More Strong Language

Whenever I hear the subject of the sealing authority come up, it’s Biblical origin is intertwined with Elijah’s promise to Ahab of drought in 1 Ki 17:1

As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.

This is certainly an attention-getter, but not, I think, the heart of the matter.

(Public service announcement to our unmarried gentlemen readers: Ahab’s problems seem to stem from his marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon (16:31). Ethbaal may mean “with Baal” or perhaps “under Baal’s protection.” Always check your prospective father-in-law’s name. If it’s a theophoric compound of Baal, perhaps you should continue your search.)

1 Ki 17:1 opens up a cycle of stories with two related sets of interactions that stretch through chapter 22 . On one hand, the contest between Israel’s God and Baal is clearly joined and resolved. On a deeper level, these stories tell us about the complexity of the God-prophet-human relationship.

The remainder of chapter 17 consists of three stories. While at the Wadi Cherith (vv. 2-7), Elijah is fed like royalty by God’s winged scavengers, the ravens. Although he is receptive and obedient to the work of the Lord, he is completely passive. It is clear that neither Baal nor his agent, Ahab, can get to Elijah. But is this because Baal is really no-god, or is it simply because Team God has yielded the field?

In the second story, Elijah is equally receptive but less passive (vv. 8-16). Obedient to the word of the Lord, he has traveled to Zarephath, a town located midway between Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, the heart of Baal-country. This sets the scene for the first of a series of deliberate but oblique provocations aimed at Baal.

In Zarapheth Elijah meets up with a widow woman who, like the ravens, is a scavenger. As a sign of the goodness of her heart, she is quite willing to fetch water for a thirsty stranger in a drought-stricken country. She balks only at providing food, because she has only a final meal before death.

Elijah must act, becoming a collaborator by extending the promise of his own support over the widow and her household. His activity bring to fulfillment the promise made to him in v. 9 by God. Elijah is now safely residing right in Baal’s own homeland, albeit dining less sumptuously than before. Although Israel’s God is stealthy at the moment, there’s no doubting his power.

The third story shifts from addressing the potential for death to dealing with the reality of death. The widow’s son dies and she reproaches Elijah with these words (v. 18):

What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!

The widow’s point is consistent with her culture and place in history. Elijah’s presence has attracted divine attention. In godly retaliation for some sin of hers, her son has died.

In this third story, Elijah seizes the initiative. He carries the boy upstairs and utters two rather similar prayers, the first in v. 20:

O Lord my God, have you brought evil even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?

Note that the central accusation is almost identical to the widow’s accusation and it’s coupled with an unsubtle reminder of her hospitality and role in God’s own plans. This is strong language. And in a break from the more widely recognized role of a prophet as speaking the word of God to humans, Elijah has spoken the words of a human to God. The communication between God and humans is now two-way, mediated through the prophet.

In the second prayer, in v. 21, Elijah brings his lead to culmination: “O Lord, my God, let the breath return to the body of this child.” The verb is a jussive with the particle of entreaty. This is a far more deferential prayer than the first, simply expressing the wish that the child’s life return, but it also sets the stage to show just who has the power of life and death, even in Baal’s stronghold.

The amazing thing is what the narrator next says (v. 22): “And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah…” If the subject and object of this sentence were reversed, we would say that Elijah heard the voice of the Lord and we would quite properly understand that Elijah obeyed God. Shall we say the same of the original configuration? Did God obey Elijah?

We should probably be kinder to the theologians. But the idea that God allows us to make certain decisions and then “hears” us through his designated spokesmen is really a marvelous and ennobling response on his part. It’s far more pervasive and persistent than micro-management of the weather. In fact, the “heart” of the sealing authority is another of the many aspects of the love of God, without which we’re really not much at all.

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10 Comments

Filed under Marginalia, Speculation

10 responses to “More Strong Language

  1. Kevin Barney

    Insightful and beautifully written post, Mogget. The first passage you quote makes for a powerful opening to Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.

  2. Mogget

    Ah dang! I clean forgot about that. Let’s all listen to Elijah this PM…

  3. Excellent stuff Mogget.

    I was confused by this sentence though: “We should probably be kinder to the theologians.” How does this fit with the subject at hand?

  4. This is a wonderful post…and Mendelssohn’s Elijah is magnificent.

  5. Mark Butler

    I don’t think the word “obey” is quite right, although “hearken” certainly is.

    “Obey” would imply that Elijah commanded the Lord to do something. Elijah certainly made his case, but one does not command even a judge, the last part is always a “prayer for relief”, a request or entreaty. God saw the justice and wisdom of Elijah’s request, and granted it.

  6. You’re making me think I need to study the OT more.

  7. Comment from the token layperson:

    You open and close this post with something about the “sealing authority”, yet I either don’t know what that is, or fail to see how it relates to the rest.

    I generally think of sealing authority as dealing with temple marriages – the authority to seal for time and eternity.

    Help me become less confused. =)

  8. Mogget

    study the OT

    The OT is the place where the love of God first bubbles up…

    sealing authority = marriage

    So it does. And JS also linked it to Elijah here in 1 Kings. In 1 Ki 17:1, it’s the authority to seal up the heavens. These days, it’s usually marriage and work for the dead. I’ve also heard it mentioned with respect to ending the St. George drought.

    My point is that a good response is less a matter of amazement at Elijah’s power than amazement that God choses not to work alone.

    God saw the justice and wisdom of Elijah’s request

    Hm, well, I think we’re talking about the same thing, but just for the record…

    Since the narrator didn’t use something like “wisdom and justice,” he’s probably not after an appreciation of these traits in God at the moment.

    Here we have a compliance formula, but with a relatively daring variation, which I have [over] highlighted. The point is probably to play up the idea of God’s responsiveness to Elijah.

    be kinder to the theologians

    It means, as Mark points out, that in the process of admiring this little act of theological daring-do, it’s best to moderate any tendency toward extreme positions.

    You can also appreciate this idea from the vantage point of Josh 10:14, reflecting on the day the Sun stood still. This is how the NAB translates it:

    Never before or since was there a day like this, when the LORD obeyed the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.

    The NAB translates 1 Ki 17:22 with “heard,” so it’s reading the passage in Joshua as unique.

    (NAB = New American Bible = modern version used primarily by Catholics)

  9. On the one hand, I could just accept what you’ve told me and move on, but that’s not really how my mind works. Oh, the burdens of intelligence! (And unsurpassed humility!)

    1) It is difficult for me to see how sealing a couple is really related to sealing up the heavens. Unless we’re just talking “power of God.”

    2) Did you have to use the word “heavens” and all that word connotates? =) What you’re really talking about is power over the weather, right? Or is it specifically rain? (or lack thereof) Or, further, does it really mean Heavens, as in, no blessings are forthcoming?

    I don’t have a problem with Elijah being associated with both kinds of sealing – but they’re not really the same, are they?

  10. Pingback: Elijah and the Sealing Power | Times & Seasons, An Onymous Mormon Blog