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'Is it you, O Troubler of Israel?' (Kings I 18:17).
This Haftara focuses on the Prophet Elijah. Elijah, and his disciple, Elisha were active in the Northern Kingdom approximately a century (873-852 BCE) after it had broken off with the Southern Kingdom, following the death of King Solomon. They both brought the word of G-d to His people during a period where the Ten Tribes were generally physically barred from traveling to the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Elijah worked alone - often as a one-man campaign - to establish His Will in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That was a very difficult thing to do, as the Kingdom of Israel was under the House of Omri, in the person of Ahab, Omri's son. Ahab not only followed in the evil steps of his predecessor kings, but he also married the Phoenician Princess, Jezebel, and imposed her idolatrous Baal worship on the people of his kingdom. The story of the Haftara is set in this very tense atmosphere of the struggle between a very determined and single-minded prophet of G-d, and Ahab and his idolatrous foreign wife - in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The Haftara relates Elijah's spectacular demonstration of G-d's power over Baal on Mount Carmel. The years of drought decreed by Elijah before Ahab: no 'dew or rain will fall except with my permission' (Kings I 17:1) caused much suffering to the population, and in its third year, G-d ordered Elijah to appear before Ahab (18:1). His first contact was with Obadiah, Ahab's manager, who had hidden the true prophets of G-d from Jezebel's wrath (18:13). Although Obadiah is recorded to have been a G-d-fearing servant (18:3), he was most reluctant to be seen in Elijah's association, as Ahab might suspect him of being on Elijah's side rather than his own. However, under Elijah's persuasion, Obadiah set the scene for Ahab's actually leaving his palace and going to meet Elijah, greeting him with: 'Is it you, O Troubler of Israel?' (18:17). And Elijah replies in kind - the troubles were not from him, but the inevitable consequence of the pagan Baal-worship perpetuated by the House of Omri.
Elijah followed up his reply with his famous challenge: 'Summon all Israel to join me at Mount Carmel, together with four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Ashera, who eat at the table of Jezebel' (18:19). Indeed, the challenge was not just to the royal House of Omri, but to the entire House of Israel: 'For how long will you jump between two bushes?' - between God and Baal. And the people could not answer him (18:21). - they were obviously hedging their bets, no doubt caring first and foremost that the drought and the famine should end. Each side was to prepare a bull and see if their deity could bring down the fire necessary to consume it. All parties accepted that this should be the sign that the was a success (18:24).
So the prophets of Baal act first: they set up their offering and practice their rituals including bloody forms of self-mutilation (18:28), and do not manage to bring down the fire. Elijah then takes his turn - and emphasizes the greatness of the miracle about to happen by building an altar of twelve stones, one for each tribe, surrounding them by a trench, and filling it with water - such a waste no doubt horrifying his onlookers. And as night fell, the fire of G-d came down to consume the bull, the wood, the stones, and even the water in the trench (18:38). And the people saw, fell on their faces, and decided on whose side they were: 'the Lord alone, He is G-d' (18:39).
Though Elijah's subsequent massacre of the priests of Baal, and his placing Israel back into G-d favor brought an end to the drought, his lonely campaign had only short-term success. With Jezebel hot on his path, Elijah found himself having to leave the region in a hurry - to Mount Horeb. There, G-d appeared to him in the kol demama daka - the 'still small voice'. The lesson may be seen to teach that a zealous messenger of G-d does not bring His word in wrath and fury, but quietly, diplomatically, meaningfully, having created the right atmosphere.
G-d's instructions to Elijah continued in that spirit. There were to be no more fireworks on Mount Carmel, but he had to carry on his zeal for his Creator's cause in a much more subtle, if no less effective manner. He was to effect spiritual reform in the Northern Kingdom by quiet diplomatic action behind the scenes. He would put the mechanism in action whereby Baal-worship would be removed from the Israelites through not only religious power (in his anointing Elisha as his successor), but also through the secular power - by anointing Jehu as the future king who would, in the future, eventually launch a coup that would bring him to power, destroy the ruling House of Omri, and bring Baal-worship to an end (Kings II 10).
Elisha carried on the work of Elijah after his death. As king, Jehu indeed temporarily restored the worship of G-d to the Northern Kingdom, but he soon found himself behaving in as arbitrary a manner as the House of Omri - and indeed virtually all the kings of Israel broke off with the worship of the Almighty sooner or later, right up to the capture and enforced exile of the Northern Kingdom under King Shalmanezzer V of the Assyrian Empire (720 BCE).
The Haftara relates Elijah's spectacular demonstration of G-d's power over Baal on Mount Carmel. The years of drought decreed by Elijah before King Ahab: no 'dew or rain will fall except with my permission' (Kings I 17:1) caused much suffering to the population. In the third year of the famine, G-d ordered Elijah to appear before Ahab (18:1). His first contact was with Obadiah, Ahab's manager, who had hidden the true prophets of G-d from Jezebel's wrath (18:13). Although Obadiah is recorded to have been a G-d-fearing servant (18:3), he was most reluctant to be seen in Elijah's association, as Ahab might suspect him of being on Elijah's side rather than his own. However, under Elijah's persuasion, Obadiah set the scene for Ahab's actually leaving his palace and going to meet Elijah, greeting him with: 'Is it you, O Troubler of Israel?' (18:17). And Elijah replies in kind - the troubles were not from him, but the inevitable consequence of the pagan Baal-worship perpetuated by the House of Omri. And before Ahab could catch his breath, he told him to summon the people - and especially the priests of Baal - to Mount Carmel.
Why did Ahab not do the obvious and order Elijah to be put to death? After all, here was a golden opportunity to get rid of his enemy - the man who brought so much suffering on himself and the people of Israel.
In simple response: Elijah was Ahab's conscience. He could remove Elijah from the face of the earth, but murdering Elijah would not take him out of his own conscience. This is developed below.
Although the text introduces Ahab as more evil than any of his predecessors, he had a conscience, which occasionally did make him hesitate. The most notable instance is with his obsession to purchase Naboth's vineyard. He was deeply distressed at Naboth's refusal to part with a cherished family inheritance (21:4). He did not know what to do. It was his murderous wife, Jezebel, who made his mind up for him. She was the one who trumped up the capital offence; it was her doings that led to his execution by royal decree. But when Elijah confronted him with a 'You murdered and you took possession', his attitude was a defensive 'Have you found me, O my enemy?' (21:20) rather than put him out of the way for unwarranted interference in royal proceedings. And when Elijah told him how G-d viewed his murder of Naboth, he 'tore his garments and fasted…' to the degree that G-d confided to Elijah: 'Do you see how Ahab humbles himself before Me? I will not bring evil on his dynasty in his lifetime…' (21:29)
This narrative opens a window on Ahab. He was hesitant, and it was very likely that side of his personality that Jezebel exploited on several occasions to get her own way. He was hesitant with Elijah because he recognized The Truth in him. Even if he could put him away, he knew that what Elijah stood for would catch up with him sooner or later - as indeed it did.
In a similar vein, although he was incensed about the famine that Elijah decreed, he knew that the 'Troubler of Israel' was a man of The Truth - as Pharaoh recognized Joseph as a man 'having the spirit of G-d in him' (Gen. 41:38). Getting rid of Elijah would not get rid of The Truth - which would catch up with him sooner or later.
As the text of the morning prayers state: 'A person… should acknowledge The Truth, and speak the truth in his heart.'
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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