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357

CHAPTER XXXIV.

ELIJAH.

1 Kings xvii. 1-7.

"And Elias the prophet stood up as fire, and his word was burning as a torch."—Ecclus. xlviii. 1.

"But that two-handed engine at the door

Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more."

Lycidas.

Many chapters are now occupied with narratives of the deeds of two great prophets, Elijah and Elisha, remarkable for the blaze and profusion of miracles and for similarity in many details. For thirty-four years we hear but little of Judah, and the kings of Israel are overshadowed by the "men of God." Both narratives, of which the later in sequence seems to be the earlier in date, originated in the Schools of the Prophets. Both are evidently drawn from documentary sources apart from the ordinary annals of the Kings.

Doubtless something of their fragmentariness is due to the abbreviation of the prophetic annals by the historians.

Suddenly, with abrupt impetuosity, the mighty figure of Elijah the Prophet bursts upon the scene like lightning on the midnight. So far as the sacred page is concerned, he, like Melchizedek, is "without father, without mother, without descent." He appears before us unannounced as "Elijah the Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead." Such a phenomenon as Jezebel explains and necessitates such a phenomenon as Elijah.358 "The loftiest and sternest spirit of the true faith is raised up," says Dean Stanley, "face to face with the proudest and fiercest spirit of the old Asiatic Paganism."

The name Elijah, or, in its fuller and more sonorous Hebrew form, Elijahu, means "Jehovah is my God." Who he was is entirely unknown. So completely is all previous trace of him lost in mystery that Talmudic legends confounded him with Phinehas, the son of Aaron, the avenging and fiercely zealous priest; and even identified him with the angel or messenger of Jehovah who appeared to Gideon and ascended in the altar flame.

The name "Tishbite" tells us nothing. No town of Tishbi occurs in Scripture, and though a Thisbe in the tribe of Naphtali is mentioned as the birthplace of Tobit,606606   Tobit i. 2. the existence of such a place is as doubtful as that of "Thesbon of the Gileadite district" to which Josephus assigns his birth.607607   Josephus, Antt., VIII. xiii. 2; Vat. (LXX.), Θεσβίτης ὁ ἐκ θεσβῶν. The Alex. LXX. omits Θεσβίτης. An immense amount has been written about Elijah. Among others, see Knobel, Der Prophetismus, ii. 73; Köster, Der Thesbiter; Stanley, ii., lect. xxx.; Maurice, Prophets and Kings, serm. viii.; F. W. Robertson, ii., serm. vi.; Milligan, Elijah (Men of the Bible). The Hebrew may mean "the Tishbite from Tishbi of Gilead," or "The sojourner from the sojourners of Gilead"; and we know no more. Elijah's grandeur is in himself alone. Perhaps he was by birth an Ishmaelite. When the wild Highlander in Rob Roy says of himself "I am a man," "A man!" repeated Frank Osbaldistone; "that is a very brief description." "It will serve," answered the outlaw, "for one who has no other to give. He who is without359 name, without friends, without coin, without country, is still at least a man: and he that has all these is no more." So Elijah stands alone in the towering height of his fearless manhood.

Some clue to the swift mysterious movements, the rough asceticism, the sheepskin robe, the unbending sternness of the Prophet may lie in the notice that he was a Gileadite, or at any rate among the sojourners of Gilead, and therefore akin to them. It might even be conjectured that he was of Kenite origin, like Jonadab, the son of Rechab, in the days of Jehu.608608   See 1 Chron. ii. 55. The Gileadites were the Highlanders of Palestine, and the name of their land implies its barren ruggedness.609609   See Cheyne, The Hallowing of Criticism, p. 9. They, like the modern Druses, were

"Fierce, hardy, proud, in conscious freedom bold."

We catch a glimpse of these characteristics in the notice of the four hundred Gadites who swam the Jordan in Palestine to join the freebooters of David in the cave of Adullam, "whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were as swift as the roes upon the mountains." Though of Israelitish origin they were closely akin to the Bedawin, swift, strong, temperate, fond of the great solitudes of nature, haters of cities, scorners of the softnesses of civilisation. Elijah shared these characteristics. Like the forerunner of Christ, in whom his spirit reappeared nine centuries later, he had lived alone with God in the glowing deserts and the mountain fastnesses. He found Jehovah's presence, not in the

"Gay religions, full of pomp and gold,"

which he misdoubted and despised, but in the barren360 hills and wild ravines and bleak uplands where only here and there roamed a shepherd with his flock. In such hallowed loneliness he had learnt to fear man little, because he feared God much, and to dwell familiarly on the sterner aspects of religion and morality. The one conscious fact of his mission, the sufficient authentication of his most imperious mandates, was that "he stood before Jehovah." So unexpected were his appearances and disappearances, that in the popular view he only seemed to flash to and fro, or to be swept hither and thither, by the Spirit of the Lord. We may say of him as was said of John the Baptist, that "in his manifestation and agency he was like a burning torch; his public life was quite an earthquake; the whole man was a sermon, the voice of one crying in the wilderness." And, like the Baptist, he had been "in the deserts, till the day of his showing unto Israel."

Somewhere—perhaps at Samaria, perhaps in the lovely summer palace at Jezreel—he suddenly strode into the presence of Ahab. Coming to him as the messenger of the King of kings he does not deign to approach him with the genuflexions and sounding titles which Nathan used to the aged David. With scanted courtesy to one whom he does not respect or dread—knowing that he is in God's hands, and has no time to waste over courtly periphrases or personal fears—he comes before Ahab unknown, unintroduced. What manner of man was it by whom the king in his crown and Tyrian purple was thus rudely confronted? He was, tradition tells us, a man of short stature, of rugged countenance. He was "a lord of hair"—the thick black locks of the Nazarite (for such he probably was) streamed over his shoulders like a lion's mane, giving him a fierce and unkempt aspect.361 They that wear soft clothing are in king's houses, and doubtless under a queen who, even in old age, painted her face and tired her head, and was given to Sidonian luxuries, Ahab was accustomed to see men about him in bright apparel. But Elijah had not stooped to alter his ordinary dress, which was the dress of the desert by which he was always known. His brown limbs, otherwise bare, were covered with a heavy mantle, the skin of a camel or a sheep worn with the rough wool outside, and tightened round his loins by a leathern girdle. So unusual was his aspect in the cities east of Jordan, accustomed since the days of Solomon to all the refinements of Egyptian and Phœnician culture, that it impressed and haunted the imagination of his own and of subsequent ages. The dress of Elijah became so normally the dress of prophets who would fain have assumed his authority without one spark of his inspiration, that the later Zechariah has to warn his people against sham prophets who appeared with hairy garments, and who wounded their own hands for no other purpose than to deceive.610610   Zech. xiii. 4. The robe of skin, after the long interspace of centuries, was still the natural garb of "the glorious eremite," who in his spirit and power made straight in the deserts a highway for our God.

Such was the man who delivered to Ahab in one sentence his tremendous message: "As Jehovah, God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand"—such was the introductory formula, which became proverbial, and which authenticated the prophecy—"There shall not be dew611611   The word also means "sea-mist" (Cheyne, p. 15). nor rain these years but according to my word." The phrase "to stand before Jehovah" was used of362 priests: it was applicable to a prophet in a far deeper and less external sense.612612   Lev. xxvi. 19; Psalm cxxxiv. 1; Heb. x. 11. Drought was one of the recognised Divine punishments for idolatrous apostasy. If Israel should fall into disobedience, we read in Deuteronomy, "the Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon thee—until thou be destroyed"; and in Leviticus we read, "If ye will not hearken, I will make your heaven as iron and your earth as brass." The threat was too significant to need any explanation. The conscience of Ahab could interpret only too readily that prophetic menace.

The message of Elijah marked the beginning of a three, or three and a half years' famine. This historic drought is also mentioned by Menander of Tyre, who says that after a year, at the prayer of Ethbaal, the priest and king, there came abundant thunder showers. St. James represents the famine as well as its termination as having been caused by Elijah's prayer.613613   So too Ecclus. xlviii. 2, "He brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number"; but the writer adds, "By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens." Deut. xxviii. 12; Amos iv. 7. But the expression of the historian is general. Elijah might pray for rain, but no prophet could, proprio motu, have offered up a prayer for so awful a curse upon an entire country as a famine, in which thousands of the innocent would suffer no less severely than the guilty. Three years' famine was a recognised penalty for apostasy. It was one of the sore plagues of God. It had befallen Judah "because of Saul and his bloody house,"614614   2 Sam. xxi. 1. and had been offered to guilty David as an alternative for363 three days' pestilence, or three years' flight before his enemies.615615   2 Sam. xxiv. 13. "Three," not "seven," is probably here the true reading. We are not here told that Elijah prayed for it, but that he announced its commencement, and declared that only in accordance with his announcement should it close.

He delivered his message, and what followed we do not know. Ahab's tolerance was great; and, however fierce may have been his displeasure, he seems in most cases to have personally respected the sacredness and dignity of the prophets. The king's wrath might provoke an outburst of sullenness, but he contented himself with menacing and reproachful words. It was otherwise with Jezebel. A genuine idolatress, she hated the servants of Jehovah with implacable hatred, and did her utmost to suppress them by violence. It was probably to save Elijah from her fury that he was bidden to fly into safe hiding, while her foiled rage expended itself in the endeavour to extirpate the whole body of the prophets of the Lord. But, just as the child Christ was saved when Herod massacred the infants of Bethlehem, so Elijah, at whom Jezebel's blow was chiefly aimed, had escaped beyond her reach. A hundred other imperilled prophets were hidden in a cave by the faithfulness of Obadiah, the king's vizier.

The word of the Lord bade Elijah to fly eastward and hide himself "in the brook Cherith,616616   Not "by," as in the A.V. Cherith means "cut off" (1 Kings xvii. 3). "The Lord hid him" (Jer. xxxvi. 26). "In famine he shall redeem thee from death.... At famine and destruction thou shalt laugh" (Job v. 20-22). that is before Jordan." The site of this ravine—which Josephus only calls "a certain torrent bed"—has not been identified.364 It was doubtless one of the many wadies which run into the deep Ghôr or cleft of the Jordan on its eastern side. If it belonged to his native Gilead, Elijah would be in little fear of being discovered by the emissaries whom Ahab sent in every direction to seek for him. Whether it was the Wady Kelt,617617   Robinson. or the Wady el Jabis,618618   Benjamin of Tudela. or the Ain Fusail,619619   Marinus Sanutus (1321). we know the exact characteristics of the scene. On either side, deep, winding and precipitous, rise the steep walls of rock, full of tropic foliage, among which are conspicuous the small dark green leaves and stiff thorns of the nubk. Far below the summit of the ravine, marking its almost imperceptible thread of water by the brighter green of the herbage, and protected by masses of dewy leaves from the fierce power of evaporation, the hidden torrent preserves its life in all but the most long-continued periods of drought. In such a scene Elijah was absolutely safe. Whenever danger approached he could hide himself in some fissure or cavern of the beetling crags where the wild birds have their nest, or sit motionless under the dense screen of interlacing boughs. The wildness and almost terror of his surroundings harmonised with his stern and fearless spirit. A spirit like his would rejoice in the unapproachable solitude, communing with God alike when the sun flamed in the zenith and when the midnight hung over him with all its stars.

The needs of an Oriental—particularly of an ascetic Bedawy prophet—are small as those of the simplest hermit. Water and a few dates often suffice him for days together. Elijah drank of the brook, and God "had commanded the ravens to feed him there." The365 shy, wild, unclean birds620620   The ravens were unclean birds (Deut. xiv. 14), and this naturally startled and offended the Rabbis. "brought him"—so the old prophetic narrative tells us—"bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening." We may remark in passing, that flesh twice a day or even once a day, if with Josephus we read "bread in the morning and flesh in the evening," is no part of an Arab's ordinary food. It is regarded by him as wholly needless, and indeed as an exceptional indulgence. The double meal of flesh does not resemble the simple diet of bread and water on which the Prophet lived afterwards at Sarepta. Are we or are we not to take this as a literal fact? Here we are face to face with a plain question to which I should deem it infamous to give a false or a prevaricating answer.

Before giving it, let us clear the ground. First of all, it is a question which can only be answered by serious criticism. Assertion can add nothing to it, and is not worth the breath with which it is uttered. The anathemas of obsolete and a priori dogmatism against those who cannot take the statement as simple fact do not weigh so much as a dead autumn leaf in the minds of any thoughtful men.

Some holy but uninstructed soul may say, "It stands on the sacred page: why should you not understand it literally?" It might be sufficient to answer, Because there are many utterances on the sacred page which are purely poetic or metaphorical. "The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the brook shall pick it out, and the young vultures shall eat it."621621   Prov. xxx. 17. The statement looks prosaic and positive enough, but what human being366 ever took it literally? "Curse not the king—for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." Who does not see at once that the words are poetic and metaphorical? "Where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched." How many educated Christians can assert that they believe that the unredeemed will be eaten for ever by literal worms in endless flames? The man who pretends that he is obliged to understand literally the countless Scriptural metaphors involved in an Eastern language of which nearly every word is a pictorial metaphor, only shows himself incompetent to pronounce an opinion on subjects connected with history, literature, or religious criticism.

Is it then out of dislike to the supernatural, or disbelief in its occurrence, that the best critics decline to take the statement literally?

Not at all. Most Christians have not the smallest difficulty in accepting the supernatural. If they believe in the stupendous miracles of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, what possible difficulty could they have in accepting any other event merely on the ground that it is miraculous? To many Christians all life seems to be one incessant miracle. Disbelieving that any force less than the fiat of God could have thrilled into inorganic matter the germs of vegetable and still more of animal life; believing that their own life is supernatural, and that they are preserved as they were created by endless cycles of ever-recurrent miracles; believing that the whole spiritual life is supernatural in its every characteristic; they have not the slightest unwillingness to believe a miracle when any real evidence can be adduced for it. They accept, without the smallest misgiving, the miracles of Jesus Christ our367 Lord, radiating as ordinary works from His Divine nature, performed in the full blaze of history, attested by hundredfold contemporary evidence, leading to results of world-wide and eternal significance—miracles which were, so to speak, natural, normal, and necessary, and of which each revealed some deep moral or spiritual truth. But if miracles can only rest on evidence, the dullest and least instructed mind can see that the evidence for this and for some other miracles in this narrative stands on a wholly different footing. Taken apart from dogmatic assertions which are themselves unproven or disproved, the evidence that ravens daily fed Elijah is wholly inadequate to sustain the burden laid upon it.

In the first place, the story occurs in a book compiled some centuries after the event which it attests; in a book solemn indeed and sacred, but composite, and in some of its details not exempt from the accidents which have always affected all human literature.

And this incident is unattested by any other evidence. It is, so to speak, isolated. It is quite separable from the historic features of the narrative, and is out of accordance with what is truly called the Divine economy of miracles. No miracle was wrought to supply Elijah with water; and if a miracle was needed to supply him with bread and flesh, it is easy to imagine hundreds of forms of such direct interposition which would be more normal and more in accordance with all other Scripture miracles than the continuous overruling of the natural instincts of ravenous birds. It has been said that this particular form of miracle was needed for its evidential value; but there is nothing in the narrative to imply that it had the368 smallest evidential value for any one of Elijah's contemporaries, or even that they knew of it at all.

Further, we find it, not in a plain prose narrative, but in a narrative differing entirely from the prosaic setting in which it occurs—a narrative which rises in many parts to the height of poetic and imaginative splendour. There is nothing to show that it was not intended to be a touch of imaginative poetry and nothing more. Part of the greatness of Hebrew literature lies in its power of conveying eternal truth, as, for instance, in the Book of Job and in many passages of the prophets, in the form of imaginative narration. The stories of Elijah and Elisha come from the Schools of the Prophets. If room was left in them for the touch of poetic fiction, or for the embellishment of history with moral truth, conveyed in the form of parable or apologue, we can at once account for the sudden multitude of miracles. They were founded no doubt in many instances on actual events, but in the form into which the narrative is thrown they were recorded to enhance the greatness of the heroic chiefs of the Schools of the Prophets. It is therefore uncertain whether the original narrator believed, or meant his readers literally to believe, such a statement as that Elijah was fed morning and evening by actual ravens. It cannot be proved that he intended more than a touch of poetry, by which he could convey the lesson that the prophet was maintained by marked interventions of that providence of God which is itself in all its workings supernatural. God's feeding of the ravens in their nest was often alluded to in Hebrew poetry; and if the marvellous support of the Prophet in his lonely hiding-place was to be represented in an imaginative form, this way of representing it would naturally occur to the writer's thoughts. Similarly,369 when Jerome wrote the purely fictitious life of Paul the Hermit, which was taken for fact even by his contemporaries, he thinks it quite natural to say that Paul and Antony saw a raven sitting on a tree, who flew gently down to them and placed a loaf on the table before them. Ravens haunt the lonely, inaccessible cliffs among which Elijah found his place of refuge. It needed but a touch of metaphor to transform them into ministers of Heaven's beneficence.

But besides all this, the word rendered ravens (Orebim, עֹרְבִים) only has that meaning if it be written with the vowel points. But the vowel points are confessedly not "inspired" in any sense, but are a late Massoretic invention. Without the change of a letter the word may equally well mean people of the city Orbo,622622   Orbo was a small town near the Jordan and Bethshan. or of the rock Oreb (as was suggested even in the Bereshith Rabba by Rabbi Judah); or "merchants," as in Ezek. xxvii. 27; or Arabians. No doubt difficulties might be suggested about any of these interpretations; but which would be most reasonable, the acceptance of such small difficulties, or the literal acceptance of a stupendous miracle, unlike any other in the Bible, by which we are to believe on the isolated authority of a nameless and long subsequent writer, that, for months or weeks together, voracious and unclean birds brought bread and flesh to the Prophet twice a day? The old naturalistic attempts to explain the miracle are on the face of them absurd; but it is as perfectly open to any one who chooses to say that "Arabians," or "Orbites," or "merchants," or "people of the rock Oreb" fed Elijah, as to say that the "ravens" did so. The explanation now universally accepted by370 the Higher Criticism is different. It is to accept the meaning "ravens," but not with wooden literalness to interpret didactic and poetic symbolism as though it were bald and matter-of-fact prose. The imagery of a grand religious Haggada is not to be understood, nor was it ever meant to be understood, like the page of a dull annalist. Analogous stories are found abundantly alike in early pagan and early Christian literature and in mediæval hagiology. They are true in essence though not in fact, and the intention of them is often analogous to this; but no story is found so noble as this in its pure and quiet simplicity.

Let this then suffice and render it needless to recur to similar discussions. If any think themselves bound to interpret this and all the other facts in these narratives in their most literal sense; if they hold that the mere mention of such things by unknown writers in unknown time—possibly centuries afterwards, when the event may have become magnified by the refraction of tradition—is sufficient to substantiate them, let them hold their own opinion as long as it can satisfy them. But proof of such an opinion they neither have nor can have; and let them beware of priding themselves on the vaunt of their "faith," when such "faith" may haply prove to be no more than a distortion of the truer faith which proves all things and only holds fast that which will stand the test. A belief based on some a priori opinion about "verbal dictation" is not necessarily meritorious. It may be quite the reverse. Such a dogma has never been laid down by the Church in general. It has very rarely been insisted upon by any branch of the Church in any age. A belief which prides itself on ignorance of the vast horizon opened to us by the study of many forms of literature, by the advance of371 criticism, by the science of comparative religion—so far from being religious or spiritual may only be a sign of ignorance, or of a defective love of truth. A dogmatism which heaps upon intelligent faith burdens at once needless and intolerable may spring from sources which should tend to self-humiliation rather than to spiritual pride.623623   On the other side, Bunsen (Bibelwerk, v. 2, 540) speaks too strongly when he says that "nothing but boundless ignorance, or, where historical criticism has not died out, an hierarchical dilettanti reaction, foolhardy hypocrisy, and weak-hearted fanaticism would wish to demand the faith of a Christian community in the historic truths of these miracles as if they had actually taken place." He regards the whole narrative as a "popular epic—the fruit of an inspiration, which he, as it were some superhuman being, awakened in his disciples." Abundet quisque in sensu suo. But such beliefs have not the smallest connexion with true faith or sincere Christianity. God is a God of truth, and he who tries to force himself into a view which history and literature, no less than the faithful following of the Divine light within him, convince him to be untenable, does not rise into faith, but sins and does mischief by feebleness and lack of faith.624624   I append the remarks of Professor Milligan, a theologian of unimpeachable orthodoxy. "The miracle," he says, "is so remarkable, so much out of keeping with most of the other miracles of Scripture, that even pious and devout minds may well be perplexed by it, and we can feel no surprise at the attempts made to explain it. Such attempts are not inconsistent with the most devout reverence for the word of God. They are rather, not unfrequently, the result of a just persuasion that the Eastern mind did not express itself in forms similar to those of the West" (Elijah, p. 22). He proceeds to protest against the harsh condemnation of those who thus only try to interpret the real ideas present in the mind of the writer. He regards it as perhaps a highly poetic and figurative representation of the truth that the God of Nature was with Elijah. "The value of the Prophet's experience is neither heightened by a literal, nor diminished by a figurative, interpretation of what passed" (p. 24).


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