One could certainly blame Paul for modern Christians’ romanticized take on Abraham. For that matter, Paul seems to have fed us Abraham and Moses and David in forms that ignore the ugly particulars that the Old Testament will not turn loose of; Abraham, instead of being a man so amoral as to pimp his wife in fear, gets reduced to the moment when he sets forth from Ur. Moses, the one who murders three thousand of his kinsmen just after convincing YHWH not to massacre the lot of them, is identified with the divine law. And David, who puts on the greatest show of piety on earth until the moment after his son dies, then wants something to eat and to get laid, is the “man after God’s own heart.” There’s something to Paul’s tendency to treat these rich characters as one-line icons, but for someone like me who considers the Old Testament both sacred and literature, he’s sometimes hard to swallow.
When Elijah tells YHWH that when Jezebel gets ahold of him he’ll be no better than his ancestors, I don’t think that the text on its surface is doing much more than being euphemistic about Elijah’s fear of death. (After all, ancestors become ancestors only when they stop breathing.) But I do wonder about the possibilities that running with the phrase might bring: if he continues on the run, exiled from Samaria, he might still be alive, but he’ll be no better than his ancestor Abraham, whose desperation reveals his real cowardice. If he runs into the people still oppressed under Ahab and Jezebel, he might turn out no better than the vigilante Moses, who murders an Egyptian guard in cold blood, then becomes an object of scorn and fear to his own people. And if he gets the notion to resist Ahab, he’ll have to recruit foreign mercenaries to do so, making him no better than his ancestor David, who leads an army of Hittites and Amorites in a civil war against the people of Israel when Absalom usurps the throne.
Such is the way of the historically-contingent people of God, and that’s one of the many reasons why Jesus is so important in moments of existential crisis. When he encounters a man possessed by “Legion,” Luke plays coy by noting that the name has something to do with a plurality of spirits, but folks familiar with the story of occupied Palestine know full well what the Roman “Legions” were to the embattled people: they brought out of Israel all of those sinful tendencies that Jesus and Paul decry, not removing responsibility for their nationalism and sectarianism and abandonment of Abraham’s call to bless the nations but certainly exacerbating those worthless tendencies. When Jesus confronts not men with swords but unclean spirits called Legion, and when he drives them into the livestock that most readily symbolizes what’s happened to God’s promised land and chosen people, he reminds those present and those reading that the particularity of the Jews has not gone away, that even as Peter’s vision in Acts 10 radicalizes the vision of what Israel will become in the age of the Messiah, what emerges in the new age is still Israel. God has not forgotten.
So in some sense, even as one who ascended into Heaven without tasting death (along with Enoch and, if one allows for miracles after the closing of the canon, Mary), Elijah turns out as one who is no better than his ancestors: even as he speaks on behalf of YHWH, he awaits the same YHWH’s chosen king to arrive, to bring all nations (including the sinful critters who are supposed to be blessing the nations, not sacrificing to Ba’al) the blessings of God’s kindness. In one sense we Christians certainly live in a different age, proclaiming as we do that the dead-and-raised-and-ascended Jesus of Nazareth is and always will be that king, but on another level we share with Elijah that fundamental anxiety, that the still, small voice (I still prefer to the KJV locution) might not this time rescue us from that which would destroy.
May we proceed, until the day when faith and hope give way to the consummation of love, with the boldness of our ancestors, reaching for the icon even as we live more like the story.