There is a scene in the film The Little Prince where the mother discovers the Aviator’s story (hand-written on a piece of parchment) in her daughter’s room and tosses it into the garbage. The mother insists that her daughter put aside such silly, childhood distractions and focus on what really matters- the finely detailed life plan that is conveniently hanging on the kitchen wall.
What I found compelling about this scene is the way it uses the image of a wall to symbolize the distance this action creates between mother and daughter. The massive hole in the living room caused by the stray propeller of the aviator neighbor (along with the ensuing action of taping it off and covering it up) awakens us to the figurative language of the relational struggles that push the story forward.
The image of the wall is an allegory, of course, one that also pushes out into the films broader social context. The cold, gray, calculated sameness of the upper-class suburban grid in which they now live, along with the large, looming fence that shelters them from the inconvenience of their neighbor’s view, call us to consider all of the ways in which our own societal structures divide and isolate us from one another. The beauty of this image in The Little Prince is the way it shows just how pervasive and persistent these walls are, both underneath the narrative of the film and in our personal, everyday lives.
From Prince to Prophet
It was during a time of personal reflection on the “walls” that I have managed to build over the course of my own life, that I was reminded of another story, the story of Elijah the Tishbite (I Kings 17-19; 2 Kings 1-2), a man I was privileged to spend some quality time with a few years back.
“The Kingdom of Israel is a broken pot, its shards beyond repair. Contradictions yield to gravity’s pull. Like a weakened wall the kingdom wavers, then falls. Falls northward, falls southward. Israel divides in two.”
– Daniel Berrigan, page 92 (The Kings and Their Gods)
Elijah arrives (rather abruptly) in the middle of a divided kingdom (1 Kings 17:1). The Israelite people find themselves (once again) caught in a place of disunity and dysfunction, and this division (1 Kings 12:16-20) leads to more division (1 Kings 16:21). Elijah has been purposed to call them back to a unified vision of who they are in God’s great story (17:1).
Trained to see him as something of a miracle worker and a hero (he was blessed with super speed after all), I was surprised in my own personal study to find a man who was decidedly human and desperately flawed. Not unlike the Prince himself, who ends up lost in the desert of his own existential questions, the victor of an epic fire-making contest of the gods on the mountaintop (I Kings 17:20-40) quickly gives way to the picture of a lost soul wandering a desert of his own making. The struggle that emerges from within this rather surprising twist in Elijah’s story sadly evaded me for years. But as I revisited it with a fresh set of eyes I found some important lessons for helping me see and understand the walls in my own life.
1. THE WALLS I BUILD ALWAYS BEGIN WITH A QUESTION
Both the story of the Little Prince and the biblical figure of Elijah revolve around a motivating question. For The Little Prince it is the question of “who I am” in a complicated and scary world. For Elijah this question is pushed further, connecting this search for self with a concern for who God is.
Fretheim, in his commentary on First and Second Kings, notes that the primary concern of Elijah’s story is not simply to say that Yahweh is God, but rather to say something about the character of God, or who this God is
Ultimately, as both stories go on to say, it is the way in which we answer these questions that often determines whether we are engaged in the practice of building walls or tearing them down.
2. FEAR LIMITS THE WAY I AM ABLE TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS
When it comes to my own questions, I have a tendency to limit my view of the world (to something manageable, safe and less risky) and then allow that limited view to define my response.
The problem for me is that this limited view tends far too often towards the material- success, money, status, power, accomplishment- all of which seem to consistently let me down. This notion is not altogether unfamiliar to the competing societies that surround Elijah and his ministry.
While these material goals might appear attractive in the moment, even affording me the illusion of having power and control over my circumstance when things happen to be going well, in the end, all it usually does is reveal the ways I fail to measure up to the greater status and success of others.
Worse yet, it hides the real reason I choose these things to define me in the first place- I am fearful of having no control or power over my circumstance altogether.
In The Little Prince we find the story of a mother who, fueled by a hope for her daughter’s future, becomes distracted by materialistic dreams (and the fear of being unable to achieve these dreams). This fear gets in the way of what she really desires, showing that the materialistic dreams were really more about her rather than her daughter.
For Elijah, he begins with the dream (or hope) that the people would turn their hearts back to God after seeing His power put on display (18:37), however when God’s power does come (and the people do turn), fear causes his name to be associated with their slaughter (18:40) rather than their saving. This seeming contradiction between heart and action is puzzling, but the more I consider it the more I begin to see the ways in which his question (who is God) and his hopeful disposition (for the people to see who God is as sustainer and provider of all) also reveal a fear that seems to be standing in the way of his true desire for the people.
What did Elijah fear?
Perhaps the most striking and revealing moment in Elijah’s story comes after he has fled to the desert, where we find him asking God to take his life.
“Kill me now for I am no better than my fathers”.
This statement is interesting as it leads me to wonder when Elijah started to compare himself to others?
The term “fathers”, as best as I’ve been able to understand it, most likely refers to the prophetic tradition to which he belongs (perhaps even to Moses, to be even more specific). And what it reveals is a man who appears to be struggling with the weight of the role he is expected to play (in this world), and the feeling that he has failed to live into this role in a meaningful way. In verse 3 we even read that he lets his servant go, a move that emphasizes the fact that, in this moment, he firmly believes his ministry and his life are done.
The idea that Elijah is feeling this burdened should not necessarily come as a surprise. Before we arrive at this point in the story we have already heard Elijah voicing his fear of being the “only one left” who sees the true character of God (18:22). This is, of course, the same fear that he reiterates to God in the desert. Underneath the mountaintop sequence, we find other clues that help foreshadow this eventual spiral downwards, such as the not so subtle taunting he exhibits by asking the people to pour water, a precious commodity in the midst of a famine, on to his fire pit.
What begins as a concern for others (17:3-4; 17:8-6) and a concern for life (17:17-24) gives way to an overwhelming concern for how others were perceiving him as a prophet. This eventually leads him to neglect God’s concern for the life and provision of the people (18:40) and exchange it instead for a picture of death and a concern for his own circumstance (18:40).
“We and our Baals. The gods of the culture—invoke, stroked, placated. A dementia of death lies heavy on us… Death as an acceptable social method, invariably cloaked in military overtones and metaphors, and these wildly and publicly approved.
Thus we are rid of enemies, adversaries, delinquents, the aged and the unproductive, the criminalized, the unwanted unborn. And lately, of terrorists and the regions that protect them… the god invoked, not when other ways have failed—rather, when alternatives are ignored and contemned.
Implied in our oingoing predicament is a socialized, functional despair, a loss of nerve, despair of goodness and reciprocity and the skills of give-and-take, plan speech and respectful listening, the search for human ways of organizing our common life in the world.”
– Daniel Berrigan, 98/99
Where once Elijah was instructing the widow to “fear not”, he is now running for fear himself.
Moving From the Mountain to the Desert
How often do I find myself in this place? The truth is, far more often than I care to admit.
For me, the struggle has been learning how to deal with an anxiety disorder that has managed to rule my life for far too long. (One of) the problems with anxiety is that it amplifies worry and elevates the perceived need to control our circumstance. In fact, one of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder is obsessing over the stuff that I cannot control, something that always seems to push me further into my own insecurities and depression rather than alleviating it. It’s a vicious cycle that builds walls between others and myself, and I remain very much aware of how destructive these walls can be when it comes to living into the expectations of outside relationships. In this sense, the legacy of my 40 years on this earth might not include a mass slaughter, but the slaughter does manage to be a fitting metaphor for the many ways in which I have failed in these relationships. This is why sometimes it is easier to long for the desert rather than resist it, as I know I need to to do.
What the story of Elijah revealed to me is that, while the questions born out of my struggle with anxiety do reflect a sincere love and concern for others (realizing this has been an important step for me), the true challenge has been learning to keep these questions from driving me further into myself.
3. MY HIDDEN INSECURITIES CAUSE ME TO ANSWER MY QUESTIONS BY BUILDING WALLS RATHER THAN TEARING THEM DOWN
As Elijah moves further and further into the desert, we find the powerful demonstration on the mountaintop giving way to the rather humbling picture of a supernaturally inspired storm in the desert (wind, fire and earthquake). This event allows him to see the storm that has been raging inside of his own need to find the approval of others.
As the desert storm subsides we are afforded a moment of pause in the stories movement, a moment in which God finally gets Elijah’s attention. Here Elijah finds the God he has been searching for- a God who longs to forgive, a God who desires to see the prophet rather than the failure, and a God who desires to free him from the need to measure up to others.
In the calm of the storm, we find Elijah being reminded of the hopeful disposition that marks the beginning of his story. The hopes he had for the people and their relationship with God- forgiveness, love, provision, freedom- reveals his inability to experience these things for himself first.
Without personally resting in God’s promise to provide, forgive and love, he is unable to see these same promises being afforded to others. This builds a wall between Elijah and the people. Thankfully God’s concern for His people reaches far beyond our walls. This is good news for the world, but perhaps even better news for Elijah.
Learning How To See Beyond The Wall
In Elijah’s Story the promise for oil and flour comes in one person, but then extends over the lands. This is how God’s promise works, for one person for the world.
– Tim Keller
The real challenge is learning to see beyond our circumstance when all of life seems to be pushing it back into view. Elijah’s narrative begins with a story of provision, both for himself and for the widow, and the first act of God in the desert is also to provide in 19:5. Elijah had taken his eyes off the truth of who he was in God’s eyes, and in the process builds a wall between himself and the people. This leaves him struggling with a feeling of hopelessness over his situation, and causes him to be associated with the peoples slaughter rather than their saving. He can no longer see God as the provider, and no longer hopes for God to provide for others.
But there is hope beyond the wall, hope beyond this limited vision; and it begins with God showing Elijah that he is not alone on this journey (19:19).
The Thing That Truly Defines Us
Our careers can’t define us. Our financial and social status can’t define us. Our successes do not have the power to determine our worth and our failures do not determine our worthlessness.
So why do I continue to believe that it can and that it does? Perhaps because the alternative feels far too risky:
As God shows Elijah, and as we discover in the story of the Prince, relationships (with God and others) is the only thing that can truly define us. It is only in relationship that we can discover our true worth. When we accept others we can then learn how to accept ourselves.
But as Elijah shows, the opposite is also true. When we reject ourselves (based on not being good enough or powerful enough), we also tend to also reject others, thus losing sight of who we are and tearing down others in the process.
In order to learn how to love unconditionally, we must also be willing to be loved unconditionally as we are.
The true power of relationship (family, marriage, friendship, communities, church) is the way it reminds us of our common human need- the need to know others and the need to be known by others; and also our common human nature- in which we are all equal in our need to know and be known regardless of our successes and our failures. Recognizing this can then allow us to embrace our differences.
Elijah finds this in God. The promise to forgive, to provide without prejudice, and to love unconditionally gives him the confidence he needs to share his story of the desert with others. By sharing his story (of being known and loved by God without measure) he can then begin to share this promise with others.
We are called to do the same, no matter where we find ourselves- whether we are on the mountaintop or lost in the desert. It is through this that God can then push us back out into the world in order to share in our commonness and celebrate our differences.
4. TEARING DOWN MY WALLS REQUIRES GIVING UP CONTROL OF WHAT I CANNOT CONTROL
When we find ourselvs unable to accept the truth that God has provided, forgiven and loved us, we end up having a hard time accepting this truth for others. This is exactly where we find Elijah, blaming the Israelite people in what becomes his final defense to God (19:10). The belief that he is not good enough for God causes him to dwell on the ways that others are not good enough for God.
When God meets Elijah in the desert he humbles him by showing him that this is not the way His provision works. Elijah does not get to control who is in and who is out of God’s saving grace. He is loved in order that he may show others that they are loved, and this love arrives (in the form of provision, fogiveness and care) without condition. This is what it means to give up control and fall into God’s grace.
Over the past while I have come to recognize that the walls that I build matter not because they are helpful in defining who I am (they most certainly are not) or even in keeping me safe from unwelcome intrusions (an allusion at best), but rather because they keep me from the risky business of knowing others, knowing God and knowing myself.
Giving up control is never easy, but giving up control is the only way to begin tearing down my walls. I must learn to fall further into God’s grace every day so that this grace can also be given to others.
The Questions that Unite Us
In both The Little Prince and the story of Elijah, the act of questioning is not presented as a negative. These questions often become the starting point for recognizing where our walls exist and how we can best begin to tear them down. They also help to remind us that we are not alone in our struggle.
In The Little Prince, the daughter comes to discover her neighbor, and in the process helps give light to the Aviator’s story. In doing so they both come to realize how much they share in common, even across the generational divide, and this flows outwards into the relationship with her mother.
In the story of Elijah we are called to consider the ways in which it connects us to the story of Israel. The image of the desert, the picture of the mountain and of the prophet looking for God to “pass him by”. The setting of the Jordan River, the great miracles of Elijah’s story- they are all intended to bring us back to the memory of Moses and the previous desert wanderings of the Israelite people.
Here, both Elijah’s story and the story of Moses remind us of their shared question:
Who is God? God is the one who provides and provided. He is the one who called the people to a new vision of the world, one in which the Abrahamic covenant is able to reach into all the nations of the earth.
These same images also push us ahead to Jesus, who wandered the desert as the true embodiment of this new vision now being made complete. Christ the miracle maker, Christ on the mountaintop, Christ at the Transfiguration seeing God pass Him by- Jesus brings light to the world beyond our walls and calls us to share in his example.
Elijah’s story reminds us that the God/Human relationship is a movement, one that is moving us from our world out in to the world.”
– Tim Keller
Learning To Live Beyond The Wall Together
Elijah also reminds us of our shared failings in living this out.
When Elijah first shows up in the desert, God’s response is “what are you doing here?” The question feels rhetorical. It also feels painfully familiar, as if to say “how did we end up back here again?” The story of the Israelite people essentially reflects the same old story, one that persists throughout the story of Jesus’ disciples, the early Church and into our modern day.
But hope remains. Just as Israel moved in and out of God’s provision and was called to reform, I also continue to build walls when I should be tearing them down. There is comfort in knowing that I am not alone in this struggle, that I am in good company. There is comfort in knowing that it is not about getting things perfect and right.
As the story of The Little Prince reminds us, it is in our commonness that we are afforded our uniqueness. And as Elijah shows us, our commonness is found in a God who works in our weakness, a God who cares enough to call us to keep going, both for our sake and for the sake of a diverse world.
A Further Word on The Problem of the Slaughter
This part of the story has admittedly puzzled many over the years. Who is it that killed the prophets of Baal? Was it Elijah himself (as it seems to suggest in 18:40), the Israelite people (which Elijah seems to evoke in his personal defense to God in 19:10; 19:14), or was it God (or the spirit of God) working through a human conduit?
While God does not sanction or command the slaughter in chapter 18, we certainly are left to wrestle with the fact that He appears to be associated with a later command to see Elijah’s successor’s finish what he started (19:15-17). But more on this later.
The primary concern with God’s association is of course about our ability to reconcile such violent acts with the question of God’s good character. Adding to the problem is the fact that most scholars recognize the slaughter in light of the Deuteronomic Law, God’s commanding decree for how the new covenant community must now strive to live. According to the law of Moses, false prophets (and the worship of false idols) required the sentence of death (Deuteronomy 13:5; 13:13-18, 17:2-5 and 18:9-22).
So how can we approach the problem of the slaughter?
1. Understanding Hyperbole and Polemic: Discussion of the Deuteronomic history aside (and certainly there are some excellent voices out there that can help bring perspective to the Deuteronomic history, community and development), one approach for reading the story of Elijah in specific is to recognize the story as hyperbole (exaggerated stories or details which are intended to be symbolic rather than literal, which certainly does fit with the use of such concrete and static numbers as the ones we find in Elijah’s story).
As hyperbole, the account in 1 Kings reflects the intent of the authors/editors to be presenting a polemic against the foreign gods and kingdoms that surrounded Israel. A polemic is either an attack against an opposing idea or a way to simply set oneself apart from an opposing idea. Certainly, the more we discover from archeological research the more evidence there seems to be for the pervasiveness of multiple pagan cultures that existed within the early Israelite community.
It is also worth noting that, closely connected to this theory of hyperbole is the presentation of the Elijah story as common legend or myth.
There are many stories in the biblical narrative that share similarities with other pagan myths, to be sure; but there are some problems with considering this approach for Elijah.
First, in the literary context of the stories Jewish origins, Elijah the prophet doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the defining marks of a legend (the tension of the story points us towards Elijah rather than the Hellenistic culture; even though the story exhibits supernatural elements, reigning mythological symbols remain largely absent).
And while there are certainly places in the book of Kings where the editing process is made more obvious than others (Fretheim is as an excellent resource to this end), the story of Elijah is not one of these places. His story is presented as an interruption to the flow of the narrative, and appears to carry an intimate connection with it’s source material (in some form anyways). It also appears to remain attentive to its historical placement and setting (especially as he reemerges with the discussion of the second coming).
Further, if Elijah does carry any mythological characteristics, most of this emerges from its historical placement, largely as a product of the froming practice of the Jewish midrash. Much of this has been suggested to connect with the idea that Elijah vanishes without a historical record of his death.
That said, the sheer amount of symbolic force that we do find in the narrative seems to allow it to freely flow between other narratives within the Biblical canon itself, including that of Moses, Jesus and even Elisha. It would be difficult to not see, at least in part, a certain mix of literary formation at play.
Lastly, it is worth suggesting that simply seeing the story of Elijah as hyperbole and polemic does not really deal with the problem of a violent God at face value. It simply offers a way of categorizing it.
2. God and Human agency: In the larger story of Kings (First and Second), we discover a God who is working together with human agents. This would probably be true to say about the whole of the Jewish and Christian scripture. God is working through and for the people from the places in which they find themselves. In this approach, we find the theological view that God works from our places of weakness (and violence) in order to redeem it not to endorse it.
The strength of this approach is that it offers us more than simple categorization. It doesn’t do away with the idea of hyperbole and myth, but is simply more concerned with revealing the tension that exists within the Biblical material (to which my blog is largely about).
A Couple Additional Thoughts:
1. With any approach to the slaughter in Elijah’s narrative there remains the question of how to deal with the fact that, at least in the historical evidence that we are afforded, the sanction of God for Elijah to anoint his successors doesn’t happen in the way that God commands, nor in the order it is prophecied or declared. There are a couple reasons why this is worth mentioning:
As a part of an edited canon, the chronology of Kings has been recognized as somewhat difficult to manage. There has been work done (Edwin Thiele’s theory is one that I have come to find helpful) to show that this is not an impossible problem to reconcile, but this is simply to say that the prophetic nature of the command given to Elijah (in the context of Kings) carries much in the way of nuance. We should remain slow to label this material as a clear sanctioning of violence, as I think this tends to miss the larger concern of the narrative itself.
In the narrative, Elijah goes through Elisha first, and then in a round about way Elisha ends up connecting himself to Hazael and Jehu. There has been plenty of work done about the Hazael and Jehu question as well, but one idea that is worth noting (from a theological standpoint) is that in the story of Elijah, the two figures are included in order to represent the contrasting sides of judgment and reform (given their contrasting roles). Further to this theme, the slaughter itself seems to appear as a response to the slaughter of the Israelite people by Jezebel (I Kings 18:13). This is not to simplify or justify the account itself (and my struggle with it), but simply to suggest that it does appear to carry some level of intentional theological placement in the course of the narrative.
2. Looking to the NT, the apostle Paul reconciles the slaughter by seeing it as a commentary on the remnant of God, thus focusing our attention on the positive side of the movement and away from the slaughter itself (11:1-4).
3. Lastly, as the reader moves through the story of Elijah, it is good to keep in perspective the tension that exists between the slaughter and the overall theme of the passage (as a hopeful concern for the life of the people). This is a good practice to maintain in reading through any of the OT and NT material, as the tension between what the people see (a limited view of God’s concern for the world) often appears alongside an opposing view (the bigger picture of God’s perspective).
There is worth in embracing the appearance of contradiction rather than running from it.