By Amy Carr
Tonight I am drawn to thinking of a Benedictine commitment to “place” in terms of a commitment to the particular nation to which I belong. . . .
“I can’t believe I’m still protesting Nazis.”
I find these words – from posters I’ve seen from Charlottesville — reciting through my mind as I get up at 3 am, in what I fondly call one of those night vigils “after the manner of King David.”
But Elijah’s spirit is on my mind, too:
“I can’t believe there are still Baalites in the land.”
The Elijah-focused daily lectionary readings (at least for Lutherans) have resonated in discomfiting ways this past week.
Elijah invites the prophets of Baal and the prophets of YHWH to a public contest – a protest and a counter-protest – which culminates in YHWH winning with fire from heaven that sets ablaze a water-soaked sacrifice, and kindles the passion of Elijah to single-handedly slay 400 prophets of Baal.
No wonder he flees the fury of Queen Jezebel and hides at Mt. Horeb to listen for the word of YHWH – who appears not in wind or fire or earthquake but in a still small voice.
That voices seems to confirm Elijah’s zeal, for what does God say out of the silence?
“Go to Damascus, and anoint Hazael king over Aram, and Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha your successor as prophet. And it shall come to pass, that he who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay.”
It occurs to me that the reason Jews leave a chair for Elijah to witness every circumcision of a son could be to ward off the zeal of Elijah, who might be haunting every Jewish family to see if they will keep the covenant – and who might slay infant sons who aren’t dedicated to YHWH.
Then it occurs to me: perhaps Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind not only so he can return to anoint the messiah (in Christian testimony: in the person of John the Baptist), but also because YHWH isn’t done redirecting the zeal of this dedicated partisan of YHWH.
There are hints of this – a critique of Elijah’s manner of exercising his prophetic zeal for YHWH – in the oracles of the equally anti-Baalite prophet of a later generation, Hosea.
No one can doubt Hosea’s anti-Baalite credentials: he does, after all, obey YHWH’s command to marry Gomer the prostitute, who lusts after other men the way that Judah is lusting after Baal and other gods besides YHWH.
But what does YHWH command Hosea to name their first son?
“Call him Jezreel, for I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and I will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel.”
Hosea is ascribing the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the zeal of Jehu and Elisha in slaying the prior royal family and all the administrators who know how to govern – even if they had also built altars to Baal.
In effect, Hosea blames the Assyrian destruction of Israel on the anti-Baalite zeal of Elijah’s successors getting out of hand.
Can we Jews, Christians, and Muslims of later generations identify with Elijah only if we justify his zeal for slaying Baalites who killed YHWH’s own prophets?
Hosea himself perceives that this cycle of revenge killings is literally a dead end.
In what Walter Brueggemann calls the cycle of testimony and counter-testimony about YHWH in the Bible, Hosea’s own God-inspired vision nudges him to glimpse a new possibility – an alternative vision that is echoed by later prophets and psalmists in a cascade of oracles that appear after the exile to Babylon and the loss of both Israel and Judah as independent kingdoms.
Hosea’s second child with Gomer, a daughter, is named Not Beloved, for YHWH says, “I will have no more mercy upon the house of Israel, and I will utterly cause them to be carried away captive. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God, and will not save them by bow nor by sword nor by battle….”
When Not Beloved was weaned, Gomer gave birth to a third child, a son named Not My People, for YHWH says, “You are not my people and I will not be your God.”
But then YHWH adds: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered, and it shall come to pass that in the place where it was said to them, you are not my people, there it shall be said to them, you are the children of the living God.”
So Elijah kills Baalites in the name of YHWH, while Hosea marries a Baalite in what womanist biblical scholar Renita Weems acknowledges as a complex, abusive relationship in which Hosea publicly shames Gomer (symbolizing Israel stripped naked of land, its children disowned), yet constantly yearns for her to give up her other lovers.
Their children are cursed by God, yet in the very place of their rejection, they multiply – and God shall claim them after all.
I know that many of us today begin with those great covenantal visions of belonging – a vision Paul picks up and runs with when he says the Gentiles too are taken into covenant with YHWH through the rejected and crucified Christ Jesus – the son of Israel who carries the weight of all of YHWH’s acts of anointing and rejecting and redeeming.
But as we consider protests and anti-protests at Charlottesville, some of us will be called – driven – to ponder the legacies of zeal in our faith traditions.
White nationalist Christians see themselves as partisans of Elijah, of course – as do those of us who counter them with protests of our own.
“Whose side are you on?” is the meme of the day in my Facebook feed.
In the spirit of Elijah, we must choose: for YHWH or for Baal? Which version of God and of country will prevail?
That is the blessing of the zeal of Elijah: knowing there are times when we have to choose, in public, confrontational ways.
Hosea warns us, though, that how we express that zeal will have generational consequences. The blessing of the zeal of Hosea is to own those consequences – to marry into them and name the cursing of the children, to await the new day of their belonging together as one people.
“Then shall the children of Judah and the children of Israel be gathered together, and they shall appoint themselves one head, and they shall come up out of the land; for great is the day of Jezreel” (Hosea 1:11).
In the spirit of Elijah: our country needed to have a civil war to contest the god of white nationalism.
In the spirit of Hosea: the legacy of that war – and of white nationalism itself – still divides us as a country, and we name one another “Not My People,” “Not Beloved.”
We are still awaiting the next chapter of Hosea’s prophecy: “Say to your brothers, ‘Ammi, My People,’ and to your sisters, ‘Rekhimtha, Beloved.’”
And yet it is here right alongside the broken covenant of our country – a vision of who we are and who we can more fully become.
Only a vision of being “gathered together” (as children of the living God) would impel so many Americans to publicly witness against those who want a white god sovereign over the land.