Friday, May 13, 2011

A Literary Analysis of 1 Kings 19

Literary analysis of Old Testament (OT) passages is very important to the understanding of the text itself. As Yates mentioned, if one fails to understand the literary devices used he will fail to understand the theological message of the passage.[1] This essay will contend that in order for an OT passage to be examined accurately, one must conduct a literary analysis, discuss interpretive issues, and draw out application from the text.
Literary Analysis of 1 Kings 19
            The passage to be examined is 1 Kings 19:1-21. The first technique I noticed that was employed by the author was that of irony. In verse 2, Jezebel promises Elijah that she will kill him; she even vows that if she does not accomplish this, may she be killed (and worse)! The irony comes in v. 17, when the Lord promises to kill Jezebel and Ahab. It is more than a bit ironic that Jezebel managed to prophesy her own doom. The irony may have been discussed by the author in order to illustrate the principle of justice for the wicked. Additionally, the usage of irony shows that God will take care of his people. The prophet had no need to fear for Jezebel was not in control; God was in control.
            The next device utilized is that of contrast. In verse 3, Elijah feared for his life from one single queen. In the prior chapter, Elijah had been extremely victorious against the 450 prophets of Baal (and even rousing the people to acknowledge the true God in ). The author may have used this contrast to show that even in the aftermath of a victory believers must rely upon God (as opposed to themselves). In fact, instead of confronting the evil queen (as he had done with the false prophets) with the power of God, Elijah fled (v. 4). So disquieted was Elijah concerning his predicament (and indeed so faithless), he requested of God to be killed. Interestingly, this may show that he did not fear death as much as he feared the queen herself. Perhaps her methods were more vicious and cruel. If he was to die anyway, it may as well have been at the hands of his God.
            The next feature involves another act of contrast. In v. 4, Elijah “seeks to renounce his prophetic office,” but God will not let him die just then.[2] However, vs. 19-21 give the narrative of Elijah’s commissioning of Elisha, his ultimate replacement. God did grant his request but only on God’s timing. Repetition is present as well in the narrative experience of the angel of the Lord’s feeding Elijah (vs. 5-7).
            This repetition consisted both in the words and in the actions of the angel. Incidentally, it seems this is also an instance of paneling. Paneling is repetitive events with a final differing result. In the first panel the angel provides a cake and water and urges Elijah to “arise and eat” (v. 5). Elijah does so, but lies back down after he is finished. In the second panel, the angel of the Lord came, provided food and drink, and urged him to rise and eat. In this case, Elijah did so, and completed a journey the Lord had for him. He only completed this journey, however, because the angel of the Lord added one final difference to his command to Elijah: “because the journey is too great.” (v. 7) It was not a final meal to be enjoyed before death, but a meal of preparation. God was communicating to Elijah that he was not finished quite yet.
            Intertextuality seems to be present in verse 12 as God’s voice appears in conjunction with a fire. This drew an unmistakable hearkening back to Exodus 3 and the story of Moses and the burning bush. The fact is, however, that the Lord was not present in the fire itself (as in other times); he reveals himself in a still, small voice. Elijah answered that although he had been “very jealous for the Lord God,” he nonetheless received a death threat for his trouble. The point of the still, small voice does not seem to be the oft-repeated refrain, “look past the business of life to the quietness of the Lord.” Rather, it seems as though God is communicating to Elijah that he is the one who is in control. If God can control earthquakes, wind, and fire at will, then Jezebel should not concern Elijah.
            James Mays noted another repetition in the issue of the hopelessness of Elijah (v. 14 cf. v. 4 and 10).[3] In verse 4, Elijah requests death from God as he is not greater than those who have already been killed at Jezebel’s command (cf. v. 14). In verse 10, Elijah spoke to the Lord in greater detail, revealing Israel’s apostasy, the repudiating of the sin-sacrificial system, the killing of all other prophets, and the proposed execution of Elijah himself. He repeated this entire summary in verse 14. This repetition is likely included to show the burden of Elijah. However, it is quite telling that in all three usages of this motif God moves Elijah on to show him something.
            In the first stage Elijah is sent to Horeb. In the second stage, Elijah is sent to the mountain top. In the third stage, God sends Elijah to Damascus, with assignments on the way. God was in control, and God was going to take care of Elijah.
Interpretive Issues
            An interpretive issue would be the phenomena experienced by Elijah. Were these natural or supernatural events? Perhaps these were in fact natural phenomena that Elijah mistook for divine signs. It seems v. 11 may use hyperbolic language, so that perhaps the author is here exaggerating. The response this essay shall give is that there is no need to view these events as purely natural.
            First, God instructed Elijah to go to the mount (vs.10-11). Thus, God is involved in the events as a matter of course. In that case, one should not be surprised if seemingly supernatural events occur. Simply because a series of events appears unnatural God is not precluded from acting in that way. Second, even if one supposes the phenomena of wind, earthquakes, and fire are purely natural, there is no explaining away the conversation Elijah held with God.
            Suppose that an objector complains that Elijah had gone an extended amount of time without food, so that he was delusional (v. 8). One might even complain this is impossible! This response is inadequate for three reasons. First, as noted earlier, God was involved. This divine action inherently means laws of physics and anatomy may be interrupted. This would be, in that case, a miracle by definition. Only if one had good reasons for saying God was not involved in this could one then make the case for Elijah (as a prophet of God, no less) being delusional.
            Second, Elijah had no such disability when the angel of the Lord appeared to him and fed him (v. 5). While it may be argued Elijah was in a fragile state emotionally, it seems he had come to terms with his impending death (v. 4). This means Elijah was despondent but not disabled. Third, the conversation Elijah had with God included prophetic details (vs. 17-18); it seems highly unlikely that a delusion would contain such detail. In fact, if such a delusion did contain prophetic details of which king to anoint and what specific actions he would take, it would literally be a miracle, and thus the objection loses all force!
Personal Applications from 1 Kings 19
            There are theological principles to be applied from this passage. First, God provides for his servants, both physically and spiritually. In verse 5, God miraculously sent Elijah food and water, and in verses 15-18 God implies he will keep him alive from Jezebel. Spiritually, God provides a successor in Elisha. The people of God never have to worry about their spiritual needs going unmet when they trust in the Lord. Second, the hearkening back to Exodus 3 in the image of the fire reminds believers God is in control. In that story, the theme was that God is superior to the god of Egypt (Pharaoh). In much the same way, God is superior to any natural phenomena or any creation (such as man). In summary, God can be trusted to provide for his servant’s needs and is in control over things, events, and people of the earth.
            This essay has examined the literary devices used by the text of 1 Kings 19. It also examined potential interpretive issues concerning prophetic visions and revelations of commands from the Lord. It concluded any objections to Elijah’s instructions from the Lord are unjustified. The application to the believer’s life of trusting God to be in control even in the most difficult of circumstances was also discussed. God demonstrated to Elijah he controlled events both in the present and in the future, and God still controls those events today.

                [1] Gary Yates, “Literary Analysis Presentation,” Week 7.

                [2] James Luther Mays, Harper Collins Bible Commentary (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 293.

                [3] Ibid.

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