By: Anne Straub
First Kings records episodes of the prophet Elijah’s life that would qualify for a Hollywood blockbuster. And yet as I read the book recently, I found myself focusing less on the starring role than on the supporting cast.
In the span of a few pages, Elijah brings back a child from the dead, outruns a chariot, and defeats pagan prophets in a call-fire-from-heaven-off. That last story, in chapter 18, is one of his best-known moments. Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a public contest to determine whose was the one true God: Each side would prepare an ox for sacrifice but put no fire under it, then call out to heaven. The deity who responded with fire would be proven to be God.
The prophets of Baal went first and gave it their all, to no avail. “Maybe he’s busy or on a journey,” Elijah taunted. “He might be asleep and need to be awakened.” “Hey, batter batter – swing!” (OK, I made up that last one.)
When it was Elijah’s turn, he upped the ante. He had the offering and altar soaked with water, then had trenches dug around the altar and filled them with water. He called out to God, and fire consumed the burnt offering and the wood, and the stones and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.
It was a spectacular victory. But ever one to get lost in the weeds, I couldn’t let go of verse 33. Speaking of Elijah, it reads: “Then he arranged the wood and cut the ox in pieces and laid it on the wood.” Oxen are big. And heavy. Can you imagine cutting one up and laying it out on wood by yourself?
And this is where the supporting actors come in. I think he had human help all along the way. Notice later in the chapter when Elijah prayed for rain to end the drought, he didn’t check the horizon for a cloud himself. He sent his servant, who, by the way, went back and checked for Elijah seven times before he saw a small cloud.
Did the servant also help butcher that ox? Did he outrun the chariot alongside his master? In the next chapter, the Bible records that Elijah fled for his life to Beersheba and left his servant there, so perhaps this helper -- a nameless extra in the movie metaphor -- was part of some of God’s most dramatic work through Elijah. No credit, but what a rewarding role it must have been.
And that’s how the most dramatic work happens, isn’t it? Most of us aren’t the headliner, but somewhere along the way, we said something, or did something, or gave something, that made a great work possible.
I might have found a new lens for reading the Bible. In II Kings, Elijah’s protégé Elisha takes over center stage. Among the miracles God used him to perform is Naaman’s cleansing from leprosy, recorded in chapter five. But look closer at how it came about: Naaman’s wife had a servant girl who mentioned to her mistress, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.” So word is passed on to Naaman, and he asks Elisha for healing.
But he doesn’t like what he’s told to do, and he goes away in a rage. And a life is changed, again, by unnamed minor characters. Naaman’s servants talk sense into him and tell him to do what the prophet said. And he’s healed through the ministry of a well-known prophet – but because of the small interventions of servants and friends.
If write my script looking for fire from heaven or instant healings, I expect I’ll be disappointed. But pointing people in the right direction, helping in any way I can, standing with them through difficulty – those are roles I can take on.