Prophets are interesting people in the bible. They are chosen by God to speak his word, though identifying the ones actually backed by God is tricky. They can lie to each other, and only know God's will insofar as he informs them. Sometimes prophets are ignorant of the plans of others or danger. Other times God is careful to keep them well informed.
The function of the prophet as mouthpieces of God helps to drive the plot of dialectical tensions that pushes the tale of Israel forward. Prophets arise when the Lord is being disobeyed. The book of 1 Kings features a number of prophets. Today's post will take a look at them and analyze how they function within the biblical narrative.
Getting to Know the Prophets: the Man of God
The South and the North - Judah and Israel - have been divided. Jeroboam now reigns over Israel, but like his ancestors has fallen from following the Lord. He has built golden calves for worship and appointed non-levitical priests. Apostasy like this is always condemned by the biblical author, and in this case a prophet directly condemns the action.
The unnamed "man of God" comes to King Jeroboam to deliver a bleak warning as he is about to offer incense on the altar:
O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: ‘A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’The message is not for the King of Israel, but on the altar of offering. This is indeed fulfilled hundreds of years later during the reign of Josiah. However, the man of God offers an additional message with a sign of the Lord's hand in the matter of the altar:
(1 Kings 13.2)
The altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.Upon hearing these words, the king points to the man of God and orders that he be seized, only to find his had withered, a trick with its roots in the Moses narrative (Exodus 4.6-7). The Lord protects his servant the prophet with one of the classic displays of the Lord's power. This display continues as the altar is torn down and the ashes scattered with no apparent cause, in fulfillment of the man's prophecy of the Lord. The prophet further confirms the power of the Lord by healing Josiah's hand. Apparently grateful, the king invites the man to eat and drink with him, but the man refuses because the Lord has commanded he should not do so in Bethel.
(1 Kings 13.3)
What follows is one of our first glimpses of prophet interaction - a scene that reveals a little about the secret lives of prophets. A man of Bethel, identified as a prophet, tracks down the man of God and lies to him, saying:
I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord: Bring him back with you into your house so that he may eat food and drink water.This deception is not detected by the man of God, indicating that prophets cannot identify false prophets by sight or the sound of their prophecies. In this sense prophets are only messengers of God, and are corruptible. Prophets, as explained by God through Moses, operate in a gray area:
(1 Kings 13.18)
You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.Their powers and messages can be imitated by others, and the only way to judge them is by the truth of their predictions or the power of their works, as in the destruction of the altar or the parting of the Red Sea. For day-to-day matters, prophecy seems to be indistinguishable from mere words. Truth is only revealed when the Lord takes action to prove or disprove the words. However, even the prophet of Bethel who speaks false words to the man of God is still a legitimate prophet. He fools the man of God into eating and drinking, at which time God comes to him to utter a legitimate prophecy:
Thus says the Lord: Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord, and have not kept the commandment that the Lord your God commanded you, but have come back and have eaten food and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, ‘Eat no food, and drink no water,’ your body shall not come to your ancestral tomb.Indeed, the man of God is killed by a lion who acts in a supernatural fashion. The lion's only prey is the man, not the donkey he rode on or those that pass by. The lion seems to have been sent by God to kill the man and stand besides his body.
(1 Kings 13.21-22)
Though responsible for his death, the prophet mourns the man of God as a brother. The dead man is recognized as a simple messenger - again, corruptible - and perhaps the prophet of Bethel realizes this as he mourns for the man as "my brother." The man of God is given a proper burial in the prophet's own grave, where the prophet himself will be buried when he dies. The prophet knows his guest was a true prophet, and so the two are to be buried together, both as vessels of the word of God.
Ahijah: The Mouthpiece of God
When King Jeroboam's son Abijah becomes ill, the king sends his wife to the prophet Ahijah to inquire after the boy's fate. She is to pretend to be another woman, but the Lord informs Ahijah of her purpose so that even the blind prophet knows who she is. Prophets, after all, are informed by the Lord, even if they do not desire to be. Ahijah utters a curse against Jeroboam: Because the king has not followed in the ways of David in leading Israel, all the men of his house will be "cut off" and will not receive proper burial. Rather, dogs and birds will pick at their corpses where they fall. In this way the boy is blessed. Only Abiah is to receive proper burial,
...Because in him there is found something pleasing to the Lord, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam.This is a twist on the traditional punishment afforded one who disobeys the Lord. The son dies for the father's sin, as usual, but the son is also exalted over the father - by receiving proper burial - for being a seed of promise. All Israel mourns the child's death.
(1 Kings 14.13)
The Lord delivers a further prophecy through Ahijah, prophecy characteristic of the later prophets of the bible:
The Lord will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water; he will root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their ancestors, and scatter them beyond the Euphrates, because they have made their sacred poles, provoking the Lord to anger. He will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and which he caused Israel to commit.This is indeed fulfilled with the fall of Samaria in 721 BCE.
(1 Kings 14.15-16)
Elijah the Prophet: Supernatural
Elijah is introduced during the reign of King Ahab of Israel, inserted by the biblical author in such a place that he serves as a direct response to Ahab's fondness of the Canaanite god Baal. Baal is the god of storms and rain and fertility (among other things), so it is no surprise that Elijah's introduction undermines the god by predicting a three-year drought - caused by the Lord, of course. Elijah is the mouthpiece of God, and a man that will prove Baal's ineffectiveness.
Elijah's status as a prophet is quickly proven through three vignettes. In the first he is fed in the wilderness by the Lord's command by ravens bearing bread and meat (a story that draws obvious parallels to Exodus). In the second vignette, the Lord provides endless meal and oil to a widow so she may make cakes for Elijah, herself, and her son so that do not starve. In the third vignette, Elijah actually revives the widow's son from apparent death - with the aid of the Lord. Each of these stories shows Elijah either acting with the aid of God or God coming to Elijah's aid. In any case, Elijah has powerful backing.
When the Lord decides to end the drought, he sends Eljah to see Ahab, so that the rain may start again. Elijah has Ahab command the Israelites to meet at Mount Carmel so that the Lord's greatness may be demonstrated. The event directly challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a fire on which a bull has been placed - an imitation of sacrifice at an altar. Baal's prophets fail, but Elijah succeeds in calling on the power of the Lord to light the fire. Consequently, the 450 prophets of Baal are killed for their inefficiency.
When it finally does rain, Elijah pulls off another superhuman display - this time of speed and endurance - running ahead of Ahab's chariot some 17 miles to Jezreel. Afterwards, Jezebel threatens Elijah's life, and he pulls off another miracle, surviving on mount Horeb 40 days and nights after eating only 2 cakes and drinking 2 jars of water. The man is like a biblical version of Chuck Norris!
In all seriousness, Elijah is a high-profile prophet, able to have a direct experience with God on Mount Horeb, just as Moses did. The encounter is one of the most poetic of the bible:
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”The message of the biblical author is that God is ineffable. God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. God is not even in the silence, though the silence leads to God. It is impossible by this description to exactly describe who or what God is. Perhaps this is the author's intent. It took a devoted prophet like Elijah to give us this glimpse of the supernatural.
(1 Kings 19.11-13)
Another Nameless Prophet and His Tool of the Trade
Farther into the narrative, a tradition of prophetic judgment called "juridical parable" is demonstrated by a nameless prophet. This tactic is used in Nathan's condemnation of David in 2 Samuel 12. Here the prophet appears to King Ahab as a warrior, and utters a parable that traps King Ahab in his own judgment. Ahab, thinking he condemns the man, utters words that describe his own impending condemnation.
Interestingly, the episode that follows closely follows the story of David's courting of Bathsheba. Here Ahab lusts for a piece of property - a vineyard - for which the owner is killed in order to claim it. A few details are changed, but the story remains the same, and punishment comes upon both Ahab and David. Elijah curses Ahab with the same language of 1 Kings 14.10-14, and curses Ahab and Jezebel specifically as well. For Ahab's prompt repentance his house is not destroyed in this day, but rather in the following generation.