Can’t Blame Sports, II Kings 1

1.  Zosia Zaks, Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults, page 300:

Boys on the spectrum often mention the pressure to be athletic as one of the only means of creating social connections to other boys.  This can be intensely difficult for a boy who is uncoordinated or otherwise completely uninterested in sports.  Some men on the spectrum look back to their boyhoods and only remember social failure because they couldn’t hit a ball.  As adults, some say they don’t know how to make friends with other men because sports—something they know next to nothing about—forms the bulk of conversation and recreation among men.

I identify with this a lot, but I can’t entirely blame people’s interest in sports for my lack of social dexterity.  At Harvard, people didn’t talk much about sports, but I didn’t fit in there, either!

2.  For my weekly quiet time today, I studied II Kings 1.  King Ahaziah of Northern Israel fell from his upper chamber and became sick as a result, so he sent messengers to the Philistine city of Ekron to inquire of the god Baal-zebub if he would get better.  Why did Ahaziah send messengers there, of all places?  First of all, while scholars have disagreements about Baal-zebub, they largely agree (as far as I can tell) that he was a god who had control of diseases.  Ahaziah may have wanted to see if Baal-zebub would remove his sickness and allow him to live.  Second, Ekron and the Philistines were known for their skill in divination (I Samuel 6:2; Isaiah 2:6).  And, third, Ahaziah didn’t want people in Israel to know that he was sick, for unscrupulous Israelites could take advantage of his situation and take power for themselves.  Consequently, Ahaziah sent messengers to a foreign city, Ekron.

On the way to Ekron, Ahaziah’s messengers encounter the prophet Elijah, who says that the king will die and criticizes the king for consulting another god than the God of Israel.  The messengers return to the king and relay Elijah’s message, and the king sends a captain with fifty men to capture Elijah.  First, why did the king want to capture Elijah?  I think that Walter Bruegemann hits the nail on the head: Elijah was considered a subversive because he predicted the death of the king.  Ahaziah’s father, Ahab, referred to Elijah as “Troubler” (I Kings 18:17) and “Enemy” (I Kings 21:20).  Bruegemann calls Elijah the “Great Destabilizer,” which was probably Ahaziah’s impression of the prophet.

Second, why did Ahaziah send fifty men?  It wouldn’t take that many people to capture Elijah, would it?  Maybe the king wanted to show Elijah that he (the king) was superior.  Or perhaps the king realized that Elijah had tricks up his sleeve: he could disappear and call down fire from heaven (I Kings 18).  If more of the king’s people were around Elijah, Elijah could be successfully captured, Ahaziah may have thought.

But Ahaziah and his men underestimated Elijah’s (or, more accurately, God’s) power.  When Elijah is on top of a hill, and Ahaziah’s captain commands Elijah to come down, Elijah calls down fire from God, which consumes the captain and his fifty men.  This happens a second time.  The third time, the captain approaches Elijah with more humility, and so Elijah comes down the hill and goes with him to the king.  Elijah then tells Ahaziah about his impending death.

Many Christians like to read this story in light of Luke 9:52-56.  Jesus wants to enter a Samaritan village, and he sends his messengers to prepare the way for him, but the Samaritans don’t welcome them.  Jesus’ disciples ask if they can call down fire from heaven, as Elijah did, and Jesus said “no,” for he came to save lives, not to kill.  Many Christians conclude from this that the Old Testament is about God’s wrath, whereas the New Testament is about God’s grace.

The religion in which I grew up (Armstrongism) focused a lot on the Old Testament.  We were taught to appreciate the Old Testament’s death penalties as just, and we were told that Jesus in the New Testament had a significant wrath-side himself, especially in the Book of Revelation.  Armstrongism never really bought into the dismissal of the Old Testament that is popular in some sectors of Christianity. 

But there was one sermon I heard that departed from this.  The preacher referred to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah appeared next to Jesus to the disciples Peter, James, and John.  Eventually, Moses and Elijah disappear, and the three disciples are alone with Jesus.  They come down the mountain, not with Moses and not with Elijah, but with Jesus.  And the preacher exhorted us to come down the mountain with Jesus.  Elijah sent down fire from heaven, which consumed people, and the preacher thought that was pretty hairy!  Our approach should be more merciful, like Jesus.

I can see the point of both Elijah’s action and also Jesus’ refusal to imitate Elijah.  Elijah saw a need to show the king that he should respect God and God’s prophet.  Commanding God’s prophet to “come down” was not respect.  It was arrogance.  And so Elijah’s act of calling down fire from heaven taught the king that God deserved reverence, and it also took the king off of his high horse.  Jesus, however, wanted to save men’s lives—to show them God’s love, and he didn’t feel that he could do so if he called fire down on everyone who rejected him.  There’s a time for wrath, and there’s a time for mercy.  Both are infused with God’s nature, in some way, shape, or form. 

In my day-to-day life, though, I prefer to come down the mountain with Jesus, especially since Romans 12:19-21 tells us not to avenge ourselves, but to leave vengeance to God, as we do good to our enemies.  Does that mean that we should sacrifice our dignity and allow others to walk all over us?  I don’t think so, for Paul criticizes the Corinthians for allowing the super-apostles to abuse them (II Corinthians 11:19-20).  In my opinion, there’s a place for turning the other cheek (as Jesus did towards the Samaritans), and there’s a place for standing up for our rights and our dignity, or for the honor of God (as did Elijah).      

I also find it interesting that King Ahaziah was capable of some humility.  He was proud and authoritarian.  He sent soldiers, who boldly ordered a man of God to come on down.  Yet, he was also vulnerable.  When he was sick, he wondered if he was about to die, and so he tried to inquire of a god, Baal-zebub.  But this was for his convenience.  In his mind, he wasn’t committing himself to the service of a being greater than himself.  The worship of the true God would have required him to do that!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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