Elijah: Man of God or Coward?

One of the most epic stories in the Bible is where Elijah squares off against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There are 450 prophets of Baal, and just 1 Elijah. Yet through a dramatic display, Yahweh shows himself to be the true God, and Elijah convinced the people to slaughter the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:40).

After the contest, Yahweh brings rain upon the land, relieving a 3 ½ year drought. Ahab, the king of Israel, sees all of this. Then, he returns to Jezreel and tells Jezebel, his Baal-worshipping wife, what Elijah had done. She sends Elijah a message, in which she promises to make him like the prophets of Baal (i.e., dead).

What is Elijah’s response?

Actually, this is where there are two diverging ideas. One idea follows the majority of English translations and claims that Elijah becomes cowardly and flees Jezebel and begins to mope over his existence. This idea is backed up by the translation, “Elijah was afraid” (1 Kings 19:3).

The problem is that there is good evidence that the Hebrew reads “Elijah saw.” In fact, the consonantal spelling of “Elijah was afraid” and “Elijah saw” are actually the same. It is only the pronunciation that is different. Older English translations translated this phrase as “Elijah saw,” but most modern translations have gone to “Elijah was afraid,” citing non-Hebrew evidence and the context that Elijah’s fear was the motivation for fleeing from Jezebel.

In contrast to the majority opinion, I don’t think Elijah was a coward, nor was he afraid of Jezebel.

First, with regard to the Hebrew reading, it is much easier to change “he saw” to “he was afraid.” But it doesn’t make sense for a scribe to edit “he was afraid” to “he saw.” Hence, by that simple test, “Elijah saw” is much more likely to be the original reading.

Second, the overall context lends support to Elijah’s boldness. I mean, come on! He literally just stood on a mountain alone against king Ahab, the people of Israel, and 450 prophets of Baal! It is unlikely in the extreme that Elijah would buckle at the knees at the sound of a boisterous woman like Jezebel immediately following such an experience.

So, if Elijah was not afraid, why did he run? If we take the reading as “Elijah saw.” To answer this, we must ask what did Elijah see? The best explanation seems to be that Elijah saw that the repentance from Baal worship to Yahweh which he hoped to inspire was short-lived. Ahab did not depose Jezebel. Rather, he allowed (and possibly encouraged) the threats against Elijah’s life. Thus, the leadership of Israel did not return to Yahweh. The people were not showing signs of long-term revival. Thus, Elijah’s proclamation, “I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kgs 19:4). In other words, just like his predecessors, Elijah could not bring about the heart change that the nation needed.

But still, why did Elijah run south? Why did Elijah ask God to kill him? If our observations are correct so far, we can surmise that Elijah ran, not because of fear, but to escape Jezebel killing him. If Jezebel were to kill the prophet Elijah, it would be seen as a victory for Baal. Elijah could not stomach the thought of glorifying Baal, so he went far south where his death would not have a link to Jezebel or Baal worship. There, because of his brokenness, Elijah asked God to take his life. Elijah realized that he had failed to affect repentance in the nation, and it broke his heart. He was done.

This picture of Elijah is a bit different than the picture painted by the majority of commentators. Yet, I think it provides an accurate picture of Elijah. He was not an unfaithful prophet who stopped trusting in God and feared Jezebel. Rather, he served the Lord faithfully and had his heart broken by the stubborn, unrepentant spirit of his people.

The Feast of Booths and the Kingdom of the Messiah

If you are reading this article, congratulations! You are one of the few and the daring to spend your time investigating the Old Testament ceremonial laws. The only question you are asking yourself right now is—is reading about the Feast of Booths worth it? And yes, it is. In fact, the New Testament assumes you know about the Feast of Booths!

Many people grow up in church with an insufficient emphasis given to the details of the of the Old Testament. It is also likely that few Christians ever get a lesson on the Feast of Booths. After all, if Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament, why would we want to know about the details found in OT? To answer this question, follow along with me and I will show you some of the important benefits to knowing about the Feast of Booths.

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What is the Feast of Booths?

The Feast of Booths (Sukkot in Hebrew) was important for those in the OT and the NT. It was one of three times a year where all of the males in Israel were mandated to come to Jerusalem before God (Deut 16:16). The Feast of Booths was an 8 day celebration (beginning Tishri 15 on the Jewish Calendar), which happens to be in September/October in our calendar. During this feast, the people would live in temporary shelters (booths) and give offerings to the Lord (Lev 23:36). According to Lev 23:42, this was for native Jews only.

The Purpose of the Feast of Booths

The purpose of the Feast of Booths was to remind Israel that God brought them out of the land of Egypt, redeeming His people and giving them salvation from Egypt (Lev 26:43). Israel went from living in Egypt to the wilderness at Sinai, and their temporary shelters during the Feast of Booths was to be a reminder of when the nation lived in temporary shelters coming out of Egypt. It was a reminder of God’s faithfulness and goodness to Israel.

The Feast of Booths and the Kingdom of the Messiah

There is a very interesting detail found in Zechariah 14 concerning the kingdom of the Messiah. Zechariah 14 describes the return of the Messiah and His victory over those who oppose the people of Israel. After having secured His kingdom, Zech 14:16 says:   “Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths.”

Here we see the application of the Feast of Booths given to the nations being ruled by Israel in the Messiah’s kingdom. Previously the Feast of Booths was applicable to the Israelites. However, in the Zechariah 14 world, the nations will be obligated to worship and commemorate the Lord’s faithfulness and redemption. According to the prophet Zechariah, there will be severe penalty for those who choose not to celebrate (Zech 14:18-19).

It seems that the significance of the Feast of Booths undergoes a change in significance at this time. Maybe the Feast of Booths is for the nations their own memorial of their wilderness wanderings away from God?

The Feast of Booths and the Transfiguration

Interestingly, Zechariah 14 seems to be the background of the Transfiguration in Matt 17. After Peter sees the glory of the Messiah, he proclaims that he will build three booths if the Lord allows him (Matt 17:4).

Was Peter just a crazy man who suddenly decided to camp out? No, he realized that Zechariah 14 prophesied that when the Messiah comes in His kingdom, then there will be a multinational celebration of the Feast of Booths. Peter wanted to get a head start on the celebration! However, it was not yet time for Jesus to set up His kingdom, and so it was not yet time to commemorate that celebration.

In the case of the Feast of Booths, the details of the Old Testament help us understand the Messiah’s future kingdom. Additionally, this information also sheds light on why Peter acted the way they did during the Transfiguration. After all, like a good Jewish schoolboy, Peter would have relied upon the Old Testament as the main basis for his theology. Thus, we are reminded again that we ought not to neglect a detailed study of the Old Testament, for it forms the foundation upon which the New Testament builds.

photo credit: Begemot via photopin cc

This updated article originally appeared, Sept 23, 2014.

Does the Bible Command a Girl to Marry Her Rapist?

Critics of the Bible often point to Deuteronomy 22:28–29 as evidence that the Bible is hopelessly out of touch with ethical norms and the common decency which marks contemporary society. This passage reads as follows:

“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days” (NASB).

Does this passage teach that a girl who is raped must marry her rapist?

In order to answer this question, we must first examine the context of this law. The context of this passage gives us two important details: (1) this law is casuistic, and (2) this is only one part of a cohesive section that should to be considered as a whole.

The first point, that this law is casuistic, needs explaining. Biblical laws are typically defined as either casuistic or apodictic. Apodictic laws state general principles. The most famous example of apodictic laws is the Ten Commandments (e.g., Exod 20; Deut 5). Laws such as “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” give general principles, but lack concrete examples by which they are illustrated. Casuistic laws, on the other hand, give concrete cases in which principles must be extracted from the details of the specific scenario given. Casuistic laws are usually given away by the if/then structure.

It is important to understand that casuistic law was never intended to be ultimate. Rather, it was intended as a template by which the elders of Israel could evaluate situations on a case by case basis. An easy example of this would be the casuistic law in Exodus 22:1, where a situation is described of a thief who steals an ox or a sheep. If that situation occurs, there ought to be restitution. Does this law thereby exempt thieves who stoop to stealing other animals? Certainly not. The laws were not meant to be exhaustive, but rather regulative, giving a standard. Thus, the first thing to understand is that this casuistic law in Deuteronomy 22:28–29 is not the only consideration to be made in a case of rape.

Moving on to the second major contextual takeaway, we should understand that Deuteronomy 22:13–30 is all one section on laws governing sexual behavior. This section (22:13–30) breaks up into four major parts.

  • The first section deals with what to do with an accusation that a girl has had sex before her marriage (22:13–21).
  • The second section deals with adultery (22:22).
  • The third section deals with two scenarios of the possible rape of a betrothed virgin (22:23 – 27).
  • The final section deals with the rape of an unbetrothed virgin (22:28–29).

The third scenario bears a need for closer scrutiny. In this scenario, the man always is put to death for his sexual transgressions (22:24–25). The girl is killed only if it is determined that she was a willing accomplice (v. 24). If the girl had no opportunity to cry for help, it is assumed she is innocent (v. 25).

Clearly this third scenario demonstrates that biblical law holds the rapist accountable for his actions (the death penalty), while at the same time showing empathy for the rape victim. In fact, Deut 2:26 describes rape as akin to murder—which is why the man must be put to death.

As we shift to the fourth scenario (Deut 22:28–29) we note a major detail—that the girl is not betrothed (i.e., she does not have a husband to take care of her). In a society where economic security was largely dependent upon marriage, a girl who was not a virgin would have a difficult time marrying in the future, thus leaving her economically disadvantaged. So, for this particular case, there is an important economic factor involved. Hence, the law mandates that the man be allowed to live, for the purpose that he marry (and thus economically provide for) the girl who would otherwise might be deprived of a future.

That said, there is also no reason to imagine the girl in question is forced to marry the man. That mindset would go against the entire ethos of the case laws leading up to this one. As the previous laws demonstrate, rape is a serious crime, and the man deserves death. However, with the girl’s economic future at stake, the man could be allowed to live as long as he provided for the girl through the economic benefits inherent to marriage in ancient Israel.

Were there alternatives to the young woman? It certainly seems so. The woman could choose to live under the care of her father or her brother (cf. 1 Sam 13:20), another relative, or even get married to another man (e.g., Ruth). However, each of these alternatives is only possible based on availability. For example, what if she had no brothers, or her brothers too young? Or, what if her father was aged and would die well before she did? What happens after her father’s death? You can imagine that in a society such as ancient Israel, marriage was particularly vital for the economic security of the woman. That is why this case law specifically says that the man cannot divorce her, and must be bound to her for the rest of his life (presumably if the woman and her family agree this is best).

I think it is quite inaccurate to claim that this law forces a girl to marry her rapist. Such a conclusion would go against the ethos of the laws on rape already present in this section. Since this is a casuistic law, it can be assumed that there are certain principles in play that are not spelled out (such as the girl’s consent). In a family-oriented economic society, this law provided for the future of a victim of rape should she choose it. However, there is no reason to assume that she did not have an option in the matter. But this law attempts to provide a kindness in making a future available for this young girl should none other be found.

Is it Okay to Prove the Bible by Using the Bible?

Christians are often accused of circular reasoning. Those who level these accusations say that it is improper to argue that the Bible is God’s Word by using the Bible as evidence for that. This argument may appear strong at a surface level, but it neglects the real issues involved in epistemology (the study of how we know things).

How do we know anything?

Most people will acknowledge these three possibilities for how we know things as human beings:

1. Authority

2. Rationalism (reason or thought)

3. Empiricism (observation or experience)

Which of the three options is most reliable? Either someone has the authority to tell us what is true (God), or we logically figure it out (reason with logic), or else we are able to observe or experience it (i.e., observe it through a scientific process).

What most people fail to realize is that in questions of ultimate authority, each decision is self-referential and circular. For example, if one believes that science has the answers and provides the ultimate authority, how does he explain his belief in science as the ultimate authority? Well… because the practice of science demonstrates it is reliable.

Science circular reasoning

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