My God is the LORD by Van’t Veer is a commentary on four chapters in the First Book of Kings, focusing on the conflict between the Prophet Elijah, King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and Prime Minister Obadiah. But it’s also the story of conflict between God and Israel, and even God and Ba’al Melqart. It echoes the story of Moses, and points toward Jesus. But this story’s core is Elijah wrestling with an external antagonist he did not recognize until the very end.
This post is organized like the book, each focusing on a passage of Elijah’s story. I look at the narrative or plot the Holy Author uses to instruct us. Throughout this post I excerpt from descriptions of the three-act structure to place passages in dramatic context. While Van’t Veer and I agree on much, we disagree on the extent to which Elijah had individuality and agency. Hence, we disagree on whether these events have a plot at all.
I read My God is the LORD on the recommendation of Rev. Steve Boint, author of Did Jesus Die for Dogs. It was my honor to do so.
And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
1 Kings 17:1-2
The three chapters begin with a hook, God and Elijah declaring a a rain embargo on Israel:
The hook comes in many forms, but stripped down to its lowest common denominator, the hook is nothing more or less than a question. If we can pique our readers’ curiosity, we’ve got ’em. Simple as that. The beginning of every story should present character, setting, and conflict. But, in themselves, none of these represent a hook. We’ve created a hook only when we’ve convinced readers to ask the general question, “What’s going to happen?”
How is the rain going to come back? Will everyone die? Will God and Elijah be overthrown?
One level of drama in this story is God versus Israel, a political drama of a nation under occupation. Van’t Veer correctly understands that a “Covenant” is an instrument of surrender, a political declaration between a conquered people and a foreign suzerain. Such a covenant is made consensually but typically under duress – in Israel’s case, it was formed through Moses in the wilderness when Israel had no home. Van’t Veer is right both that Israel “but no one is forced to take his place in the ranks of those who say yes” (211) but also:
The Lord wants a willing people, a people who have their hearts set on His commandments. Any use of force would eliminate one of the two “parties” as a “part to the covenant and would destroy the two-sided character of the Covenant.
Of course, this is also a human drama between two men behind the offices. Elijah is a Prophet or ambassador whose place it is to to appear before the people in the name of God,” (375). King Ahab offices empowers him to use coercion to order a human society. And our minor characters, Prime Minister Obadiah (who is sympathetic to Elijah) and Jezebel (who loathes him) are also human beings with their own motives. This is not a terrifying vision of an angel but a conflict between men (one of whom is a woman).
There are two more levels of conflict. One is the supposed struggle of God against Ba’al Melqart for control over Israel. And another is a conflict we will explore later. This is “holy war” (165), but one fought to save and not destroy. The antagonist a human protagonist sees as a horror may be seen by God as a friend, or even a pet:
This great and wide sea,
In which are innumerable teeming things,
Living things both small and great.
And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” Then the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived.
And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives!”
Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is the truth.
1 Kings 17:21:24
The Holy Author introduces God and Elijah through scenes among unclean birds and gentile women. In these scenes we learn what God and Elijah are like:
Depending on the number of characters or the complexity of your setting, you will probably want to space the introductions throughout several early scenes. The most important thing to keep in mind is the necessity of giving characters enough space in these early chapters so you can focus on developing them.
Both Elijah and God are patient, forceful, and looking for something else than what they have. Elijah goes into the wilderness and eats from unclean hands. And God, while ignoring His own people, use both animals and gentiles to feed Elijah. Both Elijah and God are immensely powerful. They can bring the dead back to life — the woman whose child was brought back must have been grateful to both. And Elijah and god can make courageous decisions. They are willing to go into the unknown, to go outside the covenant. Neither are bound by the law of the Covenant or its provincial focus on Israel.
Gods in the ancient Near East were understood to be powerful but bound by law and rules. Individual gods might rebel against order, but this would likely bring chaos and an organized response. Commonly, gods obeyed a divine international law which established norms for the conquest and rule of human cities and nations. But because these Covenants were themselves lawful, a cunning weaker party could use superior negotiating ability to bind a god to their will. The Assyrians even declared their legalistic victory over their gods :
Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. Sitting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy
That covenant peoples could exploit the law to control their gods was behind Babel’s attempt to “make a name” (establish sovereignty) for themselves. They tried to build a new home for God. Doing so would reverse the traditional relationship, making God’s security and comfort dependent on man’s will. (For obvious reasons, God not only rejected this proposal, but worked to prevent a similar act of aggression in the future.)
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
The LORD will not be bound. He does not even need Israel to materially support his ambassadors. When Israel does not feed his prophet, the ravens and widows of foreign countries do. The message to Israel is clear: God does not need you. Israel’s attempts to bind God will fail, as did Babel’s.
Van’t Veer agrees in part. He recognizes that Canaanite thought their gods could be bound:
[Ba’al Melqart’s] praying priests believe they are exercising the strongest possible pressure on their god. Their prayers must be accompanied by heavier and heavier pressure until their god is finally forced to give them what they want. (227)
But also writes that our God can be bound!
Elijah’s prayer was not simply an “attempt,”for it served to bind the Lord to His Word of promise. (310)
This is wrong. God is above the law because God created the Law. He created the Law for a reason (logos, for man. The Law was created to bring man closer to God. The covenant God formed with Israel is legally a treaty, but emotionally a marriage. As both Rabbis and Pharisees (in the Letter to the Ephesians) would agree, the Law is a tutor in the absence of a God who walks the earth.
Extended analogies of God’s relationship to Israel as a treaty are found in multiple Old Testament books, including Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, and Samuel. But also as a romance in Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, and Jeremiah. Van’t Veer almost gets this — though he quotes Songs of Songs appropriately, his legalism still gets the better of him:
[Israel] was not like the bride in Song of Songs, who first let the Bridegroom knock on her door in vain and then ran after Him, full of repentance, looking for Him and crying out: I sought him, but found him not; I called him but he gave us no answer” (5:6)
But the language of Songs isn’t covenant duty: it’s love, it’s romance, it’s playful, it’s missed connections and the excitement of what the future will bring. Songs isn’t a manual for weak submission: it’s a romance:
I have taken off my robe;
How can I put it on again?
I have washed my feet;
How can I defile them?
Song of Songs 5:3
These two themes of treaty and romance bookend the Bible. The fate of nations and the joy of family are tied together in the first book…
Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?”
So he said, “Here, in the tent.”
And [God] said, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.”
(Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”
And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid.
And He said, “No, but you did laugh!”
and in the last:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying,
“Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.”
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.
Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. Also she had a great and high wall with twelve gates, and twelve angels at the gates, and names written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west.
Even outside Israel, history shows us what happens to a religion based only on a legal Covenant. The Chinese Imperial Religion was entirely centered on the Covenant of Heaven. The consequence was a religion completely separated from spirituality or love — a moral system centered around sacrifices that temporarily appeased an invisible celestial despot. One Emperor was a Buddhist who sought to escape the burden of sacrifices through future non-existence! Fortunately the God of Israel uses the Covenant to bring us to Him, and not as an end in itself.
First Plot Point
And it came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.”
1 Kings 18:1
Elijah’s safe, God is using the gentiles, and Ahab is stuck in a barren desert. Then comes the first plot point:
The first major plot point changes everything. This is the point of no return for your characters. Often, this plot point will be the inciting event; if not, it will be the key event (next week, we’ll talk about the differences between these two events). The first plot point is the moment when the setup ends, and your character crosses his personal Rubicon.
God’s command to Elijah to visit Ahab and two other commands (Elijah’s confrontation with Obadiah, and the promise of God’s conflict with Ba’al) form this section. They change everything. Indeed, the passages between God’s command to Ahab and the next serve to build tension by emphasizing the extent of the drought, and dramatize Elijah’s return to Israel and the scattering (in a number of senses) of the Royal Court.
So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab; and there was a severe famine in Samaria.
And Ahab had called Obadiah, who was in charge of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly. For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab had said to Obadiah, “Go into the land to all the springs of water and to all the brooks; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, so that we will not have to kill any livestock.” So they divided the land between them to explore it; Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself.
1 Kings 18:2-6
Elijah and Obadiah
Now as Obadiah was on his way, suddenly Elijah met him; and he recognized him, and fell on his face, and said, “Is that you, my lord Elijah?”
And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.'”
So he said, “How have I sinned, that you are delivering your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to hunt for you; and when they said, ‘He is not here,’ he took an oath from the kingdom or nation that they could not find you.
And now you say, ‘Go, tell your master, “Elijah is here”‘!
And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the Spirit of the Lord will carry you to a place I do not know; so when I go and tell Ahab, and he cannot find you, he will kill me.
But I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth. Was it not reported to my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid one hundred men of the Lord’s prophets, fifty to a cave, and fed them with bread and water?
And now you say, ‘Go, tell your master, “Elijah is here.”‘
He will kill me!”
1 Kings 18:7-14
Elijah’s travels up from gentiles up to King Ahab. But first he sees the Prime Minister, or “Steward”, Obadiah. As Prime Minister, Obadiah has been mediating Ahab’s demands in the best way possible. Obadiah saved other prophets from Ahab, while saving livestock for Ahab. Lower than the King but higher than others, Obadiah did not hold Ahab’s royal dignity but exercised royal efficiency.
Van’t Veer, of course, is eager to ignore the human dimension. Both those who helped Elijah when outside Israel, and Obadiah who helped him inside the country, see their works of charity written off
It was the Lord — and no one else — operating by way of the instruments He had chosen.The Lord’s providence in Elijah’s case was very special. Who would deny this in contemplating these miracles…
The Lord fashions and equips His own instruments. What Obadiah did to hide the LORD’s prophets is not presented to us as an example first and foremost. Instead, we are to view it as an indication of the Lord’s gracious and wonderful deeds. (pp 148-49)
But this is a blind spot, especially for a Christian. The steward has awesome responsibility, he is not a mindless instrument. To understand the scale of what Veer is denying, consider the following parallel constructions. First, King Hezekiah’s Prime Minister Eliakim:
‘Then it shall be in that day, That I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah…
Second, King Jesus’ Prime Minister, Peter:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
And another, unnamed Prime Minister for King Jesus:
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write,
‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true,
“He who has the key of David,
He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens“:
A Catholic reader would see important words about the Pope, but even a Protestant like Van’t Veer should see the human responsibility of a human steward of God in terrifying clarity. Here is why: the best argument against the Pope being the successor of Peter is that all Christians are successors of Peter. In his first letter to the Church, Peter arguably transferred the power of the Prime Minister to every believer, words that seem to specifically evoke Obadiah and Elijah:
And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”
Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.
As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another,
as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.
If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies,
that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 4:8-11
It is vital to insist on Obadiah’s agency for this reason: Obadiah “does not appear to have had strong character” (148). Neither, by the same standard, does Peter.
And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest. But Peter stood at the door outside. Then the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought Peter in. Then the servant girl who kept the door said to Peter, “You are not also one of this Man’s disciples, are you?”
What about Peter’s successors? What about the Popes? What about us?
This is to critical for all stewards (whether Popes or protestants) because faith is not separate from character, faith is a work of character. Faith is not just what a steward thinks, it is what he does. As Van’t Veer writes:
Fortunately, faith is a gift. Otherwise, who would believe? But faith is also a deed, something we do. Otherwise the command to believe would make no sense. “This the work of God [i.e. the work God asks of us], that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Even though no one has faith if it not first given to him, believing is also an activity in which we engage.
… Without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith reaches out for the powers that the blessing of the Lord introducing into our life. Between the promise and the actual blessings stands a deed of believing obedience. (104)
If we believe that Obediah’s works are the Lord’s and Lord’s alone, we ignore the responsibility we all have to be steward’s of God’s grace.
At his best and most glorious, Elijah is demanding Obadiah — the steward of the king — do his job.
Elijah and Ahab
Then Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely present myself to [King Ahab] today.”
So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah.
Then it happened, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?
And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and have followed the Baals. Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
1 Kings 18:15-19
Elijah is becoming the anti-Moses. Moses and Elijah perform the same actions, plead with the same God, but for opposite reasons. Even the steps are reversed. Just as God told Elijah to speak with Ahab, and instead he spoke with Obadiah, God gave Moses a series of intricate steps…
Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them,
‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying,
“I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt; and I have said I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”‘
Then they will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt; and you shall say to him,
‘The LORD God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, please, let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’
… which Moses didn’t exactly follow…
Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.'”
Moses finds water for the people in the desert. Elijah takes away water from the sky. While Moses is zealous for love of the people, Elijah is zealous against God’s treaty interests. Both are correct but both are incomplete. Elijah is the better functionary of God when God is viewed as a foreign emperor. But Moses better loves the people, using his position for a foreign suzerain to help them (as later did Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah). The whole point of the Covenant was to bring the people to a loving relationship with God, not to have them die in the desert. And not to blot out the righteous from the Book of Life either!
Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people,
“You have committed a great sin. So now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin — but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.”
Van’t Veer is exactly right that these two prophets, so complementary in their human form, point the way to a Prophet greater than both:
Through [Christ’s] work as an office-bearer He would unite the two elements that Moses and Elijah were not able to bring together. What the people of the Lord needed was an office-bearer who could harmoniously reconcile these two elements — justice and love, law and gospel, satisfaction and atonement — in the one edifice of God’s redemption. (379)
Fortunately, the two incomplete halves of Moses and Elijah would meet on earth, with the One greater than themselves:
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
So Ahab sent for all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together on Mount Carmel. And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word.
1 Kings 18:20-21
The first half of our story was how they responded to the consequences of their actions. Now we’re at the midpoint, and they are once more the characters driving the action:
Like the first inciting event, the midpoint directly influences the plot. It changes the paradigm of the story. And it requires a definitive and story-altering response from the characters. The largest difference is that the character’s response is no longer just a reaction, but the moment at which he begins to definitively take charge of the story and act out against the antagonistic force.
The Relationship of God to Ba’al Melqart
Then Elijah said to the people,
“I alone am left a prophet of the LORD; but Ba’al’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”
Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.”
So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!”
But there was no voice;
no one answered.
Then they leaped about the altar which they had made.
And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
1 Kings 18:22-27
“Ba’al means “lord.” The god most commonly known as Ba’al, Ba’al Hadad, is the god of lightening who is Canaanite stories defeats death and parts the sea – the Romans thought of him as the Semitic Jupiter. The specific “Ba’al” worshiped by Jezebel was Ba’al Melqart — the Semitic Hercules. This is important because every character — including Ba’al’s priests and Jezebel — are aware that Elijah’s God is the creator of the universe. Even that other ba’al, Ba’al Hedad, concedes that!
Indeed, our creator is eternal
Indeed ageless is He who formed us
The Ba’al Hedad Cycle
The reason is that in no Near Eastern religion, other than Judaism, considered the Creator of the Universe particularly important. (For that matter, Mormons still don’t). The Romans worshiped Jupiter though they thought he was created, Jezebel obviously worshiped Ba’al Melqart though he was just Hercules! The question was not who created the universe from nothing, or even who had the greatest absolute power: no one believed that Ba’al Melqart / Hercules had “The sun and the moon, rain and dew, the entire realm of mysterious natural forces” (45) assigned to him. The question was who was the most effective patron right here and right now.
Hercules didn’t have a chance.
The Relationship of God and Israel
And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said,
“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
let it be known this day that
You are God in Israel
and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word.”
“Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.”
1 Kings 18:36
Earlier Elijah referred to the LORD as “God of Israel” (Elohim Ishral). Now he withdraws God from Israel. First he calls the LORD “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” (Elohim Abrem Itzchq u Ishral) — separating “God” from Israel” by a genealogy. Then, as “God in Israel” (Elohim b’Ishral). This is the first time in the Scriptures in that “in Israel” (b’Ishral) is used as an identity, rather than a location, of God. It indicates God happens to be present in Israel but has no special connection to the land. And last God’s title does not include the name of Israel at all, but only His Name: “the LORD.”
Van’t Veer appears not to notice the shift from “of Israel” to “in Israel,” and makes nothing of it. He only sees the list of “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” as excluding “the possibility that the problem might have to do with the ten tribes alone” (264) — true enough, but Elijah’s point is not to bring Judah closer to God but place Israel farther away. And likewise Van’t Veer understands the alienation effect of using “The LORD” instead of “LORD of Israel,” but sees this as evidence that “the conception of a the LORD as a national god was a deformation.” No reason is given for this logical leap. Does he think that God deformed his own revelation?
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘
Just at the national God of Israel was not a deformation from God the Creator, the grafting of the gentiles onto Israel was not a deformation of Israel’s national God.
And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
Paul’s analogy, not of deformation but of grafting, echoes Christ’s own words. He uses it to emphasize the linear and organic nature of God’s unfolding revelation. It is not just a story of God love affair with man, told with his love affair of a nation. It is also God’s love of man, which would lead him to live among men, and within them.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.”
The Beginning of the Second Half
Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!”
And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Cherith and executed them there…
So he said [to his servant], “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you.'”
1 Kings 18:38-39,44
God and Elijah take the initiative. The story now changes dramatically: Ba’al Melqart and Israel are weak and irrelevant. The real action is what becomes of our protagonists in the beginning of the second half
The second half of the second act begins (just as the first half did) with a strong action from the character. He rises from the drama and trauma of the midpoint and grits his teeth. He immediately responds with an action that fights back.
Elijah orders the killing of the priests of Ba’al. Van’t Veer’s depiction of this is ambiguous. He’s insistent that the killing of the prophets is the will of God and not Elijah. But his logic in support of this is just horror at the possibility that this is not true. Veer also does not consider that God’s motives may have been righteous, but that Elijah may have been bad. And he considers no bad motive other than revenge — not even the more vile motive of pride:
There is no place for personal revenge before the judgment seat of the One who says: “Vengeance is Mine.” There is no room for personal motives in the Lord’s service, for every deed must be performed in His Name. If the personal motives were behind the slaughter of the priests of Baal, the prophet’s office would be out of the picture. We would then have to say that the prophet suddenly brought the unholy fire of his personal desire for revenge to the altar that had been lit by the holy “fire of the LORD.”
But in any case, the priests of Ba’al certainly do die.
And then God sends the rain. Elijah alienated God from Israel by just referring to him as the LORD — the people are delighted to have the LORD under any title. Likewise, Elijah’s instruction to King Ahab is curt and seemingly outside of the prophetic domain. It may be good advice, but the logistics of a king’s schedule should be organized by the Prime Minister, not dictated by the Prophet.
Our two protagonists — God and Elijah — have both increased in their apparent power. One of them will get a comeuppance.
The Third Act
And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
1 Kings 19:1-4
We’re finally at the third act. We met the characters, we had the second inciting incident. No more introductions. Everything happens fast now.
The third act is the moment we’ve all been waiting for—readers, writers, and characters alike. This final section of the story is the point. It’s what we’ve been building up to all this time. If the first and second acts were engaging and aesthetic labyrinths, the third act is where X marks the spot. We’ve found the treasure. Now it’s time to start digging…
Like all the other acts, the third act opens with a bang, but unlike the other acts, it never lets up. From the 75% mark on, the characters and the readers alike are in for a wild ride. All the threads we’ve been weaving up to this point must now be artfully tied together. The main character must finally face (and presumably overcome) the antagonistic force by way of first learning from and then overcoming his own internal conflict.
Elijah has been zealous against Israel. His actions lead to the death of hundreds within the contest, and unknown more from prolonging the drought. And what is the effect?
Another fight. God is no longer “God of Israel” according to Elijah, but the people of Israel shout for God. The King and Queen recognize God as suzerain, but then they withdraw recognition the ambassador who brought it about. Elijah wasn’t so strong after all. He was only as strong as a woman. It turns out a king weak enough to follow a prophet’s instructions on when to drink is also weak enough to obey his wife.
No wonder Elijah wants to retire. Or at least die by the hand of God. Any stay in a foreign land cannot be home after all. And if Elijah goes back he would be killed by a woman. So instead Elijah asks God to do that woman’s bidding.
There’s a grim humor here, one the Holy Author used before.
But a certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man, his armorbearer, and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, ‘A woman killed him.'” So his young man thrust him through, and he died.
The third act is where the antagonist is faced. But here God and Elijah’s actions most clearly diverge. Elijah thought the antagonist was Israel. He declared an embargo only for God to end it, he alienated God for Israel only for Israel to embrace even an alienated relationship with God. The one that God overcame was not Israel, but Elijah.
Elijah’s true conflict was with God all along, He went beyond his orders as a prophet, as an ambassador, and instead attempted to minimize or lift the Covenant. And here Van’t Veer’s arbitrary method of reading Elijah — either as without agency or fully in sin — is so dangerous. Van’t Veer is completely wrong when he says Elijah’s focus is virtuous.
We do not read about [Elijah] praying for the curse to be removed, as Moses did, for he had no lawful basis for asking that grace be shown to a people that refused to turn away from its sin. (81)
But even had God been bound by the Covenant — even if God did not create the Covenant to bring Israel to himself — this is not true. Elijah knew damn well — literally, damnably well — what the Law said. A Prophet greater than Elijah certainly remembered.
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
We thought we were seeing the story of God and Israel, or Elijah and Ahab. Or maybe even God and Ba’al Melqart. But instead we have seen, step by step, the moral corruption of Elijah as he confused his will and his anger with the love and wrath of God.
Our protagonists have never been in the same place. Because that is saved for the climax, when Elijah turns out to have been the antagonist all along.
Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.”
And behold, the LORD passed by, and
a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD,
but the LORD was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake,
but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire,
but the LORD was not in the fire;
and after the fire a still small voice.
So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said,
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13
The climax begins with a tornado, and it just gets more intense from there
The climax is where we pull out our big guns. This is a scene that needs to wow readers, so dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas. Instead of a fistfight, why not a fistfight on top of a moving train? Instead of a declaration of love, why not a declaration in the middle of a presidential inauguration?
We began by looking the human (Elijah versus Ahab), social (God versus Israel), and alien (God versus Ba’al Melqart) levels of conflict, but the real conflict is between a man and his God. Elijah is outmatched, but by misdirecting us earlier, the Divine Author has turned a fait accompli into a drama.
Van’t Veer correctly identifies this as a crisis, as the moment where Elijah faces off against God. But by missing Elijah’s slow burn — his step by step alienation of God from Israel, his refusal to obey God’s direction instructions, his turning away from both the Law and love — Veer misses the human story. Elijah is not a puppet on a string who once let off immediately sins. He’s a man who is brought to confrontation against God by his own actions.
He forgot about Obadiah and the prophets who fled. There was no thought of a faithful remnant to hold him back. He wanted to die believing that he was the only one left. In this prayer, then, the office-bearer Elijah was letting go of God’s people, who were also his people, and surrendering them to the forces of hell.
Veer’s appraisal of the situation is close but misses the point. Elijah has not only forgotten the faithful, but the lost sheep as well. Elijah became a legalist without the Law. As an ambassador, there is nothing narrowly wrong with what Elijah is doing. He is an ambassador whose credentials were denied by the station he was posted at. He traveled back to his sovereign’s territory, to await further instructions while requesting his own requested future abode. No martyr can be expected to give more than his full effort. It’s hard to imagine more of an effort left in a mortal man.
But Elijah’s belief had become cold. Elijah did not act as if he believed in the God of the Law
His sin was that he sought to save his life by fleeing. Thereby he scorned the weapons God had given him. If Elijah had believed in the Lord of hosts, he would have used the power of the God of Mount Carmen against Jezebel if that were necessary to carry the Lord’s victory all the way through to the end. (333)
Elijah not only wanted death for his enemies but for himself. Elijah first wanted to use the Law to reject Israel. But now his request to die itself rejects the Law:
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing;
therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;
that you may love the LORD your God,
that you may obey His voice,
and that you may cling to Him,
for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
God did not abandon his people at Elijah’s prompting. And while Elijah may have tried to negate Moses, this story would once again be inverted. The Prophet Elijah would be defeated by a wicked queen, but a virtuous queen would raise up another. Instead of the Elijah, Jezebel, and condemnation, in the future we will have the Prophet Simeon, Queen Mary, and the glory of Israel
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
And we see this in the show God puts on for Elijah. God’s throne room is made of fire and wind. While other prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel visit the throne room, now God’s throne room comes to Elijah:
When a king visits one of us cities, his coming is preceded by cannon fire, the approach of cavalrymen and mounted police, and a ceremonial procession of high officials. All of this announcement that the sovereign is on his way, even though the king himself does not travel with this vanguard. He comes later in the procession, after his coming has been announced by all this pomp and splendor. (393)
The relocation of the Court of God to Earth may have happened once before:
Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he came down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
It certainly happened once afterward:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Yet I [the LORD] have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth.
Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him.
1 Kings 18:18-19
The resolution to the conflict between Elijah and Ahab also prepares for a sequel starring Elisha
The resolution is always a bittersweet moment. You’ve reached the end of the story. You’ve climbed the mountain, and now you can plant your flag of completion at its peak. But as the finale of all your work, this is also the finale of all the fun you’ve experienced in your wonderful world of made-up people and places. The resolution is where you have to say goodbye to your characters and, by the same token, give your readers a chance to say goodbye as well.
The story of Elijah and Ahab will continue. The love affair (with all its ups and downs) between God and Israel will continue. But our drama in these chapters — produced a national stage and focused on God’s relationship with Elijah — is now resolved in the prophetic image of the good farmer:
The Prophet Elisha is not with the oxen in the first yoke, but with the last. Elijah pointed to Christ in one way. Now Elisha points to Him — with the twelve yoke, with his upcoming departure from his parents, with the emphasis on the last — in another.
So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.
But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
But inexplicable Veer breaks this analogy, denying the twelve yokes symbolize the twelve tribes, which is obvious even without reading forward:
But there is no good ground for moving from the twelve yoke of oxen to Israel’s twelve tribes… Neither can the allegory be saved by expressing the wish that the twelve tribes would work together as harmoniously as the twelve yoke of oxen pulling the one plow.
The problem with such interpretations is that the twelve yoke of oxen were pulling twelve separate plows. (421)
Twelve yokes of oxen pull twelve plows, not one. Twelves tribes are not one group, but twelve. The twelve apostles did not have one road to eternal life, but twelve. God’s personal relationship with us is based on us being members, distinct and special, not duplicates of others.
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
1 Corinthians 12:12-19
Elisha and the twelve bulls point not just to our existence as members, and not just to the journeys we must take, but the LORD’s presence within us and by us. God was symbolized as a bull both in the Scripture:
His glory is like a firstborn bull,
And his horns like the horns of the wild ox;
Together with them
He shall push the peoples
To the ends of the earth;
They are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
And they are the thousands of Manasseh.”
… and at Israelite holy places:
Of course there were kings before Ahab who sinned by “walking in the ways of Jeroboam” and maintaining the worship of the calves at Dan and Bethel, but the idolatry at Dan and Bethel was still intended as service to the LORD. (32)
There is a Biblical tradition of associating peoples with animals — the Lion of Judah, the Donkey of Issachar, the Viper of Dan, and so on. And a tradition of Ox or Bull iconography for God. Now, that all is resolved and the audience is reassured, we know that Elijah is seeing a vision of the coming of Christ. Christ guiding the people, and Christ among the people, Christ with the last of the people, and Christ the master of the people.
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh,
how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
And for this reason He is the Mediator of
the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under
the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
We are separate members, but in the one body of the Lord. He created us to be His imagers, and when this proves too difficult to us, he will not only tend to us, he will be an imager with us.
Elijah thought the people stumbled and should fall. But the LORD, who has loved Israel from the first, disagreed. And His Son died, for them and for us, and through Elisha with the yoked oxen we see a promise of Christ dwelling among us, in us, and for us.
The fight was between Elijah and God the whole time. It was never fair. God let Elijah fell so he could rise. Israel sinned so that the gentiles could be let in. The blood of the covenant would cover the heads of Israel from the assembly at Sinai to the whole church.
I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
Now all that is left is a peace offering, a perfect bull offered as a sacrifice, once and for all.
My God is the LORD changed how I think about Elijah. Elijah had been confusing – clearly important, but appearing only briefly, and often angrily. Now I see him as part of a thread that connects Moses to Christ, a thread that the gospel writes and Paul clearly recognized.
I also gained a balanced understanding between the lawful meaning of Covenant, meaning an Instrument of Surrender, and the goal of that Covenant, God’s love embracing of Israel. My God is the LORD is written in the Reformed tradition but is far superior to Reformed works which fail to address the meaning of Covenant, such as Covenant and Creation or The End of the Beginning. Van’t Veer repeatedly emphasizes the lawful and limited natures of the Covenant and places them in the proper context (though at times he confuses the Covenant with a transcendent moral law).
Now, some nitpicks: Van’t Veer occasionally uses specific phrases that appear to have a deeper meaning, but which he never returned to or defines. These terms, such as “common grace” (50), “law of replacement” (133), “law of substitution” (289), “service of the shadows” (289), “special revelation” (263), and “law of hardening” (323) can only be guessed at. The brilliance and frustration of My God is the LORD is summed up with the book’s true title, which uses the Tetragrammaton in place of the LORD. This is because Van’t Veer writes (40) that the name Elijah literally means, My God is the LORD (with the LORD replaced with the Tetragrammaton). But it does not. The Hebrew suffix -Yah or -Jah is itself a way of eliding pronouncing the full Holy Name. Ancient Near Eastern speech patterns didn’t prohibit a two-syllable theophoric name (Jezebel’s father’s name, Itho-Ba’al, is an example of such a use). Eli-jah may literally mean “My God is Yah” or (taking Yah as a way of eliding the full name) or “My God is the LORD.” It does not mean the book’s title.
I read My God is the LORD in the hardback edition.