Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prophetic Vision

2 Kings 1-2

The first part of 2 Kings tells the rest of the story of Elijah. First, the next king of Israel, Ahaziah, falls through a lattice and is injured. He sends prophets to Baal, to find out whether he will recover or die. Elijah hears of this, and is horrified that the king is looking to Baal rather than the true God of Israel, and sends word to the king that because of this, he will die. And so the king dies (2 Kings, Chapter 1).

The final story about Elijah is his dramatic death, as witnessed by Elisha. A chariot of fire and horses of fire come, and Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha inherits his powers and becomes his successor (2 Kings, Chapter 2).

But you have to read the stories to get the full effect. Both of these stories are dramatic and filled with supernatural demonstrations of God's power expressed through the prophetic voices of Elijah and Elisha. Sometimes the power harms or destroys the people who are opposed to the true God (Ahaziah, the first two companies of men sent by Ahaziah to talk with Elijah, and the boys who taunt Elisha). Other times the power just dazzles (the parting of the waters). Other times, the power brings forth something clearly good (the purification of water).

When I was a child, I would watch movies about Bible stories. These movies portrayed such supernatural events literally and dramatically. I remember feeling sad and confused about why such events used to happen but now no longer happen. I remember thinking that it is so much harder now to figure out what is right and what is wrong, because God does not give messages so clearly any more.

Children often do see the world as infused with magic, and so the supernaturalism in Biblical stories is very believable. (Watching movie portrayals probably helps make the stories believable!)

In today's modern world, we expect children to reckon with reality and lose this sense of "magic" as part of normal maturation. So my memory can be seen as a transition to that more "realistic" understanding of the world. A lot of people lose their faith at this point. They feel disillusioned at the realization that these stories could not really have been "true," and then question all of what they are taught about religious faith. "It's all mere supersition," they conclude.

But somehow the path I took turned out to be different (though not unique). Somehow it did not occur to me that my noticing that life was different now than how it was portrayed in the Bible suggested that there is no God. Instead, I seized upon the idea that God was simply speaking to us differently now. And so I began a quest to understand how God speaks to us now.

When, later, I came upon Quakers, and found a whole community who still believes that God has come to speak to his people himself (to quote George Fox), I was amazed. This community affirmed my quest, and also provided access to more perspectives on the subject, and to an experiential process that hones our powers of discernment.

Now I do see the world as infused with supernatural drama. The supernaturalism in the Bible does not seem fantastical and hard to believe. Instead, I find myself nodding, and thinking, "yes, that is how it is." Maybe these things don't always happen literally and exactly as portrayed, but the sense of drama, power, and meaning that they portray does reflect a spiritual backdrop to everyday events that many people may miss, but nevertheless is really there and quite apparent to the discerning eye.

I think that this is what prophetic vision really is: the ability to perceive the spiritual significance of everyday life.

Monday, August 03, 2009

King vs. Prophets

1 Kings 17-22

The rest of 1 Kings seems to feature the relationship between one king of Israel, Ahab, and prophets, especially a prophet named Elijah. Ahab and his wife Jezebel are portrayed as especially bad.

Elijah

Elijah tries to tell Ahab that the droughts they are suffering are because of not following the proper way. Then Elijah goes away as if to hide. I am guessing that the news was not received well. (In fact, we later find out that Ahab's wife Jezebel tried to put the prophets of the Lord to death. She still had prophets she liked, but they were prophets who served Baal and Asherah.) At first, Elijah hides in the wilderness. Then a poor widow takes him in, and miraculously her jar of meal and her jug of oil never run out while he stays with her during the drought (17:16). He also heals her ailing son (17:17-24).

In the third year of the drought, Elijah receives word from the Lord that he should visit Ahab again and let him know the drought is about to end (Chapter 18). So he does return to Ahab. Ahab calls him "troubler of Israel" (18:17), but Elijah answers: "I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father's house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals" (18:18). Now he offers a challenge. He challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to prepare a burnt offering and get Baal to provide fire for the offering. He alone will also prepare another burnt offering, and will get the Lord to provide fire for his burnt offering.

The prophets of Baal fail. Elijah succeeds. Furthermore, the droughts end (18:19-46).

The people are awed, but this display of God's power still doesn't bring Ahab, Jezebel, or all of the people back to the proper way. Elijah has all of the prophets of Baal killed; Jezebel then sends him a threatening message, so he goes back into hiding. He is in a bit of despair now. Indeed, the the reader cannot help but wonder why, after all that, Ahab, Jezebel, and the people were not all converted! What does it take? What more can one do?

But the Lord does not let Elijah just give up and die. An angel rouses him and gives him food and drink to prepare him for the 40-day journey to the mount of God, where he is to wait for the Lord to pass by.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (19:11-13).
The Lord speaks to him, letting him know of future kings of Aram and Israel, and letting him know too that Elisha will become prophet in Elijah's place. He also lets him know that there will still be seven thousand in Israel who remain faithful.

Elijah departs, finds Elisha along the way, and throws his mantle over him, thereby designating him his successor.

Israel vs. Aram

Now there are stories of conflict brewing and igniting between Israel and Aram. Other prophets appear and help guide Israel to victory in the first couple of battles (20:1-30). The king of Aram, Ben-hadad, flees, but, hearing that "the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings" (20:31), becomes contrite and asks that his life be spared, and it is: a treaty is forged between Aram and Israel (20:34). But another prophet chastises the king of Israel for this (20:35-43).

In the next chapter, Ahab wants a man's vineyard because it is near his house and would make a nice vegetable garden. But the man, Naboth, cannot allow this because it is forbidden to give away or sell ancestral inheritance. So Jezebel arranges to have Naboth killed so that Ahab can have the vineyard. Elijah hears of this and chastises Ahab. Ahab is remorseful and so does not have to suffer disaster in his own lifetime -- instead the foretold disasters will happen in his son's days (Chapter 21).

In the final chapter of 1 Kings, after three years of peace with Aram, the king of Israel decides it is time to fight Aram in order to claim Ramoth-gilead, which he believes is supposed to belong to Israel. King Jehoshaphat of Judah is visiting, and so Ahab asks him to join them in this venture. Jehoshaphat says, "let's check with the Lord, first." So, the court prophets are consulted, all of whom agree that this should go well. Suspicious, Jehoshaphat says, "are there any more prophets we should be checking with?" Ahab says, "There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster" (22:8). "That's who we want then!" Jehoshaphat, in effect, replies. So they call him in, and Micaiah in fact says, "it's not going to work" (22:17).

Of course they go ahead and fight anyway. Ahab is a bit worried that Micaiah might be right, and so disguises himself (22:30), but he still does end up getting killed (22:37). Jehoshaphat survives, and in fact is a pretty good king of Judah, following the ways of the Lord, but, like many of the kings of Judah, still not quite eradicating the bad ways of the people fully. Furthermore, in his reign he makes peace with Israel (22:44).

Ahaziah, son of Ahab, reigns in Israel after his father's death, but continues to follow Baal, so things still do not look promising for Israel. And Jehoram succeeds Jehoshaphat as king of Judah.

Thus ends 1 Kings.

I find myself kind of sad for Ahab. The accounts of him seem to portray him not as a particularly horrible man himself (the bad things that happen are really Jezebel's doing). In fact, he seems to understand that the prophets that most alarm him are the ones who are right. He seems tragically caught between two opposing forces, unable to fully stand up for what he seems secretly to believe is true.