Monday, April 29, 2013

Taboos, Judgment, and Provision: The Ravens and Elijah

Preached at Klamath Falls Friends Church
April 28, 2013

I was driving through Newberg on a side street and came upon what is called “a murder of crows”—6 or 7 dragging a squirrel carcass to the side of the street to enjoy a free meal. Crows are in the same general species as ravens, birds that eat everything and are particularly drawn to carrion.  The crows I drove by illustrated the verse from Job 38: “Who provides food for the raven when the raven’s chicks cry unto God, when they wander for lack of meat?” This question is answered in Psalm 147, which says, “Sing thanksgiving to the Lord, sing praises to God on the harp…he gives food to the beast and to the young ravens which cry.” And then Jesus wraps up this thought by reminding his followers, “Take no thought for your life, don’t worry about food; don’t worry about your body, about what you will clothe yourself in.  Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens.  They neither sow nor reap, they have neither bank account nor pantry; and God feeds them.  How much are you different from these birds?”

So the dead squirrel was God’s provision for the crows that day.  And God subtracted one squirrel from the total also, since God pays attention to both sides of the food chain, to prey as well as to predator; God listens to both the vulnerable and the strong.

But that’s not the meat of what I want to talk about.  I’ve been thinking about Elijah in hiding from Ahab and how God sent him meat via Raven.  This story is in 1 Kings 17.  In order to explore its implications, we need some background in ravens.

First, avoiding ravens is a sign of obedience to God.  When God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and slavery, God provided them with community laws they were to live by, what we call the Mosaic Law. In the Mosaic Law, ravens are unclean animals, ritually taboo.  Here is what the Law says:  The Lord has chosen you specifically; you are set apart from all other nations for the Lord your God.  You shall eat no abominable thing. 

You may eat the cow, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the antelope, the gazelle; every animal that has cloven hooves and chews the cud you may eat. 

Do not eat the camel or the rock badger or any animal that either has cloven hooves but does not chew the cud, or chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves. Do not eat pigs, and don’t even touch their dead bodies. 

You may eat fish with fins and scales; don’t eat anything else that lives in the water.

You may eat clean birds, but none of the raptors, whether eagle or owl, none of the vultures, none of the ravens, none of the fishing birds.  Don’t eat bats or most other things that both creep on the ground and fly. Don’t eat weasels, mice, tortoises, lizards, snails, moles. However, you may eat locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers.

And don’t eat anything that dies on its own.  If you even touch the dead body of an unclean animal, you are also unclean for the rest of the day. You can sell it to foreigners and feed it to outsiders, but don’t eat it yourselves.  You are separated unto the Lord.

Some of the prohibitions may relate to the uses of various animals in the worship of idols. Some may relate to healthfulness. The instruction to sell or give the carcass to a non-Hebrew with no penalty for the Hebrew seller or the non-Hebrew buyer (and eventual eater) suggests that these dietary restrictions help identify the Hebrews as set apart from other nations, as peculiar in every sense of the world. 

Even though the actual translations of the Hebrew words may include animals that are no longer around or that we don’t understand, these instructions are quite clear.

Second, ravens are signs of the judgment of God.  Isaiah 34 depicts God saying, I will bring my sword upon Edom and judge them for their quarrel with Israel, and the slaughter will be great… the raven shall dwell in this land.  In Proverbs 30:17, the result of mocking one’s father and despising one’s mother is that one’s eyes are plucked out by the ravens.  This likely means that dishonoring parents bends one’s steps toward death rather than life.  In both cases, the ravens are present to clean up the carrion.

So two things about ravens as background to Elijah’s story:

The Hebrews are forbidden from eating them; eating ravens is abominable. Even touching a dead raven makes a Hebrew unclean.

And ravens show up when sin has resulted in death.

So here in 1 Kings 17 is the story of Elijah and the ravens. King Ahab married the pagan princess Jezebel from Sidon and built an altar to her god Baal and angered the Lord more than any king before him.  Elijah stood before King Ahab and prophesied that God would withhold rain from Israel because of Ahab’s sins.  Then Elijah took off for the wilderness.  We pick up where God hides him by a brook and sends him meat by ravens.

“And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening, and he drank of the brook.  When the brook dried up, God said to him, Go into the land of Sidon and live in Zarephath.  I have told a widow there to take care of you.”

What an interesting story, full of challenges to the ways we think God ought to obey the rules.  First, God’s own prophet lives from day to day on unclean food, food brought him by unclean birds, meat that may well be from an unclean animal, certainly one that died “on its own.” (See Lev. 7:24, 17:15.) Elijah leans into the provision of God, even though it comes unconventionally, even though God breaks God’s own food purity rules. When he goes to Sidon and lives in the house of the widow, all the food she prepares is likewise unclean because she herself as a non-Hebrew is unclean. Yet Elijah eats it.

This reminds me of two other moments in the interaction of God and God’s messengers:  the priest and prophet Ezekiel cried out in pain when God told him to cook his food over a fire fueled by human excrement, saying, “I have never broken your laws; please don’t make me do this.”  (See Deut 14:3, 23:13.) God lessened the sting by allowing Ezekiel to burn animal dung instead.  Yet what God asked of him was still outside the laws governing priests.  The other moment is the vision of Peter when a sheet of unclean animals was lowered from heaven and God said three times, “Peter, kill and eat.” Peter’s argument with God ended with God saying, “What God has called clean, let no one call unclean.”

Jesus said this about the good news he came to bring.  John 3:  You must be born anew, born of the Spirit who, like the wind, blows wherever the Spirit wants to blow, descends on whomever the Spirit chooses, and distributes gifts as God wills, not according to rules.  You must worship in that Spirit and in your own spirit and in truth—actual worship that looks like the way Jesus worshiped—by listening to God our Father and doing what God says to do each day, each moment.  Where you worship is irrelevant because God’s Spirit, God’s Truth, God who is Truth, is everywhere. 

The founders of the Quaker movement among Christians witnessed to this by simply recording the gifts of ministry among them.  This witness allows God to choose, to gift, to pour out God’s spirit on young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  God provides all we need and has more where that came from.  There is no scarcity in God’s love or God’s Spirit.  Our boxes and restrictions ought not to be applied to things that are God’s prerogative to choose, not only because we are out of line when we do this, but because God looks on the heart and knows what we do not know. 

We can trust God to lead us in the uncertainties we face.  If we don’t know what to do, what is wise, we can ask God, who gives what we need to us liberally—generously and freeingly—without ever scolding us for not knowing in advance

The raven, the bird associated with judgment and uncleanness, is also a sign of God’s providence.  As Jesus said, “Take no thought for your life, don’t worry about food; don’t worry about your body, about what you will clothe yourself in.  Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens.  They neither sow nor reap, they have neither bank account nor pantry; and God feeds them.  How much are you different from these birds?”

Think about this.  God provides even for ravens, unclean birds, and how much more God will provide for you what you need.  So ask God for wisdom, then be quiet and see what rises in your heart and mind.  Try acting on that in faith that God is being generous to you.  Keep track of what happens.  You will find that you can rely on God in more than a theoretical way, that God actually lives in you and sends you what you need to live a free, whole, redeemed life.


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