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:


Chris said...

So the benefit of the doubt would lead one to believe that the issue here is that +Barron prepares his homilies using the Lectionary rather than his bible.

Anonymous said...

I try not to read anything from Fr. Barron anymore- after receiving his daily word on fire for about more then a year, I almost lost my faith. It’s a lot of bombastic language and sentiment but no substance.

Noucvnt said...

Wouldn't be a problem if the Lectionary, or the "bishop", or the Novus Ordo itself, were Catholic

Nick said...

I'm surprised you and Barron didn't bring up the Transfiguration, where Elijah and Moses appear and talk with Jesus. When you think about it, this is a perfect piece of information for the matter of whether Elijah was fired, because we know Moses was fired and replaced with Joshua.

Boniface said...


"Moses was fired and replaced by Joshua"

I don't think Moses was never fired. He was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, but he was never dismissed from his position of authority; as long as he lived, he was in charge. He was merely disciplined. You could argued that he was "fired" by dying, but he was already 110+ years old so it's hardly much of a punitive measure for an already extremely elderly man to die of natural causes.

Nick said...

I was trying to make a joke, since we know people would argue Moses was fired. I can even bet Barron would double down and bring up Moses as an example sometime soon.

The real reason Moses didn't enter the Promise Land is because of a deeper lesson at play. Moses had to give way to Joshua, because in Hebrew the name Joshua is the same name for Jesus. So hidden within this apparently unfair narrative of excluding Moses is the bigger lesson that the Law of Moses only gets us to a certain point in Salvation (e.g. recognition of our sinfulness), and it is up to Jesus to take us the rest of the way (i.e. Heaven / Promise Land). This is the only satisfying answer to that and similar OT 'strange stories'.

Anonymous said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I did not know the N.O. Lectionary omits verses. How is this not in itself proof the N.O. "mass" is invalid, nothing but a protestant pick-and-choose "service"?
Apparently, Barron doesn't like the idea of false prophets being violently dispatched, and is spinning the Scriptures to support his more "merciful" (or self-serving?) view.

Boniface said...


Why would the omission of verses invalidate the Mass? Is there a rule of divine law somewhere that says for a Mass to be valid every single Bible verses must be included in the Lectionary? Even the TLM omits verses, but in the TLM the omissions are more incidental and don't have an ideological motivation.