Friday, 27 April 2012


Behold a beautiful pastoral scene: the Jezreel Valley spread out before you; fields, ripe with crops some ready to harvest; in the background, Mount Tabor, the site of Christ's transfiguration (no cloud obscuring the top today). The "V" in the centre the runways of an airforce base; and, towards the right Tel Megiddo.

There's a huge number of stories in this simple scene, from the beginnings of recorded history right through to the present day, even actually to the end of time itself. A Tel is an artificial mound composed of the ruins of successive civilisations built one on top of the other and all covered by the sands of time. Dig down into Tel Megiddo and you will find, amongst other remains, the foundations of one of Solomon's fabled chariot cities (1 Kings 10:26). There are the remains of many military strongholds on this spot. Why? Well, as the picture shows, this is a broad and fertile valley, something rather rare in this land. It runs from the coast almost to the Jordan valley. Whoever could control it could control not only much of the good agricultural land of the region, but could also dominate the northern half of Israel. What was true in Solomon's time holds true today. The last great battle on this site was in 1917 between the British and the Ottoman Empire. The British won, and with that victory took control of the entire Palestine territory. The name of the battle? The Battle of Armageddon. According to certain sources there is due to be another battle here some day.

The photo is taken from the top of a nearby hill, Mount Carmel, where there is a religious house (Carmelite, of course). It's a beautiful place, with friendly staff, a simple yet beautiful chapel, and shaded groves where you can sit and write your blog. It's also the spot where Elijah had a run in with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:16ff), so yet another place of conflict (sometimes I find it amazing just how many events have been packed into so small a country. You don't have travel to all of them, you can simply choose a good hill and see several at once).

The story of Elijah and the Priests of Baal is one of those episodes that challenges us about how we read the Bible. To recap on the story: There is a dispute about whose god is the true God. The nation is divided. So Elijah makes a challenge; the Baal Priests and he will offer identical sacrifices, calling on their respective deities to consume the sacrifice with fire. Whichever deity does the deal is judged the true god (we're not told what happens in the event of a tie, but possibly marks would be given for artistic effort). Well, the Priests of Baal take the first slot. They prepare the sacrifice, place wood around it, and dance round it in an ever more frenzied fashion, calling upon Baal to consume it with fire. They keep this up for hours, even whipping themselves (literally) to greater frenzy. Nada. Up steps Elijah. Likewise he prepares the sacrifice, places the wood, and then pours wast quantities of water over the whole thing. There's no dad dancing this time. Elijah simply calls upon his God and "whoosh", the whole lot goes up in flames. God of Elijah 1, Baal 0.

Now of course you can take this as a straight historical account of actual events. You can do that with the whole of the Biblical text if you want. But may I suggest that if you do you miss out on some of its vast richness. It would be like reading all of Shakespeare's plays as straight drama - no poetry, no comedy, no sharp political comment. Elijah and the Priests of Ball is a comedic moment. There are the Priests of Baal, a serious and devout bunch, convinced that if they do the right thing in the right way that it will be sufficient. And there is Elijah, doing everything within his power to make the desired outcome unlikely, making things as hard for God as possible. Yet it is his God who is shown to act. It is comedy. It is also propaganda, saying to the wavering reader; look, these other gods might have the right form on the surface, the whole religious setup and practice, but our god is God whatever we try to do to prevent it.

The Bible presents its message in various genres. The stories it tells are not the less for this, but greatly enriched. Yes, you can read the Bible literally (whatever that means), but you should first read it as literature.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:נחל מישר,Mitzpe Ramon,Israel

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