Monday, May 7, 2012

Elijah & The Ravens (I Kings 17)

Who was fed by ravens? Elijah

Elijah bursts onto the Biblical scene seemingly from out of nowhere. (I Kings 17:1). The prophet makes an explosive entrance with what amounts to a hit and run prophecy as immediately after declaring a three-year drought in Israel, God sends Elijah east to the brook Cherith (I Kings 17:1-3). Some have interpreted the immediate voyage to the brook as evidence of an instantaneous stoppage of rain.

Under the direction of King Ahab, Israel had been engaging in idolatry (I Kings 16:31-32) and the drought asserts that Yahweh, not the pagan deity Ba’al, controls the weather.

Amid the drought, God promises to sustain the prophet through the brook’s water and food fed to him by ravens (I Kings 17:4). Elijah follows instructions and God fulfills his promises as twice daily ravens dutifully come with provisions (I Kings 17:5-6).

The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he would drink from the brook. (I Kings 17:6 NASB)
Peter J. Leithart (b. 1959) summarizes, “During a drought, Elijah drinks from a wadi (a seasonal stream) for days and eats the food brought by ravens. Yahweh makes a ‘garden’ in the midst of the wilderness, as he had done for Israel centuries before (Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 127).”

Elijah is sent on a mission that few would envy; a reminder that God’s call does not always lead to places the servant would have otherwise chosen. Iain W. Provan (b. 1957) acknowledges:

Elijah leaves Ahab’s presence to hide in an inhospitable atmosphere east of the Jordan where, we deduce, there is no normal food supply. God has saved him from Ahab and Jezebel, it is implied (I Kings 17:3; cf. I Kings 18:4, 19:1-2), but under normal circumstances he will now die of hunger. God is, however, able to provide for him. (Provan, 1 and 2 Kings (New International Biblical Commentary), 132-133)
Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) adds:
This seems almost as risky as staying near Ahab; he is to drink from a wadi and be fed with food provided by ravens...Elijah obeys...and God provides—in an extravagant way for the culture (meat twice a day!)—through unlikely sources. (Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Westminster Bible Companion), 97)
Elijah demonstrates faith worthy of a prophet. Gary Inrig (b. 1943) commends:
This demanded faith because the brook that ran through the Kidron was a wadi, a stream that flowed only during the rainy season—hardly a long-term source of water when a drought was on the way. And ravens were untamed scavengers, not providers. How could they serve as a food source?...Nevertheless, Elijah followed God’s instructions. He made his way to the wadi Kerith, where he spent a period of time. It was a place of total dependence upon God, and the Lord demonstrated his sufficiency. (Inrig, 1 & 2 Kings (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 134)
God provides abundantly for the prophet through both natural and supernatural means. Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) dissects:
While the provision with water happens in a natural way, the provision of food by ravens points to a miracle. Ravens, which are normally regarded as scavengers and as aggressive birds, serve as carriers of food. The daily meat included in the provision moves beyond the average diet since meat was normally eaten only on feast days. Because of the miraculous supply, Elijah is free from concerns; as a man of God he does not need any help and the drought does not concern him. Elijah is already portrayed as an obedient prophet, led by the word of Yahweh because he does not act on his own initiative but follows the orders of Yahweh. It is not his own power but the help of Yahweh that secures his survival in time of need triggered by a drought. (Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary, 183)
There is a stark contrast between the prophet’s circumstances and the nation’s. While Israel dries up, Elijah drinks cool water. While Israel starves, Elijah enjoys a veritable feast. While the constituents of Ba’al suffer, the prophet of Yahweh prospers.

Like God had done during the wilderness wandering, food was available to God’s people even amidst a barren environment (Exodus 16:8, 12). Richard Nelson (b. 1945) notes:

The story of Elijah and the ravens (I Kings 17:2-6) reflects the common folktale motif of the hero being fed by beasts and reminds the reader of the canonical traditions of wilderness feeding. (The LXX caught this implication and makes specific reference to Exodus 16:8, 12.)...The narrator emphasizes that the word of God is the prime mover in the story; Elijah is passively obedient (I Kings 17:2-5a). (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 109)
Paul R. House (b. 1958) affirms:
Regardless of harsh physical circumstances, the Lord provides for the prophet. The drought has begun, but Elijah has resources because his God controls all natural resources. God directs him to a brook that has water and where ravens will feed him. Also God has protected Elijah by taking him out of Ahab’s reach (cf. I Kings 18:10). Nothing he needs has been withheld. (House, 1, 2Kings (New American Commentary), 213)
Bruce Wilkinson (b. 1947) applies:
How does God’s sending ravens to feed Elijah during a drought (I Kings 17:6) apply to us today? Obviously this does not mean God desires to feed Christians by means of birds. Instead the principle is that God sometimes meets human needs by unusual means. The application of this principle is that believers can trust the Lord to supply all their needs. (Wilkinson, Almost Every Answer For Practically Any Teacher, 171)
If you could be fed by any animal what would it be? If God is sustaining the prophet, why does he go into exile? When have you experienced a personal drought? How did God provide? Is being fed by a raven sanitary? What do you associate with ravens? Why were ravens enlisted for this task?

Ravens, unclean animals (Leviticus 11:13-15; Deuteronomy 14:12-14), are agents of God. A raven was utilized by Noah to confirm that the flood had not subsided (Genesis 8:6-7). In contrast, it is implied that ravens devour the sons of evil kings who die in the field (I Kings 14:11, 16:4)

In this passage, ravens acts against their nature. Working against type, they share food with Elijah. Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) envisions:

When the ravens came and fed Elijah bread and meat by the brook Cherith (I Kings 17:6), we’re told they did it because the Lord commanded them to. However, I suspect that since, in spite of Edgar Allan Poe [1809-1949], ravens are largely nonverbal, the Lord caused the sight of the old man to be itself the command the way the smell of breakfast is a command to the hungry or the sound of your best friend on the stair a command to rejoice...If the ravens could have talked, they would probably have tried to talk either the Lord or themselves out of doing anything about it. As it was, there was simply nothing for it but to bring him two squares a day till he moved on somewhere else. The sleek, black birds and the bony intractable prophet—since all life is one life, to save another is to save yourself, and with their wings, and beaks, and throbbing birds’ hearts all working at once, the ravens set about doing it. (Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, 7-8)

Being fed by ravens is highly unusual and not surprisingly attempts have been made to naturalize the text. Russell H. Dilday (b. 1930) surveys:

Interpreters with antisupernatural presuppositions are uncomfortable with the miraculous element in passages like this. Some have gone to extremes to provide natural explanations for the ravens. For example, some suggest that the Hebrew word for “ravens,” oˉrbîm. could be changed a little to stand for “Arabs” or “Orebites,” natives of an imaginary city called “Oreb.” Others say the word means “steppe-dwellers,” suggesting Elijah was fed by friendly bedouins or itinerant traders. But the supernatural miracles belong in the passage and are acceptable to persons of faith, who see them as consistent with the omnipotent power of the Lord who made the universe. (Dilday, 1 & 2 Kings (Mastering the Old Testament)), 204
In this case, eliminating the supernatural from the narrative defeats the text’s purpose. God is presented as the Beastmaster as the obedient ravens are further proof that Yahweh, not Ba’al is in control.

Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) comments:

YHWH’s statements that the prophet will drink the water of the Wadi Cherith and eat the food brought to him by the ravens highlight the contention that YHWH controls nature to support the prophet. The reference to ravens presupposes their ability to scavenge for food (cf. Proverbs 30:17), to live in inhospitable environments (cf. Isaiah 34:11), and to find their way generally (cf. Noah’s use of ravens in Genesis 8:7). Job 38:41 indicates that YHWH cares for the ravens, which is analogous to the use of the raven to care for Elijah in the present context. This motif suggests associations with the wilderness tradition of the Pentateuch in which YHWH sustained the people by providing water, manna, and quails (Exodus 16:1-17:7; Numbers 11:1-35, 20:1-13; cf. Jeremiah 35:1-19, which refers to the Rechabites, who live in the desert in keeping with the traditions of their ancestors). (Sweeney, First and Second Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 212)
In the midst of drought, God, unlike Ba’al provides. Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) concludes:
Communication between God and the nonhuman is not an uncommon Old Testament theme (even for ravens, Psalm 147:9). But the not miracle or micromanagement. Rather, it stakes a claim that Israel’s God, not Baal, is the Creator, who provides water and who works through nonhuman creatures that are not usually among the animals who provide food in order to sustain the faithful. (Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Westminster Bible Companion), 99)
The prophet’s food source (ravens) like the prophet’s proclamation (drought) reminds that Yahweh is superior to Ba’al. And the contest is not close.

How can we, like the ravens, act against our own selfish impulses to benefit God’s cause? What is the most surprising way in which God has provided for you? Have you ever been fed by an animal? Where have you seen animals assisting humans? What is the nicest thing an animal has ever done for you?

“Animals are not humans with reduced capacities. They have their own capacities, their own spectrum of aptitudes and behaviors.” - Jean Kazez, Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals, p. 95

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this... it has always been one of my favorite passages. I'm currently studying Jonah, and this plays into that a bit as well!

    FYI, the Westminster Bible Companion Series (33 vols.) is available for pre-order from Logos Bible Software.