Elijah, the Prophet

We’re reading at Mass this week about the prophet Elijah. He was the lone prophet to confront King Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel, rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel who promoted the worship of Baal, the god of rain and healing. Elijah as the “disturber of Israel” had to elude the king’s forces and flee from place to place. Like Moses fleeing from Pharaoh, Elijah sought refuge in mountains, places of God’s strength and protection.

Our readings from the lectionary this week offer a few key stories of his life. On Monday, Elijah proclaimed to Ahab a drought in Israel because of its infidelity. No rain will fall, he says, and then he flees to a small watering hole east of the Jordan where he’s fed by ravens. (above) 

That watering hole dries up, and Elijah flees to Zarephath of Sidon where a widow cares for him (Tuesday). 

After three years, Elijah returns to confront Ahab and Jezebel. In Wednesday’s reading he calls for a dramatic test between Baal and the God of Israel. Who can bring rain, Baal or the God of Israel? All the people along with the priests of Baal gather on Mount Carmel, where Elijah resoundingly defeats the priests of Baal and their god of rain and healing. 

Elijah announces to Ahab in the name of God that rain is coming. (Thursday) As he waits in prayer on Mount Carmel, poor Elijah, ”crouched down to the earth, his head between his knees,” and wonders if rain really will come. Seven times he asks his servant if there is any sign. “Nothing.” Then there’s a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea. A little cloud is all he sees.  All around the land is parched and lifeless. Hard to see any promise in a small far-off cloud.

A picture for today, isn’t it? Elijah is us all waiting for the promises of God to be accomplished, while we only see tiny distant clouds in a menacing world. 

The rains came, in abundance, but then Elijah must face the wrath of Jezebel who orders his death. And so, in our readings for Friday, Elijah flees to Mount Horeb, the same mountain where Moses experienced God in thunder and lightning. Elijah experiences God, not in thunder and lightning, but in a tiny whisper. He pours out his complaints to God and in answer, God sends him on a new mission to the north. He is to appoint a king and also a successor for himself.

Some saw Jesus as Elijah returned, and so Elijah often appears in the New Testament, particularly in the account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain where his glory and mission are revealed. Like Elijah, Jesus had no official backing either, no army, no political base. Powerful people sought his life, though his kingdom was not of this world. Yet, God’s surprising power was on his side. Elijah has influenced prophets and mystics ever since. 

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