* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

1 Kings 17-18: Seeing Beyond Caricatures to an End of Religious Arrogance

There were probably many Elijah stories floating around in ancient Israel, only a handful of which made it into canonical biblical texts. The character of Elijah makes frequent appearances in Jewish rabbinic literature and folklore as well. While the tales are blatantly legendary, many of these Elijah myths are instructive. The prophet's first appearance in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 17-18, where Elijah appears as a holy foil to the evil King Ahab and his foreign, Jew-hating wife Jezebel. These chapters relate the tale of a fallen Jewish people who have abandoned their religion and adopted the worship of foreign deities, for which they suffer a devastating drought. Elijah humiliates and kills the prophets of the other faith and convinces the Israelites to return to the worship of their own deity. Most likely written in the years following the Babylonian Exile, this story offered hope that there could be restoration after a period of perceived punishment.

Several interesting characteristics about the prophet are present in this story. First, Elijah claims power over the drought (although he does express fealty to the god of Israel). His time with the widow at Zarephath seems strikingly similar to (and thus was possibly a model for) a miracle story attributed to Jesus regarding making a little bit of food go a long way. Elijah has the power to effectively restore life to people who have died, and he has no problem killing people who promote a different religion from his own. Stories about Elijah fit typical patterns of hero myths from the ancient world, and the basic theme of "our god is better than your god" is an effective message of hope for a people who have been immersed in a foreign culture for decades.

The story is also a striking commentary about the Israelite people (or perhaps all ancient peoples). They are perfectly happy to go along with the most impressive magician of the moment and call it faith, and they are willing to slaughter 850 people at the word of one charismatic fellow with a convincing stage act. They don't seem to mind the implication that Yahweh will do what Elijah tells him to do, while their other faithful Jewish prophets have been holed up in a cave for three years, presumably unable to make any spectacular requests of the god they serve. Either God is only willing to work through one special person, or none of the hundred other prophets were tuned into God's plan. Whichever the case, it paints a tenuous and unsettling picture of a nation's relationship with the divine. What would they do if Elijah didn't happen to be around? How could they trust any of their priests and prophets to effectively guide them once they return to their ancestral religion?  

Hero myths never presume to answer such questions, though. People necessarily become caricatures in folktales, and after all, the story isn't intended as an actual report of historical events; it's about the Israelites rebuilding their sense of religious connection after a time of exile, which they interpreted as divine discipline. There was a message of hope and redemption imbedded in this story featuring a well-known folk hero. What then shall we derive from this tale, we who do not thirst for a sense of post-Exilic restoration?

It isn't that we should expect miracles. There are no recent reputable reports of miraculous occurrences like the dead being raised by a fervent prayer or a water-logged altar being consumed by divine fire. In other words, we have no counterpart for these miracles in contemporary society, and thus we must consider the miracles to be symbolic elements in a story and not replicable historical events. We should not even expect that God will do what we want if we pray fervently enough. Certainly, if we pray for rain long enough (such as the three years that Elijah waits in the story), it will eventually rain. That doesn't mean that our prayer was actively, intelligently answered. It simply means that what we desired eventually lined up with reality.

There is also no real value in turning this story or others like it into a popularity contest between religions. There were no real good guys and bad guys here; Baal and Asherah are as fictional as Yahweh. The hero of this sort of tale is determined by who is telling the story. If anything, we might recognize the disconnect between our present age of scientific knowledge and the time of our ancestors, who believed that unseen supernatural forces were in control of the weather and used it to reward or punish human beings. The idea seems preposterous to most people today, although even in the twenty-first century there are those who hold prayer rallies to pray for rain (ineffectual though such rallies turn out to be). We know more about the world than people once did, and we should live our lives based on that very real, testable knowledge.

Here is something worth noting: If we want to light a fire, we should get matches. Or a butane lighter of some kind perhaps. If we want to arrive someplace safely, we should be cautious and patient drivers. There are other factors, of course, but we have a great deal of control over creating what we want. If we take time for introspection, we will learn that we have the answers to a great many dilemmas in life; we are simply not accustomed to listening to ourselves. We are so unaccustomed to paying attention to our deepest and most noble selves, in fact, that it can seem like the action of some supernatural force outside of ourselves when we perceive a clear and direct sense of who we most want to be and what we most want to be doing. Even decisions like what subject to choose as a major in college, which job to accept, which route to take across town -- these decisions ultimately come from within ourselves, and we are often quite insightful when we give ourselves a chance. Prayer puts the focus on an imaginary force outside of ourselves; time for quiet, focused introspection can yield the same exact result without the unnecessary baggage of religious dogma.

The only reason the Israelites were willing participants in the worship of Jezebel's gods is that religion made sense to them as a way to address the issues of their lives. It doesn't actually matter what Jezebel thought about the Phoenician gods, we know enough to say that people of the ancient world imagined a supernatural underpinning to their perceivable reality. If something doesn't make sense to us today, we are capable of considering we simply don't understand without resorting to supernatural explanations. Moreover, if we are less hasty to attribute the things we don't understand to the supernatural, our curiosity can drive us to discoveries about ourselves and the world around us we might never have made otherwise. We can realistically create meaningful and connected societies on the basis of actual data and honest exploration rather than on what we imagine a supernatural being might want of us or accomplish for us.

Religion teaches us to undervalue ourselves on the one hand, by robbing us of our personal capability and responsibility and pinning it to an imaginary supernatural entity. On the other hand, religion imbues us with a sense of superiority, assuming our version of an imaginary supernatural entity is better than anyone else's. Religion gives us compelling parameters by which we can effectively judge other people who disagree with our confabulation and draw lines of separation between ourselves and people who look, behave, or think differently from us. Some may say that human beings will do this with or without religion, but removing the unfounded and irrational justification of religious dogma from the mix takes the teeth out of a great many lines of division in our world. Without religious justification, we are forced to admit that by and large, most of our assertions about other people are only opinions, however strong those opinions may be.    

There is still suffering in the world in the twenty-first century, and the answer is not to round up and execute a bunch of heretics. We have to learn to see other people not as caricatures and stereotypes, but as human beings with inherent worth. We share this planet, this reality, with an awful lot of people who think and live differently from us, and the answer is not to eradicate or dehumanize everyone that is "Other." By growing ourselves to allow the whole of humanity within our sphere of acceptability, we build what is called the "kingdom of God" by the writer of the gospel of Matthew. Our world has outgrown the prescriptions of religion that separate people into worthy and worthless, if such delineations were ever truly needed. No supernatural entity is going to do the work for us, but we are capable of phenomenal acts of creation when we are willing. The value and dignity of every person is where that creative act begins.

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