The Gospel According to the OT: God’s Memory

The gentleman from the high council rested his right arm on the podium and leaned forward into the microphone. Looking into the congregation, he lowered his voice and took us into his confidence. “The Old Testament,” he said, “concerns itself with carnal commandments intended to cleanse the body, with outward performances and all that sort of thing.”

Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the OT than the polemics of Heb 9:10, or there would be no reason to spend a year studying it in GD. For example, there’s a bit of Good News called the Shema, a passage that takes its name from the Hebrew imperative of the verb “to hear:”

Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your might.

Then there’s another nice morsel of Good News, this time from Lev 19:18b, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef seems to have been particularly fond of precisely these passages. And as commandments go, they don’t sound all that carnal to me.

It will not surprise you to learn that I have another piece of Good News, this time drawn from a narrative context in the Elijah cycle.

The culmination of the contest between God and Baal is narrated in 1 Ki 18:21-40. Once again, the story is divided into three sections. In each section precisely two “characters” interact with each other: Elijah and the Israelites (vv. 21-24); Elijah and the priests of Baal (vv. 25-29); and finally Elijah’s offering and prayer to God (vv. 30-39). Verse 40 stands alone as an epilogue.

Elijah opens the story by posing a question to the assembled Israelites. In the AV, the question captures the thrust of Elijah’s mission, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” Read literally, however, the imagery is far more explicit, “How long will you limp between two tree branches?” (HALOT, s.v. סעפ)

Elijah is addressing his countrymen as if they were cripples, bobbing and weaving on crude, uneven crutches as they slowly make their way through life. This captures both their failure make a decision and their unfitness to approach God, since Lev 21:18 forbade the lame from serving as priests.

Elijah’s follow-on statement, “If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal then follow him” elicits a sullen failure to answer from the Israelites. This, in turn, results in a certain amount of confusion among modern readers. The key point is this: we routinely think about God in either/or categories, but Elijah’s countrymen generally worshipped various gods, each in his/her own sphere. To their way of thinking, there was no advantage to be gained and potentially much to be lost by taking the exclusivist approach Elijah demanded.

Finally, Elijah proposes the contest. Every advantage goes to the priests of Baal: they provide the bulls and get first choice of the animals, there’s far more of them to perform the priestly intercession, and they get to go first. When Elijah gets to the point that he should say that the priests of Baal will call on their god, he says to his fellow Israelites “you will call on the name of your god.” No choice is apostasy, not tolerance.

Elijah’s interaction with the priests of Baal (vv. 25-29) is actually quite funny. Although he’s alone, he gives all the instructions and is obeyed. After half a day of importuning Baal, the narrator tells us that “there is no voice, there is no answerer.” The present tense and the final participle, “no answerer,” indicate that it’s not that Baal isn’t answering in this particular case, but that there is no Baal to answer.

Around lunch time, Elijah openly mocks the priests of Baal. Precisely what he says is unfortunately lost because a key term is unknown. Following the NAB:

Call louder, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has retired, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.

The expression translated “he has retired” is hapax. It may be that this is simply a sound-play and therefore untranslatable, it may be a general term for being busy, or it may be that it is actually a suggestion that Baal is occupied in the bathroom, so to speak, and unwilling to attend to their business before he finishes his own (HALOT, s.v. שיג “dross;” in the LXX, “gossip, prattle;” in the Vulgate, “he is busy;” in the Peshitta, “completes a project” ).

Finally the narrative turns to Elijah’s sacrifice (vv. 30-39). Twelve stones go into the rebuilding the altar and twelve jars of water drench the offering and its environs. The symbolism is unmistakable but it is the wording of Elijah’s prayer that seals the key theological insight (vv. 36-37):

Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, give them to know this day that you are the God in Israel and I am your servant and I have done all these things according to your word.

Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people will know that you, Lord, are God and that you have turned their heart backwards.

Although the traditional articulation of this scene is that Elijah called down fire from heaven, the reality encoded in the theological passive of v. 38 says otherwise. The emphasis is not on Elijah’s power over fire, but on God’s love for Israel in responding to a prayer opening with the rare formulation “Lord God of…Israel.”

In this particular story, God’s care is displayed in God’s memory, specifically in God’s memory of the person Israel, the land Israel, and the people who should also be Israel, but are not and must continually be re-claimed. This and similar stories are the well-spring of what Paul will later call the uprightness of God, or his covenant fidelity.

And finally, the heart of the Christian testimony, the Good News, simply adds that God “remembers” through Christ Jesus, whom he raised to stand next to him until there is no longer a need for this sort of memory.

10 Replies to “The Gospel According to the OT: God’s Memory”

  1. LXX = Greek
    Vulgate = Latin
    Peshitta = Syriac
    NAB = New American Bible = modern Catholic version

    hapax = hapax legomenon = only occurs once in our literature. The meaning is therefore very uncertain.

    And finally, there’s a gold star for the forehead of folks who explain why Elijah’s last clause asks God to make it clear that “you have turned their heart backwards.”

    The verb is, in fact, past tense, the prounoun is in an emphatic position, and the expression “turned backward” may be quite different from “turning back,” which is associated with repentance.

    I’m not sure myself.

  2. The NET gives the literal reading in the note: “that you are turning their hearts back,” but translates “that you are winning back their allegiance.”

    I don’t know whether this is relevant at all, but below is a fascinating article I read recently in the Chicago Tribune on the linguistic import of the terms “back” and “front” and how they are perceived in an isolated culture. (I’m pasting the whole thing, because before long the link won’t work and the article will be archived as retrievable for pay only.)

    South America’s Aymara put future behind them

    By Nathan Bierma
    Special to the Tribune
    Published July 12, 2006

    When the Aymara people in South America want to forget something, they don’t want to put it behind them — they want to put it ahead of them. The Aymara language have the same word for “front” and “past,” and another word that means both “future” and “behind.” What’s more, the Aymara use hand gestures to match — they point behind themselves when talking about the future and in front of themselves when talking about the past, according to a fascinating new study in the journal Cognitive Science.

    But the study, titled “With the Future Behind Them,” found that younger speakers of Aymara who also have learned Spanish are beginning to use more conventional gestures.

    Cognitive scientists study the human brain to learn about our mental processes and perceptions. Researchers analyzed a series of interviews they conducted with the Aymara in the Andes Mountains in northern Chile, to study how speakers’ hands move.

    As one Aymara speaker says “nayra mara,” meaning “in times past” (the literal translation is “time in front”), he gestures by extending his left arm forward from his shoulder, as though throwing a ball.

    When another speaker says “quipa timpun,” meaning “future time” (literally, “time behind”), he swings his right arm backward, his pointing his thumb over his shoulder.

    “Finding a gesture that puts the future in the back is really interesting,” says Susan Goldin-Meadow, head of the Goldin-Meadow Laboratory at the University of Chicago, which specializes in gesture research. “It’s counterintuitive, and no one’s ever reported it before.”

    The Cognitive Science article concludes that the Aymara have a “radically different metaphoric mapping of time.”

    “It’s not just about words,” said researcher Rafael Nunez in a telephone interview. Nunez, director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego, co-wrote the article with linguist Eve Sweetser of the University of California at Berkeley.

    “The question is, what’s going on in people’s minds as they speak? What’s the psychological reality? This is what we need to address as cognitive scientists,” Nunez said. “In this case, gesture studies is the tool that helped us address this question.”

    Nunez concludes the Aymara have an unusual mental picture of their relationship to time. Most people, including English speakers, tend to picture themselves as traveling along a path through time. So when we say “the week ahead,” we picture the week as lying on a path in front of us. With this mental picture, it’s natural to think of the past as behind us — as the ground we’ve traveled.

    The Aymara, on the other hand, seem to picture themselves as standing and surveying a landscape. You can’t see what lies in back of you; you only know what you can see in front of you. Since the past is known and the future is unknown, it is natural to the Aymara to picture the future in back of them, where they can’t see it, Nunez says.

    Although the Aymara language itself is not in danger of dying out, Nunez says this mental map might be in danger.

    The study in Cognitive Science shows that in northern Chile, bilingual youth who speak both Aymara and Spanish (which they learned in Chilean schools) seem to have a different picture of the past and future.

    These younger Aymara speakers still use the Aymara words “nayra” and “qhipa,” but the majority of them use different gestures while saying the words: they tend to point ahead to signify the future and gesture in a direction behind themselves to signify the past. “Fluency in Spanish,” the authors conclude, “relates to past-behind [and] future-front gestures.”

    “We can preserve a language, with all the formal properties of language — grammar and phonology and so on — but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the conceptual world that those languages serve will be maintained,” Nunez says.

    Endings: An article in the Vancouver-based Asian Pacific Post last month, covering studies of possible 15th Century contact between the Chinese and Native Americans, ended with a startling claim about the Cherokee.

    The reporter (who was not identified) ended the article by saying that the Cherokee “were so backward that they did not even have a language of their own.”

    In fact, the Cherokee had a thriving culture and language for centuries before European settlement, though its writing system was invented more recently.

    “I bet it arose from the . . . all-too-common assumption that no written language [means] no language at all,” wrote University of Michigan linguist Sally Thomason at Language Log (, in response to the Asian Pacific Post article. “Beliefs like these may be especially offensive when applied to Cherokee, given the illustrious nature and history of its writing system, a syllabary that is believed to have been invented by Chief Sequoyah.”


    Contact Nathan Bierma at

  3. “And finally, the heart of the Christian testimony, the Good News, simply adds that God “remembers” through Christ Jesus, whom he raised to stand next to him until there is no longer a need for this sort of memory.”

    Excellent post with a beautiful ending!

  4. The verb is, in fact, past tense, the prounoun is in an emphatic position, and the expression “turned backward” may be quite different from “turning back,” which is associated with repentance.


    Is Elijah saying that Jehovah somehow caused the apostacy of Israel (hence the past tense verb)?

    Despite how strange it seems (at least to my modern ears) doesn’t this idea have support in passages like 1 Samuel 16:14:

    Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.

    or 1 Kings 22:23-24

    (22) How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ (23) So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

  5. Kevin,

    Thanks for the Cog Sci piece. I really like that stuff.

    Brian J.,

    Thanks for the kind words!

    Karl D.,

    That is, in fact, what I am wondering about. Is this one of those places where the OT is so montheistic that no other Power can be contemplated?

  6. That is, in fact, what I am wondering about. Is this one of those places where the OT is so montheistic that no other Power can be contemplated?

    Might this be a particular concern in this passage because the “other Power” in the pericope is Baal?

  7. Yes, and there’s quite an effort in this story to make it clear that it’s not that Baal is weaker than YHWH, but that Baal simply doesn’t exist at all.

    And if Baal is no-god, then how did the Israelite apostasy occur?

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