Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Man of God & The Old Prophet (I Kings 13)

What happened to the man of God who had been sent to deliver a message and return home without eating or drinking? He disobeyed and was killed by a lion (I Kings 13:24)

When Israel split, the southern kingdom, Judah, retained Jerusalem, the religious epicenter (I Kings 12:26-27). To ensure that his constituents would not need to cross the border to worship, Jeroboam, ruler of the northern kingdom, Israel, erected altars at Dan and Bethel (I Kings 12:28-30). It is in this context that the Man of God enters the biblical narrative (I Kings 13:1-32).

The Man of God’s story is told in two parts (I Kings 13:1-10, 11-32). He strides into Bethel from Judah where he finds Jeroboam burning incense on the unauthorized altar (I Kings 13:1). The Man of God promptly condemns the altar (I Kings 13:2) and his words are validated when he produces a double miracle in which the idolatrous king’s hand is both cursed and cured (I Kings 13:4-6). Before leaving, the Man of God emphatically declines an invitation to dine with the king stating that God had prohibited it (I Kings 13:8-9).

“For so it was commanded me by the word of the LORD, saying, ‘You shall eat no bread, nor drink water, nor return by the way which you came.’” (I Kings 13:9 NASB)
This was a smash and grab job and the Man of God was not to dawdle in Bethel.

The Man of God’s second story arc begins where the first ends when an Old Prophet’s sons relay the Man of God’s exploits (I Kings 13:11-32). Presumably impressed, the Old Prophet and his sons caught the Man of God on his way out of town and asked him to dine (I Kings 13:14-15). The Man of God again notes that he is under strict divine orders not eat or drink on the trip (I Kings 13:8-9, 16-17).

The Old Prophet convinces the Man of God that he is a prophet who has received orders that supercede the Man of God’s and that the Man of God should eat with him (I Kings 13:18-19). While dining, the “word of the Lord” came upon the Old Prophet and he uttered an ominous portent claiming that the Man of God had disobeyed orders and would not make it home alive (I Kings 13:20-22). The prophecy comes to fruition as a lion kills the Man of God on his way home though it devours neither the Man of God nor his donkey (I Kings 13:24-25). The Old Prophet retrieves the Man of God’s corpse and insists that the Man of God be buried in his family tomb (I Kings 13:27-30). He also insists that when the day comes, his sons bury him with the Man of God (I Kings 13:31-32).

The Man of God’s instructions are simple: he was given dining restrictions and told to return home by another way. Inexplicably everyone he encounters offers him sustenance. (Why would his adversary Jeroboam do this?) The Man of God faces two tests, acing the first and flunking the next. August H. Konkel (b. 1948) sumarizes, “The man of God from Judah proclaims God’s word in declaring the folly of Jeroboam, but then chooses the way of folly himself in disobeying what he knows to be God’s word given to him (Konkel, 1 and 2 Kings (The NIV Application Commentary), 244).”

The story is complex and perplexing. Renowned theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) called I Kings 13 “perhaps the most expressive and at any rate the most comprehensive prophetic story in the Old Testament (Church Dogmatics II.2" The Doctrine of God, 409).”

The hero is anonymous much like Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” (1964-66) or more recently Ryan Gosling (b. 1980) in Drive (2011). His non-name is emphasized as “the Man of God” is repeated 17 times in the text (I Kings 13:1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 26, 29, 31). Fittingly, the mysterious figure is juxtaposed with an anonymous adversary, the Old Prophet (I Kings 13:11).

Peter J. Leithart (b. 1959) writes:

Commentators often point out that none of the main characters of the story are named...One effect of this technique is to highlight geography. By virtue of his designation, the man of God becomes representative of Judah, while the old prophet stands for Bethel and Israel, suggesting that the whole history of Israel and Judah is somehow foreshadowed in this chapter. (Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 98-99)
The only biographical detail given about the Man of God is his place of origin, Judah (I Kings 13:1, 12, 14, 21). This speaks to the era’s and the story’s fundamental conflict - a man from Judah enters Bethel.

In spite of his final failure, the Man of God, as both his moniker and homeland suggest, is a legitimate divine emissary. Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) writes:

The center of the narrative is the surprising fact that the lion killed the man but did not eat him. This exceptional behavior of the animal is used to explain the special holiness of the man of God that leads to his burial in a foreign land and the special honor attached to his grave. The corpse possesses a special dignity, because the lion has not touched it; the lion reveals the special status of the man of God and so he is buried by the prophet in his own grave and lamented by him. (Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary,151)
Gene Rice (b. 1925) adds:
He was heroic in obedience to the command to deliver—at great risk to himself—the prophecy against the altar at Bethel, but accepted too readily the alleged revelation of another that contradicted the revelation God had given him. The authentic word of God often seems extreme and unreasonable, and how adept we are in finding reasons to disobey it. The fate of the man of God from Judah is also a word of the LORD, namely, that obedience is a matter of life and death. (Rice, 1 Kings: Nations Under God (International Theological Commentary), 115)
The fact that the man who dies is not the principal evildoer is just one of many difficulties with the text. None of the characters’ motives are given even though there are more inexplicable than understandable actions. The text is also replete with moral ambiguity.

James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) identifies another difficulty as he laments that “it must be declared that this passage deals the death knell to every attempt to specify absolute criteria by which to differentiate the true from the false prophet, for the ultimate criterion to which contemporary scholarship appeals (the charismatic intuition of a true prophet) fails in this instance (Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict: Its Effect upon Israelite Religion, 47-48).”

Richard Nelson (b. 1945) summarizes:

The story of the man of God from Judah and the old prophet in Bethel is notoriously problematic for modern readers. The blunt designation of Josiah by name (I Kings 13:2) is so obviously a prophecy made after the fact that the narrative is bast into immediate disrepute for the historically inclined. As a moral tale it is patently offensive. Trickery trumps over the servant of God and the living prophet is rewarded in the end. Is this a crude, insensitive God who violates our ideas of justice? (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 83-83)
What do you find problematic about this story? Why does the man of God fail? Does he presume that someone would not lie about being a prophet? Why does the Old Prophet lie? Why are there seemingly no consequences for his lie? Why does the lion kill but not eat the Man of God? What is the point of the story?

While I Kings 13 raises many questions, its main thrust can be determined. The postscript to the story relays that despite the encounter with the Man of God, Jeroboam did not alter his altars (I Kings 13:33-34). This end stress conveys the story’s primary meaning and represents the first of many assaults on Jeroboam’s policies in the books of Kings.

Paul R. House (b. 1958) concludes:

Basically, 1 Kings 13 continued the book’s emphases on proper worship, the prophetic word, and the slow demise of the covenant people. It also begins to analyze the difference between true and false prophecy (House, The New American Commentary, Vol. 8: 1, 2 Kings, 188-189).”
Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) adds:
The issue of true and false prophecy is secondary to the larger concern with discrediting Beth El. Tensions between Judah and northern Israel come clearly to the forefront when the narrative depicts the old prophet from Beth El as a liar who deceives the Judean man of G-d into violating G-d’s commission. (Sweeney, First and Second Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 181).”
In some ways the story serves as a cautionary tale. The Man of God is held accountable for his actions even though he is deceived. If God would rebuke the Man of God for disobedience how much more so the dissident king?

The Man of God stood as a witness against Jeroboam in both life and death. The story’s true postscript comes many chapters later when the Man of God’s prophecy is fulfilled during the reign of Josiah (II Kings 23:1-30). When Josiah finally obliterates Jeroboam’s idols, he uncovers a tomb of two prophets (II Kings 23:15-20). The tomb served as a reminder that the false worship had been doomed from the start.

Is it significant that the Man of God and the Old Prophet are buried together? Are there any notable tombs or monuments near year? What are they saying? Where does false worship exist today?

“The noblest worship is to make yourself as good and as just as you can.” - Isocrates (436-338 BCE)


  1. Nice article. I just read this passage yesterday and the big problem I think Richard Nelson had was it counters the general western cultural story line "the good guys end in glory, the bad guys die" and it counters the cultural view of "God forgiving everything". He tries to look at it from a western view. Not just him of course, it disturbs anyone.

    I agree, the prophet totally disregarded the step of discerning spirits. Perhaps he was too eager to eat, but we do not know. Whatever the motivation was, it shows that there are consequences to disobeying. There are several other prophets either decieved temporarily or fallen away. King Ahab dealt with a whole slew of them and died because he listened to the ones he wanted to and not to Micaiah.

    Perhaps this served to show to the people at Beth El (that certaintly would have heard the story):
    * God takes sin seriously and does not just look to the other side,
    * shows no favoritism (did not matter that he came from Judah),
    * and God is God and not like the calfs that Jehoboram placed.

  2. We need grace and strength from the Lord to finish strong , to finish well.