Bishop Barron’s Burning Question About Elijah

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Bishop Robert Barron found himself in something of a firestorm recently with his creative exegesis of I Kings 18, the account of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal that resulted in the latter’s slaughter. According to Barron, God “fired” Elijah, announcing it was time for a new prophet, Elisha. The cause of Elijah’s alleged pink slipping, in Barron’s opinion, “could…have something to do with that extraordinary violence he showed after the beautiful, prophetic manifestation on Mount Carmel.” This odd reading of Elijah’s life is not new for Barron, dating back to 2004 at least, but it recently made the rounds on social media, thus igniting the controversy.

Instead of hewing to the etiquette of today’s Church of Nice, let’s look at the Biblical context in which Elijah operated.

Elijah has been called to be a prophet because of Israel’s apostasy. Israel’s identity had been established in the Sinai Covenant: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” Covenants in the ancient Near East normally came with contractual terms, as did Sinai’s. We call those terms today “the Ten Commandments.” They begin with the prohibition of idolatry: “I am the Lord, your God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Indeed, in the long version of the Commandment, Yahweh calls Himself “a jealous God” who punishes sin (Exodus 20:5).

Israel had been previously unfaithful to its covenant. Even as Moses was coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the Israelites—who had experienced God’s signs and wonders delivering them from Egypt—were partying in front of a golden calf (see Exodus 32:1-35), a calf fashioned by the priest left behind to keep Israel on the straight and narrow: Aaron.  

God Himself initially threatens to let His “anger…burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:10). It is Moses who, like Abraham on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33), pleads with God to desist.  

Both cases are illustrative. Though Abraham bargains God down not to destroy Sodom if He can find a minyan—ten righteous men—in the city, we know from history that Yahweh did not even turn up that quota. The twin cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, became synonyms for fire from heaven.    

And while Moses talks God out of vengeance against idolatrous Israel, Moses hardly treats that deferral as a “beautiful, prophetic manifestation” of God’s Mercy to foster a dialogue with the bovine-bowing Israelites. Instead, he sends the Levites through the camp, and they execute “about three thousand” (Exodus 32:28) idolaters. Afterward, Moses spent a few more decades leading that “stiff-necked people” prior to being “fired” not on Mount Sinai in Egypt but Mount Nebo in today’s Jordan.

Solomon, too, runs into this problem. The wisest King of Israel occasionally allowed his thinking to occur in regions below his brain, which is why his wives and concubines were able to import pagan idols into Israel. Yahweh holds him to account (I Kings 11:1-42), though perhaps in a less fiery way. 

The Davidic dynasty is “fired” by the rebellion of Israel’s ten northern tribes, led by Jeroboam. God’s promise to the Davidic dynasty continues only through the tiny southern Kingdom of Judea, itself extinguished (and Jerusalem burned) about 350 years later in the Babylonian Exile. David probably did not expect the Messianic promise to be fulfilled through an X-removed grandson who was a carpenter.

Israel’s kings were not supposed to be primarily political rulers. To the extent that God conceded a king to Israel, he was to be the leader and example of fidelity to God, the conductor of the people in their covenant duties to Yahweh.  

Most kings failed in that mission. That included the king of Elijah’s day, Ahab. He made a Phoenician woman, Jezebel, his queen. She imported her gods and Ahab allowed it. There’s a reason why, in history, the names “Jezebel” and “Ahab” are pejorative.

The Phoenician gods and goddesses—Baal and Astarte—were fertility deities, worshipped in orgies and with child sacrifice. Baal was often represented phallically.  

A society that has killed 60 million of its own children and still calls that slaughter a “right” perhaps might be inured to Phoenician child sacrifice. Elijah was not.  

Let us remember what an Old Testament prophet was. A prophet was one called by God to speak in God’s Name. That’s why the true prophets always begin: “Thus says the Lord.” No true prophet appointed himself or considered his words or deeds his own. If that’s true of the prophets at large, it is certainly true of the first and greatest of the prophetic line: Elijah.

Elijah brings down on Israel a variety of plagues and sufferings—curses in which he also shares—in the effort to call Israel back from its idolatry and to its covenantal obligations. The contest with the priests of Baal related in I Kings 18 is the climax of that effort. Nor was that contest merely a Kingsford competition: on the one hand is the sacrifice offered to the true God, on the other is the sacrifice to Baal, which represented child sacrifice. Yahweh clearly got “fired up” about that choice.

Elijah flees because Jezebel swears vengeance against him. That God appoints his successor is not a sign Elijah misfired but that his prophetic mission had reached its successful conclusion. Elijah, far from being “fired,” is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, an apocalyptic departure from the scene that made Israel anticipate the Messiah’s coming would be preceded by an equally blazing advent. 

There are reasons why the people thought John the Baptist was Elijah; why Jesus wished to “kindle a flame” on the earth; and why the Jews denying His Messianic claim were ready to refuse the dying Jesus even vinegar to “see if Elijah comes to save Him.” There’s also a reason why, in the Transfiguration, the two figures that appear—Moses and Elijah, both known for “violence”—represent the summits of the Law and the Prophets.

If that’s being “fired,” what’s the bishop’s sign of success?

Anachronism is historical revisionism. Reading earlier times by today’s considerations is dishonest. Israel was not a nation where “church and state” were separated: its entire identity was bound up with its faith, which idolatrous syncretism constantly threatened.  

Modernity may seek to hide behind pacifism, “dialoguing” our differences. Our saccharin “good and gentle Jesus” even leads to bowdlerizing the Breviary, so that the ancient tradition of reciting all the Psalms is abandoned to excise the imprecatory. But even human history attests that, sometimes, the struggle between good and evil requires “violence”—Neville Chamberlin’s “beautiful, prophetic” talking rightly got him fired.  

Scripture presents human history as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, in whose resolution that same Scripture expects a certain amount of “violence”: see the Book of Revelation, chapters 12ff, with special reference to the “lake of fire” (20:14-15), which sorely tempers my “hope that all men will be saved.”

[Image: Screenshot from Word on Fire YouTube channel]

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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