Studying 1 Kings 18 5-18

We are studying 1 Kings 18:5-18 for Sunday, March 28. This is the story of Elijah’s encounter with Obadiah and then Ahab, king of [the northern kingdom of] Israel. This story is the prelude to Elijah’s more famous contest with the “prophets of Baal” at Mt. Carmel. There’s a lot more going on in this text than we might think after a first glance. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are still bouncing around in the Deuteronomistic history. Last week we looked at a scene near the end. This week we’re looking at an episode closer to the middle, one of the stories featuring the prophet Elijah.

The geographical setting is the northern kingdom of Israel. The historical setting is the reign of king Ahab, the son of Omri. Omri was a commander of the army, who usurped the throne with popular support, consolidated his reign in a civil war, established the capital city of Samaria, and carried on with the idolatry that characterized the rulers of the northern kingdom from the start (see 1 Kings 16:15-28). 1 Kings 16:29-34 identifies Ahab, his heir, as an exceptionally bad king.

The national persistence in wrongdoing is underscored with the report of the rebuilding of the accursed Canaanite city of Jericho. From the perspective of our text, people do the wrong thing, suffer for it, and keep doing it anyway.

The text calls Ahab out explicitly for his active participation in his wife Jezebel’s religion, which includes the worship of Baal and Asherah. We think Baal here refers to a Canaanite sky and storm god. This makes the central event of the drought in the next two chapters a direct demonstration of YHWH’s superiority to Baal when it comes to controlling the elements.

This is the context for the sudden appearance of Elijah the Tishbite (1 Kings 17). The prophet announces the drought, then hides – at YHWH’s command – first by the wadi Cherith, to be fed by ravens, and then at the home of the widow of Zarephath. (The widow of Zarephath will benefit from the arrangement. Her food supply will miraculously last throughout the drought and ensuing famine. And Elijah will recall her son from death. Jesus is going to remind people of this story when he preaches in Nazareth, according to Luke 4:25-26, and his audience won’t appreciate being reminded that the God of Israel sometimes sees fit to help out idolatrous Gentiles instead of Israelites.)

We might notice the contrast here between this Sidonian woman, a widow, who helps keep Elijah the prophet of YHWH alive in Zarephath, and Jezebel, also a Sidonian woman, the wife of Ahab, who is killing off the prophets of YHWH in Israel. We learn about Jezebel’s killing in 1 Kings 18:4-5, when we learn that Obadiah has preserved the lives of some of the targeted prophets, by hiding them in caves and keeping them alive on bread and water. Much like the ravens who fed Elijah at the Wadi Cherith. There are a lot of parallels and contrasts in this story!

Here’s another one: Elijah has been out of danger in Sidon. Obadiah has been in danger in Samaria.

As 1 Kings 18 begins, the word of YHWH sets events in motion by telling Elijah to present himself to Ahab, and by promising rain. We will pick up the story in verse 5, as Ahab and his manager Obadiah are also on the move, in search of fodder for the kings’ animals.

1 Kings will continue with the story of Ahab through his death in 1 Kings 22, and the story of the bloody end of the Omri dynasty at the hands of the military commander Jehu will be told in 2 Kings 9-10. In between, the prophet Elijah will be succeeded by the prophet Elisha and taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, and Elisha himself will demonstrate his spiritual inheritance by performing numerous miracles. Elisha will die in 2 Kings 13. Political and religious affairs in Israel, and in Judah to the south, will keep going from bad to worse, despite some bright spots in Judah under kings Hezekiah and Josiah, until the fall of Samaria in 2 Kings 17:6, and finally the exile of Judah at the end of the book.

This text is not in the lectionary, so it’s one of those things we’d not know about the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. As far as that goes, the story about Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, to which this story is a prelude, IS in the lectionary, but on one of those vulnerable early Sundays in the season after Pentecost that sometimes get skipped for the greater good of the liturgical year. So even that part of the story is a lesser-known part of the Bible-as-read-in-church.
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CLOSER READING: Our text begins with verse 5, but we really need the context of verses 1-4 that report Elijah’s command from God, and that establish Obadiah’s position, as Ahab’s palace manager, and his God-fearing character. His position as majordomo may help explain how he was able to feed a hundred hidden prophets. But rabbinical tradition also holds that he spent his own personal fortune down to nothing to do it.

The name Obadiah means “servant of YHWH.” The question of who a person serves is prominent in the story. The name Elijah means literally “My God [is] YHWH,” a bold assertion.

Ahab says to Obadiah to go to all the springs and wadis, to look for grass for the horses and mules. Literally, he wants not to cut off any of the animals, which ironically repeats the verb, cutting off, that Jezebel is doing to the prophets of YHWH in verse 4. Ironically, and even callously.

In verse 6, the men’s division and going in separate directions is practical, but also symbolic. Ahab and Obadiah are, in fact, traveling in different religious directions.

Verse 7, Elijah’s appearance to Obadiah is sudden – look! Elijah coming to meet him. Obadiah falls on his face in front of Elijah, and calls him “my lord.” But Elijah will turn around and refer to Ahab as Obadiah’s lord, “your lord.” Is Elijah implying that Obadiah has a divided loyalty? Elijah’s instruction to Obadiah is five words in Hebrew, and includes the announcement in verse 7, look! Elijah. Or, perhaps, “look, my god is YHWH.” Because who knows how Ahab will hear it?

Obadiah responds with a long speech, verses 9-14. In which he repeats Elijah’s instructions twice, word for word, and mentions his chances of being killed four times.

In v10, we find out Elijah has been in danger this whole time, from Ahab’s diligent searching.

V12 seems to be Obadiah’s fantasy of how God’s divine protection of Elijah will amount to certain death for Obadiah. Which seems unfair, since he has feared God from his youth. [Although, for that matter, the other prophets, the ones that have already died, presumably also feared God from their youth.]

In v13, his question whether “it was not reported to my lord” what he has done for the other prophets is arresting: wait, which lord? Because of course it was not reported to his lord Ahab! The secrecy and hiddenness is what made his service to the prophets successful. But that same secrecy and hiddenness may be what keeps his lord Elijah from spotting him as a fellow servant of God.

In v15, Elijah assures him, with an appeal to the living God of hosts – a sure defense – that he will appear before rather than hide from Ahab. We notice that Elijah stands before God, where Obadiah fell before Elijah. Their different postures may stand for their characteristic, very different, operational styles.

In v16, just as Elijah met Obadiah, Obadiah meets Ahab, and then Ahab meets Elijah. Like a relay.

In v17, the verb Ahab uses to describe Elijah is a deadly kind of “trouble.” Johanna Bos, in The Land and Its Kings, translates it as “you bringer-of-disaster.”[1] That fits other contexts in which the same word appears, like Simeon and Levi’s slaughter of the Shechemites that brings disaster on Jacob in Genesis 34, or Achan’s stealing of contraband from Jericho that brings disaster on the Israelites in Joshua 7. Elijah, in effect, says “No, you’re the disaster.” The disaster is abandoning YHWH, and the drought and famine make that disaster and its deadliness manifest.

Bring it out into the open, where it can be seen for the disaster it is. A turning away from the source of life, and life-giving water; an embrace of death.
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SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT: So life and death, hiding and openness, worship of an invisible and powerful God of Israel vs. worship of visible and powerless idols, protection and danger, courage and cowardice – all of these are mixed up in this story.

And I do mean “mixed up.” The risk-aware Obadiah sometimes gets dismissed as a coward or collaborator, in contrast to the stalwart Elijah. But the whole story seems more complex than that. Context is everything. It seems worth thinking about whether faithfulness and loyalty could require different things from people at different times and in different places. Another way to say that might be: what is the difference, if there is one, between “wisdom” and “selling out”?

Obadiah has risked a lot on behalf of the hidden prophets; their lives depended on his discretion. That presumably took at least some courage. Elijah has done his share of hiding; he will hide again as his story continues. We never hear about Obadiah again in the book of Kings.
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[1] Johanna W.H. Van Wijk-Bos, A People and A Land: Volume 3, The Land and Its Kings. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020, 126.
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Image: Shofar window of Synagogue Enschede, by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

7 responses to “Studying 1 Kings 18 5-18”

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