foolishly.  He lived lavishly, had many foreign wives, and enforced an enslaving labor program for building the kingdom.

To say the least, this was everything that had been warned about in the book of Deuteronomy.  Solomon became the epitome of the very thing God desired least from the community of Israel.  Due to this politic, the kingdom of Israel becomes a split kingdom, Israel in the north and Judah to the south.  The narrative found in 1 and 2 Kings details the rule of the various monarchs that ruled over Israel and Judah.

As such, many people view these texts as historical accounts of the monarchs.  However, many times seemingly important details of a ruler’s reign are left out.  Economic welfare of the two nations does not seem to be the mark of a good leader.  Savvy foreign policy does not appear to be the framework for a good evaluation at all.  What might possibly be the lens through which these writers are judging the monarchy?

First, I believe it is important to note that this is not simply a historical account of leadership.  Rather, it is a theological interpretation that sits in judgment upon the respective leaders that Israel and Judah find themselves under.  As I hinted earlier, Deuteronomy plays a key role in evaluating leadership.  After all, Moses remained the paradigm for godly leadership for centuries after his tenure.  So, it is only natural to see that Moses would influence how the people should view their leadership.  1 Kings does indeed recount historical facts, but its underlying mission is to provide a theological narrative that begins to explain the results of exile.

Within this paper, I will first provide some historical background that will help us understand the motivation behind writing this wonderful text.  In this, I hope to sufficiently bring to light Deuteronomy’s connection to 1 and 2 Kings, although we will primarily dwell in 1 Kings 18.  Secondly, I will give a succinct synopsis of Ahab’s reign that prepares the reader for the Elijah confrontation found in 1 Kings 18.  Finally, I will provide a theological interpretation of 1 Kings 17 in light of a few key passages in Deuteronomy.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

            “These two books together make up the final part of the Deuteronomistic history.  Deuteronomistic historians utilized various sources such as ‘the book of the annals of Solomon’ (1 Kings 11:41), ‘the book of the annals of the kings of Israel’ (14:19), and ‘the book of the annals of the kings of Judah’ (v. 29) to compose their work.  It is also likely that they drew from other written or oral sources that had circulated long before these books received their final form” (Varughese 178).

Drawing from a wide range of sources, the Deuteronomistic historians redacted the records of kings’ reigns.  Their purpose was not to simply retell the story of God’s people, although this was likely significant.  It is likely that the motivation for this text finds root in the Babylonian exile.  Inevitably, the chosen people began to ask themselves why they were now finding themselves in a foreign land living in exile.  What could have possibly caused this turn of events and where was God when all of this happened?  Was it a failure on God’s part?

In its totality, 1 and 2 Kings communicates the story of God’s people from 960 B. C. to roughly 587 B. C.  This means that the text would not have been constructed until some point during the exile or post-exilic period.  The result is a text that reflects the concerns of a people finding themselves as foreigners in a strange land, rather than inhabitants of the Promise Land.  Unless God has bailed on His promises, which does not seem to be a likelihood, what predicated expulsion from the land?

How long had they recited the words of the Shema?  It is a warning to the people before entering the land: “Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God.  The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:14-15 NRSV).  The failure, it would seem, was placed squarely upon the community that had neglected to maintain covenant fidelity.

As a result, many of the rulers, with only a few exceptions, covered in 1 and 2 Kings are given a negative evaluation.  Generally speaking, the kings are condemned for doing “evil in the sight of the Lord.”  David, Hezekiah, and Josiah are only a small minority of exceptional leadership found in these pages, all of which ruled over Judah (David was before the divided kingdom).  The authors of 1 and 2 Kings find it little wonder that Israel is destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C. and now Babylon presides over them.

1 KINGS 18 CONTEXT

            “Up until the time of Omri, the Northern Kingdom had been unable to establish a permanent succession of kings.  However, with Omri, relative political stability and economic prosperity was achieved for over three decades.  Although the Deuteronomistic writers give little information concerning Omri’s reign (16:24-28) and describe Omri as having sinned ‘more than all those before him.’  Omri had great successes both domestically and internationally” (Varughese 185).

It is in this time of affluence that Ahab is born, son of Omri.  As part of a political partnership with the king of Phoenicia, Omri had Ahab marry Jezebel, daughter to the pagan king.  This violated the prohibition given in Deuteronomy 7:3-6:

Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.  Then the anger of the Lord would destroy you quickly.  But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire.  For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession (NRSV).

Marrying into these other cultures would drive God’s people away from Him.  Instead, they would turn to worthless idols, violating the first command and the Shema’s claim to one God, who alone is worthy to be served.

King Omri also establishes Samaria as the new capital over Israel.  This is in clear violation of the centralization of worship desired and constructed in Deuteronomy 12.  High places were to be destroyed, the multiplicity of gods and places of worship were to be done away with.  However, now Omri has established another site of worship in Samaria, one that gives credence to idolatry and doing as each person sees fit.  The Law informed Israel that there is only One God, but Omri seems to have blatantly ignored this fact.

Despite Omri’s political and economic success, he is crowned as the worst king up to that point.  But, if the reader believed that we are going to see a turning point, they are sadly mistaken.  Ahab comes into power, exercising similar economic and political prowess as the king of Israel.  However, the Deuteronomistic historians are hardly favorable to Ahab or Jezebel.  Instead, Ahab is said to be even worse than his father (1 Kgs 16:30)!

Baal worship was on prominent display in Ahab’s kingdom.  Ahab’s foreign wife, Jezebel, was continuing the legacy of leading all of Israel astray.  God, however, was now about to confront Israel through the prophet Elijah.  In chapter 17 of 1 Kings, Elijah brings Ahab a message from God: “’As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word’” (17:1).

For three years, Israel underwent an extreme drought.  This is the fulfillment of the Deuteronomistic curse for disobedience: “Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit” (Deut. 11:16-17).  Furthermore, Moses warns the people in Deuteronomy 28 of the curses that will accompany disobedience: “The Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought… The Lord will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed” (v. 22, 24).

The curse of disobedience has fallen upon the land, for which the king is greatly responsible.  The King is not only a political leader, but the religious leader of the community.  This is best evidenced in Deuteronomy’s picture of a perfect king:

When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.  It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel (17:18-20 NRSV).

Ahab hardly conformed to this mold.  He aided the killing of the prophets of the Lord.  He had Naboth killed so that he might take his vineyard (1 Kgs 21).  Not to mention, he worshiped Baal due to the influence of his pagan wife.  God was going to show who was truly God!

Elijah presents himself to Ahab, confronting him about the unfaithfulness that Ahab has shown to the Lord (18:18).  Elijah has hardly come to enjoy a warm conversation with the king.  Instead, Elijah calls all of Israel, along with the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to meet him at Mount Carmel.

In the tradition of Moses, Elijah confronts the people with two choices that lie before them in that moment.  It echoes “choose blessing or curse, life or death” that Moses had placed before the people before entering into Canaan.  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Now, Elijah is offering the same prospect: choose Yahweh or Baal!

So, we have the solitary figure of Elijah poised against the 850 prophets of idolatry.  It’s not as if God’s prophets are entirely extinct.  But, there is significance in the numbers.  It is primarily about the centralization of worship opposed to the worship of the high places, where people do as they see fit.  There is one God and one way to worship God.

Elijah, hardly being a gentleman, allows the prophets of false gods to go first.  An offering is placed on the altar… now, they simply have to call down fire to consume the sacrifice.  The prophets began calling upon Baal, the god of rain, to rain down fire upon the bull.  From morning until noon, the prophets called but to no avail.  Smirking, Elijah mocks their efforts, saying, “’Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (18:27).  Provoked, the prophets cried louder and slashed themselves.  Yet, still there was no answer, no fire, no heavenly rain.

The form of worship exhibited by these prophets was blasphemous.  First, they worship the created rather than the Creator.  Baal was nothing and could not answer in response to the prayers of the prophets.  Secondly, the prophets lacerated themselves, causing themselves to bleed in order to placate the gods into action.  Still nothing.  Deuteronomy warned, “You are children of the Lord your God.  You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead” (14:1).  Israel’s form of worship must be separate in every way from the surrounding cultures.  However, as is evidenced by this story, that was hardly the case.

Now, Elijah has his turn.  Elijah reconstructed the altar of Yahweh, choosing 12 stones that represented the 12 tribes of Israel.  Next, he dug a trench around the altar and cut wood for the sacrifice, cutting the bull into pieces which were laid on top.  Finally, Elijah called for four large jars of water to be filled and poured upon the bull, wood, and altar.  He instructed them to do this three times, until 12 jars had been filled and poured out.  The instructions were carried out until water soaked the entire offering and filled the trench surrounding the altar.

Elijah then prayed that God would answer and show His people that Yahweh alone is God.  He prayed that the hearts of the onlookers would be turned from Baal to the Living God, from death to life.  “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kgs 18:38).  Immediately, the people began to worship God!

In accordance with Deuteronomy 13:1-18, Elijah commands the people to seize the prophets of Baal and put them to the sword.  The people were now living in covenant faithfulness, led by Elijah.  God had proved the victor, obedience was the only natural response.  It is in the final piece of this story that we see the covenant faithfulness of God on full display.

Elijah prays that God will bring rain, ending the four year drought.  After sending a servant seven times to see if rain is coming, the servant affirms in the positive.  The echoes of Deuteronomy resound again, “If you will only heed his every commandment that I am giving you today – loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul – then he will give the rain for your land in its season” (11:13-14).

The story of Elijah reminds us, in the tradition of Deuteronomy, that we too have a choice to make.  Surrounded by the pluralistic cultures that inhabit the lands around us, we must choose whom we will serve.  We may serve the gods that promise wealth and provision, or turn to the One who alone is our Provider.  “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known” (11:26-28).

We must keep in mind the lesson we learn from Omri and Ahab: wealth and power are not good indicators of a life well lived.  Rather, it is how we live in obedience to the Word of the Lord that is a true measure of our success.  Drought may come, but we can trust in the Giver of Life and Blessing.

 

Works Cited

Branson, Robert, Jim Edlin, Timothy M. Green, and Alex Varughese. Discovering the Old Testament: Story and Faith. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2003.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha. New York: Abingdon Press, 2003.

 

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