Friday, March 2, 2018

Haftarat Ki Tisa: Ignore Those Screaming, Injured Prophets For a Sec...

Sometimes I think the Torah gets a bum rap. Often, in fact. People talk about the "vengeful God of the Old Testament" or they dismiss the text - all of it - because of fantastical miracles, supernatural phenomena, and talking animals. I get it.
Our ancient texts occasionally feel more like fairy tales or sci-fi movies, or they're full of slaughter, smiting, and sins punishable by death. And yet, I don't read the Torah that way. I still have A LOT of problems with many of the stories, and I struggle with its questionable morals on more than one occasion. But hidden in between the lines, sometimes even buried under the oddest of stories, are some real-life lessons that we ignore at our own peril. At its core, these texts of our Tradition are speaking directly TO US, and are offering incredible teachings that can enrich and enhance our lives. This week, I want to point out a couple of gems that you might miss, what with the 450 idolatrous prophets gashing their flesh and screaming to their god to defeat one Israelite prophet. Distracting, I know, but let's see if we can look past it anyway, shall we?

Ki Tisa, our parashah this week, contains the infamous transgression of the Israelites, when they doubt God's and Moses' leadership, and build a Golden Calf to worship instead. To put it mildly, it doesn't end well. Paralleling this story,
the rabbis offer us a Haftarah from the First Book of Kings, about another instance when the Israelites "went astray" and found new gods to worship. Again, it doesn't go well. On its surface, this is an action-packed scene to rival any Hollywood blockbuster. The evil king, Ahab, and his equally loathsome wife, Jezebel, have been killing off Israelite prophets. The only one left is Elijah, who evades capture. Ultimately, he reappears, and challenges 450 prophets of Baal, as well as 400 MORE prophets of Asherah, to a theological duel. Each side will call upon its god to engulf a sacrifice in flames, and this will prove who is a "true" prophet. What a scene, right? 450 (or possibly 900!) against 1. I won't spoil the ending, but you can probably guess who wins...

Now, back to my earlier point; there is certainly enough here to occupy ALL our time. But I want to peek behind the supernatural "stuff." Here are two interesting threads that are ALSO going on in this story, but which are easily overlooked.
There is another hero in our story. The palace steward, Ovadiah, works for Ahab and Jezebel... but he's secretly loyal to God. When Jezebel was killing off prophets, Ovadiah hid 100 of them in caves and provided them with food and water (18:4). Later, when Ahab is hunting for the last prophet, Elijah, the one who finds him is Ovadiah. Elijah tells Ovadiah to let Ahab know he's back, but Ovadiah balks. "What wrong have I done, that you should hand your servant over to Ahab to be killed... when I leave you, the spirit of Adonai will carry you off I don't know where; and when I come and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me!" (18:9, 12) It's a classic case of "Don't kill the messenger!" Right?? In the midst of an thoroughly mystical story, we find a very relatable human emotion. This book was written thousands of years ago, and yet we can all imagine feeling Ovadiah's anxiety in this moment.

The second thread I want to mention is one of humor. As you've probably realized by now, I love finding instances of humor in our ancient texts, because that makes them incredibly familiar to us. We can picture ourselves saying, feeling, or experiencing the same things our ancestors did, even when so much else in the text seems foreign and bizarre. The priests of Baal holler out to their gods and cut
their flesh, but nothing happens. Elijah clearly feels confident that he's got this, so he begins to taunt them, and his jibes would fit on any stand-up comedy stage today: "Shout louder! After all, he [Baal] is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up!" Detained? Asleep?? Pretty terrific humor for a guy who's up against 450 adversaries; oh, and a royal couple that are itching to behead him! But my point is this: I completely understand why the crazy stories in the Bible can be distracting. Nevertheless, there really is SO much else going on here. More, perhaps, than anything else, the text is calling our to us - to you and me - for relationship. Amidst the fire and brimstone, the special effects, and the goriness, these stories are also trying to address anxiety, altruism, and even humor. Sometimes you just gotta squint a little to see it. But when you do, it's well worth it; I promise!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Bastyoje on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image courtesy of
4. CC image courtesy of Jeremy Segrott on Wikimedia Commons

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