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Word Of God - Word of Earth by B. Davie Napier


B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Word of God -- Word of Earth is copyrighted to United Church Press, 1976, and published by A Pilgrim Press, a division of United Church Press. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Section 1: The Drought


1. Elijah the Tishbite said to Ahab, "By the life of Yahweh the God of Israel whom I serve, I declare that in these immediate years there shall be neither dew nor rain but at my word."
2,3. Then the Word of Yahweh instructed him: "Get out of here and
4. keep heading east; hide in the Wadi Kerith at the Jordan. You will be able to drink from the stream; and I have commanded
5. the ravens to feed you there." So he put into action the Word of Yahweh: he went to live in the ravine of Kerith where it
6. approaches the Jordan; and the ravens kept bringing him food, and he drank from the stream.
7. But after a while, of course, the stream petered out because
8. there had been no rain on the earth. So the Word of Yahweh
9. advised him again: "Move immediately to Zarephath, a Sidonian town, and take up your residence there. You will see: I've designated a local woman, a
widow, to sustain you."
10. Accordingly, he picked up and went to Zarephath, where, coming into the town, he saw in fact a woman, a widow, gathering sticks. So he called to her
and said, "Will you bring me, please, something with a little water in it, so that I can
11. drink." And as she started out to get it, he called out after her,
12. "Will you also bring me please a piece of bread." But now she responded, "I swear by the life of Yahweh your God, there is nothing baked left, but only a
handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a cruet. You just found me gathering a few sticks to
13. prepare this for my son and me to eat before we die." Elijah said to her, "Don't be afraid. Go ahead with what you propose to do; but in addition and first
make out of it a small biscuit for me, and bring it to me. You may then take care of yourself and
14. your son; because this is the Word of Yahweh the God of Israel:

The jar of flour shall not be finished
And the cruet of oil shall remain undiminished
"Til the time when Yahweh again has replenished
The face of the ground with rain."
15. She carried out the word of Elijah; and she was sustained, she,
16. and he, and her son, day after day. The jar of flour was not consumed, nor the cruet of oil depleted, in accord with the Word of Yahweh which was
declared through Elijah.
17. Some time after all of this, it happened that the son of this woman, who was mistress of her own house, was taken ill; and his condition became so severe
that he was hardly able to
18. breathe. Now she spoke to Elijah: "Why did you interfere, you man of God? You've come to me to expose my own sin, and so
19. to kill my son." "Give me your son," he said; and taking him from her arms he carried him to the upper room (Elijah's own
20. room) and put him down on the bed. Then he cried out, aloud, to Yahweh: "Yahweh, my God, can it be your intention, in addition (to the drought and
attendant disasters), to inflict catastrophe on the very widow who has opened her home to
21a. me by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself out on the
22b, 23. child three times with the result that he revived. Elijah picked up the child, brought him down from the upper room of the house, and giving him back
to his mother, he said, "See, your
24. son lives." The woman responded, "Now I know in fact that you are a man of God, and that the Word of Yahweh that you speak (literally, in your mouth)
is truth."

 

THE CRISIS

In significant and irreversible ways these years of the final quarter of this century seem more than mere decades removed from the fifties and early sixties. The pace of change, if not always its effect, his been revolutionary.

I received a powerful dose of revolutionary-paced change in a single academic year when, in the fall of 1966, we moved to Stanford University from a teaching position in Yale Divinity School and residence in the Master's House of Calhoun College. The ways of Yale College have, to be sure, changed drastically since then; but in the year of our departure, we were still enforcing the coat-and-tie rule in the college dining halls. In loco parentis still prevailed. Following college dances we were supposed, at least, to be sure that women guests (the college was of course still all-male) were no longer lingering in student rooms. We were baptized into Stanford University, by contrast, in the year of David Harris' student-body presidency, into an academic environment that had been coeducational from the beginning and that was in process of "coeducating" all student housing. Not only was there no coat-and-tie rule; there was not even a shoe rule. The consequent experience of revolutionary change gave me the worst case of the cultural bends I have ever bad.

Perhaps especially for those of us who are responsibly related to the theological enterprise and the church, the years since the fifties have drastically altered us in sensitivity, in conscience, in perception. Names of persons, places, and events of these years having particular impact on me, and even so by no means exhaustive, may be suggestive of how and why and in what degree we have been moved from where we were: Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Cone; Seoul, Saigon, Santiago; meetings of church people at places like Bangkok and Medellin; and church people like Philip Potter and Claire Randall; and voices, writers, and prophets like Ivan Illich, Gary MacEoin, Paulo Freire, Gustavo Gutierrez, Rosemary Ruether, Rubem Alves, Dom Helder Camara, Jose' Miranda; and colleagues like John Bennett and Robert McAfee Brown; and events like Berkeley in 1964, and in subsequent years Stanford and Vietnam and Columbia and Vietnam and Harvard and Vietnam, and Vietnam and Cambodia; and Yale and Mayday; and Jackson State and Kent State; and Watergate; and still Vietnam. Two worlds of the cold war have become three worlds, with the anguish and poverty and oppression of the third interpenetrating the two and declaring to all of us in our world that things will never be the same again. And with all this there is the certain knowledge among us that the years of plenty of this planet's resources are really already ended and that we must learn to live, if we will live at all, in relative drought.

Elijah's word to Ahab must now be the declaration of a permanent if not terminal condition. The years, the centuries, the millennia of ample dew and rain of resources and of their profligate exploitation are over. The fecundity of the earth, which the Ahabs and Jezebels have always worshiped and appropriated, has been bled to barrenness. Neither Elijah's word nor even Yahweh's will restore it. This drought will endure. Of this kind of dew and rain, there shall be no more.

I do not see how contemporary ministry, particularly on the ancient prophetic model, can be faithful either to the Word of Cod or the word of earth except as it is lived and preached in a sense of critical, responsible, passionate urgency. And both these words -- of Cod and of earth -- must be heard and proclaimed simultaneously. Rubem Alves, Latin American theologian and church person, claims the support of the likes of a Karl Barth on the one hand and a Paul Lehmann on the other when he says that "the language of the community of faith must he understood as occurring between the reading of the Bible and the reading of newspapers."(1)

Or, as a contemporary French theologian has put it, "If the Church wishes to deal with the real questions of the modern world (then) instead of using only revelation and tradition as starting points . . . it must start with facts and questions derived from history."(2)

The Word of Cod and the word of earth -- earth as nature, as history, as humanity. That beautiful and sensitive prophet of earth U Thant said in 1969 that the member states of the United Nations have a decade to solve the major problems of the world before "they have reached such staggering proportions that they will be beyond our capacity to control."(3) Another earth prophet, Evelyn Hutchinson, looking not at the political but the ecological aspects of crisis, gives us a little more time:

Many people. . . are concluding on the basis of mounting and reasonable objective evidence that the length of life on the biosphere as an inhabitable region for organisms is to be measured in decades rather than in hundreds of millions of years. This is entirely the fault of our own species.(4)

Those prophets of earth who gave us that sobering if not alarming study called The Limits to Growth see that ultimate point reached within a century, if present trends continue in population pollution, industrialization, food production, and resource depletion. The result will be sudden and uncontrollable decline. The factors that will undo us proceed, by and large, along lines of exponential not simple linear escalation. Our situation may be compared to that of the owner of a pond on which a lily grows in the middle, doubling in size each day so as to cover the pond and choke off all other life in it in thirty days. The owner says, "It's OK. I won't worry about it until the pond is half covered." And when is that? On the twenty-ninth day.(5)

It is the biblical creation faith that we are charged with the responsible care of the earth. It is the Word of Cod that demands our hearing and responding to the word of earth. The authentic voices of earth tell us who minister that our ministry is set in crisis: Neither nature nor history, neither history nor humanity, can longer survive, without heretofore unimaginable consequences, the sustained ruthless exploitation inflicted upon them by the powerful of the earth. The authors of The Limits to Growth, prophets of earth, are speaking more than ecologically when they suggest quietly that it is still possible to alter trends and to produce a global equilibrium designed "so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and (everyone has) an equal opportunity to realize (one's) individual human potential." (6)

HEALING:THE WORD AND ACT OF THE PROPHET

Elijah to Ahab; prophet to king; minister to constituency; church to its own members and to this world: In the years that are coming upon us there shall be neither dew nor rain. Conditions and terms of existence which have obtained until now and upon which we have been accustomed to rely will obtain no more. Drought, the crisis of alienated folk in an alienated earth, calls for radical response; and it is the sense of the text that any satisfactory resolution of crisis will result from the prophetic word, the word and act of ministry. There shall be neither dew nor rain except at my word. The only solution lies beyond the destruction of Baal, amoral symbol of unlimited potency.

Of course this is to take liberties with the model, as is only appropriate. At the end of the next chapter, 1 Kings 18, Elijah effects the termination of the same drought which he proclaims in the story before us. But the living biblical word is not delivered to us in the hard rigidity of rigor mortis. It comes to us moving and alive. In the Elijah story, the life-sustaining resources recur by the action and word of ministry -- when Baal has been effectively destroyed, when the gods and goddesses of fecund, unlimited productivity are repudiated, when personal and tribal gratification are disaffirmed and Yahweh is acclaimed ultimate, whose will it is always to bring Israel out of Egypt, Philistia out of Caphtor, Syria out of Kir; to whom Judah and Ethiopia are alike; who calls for highways between the Egypts and the Assyrias of the earth; who blesses all human families, calling them all my people, the work of my hands, my heritage. (7)

If we are to take these texts as suggesting authentic qualities of contemporary ministry, then we may be startled here, if not even a little disconcerted, by the measure of authority, bordering on arrogance, assumed to obtain to the prophet. There shall be neither dew nor rain except at my word, unless and until I say so. We remember that Mosaic tradition holds Moses culpable for arrogating to himself and Aaron power to produce water in the sustained drought of the wilderness. Before striking the rock from which fresh water is to gush forth, Moses cries, in long-pent-up exasperation, "Listen to me, you rebels. Must we get water out of this rock for you?" It is the harsh judgment of tradition that this indiscretion was responsible for his failure to enter the promised land.(8) Our conventional piety, then, might lead us to expect another reading in the Elijah story: "There shall be neither dew nor rain except at the Word of Yahweh." We've grown accustomed to the phrase -- and very comfortable with it -- that God is working in history. The real worker in the Elijah stories, as for the most part in the narratives of subsequent prophets, is the prophet himself; and with uncommon emphasis in the Elijah texts, the word and the act of his ministry are seen as authoritative, efficacious, and decisive --derivative, of course, of the Word of Yahweh.

It is nevertheless a matter which has obviously disturbed the traditionists, who have on occasion taken it upon themselves to "improve" the narratives according to their own taste. Elijah comes on too strong for them. In the statement that the prophet and the widow and her son were all sustained, the qualifying phrase that this was according to the word of Elijah is omitted by some Greek translators centuries later as being in improper conflict with the Word of Yahweh (in vv. 5 and 16). Even some English translators eschew the phrase "the word of Elijah" and render it "she did as Elijah had said" or "had told her."

But if we take seriously this model for ministry, it may be reprimanding us for our timidity, our failure to speak and act incisively and with authority, our fear to declare the word of earth in the name of God, our disposition to say that only God can speak and act to redeem the catastrophic conditions of our human drought the now apparently impending disaster of our exploitation of earth and humanity. If we impute any sense of revelation to these narratives, any authentic disclosure of the meaning of ministry, then the word and act of our ministry must run the risk even of appearing brash. The function of ministry must be effective response to the word of earth -- to be sure, in the name of God, but with the understanding that its implementation is up to us. If it is done, we will do it, to be sure in response to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

At a recent commencement at Pacific School of Religion, our seniors asked John Fry to give the commencement sermon. He is on the faculty of our sister seminary at San Anselmo, a former Chicago pastor distinguished then and now for a total work of ministry sensitive and responsive to the word of earth, the raucous, anguished, bitter, revolutionary word of the cheated of the earth. The piety of some in our constituency was offended not only by his vehement insistence that if the work of ministry to earth is done, it is ours to do -- God will not himself do it -- but that we must think and hear and act on our own initiative and on our own determination of the nature and urgency of the Word of God and of earth. This is what he said, in part:

Here's what I'm proposing. . . . I propose, first, that you forget about assistance from the side of the universe at large, that is, from Exalted Justice, some tendency, in Being as such, for fair play and righteousness. It's not there. A corollary of this proposal is that any exalting of justice is going to have to come from you. The Bible can't go to Delano tomorrow with food, clothes, and money for farm workers. The Bible is going to stay on its shelf right over there in that chapel. People can go, carrying all the food and money I'm sure you've given. Maybe you'll go along. But here's the point: If Chavez finally loses, don't go making up theological explanations about the promise of God. You take the rap. It'll be your rap to take.

I propose second: When you walk out of here today, you really walk out on your own, and stay on your own from now on. A part of the infantilizing procedures in theological education, which I've already noted, consists of hearing the truth from Daddy who heard it from some other bigger person who heard it from Augustine who heard it from Paul who heard it from God. Well, what do you think? Ask that question, and here's what one gets: a twenty-page paper on what all the big people think. But you, in your incomparable subjectivity, and all that native intelligence, with those great GRE's and a splendid Rorschach; yes, you, right there; what do you think? Was Arius right or Nicaea right? Quick, now; don't go to the library. Don't look up your lecture notes. On your own tell us -- what do you think? It may look like the old authority question, but it's not. It's the old Peter Pan question about staying children always, even though M.Div. and even Ph.D. Lo, I tell you a mystery. I've known religious figures sixty years old who, when they die, could have chiseled on their tombstones these immortal words: "Niebuhr says, Barth says, Brunner says, but Tillich says." And these figures, what do they say? One doesn't know. They've never said. They will have gone from birth to death without thinking one single thought absolutely and lustily on their own. You want that? Ruether says, Pannenberg says, Cone says, Loomer says -- well, that's the dismal prospect, unless you feel desperate and decide to make the move pretty quick, unless you get up, out of here, on your own. And were you to have participated in the exaggerated traditions of the past, at one point in the ceremony you all would have switched your tassels from the right to the left. And that's what I might have urged you to do -- to swing that tassel from the right to the left with objective force, really move it over there, and keep on going the same way.

My last proposal, and end of the speech, is: Pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming this whole thing, this beautiful day, in this gorgeous setting. You are never going to be in a place like this again: all your papers finished, in the company of so many people who know you so well and love you so much. From now on, it's broken glass, and shotguns, and live rattlesnakes, and children dying for a drink of water in sub-Sahara Africa, and policemen who sneer when they say "Reverend." So soak it up. You didn't earn it, so it must be grace. Enjoy it! It may be a long, long time before it comes again. Let's have a lot of crying and hugging and kissing and dancing and carrying on around here after the serious is over -- something to remember in the trying days up ahead when, like the wild asses I hope to God you'll be, you go out there and get some justice!(9)

These words are in affinity with the sense of the Elijah model: Ministry is the work of justice, and ministry must hear and hold and speak its own word, its own independent word, formed and advised to be sure by the cross of the horizontal and the vertical, at the intersection of the Bible and the newspaper, in the meeting of the word of earth and the Word of God.

Some of our number who professed offense at Fry's failure to commend the ready availability of the power of God were no doubt even more disturbed by his hearty admonition that they follow their tassels resolutely to the left. Most of us, knowing John Fry and acknowledging the whole context of the occasion, were willing to impute to his word of earth the presence of the Word of God.(10)

But in any case, there can be no ambivalence on this point in our texts. The first word of Elijah that we hear is a declaration of the essence of ministry, its foundation, its inspiration, its compulsion, its sense, its reason for being: As Yahweh the God of Israel lives . . . by the very life of Yahweh God of Israel . . . before whom I stand. . . whom I serve . . . in whose presence I live and move and have my being .. . in the name, for the sake, to the glory, toward the will, and at the call and command of Yahweh, God, Embodiment of Justice, ultimate Mother and Father of all the living, patient lover of oppressed and oppressor -- by this life, which is the only Way and Truth I know, I speak what I must speak, and do what I must do!

There is always talk of the loss of the vertical in the life of the church to an alleged increasing preoccupation with horizontal concerns. But how can the Word of God and the word of earth be held separate? Prophetic ministry knows neither, alone, and is able to understand the one only in immediate consciousness of the other. If one says to Elijah that he should leave matters of the drought to engineers and rainmakers, famine and poverty to the appropriate bureaucracies, human healing to the AMA, foreign affairs to Samaria/Washington, the scandals of Baal worship to the self-policing of the multinational corporations, the murderous appropriation of the little vineyards of the little Naboths around the world to the justice and the greed of the powerful, and the peace of the world to Ahab's chariots and the Pentagon -- Elijah will have to say, and we in the church will have to say, We cannot do this without denying that Yahweh lives; or without removing ourselves from his presence.

Three scenes follow in 1 Kings 17, all during and in consequence of the drought. In the first, Elijah survives worsening drought and famine in the Wadi Kerith. In the second he takes up what proves to be sustaining residence with a Sidonian widow. And in the third he restores to life and health her dying son. Since all three strain the credulity of our very proper, precise, scientific, square mentality, let us suspend that inhibiting quality of mind; or, better, let us begin to abandon altogether the solid, Western, whitish, malish, prudent, reasoned stance, in which we appear to have become frozen, and, for the permanent conditions of crisis ahead of us, let us like Elijah learn to rest lightly on the earth. This means that we will say of nothing (shades of Screwtape), This is mine; that we will regard no condition as established; that we will remain in every sense mobile; and that we will cultivate, embrace, and affirm the graces of speedy improvisation. If we are to minister now in response to Word of God and word of earth, we must be (in frame of mind if not in reality) without, place, without possession, without people, without position; and insofar as we use them, we must know that they are not ours. To attempt to hold them is, if not immediately to perish, to die to ministry. In this indefinite -- I think permanent -- term of crisis of the earth, the fixed base, professional, geographical, theological, ideological, with its assumption of permanence is surely ultimately an illusion.

KERITH: VV. 2-7

Our posture in the world reminds me of lines I've had stuck in my mind since early childhood:

The boy stood on the burning deck. Eating peanuts by the peck.
His father called; he would not go. Because he loved the peanuts so.

Elijah leaves the place he's been. We really don't know where he came from, or even where he is when he turns eastward to be sustained by the hospitality of ravens and the diminishing flow of a brook. We meet Elijah first wherever Ahab is, and it is apparently the assumption of the narrative that everyone knows where the king is. The formal fortress/palace, built by Ahab's father, Omri, is on the summit of Samaria; but it is probable that the primary home and residence of both kings is Jezreel. (11)

The word either of God or of earth or both may tell us -- Elijah is an authentic model to go for the sake of the survival and preservation of our ministry where, if we eat at all, it will be (what an act of trust!) at the beak of ravens. It is amusing to see what rationalists among modern commentators have proposed as alternate readings for "ravens," since that is of course a patent absurdity. By changing the vowels (which were not in fact a part of the original Hebrew text), we can read "Arabs." Or, others have argued, a case can be made, without change in the word, to "merchants." Or, according to another proposal, since the root underlying "ravens" carries the meaning "to be black," why don't we assume that Elijah was fed by Blacks? The rationalization is hardly better than the inference of miracle, predicating as it does Arabs or merchants or Blacks coming in daily parade through the wadi, this rough, wild, godforsaken ravine, to share with Elijah the contents of their brown paper bags. Blacks feeding a White? Arabs feeding a Jew? Merchants feeding a prophet? "Ravens" is better.

An interesting aside: The Spanish Bible translates "ravens" as los cuervos, one meaning of which, in addition to black birds, is "corrupt priests." Let the commentators play around with that one.

The model calls us to the recovery of a lost virtue, if indeed we ever owned it. Ministry is to Word and earth, and we have made of it an institution, a profession. We in ordained ministry are quick to condemn our professional colleagues in medicine or law or even teaching for the abandonment of the motive of service for that of compensation. We are the ones who ought to know that the deck is burning; but our love of peanuts is not always demonstrably less than theirs. It is a cultural assumption to which we have become totally accommodated that the only reason one moves anywhere from Samaria or Jezreel is because it is a move "up" in pay and prestige.

Two or three years after we had left Stanford, we returned to attend a farewell party for a Medical School professor and his family we had come to know well. At table, someone spoke with regret of our having left Stanford and expressed the supposition that, even if we had wanted to stay, we could not have afforded to turn down the offer of a seminary presidency. My wife replied casually, "No, we took a cut." Now I break in to say that the deck is hot, but that I too am very fond of peanuts and have more than my share in spite of that cut. Later in the evening, the same friend put her arm around Joy and said comfortingly and sympathetically, "I hope Davie's next move will be up."

FLOUR AND OIL: VV. 8-16

In the second scene of the chapter, the circumstances for prophetic ministerial survival and promotion are hardly improved. The resources of amiable ravens and dying stream are to be replaced by the dubious, tenuous hospitality of an absolutely unknown and unidentified woman, a widow, and she far to the north, quite beyond the borders of Israel-Judah, in a town of Sidon through and on the other side of Queen Jezebel's home territory of Tyre. Elijah must have said, Yahweh, you've gotta be kidding!

Now we won't torture the model. Not everything fits. Where it speaks, let it speak. Where, being only itself, it cannot be also for us, then let it be, and be comfortable letting it be. Or take it for itself alone. Elijah comes through, if not always as a winsome guy, as fully and on the whole admirable person, prophet, minister. He has enormous strengths, together with the whole range of qualities of unimpeachable, authentic humanity. And he and his story are blessed with an original narrator (or narrators) of equal distinction in his own calling. Despite some insensitive, overly pious, and marring accretions, we are aware that the story of Elijah is economically, simply, and brilliantly told.

There is of course absurdity in every act of faith. To live in faith in the time of our own perilous drought is to live in the assumption that if there is no bread, ravens will bring us bread; or that the widow's exhausted and nonrenewable ingredients for the preservation of life -- the testimony of the word of earth -- may by the Word of God and our own bold word and ministry be made sufficient for the whole household.

 

Jesus welcomed the crowds (in the thousands) and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing. Now the day began to wear away. . . (and he said to his disciples), "You give them something to eat." They said, "All we have is five loaves and two fish...."" Make the people sit down in groups of fifty or so," Jesus said. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were satisfied.(12)

The widow said to Elijah (obviously in outrage and indignation), "I swear by the life of Yahweh your God, there is nothing baked left, but only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a cruet. . ." (But) she carried out the word of Elijah; and she was sustained, she and he, and her son, day after day. The jar of flour was not consumed, nor the cruet of oil depleted, in accord with the Word of Yahweh which was declared through Elijah.

The Word of God and the word of earth: It is still possible to alter trends and to produce a global equilibrium designed "so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and that all persons have an equal opportunity to realize their individual human potential."(13)

I've said, Don't torture the model. Don't make rigid the process of correspondence between Elijah's ninth B.C.E. and our twentieth A.D. The symbol of drought is effective and appropriate and authentic in our times -- we know this; it doesn't have to be said -- in ways quite beyond, but surely related to, the ecological crisis. Forms of our drought include, of course, institutionalized racism, institutionalized violence, institutionalized hypocrisy/arrogance/greed; institutionalized-nationalized-USized imperialism; institutionalized devices and procedures in operation around the world to grind the faces of the poor in the dirt and keep them there; and, by these same devices and procedures, to assure the continued flow of wealth and the desirable goods of the world into the pockets and mouths and establishments of those who already control and possess in grotesque disproportion the produce and products of the earth.

SICKNESS UNTO DEATH: VV. 17-24

This time of drought is also a time of sickness unto death. If the monumental pious declarations and postures of our past were ever justified, it cannot be now or ever again. To talk piously, superficially, glibly, and with detachment, as too often we have, of the unfolding drama of the Bible; of God who acts; of the redemption of history in God's good time; of the inevitability of the perennial presence of the poor among us, of war among us; to do so in such a way as to denigrate or disparage or depreciate the word and work and anguish of earth, the epidemic hunger and poverty and impotence that afflict like the plague most of the human family-to thus stalk across the earth in these impervious boots of a monarchical Word of God is to castrate the prophets and lobotomize Jesus Christ. We cannot now, if we ever could, afford this kind of piety, which doesn't even say, Let George do it. It says, Let God do it! Nor can we, in the midst of this vast human drought which has overtaken us, presume always to be polite to God (to say nothing of each other) and therefore to be deceiving, dissimulating. On the authority of what ancient, outmoded model do we stand only in awe before the presence of the Presence -- in abject confession, in (often) self-concerned petition, in (sometimes essentially) self-seeking intercession, or in cheap, insubstantial (and it may be, illogical) thanksgiving? This is the God who wills power to the people, all God's people, all people, and not to kings and emperors and other assorted oppressors. This is the God of the poor, the oppressed, the abused, the exploited, not the god of the mighty. In James Cone's symbolic use of the terms, this is the God of the Blacks, not the god of the Whites. God knows us. We can't get by with pretension in that Presence. So, along with prayers of Thanksgiving and Confession and Intercession and Petition, let's let fly with the prayer of Protest. There is splendid precedent, authoritative example.

Here is Moses:

Why do you treat your servant so badly? . . . Why are you so displeased with me that you burden me with all this people? Was it I who conceived all this people? or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers? Where can I get meat to give to all this people? For they are crying to me, "Give us meat for our food." I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face this distress. (14)

There is Job, of course, in that bitter parody of Psalm 8:

Why do you rear man at all,
Or pay any mind to him?
Inspect him every morning,
Test him every moment?
Will you never look away from me?
Leave me be till I swallow my spittle? (15)

Put a little differently: What are people, men and women, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visiting them every morning and testing them every moment? Will you never look away from me or leave me alone long enough for me to swallow my spit?

And Jeremiah (rendering all the lines as address to Yahweh in a prayer of Protest):

Yahweh, you have deceived me, and I was deceived;
You are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, "Violence and Destruction!"
For your Word has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, "I will not mention you, or speak anymore in your name,"
There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones,

And I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.(16)
And Habakkuk, like Jeremiah coming very close to home:
How long, Yahweh, am I to cry for help while you will not listen;
to cry "Oppression!" in your ear and you will not save?
Why do you set injustice before me, why do you look on where there is tyranny? Outrage and violence, this is all I see, all is contention, and discord flourishes.
And so the law loses its hold, and justice never shows itself.
Yes, the wicked man gets the better of the upright, and so justice is seen to be distorted.(17)

And so back to Elijah and his own brief, incredulous prayer, charged with resentment and outrage if, as he fears, the little son of the widow is dead. A properly pious prayer has been added to the text, in an effort to preserve in Elijah the conventional image of the man of God; but the true and authentic word of the narrative is this: In profound exasperation and anguish of spirit, with the seemingly lifeless body of the child now lying on the prophet's own bed, Elijah cries in unmistakable meaning, Are you really going to go through with this? As if privation of earth and people were not already enough, can you bring totally undeserved judgment on this child and on his mother by taking his life, leaving her now in consummate grief, and me in contempt and rejection? My God Yahweh! 

The child, whether dead or not, lives. Renewed life or healing, or both, has occurred. We do not even have to bend the model: The lay and professional minister, ministry, is acutely vulnerable to the word of earth, the human condition, as it confronts the life of ministry; and because ministry knows that the Word of God is the Word of Yahweh, God of Israel, God of the Servant, God of the Gospel, it understands that it must play its own role, speak its own word, fulfill its own function, affirm its own identity and integrity, and act its own part in responding to the Word of God and the word of earth.

Giving the child back to his mother, Elijah said, "See, your son lives." She responded, "Now I know in fact that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh that you speak is truth."

The model is vastly simpler than our reality. But it is clear in its directive that the life of our earth is threatened as never before and that the progeny of the family of which we are a part are in critical and immediate need of healing. We have not come yet to the end of our story. The child is before us. We are called to heal, to run the risk of failing as well as the risk of succeeding. We must speak and act, toward the earth with sensitivity and compassion and courage, toward God and each other without pretense, and toward ourselves with initiative, integrity, and boldness, sensitive to the Word of God and vulnerable to the word of earth.

 

Study Guide:

1. Circle the phrase which comes closest to summarizing the presentation:

A. Elijah is a model for contemporary ministers because he always trusted that God would care for him.

B. The "Word of God" and the "word of earth" are the same.

C. Contemporary ministry is work to be done "between" the reading of the Bible and the reading of the newspaper.

D. The prophetic is the only valid ministry.

E. The word of earth must never intrude on the Word of God.

F. Ministry is to preach God's word.

2. Dr. Napier says the word of earth is crisis, i.e., that there is a new day of Third World claims, and that things are not going to be the same anymore; moreover, that the resources of the earth are being exhausted and that we are coming to a time of drought. How has this "word of earth" affected your life, and how do you feel about it?

3. There are three scenes in Chapter 17 of 1 Kings: Elijah being fed by the ravens, Elijah as the guest of the widow and her son, and the sickness of the son. What do these vignettes in Elijah's life say to the contemporary church about its ministry?

  

References:

1.Rubem Alves, A Theology of Human Hope (St. Meinrad, Ind.:Abbey Press, 1972), p.71.

2.Quoted by Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1972), p.12, from Congar, Situation et taches presentes de la theologie [Paris: 1967), p.72.

3.Quoted in Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972], p.17.

4. Ibid., p.44; quoted from "The Biosphere," Scientific American, September 1970, p.53.

5. Ibid., pp. 23f.

6. Ibid., p.24.

7. Cf. Amos 9:7 and Isaiah 19:23-25.

8. Numbers 20:10, NEB; cf. Exodus 17:lff. and see Psalm 106:33.

9. Used by permission of Tohn Fry.

10. Gutierrez, op. cit., pp. 7f., again quotes Congar (op. cit., p.27): "Seen as a whole, the direction of theological thinking has been characterized by a transference away from attention to the being per se of supernatural realities, and toward attention to their relationship with man, with the world, and with the problems and the affirmations of all those who for us represent the Others."

11. See my article, "The Omrides of Jezreel," Vetus Testamentum, vol.9 (1959), pp.366-78. See also 0. H. Steck, "Uberlieferung und Zeitgeschichte in den Elia-Erzahlungen (Neukirchen-Vluyn: 1968), p.57, note 4.

12. Luke 9:11-17, after RSV and NEB.

13. See preceding note 6 (The Limits to Growth, p.24).

14. Numbers 11:11-15, NAB.

15. Job 7:17-19. The translation is that of Marvin H. Pope in Job, in the series The Anchor Bible, vol.15, rev. ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), p.58.

16. Jeremiah 20:7-9, RSV adapted.

17. Habakkuk 1:2-4, JB.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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