Thursday, June 02, 2005


Elijah Did Not Run for His Life

Most English translations of 1 Kings 19:3 indicate that Elijah feared the threats of Jezebel and ran for his life. The traditional interpretation of this chapter is that Elijah uncharacteristically lost his boldness, panicked, and ran. Some preachers and commentators point out that his prayer in verse 4, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors,” reveals that his fear led him into depression and suicidal despair.

The Hebrew text in verse 3 actually says, “When Elijah saw.” Translators make a change in the letters to come up with, “Elijah feared.” But, this change is unnecessary and misleading. If we read this chapter with our eyes open, we will notice that Elijah did not make his journey to protect himself. He could have found safety in Jerusalem with King Jehoshaphat.

Elijah went to two different places and made two different speeches. The Biblical writer knew what those two places meant in the history of Israel and wants us to get the point about Elijah by checking out those two places.

Elijah’s first stop was in the vicinity of Kadesh Barnea. It was a place where God said to Moses, “I will . . . destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Numbers 14:12). Moses interceded for the people. God spared them, but vowed that the entire rebelling generation would die in the desert. This beginning point for Israel's wilderness wanderings was the perfect place for Elijah to declare, “Take away my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah identified with the Israelites because all his effort of calling people back to faith and obedience had brought them no further than they were back then.

God’s provision for Elijah mirrored his provision for Israel in the wilderness. God gave Elijah food and water for a forty day journey, as he previously had provided Israel food and water for a forty year journey.

Elijah’s second stop was at the other site where God asked Moses to stand aside. After the golden calf incident the Lord offered to destroy the covenant breakers and to rebegin the people of God through Moses. There also Moses interceded and God spared the nation. 1 Kings 19:9 tells us that Elijah went to Mount Horeb (Sinai) and spent the night at “the cave,” which readers would recognize as the “cleft in the rock” where Moses saw God’s glory.

The next day Elijah stood where Moses had stood centuries earlier. He gave God his second speech (quite different from the one near Beersheba), “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The writer wants us to recall Exodus 32-34 and connect what happened under Moses with what happened under Elijah. In a sense, Elijah has returned to square one. In all the years between Moses and Elijah, Israel has made zero progress. Despite miraculous demonstrations, the people still break the covenant, tear down the altars, and kill the prophets.

When we understand the point being made, we not only avoid the caricature of the story that is often told, but we have the context for the comforting words in 1 Kings 19:11-12, “The Lord was not in the wind, . . . in the earthquake, . . . in the fire. After the fire came a still, small voice.” The people with Moses saw great manifestations of God’s power at Mount Sinai, yet they quickly turned from the Lord. Faith is not created in majestic displays of power, but by an inner voice from God. There is a place for fire from heaven, and Elijah will be asked to do it again, but Elijah is not responsible for the faith or unbelief of his people--and he cannot produce faith through miracles.

But, you may ask, doesn’t 1 Kings 19:3 say that Elijah “ran for his life”? Literally the texts says, “he went upon his soul.” The word is the usual word for going somewhere. It does not imply a flight in fear. It does not require an implication of danger. “Upon his soul” could refer to Elijah’s purpose to enrich his soul by a visit to these key sites from Israel’s past. It may describe a pilgrimage or a spiritual field trip. When Elijah saw the sad response of Israel, he went to refresh his soul in the wilderness and at Sinai.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

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