1 Kings 17-19: Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel
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1 Kings 17-19: Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel

Original Publication Date
January 28, 2017
Updated
Sep 30, 2023 11:21 PM
Tags
1 KingsChapter StudyElijahJezebelAhabElishaIdolatryMiraclesMental HealthSyriaResurrection
Bible References
1 Kings 17-19
Status
Done
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Table of Contents
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This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on January 28, 2017 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.

Introduction

1 Kings 17-20 takes a break from the series of brief records which introduce many kings and focuses on God's prophet, Elijah. Elijah lived in the northern kingdom during King Ahab's reign. King Ahab marries the infamous Phoenician, princess Jezebel, and is often at odds with Elijah. While Ahab is definitely a familiar name, I would say that during my tenure in the church and over the course of my studies, Jezebel and Elijah have gotten more focus from the church. Ahab seems to fade into the background as a secondary character, but I think that's something worth discussing as well. In this post, I'll talk about all 3 people.

Elijah, the Prophet

Outside of Daniel and Isaiah, Elijah might be one of the most well-known prophets of Israel. He performed amazing miracles and became the second person in human history to join God without ever dying (covered in 2 Kings).

Was Elijah Even An Israelite?

When we are introduced to Elijah in 1 Kings 17:1, we are not told what Elijah's tribal affiliation is, but that he was a "Tishbite" and an inhabitant of Gilead. Gilead was located East of the Jordan, and spanned across the territories of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh.[1] While it doesn't definitively prove that Elijah was a member of one of these tribes, it definitely increases the possibility. However, there's actually a debate about whether Elijah was even an Israelite at all.[2][3][4]

Unlike most important figures of the Bible, we aren't told a single thing about Elijah's ancestry. Up until this point, most people we meet are identified by tribe and/or father. When we meet Elijah's apprentice, Elisha, in 1 Kings 19, we are promptly told who his father is. For the kings, we are told who their father is and many times who their mother is as well. Samuel and Nathan's parentage are also given. This is not the case with Elijah. When you combine this information with the fact that the word inhabitant in 1 Kings 17:1 is translated from the word towshab, which means "sojourner, stranger or foreigner,"[5] it becomes pretty suspicious.

1 Kings 17:1 is the only place the word is rendered "inhabitant" instead of stranger or foreigner. If translated as the rest of the occurrences, 1 Kings 17:1 would have said Elijah was a stranger in in Gilead, i.e. a foreigner who had made his home in Israel.[2][3]

Other scholars are adamant that Elijah was an Israel. They point out the fact that it is possible that "Tishbite" is a reference to a family line, negating the claim that we have no familial information on Elijah. Further, they point to Elijah’s name, which is of Hebrew origin and means "He is my Yah (God)."[4] Some believe Elijah is the same Elijah mentioned in

1 Chronicles 8:27, and thus a Benjamite.[6]

What makes it hard to gauge which argument is correct is the fact that both arguments suffer from faulty premises.

Those who believe Elijah must be a foreigner base the assumption almost solely on the word towshab in 1 Kings 17:1. While foreigner and stranger generally apply to non-Israelites, does sojourner? If Elijah was a Benjamite via 1 Chronicles 8:27, He would originally have been from the southern kingdom and an outsider in another tribe's land, which is still technically a foreigner. The other complaint given is that Elijah doesn't follow Jewish law; he believes God can be worshipped anywhere and never makes an effort to go to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. Elijah's assumption that he can worship anywhere doesn't have to be of foreign influence, however. The kings of Israel had already began putting this idea in their citizens' minds to keep them from returning to the southern kingdom. Besides, most of the Israelites weren't following the law themselves, how does that prove he was a foreigner?

Those who are adamant Elijah was not a foreigner assert that a foreigner couldn't have a Hebrew name, or that we aren't told of Elijah's circumcision and conversion to Judaism. As a black person in the U.S., the assumption about the name baffles me. My name is of French origin; I am neither French nor have I ever been to France. I know countless Asian Americans who have European names. Throughout the Bible we see God change people's names, but throughout life we also see people change their own names. Furthermore, Elijah's parents could have been the ones to convert, and after converting, decided to give their son a Hebrew name. This is similar to how first generation Americans will sometimes give their children "American" names. The omission of an information about Elijah's conversion would be covered by the notion that his parents were the ones to convert; he would then have automatically been circumcised as a child, but he still wouldn't be Hebrew by blood. Of course, in the New Testament, when the apostles were introducing the Gentiles to the Word, they are explicitly told not to worry about circumcision (see Acts 15). The idea that this would have prevented the Israelites from listening to Elijah is interesting because Ahab wanted him dead. Most of the northern kingdom had already fallen into idolatry and those that hadn't weren't really in the position to reject anyone from their numbers. Plus, after Elijah raised a person from the dead, I'm sure they didn't care about the specifics of his lineage.

All in all, I think it could go either way. Both sides make valid points, there are just so many caveats and exceptions that it's hard to say one is more accurate than the other. The idea of Elijah being non-Israelite provides a nice symmetry to later events. For instance, when Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, it would represent both the Jews and the non-Jews. It would add another layer of depth to the interpretation of the Word, for certain. However, I don't think the difference is so important that it changes the overall message from God.

A Drought

Instead of a background story, we jump right into Elijah's first mission from God: he brings news to Ahab that God has pronounced a drought on Israel. Neither rain nor dew would fall in the land until God said so, and considering the fact that Israel is located in the desert, this was probably a much bigger deal than it would have been in a place with more abundant water in the land. In water rich lands, it would take time to deplete the water resources before any effects of a drought could be felt, however in Israel, the effects would be almost immediate.

Refuge

To protect Elijah from the effects, God sends him to a brook called Cherith which was near the Jordan. Scholars associate this brook with Wadi Qelt, though they are not certain that is a correct match.[7] Once at the brook, Elijah is fed by ravens. People often associate ravens with death and evil because they are black, but this proves that God was not a respecter of color. God entrusts ravens to bring bread and meat to Elijah each day while he is in the wilderness.

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Interestingly, this means that the food was considered clean even though it had been in their beaks first--I highly doubt the ravens were able to wrap the food in a bag or cloth before carrying it away. Had the Pharisees thought about it, they would not have chastised Jesus about eating bread without washing his hands in Matthew 12. Two things that were never declared unclean—a living raven and bread, or dirt and bread in Jesus' case—can't make each other unclean. This is also a reminder that unclean designated the status of whether we could eat the animal or not, animals such as mules, horses, and donkeys still played a critical role in farming; it was only when they died that they became unclean. It also highlights the fact that unclean doesn’t mean bad or without purpose.

When the brook dried up, Elijah had to find another place of refuge. This time, God sends him to a widow in the city of Zarephath. Although she is struggling to feed her own family, she provides for Elijah as well. Elijah tells her that her supply will not falter until God sends rain to Israel, and as prophesied, they are able to eat until the rain falls.

It is interesting that God sends Elijah to the wilderness first and to the woman second. Once could easily question why not send Elijah to the woman from the get go. Sending Elijah first to the wilderness, where ravens provided for him, strengthened his faith in God. It is easy to assume a human is kind simply by nature and to attribute their generosity to luck or chance. However, ravens bringing you food is a miracle; it is much harder to look over God's glory in such an act. Just as Israel had to come through the wilderness where God proved Himself, this is where Elijah's journey began, too.

Raising the Dead

One of Elijah's most miraculous moments was when he brought the widow's son back to life from the dead. Just when everything should have been returning back to normal because the drought had passed, the son of the widow fell ill. The woman thought this was some sort of punishment from God for her past sins brought on by Elijah. Troubled by the events, Elijah prayed for life to return to the young boy. God hears Elijah's request and grants life back into the boy's body. This is the first resurrection spoken of in the Bible, but it is not the only resurrection to be brought about by human hands.

A Ray of Hope

Three years after Elijah's first encounter with Ahab, God sends Elijah back to tell them of the coming rain. When Elijah gets to Ahab in Samaria, a famine is ravaging the land. It makes sense that after a three year drought, there would be a shortage of food.

Before Elijah arrives, Ahab calls for a man named Obadiah. Obadiah was a God-fearing man and was trying to do right by God. When Ahab's wife Jezebel went after the prophets, Obadiah hid 100 of them in a cave and brought food and water to them. This must have been difficult during the famine. I'd wager Ahab didn't know about any of this, otherwise, I think Obadiah would have been on Ahab's bad side.

Is this Obadiah the same Obadiah who writes the book
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Obadiah
? According to sources this is still up to debate.[9]

Instead, Ahab wanted Obadiah to search for water and grass for the livestock. Keeping the livestock alive would have been a top priority in the kingdom. Without rain, crops would have been almost impossible to grow leaving meat and animal products such as eggs or milk to be the only provisions left. If the animals died, the Israelites would have nothing.

Food for though: If they were purging the kingdom of believers, why did they allow Obadiah to stay? Was he a wishy-washy believer or a chameleon who said what was needed to fit in? Or was God covering him?

While in search of these resources, Obadiah runs into Elijah. Elijah asks Obadiah to tell Ahab where he is but Obadiah sees this as a death sentence on himself. Ahab had apparently been looking for Elijah unsuccessfully for some time. Obadiah was afraid Elijah would disappear, provoking the kings wrath. During this time it seems the queen (Jezebel) was purging the kingdom of people who worshipped the Lord, in favor of pagan worshippers. Elijah is not afraid to meet the king and queen however; he gives his word that he will remain.

Ahab is quick to blame the drought and Israel’s dire situation on Elijah, just as people today blame the troubles of the world on God and His people. Elijah quickly reminds Ahab that it is he and his line that have forsaken the commandments and brought God's wrath upon them. Elijah has Ahab gather everyone, including the false prophets of Baal and Asherah, to mount Carmel.

A Challenge Issued

Elijah says the same thing the New Testament tells us: you can't follow two gods. Elijah gives Israel the same choice we have today, to follow God or to follow the false Baal. This echoes the choice given to Israel in the wilderness during Moses’ time: chose life (God) or death. Elijah points out that he is the only prophet of the Lord left but Baal has 450 men claiming to be his prophets. Elijah challenges them to bring 2 bulls to be sacrificed, only, they would not put fire to them. The men of Baal were to call on Baal to enflame their bull, and Elijah would call on God to enflame his.

Then men of Baal cry out to their deity from morning until noon, but nothing happens. Elijah mocks the men by suggesting that their god is sleeping or out on an adventure. The men even resort to self harm to attract the false god's attention. As one can expect, Baal does not answer and no fire engulfs the bull.

When it is Elijah's turn, he creates a trench of water around the sacrifice. Following this, he prays to God. Elijah asks that God will show Himself to the people so that they may turn away from Baal and back to the true God. God answers Elijah's prayer and sets fire to the bull. When the people see this, they fall to the ground to worship God.

End of the Drought

Elijah commands them to put the prophets of Baal to death. After this is carried out, rain returns to the land. Elijah sends Ahab ahead of the rain by chariot and he runs before the chariot with the help of God. This should have been seen as a friendly gesture (like an escort), but it was not taken as such by Ahab or his wife.

In the Old Testament, God’s enemies are often put to death immediately as opposed to the New Testament where they are left to reap eternal death at the 2nd coming. As modern readers, particularly those of us who grew up in the United States where tolerance is taught, it seems unnecessary and maybe even unjust to kill people due to a difference of belief. There are a couple of things to consider when grappling with this:
  1. We aren’t given any indication that the prophets of Baal repented.
  2. Leaders are held to higher standards. In a time where the common man couldn’t read and got all of his information from those in charge (a priest or a king), it makes sense that God would be lenient with the people but harsh with the perpetrators of lies.
  3. This was possibly done to prevent an uprising of paganism in the future. While we pride ourself on tolerance as a country, allowing certain ideas to grow can effect the future and destroy our society if left unchecked. Sometimes it is necessary to nip things in the bud.

Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel in Conflict

When Jezebel hears that all of her pagan priests have been killed, she sets out to kill Elijah. Elijah flees to Beersheba, where he leaves his servant but continues himself into the wilderness. In the wilderness Elijah asks God to end his life. Elijah felt like he was no better than his fathers; an understandable feeling after you've killed 450 men. While Elijah is sleeping under a juniper tree, God sends an angel to wake him. The angel tells Elijah to rise and eat of the cake and water God has provided. Appearing twice, the angel persuades Elijah to eat informing him, that his journey is great. Elijah was sustained for 40 days and nights on this alone. We should never fear how we will survive when following the path the Lord has set for us; rest assured, He will provide. Also note, this is the second time God has provided food for Elijah in the wilderness.

After the 40 days, God speaks to Elijah while he is living in a cave. When God questions Elijah on why he is in the cave, Elijah explains his dilemma (which God already knows). God's question was likely to prompt Elijah into thinking about why he would hide away when the people really needed him. God places Elijah on the mountain, and he sends a wind, an earthquake, and fire. None of these acts of God "contain His Spirit," however. It is a still small voice that actually speaks to Elijah. This is evidence that while God is big and powerful, He is also peaceful and calm. He does not reveal himself only through destruction but by this still small voice as well. Once again, God questions Elijah about what he is doing there. Likely, God's message to Elijah was that He is all powerful; there is no need to hide when you are fighting on God's side of the war.

Ahab

Although Ahab isn't particularly fond of Elijah, it is Jezebel who becomes angry and decrees that Elijah should be killed. Given the fact that Jezebel was both a pagan and a female, one would think she would not have held such power in Israel. For her to command such power, Ahab had to have given it to her. Either he acted as a puppet, commanding everything she asked, or he gave the order for his servants to follow her instruction.

While I see nothing wrong in a healthy partnership where the wife is able to express her opinions and thoughts, there is something amiss about a king who allows someone else to take control of his kingdom. Ahab's inability to be the "ultimate" authority in his kingdom stemmed from his lack of leadership skills. Likely, he had no leadership skills because God had not appointed him king. We will continue to see Jezebel usurp power and undermine Ahab's rule throughout the text. Perhaps if Ahab had married a different woman, or had stood his ground, he wouldn't have gone down in history as such a bad king. At least, he probably would have been more recognizable than his wife and arch enemy.

Jezebel's Legacy

When I was little, my parents bought me a horse who had already been named. Her name was Jezebel, though everyone in my family called her Jazzy or Jazabelle. We all thought it was crazy that she had been named Jezebel; that's almost as bad as naming your pet Lucifer, like the stepmother in Cinderella! Jezebel clearly wasn't a positive figure in the Bible, but when I hear the name "Jezebel," I don't think of calculating and murderous, as Queen Jezebel proved to be, I think of a promiscuous woman.

In everyday speech, jezebel is used about the same way as "hussy." Urban dictionary lists the term to mean a variety of things, from beautiful to "whore."[8] Jezebel is also the name of a popular magazine that is targeted to women and specializes in "celebrities, sex, feminism, and issues relating to women's empowerment." Is it not odd that a magazine supposedly about women's empowerment, chose to name itself after the evilest woman in the Bible? Why not name it after Esther? Mariam? Deborah? They could have even named it after a famous woman who was from secular history, but they chose Jezebel. Why?

The question often comes back to how Jezebel got associated with sexuality and promiscuity; her evil deeds dealt with idolatry, not sex. I suspect it comes from a misinterpretation of 2 Kings 9:22, in which a reference is made to the whoredoms of Jezebel. However, this isn't a reference to sexual whoredom. The bible often uses this phrase when discussing idolatry. To bow to other gods is to commit adultery to the true God (remember, we are the bride of Christ). I'm pretty sure people misinterpreted this verse until suddenly Jezebel was a whore and her name became an insult meaning whore. Checkout my post

to learn more about how she came to be associated with sexual sin.

Elijah Makes an Ally

God sends Elijah to Damascus, where he is instructed to anoint Hazael to be the king of Syria. Even though Syria was not God's chosen land, He was still in control of who should be king. The Bible focuses on God's chosen people, so we often forget that God is supreme over the whole world. This means God has always had a hand in what happened in other nations. Just because these nations were not chosen to preserve God's word does not mean He forgot about them or abandoned them. Remember many of the surrounding nations were also descendants of Abraham.

In addition to instructing Elijah on forming this alliance with Syria, God gives Elijah instructions for Israel. God appoints Jehu to be anointed king and replace Ahab. God says that Hazael will slay their enemies, but those not slain by him were to be slain by Jehu, and those not slain by Jehu, were to be slain by Elijah. Elijah was given a plan to ensure all of God's enemies were stamped out; if one person failed to do the job, there was another to carry out the task. To aid in this upcoming battle, God reveals that He has 7000 followers still in Israel. These 7000 had not succumbed to idolatry and had resisted the popular trend of bowing to Baal. I think it's safe to say, as long as we're still here, there is a sizable army of God still present in the world.

The Next Prophet: Elisha

Also in Elijah's instructions from God, was the appoint of an apprentice to become the next prophet: Elisha. Elijah convinces Elisha to follow him. Elisha was the son of Shaphat. Elisha is eager to follow Elijah, who was likely well known and admired in circles that still worshiped God. In celebration of the honor, Elisha kills a set of oxen and the people of Elisha's town feast with them. After the feast, Elisha follows Elijah to become the next prophet according to God's command.

In speech, I often have trouble distinguishing Elisha and Elijah—I grew up with people pronouncing them the same way. In Hebrew the person we call Elijah is written אֵלִיָּה and pronounced “aillie-yah” or “allie-yahu”. the person we call Elisha is written אֱלִישָׁע and is pronounced “ellie-sha.”[10][11] This is one reason to prefer the Hebrew names over the English translations—it’s a lot easier to separate this two great prophets.

References and Footnotes

  1. M.G. Easton M.A., D.D. "Gilead". Illustrated Bible Dictionary, via BibleStudyTools.com. 1897; visited January 2017
  2. Elijah Was A Gentile". Beware Deception. May 3, 2009
  3. "1 Kings 17:1 Commentary". via BibleHub.com; visited January 2017
  4. "Elijah was NOT a Gentile". OSY Ministries. 2011
  5. "Strong's H8453: towshabBlue Letter Bible; visited January 2017
  6. Emil G. Hirsch, Eduard König, Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, M. Seligsohn, Kaufmann Kohler. "ElijahJewish Encyclopedia; visited January 2017
  7. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible, pg. 616. 2014
  8. "JezebelUrban Dictionary; visited January 2017
  9. Hampton Keathley IV. “4. Obadiah” Bible.org. June 18, 2004; visited September 2023
  10. Strong’s H452. אֵלִיָּה”. Blue Letter Bible; visited September 2023
  11. Strong’s H477. אֱלִישָׁע”. Blue Letter Bible; visited September 2023

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