Elijah and the Ravens: An Activist Faith

Elijah and the Ravens: An Activist Faith

Fan-tailed raven carrying bread, to illustrate a post about ravens feeding the prophet ElijahElijah is a miraculous character. From his first show of mastery over the rain, to his final ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire. And, in the middle, his crazy, zealous faith.

What kind of story is this is? If it weren’t in the Bible, we’d call it “magical realism.” Meaning: the story mostly takes place in our familiar everyday universe. The normal rules of science and sociology apply. But a few strange events grab our attention. And turn it to the edges of reality. To the margins of our society. So we can see from the perspective of those who live there. People without money or power. Starving widows. Urban wildlife. Prophets.

The story begins with a scene all too real in modern politics. Elijah confronts King Ahab who, we will soon learn, is greedy and murderous. Under Ahab’s watch, the people are starving. So Elijah does a dramatic prophetic performance of scarcity. Kind of like a hunger strike. Elijah says — let’s get the nuances of the original Hebrew right — “I swear to God, drought is coming and it’s not ending till I say so.” As soon as Elijah speaks out, he has to go into hiding.

But then the magic begins. God says, “Go down to the deep brook, and drink the water there. I’ve instructed the ravens to feed you.”

The ravens do it without protest. And they do it in style, two meals a day, bread and meat. (Don’t think too hard about what kind of meat it is or whose pack they steal the bread from.)

But do think about ravens. They live outdoors in small flocks. By raven law, each flock manages its own territory. If they do it well, then even in winter, they can find food. When they soar, they see an abundant, sustainable world. They look out for each other and for their guests.

Many days pass, and even the deep brook dries out. The ravens probably have another way to hydrate, but God tells Elijah to move on.

To the home of an unnamed widow who lives in the city of Tzorfat. God says, “I’ve instructed her to feed you.”

But the widow is no raven. No flock looks after her, even though she lives in a city. She is subject to the king’s law — or, in this case, the king’s lawlessness. For her, there is no abundance. In Tzorfat, it’s every person for themselves.

Elijah has to ask her for water. She agrees. But she doesn’t offer him any food. So, he asks for something small, just a pita, a thin tiny loaf. And the woman says — again let’s get the nuances of the Hebrew right — “I swear to God, if I had something to make a loaf with, I would. But I have only a handful of flour in my jar, and a little oil in my flask. I’m literally gathering two sticks now to cook a last meal for me and my son. After this, we will starve to death.”

But Elijah has lived with the ravens. And he sees the possibility of a different life. So he says, “Don’t be afraid. Go ahead, bake just as you said. But make a loaf for me first, then for your son. Because God said, your jug of flour and your flask of oil will never be empty until the rains come back.”

So the widow takes the risk. There’s so little to lose, anyway. And the magic returns. In her household, there is abundance.

The morals of the story seem obvious. Sustainability over greed. Generosity over selfishness. Sharing creates a community of support. The more you share, the more you have.

A happy ending.

NOT.

Suddenly, the widow’s son gets sick. Very sick. He stops breathing. Mom sits holding his lifeless body and cries out in pain. She shouts at Elijah, “What did I ever do to you, ‘man of god’? Did you come into my life to remind me how wretched I am and to kill my son?”

“Give him to me,“ Elijah says. Gently, he takes the son out of her arms and va’ya’aleyhu el ha’aliyah –carries him up to the loft.

But these Hebrew words are strange. They’re also found in the story of Abraham’s near-offering of his son Isaac. But there, v’ha’aleyhu l’olah mean: “offer him up as a burnt offering.”

Obviously, we’re meant to compare these two stories of faith. Abraham doesn’t talk back. He just does what he thinks God asked.

Well, that is one kind of faith. Accept your situation. It’s what God ordained.

But that is not Elijah’s kind of faith. It is not the right kind of faith for his time. No one should accept scarcity created by the king’s greed. So, Elijah does not keep quiet. With the son in his arms, he says “What the bleep God! You’re actually going to harm the woman I’m lodging with? You’re going to kill her son?”

Elijah reaches towards the boy. Three times he performs some CPR or artificial respiration. And then he prays, “God let this work!” And it does. Elijah brings the living, breathing child back to his mother.

And mom quotes the Abraham story. “Now I know that you are a man of God,” she says. Sort of but not quite like the angel of God, who says to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God.” Elijah doesn’t fear God like Abraham does. Elijah talks back. He notices injustice. Gets angry. Takes action. And then prays that it will work.

It’s an activist faith for troubled times.

**

Originally presented as a sermon at Summer Spirit 2019. Please note: Some midrashic and liturgical traditions suggest that Isaac died and came back to life. No doubt these come from the linkage between the two stories. Interested? See: https://thetorah.com/the-sacrifice-of-isaac-in-context/

Image: https://leesbird.com/tag/elijah/

2 Comments
  1. Good story. As usual, my interest is in the biology. You write, ” By raven law, each flock manages its own territory. If they do it well, then even in winter, they can find food.”

    Is that mean to be realism or magical realism? I can’t tell from the story. If is realism, how do flocks of raven’s “manage” territories so that yields more food per individuals food in winter than raven’s not in flocks. Note—I have published on the advantage of social behaviour in aquatic vertebrates, but I know zip about bird flocks. So I’m just curious about the biology here.

    1. Thanks so much, Richard! I have read that ravens store surplus food — that’s the biological basis. But ask me again in a few weeks, after I’ve attended the Corvid Seminar at the North Cascades Environmental Center later this summer. I’ll know more! – Laura

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