Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s podcast is a meditation on and retelling of 1 Kings 19.
This is the test for the retelling:
I wasn’t even winded, despite running all the way from Mount Carmel to the city of Jezreel. I was, however, soaked to the bone. This was just as well, as it washed away all the blood from my skin and clothes. I didn’t think anything would ever fully remove the stains, though.
It still stormed when I took shelter from the driving rain against the wall of the fortress shielded from the direction of the wind. I shook from adrenaline, too. It had been quite a day. Three and a half years ago, I’d prophesied a draught over Israel for their disobedience to the Lord, which would last until I said it was over. I’d spent most of those three years in hiding, since I knew that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel would love to kill me as the source of their troubles—though at the same time, I knew they wouldn’t dare, since if they killed me then theoretically the draught might last forever. But today, I’d gathered together eight hundred and fifty false prophets on top of Mount Carmel, not to mention all the people of Israel as witnesses. I’d proven that the God of Israel was the one true God. Well, He proved it, with fire from heaven; I just cooperated, I guess. The Israelites were convinced. They cried out that He was the One True God—took them long enough to figure that out—and together they apprehended the false prophets. Then I slaughtered every last one of them with the sword in the Kishon Valley.
Eight hundred and fifty men. I’d never killed anyone in my life before—but that was the penalty for being a false prophet in Israel, according to Deuteronomy. No one else was going to carry it out; Ahab was evil, and I was the only prophet of the Lord left. So it was all up to me. I wondered if I would ever purge those gory images from my imagination.
That wasn’t even the end of the day. Ahab had stood as a witness to all of this, and then I’d prophesied the end of the draught. I wouldn’t have done this on my own, since I knew the draught was the only reason Ahab hadn’t attempted to kill me yet. But the Lord told me the draught needed to end, yet He was cooperating with my original word to Ahab that it would end only at my word. So, I did as I was told. Then I prayed seven times before I saw the manifestation of clouds in the heavens. Only then did I tell Ahab he’d better beat it to Jezreel lest the rain stop him—and I ran 17 miles ahead of his chariot, all the way here. I’d still been buzzing with the adrenaline of slaughtering a virtual army of false prophets, I supposed, and needed a way to burn it off. Neither of us arrived ahead of the rain, but I did get here before he did.
But, there he is now. I looked up to see the drawbridge lower, admitting the king’s chariot to the interior of the fortress. The charioteer saw me and fixed me with a glare before they vanished from view. He would tell his master that he had seen me, surely.
Why had I come to Jezreel exactly? This suddenly seemed like a terrible idea.
The fortress was elevated over the valley so that the water ran down in rivulets, but I saw the water accumulating in every reservoir down below, soaking into the parched earth. A figure approached on the same road from which Ahab had just come, riding on the back of a donkey: my servant, whom I had left behind on Carmel. He had seen the direction in which I’d gone and rode after me. I raised my hand to wave at him, but was distracted by the approach of a third person. He was a servant of the king, dressed in the livery of the fortress. He approached me directly, knowing exactly where to find me from the charioteer, no doubt. He gave me a slight incline of his head, which was more acknowledgement than bow, and said, “From my Lady the Queen.” Then he handed me a very small scroll, and retreated back to the fortress again.
I protected the scroll with one hand from the driving rain, and unrolled it with the other to read. It said, “Ahab has informed me of your violence against my prophets. So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
The first thought I had upon reading this was not in words; it was the image of blood to my ankles from earlier that day, surrounded by slashed corpses. In my mind’s eye, the face of one of the corpses was mine.
The draught is over, I thought, and my heart seized in fear. There’s nothing to stop her now!
I don’t know why at the time, it didn’t occur to me that if she could have killed me, she would have sent a soldier with a sword, rather than a servant with a note. All of Israel had seen my triumph on Mount Carmel and were behind me now, at least for the time being—crowds, I knew, were fickle. Still, Jezebel couldn’t balk public opinion so soon afterwards and have me murdered without suffering for it herself. But I was not thinking clearly; all I could see was the vivid image of my bloody corpse.
So I ran. I ran right past my servant, close enough to hear him say, “Aw, really? I just got here!” but too fast for him to catch up.
I ran more than five times as far as I’d done earlier that day, because I just didn’t feel like I could get far enough away from Jezebel and her threat—or perhaps more accurately, from the picture in my mind. It was with me all the time.
It was the middle of the night when I arrived in Beersheba. The clop-clop of hooves behind me from my servant’s much-abused donkey presently approached when I stopped running.
“Let’s find a place here for the night,” my servant said, sounding exhausted. And he’s just been riding the whole way, I thought. “Any of the men of Israel will be honored to offer hospitality to the great prophet Elijah!”
But I envisioned my host sending a message to Jezebel as I slept. “The one you seek is here.”
“No!” I said at once. “No, you stay here. I will go on.”
“Master, you’ve run almost through the night! Will you run yet more?”
I didn’t even bother to reply, so anxious was I to be gone from here. Gone from any prying eyes of the city, sheltered in the wilderness where no one would know to find me.
I ran until I’d left the city of Beersheba. By then, my fatigue superseded my anxiety. I slowed to a walk, and went on like this until the sun rose, peaked, and set again. I hadn’t slept in two days, and I hadn’t seen another soul since Beersheba. At last, I sat down under a broom tree.
“It is enough,” I whispered to the Lord. “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” I was just done. I didn’t want to do this anymore. I didn’t want to stand boldly alone before a murderous and adulterous generation, proclaiming and enforcing the word of the Lord. My fathers before me had done exactly that—and been killed for their pains. If they had been so treated, why would I be any different? Of course I was no better than they were. Why should the Lord protect me if he did not protect them? If I wielded the power, and could cow my enemies into submission, then sure—but the power was never mine to begin with. It was His, to use as He saw fit. Or not.
I lay down beneath the tree, and closed my eyes, briefly aware that after two days of running in terror, I was famished. But I was equally exhausted. I slipped into unconsciousness.
A gentle hand shook my shoulder when the moon was high in the sky. I blinked up into a radiantly glowing face.
“Arise and eat,” the angel said, gesturing just above my head. I followed his gesture, and saw a small arrangement of hot stones with a cake sizzling on top, and a jar of water beside them. My stomach rumbled at the sight of them. I sat up, ate and drank, and felt strangely satisfied for such a small meal. Then I lay down again, slipping back into sleep.
When dawn broke, I was already almost conscious when I felt the hand on my shoulder again. I looked up again into the bright face of the angel, who gestured to the same spot and the same meal. “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you,” he said again.
I did as he bid me, and then rose to my feet again. They throbbed in protest of their recent abuse, but I did feel new strength from the heavenly meal. Also, I had slept myself into some measure of purpose: I now knew where I was going, not just what I was running from. I traveled on for the next forty days, finding shelter each night where I could. I did not see the angel again, but I did not need to. Somehow those two cakes and jugs of water sustained me until I arrived at my destination: Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb. The Mount of God. The place where Moses had received the Ten Commandments. The place where He had beheld the face of the Lord.
I can’t necessarily explain why I needed to be there, in that place. The Lord had spoken to me plenty of times before, and I did not need to be in any special location to hear Him. But I hadn’t heard from Him at all since Mount Carmel–if one counted fire from heaven at my request as a conversation. He’d surely sent the angel, but the angel had said nothing other than “arise and eat.” I needed Him to talk to me. I didn’t even care what He said, as long as it wasn’t yet another task to complete that would put my life on the line before my enemies. Though knowing Him, it might be. Still, I needed to be near Him.
When I at last arrived at Mount Sinai, it was nighttime. I took refuge in a cave a little way up the mountain, and lay down for the night. But before I could drift off to sleep, at last I heard the word of the Lord again.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
A lump sprang to my throat. I didn’t think or censor my words; I just spewed forth what I felt. “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away!” I was breathing hard when I finished this outburst.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.”
So I did. I arose and wrapped my cloak around my shoulders against the chill of the night, venturing out of the cave and on to the face of the mountain. Once I was no longer sheltered by the cave, a violent wind whipped my cloak almost out of my hands. On instinct, I leaned toward the mountain to grasp on to the boulders as I could, but the wind was so strong that even chunks of the boulders dislodged and flew out into the whirling night. Terrified, I dropped to a crouch, raising my arms over my head to protect it from falling boulders.
Abruptly the wind stopped. But then the ground beneath me began to tremble and crack. I thought the mountain would shake me right off its face, and send me hurtling to my death down below—or else the earth might split and swallow me whole.
Then the earthquake stopped, as lightning fell from the sky. At once, it seemed as if the vegetation on the entire mountain was ablaze—all around me, right next to me. In a second I would be consumed. I got to my feet and ran back to the cave. There, at least, there was nothing to burn.
The fire vanished as quickly as it had come. All was still. I trembled from head to foot, too terrified to think, let alone move. It was as if the Lord used demonstrations of His power to shake me out of my tantrum, to get my attention.
Well. He had it.
But then I heard the sound of a low, gentle whisper. It was like the sound of a parent calming a fussy child. My galloping heartbeat slowed, and I felt compelled to venture out of the cave. I wanted to see the Lord face to face, so very much—but I feared that for a sinful man to behold such holiness would mean instant death. So I wrapped my cloak around my head, and groped my way back to the entrance to the cave. The voice that came next was right in front of me, and crystal clear despite the folds of fabric over my ears.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It was the same question as before, so the same answer overflowed from my bitter, exhausted heart. It should have occurred to me that the Lord asked me the same question because I gave the wrong answer the first time, but alas, it did not. My words came muffled through the folds of my cloak. “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
The Lord did not reply to my complaint, at least not at first. What He said was, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
The first two commands, I must admit, washed over me and made very little impression. They involved yet more danger, one in the land of Israel’s enemies, and the other back in Israel, which was also currently a land of my personal enemies (or at least they were until Carmel, and likely would be again by the time I returned). But I perked up when the Lord commanded me to anoint my replacement. My replacement! He was letting me off the hook! Finally! A wave of relief and gratitude passed over me.
And then—seven thousand? Vaguely I registered surprise at the number. I had known, intellectually, that my complaint that I was the only prophet of the Lord left was false, as Obadiah had told me he had hidden a hundred others in caves and fed them. I felt justified in my complaint nevertheless, because though those hundred might technically exist, they were in hiding. They were not out boldly proclaiming the word of the Lord as I was, and risking the sword, as I was. Still, I had thought at best, there were only those hundred others. But seven thousand? Wow.
Not that it mattered. Only one thing mattered to me right now: I was free!
I knew the moment the Lord departed from me, even though I could not see Him. I uncovered my face, walked back to the cave, and lay down, fast asleep within minutes.
By the time I awoke, the sun was already high in the sky, indicating late morning. I set out on my way back, but I did not go to the wilderness of Damascus, as the Lord commanded. Nor did I anoint a new king in Ahab’s place in Israel. I went straight to where I knew I would find Elisha son of Shaphat. No need for me to anoint the two new kings; Elisha could do that, couldn’t he? Wasn’t that the whole point of a replacement?
I found Elisha in his fields, plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. He stood by the twelfth, so engaged in his work that he did not see me approach. As I did so, I unfastened my cloak from around my neck, a symbol of the mantle of my position. When I passed by him, I cast my cloak upon him and kept right on walking, not even slowing down. He would have questions, probably, but I didn’t care. The Lord wanted me to anoint him; the Lord could tell him whatever else he needed to know.
Elisha abandoned his oxen in the fields at once and ran after me, carrying my cloak with him. “Elijah!” he cried, knowing exactly who I was and what the cloak meant. “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you!”
I glanced over my shoulder and shrugged. I’d slowed my pace, but even now I did not stop. “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” It didn’t matter to me whether Elisha accepted the job or not. I’d done what the Lord told me to do; now it was His problem. Still, it was a bit surprising that Elisha was so ready for this new calling. I’d expected a little more resistance than this, quite frankly. God had presumably been preparing him for his new role in advance. He probably has no idea what he’s in for, either, I thought cynically.
Elisha slaughtered the oxen he’d been using to plow when I came upon him, and threw a great feast for his servants and family: a celebration of his new calling, and a symbol of the end of his old life. He begged me to remain for the feast, and I did so—after all, the last meal I’d eaten was the cake and water given me by the angel more than forty days before. Beef might not have been the best way to break a forty-day fast, but I didn’t care. I, too, felt like celebrating.
It was the best meal I ever had. It tasted like sweet, sweet freedom.
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