One of the things I have enjoyed about using the narrative lectionary this past year is the way it focuses on helping people connect the dots through the Bible. Though I am departing from that lectionary a bit this summer, I’m still thinking about the connections. A particularly fascinating connection for me in the Bible is between Elijah in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. Do you remember those papers you had to write in school: compare and contrast these two things or people? Well, that’s what I want to do today: compare and contrast Elijah and Jesus. How were they similar and how were they different, and what does that have to say to us about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
The place to begin the conversation is with the fact that the Bible says both Elijah and Jesus were taken up to heaven. Jesus experienced death and resurrection first, but Luke says that at the very end he was with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and was carried away into heaven. It is not said that Elijah experienced death. Elisha, his successor, was with him and a flaming chariot swung down and separated the two of them and Elijah was carried into heaven by a whirlwind. It sounds as though Jesus floats away peacefully until he disappears into clouds while Elijah is ripped away from earth by a violent whirlwind. This speaks volumes about the differences between the two men.
But this beginning point, that both Jesus and Elijah were carried alive to heaven, is a critical point because it enabled the expectation that one day they would come back. Jews are known to set an empty place at the table for Elijah at the Seder meal of the Passover, or at least have an extra wine cup on the table for Elijah. There was the expectation that he was present at each Passover celebration, and there was a hope that Elijah would return to prepare the way for Messiah to come. It is a symbol of hope, of expectation, of knowing that God is not finished and will act again.
Christians, of course, have a central expectation that Jesus is going to return, and he stated that he would. Sometimes Christians have also set an extra place at the table for Jesus and a common saying is that the unseen guest at every meal is Jesus. Again, expecting Jesus to return is an expression of hope, of expectation, of knowing that God is not finished and will act again and will bring to an end all of the brokenness and sinfulness of this fallen world by renewal and recreation.
A key story linking Elijah and Jesus is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, where Moses and Elijah meet with Jesus on the mountain. Why these two? Moses is easy to understand – the great liberator from slavery in Egypt and the one to whom the Law was given on Mount Sinai. Old Testament books are generally divided into three categories: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In Israel the Law and the Prophets were frequently referred to as simply “Moses and Elijah.” Even in the New Testament this designation is sometimes used.
And that is fascinating to me, that Elijah would have come to be representative of all the prophets. There are only six chapters in the Bible about Elijah, yet in spite of that he is one of the most important figures of the Bible. Why not Samuel, the mighty prophet during the time of Judges, Saul, and David? There were so many stories about him that it took two scrolls to record them all. Why not Isaiah, which has 66 chapters and spans from before the exile to during the exile to after the exile and helps to understand all those periods? Why not Ezekiel, who played the critical role of keeping hope alive during the Babylonian exile? Why Elijah, who didn’t even have a book of the Bible named after him and was the center of stories that are very hard for us to comprehend today from the perspective of Christianity?
Here’s what I think. In a history characterized by wandering Aramaean nomads, slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, powerless vassals of Rome, Elijah stands out as a fearless bringer of vengeance and retribution. He is the Terminator, the Rock, John Wayne, Wonder Woman, and the Guardians of the Galaxy all rolled into one. He is Seal Team Six taking out Osama bin Laden after years of frustration; soldiers and Marines toppling statues of Saddam Hussein; he is the drone operator taking out al Qaeda operatives from afar. Elijah is not going to be a slave or an exile, he is not going to be crucified on a cross, he is going to use whatever power is at his disposal to punish those who oppose him. There is a part of us to which this is very appealing. It is why there are so many superhero movies, war movies, video games in which you play the good guy mowing down the enemies.
When Israel’s king, Ahab, married Jezebel of Sidon and built for her a center for Baal worship, God sent Elijah to tell Ahab that there was going to be a drought because of this until he said the word. Three years later, God told Elijah to go back and present himself to Ahab and he would make it rain, to prove to him that he was God. What Elijah actually did was to tell Ahab to assemble the 450 prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel and they would have a contest to see who was really God. At his prayer, God sent fire down to consume Elijah’s sacrifice, and Elijah presided over the Israelites killing those 450 prophets. The river ran with blood.
Later there was condemnation for Ahab for allowing Jezebel to have the owner of a vineyard killed because he would not sell the vineyard to Ahab, and God told Elijah to promise death to Ahab. When Elijah pronounced this judgment he not only announced the death of Ahab as God told him to, but also of Jezebel and all the household of Ahab.
Finally, when King Ahab was dead and Ahaziah was king, he fell and sustained a serious injury. He sent messengers to go to Ekron for a foretelling from the god Baalzebub as to whether he would live. At God’s instruction, Elijah intercepted these messengers and asked them if they didn’t realize there was a God in Israel, and gave them God’s message that Ahaziah would not leave the bed but would die. They went back and Ahaziah sent 50 men to ask Elijah to come to him. Elijah called down fire and destroyed them. The same thing happened again. Then a third company of 50 came to Elijah, and before he could smite them an angel said, “Go with them; don’t be afraid,” so finally he did.
These stories are very satisfying to the side of us that desires vengeance against enemies. It seems significant to me that the Bible does not say that God instructed Elijah to slay the prophets of Baal or proclaim judgment on the whole household of Ahab or destroy the men who came to ask him to come to Ahazaiah. God never left him and God answered Elijah’s prayers, but the consequences were still there. After killing all those prophets he got a message from Jezebel saying she would see him just as dead within 24 hours. So he ran. And ran. And ran. From one end of the country to the other, all the way to Mt. Horeb, where he found a cave and went to sleep. Only then did God speak to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah gave him this sad, complaining story about how bad things were back home and he was the only one left who was on God’s side and he was ready to give up because they were trying to kill him. God told him to go stand outside the cave because he was about to pass by. Elijah experienced an enormous wind, an earthquake, and fire, but God was not in any of them. Then came sheer silence, out of which God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah told the same story. God said, “Go back home. On the way anoint new kings for Aram and Israel, and anoint Elisha to be your partner and successor. And by the way, there are still seven thousand people in Israel who are faithful to me.”
Elijah is the prophet of earthquake, wind, and fire, whirlwinds and erratic journeys. God calls him and God sticks with him, but God wants him to learn that his ways are not Elijah’s ways. Elijah was heartened enough to go back to work, but he was still Elijah. When God takes him up in the whirlwind it seems to me like, “Man, I’ve got to get that guy out of there before he torches anything else!” But when Elijah was gone, his successor Elisha left to go to Bethel, and on the way some little boys came out of the town and taunted him calling him “Baldhead!” Elisha cursed them and two bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys. Surely God rolled his eyes and came another step closer to putting the Jesus plan into action.
So the possibility of Elijah sometime returning played into the expectations of a Messiah. The other powerful figure in Israel’s history was King David, so these two became the prototypes of what was hoped for. A no-nonsense Messiah who would come slaying the enemies of Israel and restoring her honor and prestige in the world. John the Baptist, certainly an Elijah figure, said the Messiah was coming and he would separate the good from the bad and send the bad up in flames. When Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying he was, they said, “Some say Elijah, some say another of the prophets.”
They knew he had Elijah like powers. Elijah had raised a widow’s son from the dead. Jesus had as well. Jesus had done so many things – healed the sick, given sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, exorcised demons, stilled storms, fed multitudes. Surely if he turned his attention to other areas he could slaughter Roman soldiers, humiliate Roman rulers, restore dignity and power and self rule to Israel.
But Jesus was not like Elijah in that way. He regularly went to the mountain top to pray, to listen to the still small voice of his Father which led him in right paths. He didn’t listen to the voice crying for vengeance within or without. When betrayed and arrested in the garden and Simon pulled out the sword, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put it away, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” As with Elijah, if he had chosen another way his Father would have worked with him in that way even though it was not his will.
Christians have to read the Elijah stories from this side of the life of Jesus, the Messiah, and I’m thankful for that. Jesus lived his life and conducted his ministry in synch with the still, small voice of God. He went about doing good, not harm. He told the truth to both great and small, but did so without using disbelief or disobedience or opposition as a cause for slaying or revenge. Unless you count a herd of pigs and a fig tree, the only life taken was his own, the only blood shed was his. Perhaps the most telling difference between Jesus and Elijah comes in today’s reading. Jesus and his disciples came to a Samaritan village and were not allowed to enter because they were Jews. The disciples remembered the Elijah solution to problems in Samaria and said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” I imagine Jesus rolling his eyes, then looking at them like they had lost their minds. Then they all turned and continued on the way towards Jerusalem, where Jesus would lay down his life for the sins of the world.
Viva la difference! May we daily make the hard choice to follow in the way of Jesus.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey June 25, 2017