Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why did ravens feed Elijah?

During my trip to Israel while in southern Galilee, RVL asked the question, "Why did God send ravens to Elijah?" I had no clue, so I recently asked a yeshiva student at a Shabbat service and he said it had it something to do with Noah and the raven he sent out during the flood. He said he we would check with the rabbis at the yeshiva. I haven't been back to Chabad yet to see the student so I did some searching online. The mission of the ravens feeding Elijah is intimately connected to the story of the raven and Noah.

The first occurrence of the word "raven" is in the story of Noah and the flood. Genesis 8:6-8 reads:
After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground.
So, we first hear of the raven as it is being sent out from the ark. The rabbis note that the task of searching for water is not mentioned as it is with the dove. The raven is just "sent out". In the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 108b), a conversation is recorded between Noah and the raven. The raven is upset because it thinks Noah is trying to put an end to its species (only two were brought on the ark). The raven also accuses Noah of wanting to "know" the raven's wife. Noah exclaims, "You evil one!" (I can almost see this happening in Narnia!)

The rabbis teach that those who accuse someone of a blemish, have that blemish themselves (see Jesus's statement about a speck in one's eye). They say Noah deduced that the raven had had relations with its wife on the ark, an act that was strictly forbidden according to the rabbis. From this it appears Noah is evicting the raven from the ark because of bad behavior.

The rabbis then comment on the nature of Noah. According to Rashi, "Noah was a perfect man in his generation... Some of our Rabbis explain the words '‘in his generation'’ to his discredit--he was a righteous man in his own generation, but had he been living in the generation of Abraham, he would have not been reckoned as anyone special". The comparison between Abraham and Noah continues. Both were surrounded by evil, Abraham by Sodom and Noah by a corrupt world. In both cases, God called for punishment. Abraham begged and pleaded for God to save Sodom. But Noah just accepted the judgment and did what was commanded to save his family. The rabbis conclude that Noah lacked mercy and concern for his fellow humans.

This lack of mercy is again shown in Noah evicting the raven. In a midrash, the rabbis's describe Noah as saying the raven "had no purpose" and was expendable. But God steps in with mercy and gives the raven a mission. The Torah says that the raven flew "until the water had dried up from the earth".

Enter Elijah. His first act is to stop the rain, and the earth dried up. Again the rabbis comment on character. They say there are two possible ways to win over a sinner: 1) punish them, or 2) win them over. Noah drove out the raven and Elijah punished Israel. Neither showed mercy, both were bent on punishment.

So the rabbis comment that the raven was sent to teach Elijah a lesson. The raven was seen as a cruel creature that doesn't even feed its own (see Psalm 147). If a raven fed Elijah, how much more should Elijah have "fed" the people of Israel and won them over to follow God? The lesson for Elijah continues with him traveling to Zarephath, which means "refinement". Elijah spent three years in refinement where he learned mercy and then returned to Israel to confront the evil and win over the Israelites.

A common theme echoes through these stories, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Everyone has worth, so do not judge.

Clearly these themes are reflected in the teachings of Jesus (for instance, see the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6-8). I also wonder if echoes of Noah and Elijah are reflected in his teachings about worry. In Luke 12 we read:
Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single cubit to his height? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
The ravens turn your imagination to the flood. And so does the cubit, maybe. There was a one-cubit window in the ark. Why didn't Noah just look out the window to see if the land was dry? Was Noah just short enough that he couldn't see out the window and hence the need for the dove to look for dry land? Was he worrying about a lack of food on the ark? I wonder.

In conclusion, it seems ravens were sent to teach Elijah a lesson of mercy. If ravens could feed Elijah, how much more should he have fed Israel?

( I found a variety of sources online for this material. Two of the best summaries (which I've drawn from heavily) are from tfdixie and shemayisrael. Other interesting notes maybe worth exploring are the three years of Elijah refinement related to Jesus' three ministry years, and are there parallels between the widow at Zarepheth and the woman at the well in John?)


At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Danielle said...

Very cool stuff, James. I recently worked on a paper regarding Elijah, his character, and the geography surrounding his life episodes. The raven insight jives with much of what I worked on regarding Elijah's character
1. As you noted, God did not necessarily command Elijah to bring about the drought, however He did get the glory on Carmel when it is clearly understood who is God, baal or the LORD. There are several times when Elijah acts not necessarily on God's specific direction. God uses it in either case (hope for us too) and it can also be considered an argument from silence but we don't even know that God told Elijah to convene everyone up on Mt. Carmel
2. Sidenote: we rarely consider the average citizen and how they are affected by these struggles between kings and prophets. It was not only Ahab that experienced the 3 years of drought, but also all of Israel. The encounter of the widow at Zarephath is integral to our understanding of the impact of such decisions on all of Israel and it really testifies to the fact that the Text is do divinely inspired, taking the time to account for a widow.
3. After the triumph on Mt. Carmel, Elijah, threatened by Jezebel, is scared and flees, again not with God's direction, to a day's journey beyond Beersheba and lays down to die. An angel of the Lord provides sustenence, Elijah eats, drinks and then lays down to die again! Which is so odd to me - if you really want to die, which you would definitely do if you were seeking shelter under a broom tree a day's hike out from Beersheba with no food or water - why would you extend your life just to suffer for another week? (I just keep picturing that HOT day in Wadi David!) The angel does tell Elijah to get up and eat for the journey. But he does not tell him where to go. (argument from silence) but it seems reflected in the text as well.
5. So, why does Elijah choose to go to Mt. Horeb/Sinai? Obviously the big event there is the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelites . . . perhaps Elijah is going there in an attempt to renew the covenant with the Lord? Or perhaps he is remembering the prophecy in Deut 18:15 and thinks he may be the prophet? Remember a few years ago we discussed how Moses would beg/argue with God when God would say, "Stand back, I'm going to wipe these people out and make you a mighty nation." (Ex 32:9ff; 34:8-9) Moses would interced on behalf of the people and not seek out his own personal blessing. Here Elijah shows up at Mt. Horeb and the first words are from God saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Perhaps implying further that God did not command Elijah to make this journey. Elijah replies (1 Ki 19:10) that basically he's the only one left. We know that's not quite true since many Israelites began worshipping God after the contest at Mt. Carmel plus the 100 prophets that Obadiah is hiding (1 Ki 18:4) that we know Elijah knows about. So after Elijah's response, God decides to give Elijah a Moses-like experience on Mt. Horeb, perhaps trying to get Elijah to recall Moses' character and that part of the story. Just like Moses saw "the back" of God when God pushed him into the rock (Ex 33:18ff) God will show himself to Elijah. But this time He's not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the whisper/silence (Strong’s Lexicon, 1827 דְּמָמָה [dâmamah /dem•aw•maw/] n f. From 1826; TWOT 439a; GK 1960; Three occurrences; AV translates as “still” once, “silence” once, and “calm” once, whisper or calm.) God then asks the same question again, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" After Elijah's experience with God in the desert for 40 days, in God's silence on Mt. Horeb, his answer still does not change a bit and he says again, "I'm the only one left" God responds, "Go back, anoint king Hazael, anoint king Jehu and then get and anoint your successor Elisha. 'Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel - all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.'" So God Himself will intercede on behalf of His people and will find and anoint prophets and kings who will also intercede.
So, faith lesson? God often speaks through silence and paying attention to God's silences perhaps would have changed Elijah's story quite a bit, as well as our own stories.
Faith lesson #2? It's not about us. It's about God and His people and His covenant.
PS. Perhaps, paralleling this event and the character of Elijah with John the Baptist makes even more sense. Elijah seems to have experienced quite a faith crisis near the end of his life, running away from Jezebel after he had just called down fire from heaven, brought rain down on the land and killed the prophets of Baal. Yet, he runs, frightened, to die in the desert. John the Baptist, in prison, "are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another?" So the good news is, people of great faith and great deeds in the name of the Lord, still experience great doubt and paralyzing fear, often in the midst of lonliness, dejection and silence. It's good to know we're in good company.

At 6:22 PM, Blogger James said...

Thanks Danielle! It's good to see that all your class work is producing good fruit. Thanks for sharing.

You mention the convenant in 5. That seems to be a theme of Wadi Cherith as well. According to Strong's dictionary, Cherith means "a cut" and is derived from "karath". Karah is a primitive root and means "to covenant". Was Elijah recollecting the deal that Abraham cut with God? This reminds me abit of the drought that affected Abram as well.

On a complete tangent, while looking up name definitions in the Elijah story I found that Jordan (Yarden) means "a descender". So, Jesus goes to the Jordan, the descender, he descends, and then immediately he ascends up out of the water. There has to be a Tanakh-picture in this descending/ascending but I haven't looked for it yet.

At 12:55 AM, Anonymous Danielle said...

Nice! The name meanings are often so enlightening.

One other thought . . . God works within Elijah's actions, in spite of the fact that it possibly appears that Elijah is often acting on his own initiative . . . so does that mean that we should just go forward, with the passion of Elijah and trust that God will use it all for good and operate within it? It seems like we spend much of our time debating about whether it is "the will of God" for us to do something rather than just acting and trusting that God will always execute His will for His glory. Perhaps it's not whether or not we're operating within His will . . . that even sounds so arrogant to me, like I can do anything outside of His will. The Creator of the Universe will always bring about His will . . . I simply get the opportunity to run after Him with the passion of Elijah, perhaps even in foolhardy ways. So basically, we just try, daily, to be more like Him, to bring more of heaven here on earth, and He'll continue to do as He pleases - it is we that lose out on participating in His will in our disobedience. So we simply prepare and follow hard.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger James said...

I think at the macro level, you're correct. But at the micro level of God's will, every time we sin, aren't we going against His will? Thank God, at the macro level, nothing can stop His kingdom come. And your last line is great. I agree the key is loving him with all your heart, soul, and mind, and if you do that, even in our "foolhardy ways", He will make it work out.

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Danielle said...

I agree - the distinction must be made on the macro vs. micro levels. At the same time it may also be a question of terms and semantics. What do we really mean by the words "God's will"?

At 12:07 AM, Blogger wcwharfrat said...

God's will.... that none should perish, but instead all should repent and have eternal life.....

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

At 8:28 PM, Anonymous elias said...




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