Melachim II Two: Elijah Goes to Heaven

Elijah and Elisha are together, and it’s almost time for Elijah to die. Well, not to die exactly, according to tradition. “And it was when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, that Elijah and Elisha went from Gilgal (Kings II 2:1).” So Elijah is going to be taken up to heaven, but the oddness and the ambiguity in this verse has led to a great deal of lore about whether or not he really died, and if he’ll return someday. But at this point, Elijah and Elisha stay together and go to Bethel. Both men know that this is the day that Elijah will go to heaven, and Elisha promises to stay with him until that moment. Their travels continue, and they go to Jericho, and then to the Jordan.

“And Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water, and it divided to this side and to that side; and they both crossed on dry land (Kings II 2:8).” There are plenty of allusions here to the previous times when the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, and to when Moses split the sea in the Exodus. At this point, Elijah and Elisha have left the holiness of the land, ceremoniously crossing the border into the unknown and unfamiliar. Elijah asks Elisha what he wants as a reward for his loyalty. All that Elisha wants is a double portion of the spirit of his mentor, which seems like a very noble request. He wants the blessings of the great prophet. It’s a very touching scene. The two clearly have deep affection for one another, and they’re walking and talking in a very intimate way.

“And it was that they were going, walking and talking, and behold a fiery chariot and fiery horses, and they separated them both. And Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (Kings II 2:11).” I can’t even imagine such a dramatic, awesome scene. Elisha is overwhelmed by it, and cries for Elijah. Elijah was his father figure, his mentor and guide, and now he’s gone. Even though they were together up until the very last minute, they don’t get to say goodbye. I think this shows that no matter what, when someone is taken away, there are always things that we didn’t get to say and feelings of regret over moments that weren’t taken advantage of. But Elisha quickly picks himself up, takes Elijah’s mantle, both literally and figuratively, and goes back to the river. Elisha is now the one who splits the river and crosses back. The disciples, who remained in Jericho, see him returning and know that he is the new prophet. His wish came true, and Elijah’s blessings have settled on him.

 

Melachim II One: Ahaziah

The second part of the saga of the kings of Israel and Judah begins with rebellion. “Moab rebelled against Israel after Ahab’s death (Kings II 1:1).” Ahaziah, who is reigning in Samaria, becomes sick, and decides to have his messengers check with Baal to see if he’ll get better. But God knows of his intentions, and sends Elijah to intercept the messengers and to tell them that he will die, because he has forgotten the God of Israel. Elijah obeys, and the messengers return to Ahaziah to tell him the tragic news, that he will die of his illness.

Ahaziah isn’t initially distressed. Instead, he asks who it was that said this. “And they said, ‘He was a hairy man, with a leather belt girded around his waist.’ And he said, ‘He is Elijah the Tishbite (Kings II 1:8).'” If Ahaziah knew exactly who Elijah was, it’s clear that God, and His prophet, weren’t too far from his mind. Why, then, was his instinct to go to Baal, instead of to reach out to God?

This time, he springs into action immediately. He sends fifty men to get Elijah. It doesn’t really work out as planned though. “And Elijah replied, and spoke to the captain of fifty, ‘Now, if I am a man of God, let a fire come down from the heaven and consume you and your fifty men!’ And a fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty men (Kings II 1:10).” This is repeated when a second troop is sent, and then a third one comes. In this case, the captain kneels before Elijah and begs him to come, rather than callously attempting to summon the prophet. This approach works, and God tells Elijah to go with the third captain. They go to Ahaziah, and the message is repeated. The chapter ends with Ahaziah’s death, which indicates to me that this book will truly continue the trends of the previous one.

Melachim I Twenty-Two: Reunion

“And they lived [peacefully] three years; there were no wars between Aram and Israel (Kings I 22:1).” Things seem ok for a time, but of course, that never lasts. In this third year, Jehoshaphat, who is now the king of Judah, comes to see the king of Israel. The two kings decide to join forces against the king of Aram in order to reclaim Ramot Gilead. Finally, after so many generations, the two halves of the Israelite people are working together once again. They want a blessing on their mission though, so they decide to summon a prophet to confirm that they’re moving in the right direction. “And the king of Israel summoned one eunuch, and said, ‘Bring Micaiah the son of Imlah at once (Kings I 22:9).'”

The two kings each have a throne, and they sit in all of their glory with the prophets before them. This reconciliation all seems pretty sudden, but it’s nice to see collaboration happening amongst the people, even if it is going to be at Aram’s expense. All of the prophets speak favorably about the mission, including Micaiah.

The battle is bloody, but the Israelites prevail. “Ahab lay with his forefathers, and Achaziah his son reigned in his place (Kings I 22:40).” Jehoshaphat’s reign is also shared. He’s Asa’s son, and is king for twenty-five years. He always does good in God’s eyes. “However, the high places he did not remove. The people were still sacrificing and offering in the high places (Kings I 22:44).” He seems like a moderate king. He himself is loyal to God, but he doesn’t fully impose his own practices on the people. He does, however, make peace with Israel, and is thought of positively. Eventually he dies, and his so Jehoram takes the throne. The chapter, and the book, end with us learning that Ahab’s son does evil in God’s eyes. “He worshipped the Baal, he bowed to him and he provoked the Lord, God of Israel to anger, like all that his father had done (Kings I 22:54).”

On this final, ominous, and somewhat anticlimactic note, the first book of Kings ends. It’s not fully clear to me why this book is two books, but another one is complete! This book definitely wasn’t a favorite of mine. The ongoing battle scenes are confusing, and the constantly changing cast of kings is hard to keep up with. This, coupled with the lack of meaningful lessons or stories, made this portion of Tanakh less than compelling for me. But I’m eager to press forward. 620 chapters to go!

Melachim I Twenty-One: Ahab

“And it was after these happenings, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab, the king of Samaria (Kings I 21:1).” It’s nice when the text makes the segways itself. Anyway, Ahab asks Naboth for his vineyard, and promises him another one and money in its place. This seems like a reasonable trade, but Naboth says no, because this specific land is his inheritance. This is a conflict that probably plays out in the same spot until today – an ongoing battle over specific land that everyone wants, in a world where there’s plenty of open land just a short distance away. I don’t say that to trivialize conflicts over land though. I completely understand the visceral connection that we have to our ancestral spaces, even if it doesn’t make perfect fiscal sense.

Anyway, Ahab is upset. He’s too sad to eat, because he really wanted that vineyard. “And Jezebel his wife came to him, and spoke to him, ‘For what is this that your spirit has left you and you do not eat bread (Kings I 21:5)?'” Ahab tells her what’s going on. It seems like he’s trying to be a kind king, but Jezebel seems to have a more dictatorship model in mind. She promises him the vineyard, a promise she decides to deliver on by writing letters in Ahab’s name that lead to Naboth being stoned to death. I’m starting to see why posterity views this woman as pure evil. It’s terrible, because Ahab doesn’t seem like such a bad guy, but he’s completely weak and corruptible. Jezebel is strong and cunning, and calculatingly evil. Not a good match. But passive Ahab rolls with it. “And it was as Ahab heard that Naboth had died, that Ahab got up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite to take possession of it (Kings I 21:16).”

Elijah hears about these events, and God tells him to go to Ahab and curse him for his actions. Ahab is cursed in that his house will be like Jeroboam and Baasha, with every male descendant killed. “And also concerning Jezebel, the Lord spoke saying, ‘The dogs will eat Jezebel in the valley of Jezreel (Kings I 21:23).” Ahab is dominated by his wife, but he’s also easily swayed. He hears the curse and begins to fast and dress in rags. As a result of this penitence, Elijah gives him a small reprieve. The curse will still come to be, but not in the days of Ahab. God will wait for his son to reign in order to bring about the result of this prophecy. This shows that even when we repent, sometimes it isn’t enough to stave off the inevitable. Actions do have consequences, even if they aren’t for us.

Melachim I Twenty: Ben-Haddad

So, war is back. “And Ben-Haddad the king of Aram gathered all his army and thirty-two kings with him and horses and chariots, and he went up and besieged Samaria and waged war with it (Kings I 20:1).” He sends messengers to Ahab, saying that all of his silver and gold and his wives and children are his. Ahab agrees, but the messengers bring back a false reply. “And the king of Israel summoned all the elders of the land and said, ‘Please realize and see that this is looking to cause harm, for he has sent to me for my wives, my sons, my silver and gold, and I have not denied him (Kings I 20:7).'” Ahab agreed to totally humble himself, but the people encourage him to stand up and say no to Ben-Haddad.

Ahab prepares to do battle with Ben-Haddad. “And they went out at noon and Ben-Haddad was drinking himself drunk in the pavilions, he and the kings – the thirty-two kings who aided him (Kings I 20:16).” The Israelites defeat his troops, but the king escapes on horseback with some of his companions. Eventually, Ben-Haddad fulfills a prophecy, by returning to once again do battle against the Israelites and loses again. The Israelites slaughter the Arameans, but he escapes again. This goes against most of the codes of bravery that the Israelites subscribe to, where the leader of people would lead the troops into battle, rather than repeatedly abandoning his people.

Melachim I Nineteen: Elijah and Elisha

So Elijah has prevailed against the prophets of Baal. “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and all that he had killed all of the prophets with the sword (Kings I 19:1).” Jezebel, as we know, is basically evil incarnate, and she threatens Elijah. “He went to the desert, a distance of one day’s travel, and he came and sat under a juniper and requested that his soul die, He said, ‘Enough, now Lord take my soul as I am not better than my forefathers (Kings I 19:4).'” Elijah, who displayed such power earlier, now seems resigned to his fate. But God has other plans. An angel comes to Elijah and has him eat and drink and sustains him for forty days and nights. He lives in a cave, and eventually, God comes to him.

“And He said, ‘Go out and stand in the mountain before the Lord, Behold! the Lord passes, and a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake-not in the earthquake was the Lord (Kings I 19:11).'” Elijah has been zealous and loyal, and God protects him. He sends him to Damascus to appoint a new king over Aram. “And Jehu, the son of Nimshi, you shall anoint as king over Israel, and Elisha, the son of Shafat from Abel Meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your stead (Kings I 19:16).”

Elijah finds Elisha, and it’s time to reclaim the people from Baal.

Melachim I Eighteen: Prophet Showdown

Prophecy follows prophecy. “And it was [after] many days that the word of God came to Elijah in the third year, saying, ‘Go, appear to Ahab and I will give rain upon the surface of the earth (Kings I 18:1).'” There’s apparently a major famine in the land, which is usually the result of some big crisis or disobedience. In this case, Jezebel had cut off God’s prophets, and Obadiah, who seems to be Ahab’s chief of staff, had secretly hidden them and taken care of them. This doesn’t seem to explain why exactly there’s a famine at this particular juncture, but the story continues.

Obadiah’s out on the road, and he encounters Elijah. He recognizes him and bows. Elijah tells him to go get Ahab. Obadiah is scared to do so, which I’m not fully sure why. I guess Ahab didn’t know he was taking care of the prophets, and is scared to have this secret found out. A few verses later, it turns out I’m right. Obadiah is actually on the run. “My master was surely told what I did when Jezebel killed all the prophets of the Lord. I hid one hundred men of the prophets of the Lord by fifty men in a cave, and provided them with bread and water (Kings I 18:13).” But Elijah insists that Obadiah tell Ahab that he’s here, so Obadiah obeys.

It’s now that the drama really starts. Elijah tells Ahab to gather 450 of Baal’s prophets, and 400 prophets of Ashera, and bring them to Mount Carmel. The people gather as well, and Elijah issues a challenge. There are 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah alone representing God. “And let them give us two bulls and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it up and place it on the wood, but fire they shall not put, and I will prepare one bull, and I will put it on the wood, and fire will I not place (Kings I 18:23).” Each group will call on its own god, and whoever is the true god will answer with fire.

The priests agree, but when they call upon Baal, nothing happens. We get a glimpse into their cultic practices, but nothing works. Finally, it’s Elijah’s turn, and he builds an altar to God. He then makes his sacrifice. “And the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offerings and the wood and the stones and the earth, and the water which was in the trench it licked up (Kings I 18:38).” This display causes the people to recognize the greatness and power of God. Elijah now slaughters Baal’s prophets, and finally, the famine ends.

This chapter has, literature-wise, been one of the most dramatic ones yet. It’s poetic in the distress and drama that it provides. Elijah’s power as a prophet and messenger of God is indisputable, and it definitely reemphasizes his role as our ongoing messenger and prophet.

Melachim I Seventeen: Eliyahu HaNavi

With very little transition, we get a new main character in this chapter. “And Elijah the Tishbite of the settlers of Gilead said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, whom I serve, lives, if there will be during these years dew or rain except according to my word (Kings I 17:1).'” Jews, of course, recognize Elijah the prophet as Eliyahu HaNavi, who we welcome into our homes every year at the Pesach seder and leave a chair for at every bris [circumcision ceremony]. So much of our understanding of Elijah comes from stories and rabbinic literature, so I’m excited to see his introduction in Tanakh.

God tells Elijah to go east and drink from a stream, and ravens will bring him food. These seems odd, but it happens. “And it came to pass after a time that the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land (Kings I 17:7).” At this point, God sends Elijah to Zarephath, where a widow will feed him. It’s not clear why Elijah needs divine intervention in order to be fed, but he obeys once again and finds the widow. She’s poor and doesn’t think she has enough to properly feed him, but God intervenes and she and her household, as well as Elijah, are well fed. “The pitcher of flour did not end neither did the flask of oil diminish as the word of the Lord which He had spoken through Elijah (Kings I 17:16).” The widow’s son subsequently grows very ill, and she accuses Elijah of coming to curse her son. Instead, Elijah prays to God and intervenes on behalf of the boy, who is subsequently healed and saved. This chapter ends with our first glimpse of Elijah as a miracle worker. It’s a nice interlude after so many chapters of evil and disloyalty, and allows me to at least begin to understand why we venerate Elijah in our tradition.

Melachim I Sixteen: Evil Kings

This portion of Tanakh is full of new names, with newly introduced characters taking on pivotal roles for a few verses and then disappearing from the scene. Now, we have a new prophet, Jehu son of Hanani, who God speaks to about Baasha. “Behold I will expunge after Baasha and after his house, and I will make your house as the house of Jeroboam the son of Nabat (Kings I 16:3).” Baasha is punished with an undignified death, and his son, Elah, takes over the throne. Once again, the timeline of one king is told in relation to another, so we know that Asa had been reigning in Judah by the time Elah had been king in Israel for two years. Elah’s home base is Tirzah.

“And his servant Zimri, captain of half the chariots, conspired against him while he was in Tirzah drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza who was [appointed] over the household in Tirzah (Kings I 16:9).” Zimri kills Elah, and takes over his throne. The story gets even bloodier, when he ends up massacring all of the members of the house of Baasha, fulfilling the prophecy that God gave to Jehu. Zimri’s victory is short-lived though. He only serves as king for a week when his city is attacked. “And it was when Zimri saw that the city was captured, that he went into the inner chamber of the king’s palace, and he burnt over him the king’s palace with fire, and he died (Kings I 16:18).”

With the death of Zimri, the people are further divided. Judah has its own king, of course, and now Israel is split in two. Half the people support Omri, the commander in chief of the army, and half someone named Tibni. Omri eventually prevails, and he becomes the newest king. This is incredibly hard to keep up with. Every chapter goes through multiple dynasties, and nothing remains stable. Omri is king for twelve years. Then, as seems inevitable, Omri screws up and becomes evil. So he dies and his son, Ahab, becomes the newest king. The pattern continues to the point where it’s just predictable. Ahab becomes evil, but at least his evil is interesting.

“And it was insignificant for him to follow the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, and he took as a wife Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of the Zidonians and he went and worshipped the Baal and prostrated himself to him (Kings I 16:31).” Ahab becomes completely corrupted, something that posterity blames on his wife. She becomes synonymous with evil women throughout history. He is apparently more evil than any of the kings who preceded him, which seems to indicate that he’s truly terrible. I’m not sure if Jezebel and Ahab will be brought up continually, but for now this is all we know about a couple that inspired countless midrashim. The list of evil kings will probably continue, as the Israelites spiral even further out of control.

Melachim I Fifteen: So Many Kings

“And in the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam, the son of Nabat, Abijam ruled over Judah (Kings I 15:1).” The timelines of two kings reigning at the same time is confusing, but this part indicates to me that at the time when Jeroboam had been ruling for eighteen years, Rehoboam died and Abijam replaced him. He rules in Jerusalem for three years, and for some reason we are given his mother’s name. This is a rarity in Tanakh, when maternal lineages are only given for very specific reasons. His mother’s name is Maachah, which was also the name of one of David’s wives, but it’s not indicated if one is meant to allude to or mirror the other. Regardless, Rehoboam’s heir inherits the sins of his father, and is not fully faithful to God. Just as there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam, there was war between Abijam and Jeroboam.

Our account of this reign is brief. “And Abijam slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David, and Asa his son reigned in his stead (Kings I 15:8).” We are again given the timeline of the kings of Judah in relation to Jeroboam, who is still king of Israel. Asa rules for 41 years. His mother is somehow also Maachah. Does this mean this is his maternal genealogy, and this is alluding to which of David’s lines he came from? I’m sure the commentators have a field day with this. I decided to look it up, and it looks like she was Absalom’s daughter, who then married Rehoboam and was the mother and grandmother of his respective heirs. In this way, it looks like Absalom’s descendants did eventually inherit the throne, and it makes sense why it was important to note the mother’s name at this point.

Asa turns out to be a good king. “And he abolished the adulterers from the land, and he removed the idols that his fathers had made (Kings I 15:12).” Asa is loyal to God, and he brings treasures back to the Temple. At some point during his reign, Jeroboam dies, and Basha becomes king of Israel. The war between the two kingdoms continues. Asa takes the silver and gold from the Temple treasuries and sends it to his allies to beg for help. As his allies prepare to do battle with Basha, Basha retreats. Repeatedly throughout this chapter and the last one we hear about the book of Chronicles of the kings of Judah. This is a historical text that has been lost over time, but it seems that it includes many of the details of the battles and lives of these various kings.

Asa dies, and his son Jehoshaphat inherits the throne. Nadav, Jeroboam’s son, also reigns, but only for two years. Basha kills him, and that’s how he takes over the throne. He destroys Jeroboam’s house upon gaining the throne, and continues to war with Judah. Eventually, though, Basha sins against God too, and is punished for his own actions. All of these kings seem weak and fickle, and not at all like the impressive, beloved kings of united Israel. It’s sad to see how quickly the kingdom disintegrates, and it’s only going to get worse.