Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Mark #4 – The Elijah Connection 1(2-15)

Mark 1 (2-15) – The Elijah Connection

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

 

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 

In most outlines of Mark’s gospel, following the opening title statement, the next several verses are read as a preface to the larger story; although different commentators will include different verses. They function in a sort of “Ready, Set, Go” mode and in my version they culminate in Mark’s summary verse that succinctly encapsulates the core of our protagonist’s preaching. Following this preface, Mark then begins a series of narrative episodes that relate growing excitement by the masses about Jesus and his ministry and his deepening conflict with the elites resolved to, as they say, “do him in.”

In our preface, Mark takes an ironic turn as he begins his discussion of Jesus, by talking about John. However, it seems to me, (at least in Mark’s version) these comments about John primarily serve to frame the time, place and context of the narrative that follows. What then is really key to Mark’s first few verses is the short but telling narrative summary where:

1) Jesus comes to the wilderness (is this Perea?) during the time John is preaching,

2) Jesus accepts John’s invitation to repent and is subsequently baptized,

3) Jesus has a peculiar vision (an epiphany) that confirms his personal sense of  call to ministry,

4) Jesus is driven by a descending spirit to the wilderness for an extended period of struggle and reflection, and

5) Jesus (following John’s arrest) returns to the Galilee where he begins (perhaps resumes) his apostolic mission until his crucifixion several months later outside the Judean temple city, Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, in these verses Mark does introduce John, and his larger text will repeatedly return to this strange character and his important eschatological role.

Mark frames John’s ministry with an inexact quote supposedly taken from Isaiah. Unfortunately the verse cited actually comes from Malachi 3 (1) and it has been rewritten taking a direct first person quote from Yahweh and turning it into a third person observation. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you (me), who will prepare your (my) way.” Scholars who know about these things will tell us that Mark has apparently drawn his syntax from the Greek Septuagint.

Mark then does append a phrase reading more closely like Hebrew texts that probably comes from Isaiah 40. He speaks of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:” and he repeats the herald’s cry,” Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In its original context, the Isaiah verses allude to the longed for return to Jerusalem of Yahweh accompanied by his chosen people from exile in Babylon. They point to hopes grounded in an understanding that with the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the forced relocation of the leadership of the people of Judah to Mesopotamia, Yahweh left the temple city as well and stayed with his people as they endured this new wilderness experience. The herald calls for the building of a new super-highway, if you will, leading back into Palestine.

Mark draws particularly on Malachi’s later oracle perhaps to echo hopes for the re-establishment of a more righteous temple leadership. This is a theme that obviously will come up later in our story. Amy-Jill Levine points out how this melding together of similar texts is a typical rabbinic move. Mark references these verses because for him, they are filled-full. They define the role of John as the one who in this present time announces the pending realization of Messianic hopes.

Secondly, Mark portrays John as an Elijah-like figure, dressing him in a costume whose reference cannot be mistaken. (cf I Kings 17) Elijah is one of the most colorful characters found in the ancient Hebrew stories. We delight at his mockery of Jezebel’s priests who serve Baal and Asherah. We laugh at their failure to bring down fire to consume the bull placed on their altar. Yet, our interfaith sensibilities are less excited as we recall that these holy men and women are subsequently massacred to the glory and honor of our God. (I Kings 19) Or again, like Elijah who learned that meaning is found in the lull between storms, a “still, small voice” in the silence, much of our modern religiosity seeks to discern the spiritual subtleties, the little revelations found in our contemplation, that illuminate our ultimate concerns. I Kings (20)

For Mark, this Elijah connection serves at least two purposes. First, it begins to define the relationship between Jesus and John.  It places in John’s preaching an implicit reference to Elijah’s successor, Elisha. In II Kings (2ff), Elijah’s chosen protégé asks for and receives a “portion of the Spirit” twice what his mentor had received. One scholar pointed out that Elijah is recorded as having performed six miracles, but Elisha is reported as doing twelve! Frankly, I haven’t counted. But here, we have a provocative juxtaposition that suggests that John’s relationship to Jesus is analogous to Elijah’s relationship to Elisha. John proclaims that he baptizes with water, but the one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Now if we are truthful, I suspect that it is not particularly obvious what Mark intends with the phrase “baptism (i.e. ritual cleansing) with Holy Spirit.” Some have suggested that the text originally read “fire.” They suggest that a later copyist substituted the words, Holy Spirit, remembering Luke’s Pentecost tale. Whatever the case may be, clearly, the contrast between water and fire (or Spirit) speaks of an exponential increase of the import of Jesus’ power and message as compared with John’s.

Readers may find other analogies. Elijah prophesies to Ahab who seeks to both justly rule and still accommodate his Phoenician wife, Jezebel and her insistence on worshiping Baal and destroying the Israelite cultus. Even after the demonstration of Yahweh’s power on Mount Carmel, he finds himself in serious danger and he must flee to the Kingdom’s periphery to avoid Jezebel’s rage. John’s preaching gets him into trouble as well, as Herod Antipas finds himself caught in a tangled web woven by his less than legitimate wife. In John’s case, he loses his head.

One strand of thought emerging during Second Temple Judaism held that Elijah must return from his temporary sojourn in heaven prior to the coming of the Messiah. In his preface, Mark highlights this theme foreshadowing episodes that follow in his narrative.

Toward the end of his life, of course, scripture points out that Elijah did not die. Because he did not die, one would not find him in Sheol. The old spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot captures the wonder filled story found in II Kings 2. It is a vivid account of an angel driven fiery chariot that descends from heaven and chauffeurs our prophet up to the courts of the Most Holy One.

Canonical sources do not tell a similar story for Moses, but it is not hard to see that this Elijah connection prepares the ground for Mark’s so-called transfiguration story. Now some have interpreted the transfiguration story by having Moses and Elijah represent the “law and the prophets” (scripturally, an older covenant.) It follows that Jesus then represents the next stage of salvation history, (scripturally, a new covenant). For me, this interpretation edges too close toward supercessionist theology.  One would not be surprised to learn that I am not comfortable with the implications of such a popular explanation.

In Mark’s 9th chapter, Jesus’ core group of followers, Peter, James and John, witness their teacher metaphorically ascending to heaven (he climbs the preverbal mountain). They observe Jesus sharing intense conversation with these deeply respected  prophets. Moses and Elijah have gone on before him, and therefore is perhaps Jesus seeking their advice? Are they talking strategy? I cannot help but note that following this episode, Jesus will begin to intensify his initial teaching of impending controversy, suffering, and (for him) death. Is this the necessary, yet not inevitable fact that is the subject of their conversation? We receive little help from the text, but such an interpretation for me is at least plausible.

Following the transfiguration episode, in a reference back to the Elijah connection first drawn in our preface, these puzzled disciples inquire, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first? In a curious reply Jesus teaches, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things….But I tell you that Elijah has come.” Mark 9 (11-13)

I’ll stop here for the moment. Next week, we will explore John’s baptism of Jesus. And yes, at some point, we will get to the larger story.

Grace and Peace,

John

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