Photo by maidoR on Morgue File.
Ah, geography-theology, you’ve got to love it! In our last post, we discussed the pericope of Jesus taking his disciples up to Caesarea-Philippi and broaching the subject of his Messianic identity and mission. We discussed how Jesus perhaps did this to remove them from the tensions of Israel and find a safe haven to discuss such a weighty, and, controversial issue.
At the end of that pericope (i.e. Mt. 16.13-20) Jesus tells them not to discuss the matter with anyone. As the Gospel writers point out from time to time, his time had not yet come.
But, are there any other examples of this amazing phenomenon, which I call, geography-theology? Or, maybe I could coin the turn of phrase, God is in the geographical details!
There is another passage that comes to my mind. This one is found in the Old Testament (OT). It is the pericope concerning the prophet Elijah, a long excruciating drought and a widow from Zarephath (cf. 1 Ks. 17).
A quick look at the map informs us that Zarephath was not a locale in Israel. Zarephath was a foreign city. It was something other than Israelite. Zarephath was in the land of Sidon, neighboring Tyre. Zarephath was in the land of Phoenicia.
It is to this Zarephath that God will call his prophet, Elijah. Elijah, the prophet of YHWH, the man of God (the God of Israel), will be called and sent to a distant land. He will be sent to foreign soil. To a people not his own. To a culture unlike his native one. To a nation that represented much of what Elijah opposed.
And yet, Elijah, as he sits by a drying ditch that once was a brook, receives the call to get up and leave the borders of Israel and head out for Zarephath. It would be a long journey. Such a journey would have been arduous, even in normal conditions; but during a drought and famine, such a journey would be even more difficult.
Elijah, as all true prophets must, obeys the word and call of God. He hikes toward Zarephath. There he will meet a widow who is down to her last bit of oil and flour. A widow, who would have been disadvantaged with the death of her husband, was in even more dire straits; because, not only did she have herself to provide for: she had a son as well. And again, there is that persistent, life-draining drought and famine thing still going on.
Not only had Elijah’s decree of drought affected Israel and her stubborn King and Queen combo of Ahab and Jezebel (who herself hailed from Phoenicia), but also Zarephath. And not only the well-to-do of Zarephath; not only the nobility; the wealthy . . . you know, the ones who were possibly well-provisioned enough to outlast such a disaster.
It also affected the disadvantaged. Those on the fringe of society. Those who were considered outcasts and down-casts. The un-importants. Such as lowly widows and their sons.
So, Elijah met this widow, by divine providence, and through his prophet, God will meet her needs. Her store of oil and flour will miraculously last until the drought and famine pass. Even when matters go from worse to worst, and her son unexpectedly dies, seeming to even surprise Elijah, God raises him to life again. This widow’s son, who remains nameless, carries the distinction as the first recorded resurrection in the Bible.
But why Zarephath? Why not Samaria? Or Dan? Bethel? Or even Jericho? Jerusalem?
Was there no drought and famine in Israel? In Judah? Of course, there was.
Were there no widows in Israel? No widows woefully low on provisions and time? No widows with sons to care for and look after? No widows in need of a miracle?
Yes, of course there were.
In fact, it is this very point that Jesus touches upon, when he opens the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth and recites the Messianic promise. He then sits and the people are all atwitter about him.
Jesus speaks to their lack of true belief in his true identity. They only see him as Joseph’s son. They see him only as a carpenter. So he says to them,
And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. (Lk. 4.23-24, ESV)
Jesus, knowing they were clamoring and hoping that he would do some great miracle, as they had heard he had done in Capernaum, references this widow of Zarephath.
But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. (Lk. 4.25-26, ESV)
Things take a turn for the worse. The crowd, after hearing what Jesus had to say about Elijah and the widow (along with a reference to Elisha) are filled with anger. Their anger is so great that they try and throw Jesus off a cliff. But Jesus, miraculously so, passes right through their midst . . . talk about a cliff hanger! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
Jesus makes it quite clear that the geography teaches us theology. But what does it teach us? What is the lesson we are to learn from it? Why did the synagogue-goers that day become so incensed at this little geography-history lesson by Jesus?
Are there any parallels for you and me? How can we contextualize it in our own lives?
Geography-theology strikes again!