“But after he had gone, a lion encountered the man of G-d on the road and killed him."
-1 Melakhim 13:24
1 Kings 13:24-25 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
At first glance the story of 1 Kings 13 seems extremely unfair. Does G-d show no mercy for His servants, those who seek to do His will? Isn’t it hard enough living the life of an Israeli Man of G-d without also running the risk of being killed by a lion for one little mistake, based on a moment of indecision and the deception of another person? “Harsh,” we say, “very unfair. It should have been the lying prophet that got eaten, he was the deceptive one, and it was all his fault. It’s just not fair G-d, why would you allow this?” Our perspective is, of course, based on a temporal view of life. We would prefer to see justice worked out in our days on earth. We claim to believe in the Olam haba—world to come—but we seldom view the scriptures with eternity in mind.
Perhaps if we were to understand this historical account in light of the Meta narrative of G-d, we may find some good news, both for ourselves and for the Man of G-d. I should add, that I don’t use the term Meta narrative in the same way that Christian theological institutions do: I don’t understand the Meta narrative to be gleaned from our critique of the written word of G-d, on the contrary, I see the Meta narrative as the Word’s critique of us. Too many scholars have used reason as an excuse to stand in judgment of G-d’s written word; I understand that in the end it is we who will be judged by G-d’s Word.
To begin to understand this account, we must first understand what has come before. The Kingdom of Israel has been divided between kings: Rehoboam, meaning to enlarge the people—ironic—and Jeroboam, meaning, to contend with the people—appropriate. Rehoboam is king of Judah and the Levites while Jeroboam is king of the remaining ten tribes of Israel. Both kings have proven themselves less than righteous, but our story is concerned with Jeroboam. Jeroboam had recently set up two calves—probably with the view to offer their backs as a seat for HaShem—and has re-pronounced the now infamous statement, “Here are your g-ds, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” This of course mirrors the words and actions of Aaron soon after Israel’s escape from Egypt and is the gravest of Idolatries. He did this to ensure that Israel would not go into to Judah to the mountain of the L-rd to worship. He was concerned that if this happened he would experience a loss of power and that Israel might realign herself with Judah and king Rehoboam. Jeroboam’s actions were the seed of his own destruction, perpetuating the sin that would lead to his downfall and the removal of his house from the face of the earth. (13:34)
Three key phrases
Word of the L-rd--Ha-D’var shel Adonai
Man of G-d--iysh shel Elohim
These three phrases are repeated throughout 1 Kings 13 and give great insight into the intended lesson of this story.
Firstly, the honor, integrity, power and judgment of the Word of the L-rd is at stake. Anyone representing G-d’s word is subject to great scrutiny, because the defiling of His word denigrates G-d’s character in the ears of its hearers. This should be a sobering reminder for us, for all who are a called in Messiah are representatives of the living Word of G-d--Messiah Yehoshua.
Secondly, the Man of G-d is only once called a prophet in this story, and then, only by inference when the false prophet says, “I am a prophet like you.” This is key to understanding the text. The Man of G-d is not just any prophet, he is not like the prophets of Bethel who prophecy in the name of false gods and pretend to speak for HaShem on the occasions that it suits them to do so. The Man of G-d is different, set apart, and from the true throne of David in Jerusalem. He represents the unity of G-d against the multiplicity of false deities in Bethel. The phrase Man of G-d, is the juxtaposition against the term prophet. We would do well to remember that spiritual gifts and appointments bear little weight if they are devoid of relationship. Better to be a Man of G-d than a prophet of the people.
Thirdly, turning or returning--shuva—is a key concept in Judaism. In English we are most familiar with this term when it is translated as repentance. Throughout the Scriptures we are confronted with this term, why? Because it is the catalyst to reconciliation. This term gives us the gospel conclusion to the narrative. Ironically it is the false prophet who returns/shuva in the end. However it is also true to say that the Man of G-d returns/shuva, not to the grave of his father’s, but to the bosom of Abraham, the father of faith. The Man of G-d’s fall is temporary, he awaits the Olam haba, his story doesn’t end with the narrative.
“Now behold, there came a man of God from Judah to Bethel by the word of the L-rd, while Jeroboam was standing by the altar to burn incense.”
He came from Judah—the house of David, the coming King Messiah and the tribe that had Levi, the priesthood attached to it at this time—to Bethel—the location of the false gods and pagan worship practices of Israel’s remaining ten tribes. The symbolism here is clear, G-d will not stand for idolatry. The true King will eventual consume all Israel from the throne of David.
Jeroboam was about to burn incense in opposition to the prescribed worship practice laid down by G-d in the Torah. He was engaging in a blatant act of rebellion and idolatry against the G-d of Israel.
“He cried against the altar by the word of the L-rd, and said, ‘O altar, altar, thus says the L-rd, ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’”
By crying out against the altar, the Man of G-d was speaking against all the idolatry and rebellion of Israel. This foundation for all false worship was going to be desecrated by G-d. Israel understood that blood and the bones of the dead defiled the land. Where the bones of the dead remained outside of the tomb, there was a curse on the land.
The prophecy of Josiah was fulfilled some three hundred years later. An incredible testimony to the power of G-ds prophetic word. (2 Kings 23:15-20)
“Then he gave a sign the same day, saying, ‘This is the sign which the L-rd has spoken, ‘Behold, the altar shall be split apart and the ashes which are on it shall be poured out.’”
The signs of G-d are not like the pagan practice of interpreting omens, on the contrary, they are real and present, miraculous and unmistakable.
“Now when the king heard the saying of the man of G-d, which he cried against the altar in Bethel, Jeroboam stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, ‘Seize him.’ But his hand which he stretched out against him dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself.”
This was an equally effective sign of G-ds power and the authority of the Man of G-d. This is reminiscent of the events of Moses ministry.
“The altar also was split apart and the ashes were poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of G-d had given by the word of the L-rd.”
The ash was to be disposed of outside the camp and was considered unclean. The ash on this altar fell into the stone and was absorbed into the porous rock, defiling it to its core. The foundation of the idolatrous practice was broken in two and desecrated by ash.
“The king said to the man of G-d, ‘Please entreat the L-rd your G-d, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored to me.’ So the man of G-d entreated the L-rd, and the king’s hand was restored to him, and it became as it was before.”
Even in the face of unrepentant rebellion, G-d is merciful.
“Then the king said to the man of G-d, ‘Come home with me and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.’ 8 But the man of G-d said to the king, ‘If you were to give me half your house I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water in this place. 9 For so it was commanded me by the word of the L-rd, saying, ‘You shall eat no bread, nor drink water, nor return by the way which you came.’ 10 So he went another way and did not return by the way which he came to Bethel.”
This wasn’t a friendly act of reconciliation, it was a manipulative act of deception. Jeroboam witnessed the power and authority of the Man of G-d and that this power was also representative of Judah and the true place of worship. By inviting the Man of G-d into his home he was attempting to show Israel that he had the approval of HaShem and His prophet, thus establishing the false place of worship and, not only maintaining his rule over Israel, but also symbolically annexing Judah and the Levites, G-ds true priesthood. No meal in the Middle East is benign. When you are invited for a meal your peace rests upon that home, you identify with its occupants and are seen to support their way of life.
Knowing this and having had a clear revelation and command of G-d, the Man of G-d refused and in obedience to G-d returned a different way from the way he had come.
“Now an old prophet was living in Bethel; and his sons came and told him all the deeds which the man of G-d had done that day in Bethel; the words which he had spoken to the king, these also they related to their father. 12 Their father said to them, ‘Which way did he go?’ Now his sons had seen the way which the man of G-d who came from Judah had gone. 13 Then he said to his sons, ‘Saddle the donkey for me.’ So they saddled the donkey for him and he rode away on it.”
This prophet was living in Bethel, the center of Israel’s idolatry. Hearing from his sons that a Man of G-d had prophesied the destruction of both his people and his form of worship, he set out to deceive the Man of G-d, hoping to prove his words false and thus save both Israel and himself from the coming doom prophesied by the Man of G-d.
“So he went after the man of G-d and found him sitting under an oak; and he said to him, ‘Are you the man of G-d who came from Judah?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ 15 Then he said to him, ‘Come home with me and eat bread.’ 16 He said, ‘I cannot return with you, nor go with you, nor will I eat bread or drink water with you in this place. 17 For a command came to me by the word of the L-rd, ‘You shall eat no bread, nor drink water there; do not return by going the way which you came.’ 18 He said to him, “I also am a prophet like you, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the L-rd, saying, ‘Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water.’ But he lied to him. 19 So he went back with him, and ate bread in his house and drank water.”
Oak trees were associated with false worship. Perhaps the Man of G-d was simply taking a break from the harsh sun, resting before continuing? We cannot know why he had stopped. The false prophet—indicated by the text, he lied—successfully deceives the Man of G-d by saying that he is also a prophet like him and that an angel has told him its okay for him to disobey the word of the L-rd. This seems almost unbelievable, after being so resolute, the Man of G-d seemingly gives in without properly considering the poorly reasoned plea of the false prophet. Perhaps he was lonely? Maybe he was weary and through shear physical exhaustion failed to think clearly? We cannot know for certain why he was fooled by the false prophet’s argument. It is interesting to note that many a false religion or cult has begun with the same words, “An angel came and told me…”
“Now it came about, as they were sitting down at the table, that the word of the L-rd came to the prophet who had brought him back; 21 and he cried to the man of G-d who came from Judah, saying, ‘Thus says the L-rd, “Because you have disobeyed the command of the L-rd, and have not observed the commandment which the L-rd your G-d commanded you, 22 but have returned and eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which He said to you, ‘Eat no bread and drink no water’; your body shall not come to the grave of your fathers.” 23 It came about after he had eaten bread and after he had drunk, that he saddled the donkey for him, for the prophet whom he had brought back. 24 Now when he had gone, a lion met him on the way and killed him, and his body was thrown on the road, with the donkey standing beside it; the lion also was standing beside the body. And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown on the road, and the lion standing beside the body; so they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived.”
When we are disobedient to G-d’s word, He may use even the false prophet to speak truth to us in order to discipline us. The punishment of the Man of G-d was not death, rather the text tells us that the punishment was that he would “not be buried with his fathers.” For an Israelite of his time, this was abhorrent. Burial with ones fathers was symbolic to the household, a sign of the Olam haba/Abraham’s bosom and of G-ds continued blessing over future generations. Israel has always been a people of the land, to be buried in the tribal tomb is a way of identifying with the promises of G-d concerning the land.
The punishment meted out to the Man of G-d may seem harsh to us, but let’s consider what was at stake. G-d was warning an entire nation that if they did not return/repent--shuva—He would wipe them out. Remember the wonderful grace and mercy of G-d, it is His will that none should perish, so when He is moved to act against our rebellion, He intends for what He says to be unblemished. The warning must be seen by the Israelites to be authentic, so as to inspire fear and returning/repentance/shuva. The Man of G-d has effectively clouded the word of G-d by showing the local Bethel community that he can’t keep the word spoken to him. In order to affirm the truth of this word, G-d must show that He is Holy and that what He has said will come to pass. He does this by putting the Man of G-d to death in a miraculous and unusual way, so that it will bear witness to Israel, Jeroboam and yes, even the false prophet through who He spoke the judgment against the Man of G-d.
Lions kill either out of hunger or for the purpose of bringing food back to the pride. This lion neither eats nor drags away the body of the Man of G-d, nor does it eat the donkey. This is a clear sign from G-d that affirms the truth of His word. Is there symbolism in the Lion and the donkey? I don’t believe there is. But, for the sake of conjecture, how about: the lion represents Judah and the donkey? Well, maybe he represents Jeroboam? After all, Jeroboam did act like a donkey’s ass.
“Now when the prophet who brought him back from the way heard it, he said, “It is the man of G-d, who disobeyed the command of the L-rd; therefore the L-rd has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word of the L-rd which He spoke to him.” 27 Then he spoke to his sons, saying, “Saddle the donkey for me.” And they saddled it. 28 He went and found his body thrown on the road with the donkey and the lion standing beside the body; the lion had not eaten the body nor torn the donkey. 29 So the prophet took up the body of the man of G-d and laid it on the donkey and brought it back, and he came to the city of the old prophet to mourn and to bury him. 30 He laid his body in his own grave, and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!”31 After he had buried him, he spoke to his sons, saying, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of G-d is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. 32 For the thing shall surely come to pass which he cried by the word of the L-rd against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places which are in the cities of Samaria.”
The Man of G-d has been killed but his body has not been desecrated. G-d honors him and keeps his body whole for burial. The false prophet sees this as a sign of the truth of what the Man of G-d has said and returns/repents/shuva, to G-d by identifying with the word spoken by the Man of G-d. He declares to his son’s that what the Man of G-d has said will come to pass according to the word of the L-rd. As an affirmation of this he asks that his bones be buried with the Man of G-d when he dies. We should note that the mention of Samaria indicates that this account had to have been recorded at least fifty years after it happened. It was probably passed on as oral tradition, perhaps this is one of the reasons for the unnamed Man of G-d. When this prophecy was eventually fulfilled some three hundred years later, the bones of the Man of G-d and the prophet were not brought out and used to desecrate the altar. This can be seen as a final confirmation of the Man of G-d’s eternal condition in the bosom of Abraham and so into the Olam haba. This also applies to the repentant/returning false prophet who in realizing his own sin and the Holiness of G-d returned/shuva to the G-d of Israel through his representative, the Man of G-d.
“After this event Jeroboam did not return from his evil way, but again he made priests of the high places from among all the people; any who would, he ordained, to be priests of the high places. 34 This event became sin to the house of Jeroboam, even to blot it out and destroy it from off the face of the earth.”
Unlike the false prophet of Bethel, Jeroboam did not return/shuva to G-d, in fact, in stark contrast he returned/shuva to his evil ways and compounded his rebellion by appointing non-Levites as priests in defiance of the words of the Man of G-d. 2 Kings tells us of the terrible result of Jeroboam’s sin, which ended with his family line being completely removed from the face of the earth.
If we are certain of G-d’s Word, let us keep it, regardless of the prompting of others, even others of our faith, for even if we are all prophets, we are not all people of G-d. Prophecy is no substitute for relationship with G-d through His son our Messiah Yehoshua.
© Alastair Brown 2013