“Till like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah whose words were as a flaming furnace. Their staff of bread he shattered, in his zeal he reduced them to straits; by God’s word he shut up the heavens and three times brought down fire.”—Sirach 48: 1-3
The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of folk wisdom interspersed with songs of admiration for great figures in the Hebrew tradition. The scientific era has taught us to devalue folk wisdom, but the bible demonstrates that the common wisdom of poor people should be valued alongside the learned wisdom of the priests and prophets. The book of Sirach is a storehouse of shared stories. Stories are the bones of a culture. Without stories, things fall apart. Life no longer makes sense.
Sirach 48 is a praise poem honoring the prophet Elijah who used what might be called natural magic or earth-based science to defeat the priests of Baal. Elijah’s dedication to Yahweh opened him to receive Yahweh’s wisdom on how to win this particular battle. To win the hearts and minds of the people who worshiped a rain god it was necessary to defeat the rain god at his own game. So Yahweh demonstrated superiority by controlling water. When the priests of Baal lit a fire to sacrifice a bull, Elijah called down rain to put it out. And when the priests of Baal called for a downpour of rain, Elijah “shut up the heavens” causing a drought in the land.
The setting of these power struggles and the weapons used are foreign to us—but the basic dynamics are not. Some people interpret these Old Testament battles as the One True Religion against the Other. Jesus, however, drew the line differently. There are those who use power and institutions to oppress the poor and those who do not.
In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Jesus’ students ask him, “Why do the scribes say Elijah has to come first?” In typical Jesus fashion, he ignores the narrow-mindedness of their question and goes to the heart of it. It is not important what the scribes have said in the past. Elijah has already returned and the Messiah is now among them. This is what they must realize. This is what they must open their hearts and minds to understand.
What power struggles are present in your own life? What wisdom do you need to face them?
Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!
With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.