Ahab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.
What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.
In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:
As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.
—1 & 2 Kings, 133-134
Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.
And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?
Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.
In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.
Texts like this are obviously relevant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descent of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.
For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Soli Deo Gloria