By Fair Means or "Fowl"

Introduction: Enter Elijah

"Like a thunderbolt."
Before we get in over our heads, let’s start off with a little of the historical context of this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures by remembering that, after King Solomon’s death, Israël was divided into two kingdoms: the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem, and the northern kingdom of Israël whose capital was Samaria. While a man named Asa was ruling over Judah, King Omri of Israël died and his son Ahab took his place on the throne. The northern kings had slowly been mixing the worship of other gods with the worship of the God of Israël, but under Ahab, things went from bad to worse: “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”  [1]

Enter Elijah, one of the Hebrew Bible’s most important characters. We hear his name for the first time at the very beginning of 1 Kings 17, which opens,

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab—from 1 Kings 17:1

An introduction which one commentary describes this way:

The startling suddenness of Elijah’s leap into the arena, where he appears without preface or explanation, helps the impression of extraordinary force which his whole career makes. He crashes into the midst of Ahab’s court like a thunderbolt. [2]

Elijah’s introductory words, appropriately enough, are not a threat, but a promise: the promise that because of the unfaithfulness of Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, there will be no rain in Israël—there won’t even be any dew—until he says so.

Now remember, it’s not like Elijah is immune to the drought he’s promising. He can’t exactly climb on a private jet and fly off to San Diego (where, we’ve now been told, there isn’t really a drought [3]). But he can follow God’s leading, which in the end, is probably better than a private jet. And here’s how he interpreted God’s will for what he was to do next…

Part I: God’s Masks

Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi. —from 1 Kings 17:3-4

A wadi is an intermittent stream. So at least there’s water. And this was no accident, for it would be “cold and lifeless” to represent God as a “momentary Creator,” who completed the divine work once and for all, and then just left it to fend for itself. [4] This is not something we can just pass over if we want to study the scriptures, because the notion that God “works not only upon but within history” is central to both the Jewish and the Christian religions. [5] But back in the 16th century, John Calvin complained that this belief had “not only been obscured, but almost buried”; and nearly 500 years later, another theologian, Michael Horton, says that this belief is “one of the most challenged doctrines in our day.” [6] People of faith seem perfectly happy to allow God the honor of having been the Creator of the universe, but after that, we seem to think that the universe has been nothing more than an enormous timepiece: ticking away according to the rules set for it in the beginning, with no involvement or interference from its Maker. [7]

Passover and Christmas beg to differ, of course, for they describe a God who set things in motion, but who is still involved. The resulting exodus and resurrection describe a God of freedom, telling us of something beyond the rules of nature, something of shalom and abundant life.

And so let’s allow that perhaps this prophet of God who crashed Ahab’s party really was spoken to by God of providence during a drought—that God did care enough about the covenant with Israël to intervene when things in the northern kingdom began to head south, and that Elijah was the one God intended to do something about it. If so, then Israël would need Elijah. And if he was going to fulfill his rôle in God’s universe, Elijah would either need manna or a milkmaid.

In the Book of Exodus, of course, we read how Israël was starving in the wilderness and God rained down upon them bread from heaven. [8] This bread was called manna, and manna is an example of direct providence—the obvious interference of God on behalf of God’s people.

Most providence, however, is indirect. And all of us experience it many times every day of our lives. Nobody ever better explained it than Martin Luther, who said that in the vocation of our neighbors, God provides for us. The milkmaid and the baker “are the masks of God, behind which he wants to remain concealed and do all things.” [9]

And so Elijah knew where in the wilderness beyond the Jordan his water was to come from, but what about food? Would God rain down manna from heaven, or was there to be a milkmaid? And if so, who would the milkmaid be?

Part II: Fair Means or “Fowl”

So he went and lived by the wadi, and the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. —from 1 Kings 17:5-6

This is certainly unexpected. Yes, it’s a miracle. Though it’s not uncommon to be fed by birds, that feeding usually takes the form of Thanksgiving turkey or eggs over easy. For birds to actually deliver meat and bread to a servant of God is obviously an act of God.

As thinking people in the 21st century, it is, of course, easy to dismiss this story as fable. It’s certainly possible that Elijah correctly predicted a drought and then hid himself away in the desert where he drank from an intermittent stream and ate whatever birds he could get his hands on. But it’s not very likely that the birds, in order to avoid being food, actually brought other food to the prophet. So if you don’t want to believe it, that’s fine by me.

But unless we’re willing to suspend our disbelief, we’re going to miss out on something important here. And that is that the Bible is broadening our thinking in ways other than just believing in the providence of God. For ravens are not just birds. They, like pigs and lobsters and rock badgers, are listed in the Bible as being unclean. [10]

And so if we’re to take this story seriously at all, we need to picture a Hebrew prophet of God doing the equivalent of accepting food brought to him in the mouth of a sow, for the beak of a raven is no cleaner than that. For the Law of Moses stated that it was not only wrong to eat the meat of an unclean animal, but it was also unclean to touch the carcass of an unclean animal. While the law doesn’t specifically forbid eating from an unclean animal’s mouth, I would imagine that any stickler for the law would refrain from doing so at all costs.

Which pretty much proves—in my mind at least—that Elijah was not the stickler for the law that we might picture him to be. Accepting a pail of milk from a milkmaid is a very fair means of acknowledging God’s providence. Accepting unknown meat from a carrion bird is just about the foulest (fowlest?) means of acknowledging God’s providence that I can imagine.

Perhaps if you’d asked Elijah before this happened if he’d ever consider eating meat brought to him in the beak of a raven, he’d have answered, “Nevermore.” But at the Wadi Cherith, when the future of Israël’s relationship with God is at stake, he comes to understand that obeying the spirit of the law is sometimes more important than obeying the letter of the law.

Part III: Next Steps

But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. —1 Kings 17:7

The ravens’ rôle as Elijah’s milkmaid was limited to food. When the water ran out, he was forced to consider what he needed to do next. Elijah, you see, wasn’t just a dour prophet, calling down death and destruction on innocent people, and then avoiding the consequences by hiding in the desert and letting God take care of him. He wasn’t God’s person as much as he was one of God’s people. And so from the Wadi Cherith he followed God’s leading to the west and north to the city of Zarephath. There he discovered the consequences of the drought he’d either called for or predicted (depending on how you choose to look at it)—not on the theology of the king, but on the lives of widows and orphans. And this will be the subject of next week’s sermon.

Today, suffice it to say that we are a pilgrim people. [11] Elijah’s time alone was not to last forever. His passive reception of God’s providence needed at some point to come to an end. And when the wadi dried up, he knew it was time to move on. God had used him to announce judgment, and now he needed to face the consequences of his obedience to God.

And there would be consequences. He needed to see how the promised judgment was hurting people who weren’t responsible for the problem. And he needed to see how he, too, was under threat, and just how it was that God was going to see him through the difficulties that lay ahead.

Conclusion: One of Us

Speak truth to power.
—Bayard Rustin
Elijah was a great prophet, yes. He performed wonders that will probably never be part of our own witness. But his greatness is due less to miracles than to obedience. And we saw several ways today how his story, when you boil it down to its essentials, can also be part of our story.

First, Elijah saw a problem and was not afraid to point it out. It is not an easy thing to tell an evil king that he is evil, but Elijah spoke the truth to power. [12] Maggie Kuhn was an example of a modern-day Elijah. As an advocate for the rights of seniors, she told us to…

Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. [13]

Elijah was also an example of trust. We might never be fed by ravens, but we, too, can have faith that God will provide. One of the first ways we can do this is to be grateful for what we already have, and to acknowledge that it came to us through one of the many “masks of God”—that God is active in the world not just through the laws of physics and not just in fantastic miracles, but most often (and probably most importantly) through the faithfulness and kindness of our neighbors. There is nothing we will use, nothing we will eat this week that we are solely responsible for: we will come by all of it through the hands of others.

Many of those others are the very people we judge most harshly. No, we probably wouldn’t use the biblical term unclean to talk about them. But deep down, it’s possible that that’s just what we’re thinking. We have entered a point in our history where it is suddenly acceptable to speak of mass deportations and travel bans. I pray that this is an aberration, for certainly no child of God can possibly look at another of God’s children with such disdain. If Elijah’s need forced him to look into a raven’s beak and see there the divine hand, then who are we to look into a well-meaning neighbor’s eyes and see there anything but the gift of God?

And turn about is fair play. When a neighbor looks into our eyes, will they see our judgment or God’s kindness? When they see our open hand, will they reach out to receive a gift or flinch in fear?

And finally, just as the Wadi Cherith wasn’t a permanent hiding place, neither is the church. We come here not to settle down permanently, but to be strengthened for the journey ahead. Our task is to look for signs of God’s presence in the world around us, to extend to others the forgiveness that we ourselves receive, to proclaim the good news that we’ve heard, and to use the resources that we’ve been given in ways that help and not hurt.

Elijah the prophet could be frightening at times. God knows, he could be frightening. But when we put his life in the context of our lives, he becomes more—and less—than superman. He becomes one of us, and we become prophets of God.

—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

  1. 1 Kings 16:30. 
  2. Alexander Maclaren, A Prophet’s Strange Providers, Expositions of Holy Scripture: The Second Book of Samuel and The Books of Kings to II Kings VII (Londer: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), p. 284. 
  3. Jill Colvin & Ellen Knickmeyer, Trump tells California ‘there is no drought,’ San Diego Union-Tribune (27 May 2016), electronic ed. 
  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.16.1. 
  5. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2011) p. 350. 
  6. See Institutes 1.16.2 and The Christian Faith, p. 353. 
  7. Such a belief is known as Deism, and many of the founding fathers of this country were Deists. Because Christianity (whose central doctrine of the Incarnation requires God’s direct involvement in creation) and Deism are incompatible, it cannot be said that this nation was founded on “Christian” principles. 
  8. See Exodus 16. 
  9. Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 147. Luther’s doctrinal point here is not so much about providence, but about vocation: all Christians have a calling, for anyone can serve God in the work they do. 
  10. See Leviticus 11:15 and Deuteronomy 14:14. 
  11. A New Zealand Prayer Book (Anglican, 1988) has a beautiful prayer (for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost) to help us understand this context: God, you have given us a lodging in this world but not an abiding city. Help us, as a pilgrim people, to endure hardness, knowing that at the end of our journey Christ has prepared a place for us
  12. This beautiful turn of phrase originated in a 1955 Quaker publication, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, written in large part by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Rustin wished to downplay his part in writing it because his homosexuality was being used to discount the civil rights movement. 
  13. From a Presbyterian Church (USA) publication on Women’s History Month. See