Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rewriting Elijah

Jesus in his first sermon at Nazareth mentioned Elijah and Elisha.[i] Many scholars have cited these three verses in support of the proposition that Luke wrote about the rejection of the Jews.[ii]

Elijah was a prophet in Israel in the first half of the 9th century BCE during the reign of King Ahab, the wicked king who ruled over Israel. Elijah came from the land east of the Jordan to wage war in the name of the God of his fathers against the worship of Baal. He began his ministry with the announcement of the beginning of the drought with these words: “there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”[iii]

After delivering the message to Ahab as directed by God, Elijah left town and after a period of time he lodged with a widow in her place beyond the Jordan. The widow knew of the living God.[iv] Elijah protected the members of the household from the famine and even brought the widow’s son back to life.[v]

God gave victory to Elijah over 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Ashtaroth on Mount Carmel. Elijah requested that God restore the covenant and after the humiliating victory the people called out, “YHWH is God.”

Elijah is presented, in 1st and 2nd Kings, as a prophet who mediates in the restoration of the covenant between God and Israel. The widow is an example of the knowledge of the living God outside Israel and her assistance as God’s agent in providing a sanctuary to Elijah made it possible for the prophet to restore the covenant. Elijah travels to a sanctuary provided by the widow as a means of bringing Israel back to the knowledge of the Lord possessed by the widow. This two-verse allusion to the widow who assisted Elijah is thus intended for the widow to be an example to the people of Israel.

In Sirach 48 we read these words:

1: Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch. 2: He brought a famine upon them, and by his zeal he made them few in number. 3: By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, and also three times brought down fire. 4: How glorious you were, O Elijah, in your wondrous deeds! And who has the right to boast which you have? 5: You who raised a corpse from death and from Hades, by the word of the Most High; 6: who brought kings down to destruction, and famous men from their beds; 7: who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb; 8: who anointed kings to inflict retribution, and prophets to succeed you. 9: You who were taken up by a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with horses of fire; 10: you who are ready at the appointed time, it is written, to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob. 11: Blessed are those who saw you, and those who have been adorned in love; for we also shall surely live.
In Sirach 48, just as in 1-2 Kings, Malachi 3:23, 2 Chr 21:12-15 and 1 Macc. 2:58, Elijah is presented as a zealot for the maintenance and restoration of God’s covenant with Israel. This is the image that Luke intends to convey with his reference to Elijah in Luke 4:25-26. It is the task of The Prophet like Moses to convert the people of Israel. In agreement with Jacob Jervell, the salvation of the Gentiles is bound up with the salvation of Israel.[vi] The Lucan Jesus did not come to entertain the people of Nazareth nor to announce the rejection of the Jews.

[i] Luke 4:25-27.
[ii] One of the unstated premises of those who support this position is that the mission to the Jews was unsuccessful. This will be addressed in another blog.
[iii] 1 Kings 17:1.
[iv] 1 Kings 17:12.
[v] 1 Kings 17:9-24.
[vi] Luke and the people of God; a new look at Luke-Acts, (Minneapolis, 1972).

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