Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. (1 Kings 19.3-4)
The Yahweh Alone Movement
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong, is a must-read for any believer eager to understand the roots of our faith. Ms. Armstrong, a former nun, now theological historian par excellence, tracks the near-simultaneous evolution of Western and Eastern creeds during the Axial Age (900-200 BCE), when the advent of horsepower, farming, and centralized government gave rise to communal beliefs meant to counteract violence and injustice. Overall, her book is stunning in how it parallels the ways ancient religions independently arrived at irrefutably similar conclusions. Christians, of course, find its chronicle of Judaism’s early years especially intriguing—often breathtaking, as Ms. Armstrong documents many lost details that were well known to the Old Testament’s first readers. With these facts restored, it’s fairly obvious why they’ve gone missing. They’re terribly inconvenient to anyone seeking a clean-cut, eternally established theological through-line. Judaism, like the people to whom it was given, took a while to get its bearings. Reintroducing that side of the story mucks the whole thing up.
Chapter one delivers the first wallop by verifying the Jews weren't inherently monotheistic. At first, like their neighbors, they revere and pray to numerous gods, many borrowed from other cultures. The major departure lay in Israel’s belief in a God (Yahweh) above and apart from other gods that vacates any need for intricate myths about multiple deities. Thus, when God declares, “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20.3) Israel hears something unlike what we hear today. The First Commandment acknowledges other gods by setting the celestial house in order. Then, to maintain order, the Second bans depiction of other gods to prevent idolatrous cults from challenging God’s supremacy. The “Yahweh Alone Movement”—as scholars refer to the reformation that discarded all but one God, and worshiped Him as All-in-All—doesn’t emerge until 700 years after Moses. It peaks at a crucial time, when devotion splits between Yahweh and Baal, a lesser deity preferred by Israel’s foreign-born queen, Jezebel. To the average Hebrew, Baal’s ascent isn’t a big deal; the god has been a fixture in Jewish life longer than anyone can recall. Elijah, a prophet on the cusp of the Movement, won’t tolerate the tilt to Baal, however. And he’s not a guy who moans privately to friends about what has to change. He’s a first-rate crusader who makes a lot of racket and causes a lot of trouble—not only for Jezebel and her allies, but also for him.
Quit Running and Hiding
Jezebel’s got her eye on Elijah. Yet his office as God’s anointed messenger vests him with divine say-so that trumps her husband, Ahab’s, royal clout. It vexes her that she can't do anything about this One-True-God zealot who won’t get with her program. Then, when draught hits the nation and her pro-Baal following starts to slip, Elijah proves his God’s superiority in an over-the-top demonstration that gets out of hand. He incites a nationwide manhunt for Baal’s prophets and slaughters them. Although God honors Elijah’s faithfulness and pours rain down on Israel, the prophet knows this time he’s gone too far. The gruesome genocide garners him no support and hands Jezebel cause for his execution. (If their rivalry played out today, we could hear Jezebel’s ads: “Elijah insists we obey the First Commandment his way by abandoning Baal for Yahweh. But what about the Sixth Commandment: ‘You shall not murder?’ That one doesn’t matter to him. Is this the kind of prophet we need?”)
Elijah behaves like most publically disgraced figures. He disappears. He’s run out of answers and run down from the struggle. The rush of triumph is long gone. He lost the surge of support he should have won by exposing his intolerance and pride. The race is over, the Movement finished. There’ll be no change. Jezebel’s people will eventually find him and that will be that. He heads into the desert and sits under a broom tree—an oversized bush that offers protection from sun but no fruit or moisture to sustain him. Elijah confesses, “I’ve had enough, Lord,” adding, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19.4) Or, “I’ve been this loud-mouthed leader of a Movement that says You control everything. Yet I've acted like I’m so threatened by other gods I have to kill anyone who serves them. At heart, I’m just another old-school polytheist.” He goes to sleep. Twice, an angel visits Elijah under the tree with food and water. The second time, the angel tells him, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (v7) Elijah starts a 40-day trek that ends in a cave—still on the run, still hiding out. But God finds him again, instructing him to quit running and hiding. “You’ve got a lot more work to do,” He says to Elijah, “new prophets to groom and a Movement to lead. You’re not alone. You’re not defeated. Right now, there are 7,000 in Israel who’ve not bowed their knees to Baal.” (v15-18)
Under the Broom Tree
If we’ve not yet been to the broom tree, we’ll get there sooner or later. At some point, personal convictions and confidence in God will compel us to cry out for change. We’ll see situations tilt away from what He desires. We’ll feel attitudes resist the move of His Spirit. We’ll observe people we love and live with embrace traditions and myths that steal their devotion to Him. We’ll act, and God will honor our faithfulness. But in the moment of triumph, we must be very mindful not to let zeal and pride run away with us. God controls everything. He doesn’t need us to rout His enemies. They’re no threat to Him. All He asks is we prove Who He is. He’ll handle the rest. And if, like Elijah, we stumble over our confidence and land under the broom tree, we take heart. Our loss becomes our lesson. God’s grace will provide what we need. We’re not alone. We’re not defeated. Change we seek will happen. Just when we say, “I’ve had enough, Lord. I’m no better than anybody else,” He says, “Not so. Quit running and hiding. Get up. You’ve got a lot more to do because there’s a lot more to come.”
In our zeal for change, we take care not to stumble over our confidence and land under the broom tree. But if we do—and we all do at some time or another—God’s grace provides what we need to get up and keep going.