Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reading the First Book of Kings

I opened my office copy of the Bible at random. It fell to 1 Kings, amid a vicious cycle of cultic contention (Baal vs. Yahweh), kingly strife (after Solomon), and familiar war (Syria vs. newly divided kingdoms of Judah & Israel). I never heard of King Abijam before, nor alluring Abishag, so I read on.

Naboth's vineyard sought by Ahab, Jezebel's wiles, and Elijah's mocking triumph over the doomed priests of Baal at Carmel: I recalled these episodes. I thought about the struggles in Gaza today. I considered the jealousy that believers trapped into such small parcels of situated land worry over in their respective manifestation of their single sanguinary deity demanding tribute and revelling in bloodstained altars. I pondered how this mirrored the attractively erotic, if no less carnal, polytheism all around the embattled Hebrews in their slim strip of territory. These rites that we know only through the condemnations of their foes, that tempted away even many rulers of a Chosen People from their jealous God.

The seduction and slaying amidst palace intrigue reminded me of a proto-Mafia miniseries. (I append mention of one currently airing miniseries: "Kings," based on David Shepherd who with his successful assault against the enemy's unbeatable tank "Goliath" rises to power over a harried and affluent realm not unlike today's Manhattan, "Gilboa.") Indeed this guts-and-glory appeal may account for the literary and Sunday School fame in more censored times of Jezebel and Ahab, Solomon and Sheba, Elijah and Elisha. While less euphonious, Jehosaphat and Jeroboam, Jehu and the backsliding neo-pagan Judean Queen Athaliah also merit their own roles as supporting cast. What's ultimately depressing? God and His People's stubborness. Both the Hebrews and their Maker share a superiority complex that, naturally, the Deuteronomic authors of these chronicles propagandize, exaggerate, and disseminate.

Inevitable in such a self-promoting exposé of how if you don't do what God says, you will meet annihilation, but the context of mayhem and assault did wear me down. That's why I record how in the middle of my perusal, by happenstance and fulfilling my bent for bibliomancy, I stumbled upon my favorite passage in all of scripture. When I met Bob's father, the gentlemanly minister out of central casting for a dignified Midwestern man of the cloth, I had talked with him about 1 Kings 19:12.

Now, being raised Catholic, I had no idea where this verse actually could be located. I knew it had to do with Elijah after Carmel when he angered Ahab, and that was as far as my catechetical recall stretched. The Good Reverend lent me an embossed-covered (but ungilded) concordance (I offered to give it back, but he let me have it, an ancient one from the antediluvian era that looked as if Elmer Gantry or Billy Sunday might have tucked it in their saddlebag on some Hoosier circuit to the next tent revival) and I found the line (if not chapter and verse) that's always remained in my memory.

Elijah hides from Ahab, who has told Jezebel of the defeat, and the prophet's massacre, of the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel. The holy man has outrun the king as the drought ends; rain pours down the slopes. Jezebel serves as a hit (wo)man on Elijah. He wanders way past Beersheeba, into the wilderness. He sits under, as my Jerusalem Bible translation Englishly renders it, a "furze bush" where he wishes he was dead.

An angel wakes him up from his despondent slumber. He finds "there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water." Refreshed by this charmingly British if tea-less tiffin, Elijah goes off the usual forty days and nights to distant Horeb. A place that should resound as typologically and geographically portentous.

Spending the night in a cave, God's word comes to him. His loyal advocate tells Him that he's alone among Israel's sons in his fidelity, and now fears for his life. God responds: "Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh." As my translation renders the theophany:

"Then Yahweh himself went by. There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake, After the earthquake came a fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze."

This is not the lovely "still, small voice" that I favor in the quainter translation, but as my edition footnotes ominously as much as inspirationally:
"The storm, earthquake, and lightning, which in Ex 19 manifested God's presence, are here only the heralds of his coming. The whisper of a light breeze signifies that God is a spirit and that he converses intimately with his prophets; it does not mean that God's dealings are gentle and unperceived-- this common interpretation is refuted by the terrible commission of vv. 16-17." (note "e," p. 447 for 1 Kings 19)

For, we sensitive poetic types probably stop reading the chapter there. If we go on to the verses mentioned, we find that after Elijah oddly repeats verbatim what he told Yahweh inside the cave moments before the climactic and tectonic uproar, His God-Father orders his made-man to first anoint trusted capos Hazael and Jehu, and to appoint his own successor Elisha. Then, God's message resumes its customary tone, at least as broadcast before the technical difficulties caused-- by acts of God.

"Anyone who escapes the sword of Hazael will be put to death by Jehu; and anyone who escapes the sword of Jehu will be put to death by Elisha. But I shall spare seven thousand in Israel: all the knees that have not bent before Baal, all the mouths that have not kissed him."

I wonder, as my wife cooks charoset that commemorates the mortar denied Hebrews to bind together the bricks that legend if not fact tells helped slaves raise the pyramids, what kind of celebration we'd have three thousand years later if the Israelites had chosen Baal, temple prostitution (male and female), cultic worship with all its own bloody sacrifices and backroom brutality.

What if Elijah's bid for a miracle at Carmel failed? What if Jezebel simply offed him? How might Israel have thrived if the royal couple had wiped out the purer if no less compromising Yahwist cult and substituted the more appealing fertility rituals of its Levantine competition? What if austere ceremonies of Jerusalem's Temple ended? A shattered set of tablets, an overturned Ark-- and no Yahweh to stop the return of the true "Elohim," the plural gods to which the Hebrews, the border-crossers, the marginalized tribes, reverted to, finally ending centuries of territorial terror?

Would those indigenous Hebrews possess their sunny land in perpetuity, no diaspora, no holocaust, no pogroms, no Zionism, as do the Lebanese or Jordanians do today? Hebrews blended by mating and marriage within Arab peoples, now dimly related, all tribes there far too long to worry much about three millennia ago to trace tribal lineages, serving a licentious throng of deities. Perhaps no monotheists might survive without any Jesus or Mohammed who'd vow to complete the revelations begun by Moses and the prophets. What if our ancestors all stayed faithful to many gods?

Maybe the Holy Book would languish, a remnant of tablets or scrolls about as popular as those from the Dead Sea or the Gnostics among the majority today? Would the Judeans inherit a history free of their long chapters and more books detailing their determined stand against the hosts that forever surround the Jews, vowing to push them into the sea or the ovens? Would their story have suddenly swerved at Carmel under a different scenario, less miraculous for the Hebrews, pushing them away from One God, forever?

Recent headlines charge the Israel Defence Forces with war crimes in Gaza; the defenders of Israel ask if any other nation would have the sensitivity and the ethics to pursue such allegations within their own ranks after a victory. We often hear how the legacy of the Hebraic tradition above all insists upon rectitude and fairness, a minority who do not try to convert the majority. Yet, in the times of Elijah and Elisha, Judaism survives not by lions lying down with lambs, but by the terrible swift sword as cruelly as any competing allegiance. The Hebrews didn't proseltyze so often as persecute, doing to others lest the same be done to them.

The tension persists. The higher law that the Chosen People proclaim to all aspires towards universal peace. The lower laws charge a defiant state to adhere to similarly suasive rules that all are supposed to follow even in battle against those who hide among civilians challenges everybody-- still caught in this endless cycle of Philistine to Phoenician to Palestinian. Syria's always aiming south at David's starred target. Imams as well as rabbis goad troops on to finally erase their constant enemy. For Israel, as always, the odds are never in their demographic favor. There yet may be an future history book with the "Zionist entity" closing a chapter in an Islamic hadith rather than haggadah. One that may mark the Middle East's decisive turn from Dar-al-Harb to Dar-as-Salaam under Allah's protection.

Would Elijah's vanquished seven thousand Hebrew holdouts be no more than a footnote in a variant Old Testament or Book of Prophets as those from Aram or Samaria are for those who still pore over today's Tanakh? What alternative history might have transpired if the Aramaeans eliminated ten tribes of Israel in 738 BCE, however we'd be counting the centuries since? What more permissive feast would we be cooking up now-- rejoicing at the defeat of Elijah at Carmel; the last battle for the polytheistic, uninhibited, if equally intolerant, reign of Ahab and Jezebel of blessed memory? A meditation for Passover commemorating another Hebraic exception to religious dicta or dominant cultural narrative-- if a typically skewed one from a mind such as mine.

Art: Ferdinand Olivier (1785 - 1841)"Elijah in the Wilderness" 1831. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

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