Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Response to Bishop Barron on Elijah's "Firing"

(August 23, 2022) In his now viral commentary on the Prophet Elijah, Bishop Robert Barron opined that God "fired" Elijah after his encounter with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Barron said:

“The tiny whispering voice says its time for your successor. Elijah, you're fired. Why is he being fired? Could have something to do with that extraordinary violence he showed after the beautiful prophetic manifestation on Mt. Carmel?”

There are a few considerations here, first, relating to the difficulty Barron has with this story, and second, to his exegesis of 1 Kings.

1. Novus Ordo Lectionary Omits the Killing of the Prophets of Baal

What is the "extraordinary violence" Barron is referring to in the life of Elijah? We are all familiar with the miraculous manifestation of God's power in Elijah's showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. What many people are not aware of is that the defeat of Baal's prophets cost them their lives. Picking up the story with the fire from heaven, let us see what became of the false prophets after Elijah's triumph:

Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and killed them there. (1 Kings 18:38-40).
The prophets of Baal were personally killed by the Prophet Elijah. Incidentally, there is a fantastic illustration of this episode in the famous Dore Bible, illustrated by renowned French artists Gustave Dore.

Why might modern Catholics be unaware of this story? Those familiar with the imperfections of the new Lectionary can probably guess. The story of Elijah and the prophets is read over two daily Masses in Week 10 of Ordinary Time in Year B in the Lectionary, on a Wednesday and Thursday. The Wednesday reading omits this episode, choosing to end the story in verse 39 where the people say "The Lord, he is God!" The Thursday reading picks up with verse 41, "And Elijah said to Ahab, etc." You will notice that verse 40 is omitted. What is verse 40? Verse 40 says, "And Elijah said to them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.' And they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and killed them there." When the narrative picks up on Thursday, it begins on verse 41. The daily Mass goer in the Novus Ordo will never ever hear 1 Kings 18:40. You can view this deliberate omission for yourself in the Lectionary index here, but if you don't want to scroll all the way down, just take a look at the relevant entries (click to enlarge):

The text 1 Kings 18:40 is deliberately omitted from the Novus Ordo Lectionary, presumably for being too "difficult." Bishop Barron evidentaly shares the opinion of the committee that crafted the new Lectionary, for his exegesis reveals a man who is profoundly uncomfortable with the literal meaning of the text and who must therefore resort to twisted, novel exegesis to render the passage more palatable to modern tastes. Now, let us see why Barron's exegesis fails.

2.  Barron's Faulty Exegesis

Now let us see how Barron interprets this passage. Barron says, "The tiny whispering voice says its time for your successor. Elijah, you're fired. Why is he being fired?" Barron is referring to the events subsequent to the episode on Carmel, narrated in 1 Kings 19. There, Queen Jezebel, furious at being humiliated by Elijah, swears to slay the prophet. Elijah therefore flees into the wilderness to avoid the wrath of Jezebel.

The Scriptures tell us that he sits down under a tree. There, feeling at his lowest, Elijah begs God to let him die (19:4). This is important: Elijah specifically asks to be relieved of his ministry by death. God, however, sends an angel, who feeds him, telling him, "Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you" (v. 7). Elijah found himself provided with a cake and jar of water; the text seems to imply this food was provided supernaturally, as it is simply there when he awakes from sleep. It also seems miraculous because verse 8 says "he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb." The strength of this one meal nourished him for forty days. Has God "fired" him yet? If so, providing him with food miraculously is a strange way to show it.

Elijah proceeds to Mount Horeb and climbs into a cave. There God asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (v. 9). Elijah recounts his zeal for the Lord in verse 10:

"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

The Lord responds by manifesting various natural phenomenon to Elijah as expressions of His power:

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (v. 11-13)

At last we come to the famous "still small voice." It is here specifically that Barron says Elijah is fired. Let us pay close attention to what this still small voice says to see if we can discern any hint of Elijah being "fired."

First, the voice asks him again, "What are you doing here Elijah?" We may presume the repetition of the question is an invitation for Elijah to reflect deeper upon his pilgrimage here. Again, Elijah responds, "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." (v. 14)

God responds by assigning Elijah a special task:

“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place." (v. 15-16)

Elijah is asked to anoint three men: Hazael, as King of Syria (to replace Benhadad, mentioned elsewhere in 1 Kings); Jehu, to replace Ahab; and Elisha, to replace himself as prophet. Does this passage constitute a "firing" of Elijah?

It could conceivably be construed as such, because Jehu was being anointed to replace Ahab, who was wicked and being "fired" by God from being Israel's king. The status of Benhadad, who was replaced by Hazael, is more ambiguous; he was an ally of King Asa of Judah, to whom Asa had paid tribute to out of the temple treasures in order to make an alliance against Ahab (cf. 1 Kings 15). Though the Bible does not say so, we may presume this aroused the anger of God against Benhadad, prompting his "firing" and replacement by Hazael. Given this, we can understand why Barron might assume Elijah, too, is being "fired" and "replaced."

There is likely a more natural explanation, however: We know that Hazael of Damascus took the throne in 842 B.C., and that Jehu took the throne in 841. Most biblical estimates place the life of Elijah from around 900-840 B.C. We do not know exactly when Hazael and Jehu were anointed relative to when they took the throne, but presuming it was near the end of his ministry, Elijah must have been nearly 60 years old at the time. Ancient lifespans being what they were, it is likely that Elijah was worn out and nearing the end of his natural life. God's words to him should probably be interpreted to mean, "You have expressed your exasperation and fatigue, Elijah, and I have heard you. Your work on this earth is almost complete. Before you go, however, I have one last task for you: go and anoint Hazael and Jehu as kings of Damascus and Israel. After you have accomplished this, you will anoint Elisha as your own successor. When this is done, you will have rest." 

Thus, while I can see why Barron might think Elijah was fired, the age of Elijah—and the prophet's prayer for God to bring his life to a close—seem more reasonable explanations for God's commanded to anoint Elisha than any speculation about religious violence.

But, if you are not convinced by this, I invite you to consider the following: Bishop Barron claims that God "fired" Elijah because Elijah had used "extraordinary violence" in killing the prophets of Baal. According to Barron, this act was displeasing to God, enough that God dismissed Elijah from the prophetic office, commanding him to anoint a replacement. But what was it that God expected these replacements to do? Let us see what He tells Elijah next:

"And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (19:17-18)

God literally says the reason he wants Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha to be anointed is so they can continue to slaughter the partisans of Baal. He even says He has reserved seven thousand men in Israel who, presumably, will aid Elisha and these kings in this.

It is therefore ridiculous to suggest that God is replacing Elijah because of the killing of Baal worshipers when the men God is replacing him with are being commanded by God to continue killing Baal worshipers. Bishop Barron's analysis thus completely ignores verses 17 and 18. Perhaps Bishop Barron does not know about verses 17 and 18? This would not be surprising as...you guessed it...1 Kings 19:18-17 is also omitted from the Lectionary in the Novus Ordo:

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

The Vatican's Astroturfing Survey

The Vatican's Department of Communications released a survey ahead of the Synod of Bishops. They are ostensibly interested in gathering feedback about the Church from a wide variety of persons who may or may not be practicing Catholics. The survey questions revolve around people's perceptions about the Church. The survey was (apparently) not made broadly available to the public; instead, it was disseminated to certain influencers who were then asked to distribute it amongst their social media followers. I found the survey through Jimmy Akin's blog.

The questions on the survey could be textbook examples of astroturfing, the manipulation of public feedback in a predetermined direction to give the false appearance of broad public support. This can be seen in the way the questions are framed. 

Question 4 asks us to consider why we think people leave the Church. We must choose from up to three of the following answers:

One will notice that there is no option to select anything relating to disappointment in the leadership of the Church—the way the popes and bishops have governed the household of faith. We may only find fault with the hierarchy in so far as it pertains to scandals, but not because we disagree with the fundamental direction they are steering the Church. 

You can also see that whoever wrote this thinks the Church's problem is that it needs to get with times, socially, liturgically, and doctrinally. Some of these answers do in fact apply to me, but if I were to choose them, I know how they would be interpreted. I do find most Novus Ordo Masses to be boring. But if I were to select "boring masses and ceremonies," they would interpret this to mean the NO requires even more innovation to make it more "exciting." I do feel the Church is unresponsive to my concerns as a traditional Catholic; but if I select "unresponsive to people's concerns and priorities," they will take it to mean I want more of Francis's theology of accompaniment. I do believe the Church is out of touch with the current concerns of young Catholics, who by and large look for a more traditional experience. But if I choose "Church is out of touch with current concerns," it will be interpreted as a mandate for greater modernization. These questions are phrased in such a way that they can be made to serve whatever agenda the Vatican chooses.

As an aside, the reasons people leave the Church are not mysterious. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) of Georgetown University has done plenty of research on this. I do not have the data in front of me, but I have been doing research for an upcoming book on the relationship between the Church and science utilizing CARA's research, and CARA's research suggests that the fundamental reason young people leave the Church is because they perceive the Church's worldview to be incompatible with modern science. This isn't an option either. 

The survey goes on to ask us if we think the Church is in dialogue enough with other groups. I think the survey creators were expecting people respond that the Church does not dialogue enough; I responded that the Church seems to be in dialogue "a lot." Of course, if offers no option for me to state whether I think this is a good or bad thing.

Question 6 on what attributes one associates with the Church is a joke. Here's our options:

There really is no way to answer this one. We are given 8 possible answers, 4 negative and 4 positive. Positive answers such as "innovative" and "supportive" will be construed as evidence of success of the Bergoglian innovations; negative answers will be construed as argument for the necessity of more such innovations to be foisted upon us from the God of Surprises.

Question 8 asks us what we think the Church needs to prioritize going forward. The choices are disappointing:

The first three options are at least objective goods, but the rest demonstrate the Church's profoundly anthropocentric view of its role in the world. Appallingly absent from this list is any reference to the missions, or to evangelization in general. And of course, nothing about liturgical formation, reverence, etc. 

Question 9 gives us our only chance in the entire survey to give original feedback:

No comment here, except this is your place to let em have it.

Question 11 is a very awkward question that has to do with the Church's commitment to "listening." It asks us how the Church can best become a listening entity:

This question struck me as more pathetic than anything else; it reminded of a teenage poser desperately trying to fit in by wearing the right band shirt—it doesn't matter what band shirt, so long as it is the right one. The Vatican has decided that "listening" is the way forward, but it has no idea to whom or to what it ought to be listening, and so it is desperately flailing about, looking for whatever method of listening will provide it with the best optics. If they were serious about listening, they should meditate on Mark 9:7.

The survey is a joke. They already have an agenda they intend to ram through, and when they do, they intend to frame it as the will of the people. The responses to the survey don't actually matter; they have structured it in such a way that the data can be manipulated to create momentum towards whatever agenda they wish.

If you want take the survey, visit the survey link here.