What We Learn from Elijah’s Encounter with God

He had called down fire from heaven and God responded. He has put the prophets of Baal to shame. And then he had slaughtered them.

That’s 1 Kings 18. But in the next chapter we find Elijah fleeing into the wilderness not only afraid for his life but in despair.

What had happened?

King Ahab had wilted in the face of Elijah’s resolve but not his wife Jezebel. She promised to have him killed.

Elijah prays for death and then falls asleep. In the midst of his slumber, he is roused by an angel who offers him a cake and some water. Elijah eats, only to then doze off. He is again prompted to eat a second meal by the angel. This time he remains alert and—apparently called by God—embarks upon a 40-day journey to Horeb, another name for Sinai, the same mountain where God appeared to Moses and the Israelites during the exodus.

Elijah’s wilderness excursion thus is a sort of mini recapitulation of the exodus. The Israelites too had witnessed the awesome wonders of God as He used the plagues to free them from the Egyptians. And, just as with Elijah and the prophets of Baal, God’s action had exposed the weakness of the religious elite of Egypt.

However, once liberated, Israelites too immediately doubted God. Here the accounts diverge somewhat but one element stands out: it was during the exodus that God provided food for the Israelites in the wilderness—the manna and the quail.

Elijah’s story personalizes the exodus for us. The exodus is not only a historical event, but a spiritual program, a biblical blueprint for how God draws us to Himself. His story suggests the following lessons for us.

God takes the initiative. Yes, Elijah himself set out into the wilderness. But he was wandering in despair. He had no destination, only the desire to die. God intervenes to point in him the direction of Horeb. Through grace, wandering is transformed into pilgrimage.

God awakens us. Notice how God comes to Elijah while he is in the midst of his slumber. This is a recurring motif in the Old Testament. It often precedes decisive encounters with God. Jacob is granted the vision of the ladder to heaven while asleep. Jonah is aroused from his sleep by shipmates perturbed by the storm that God sent in punishment for him abandoning his vocation.

Sleep thus can stand for spiritual sloth or a failure to be alert to the reality of God.

Repeat encounters. Grace is not one-time. Yes, we all have an initial moment of conversion, but we require continued nourishment in grace throughout our lives—and we all, to varying degrees, require constant re-conversion as well. Elijah needed not one but two meals to regain his strength—and this after the incredible display of the fire from heaven. For anyone who has ever struggled in their faith, the story of Elijah reminds us that sanctification is a process that requires multiple steps, rather than being an instantaneous transformation. (In this way, Elijah points ahead to Peter in the New Testament.)

Highest and nearest. We must encounter God not only in His infinite majesty but must also come to know Him in the deepest interior of our souls. The fire Elijah saw from heaven was thus paired with the simple touch of an angel and humble food the divine messenger provided him. This pattern will repeat itself later in the chapter when the earthquake and storm are followed by the ‘still small voice’ of God.

God works through the ordinary. The angel does not hand Elijah some magic potion. He is not given a special pill nor does he consume some sort of ancient superfood. God works through the ordinary—a cake and some water—to impart the extraordinary.

The story of Elijah encourages us to see our wanderings as opportunities for grace. And it also bids us remember that these opportunities may come before us in the most humble of forms. Hidden within the ordinary bread and water of our lives may lie the recipe for an extraordinary journey to God.

image: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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