Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 18

In this chapter, Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal and prays for the end of the drought.

This is another famous story (or at least, famous amongst the kind of people that I talk to).  There are a couple big themes I want to talk about and a couple little details.

In big themes, the first I will discuss is the contrast between Baal and the LORD.  In verse 21, Elijah says that the people are wavering between two opinions, but in so many ways we can see that Baal is honored over the LORD.  From the royalty, we learn that Jezebel is not just a worshiper of Baal, but she is literally killing the prophets of the LORD (v. 4).  And what about the people?  It is likely that the people tore down the altar of the LORD (v. 30), whereas the altar of Baal remained.  At both the highest and lowest levels of society, the people favored Baal over the LORD.

Besides that, there is also a contrast of strength.  There are 450 prophets of Baal, and only one prophet of the LORD.  Nevertheless, in spite of that we can clearly see that Elijah is in control of the situation.  The prophets of Baal dance and prophesy frantically, cutting themselves to urge Baal to act, while Elijah is confident enough to mock them for their efforts.  Finally, we see that it's not numbers that matter, it's not the emotional appeal that matters, it is simply a question of which of these gods is real and has real power to change the world and answer prayer.  Elijah does everything he can to put himself at a disadvantage to the prophets of Baal, giving them more time to pray, more numbers, and pouring water on his own offering to prevent it (if such a thing were possible) from burning.  It simply comes down to which god is God, and as the people put it, the LORD is God (v 39).

In verse 29, it says that the prophets of Baal "prophesied until the time of the evening offering", though translations of the word "prophesy" vary.  I think this is interesting because of previous discussions that I've had about the interpretations of the word "naba", which means prophesy.  In this case, I believe "naba" has a similar meaning to those previous situations, as the prophets of Baal wildly prophesy in their attempts to arouse Baal to action.  Again, it does not mean predicting the future, it is a kind of religious ritual whose exact nature is hard to identify.

In verse 30, it says that Elijah rebuilt the altar of the LORD which had been torn down.  Is it permitted to offer sacrifices on a high place, away from the temple?  According to the Law, I believe the answer is no (and Rashi says something like this in his commentary).  However, because Elijah was acting according to the word of the LORD, he was permitted to do so.  It is unlikely the people in the northern kingdom would travel to Jerusalem when they do not worship the LORD, and they needed to see a demonstration of power in order for God to "turn their hearts back again" (v. 37).

Even if it was forbidden for Israelites to offer sacrifices on the high places (i.e. local worship venues), I feel that there is something pious about Elijah here, the lone prophet rebuilding the altar.  Elijah uses 12 stones as a symbol of Israel's unity as a nation, and he offers the sacrifice at the time of the evening offering, which again shows that Elijah is consciously seeking to honor the LORD.  That's the biggest takeaway that I have from Elijah's behavior in verses 30-37, is Elijah's references to the patriarchs and to God's commands to the people.

The evening offering was supposed to be burned with fire (like many offerings) on the altar in Jerusalem, so God's response was to burn the offering.  In the first place, this is a miracle and demonstration of God's supremacy over Baal.  In the second place, this is a sign of God's acceptance of Elijah and an acceptance of his offering.  It's not just God showing his power, it's showing his power and approval of Elijah.  Thirdly, God is fulfilling the ordinances by burning the offering, in accordance with the Law.  It's not just God's approval of Elijah, God is implicitly endorsing the regulations of the Law of Moses by himself fulfilling part of the command to sacrifice a burnt offering at a particular time (the evening offering).

After this miracle, Elijah uses his established authority (as the people realize the supremacy of the LORD) to order the death of all the prophets of Baal.  Just like Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, Elijah responds in kind by killing the false prophets who ate at Jezebel's table.

As a minor point, verse 12 establishes the possibility of God's spirit transporting a person from one place to another, at least in Obadiah's belief.

Lastly, Elijah tells Ahab that the drought is ended, and then he goes to pray for the end of the drought.  I don't know why Elijah chose this time to end the drought.  Perhaps he believed that the people were, in fact, turning back to the LORD, and wanted to end the drought as a sign of reconciliation that God would still accept them.  Either way, I see this story as a powerful example of persistent prayer.  Elijah had to pray seven times before he saw even a small cloud form, a very small cloud.  But seeing the small cloud, Elijah knew at once that God was sending the storm he had requested.

In this same chapter, Elijah prayed once and God sent down fire from heaven to consume an offering.  But in order to end the drought, Elijah needed to persist in prayer until God answered him with rain.  Both fire and rain are metaphors for God's presence, and both of them require prayer.  I'm not sure why it takes a single prayer or persistence, but I know that in both cases it takes faith.  It takes Elijah's faith to call fire down from heaven, and it takes faith for him to remain persistent in prayer even when he wasn't seeing any results time after time.  I think in both cases God was responding to Elijah's faith.

I think the lesson for us is to understand God's command ("I have done all these things at your word", v. 36) and then to pursue God's will operating in faith.  Then miracles happen, whether it is the miracle of fire or rain, burning away the sins of idolatry or washing the dry land with healing waters.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 17

In this chapter, Elijah prophesies a drought, multiplies food and raises a dead boy to life.

This chapter introduces Elijah without so much as a genealogy.  We know from verse 1 that he is from Gilead, which is part of the tribe of Manasseh, but otherwise we do not know where he is from or how he became a prophet of God.  Some prophets, like Moses or Samuel, we learn about their childhood and upbringing.  Other prophets, like Gad (1 Samuel 22:5) or Nathan (2 Samuel 7:2) emerge without any introduction.  Elijah has no introduction.  In the course of this commentary, I have frequently wondered at how righteous men and women became followers of the LORD, and I wonder that about Elijah too.  Where did he get such faith to perform such miracles?  How did he develop such a relationship with the LORD?  Did the LORD sovereignly move in his life, or did Elijah seek the LORD through persistent prayer in order to grow into his calling?

These are questions that can't really be answered from the text.  But even without knowing Elijah's origins, I love the story of his emotional development and how the LORD leads him.  More on that later.

This chapter begins with a drought, which Elijah prophesies as punishment for Israel's idolatry.  Note that Elijah is from the northern kingdom and prophesying to Ahab, the king of the north.  From the last chapter, we know that Omri reigned for 11 years before he died and Ahab (his son) became king.  This means that both Ahab and Elijah grew up during the political strife that killed so many people in the north.  Omri was an evil king and Ahab was even worse, yet somehow Elijah emerged from this with profound faith in God.  The situation in the northern kingdom is going to get worse before it gets better.  The idolatry of Ahab arouses the LORD's wrath, and the LORD responds by sending a three year drought.

Elijah himself flees from Israel and crosses the Jordan to his home country of Gilead to reside by a brook and with supernatural sustenance.  After the brook dries up, he is told to go to Sidon which is north of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, and it is a Canaanite nation.  So the widow of Zarephath is not part of Israel.  This might be why the woman says, "as the LORD your God lives", because she was not herself a follower of the LORD.  In both of these cases, Elijah is fleeing outside the territory of the northern kingdom to hide from Ahab.  Having promised Ahab that only his word could end the drought, he understandably sought to keep himself out of Ahab's power.

This story shows us the devastating effects of the drought were extended north into Sidon as well, because the woman replies to Elijah that she is preparing the very last meal she could afford, and felt that she was consigned to death with her son.

Elijah asks her to give him a cake of bread first, and then she and her son may eat, and the LORD would multiply the food to provide for all of them until the drought ended.  I think this is the first time we have seen food multiplied in the bible and it's also the first time we have seen ravens bring food to someone.  The last time we saw supernatural provision was when Israel wandered through the wilderness; God provided manna to them from heaven and also at one point sent a flock of birds to fall down and die around Israel's camp (Numbers 11).  Even earlier than that, an angel of God visited Hagar and provided her water when she was driven out into the desert (Genesis 21).

The similarity, of course, is in the need.  Israel in the wilderness absolutely depended on God's provision.  After entering the promised land, they were able to grow or pillage all the food they needed, so the manna ceased.  Now that a drought has come upon Israel, Elijah is given provisions because of the Goshen Principle: as a righteous man, God protects him from the wrath that is intended for the wicked.

Why is the widow protected?  She is protected in two ways: first, by sharing in the multiplied bread that God provided to Elijah, and secondly when Elijah raises her son from the dead (more on this in a moment).  The widow was not a follower of the LORD, nor part of the covenant, and unlikely to be a righteous person; in fact, after her son dies she accuses Elijah of coming to "remind me of my iniquity".  So why is she protected?  I can think of two reasons.  The first is that God commands his people to care for widows and orphans, so I'm sure that God is interested in protecting widows.  I think the more likely answer is that Elijah blesses the people around him out of the overflow of God's blessing in his life.  This is an important principle so I would like to expand on it a bit.

In Deuteronomy 15, Moses said that Israel would "give generously" to their brothers.  In Genesis 19, it is likely that Zoar shared in the sins of Sodom, so why was Sodom destroyed and Zoar spared?  Zoar was spared because Lot stayed there when he was fleeing the destruction.  God was protecting Lot, but many lives were saved merely because they were near Lot.  Joseph was taken as a slave to Egypt, but because of God's favor on his life, many were saved in Egypt during the 7 years of famine that struck the country.  Surely the men of Egypt did not worship the LORD, nor were they part of the covenant, but their lives were spared because of God's blessing on Joseph.

As part of the covenant with God, as part of his nation, the people of Israel are promised that God would bless them, multiply them and protect them.  What we can see in some of these examples, though, is that the blessing of God is meant to overflow into others.  God's purpose in the covenant is not to save Israel out of a burning and destroyed world; his purpose in the covenant is to redeem Israel first, and then to flow through them to redeem the rest of the world.  God's purpose was to restore mankind and the world to the state that it held before the fall into sin that happened in Genesis 3.

The most poignant contrast in this chapter is that Elijah announces the drought in one place and then saves a widow's life in another.  If God's purpose is to redeem the world from sin, why does he send a drought to punish sin?  And if he seeks to punish sin, why does he spare the life of a woman and her son who undoubtedly were not part of the covenant?  Similarly, why would God destroy Sodom but spare Zoar?

I don't want to give a full answer now because I think this subject will come up many times.  My understanding is that God has two broad purposes in his actions: he seeks to punish sin and bring redemption and healing.  These are not contrary purposes: the people who sin bring destruction to the world and to others, and God needs to punish sin in order to promote healing.  Sin cannot co-exist with redemption and life.  Understanding these two purposes, we should now review these two actions, the drought that strikes Israel and the mercy that saves a widow.  At first glance, my readers may assume that I am going to say that the drought satisfies God's desire for punishment and saving the widow satisfies his desire for redemption.  I do not believe that is true.

I believe that both the drought and saving the widow fulfill both of God's purposes, for justice and for redemption.  The drought is punishment for sin, and certainly it is God's judgment upon sin, but God's judgment is intended to bring repentance.  This is why God sends the prophet Elijah to Ahab in the first place, because he is calling Ahab to repent.  As strange as it sounds, this devastation is meant to draw Israel into repentance, which in turn leads to healing.  God cannot force people to repent, however, so if they do not then it is their sin itself that would lead to ultimate death (Gen 3:19).  Life cannot coexist with sin.

Saving the life of the widow, in a naive sense, certainly brings redemption and healing.  But it also brings the woman to repentance: in verse 24, the woman declares that Elijah is truly a prophet of God.  If she turns to the LORD, then she receives forgiveness of sin and obviates the need for punishment.  Therefore, both purposes are satisfied; not because sin was punished, but because sin was destroyed through repentance, which in turn brought about a spiritual healing to go along with the physical resurrection of her son.

Both judgment and mercy can bring people to repent and return to God, and only God can perceive which of these is necessary for any person to be saved.  Therefore, I trust both his judgments and his mercy even when I do not understand why he chooses one or the other.  I trust God's actions because I trust his motivation, which is to undo the curse that befell from sin.

Lastly, I want to talk a bit more about this resurrection.  This is the first time in the bible someone has been raised from the dead, but in my opinion this is the epitome of God's purposes in the covenant.  As I said above, I believe the covenant is intended to reverse the curse of man and the curse is most represented by death, so raising someone from the dead is the strongest repudiation possible for the curse of man.  In the Passover, the firstborn of Israel were spared from death; in this chapter, the widow's son literally dies, but Elijah reverses that death by his prayers.

Even though it is a profound miracle, raising the boy from death is only a metaphor for what God does in the lives of everyone who turn to him.  There is an even more profound resurrection when we are restored into proper relationship with God and other people, when we are raised from the death in our spirits.  It took 900 years for Adam's body to die after he sinned and death entered his spirit; we were born into sin, but have the power of God available to raise our spirits to life even while our bodies die.  The widow's son was resurrected as a metaphor for God resurrecting our spirits and raising us up to live with him.

In conclusion, this is a grim time in the northern kingdom.  Having just passed through multiple rounds of violence as one king deposed another, there is finally some political stability when it is interrupted by a devastating drought.  In the midst of this drought, however, there are glimmers of hope as God shows himself to be strong on behalf of Elijah and that God is not coming just to bring wrath; he is coming to bring healing and resurrection as well, and he is still seeking to bring redemption to Israel, Sidon and by extension, to the ends of the earth.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 16

In this chapter, several dynasties rise and fall in the northern kingdom, Israel.

This chapter continues with the political intrigue that we saw in the northern kingdom in the previous chapter.  Jehu prophesies that Baasha's entire family would be destroyed because he "walked in the way of Jeroboam" and "because he struck it" (v. 7), referring to Baasha destroying the house of Jeroboam.  This feels a little ironic, that God would at one time declare that Jeroboam's whole family would be destroyed, which Baasha does, and then say that Baasha would be destroyed for what he did to Jeroboam.  To make a long story short, Baasha acted treacherously towards Jeroboam's family and even though God had prophesied that Jeroboam and his whole family would die, he did not command Baasha to do it, so Baasha was still acting sinfully in this regard.  Even in the things that God has commanded to happen, we sin if we try to take those things on our own initiative rather than act in accordance with God's will for us.  It's like when God prophesied a famine in Pharaoh's dream, imagine if Joseph had gone out and tried to poison the granaries to fulfill what God declared would happen.  In that case, Joseph would have been sinning even if he was fulfilling a judgment of God because in the vast majority of cases, it is not a human responsibility to bring about God's judgment on the earth.

Baasha himself survives and dies in his old age, but his son is acting irresponsibly, "drinking himself drunk" in an official's house, when he is assassinated by one of his commanders.  Like what Baasha did to Jeroboam, Zimri kills Elah's entire family, the entire household of Baasha, and in that sense Zimri brings upon himself the same condemnation that followed Baasha's family.

Remember back in the book of Samuel when David permitted Mephibosheth to live in Jerusalem and eat from his table?  Remember how I said this was an extraordinary kindness?  This chapter shows us how coup plotters typically deal with the families of their victims.  So on the one hand, David acted with great kindness.  On the other hand, I also mentioned how risky it was for David to leave a descendant of Saul alive, because any relative of Saul could possibly rally those men (especially the tribe of Benjamin) that maintained loyalty to the house of Saul and could be a threat to David's own life and family.

It is doubtless that Baasha and Zimri are thinking about this when they destroyed the families of the previous king: the easiest way to ensure that there is no retribution against oneself is to kill all possible survivors of their treachery.  It's ironic, then, that by killing Jeroboam's family, Baasha had ensured that God would be the one to take retribution against him.  Similarly, one could imagine that if David had killed all the household of Saul, he would have brought God's wrath against himself.  By showing mercy (contrary to human wisdom and cultural standards of the time), David had guaranteed God's protection of his dynasty.

Unlike the previous coup, Zimri is not able to rally support; instead, the army follows their commander Omri, who kills Zimri.  After that, Omri gets into conflict with Tibni, who also dies and Omri becomes king.  We should understand that this was a very violent period of time in Israel's history.

Nevertheless, the strife finally ends when Omri becomes king.  Even though Omri leads Israel into sin, he reigns for 12 years and his son reigns after him.  Note how all of these various kings were reigning in the time of Asa?  This means that during this whole window of 30-something years, Judah has a single king, Asa, while the northern kingdom goes through Nadab (the son of Jeroboam), Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and lastly Ahab.  This is a striking contrast between the political stability of the south and the instability of the north, as well as the violence that comes with that instability.  As if the Aramean invasion is not enough, the men of Israel are spending an awful lot of time killing each other too.

The chapter concludes with a throwback to a prophecy by Joshua in Joshua 6:26.  It doesn't tell us how or when it happens, but the person who rebuilt Jericho loses two of his sons in the process.  I can't say much because we don't really know any of the details, but I should mention that Jericho is in the northern kingdom, Israel, and it is definitely possible that his sons were killed in the political violence that I just mentioned.

This is the context in which Ahab becomes king, introduced alongside his wife Jezebel (a Sidonian, who is not an Israelite), and they are worshipers of Baal and Asherah.  This sets us up for one of the longest stories in the book of Kings, the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah.  It is a story that will be filled with conflict between the idolatrous tendencies of the king and Elijah calling the people to follow the LORD.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 15

In this chapter, a parade of kings go through Israel and Judah.

In some ways, this chapter is really the meat and potatoes of the book of Kings.  The way that I like to think of the book of Kings is this: it is a long sequence of regents, with a few interesting stories interspersed.  Fortunately for everyone involved, the stories are pretty long and also pretty interesting, but I want my readers to understand that a progression of kings is what sets the tempo for this book.  Hence the name: "Book of Kings".  What do I mean by "tempo"?  I mean that the book of Kings is defined by God's interactions with the succession of rulers in the kingdom period, rather than a single individual.

Let's take a moment to review what we have read in the Hebrew Bible up until this point.  Beginning with the book of Genesis, we saw the creation of the world, the fall into sin, and the emergence of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, positioning the descendants of Jacob as inheritors of a covenantal relationship with God.  In Exodus through Deuteronomy, we saw the covenant powerfully renewed and reshaped at Mount Sinai, as Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt and sent on their path towards the promised land.  In Joshua, they entered into the promised land, which was their inheritance and a big part of the fulfillment of the covenant from Genesis.  In Judges, we saw a pattern of repeated sin, repentance and deliverance that showed the frailty of Israel's faithfulness.  Ruth is a bit of a footnote: although it fits in the progression, it is not a major element in the overall story.  Lastly, in Samuel we saw the long political crisis that brought Israel's first and second kings into power (Saul and David), and all of the bloodshed surrounding that process.

Now we are in the book of Kings, which covers the longest era in Israel's history as a people, since it stretches from the life of David (perhaps 1000 BC) to the Babylonian exile (about 600 BC).  Since Israel has been planted in the promised land and now has an established royal dynasty, which is the thematic purpose of all the previous books, how should we understand this book?

First of all, the progression of kings sets both the pacing and the historical background for the action.  The "action", of course, is God's relationship with Israel.  The book of Samuel is about as long as Kings, but it only covers two or three main figures: Samuel, Saul and David.  In the same length, the book of Kings goes through some forty different rulers.

I think the book of Kings is best understood as showing us how God interacts with the nation of Israel over many generations.  For the most part, this is not a book about how God interacts with a person: it is about how God interacts with a nation, over a long period of time.  And not just any nation, but a nation that he has sworn to take as his own people.  We can use this chapter to understand the way that God relates to people by analogy, but it is most of all a story about generations, and each generation is exemplified by the king who ruled it.

With all of that as context, we will spend the rest of this book studying the details of how God manages this relationship through situations both good and bad.

This chapter begins promptly enough, telling us that Abijam walked in many sins, but God did not destroy them for the sake of David.  This is going to become a familiar refrain; we already heard that God left Judah in the hands of Rehoboam "for the sake of my servant David" (1 Kings 11:32).  This is itself emblematic of the older covenant with Abraham: God promised to make Abraham a father of nations, and we should understand that God is committed to making Israel his own people and his own nation.  Even in the midst of their sin and idolatry, God refuses to abandon them for the sake of his promises to earlier generations.

There are a couple other things worth mentioning.

First, verse 6 tells us that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at war for most of their respective reigns, which continued in the time of Abijam (v. 7).  I found this a little strange because 1 Kings 12:24 told us that Rehoboam backed off from attacking Jeroboam.  It's possible that Jeroboam is attacking him, or I don't know what.  Whatever the reason, peace between these two kingdoms was brief, contrary to what the LORD said through Ahijah just a little while ago.

Second, while Rehoboam led Judah into sin, and Abijam leads Judah into sin, Asa is largely a righteous king and he leads Judah back to the LORD.  What we will typically see in Judah (the southern kingdom) is some good kings and some bad kings, leading Judah up and down, while Israel (the northern kingdom) is typically just a lot of bad kings.  Both the northern and southern kingdoms are recipients of the covenant and the promises, but for the most part it is the southern kingdom, home of the temple and house of David, that stays closer to the LORD.  These ups and downs were part of the Judges cycle, and they continue in the kingdom era.  Overall, they are a defining characteristic of Judah's history.

Third, we see Asa make a treaty with the Arameans to attack the northern kingdom of Israel, which is morally suspect because in this case he is depending on a foreign nation to save him from Baasha, when he should be depending on the LORD.  We also learn that "he was diseased in his feet" (v. 23), which is the author's way of alluding to the ignominious end to his life.  In fact, even though Asa is presented very positively here, later in the book of Chronicles we will learn that Asa sinned in a couple different ways and the disease in his feet was how God punished him for his pride.

Lastly, I want to point out how Jeroboam and all his family was destroyed in a coup by Baasha, fulfilling the prophecy about Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:10-11.  This is another one of the trends we will observe over the book of Kings, which is that the northern kingdom has a lot of bloody coups, while the southern kingdom is mostly a peaceful succession from father to son, even in the cases when the king was evil such as Rehoboam and Abijam.  These are also defining characteristics of the northern and southern kingdoms.