This week’s haftarah (prophetic reading) from 1Kings 18:20-39 offers one of the greatest miraculous action sequences in the entire Hebrew Bible. But it is also set within a larger story of the conflict between the less-than-high-minded king Ahab and the less-than-entirely-stable prophet Elijah—a conflict that illustrates some essential patterns of the prophetic relationship with God, the kings who may not always serve Him, and Israel. At the end of this larger story, not read in the synagogue but essential to understanding the whole, it becomes clear that much more than king-vs.-prophet is involved here. Elijah confronts the Lord, and the response he receives tells you all the reasons why you don’t want a career in prophecy.
The story begins, like all stories in this biblical book, with a sketch of the latest king. Here it is Ahab, who ruled over the northern kingdom of Samaria a few generations after it broke off from the southern kingdom of Judah. While none of his predecessors has won divine favor, Ahab “did what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord more than all before him,” adopting the practice of his wife Jezebel and worshipping the Phoenician god Baal.
In other words, Ahab is not just the usual bad king—and by comparison with these usual bad kings, most Israeli prime ministers emerge in a highly positive light—but the worst of all. The narrator specifies that even Jeroboam, who split the northern tribes from the southern after Solomon’s death, and who went so far as to make another golden calf to draw people away from the Temple in Jerusalem, did not rival Ahab in wickedness. Together, both books of Kings, and the preceding book of Samuel, tell a single tale of the Lord’s unrelenting effort to cure the Jewish people of idol worship. Ahab, in case you’re wondering, marks the low point of the sequence.
Pitted against Ahab is Elijah the Tishbite, who tells him, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, whom I’ve stood before, there’ll be no dew or rain in these years except when I say so.” That is a declaration of war between the Lord and Ahab, and also the start of the duel between king and prophet. The prophet, like all prophets, is hopelessly outnumbered, and in this case especially so because of the queen’s 450 “prophets” of Baal.
When Ahab, in his attempt to root out worship of the Lord, sets out to kill all of His prophets, Elijah flees and hides, but after three years of drought, the Lord tells Elijah to go back and tell Ahab that rain might be coming at last:
And it was as Ahab saw Elijah that Ahab said to him:
“Is it you, sourer of Israel?”
But he said, “I did not sour Israel, but you and your father’s house did
When you left the order of the Lord and went after Baals.”
This is the essential king-prophet dialogue, and the usual struggle over who defines the moral life of the people. The king, whether good or bad, usually thinks he’s capable of setting the tone, while the prophet thinks he’s there to set him straight. In this instance, Ahab has become thirsty and hungry enough to listen to Elijah’s demands, and that is where our haftarah begins.
Ahab gathers the people together at Mount Carmel. There Elijah addresses them and asks, “How long will you hop between two branches?”—challenging them to choose between God and Baal. The people don’t answer back, which suggests they are more receptive than usual. So Elijah sets the stage for his greatest of magic tricks—bringing back the rain—with a crushing demonstration of who does and who doesn’t call the shots in Israel.
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He challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest: he and they will each build an altar to their respective deities and place a bull on it, but light no fire. Then they will pray, since a real god will be able to set his offering alight without human involvement. From morning till midday, the pagan prophets call out to their god, with no result. Finally Elijah breaks his silence:
Elijah razzed them and said, “Call really loud,
Because he’s a god. Maybe he’s talking to somebody; maybe he’s out.
Or maybe he’s got business; maybe he’s asleep and he’ll wake up. . . .”
They do that, and they cut themselves, and they dance like crazy, but there’s no fire.
Then, Elijah said to the whole people, “Approach me,”
And all the people approached.
And he restored the ruined altar of the Lord. And Elijah took twelve stones
Like the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob
To whom the Lord said, your name will be called Israel,
And he built the stones into an altar in the name of the Lord
And made a moat.
Why a moat? Elijah is engineering not just a humiliation of Baal’s prophets but also conditions for the miracle that will squelch any rational doubts. He even orders that jugs of water be poured over the wood, not once but three times, and fills the moat itself with water. No skeptics can claim this fire was started by the sun’s heat, or by some sleight of hand. Then he offers a prayer to God, and gets results:
And the Lord’s fire fell and ate the offering and pieces of wood and stones and dirt
And licked even the water in the moat. And the people fell on their faces
And said, “The Lord is God, the Lord is God,” and Elijah said:
“Grab those prophets of Baal, don’t let a single one of them get away.”
And they grabbed them and brought them down to Elijah in the stream of Kishon
And he butchered them there.
That triumphant end is followed by a highly dramatic and beautifully nuanced depiction of Elijah praying and calling up a tiny cloud way out to sea that in the course of a moment’s conversation turns into storm and torrential rain. But I’m not here to give you uplifting miracles but to analyze the triangular relationship among king, Lord, and prophet, so I’m going to cut to the contrast between how Elijah treats the prophets of Baal and how he treats the Lord’s anointed king, however poor a specimen he may be:
And Ahab rode off toward Jezreel and the Lord’s hand was on Elijah
And he tightened his belt and ran before Ahab all the way to Jezreel.
Not only does Elijah not raise a hand to Ahab, he pays him the respect of running before his chariot as a servant or herald. His physical ability to do this is ascribed to an exceptionally high state of prophetic possession. This particular miraculous deed, in contrast to those at Mount Carmel, clarifies the nature of Elijah’s attitude to Ahab and to the kingship in general: the prophet is not there to usurp the king but to reinforce his office by ensuring he stays on the straight and narrow, and that both king and people evade the wrath of God. His goal isn’t to defeat or to subordinate the king, but to restore balance.
But this moment of triumph is fleeting. The minute Ahab gets home and tells Jezebel what became of her prophets, she sends word back to Elijah that he’s a dead man. He hightails it to the desert and sits under a bush, hoping for his own death, but the Lord sends an angel to persuade him to eat. Revived, he walks on and then gets to a cave in the Sinai. Here, in this crack in the rock, just like Moses, he will have his ultimate confrontation with the Lord:
And he came to the cave and he slept there and here was the word of the Lord to him.
And He said: “What are you doing here Elijah?”
And he said, “I’ve been zealously jealous for the Lord of hosts
Because the children of Israel have abandoned Your agreement.
They busted Your altars and put Your prophets to the sword,
But I’m left all alone and they’re after my life to put an end to it.”
But He said: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord
And here the Lord will go by.”
And there was a great and mighty wind that crushes mountains and breaks rocks before the Lord –
The Lord is not in the wind—
And after the wind a great earthquake—
The Lord is not in the quake—
And after the quake a fire—
The Lord is not in the fire.
And after the fire the sound of a delicate silence. . . .
This is the terrible thing about being a prophet. The sweetness of hearing that silence, that unique sound, and the entirely unpredictable joy of hearing the Lord’s voice can bring prophets to despair if they lose their sense of mission. After Elijah has done as the Lord says and gone out on the mountain and the Lord comes to him, he recites the same complaints he offered beforehand. And what does the Lord say in answer to this existential cry?
Go back the way you came to the desert of Damascus
And you’ll arrive and anoint Hazael as king over Aram,
And Yehu son of Nimshi you’ll anoint as king over Israel,
And Elisha son of Shafat from Avel Mohola you’ll anoint as prophet after you.
That’s it. This is the divine pink slip. You can’t take it anymore? You think the job is too big for you? That’s fine. This is who will carry on after you. Or, to put it in the lofty language of Rabbi Tarfon in Ethics of the Fathers: “The work isn’t yours to finish.” What does the Lord say to Moses after rejecting his plea to enter the Promised Land? Anoint Joshua.
The deposition of a king who stoops to idol worship is a minor matter in the Lord’s great scheme of things. In this regard, prophets are in no way superior to kings. They are all foot soldiers, those who speak with Him face to face no less than those who sit on the throne. They too can be replaced if they fail in their tasks, or tire of them, or outlive their usefulness. What matters is the eradication of idol worshippers from God’s chosen nation and chosen dominion.
If you break off reading the Elijah story where this haftarah stops, when the people proclaim “The Lord is God,” it seems to be about a confrontation between king and prophet, where the righteous prophet triumphs over a wicked king. But when things briefly seem to be put right, Elijah runs before Ahab, a move that represents deference and fealty rather than the disdain of victor to vanquished. Keep reading, and you’ll see that the prophet is, as ever, only fleetingly triumphant. Just after his delicious moment of glory, Elijah finds himself alone and deserted, and God declares an end to his career at the same time that He (almost by the by) declares an end to Ahab’s. Ultimately, what matters is the people, and their relationship with the Lord.
In the end, Elijah receives treatment not so different from what the Lord accords to Moses when He orders him to go up on the mountain and die. And the message is the same: the people will go on without you. Your student will go on after you. Be grateful you had a momentary chance to hear it; the rest is silence.