A command of God which Elijah didn’t obey

An ivory inscription dated to the early 800s BC. The word “Hazael” appears in it.

Hazael, King of Syria, a usurper on the throne of Syria, was one of the worst enemies of Israel. Yet, the decision to make Hazael king of Syria was made by YHWH, the God of Israel. How so? By YHWH’s words of command spoken to Israel’s prophets, Elijah and Elisha.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings include 1 Kings 19:1-15. The first portion, verses 1-4, tells of Ahab – one of the worst, most unjust, most corrupt kings of Israel – returning to his wife Jezebel and moaning about what Elijah had done on Mount Carmel.

Elijah had humiliated all the King’s advisers and then put them to death by cutting them up. He’d done so by the power of YHWH. You can read all about it in 1 Kings 18.

The first portion also tells us that Jezebel, the worst type of woman in the Bible (she’s even mentioned in the book of Revelation), raged against Elijah. It tells us Elijah, the unleasher of terror on Mount Carmel, rushed off terrified, tail between his legs. And that he asked God to let him die.

The second portion, verses 5-7, tells us God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer. And that instead, God showed compassion to Elijah. God gave him food, shelter, and words of comfort over a span of forty days. It tells us Elijah then set off on a journey to Mount Horeb, “the mount of God.”

The third portion, verses 8-15, tells us God pretended to be surprised when He “saw” Elijah on the mountain, in a cave, and asked him why he was there. It tells us Elijah told God he and other prophets had acted on behalf of God’s honour, that the other prophets had been killed, and that he alone was alive – and that they were looking for him, to kill him also.

The portion continues by telling us that God – the same God who had executed the judgment on Mount Carmel – responded by showing his immense power to Elijah. He demonstrated that he could order tempests, earthquakes, fires. He added that he preferred to get attention by whispering. Then the scene replays. God asks Elijah again why he’s there. And Elijah – seemingly dim-witted – repeats the answer he gave before:

“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.” (verse 14; also 10).

But the next verse tells us God’s response, this time, was different:

“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.” ( verse 15)

Yet, Elijah never did anoint Hazael. Next Sunday, the lectionary will invite us to ponder verses from 2 Kings 2 and from 1 Kings 19. I’ll continue the story in future articles, “at lectionary pace.” Here, I’ll just point out some things about the kings mentioned above.

Ahab was the seventh king of Israel. His wife Jezebel was daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon and priest of Astarte. Ahab allowed Jezebel to build a temple dedicated to Baal and to oppose the worship of YHWH. Ahab may have reigned for about 22 years. He fortified the cities of Israel and successfully fended off attacks by Ben-hadad, king of Syria, based in Damascus. He kept the Israelites from displacement and enslavement by the Syrians.

Hazael rebelled against Ben-hadad after he received from Elisha a prophetic word and an anointing (Elisha succeeded Elijah). It wouldn’t be far of the mark to say Hazael’s rebellion was instigated by God. The IVP Illustrated Bible Dictionary says he was “God’s scourge to Israel during the reigns of Jehoram, Jehu and Jehoahaz. Elijah was commissioned to anoint him as one of the three ordained to complete the extirpation of Baal-worship that he had begun (1 Kings 19:15-17). The Encyclopaedia of the Bible says Hazael reigned for about 47 years.

Elijah didn’t complete his commission. What was God’s response? To be continued!

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