Elijah in the Desert –-5- Elijah

I Kings 19

The Mount Carmel episode just ended.  The nation declared its faith in the Lord (Hashem) as the God, and Elijah proves his loyalty to his repenting monarch by running before his chariot all the way to the palace in Jezreel.

 What happens in the palace?

Read v.1.  What is it that Ahab tells Jezebel about the events on Mount Carmel?

What happens is not as important as what is told about it.  Is Ahab giving an objective account?  How does he feel about the events there? (We did not actually hear him speak during the episode.) What reaction does he seek from the queen?  As we continue reading, consider whether Ahab is a hapless king manipulated by a powerful queen, or a cunning person who likes to hide behind Jezebel, letting her do the work?

Now let’s read v.2.  What do we learn about Jezebel and how did things go so wrong?

We do not hear what she says to Ahab, but we see her actions, and they are (relatively) swift.  It is from her that we can understand what Ahab told her.  It is from the oath that she takes (‘may the gods do to me..’) that we hear how a true polytheistic person speaks.  If you are reading the Hebrew, note the verbs that go with אלוהים.  They are in plural form, and it is not a mistake.  Finally, why does she not have Elijah killed immediately?

In v. 3 we follow Elijah as he flees for his life. Where does he go?  Why?

Note that he leaves the kingdom of Israel (in the north) and heads to Judea.  But he continues into the desert, past the last inhabited area before reaching the Negev and Sinai.  He does not end his disassociation with society at that.  How does he sever the last ties?

(For those who have studied the book of Jonah, think of the opening verses in which Jonah goes down and down, and disassociates himself from the people around him.)

Vv.4-8 take us deep into the desert and into Elijah’s soul.  How would you define his state of mind in these verses?

Again God has to rescue Elijah, but this time it is from himself.  Pay attention to the eating and sleeping, both among the most basic needs for survival, but they often take on extra dimensions.  The language in this story also connects us back to chapter 17 (session 2).  Look for צפחת tzapahat (container) and the use of קום kum (rise!) that should point us in the direction of the widow from Tzarfat.

Finally, what is the difference between the 2 ‘eatings’ that Elijah does here?

Another biblical character begins to be echoed in this story.  Who is he and why do we want him in the narrative?

Look at Exodus 3:1-2, 19:16-19, 24:18, 33:12-34:10 (to be expanded on in the next question,) Deut. 5:19-22.  There are many points of comparison between these 2 prophets, but the differenced are also great.  As we continue to study, please keep this question in mind.

In THE cave at Horeb

Which cave is this that we are supposed to be familiar with?

Could it be alluding to the episode in Exodus 33:12-34:10?  There it is a moment of tremendous closeness to God, a process of healing and moving forward.  What is the role of the cave here?  Is Elijah headed there by his own initiative or is he directed there?  Could he not have received a revelation under his circumstances?  (Note the use of דבר ה’ ‘the word of the Lord’ again.)

How do you understand God’s question to Elijah in v.9?

Since God is the one speaking, the answer cannot be a simple need for information.  Think of other people that were asked a question by God: Adam (Genesis 3:9) Cain (Genesis 4:9) Balaam (Numbers 22:9.)  What is God seeking in such instances?

Elijah’s answer gives us a window into his soul.  How does he understand the situation?

His answer is composed of 3 parts: What he did vis-a-vie God, what the people did vis-a- vie God, and the result. Parts 2 and 3 can be divided into 2 parts each.  Note that there is a progression and correlation in parts 2 and 3.

How should we understand God’s revelation to Elijah outside the cave?

I would like to hear from you how you understand vv.11-12.  There are many possible deep meanings, and I trust that you will have something to share about this.  I will only add one technical note:  The structure of the description is “three and the fourth.”  In other words, a pattern develops and is repeated 3 times.  The fourth time it will break the expected pattern, and it is the fourth time that is the significant one.  (This phenomenon was demonstrated by Yair Zakovitz of Hebrew University.  He named it “shlosha ve’arba’a.”)

Elijah’s reaction:  Where does covering the face take us?

Back to Exodus; following his request to understand God, Moshe is warned that ‘a person cannot see God and live.’ (Think about what ‘seeing’ means.  We use it in a broad sense in English as well.)  Moshe was protected from seeing by God’s hand.  How can Elijah handle the situation?

response:  Repetition of his words in response to the ‘word of the Lord’ in the beginning of the episode.  What does such a response mean?

Elijah has experienced devastating powers, only to be told that they are not a manifestation of God.  How does this match his understanding of the world?

Elijah’s response seems to beg further development. We will study more about it in a Midrash taken from Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) Rabba. (In part 2.)

This time Elijah receives a verbal response (vv.15-18.)  What does it mean?

It seems that world orders are about to change.  The political balance of power in the region will be thrown into turmoil with dynasties changing in both Israel and Aram.  And who is Elisha?  What is his relationship to Elijah? What will happen to the People of Israel?

Did Elijah get what he demanded of God?

Perhaps we should first decide what it was that he was demanding. What was Elijah hoping that God would do?  Was the answer to that clear to him?  Were the repercussions of his demands obvious to him, and was he willing to pay such a price?  The answers to most of these questions depend on how much of a zealot we see in Elijah.  He declares himself a zealot, but was he truly comfortable with unbridled punishment?  And did he expect that God shared his view of the matters?

More Zealous than One’s God

In this section we will try to raise some issues regarding Elijah as a zealot, and the role of the prophet.

Let’s begin with the Midrash’s development of God’s response to Elijah:

(Text in bold is taken from the biblical text.  Notice how the Midrash incorporates the biblical text into its own text.)

שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד”ה א [ו] אל
ויאמר “קנא קנאתי לה’ אלהי ישראל כי עזבו בריתך בני ישראל,”
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: בריתי, שמא בריתך?
ואת מזבחותיך הרסו,”
אמר לו: מזבחותי, שמא מזבחותיך?
ואת נביאיך הרגו בחרב
 אמר לו: נביאי, ואת מה איכפת לך?,
אמר לו “ואותר אני לבדי ויבקשו את נפשי לקחתה!”
תא חמי מה כתיב תמן “ויבט והנה מראשותיו עוגות רצפים.” מה הוא רצפים?”, אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמן ‘רוץ פה’ – “רצוץ פיות בכל מי שאמר דילטורייא על בני,”

Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) Rabba, 1:6

And he said: “I zealously [acted] zealously for the Lord God of Israel for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant”
Said the Holy One blessed be He to him:  My covenant, or perhaps your covenant?
“[they] tore down Your alters”
He said to him: My alters, or perhaps your alters?
“and [they] killed Your prophets by the sword”
He said to him:  My prophets, and you, why do you care?
He said to Him: “But I alone am left and they are trying to take my life

…What does it say there? “He looked and there beside his head was a cake of Retzfim.  Why Retzafim?… ‘Retzotz piyot (smash the mouths) of all who speak badly about my children.’

Midrash often comes to fill a void in the text? What gap is the Midrash filling here?

God’s verbal response to Elijah’s claims is not recorded.  The response he gets seems disconnected from the heavy accusations that Elijah has raised against the people.  The Midrash suggests a Godly response.

According to the Midrash, does God accept Elijah’s claims?

The Midrash presents its reading as a dialogue (which is blatantly missing in the biblical text) where God functions as a parent or a teacher who is trying to gently prove to the irate child how where he has gone wrong.  Can one be more zealous than God?  The Midrash seems to suggest that the answer is ‘yes.’

The Midrash ends with a declaration against all who speak evil against ‘my children’.  Who is speaking and who is it spoken against?

This idea is expressed in other Midrashim as well.  The signs of the serpent and lepresy given to Moshe in Exodus 4:1-7 are seen as rebukes for expressing doubt that the Israelites would listen to him.  This raises some difficult questions.  Moshe’s doubts were founded, and Elijah’s complaints have a strong basis in reality.  What is the position of a prophet vis-à-vis his people?

How should a Prophet balance his loyalties?  This question is dealt with in the Midrash below:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מס’ דפסחא פרשה א

נמצאת אתה אומר שלשה בנים הם: אחד תבע כבוד האב וכבוד הבן. ואחד תבע כבוד האב ולא כבוד הבן. ואחד תבע כבוד הבן ולא בכבוד האב.

ירמיה תבע כבוד האב וכבוד הבן שנאמר “נחנו פשענו ומרינו אתה לא סלחת” (איכה ג מב) לכך נכפלה נבואתו שנאמר “ועוד נוסף עליהם דברים” (ירמיה לו לב)

אליהו תבע כבוד האב ולא כבוד הבן שנאמר “קנא קנאתי לה’ אלהי צבאות” וגו’ (מלכים א’ יט י) ומה נאמר שם? “ויאמר ה’ אליו לך שוב לדרכך מדברה דמשק” וגומר “ואת יהוא בן נמשי תמשח למלך על ישראל ואת אלישע בן שפט תמשח לנביא תחתיך” שאין תלמוד לומר “לנביא תחתיך” אלא שאי איפשי בנבואתך.

יונה תבע כבוד הבן ולא כבוד האב
… “ויהי דבר ה’ אל יונה שנית לאמר” (יונה ג א) שנית נדבר עמו לא שלישית.


Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael, Bo – Masekhet D’Pascha A

There were three sons: One demanded respect for the father and for the son, one demanded respect for the father but not for the son, and one demanded respect for the son but not for the father.

Jeremiah demanded respect for the father and for the son, as it is said “We have transgressed and rebelled, and You have not forgiven.” (Lamentations 3:42.)  Therefore his prophecy was doubled, as it is said “and more of the like was added.” (Jer. 36:32.)  Elijah demanded respect for the father but not for the son as it is said “I zealously [acted] zealously for the Lord…” (I Kings 19:10.)  And what does it say there?  “…anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Avel-Meholah as a prophet in your stead” (I Kings 19:16.)  It would not say “as a prophet in your stead” except that there is no desire for your prophecy.

Jonah demanded respect for the son but not for the father.  “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” (Jonah 3:1.)  He spoke to him a second time but not a third time.

Two loyalties, often conflicting, are placed on the prophet.  How does the Midrash express the 3 possible outcomes?

As you consider this question, let’s pay attention to the Midrash’s choice to present this as a parent-child conflict.  This should open up the question of the role of the prophet.  He is called a ‘son’ in the beginning of the Midrash, but he is not fully in line with the son that is in conflict with the father.  On the other hand, whatever happens to the son as a result of the conflict, will happen to the prophet as well, he cannot disconnect himself from the lot of the people.

Jeremiah is the first example. Why is he so compelling?

Jeremiah is one of the prophets who lived in his role as a prophet, and experienced all possibilities.  He rebuked the people in the name of God, and took God to task for his treatment of the people.  For all this he was hated by many of his contemporaries and narrowly escapes death as a traitor.  He lives to see prophecies come true and, as part of thm, is carted off as a captive towards Babylon (until the Babylonians realize who he is and let him go.)

Can you think of another prophet that stood between God and the People of Israel saving the people but also demanding justice for God?

Elijah is presented as the prophet that is zealously on God’s side, yet God does not want him.  Why?

What does this tell us about the role of the prophet in the eyes of God?  Other prophets were also faced with what they perceived to be a terrible infraction, but their reaction was different.  At the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32) Moshe did not allow God to destroy the people (but never claimed that they were innocent.)  He went as far as to link their survival with his own.  What is wrong with the prophet that is concerned only with what he thinks is God’s interest?  How affective of a spokesperson is he?  Will the people trust someone who has only criticism and shows no love for them?

What kind of prophet are we looking to replace Elijah?

What was Elijah lacking?  He had difficulty being compassionate towards others whom he considered transgressors.  As we saw when we compared him to Obadiahu, he does not believe is functioning within a state or society that he does not agree with.  We need a not-zealot.

Enter:  Elisha 19:19-21

Compare the biographical data of Elisha with that of Elijah.  What have we discovered?

Notice that we know who Elisha’s father (family) is.  He appears on the scene as a farmer, solidly attached to a location.  He is wealthy (12 pairs of oxen = 12 tractors.)  Anyone who has that much is also supervising others, he has contact with ordinary people.  As he runs to serve Elijah he does 2 noticeable things:  He takes leave of his parents, and he throws a party for the people.  What kind of person is Elisha?

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