In the fourth century, the Arian bishop Ulfilas translated the Bible into the Gothic language. Ulfilas was himself a Goth, though he grew up in Cappadocia. He became a missionary to his people, who lived on the borders of the Roman empire but were found in increasing numbers among the ranks of the legions’ auxiliary forces.
Ulfilas translated much of the Bible, but not all. He notably avoided including the books of Kings. The Goths were a warlike people, and Ulfilas thought it wise to avoid exposing them to tales of warfare and violence such as one finds in those books.
One of those violent tales involves Elijah and his contest against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When we think of this familiar story, we remember how people have gathered at Mount Carmel, where the prophet Elijah challenges them to stop waffling and choose which God they will serve, Yahweh or Baal. And we remember how God displayed divine power by sending fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice, and the people confess that the Lord is indeed God.
But then the story takes a dark turn as the verses that follow describe a massacre of Baal-worshipers. We tend to skip over that part, and probably not without good reason. For some, the ending is a distasteful reminder of a brutal era in the history of God’s people. Through the lens of Jesus, who refused earthly power and commanded his followers to love their enemies, this ending seems grotesque. What can it mean in light of all that Jesus has taught us about God and God’s ways?
At the same time, we must admit that loving our enemies is a challenge. It can be hard not to take secret pleasure when those we imagine are opposing God get what we think they deserve. We may not call for bloodshed and murder, but there are many other ways to fall short of Jesus’s standard. We may not be as far from those Gothic barbarians as we would like to think we are.
As we explore this week’s passage, we should keep in mind the problematic conclusion but focus on the central theme, which is the call to faithfulness. Many factors compete for our allegiance: family, career, status, political party, etc. Not all these loyalties are religiously oriented, but some of them might be.
Elijah challenges us to consider what loyalty to God requires. What are we willing to sacrifice to go where God wants us to go and do what God wants us to do?
• When have you felt led to do something dangerous because God required it?
• When have you had to stand alone to remain faithful to God?
• Why does Elijah insist on absolute allegiance to the God of Israel? What would such allegiance look like?
• How can we remain steadfast in our faith without falling into zealotry?
Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.
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