Updated: Jan 26
Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
This is an optional Old Testament selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B 2018. In the numbering system that lists each Sunday in an ordinal fashion, this Sunday is referred to as Proper 14. If chosen, it will next be read aloud in an Episcopal church by a reader on Sunday August 12, 2018. It is important because it tells of the power of spiritual food that comes from sacrifice for God.
This selection seems odd, when viewed in the context of the chapters surrounding it. It reminds me of the vision Abraham had of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, where angels visited Lot’s family and the native people there were so evil that God had the cities destroyed. I say that because both that story from Genesis does not match the mundane story told of Abraham rescuing Lot from the kings of the five cities on the plain. This story in 1 Kings 19 also seems to be dream sequence, rather than actual events, simply because the before and after do not match.
I say this because 1 King 18 tells of Elijah’s ‘sacrificial calf cook off’ against 450 priests of Ba’al. Jezebel’s prophets lost both the challenge to have their god light their altar wood and their lives. Even after letting the Baal priests have a head-start, while dousing his wood and sacrificial animal with water, Elijah won. Yahweh lit his altar’s fire.
After the contest was over, Elijah had all 450 prophets of Ba’al killed in the Kishon Valley (1 Kings 18:40). Ahab witnessed this and the people of Israel’s response , who saw Elijah’s fire be lit by God. We read, “they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39)
They said, “Yahweh elohim,” not “Ba’al.” The people, including Ahab, recognized the God of Israel was the only supreme deity. They recognized Elijah as a prophet of that Almighty God. Thus, they would be fools to go against that God and His prophet.
Additionally, prior to that contest, Elijah had met with Obadiah, who had hidden one hundred prophets of Israel in two caves (fifty prophets in each cave), and there was nothing that says either Ahab or Jezebel knew where those prophets were. In 1 Kings 19, prior to these verses read above, Ahab told Jezebel that her prophets had been killed and she threatened to have Elijah killed that day. While nothing said she planned to kill or had killed in response all the prophets of Israel, in 19:10, Elijah told God he was the only prophet left, which could only be true if he was seeing the future in a dream.
It is also important to see the symbolism of sleep and death, which coincides with Elijah’s statement to God, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Thanatos The Greek poet Hesiod established in his Theogony that Thánatos is a son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness) and twin of Hypnos (Sleep).
Following that surrender of his self, Elijah then went to sleep. The angel’s presence, twice, can then be seen as similar to the angels that were present in the tomb of Jesus. This possibility of a death dream sequence makes Elijah’s seeming ascension without death become more like the ascension of Jesus, following his death and resurrection, aided by angels.
The bread and water provided by the angel is like Jesus being attended by angels while he was in the wilderness, after he encountered Satan. The angels also fed Jesus the spiritual food that allowed him to last forty days and nights in the wilderness. This is then the same as the manna and water from the rock that nourished the Israelites spiritually during forty years of wandering
This means this chapter is Elijah’s talk with God after his symbolic death, but before his taking Elisha to be his replacement. He could have actually died and been reborn by the angel’s touch, replenished by the food and water from heaven. This transformation also acts to explain the unnamed prophet of 1 Kings 20, who asked other prophets to strike him with a sword, as a resurrected Elijah would be appearing as someone other than himself, just as Jesus did when he resurrected.
The forty days and forty nights spent in the wilderness without food or drink is then a parallel to Moses on Mount Horeb, as well as Jesus in the wilderness prior to beginning his ministry. It then is parallel to the Transfiguration of Jesus on the high mountain, when Peter, James and John (of Zebedee) saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. These comparisons make Moses, Elijah and Jesus like souls as they all submitted fully to the will of God. They are then the models of whom all followers should become, where sleep and death are symbolic of one’s sacrifice of self-ego.
When we read that Elijah ended one day in the wilderness by sitting “under a solitary broom tree,” we need to realize the timing of night, when sleep normally takes place. If the temperatures turned cooler at night, it is possible that this tree supplied wood to burn for warmth. If so, it is good to known that a broom tree is also a juniper tree, as the Hebrew word “rō·ṯem” implies.
According to the symbolic nature of a juniper tree is its wood is not good for fast burning, but for slow burning and the release of aromatic scents. According to one site, the smoke of juniper wood, “was used for the ritual purification of temples. The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance, and continued to be burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the Otherworld.” This aspect can then be seen as why Elijah “asked that he might die.”
As a dream sequence, more than an actual event, the wilderness represents Elijah embarking on a journey where he has had all the prophets of Jezebel killed and is aware of her threat to have him killed in response. Rather than risk death at the hands of an evil queen, the symbolism is Elijah praying for the LORD to take his soul, regardless of what physical punishment Jezebel can cause. The response of that prayer is the presence of a guardian angel sent by God to nourish one with spiritual food and living water, thus enabling one to withstand any persecution that may arise.
As an alternate reading selection for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, when one’s personal ministry for the LORD should be underway – one is on a journey into uncharted waters, no longer following the desires of personal ego – the message of Elijah is willing sacrifice. It is up to each individual to ask God that he or she might die of self-importance, so an angel of the LORD can be sent to assist one on one’s journey. That angel can be understood as being God’s Holy Spirit.
Again, it is most important when reading Scripture not to get caught up in the antiquity and seeing no comparison in a modern world. While our mind’s eye might see a desertscape in southern Judah, in a place so barren that only one prickly shrub is around, this wilderness is no different than a life in the world today that is void of true commitment to Yahweh – the LORD elohim (God of gods). One has to be willing to place oneself in the sandals of Elijah and feel the fear of living in a place that scorns prophets of the One God. One has to be able to see the solitary broom tree as one’s own soul amid a barren setting, where survival is impossible alone. One needs God’s help; and the first step towards that grace is realizing a big brain cannot lead a soul to eternal happiness.
The setting in which one finds Elijah is void of any external source of support. This says that no matter how many people, institutions, or holy places one puts trust and value in, when death comes and one’s soul is separated from one’s flesh, there will be only God and His reckoning of one’s soul. One will become accountable for all of one’s misgivings in a life. However, if one seeks this redemption prior to one’s physical death, one can die of self and then be resurrected to serve God’s needs in the world of flesh.
A minister of the LORD has made this sacrifice and knows the value that the presence of God within brings. One becomes a presence among those who have yet to show their trust in God, much less give up their self-importance for the unseen and intangible. Much of this can be a ministry of spreading the truth of Scripture in a way that makes it both profoundly believable and personally enlightening. Anyone who teaches, ministers, preaches, and prophesies can only make a doorway become available for a seeker to open and enter. That threshold is the wilderness and entering into service of the LORD requires one sit under that broom tree and request God to accept one’s soul as His servant.
Text copyright by Robert Tippett