Contrast in the Elijah Narrative

While studying the Elijah narrative in school last semester, and now once again for Sunday School, I was impressed with the literary flavor the book displays. There are many literary devices and tools by which an author may express him or herself. Some of these devices are given various names. Some use causation as a way of moving a story forward (“Because you have sinned against Yahweh, then…”), others use comparison (“consider the lillies of the field”), etc. etc.

The author of 1 Kings uses the literary device of contrast in both subtle and overt ways. Here are couple of examples I noticed:

1 Kings 17:1-7 compared to 17:8-24. In the first section, Yahweh informs Elijah that he will send a famine upon the land, but that Elijah should be miraculously spared. The ravens (NRSV) feed Elijah. So there’s a little contrast already, albeit subtle. Famine for everyone, except for Elijah.

Then in verses 8-24, Elijah is sent unto Zarephath where a widow was commanded to feed him, which might sound a bit silly because Elijah was already being fed by the ravens. That aside, the contrast begins to grow. This famine was severe, and was sparing no one (except Elijah). We encounter a widow who has a small child and cannot escape her own hunger and has embraced her death. Yahweh’s famine does not even spare the most destitute of the Israelites — a poor widow and her son. So the son dies and Elijah comes to the scene. Now the contrast. The famine brought despair and death, and Elijah brings hope and life. He “revives” her son, they miraculously eat, and the famine is assuaged for the time being. Everybody’s happy. The author sets up the dilemma via contrast, and resolves it. Moving on…

18:20-29. This section we know as the bout between Elijah and the priests of Baal (another contrast). A little bit of background knowledge helps with this section or we might otherwise overlook some of the intricacies within the greater contrast. Baal was to the Canaanites, among other things, typically associated with storms and meteorological fury. Setting up an altar and calling down fire should have been something Baal could have easily accomplished. Baal was a bad, bad dude, and fire was probably one of his favorite weapons in the arsenal. But nothing happened. The verbage is very interesting in 18:29b – “there was no voice, no answer, and no response” (NRSV).

The author then begins a new paragraph at verse 30. In order to present the contrast between the true god of Israel, Yahweh, and the Baals, Elijah constructs a new altar in what may be viewed as a war of deities (another contrast). But he doesn’t stop there. In what should have been an easy task for Baal in sending down fire,* Elijah makes sure that the altar Yawheh would consume is drenched in water, which we know wins the day over fire (v. 36-40). The contrast here is quite overt — that the god(s) of Canaan failed, and that Yahweh did not.

One last contrast (there are many others in the story). If the fire that was utilized to consume Elijah’s altar was indeed brought by lightning (see note below), we can see the contrast between that event and the event in 19:11-12. It doesn’t require us to go back in time and think of ourselves as Israelites in order to understand how loud thunder and lightning can be, especially if the lightning strikes just a few feet away. (I personally have been knocked over while backpacking in the Smokie Mountains by a lightning strike that hit about 50 feet away.) Thunder is LOUD. Remember that the priests of Baal tried their darndest to get Baal to manifest himself, but “there was no voice**, no answer, and no response” (18:29). Yahweh did manifest himself to the priests of Baal through meteorological means, and probably did so with the volume knob turned up all the way (turned up to 11, of course).*** But now, the contrast shows up. This isn’t how Yahweh reveals himself when he is alone with Elijah. He contrasts the manifestation of his power with the altar scene, and with all the noise up on top of the mountain (19:11-12a). The author goes to great lengths to mention how devasting (and noisy?) the wind and earthquakes and all the other stuff must have been. Elijah is even struck with fear. But God manifested himself that day in “the sound of sheer silence.” Contradictory phrasing? Maybe. But it does make a beautiful contrast between the noisy hustle-and-bustle of what we would assume is the typical self-disclosure of Baal and the self-disclosure of Yahweh.

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* The Hebrew word for fire, ‘esh, might also connote “lightning” in this instance, which makes more sense given A) Baal was a storm god, and B) lightning comes down from the sky and leaves fire on the ground. The only problem with my hypothesis here, however, is that there is a distinct word for “lightning” (baqar) in the Hebrew.

** As Mogget pointed out last week, the word for “sound” and “voice” use the same Hebrew word, qol. I don’t necessarily believe they can be interchanged at the (casual) whim of the interpreter, but in this instance, I believe the NRSV should probably have left the word qol in 18:29 as “sound” in order to facilitate the contrast I present here.

*** This comment is only amusing if you’ve ever seen the film Spinal Tap.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Contrast in the Elijah Narrative

  1. Nice work David. I was struck by the literary nature of this whole story as I read through this time too.

  2. Mark Butler

    I have one major objection to the predominant literary analysis of the scriptures, and that is assuming that the mortal author is just making things up, instead of telling the story the way he understands it from God’s perspective.

    To put it bluntly, if anyone is the author or dramatist in events where God is the main actor, it is God himself. He is both author, actor, and director. A veritable poet and playwright.

    The gift of prophetic commentary is that the prophet knows how to interpret divine poetry and convey it to others. Or in the case of a prophet who is an actor, knows the principles of divine poetry well enough, so that he can act extemporanously, according to and consistent with the will and harmony of the overlying direction of the master director and author of the plan of salvation.

    I frankly am sick of the implication that scriptural authors just make things up, like dishonest apologists for something that has no eternal basis, or embellish otherwise ordinary acts, contrary to the actual history, both temporal and spiritual, of the matter. The gift of prophecy is not the gift of imagination or creative embellishment, it is the gift of knowing the unseen spiritual realities, semantics, and poetry behind what some see to be coincidences and freaks of temporality. To see with the eye of faith, the way Enoch did, not just make things up.

  3. Gerald Smith

    Another thing concerning Baal and Ashtoreth, they were symbolically represented by the bull and the tree, respectively. Here, Elijah had his bull sacrifice (Baal) and the wood (Ashtoreth) soaked with water, and still Yahweh was able to destroy the symbols of both gods with fire from heaven.

  4. Good point, Gerald. Even more contrast! Very insightful.

    Mark, I’m working up a post on Israelite historiography, and if you want to do some background reading on it so that it makes some sense, go read William Dever’s What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? Eerdmans, 2001. The idea that the authors of scripture “make things up” is all one can conclude when faced with so little (or even contradictory) archaeological data to back up what was written. Anyway, Dever aptly points out that this should not deter one from believing that the Bible should be thrown out as a portrayal of history — that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. In reality, the Bible works quite well as a historical document, but it is interlaced with the authors’ recollections of the distant past or events that the authors themselves never even experienced first-hand, and also contains a mythological component. As a conservative Mormon (which I assume you are), this might sound upsetting, but once a person gets his/her mind around Israelite aims in writing scripture, the sitz im leben of the text, the social pressure of surrounding cultures (both from within and from without), and the purposes for which ancient holy writ was composed, these ideas actually liberate the reader more than they constrain or “make one sick.” It’s okay that the Bible exaggerates and presents much of its content by way of hyperbole. That’s how stuff was written back then. In this light, the literary analysis employed by exegetes also believes itself to tell “the story the way [the mortal author] understands it from God’s perspective.”

    So for those of us with formal training and education in exegesis (3/4 of the bloggers at FPR), we tend to view the text as a literary document which has specific aims for faithful life and living (much like you do), but instead we like to think of the author’s intent, whether it might be an accurate portrayal of history or not. In a sense, we’re moving beyond the historicity of the text and instead focusing on what it might mean for the believer, and how it should be read in order to extract the greatest possible benefit from it without jeopardizing what was written (through eisegetical intrusion).

    You’re more than welcome to engage the discussion, but please be mindful that you’re in our house. As a guest, you’re welcome to disagree, but it’s probably best to do so with more candor and tact. It seems that as of late, some of your posts have been revoked or deleted off of other blogs, and I’d hate to have to pull the plug on you at FPR as well. You’re an erudite man, we can see that. But it’s probably best during your formative stage in the ‘nacle to make some friends before attacking their area of expertise.

  5. Mogget

    Goodness gracious! Nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses to all the world this AM. Now let’s talk about this:

    if anyone is the author or dramatist in events where God is the main actor, it is God himself

    This is the stuff of theology and philosophy. Narrative-critical approaches do as David J. has done and normally just by-pass the whole issue.

    Now I’m just working on my dissy, so I still have a great deal to learn and many more things to read. But it sounds to me like an imperfect understanding of both purpose and methology.

    My personal viewpoint is this:

    God holds himself responsible for the adequacy of scripture, regardless of who wrote it or what literary techniques their personal abilities and tastes led them to employ.

    Historical-critical methodologies, including narrative-critical readings, help us understand what scripture meant.

    Building on a foundational understanding of what scripture meant, mature reflection and discussion help us undertand what scripture means.

    Love, common sense, and prayer help us figure out what to do about it.

    It’s the Mogget-hermeneutic, ya know! I’m sure it’ll be famous some day.

  6. Mark writes:

    “The gift of prophecy is not the gift of imagination or creative embellishment, it is the gift of knowing the unseen spiritual realities, semantics, and poetry behind what some see to be coincidences and freaks of temporality. To see with the eye of faith, the way Enoch did, not just make things up.”

    Very few authors “just make things up.” It seems to me that you leave little room here for a spectrum of inspiration, scriptural, poetic and literary.

    I think Orson F. Whitney would mainly agree with you. He said that propehts were poets and poets (some poets) were prophets. Of course, he also tended to see poetic inspiration as being just that — inspired.

    I understand that you are mainly reacting to lit-crit analyses of scripture and I agree with you to a certain extent.

    On the other hand, I think it’s clear that no author writes cleanly, purely from God’s perspective. The written or spoken word can’t convey what the spirit can. The mediaiton of words will always lead to slippages in meaning.

  7. Liberated Mogget

    Hm. I thought I caught a whiff of terminological uncertainty this morning and I think it’s getting stronger. Just so we’re all on the same sheet, here’s a thumbnail evolutionary history…

    The expression “literary-critical” is inherently ambiguous.

    In traditional usage, literary criticism is what is now called source criticism, that is, the search for the pre-history of the text by closely reading the text. This work dominated the 19th century. Since these folks were “reading,” their efforts were “literary.”

    The first thing they had to deal with were the repetition, lacuna, and narrative discontinuities always noted in a close reading. They explained much of this by positing different sources. Hence, the conflation of the terms “literary-criticism” and “source-criticism.”

    Form criticism, which followed source criticism in the early 20th century, was also concerned with pre-history, and usually with an oral pre-history. Folks who worked with this stuff considered the authors of scripture mostly as compilers and conveyer of the material passed on to them.

    Redaction criticism followed form criticism, asking how the authors of scripture altered the traditional material they received to suit their own theological interests and agendas.

    Folks who are interested in an explicit understanding of the interweaving of inspiration and authorial contributions usually assign some part of both the selection of sources and forms, with their alterations, to inspiration. Personally, I assume it without much conscious effort.

    Eventually, the redaction critics were so successful in identifying the highly creative and original contributions each author made in their use of traditional or original material that it became impossible to consider the authors anything but authors in the same sense that we use that word for the authors of non-biblical works.

    Since the authors are authors, applying extra-biblical methods used in the study of narrative prose to the biblical text has proven fruitful. Since the folks who do this sort of work in the extra-biblical world are called literary critics, students of the Bible sometimes also use this label. It’s probably best, however, to call these effort narrative criticism in order to avoid the confusion now associated with the term “literary criticism.”

    Narrative-critical efforts are, however, sometimes faulted when they assume the unity of a work rather than doing what can be done to show the existence of a unified narrative regardless of an author’s use of sources. The most important step in showing a unified narrative is probably demonstrating a consistent narrator-presence across the work.

    So…to date, there’s been no literary-critical analysis in the traditional usage. David J.’s work with contrast as a literary device is really a narrative-critical approach. If he goes to work on a historiographical piece, source-critical issues may well surface, as also a comparison of the text to archeological evidence or other records from the same time and place.

    To me, it’s not so much a matter of what I like or don’t like, but of a text and associated body of material that must be dealt with. Sometimes, the best explanation is simply “I don’t know.” Sometimes other answers are possible, each with an associated level of [usually high] uncertainty.

    Maybe it’s just me. I don’t mind uncertainty. But I don’t think that I could call myself much of a student of scripture if I deliberately ignored important evidence or refused to deal honestly with whatever “facts” or evidence might exist. In my freedom to closely examine and confront the text, I feel no need to apologize for either the text or any external evidence. In this sense I, like David J., find historical-critical approaches very liberating.