July 20 is the feast of the Prophet Elijah.
This is a wonderful story – of how God’s faithful prophet stood up alone to paganism and to power, and paid the price and triumphed. In order to tell the story and comment about it in this short space, I’ve had to leave out a great deal. The full text is found in I Kings chapters 17-20 and II Kings chapter 2.
The usual Orthodox name for this prophet is “Elias” (eLEEas or sometimes in English eLEYEas) from the New Testament Greek. The original Hebrew is “Eliyahu”. “Elijah” is a strange English transliteration, but it’s so common and I’m so accustomed to it that I’ll use it here.
Let’s begin with prophets who, as the Epistle appointed for this feast (James 5:10-20) tells us, “spoke in the name of the Lord”. Old Testament prophets were not fortunetellers, seers who looked into crystal balls or tea cups or whatever and told the future. Prophets were those upon whom the Spirit of the Lord, the Word of the Lord came and then they quoted God: “Thus says the Lord.” God’s word to them sometimes involved what might happen in the future or might not, depending on whether people repented and turned to God or not.
Four of the minor prophets from a Russian deisis
Prophets were unique to the Jews. They appeared in no other culture. By the 10th century BC there were bands of prophets, groups of men upon whom the Spirit came. This crystalized into certain notable individual prophets who spoke God’s word, of whom Elijah/Elias was the first major prophet. There were true prophets, but there were also false prophets: men who hung around king’s courts and said, “Good work, your majesty, keep it up. God likes you and your policies just the way they are.” Does that sound familiar? Those in power often unwisely surround themselves with “yes-men”, chosen to give them adulation. But true prophets spoke God’s word, proclaimed God’s judgment on sinners, even on God’s chosen people, even on rulers – no matter how much trouble it got them into, which was often a lot. (Please, God, send us true prophets who will speak the truth to power.) True prophets were often hated, despised, persecuted, even killed. From the Epistle: “The prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord are examples of suffering and patience.”
The Prophet Elijah
Elijah was a true prophet. It was the 10th century BC, about 100 years after the great flourishing of the Jewish nation under Kings David and Solomon. But now the Jews were divided: Israel to the north, Judah to the south. King Ahab ruled in Judah, a weak man who had married Jezebel, daughter of Prince Ittabaal of Tyre. The ending of their names told the tale: bel, baal. Jezebel was a pagan who worshiped Baal or the Baalim (plural), who had different functions in different places – the usual confusing intermixture among pagan gods and their duties. Baal in later times at least, perhaps in his Canaanite form even then, required the sacrifice of children. (This may have been why Abraham, years before, wasn’t utterly shocked when he thought God wanted him to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Jews were then just getting to know God, and that’s what some gods did.) Jezebel was a strong women who pushed Ahab into pagan worship – of Baal and of the mother goddess Ashteroth (Astarte, Ishtar) which involved temple prostitution.
By the way, in recent years the mother goddess has come back again. (Maybe she was never gone.) This time she’s called Gea or Gaia, “earth mother”. Some years ago a young man from our church, Matthew MacKay, (who became Father Matt and died much too young: memory eternal+) was doing pastoral training at a Milwaukee hospital, as part of his preparation for ordination. The trainees were asked to talk about their religious traditions. Matt told about Orthodoxy, many told about Lutheranism, and so on. Then the Roman Catholic nuns told, believe it or not, of their devotion to the mother goddess. She keeps coming back. Be wary.
Elijah the Tishbite (from Tishbe – that’s all we know of his origins) suddenly appears in I Kings 17. Elijah said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives…there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except at my word.” From the Epistle: “Elijah was a man like us; he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain in the land for three years and six months.”
The word of the Lord came to him: “Flee eastward and hide by the brook Cherith near the Jordan”, where ravens fed him. (This is how he is usually portrayed in icons.) Soon the brook Cherith dried up. The word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Arise. Go to Zarephath. A widow there will provide for you.” He stayed there many days and all that time the bin of flour was never used up nor did the jar of oil run dry, but were always found replenished. Then the widow’s son died. She said to Elijah “What have I to do with you, man of God? Have you come to show me my sin and kill my son?” Elijah prayed to God, then went up to the room where her son was laid out, and after a time he came down carrying her son alive.
After three years the land was parched, the people desperate. The word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go present yourself before Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.” Now, Jezebel had massacred most of the prophets of the Lord; a remnant, 100 of them had fled into the wilderness. They warned Elijah: Don’t do it. Ahab will kill you too. Elijah said, “As the Lord lives I will surely present myself before him today.” When Ahab saw Elijah he said, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “but you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Ashteroth, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” Ahab did so. Elijah said to the people, “How long will you waver between two opinions. If the Lord is God follow him, but if Baal follow him.”
Yes! As Jesus said, you cannot worship two gods; either one or the other will come first. Today nobody worships the Baals, and only a few worship the mother goddess. But if some people were honest, they would make an icon of a dollar bill or their stomach or their loins or their house or their national flag – and light a candle to that. Don’t waver between the two. If money or food or property or your job or sex or your politics or anything else comes first in your life, be honest: don’t go to Divine Liturgy and pretend to worship God. If the Lord is God then follow him.
The people answered not a word.
Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion to the story of the Holy Prophet Elijah.