In this article, Fr Jerome Ituah OCD, presents Elijah, a prophet fleeing from his homeland because of the threat to his life, as a model of consolation to all those undergoing traumatic distress, especially our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.
Lent is a period of 40 days excluding Sundays. We enter a journey with the Lord along-side his passion and in anticipation of his resurrection. In the liturgy of Ash Wednesday the Church invites us to pray, fast and give alms. The symbolism of 40 days has many levels. It is associated with a period of ‘hardship, affliction and punishment.’[i] It was also a period of repentance, spiritual renewal and defeat of the spiritual enemy, the devil. Noah’s flood lasted 40 days, at the end of which there was a new creation (Genesis 7-9). Moses was with the Lord on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, neither eating nor drinking. In the end, God gave him the law for his people. Elijah travelled up to Mount Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights. There God challenged him to return to his mission. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, neither eating nor drinking while the devil tried to tempt him. In the end, Jesus defeated the devil and came out triumphant and fully prepared for his mission. At the end of the 40 days, the Church expects her children to emerge spiritually renewed.
Today, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is a catastrophe that has reduced cities to rubbles and left many people dead. So naturally, we pray for the repose of the souls of those who have lost their lives. But what about those who are alive or managed to escape? These people who once enjoyed the comfort of their homes have become vulnerable, homeless and traumatized. In this reflection, we present Elijah, a fleeing prophet from his homeland because of the threat to his life, as a model of consolation to all those undergoing traumatic distress, especially our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.
In 1 Kings 18, Elijah has a contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When he defeats them, he takes them down to the river Kishon and slaughters them on a single stone (1 Kings 18:40). Ahab, who witnessed the event on Mount Carmel and the aftermath, reports the events to Jezebel, his wife. Jezebel is so infuriated that she threatens to kill Elijah just as Elijah killed the prophets of Baal. The threat from Jezebel forces Elijah into the wilderness (cf. 1 Kings 1:1-3). The events that follow in the wilderness portray Elijah deeply steeped in trauma but the story ends with his healing and recovery from the trauma and his return to mission.
Judith Herman defines psychological trauma as ‘an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force… Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.’[ii] She says that ‘Traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence or death.’[iii] Another vital aspect of trauma is disconnection. Traumatic experience affects human relationships, the image of the self, and one’s belief systems. It ‘violates the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and casts the victim into a state of existential crisis.’[iv] The traumatized person needs a reconnection to the social order and support from trusted others in order to defeat the trauma.
Jezebel’s Message – 1 Kings 19:1-2
The report of Ahab to Jezebel depicts how Elijah engaged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and subsequently executed them. The report has an undertone of frustration and disappointment on the part of Ahab (cf. 1 Kings 21:4). In consequence, Jezebel decides to visit the same “punishment” on Elijah. In these first two verses, we see the emotion of anger at play. Jezebel’s message to Elijah, sworn on oath, makes Elijah flee into the wilderness for his life.
The Traumatized Elijah flees for his Life – 1 Kings 19:3a
In the state of fear, there is usually “an automatic, innate response that prepares us to either fight or run from a perceived threat, harm or attack in order to survive.”[v] Elijah, in reaction to the message of Jezebel, embraces the option of flight rather than fight back to protect his life. Elijah’s reaction can be termed traumatic since according to Erickson, fear is traumatizing and “traumatized people often come to feel that they have lost an important measure of control over the circumstances of their own lives and are thus very vulnerable.”[vi]
Elijah’s Withdrawal and Isolation Interpreted – 1 Kings 19:3b-8
1 Kings 19 map out a series of traumatic effects.
(i) Elijah’s flight from Jezreel to Beersheba is a re-location but also flight from a possible threat to his life.
(ii) Imminent danger provokes a profound drive for survival. He abandons his servant and sets off into the wilderness alone, a traumatised isolated figure.”
(iii) Sitting under a broom tree (v.4b) he gives way to feelings of frustration, depression and a desire for death to end his work. There is tension between his own suicidal thoughts and his faith that all life is from God.
(iv) Elijah’s feelings of self-pity and guilt are compounded by hopeless anger that he is no better than his Fathers. His angry “it is enough” is perhaps said in tension between feelings of divine abandonment and that he is beginning to give up on his trust in God’s presence. His own sense of self has been violated and he abandons himself to angry hopelessness.
By verses 5-8, Elijah is immersed in depression. Without hope he lies down under a broom tree and falls into a deep sleep. Is this the result of running and walking away without food and drink? Or if “traumatic events, by definition thwart and overwhelm individual competence,” do the actions described explicate his depression and hypersomnia? Perhaps he has decided to starve to death? But another dimension of Elijah’s trauma emerges with the appearance of a messenger. He has to shake and command Elijah to wake him. But such is the depth of his despair he returns unenthusiastically to a sleep showing an “unwillingness to carry any further the battle against Jezebel and death.”[vii].But the return of the messenger will mark a significant turning point for Elijah as he regains his strength and actually rises to eat.”[viii]
The pattern of Elijah’s actions in the wilderness underscore the trauma provoked by his experience. Disregard for hunger and fatigue, intense anger and excessive sleep all point to consequent depression.
First therapeutic session (1 Kings 19: 9-12)
Initially the messenger’ provision of food and encouragement fails to re-ignite Elijah’s desire for mission. His presence at Horeb, the holy mountain, is not to encounter God but to flee and hide in the cave there. Fear still controls his actions.
The question “What are you doing here?” is a rebuke suggesting he should be elsewhere doing his prophetic work. But the divine rebuke is therapeutic and provokes the externalising of his emotions. He rationalises his trauma (v.10). Despite his zeal Israel has broken the Covenant, desecrating the holy places and killing the true prophets and now his own life is forfeit.
But in the process, the nature of his own fragmented and inaccurate memory is revealed. His original proud boast on Mount Carmel that he was the last prophet is now said in agonised self-pity. Further, Obadiah had hidden some prophets in a cave from the deadly intent of Jezebel (1 Kings 18:13) and that the people had renewed their commitment to God on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:39). This apparent discrepancy between 1 Kings 19 and 1 Kings 18 is traceable to Elijah’s uncoordinated memory, a traumatic symptom that might have resulted from his stress. That accords with Herman’s finding that “the traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or may remember everything in detail but without emotion…traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and to take on a life of their own.”[ix]
A critical aspect of the response of Elijah is what he does not say. From the text, the reader knows that the primary reason for Elijah’s flight was the message of Jezebel (v. 2), but this is not mentioned in his complaint. A traumatized person is likely to avoid the real issue and focus on the peripheries or forget the real problem since it has been pushed to the subconscious. The threat of Jezebel has made such a profound impact on Elijah, affecting him physically through his flight and withdrawal and also psychically, evident in his distorted and uncoordinated memory. The personality presented in the narrative is so frustrated that he forgets the action of Jezebel and yet narrates every other thing except the very action that triggered his flight.
The theophany serves as part of the healing therapy for Elijah. After expressing his deep thoughts, concerns and reasons for his trauma, God allows him to witness the theophany as part of his healing process. The healing initiated through the theophany underscores that God is in control of everything.
Second therapeutic session – (1 Kings 19:13-14)
Elijah had been instructed to go outside the cave (v. 11). He resists this instruction, and astonishingly, does not come out at the sound of the wind, earthquake or fire. His decision to go out from the cave may indicate a change of attitude from the crippling fear and has two implications. First, the “sound of a thin whisper” was unique and distinct from the earlier sounds. Elijah had been fixated and needed a different kind of experience to convince him. This unique sound was the required medicine to pull him out. God, the therapist par excellence, knows the proper “medication” to apply to his patient and this is what he does. That Elijah wraps his face in his cloak symbolizes that he is ashamed for behaving in such an awkward way as a prophet, but also perhaps in fear because of the unique manifestation.
The repetition of the question “what are you doing here Elijah” (v. 13b) presupposes that Elijah is fixated on his despair.[x] His response (v. 14), which is the same as in verse 10 before the divine manifestation, affirms that the theophany has neither altered his perception, his fear nor healed his trauma. But this second question provokes Elijah to see his predicament differently “that self-pity and a grandiose view of his own importance are still a problem.”[xi] The signs of the theophany were not yet enough to accomplish the desired result as “traumatized people (often) feel and act as though their nervous systems have been disconnected from the present.”[xii]
Final therapeutic session – (1 Kings 19:15-18)
God finally speaks since his actions have failed to accomplish the desired effects in changing Elijah’s perceptions. The tone of the first words, “Go! Return!” two strong imperatives, suggests that God is becoming impatient with Elijah. At the same time, they rebuke Elijah for abandoning his task and re-echo the rebuke already contained in the question (vv. 9, 13).[xiii] In asking him to return, God makes Elijah realize that his resolve must be to confront his trauma headlong rather than take flight or go into hiding in the cave.[xiv] Elijah has to return to the “social arena” and implement God’s purposes.[xv]
The thorn on Elijah’s flesh is Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. That Ahab will be dethroned means that Jezebel will also lose her power which will subsequently provide the needed safety for Elijah and the other prophets to address the complaint of the desecration of God’s altars, a crime identified with Jezebel (1 Kings 21:25; 2 Kings 9:22). The command to anoint Elisha (v. 16b) directly responds to Elijah’s complaint that he alone is left. Elijah abandoned his servant at Beersheba out of fear, but now he gets a replacement.
That Elijah could have been unaware of the existence of the seven thousand still seems unlikely. But understanding Elijah as a traumatised subject suggests understandable memory loss. Narrating a traumatic experience can be a difficult task, and one can understand the challenge of Elijah in this regard. As a result, “individual survivors of trauma typically require support from trusted others to assist them in the task of constructing a trauma narrative.”[xvi] In the case of Elijah, God becomes his trusted other. Thus, God, having questioned Elijah, listened to his complaints and perspectives, reorders his thoughts by bringing to his awareness the issues he had downplayed or neglected, namely, that there were still loyal people in Israel and that these people have kept themselves from Baal worship.
The Lenten season is a good time to approach the Lord in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place to pour out our hearts, complain and speak to God. Elijah did not hide his feelings or emotions. He spoke out his mind to God that he wanted to die. But God sent his angel to lead him up to a place of healing.
During this Lenten season, let us approach God the way we are. He knows already how weak we are. He sees what is going on in our lives. So let us pour out our hearts to him during these forty days in the wilderness. He is there at Horeb, waiting to heal us.
Elijah was also concerned about the faith of his people. Let us not forget to bring the troubles and challenges in our families and the world before the Lord, especially the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. So many people have already been displaced and dispossessed due to this war. So many of them are traumatized. They need the wilderness and Horeb experience to reintegrate them into society and messengers who can ask them the questions that allow their own anger and emotions to emerge and be re-ordered. Only God can ultimately heal the wounds of division and bring about true peace in the world. But the God of Elijah, the God encountered in Jesus, shows a willingness to enter our broken lives to help us to do just that.
Boase, E. – Frechette, C. G. (ed.), Bible Through the Lens of Trauma (Atlanta 2016).
Childs, B. S., “On Reading the Elijah Narratives”, Interp. 34/2 (1980) 128-137.
Clarke, A., First Kings (Logos System Clarke Commentaries; Ages Software 1999).
Epp-Tiessen, D., “1 Kings 19: The Renewal of Elijah”, Direction 35.1 (2006) 33-43.
Erickson, K., “Notes on Trauma”, Trauma. Explorations in Memory (ed. C. Caruth) (Baltimore London 1995).
Frechette, C. G. – Boase, E., “Defining ‘Trauma’ as a Useful Lens for Biblical Interpretation”, Bible Through the Lens of Trauma (ed. E. Boase – C. G. Frechette) (Atlanta 2016) 1-23.
Hauser, A. J. – Gregory, R., From Carmel to Horeb. Elijah in Crisis (Sheffield 1990).
Herman, J., Trauma and Recovery, The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York 2015).
House, P. R., 1, 2 Kings (NAC; Nashville 1995).
Howell, J. D. – Howell, S.H., “Journey to Mount Horeb: Cognitive theory and 1 Kings 19:1-18”, Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 11/7 (2008) 655-660.
Montgomery, J. A., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Kings (New York 1951).
Pink, A. W., The Life of Elijah (Carlisle, PA 2011).
Rice, G., Nations Under God. A Commentary on the Book of 1 Kings (ITC; Grand Rapids 1990).
Ryken, L. – Wilhoit, J. C. – Longman III, T., (ed.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (England: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
Smith, F. T., The Psychology of Fear. How to Manage and Overcome Fear in any Situation (New Jersey 2017).
Thompson, C., From Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb, Elijah’s Journey Through Depression (Bristol 2001).
[i] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Eds., Leland Ryken et al., (England: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 1056
[ii] Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 33.
[iii] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 33.
[iv] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 51.
[v] F. T. Smith, The Psychology of Fear. How to Manage and Overcome Fear in any Situation (New Jersey 2017), 7; see also, C. Thompson, From Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb, Elijah’s Journey Through Depression (Bristol 2001) 69.
[vi] K. Erickson, “Notes on Trauma and Community”, Trauma. Explorations in Memory (Ed. C. Caruth) (Baltimore London 1995) 194.
[vii] Hauser – Gregory, From Carmel to Horeb. Elijah in Crisis (Sheffield 1990)65.
[viii] Cf. House, 1, 2 Kings (NAC; Nashville 1995), 222. There is no indication that he got up the first time, but simply looked, saw, ate and drank.
[ix] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 34.
[x] Cf. House, 1, 2 Kings, 224; Hauser – Gregory, From Carmel to Horeb, 134.
[xi] Epp-Tiessen, “1 Kings 19”, 39.
[xii] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 35.
[xiii] Cf. Childs, “On Reading the Elijah Narratives”, 135.
[xiv] Cf. Hauser – Gregory, From Carmel to Horeb, 73.
[xv] Cf. Rice, Nations Under God, 163.
[xvi] Frechette – Boase, Bible Through the Lens of Trauma, 15.
Image: Elijah in the Desert by Daniele da Volterra. C. 1550-60. Oil on canvas. Sammlung Pannocchieschi d’Elci. Source: Wikimedia Commons