Pentecost: the biblical background

Pentecost: the biblical background

Glynn Cardy

Sun 31 May

When reading a passage from the New Testament that includes extraordinary phenomena – like in the Luke-Acts account of Jesus ascending up into the heavens (which we heard read last week) and the day of Pentecost (rushing wind, tongues of fire, and alien languages) – it is important to ask how this would be heard by a first century Jewish audience, and what stories in the Hebrew Scriptures these phenomena allude to.

Most commentators will point to the origin of the Jewish feast of Pentecost that celebrated the harvest[i], and (as later developed) a feast that celebrated the coming of the divine law on Mt Sinai.  Legend has it that with the coming of the law a flame descended from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world.  

Biblical commentators will also point to the Tower of Babel fable, in which human egocentric ambition resulted in the collapse of the tower and the breakdown of communication.[ii]  This fable was used to explain why people speak different languages and cannot understand one another.[iii]  .

Others[iv] alert us to the relationship of this Ascension-Pentecost story with the prophet Elijah.  The gospels of Luke and John, unlike the early gospels of Mark and Matthew, have difficulty associating Elijah with John the Baptist.  Luke, knowing the tradition from Mark, does not call John the new Elijah, but rather that he came with the “spirit and power of Elijah”[v].  Similarly in the 4th gospel.[vi]  The reason for this shift in the later gospels is clear: both intend to portray Jesus himself as the new and greater Elijah.

In particular Luke used the imagery associated with Elijah to talk about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection: namely the passing on of Jesus’ spirit to his followers.  As Elijah had ascended into the sky [where in a 3-tiered universe God was said to dwell] and Elijah’s spirit had descended upon his disciple Elisha, so Jesus ascended and his spirit descended on his disciples.[vii]  In the Elijah ascension account there was both fire and a whirlwind.

The point of these stories from both Luke and the Books of Kings is not to make us believers in supernatural phenomena.  Rather they use pictorial language and images to help us make connections.  The point of these stories is that to follow Jesus (to make real his resurrection in our lives) we need to, like Elisha, put on Elijah’s mantle, or in New Testament language ‘walk in the (Jesus) spirit’.  And the Elijah stories give us some clues as to how.

Elijah appears in only six chapters in the Books of Kings[viii]but is a ‘high impact’ player.  He lives in Canaan where there is polytheistic worship.  The Canaanites have a number of deities, one of whom is Baal.  The Jews have just one deity, Y_hw_h.  Prudent kings [like politicians] try to keep the peace by keeping the majority happy and keeping their gods happy.  Kings though expect to be obeyed.  And queens expect their husbands to be obeyed.

Elijah though is a disturber of the peace.  Like Jesus he says, ‘You can’t serve two masters’.[ix]   Allegiance to two gods won’t cut it.  Y_hw_h is comprehensively known in nature, worship, accountability, awesome presence, and sickness and healing.  Baal was a storm and fertility god [good weather and progeny both being extremely important in an ancient agrarian culture].  Y_hw_h won’t (can’t) share power with Baal.  One has to choose between the gods.

Rather than transposing Elijah’s and Jesus’ insistence on choosing by trying to impose a brand of monotheism on today’s increasing polytheistic New Zealand, it is more pertinent to ask what do people worship in our day – like beauty, success, wealth, control over others… none of which need necessarily be bad until they become the reason and reward for all we do.

These ‘gods’ are part of the pantheon we could call the modern-day ‘empire of Caesar’, whereas Jesus’ ‘empire of God’ asks us to devote ourselves to a way of life that reflects compassion, justice, mutuality, and love for the benefit of all, and the particularly the least.  We live in a context where these gods are often in conflict.

Elijah, like Jesus, believed that kings and their lackeys are accountable to God.  In our language today we might say accountable to that spirit of justice, mutuality and love for all.  Elijah believed that the dispossessed, the poor, the foreigner, the widow, the sick, and the child are all part of God’s whanau, and need to be treated with dignity and respect and care.

This belief is reflected in the story of Naboth’s vineyard – a story which has considerable correspondence with the New Zealand colonial administration’s dealings with tangata whenua in the 1800s.  Naboth, so the story goes, declined to give his vineyard to King Ahab [who wanted to expand his holdings].  Ahab thinks everything has a price tag.  Naboth values the land irrespective of its financial value.  Jezebel sees Naboth’s refusal to sell as an affront to her husband’s authority. 

So Jezebel cooks up a couple of scoundrels to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy before the elders of the city.  And the elders, knowing how their bread gets buttered, condemn him to death.  Ahab then takes possession of the vineyard.  Before we lay too much blame on Jezebel, note that Alexander Rofe concludes that her treachery against Naboth is the work of a postexilic editor whose shifting the blame to the foreign woman forms part of that era’s polemic on the dangers of inter-marriage [Jezebel was a Phoenician].[x] 

In v.17 Elijah steps up to the plate.  I love Ahab’s comment when he sees Elijah: “Have you found me, O my enemy?”  It was a very similar response to that of Henry II in 1170 when, referring to Thomas Becket, said “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  

Elijah gives Ahab [note not Jezebel] the full fire and brimstone message: “Ahab you are toast!  Burnt toast!”  And Ahab, much to his credit, does not make a thousand prevarications saying that he never intended to be unjust, or denying the land was ever taken, or that it was Jezebel’s fault.  He repents.  He goes the whole sackcloth, ashes, and fasting nine yards.

Elijah’s vision and courage is also revealed in the memorable story of the widow of Zarephath.[xi]  There is a famine in the land.  Elijah drops into downtown Zarephath, in Sidon.  There he meets the widow and, dispensing with small talk, asks for water and bread.  She tries to accommodate him.  But also tells him her truth: the bread she will share will be the last food she and her son will have before they die of starvation.  Elijah, honouring her hospitality/faith, works his magic and the jars of meal and oil in her house never run out.

Part two of this story (they were originally two stories[xii]), is that the son comes close to death: “there is no breath left in him” (v.17).  Elijah then does a miraculous CPR job on the boy.

The point of these stories is that the least matter.  Like the words ascribed to Jesus, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me”.[xiii] Elijah and his god, Y_hw_h, are aligning with the least.  And the least in 9th century BCE were foreigners, widows, women, the poor, and children.  They were the nuisances and nobodies.  Foreigners were not part of God’s chosen people.  Widows had no means of support unless taken in by the extended family – which in this case she clearly wasn’t.  Women in a patriarchal society, especially those who were poor, had few rights.  Her hope was her son.  He would be the only means whereby she might survive.

Claudia Camp points out that five of the eight miracle stories involving Elijah and Elisha were with women.  Women represent the groups struggling for survival, and the miracle story is a genre of empowerment.[xiv]  So, in these stories, the marginalized [the widow] exhibits faith in God by being hospitable to the foreign prophet [Elijah], who in turn cares for and empowers her.  The faith and empowerment of a poor foreign widow is then grafted into the faith legends of Israel to counter xenophobia and the insidious heresy that wealth is a sign of God’s approval.

To pick up and put on the mantle of Elijah is therefore firstly to be fearless in promoting the goddish spirit and values of justice, mutuality and love for all.  This spirit asks for our ultimate allegiance.  Kings, empires, churches, and all who hold power – whether they are religious or not – need to be accountable to these values that serve and hold us to the common good.  And that good is measured by whether it’s good for the poor.

Secondly, injustice – whether it is through judicial error, land acquisitions, cultural misunderstandings, or corrupt practices – needs to be rectified.  Solutions need to be found.  Penance needs to be paid.  Forgiveness is part of a penitential restorative process, not a diversion from it.

Thirdly, we need to share our resources with the least – those on the margins, and who are marginalized.  It’s as simple and as difficult as that.  This is what the act of faith called hospitality requires.  We need policies in churches and government that encourage and facilitate that priority.  A budget is a failure if it does not reflect the importance of empowering the least to participate in the community and share in and enable the common good.

Pentecost is something of an ecclesial sound and light show.  The metaphors of fire and wind, of power and promise, of resurrection/ascension, decorate the liturgies of the season.  It’s called by some ‘the birthday of the church’.  There’s sometimes a red cake to celebrate it.

But to be true to the Scriptures, Pentecost points us back to Elijah to the hard and often lonely task of being a prophet.  To walk in the spirit of Jesus is to walk with Elijah’s mantle.  It is to call principalities and powers to account.  It is to defend the weak.  It is to empower the least.  It is to hold up values that are often contrary to the gods of success, beauty, and power.  It is to be courageous.  And as Elijah and Jesus learnt, it is also to be misunderstood and be afraid.

[i] Leviticus 23:15-22

[ii] Genesis 11:1-9

[iii] The many languages imagery also alludes to Daniel 7:24

[iv] J. Spong Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish eyes, San Francisco, Harper, 1996, p. 311 ff.

[v] Luke 1:17.

[vi] John 1:21ff.

[vii] 2 Kings 2:1-18.

[viii] 1 Kings 17, 18, 19, 21; 2 Kings 1, 2.

[ix] Luke 16:31.

[x] C.A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary p.104.

[xi] I Kings 17.

[xii] In the second episode (v.17-24) the woman is more well-to-do: she is called ‘mistress’ and her house has two stories.

[xiii] Matthew 25:45.

[xiv] C. Clamp, ‘I and 2 Kings’, The Women’s Bible Commentary, p.97, 106.