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377

CHAPTER XXXVI.

ELIJAH AND AHAB.

1 Kings, xviii. 1-19.

"Return, oh backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for Thou art Jehovah our God. Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the tumult (of votaries) upon the mountains. Truly in Jehovah our God is the salvation of Israel. And the Shame (i.e., Baal) hath devoured the labour of our fathers."—Jer. iii. 22-24.

Elijah stayed long with the Sidonian widow, safe in that obscure concealment, and with his simple wants supplied. But at last the word of the Lord came to him with the conviction that the drought had accomplished its appointed end in impressing the souls of king and people, and that the time was come for some immense and decisive demonstration against the prevalent apostasy. All his sudden movements, all his stern incisive utterances were swayed by his allegiance to Jehovah before whom he stood, and he now received the command, "Go, show thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth."

To obey such a mandate showed the strength of his faith. It is clear that even before the menace of the thought he had been known, and unfavourably known, to Ahab. The king saw in him a prophet who fearlessly opposed all the idolatrous tendencies into which378 he had led his easy and faithless people. How terribly must Ahab's hatred have been now intensified! We see from all the books of the prophets that they were personally identified with their predictions; that they were held responsible for them, were even regarded in popular apprehension as having actually brought about the things which they predicted. "See," says Jehovah to the timid boy Jeremiah, "I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant." The Prophet is addressed as though he personally effected the ruin he denounced. Elijah, then, would be regarded by Ahab as in one sense the author of the three years' famine. It would be held—not indeed with perfect accuracy, yet with a not unnatural confusion—that it was he who had shut up the windows of heaven and caused the misery and starvation of the suffering multitudes. With what wrath would a great and powerful king like Ahab look on this bold intruder, this skin-clad alien of Gilead, who had frustrated his policy, defied his power, and stamped his reign with so overwhelming a disaster. Yet he is bidden, "Go, show thyself unto Ahab"; and perhaps his immediate safety was only secured by the additional message, "and I will send rain upon the earth."

Things had, indeed, come to their worst. The "sore famine" in Samaria had reached a point which, if it had not been alleviated, would have led to the utter ruin of the miserable kingdom.

In this crisis Ahab did all that a king could do. Most of the cattle had perished, but it was essential to save if possible some of the horses and mules. No grass was left on the scorched plains and bare brown379 hills except where there were fountains and brooks which had not entirely vanished under that copper sky. To these places it was necessary to drive such a remnant of the cattle as it might be still possible to preserve alive. But who could be trusted to rise entirely superior to individual selfishness in such a search? Ahab thought it best to trust no one but himself and his vizier Obadiah. The very name of this high official, Obadjahu, like the common Mohammedan names Abdallah, Abderrahnan, and others, implied that he was "a servant of Jehovah." His conduct answered to his name, for on Jezebel's persecuting attempt to exterminate Jehovah's prophets in their schools or communities, he, "the Sebastian of the Jewish Diocletian," had, at the peril of his own life, taken a hundred of them, concealed them in two of the great limestone caves of Palestine—perhaps in the recesses of Mount Carmel,632632   Amos ix. 3: "And though they hide themselves in the top of Carmel, I will search and take them out thence." The phrase shows the security and seclusion of these caves and thickets, the haunt once of lions and bears, and still of leopards and hyænas. and fed them with bread and water. It is to Ahab's credit that he retained such a man in office, though the touch of timidity which we trace in Obadiah may have concealed the full faithfulness of his personal allegiance to the old worship. Yet that such a man should still hold the post of chamberlain (al-hab-baith) furnishes a fresh proof that Ahab was not himself a worshipper of Baal.

The king and his vizier went in opposite directions, each of them unaccompanied, and Obadiah was on his way when he was startled by the sudden appearance of Elijah. He had not previously seen him, but recognising him by his shaggy locks, his robe of skin, and380 the awful sternness of his swarthy countenance, he was almost abjectly terrified. Apart from the awe-inspiring aspect and manner of the Prophet, this seemed no mere man who stood before him, but the representative of the Eternal, and the wielder of His power. To his contemporaries he appeared like the incarnate vengeance of Jehovah against guilty times, a flash as it were of God's consuming fire. To the Moslim of to-day he is still El Khudr, "the eternal wanderer." Springing from his chariot, Obadiah fell flat on his face and cried, "Is it thou, my lord Elijah?" "It is I," answered the Prophet, not wasting words over his terror and astonishment. "Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here."

The message enhanced the vizier's alarm. Why had not Elijah showed himself at once to Ahab? Did some terrible vindictive purpose lurk behind his message? Did Elijah confuse the aims and deeds of the minister with those of the king? Why did he despatch him on an errand which might move Ahab to kill him? Was not Elijah aware, he asks, with Eastern hyperbole, that Ahab had sent "to every nation and kingdom" to ask if Elijah was there, and when told that he was not there he made them confirm the statement by an oath?633633   The LXX. adds that he inflicted vengeance because Elijah was not found: "Καὶ ἐνέπρησε τὴν βασιλείαν καὶ τὰς χωρὰς αὐτῆς ὅτι οὐχ εὔρηκέ σε" (1 Kings xviii. 10). What would come of such a message if Obadiah conveyed it? No sooner would it be delivered than the wind of the Lord would sweep Elijah away into some new and unknown solitude,634634   Obadiah seems to have believed in miraculous transference of the Prophet from place to place. Comp. Ezek. iii. 12-14 (where "the spirit" may be rendered "a spirit," or "a wind"), viii. 3; 2 Kings ii. 16; Acts viii. 39; and the Ebionite Gospel of St. Matthew. "My mother, the Holy Ghost, took me by a hair of the head, and carried me to Mount Tabor" (Orig. in Joann., ii., § 6; and Jer. in Mic. vii. 6). So in Bel and the Dragon 33-36 (Abarbanel, Comm. in Habakkuk) the prophet Habakkuk is said to have been taken invisibly to supply food to Daniel in the den of lions. "Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown and bare him by the hair of his head, and through the vehemency of his spirit" (Midr. Robshik Rabba, "in the might of the Holy Ghost") "set him in Babylon." and Ahab, thinking that381 he had only been befooled, would in his angry disappointment, put Obadiah to death. Had he deserved such a fate? Had not Elijah heard of his reverence for Jehovah from his youth, and of his saving the hundred prophets at the peril of his life? Why then send him on so dangerous a mission? To these agitated appeals Elijah answered by his customary oath, "As Jehovah of hosts liveth, before whom I stand,635635   1 Kings xviii. 15, LXX., "The Lord God of Israel" has now become to him more prominently "the Lord God of Hosts." I will show myself unto him to-day." Then Obadiah went and told Ahab, and Ahab with impetuous haste hastened to meet Elijah, knowing that on him depended the fate of his kingdom.

Yet when they met he could not check the burst of anger which sprang to his lips.

"Is it thou, thou troubler of Israel?" he fiercely exclaimed.636636   The phrase had already been applied to Achan (Josh. vii. 25). Elijah was not the man to quail before the vultus instantis tyranni. "I have not troubled Israel," was the undaunted answer, "but thou and thy father's house." The cause of the drought was not the menace of Elijah, but the apostasy to Baalim. It was time that the fatal controversy should be decided. There must be an appeal to the people. Elijah was in a position to dictate, and he did dictate. "Let all Israel," he said, "be summoned to Mount Carmel;" and there he would singly meet in their presence the four hundred and fifty382 prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of the Asherah, all of whom ate at Jezebel's table.637637   I.e., were maintained at Jezebel's expense. The subsequent narration is silent as to the presence of the prophets of the Asherah, and Wellhausen thinks that the words here are an interpolation. Then and there a great challenge should take place, and the question should be settled for ever, whether Baal or Jehovah was to be the national god of Israel. What challenge could be fairer, seeing that Baal was the Sun-god, the god of fire?


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