For all the good it did him — Jezebel (Ahab’s wife) vows to kill him. Although all the people acknowledge now that there is only one God in Israel, and thus Elijah speaks the word to end the drought, and kills the prophets of Baal, Elijah has to go back on the run. In fact, if you skip to the end of 1 Kings, the Baal worship is back. What is going on? Look specifically at chapter 18 of 1 Kings and the start of chapter 19 for the whole story. While the whole story is exciting and rather like an action movie, I’m pressing on. (We’ve had movies now of Noah and of Exodus, is Elijah far behind?) I want to look at Chapter 19:4. He’s all alone, he’s back in the wilderness, and he’s under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “it is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
I wish my study bible gave just a bit more info — what are broom trees? are they always solitary? What did people do before google when they had questions? Check out this picture and this wonderful blog. Broom trees provide shelter in a hostile environment. “Broom embers retain their heat for long periods after they appear to be dead ashes,” explains Carolyn Adams Roth.
I love the name “broom tree” — remember I’m a word person, a poet, and much more so than a gardener. New broom, sweeping out the dirt, cleaning, renewing. Jump over a broom to marry. Brooms are not rest they are tools to use to create order and to beat away chaos. They are objects of work, necessary restorative work. Perhaps all these images have some play here. Elijah still has work to do. Elijah needs to be renewed, swept clean of despair. To fall asleep and dream under a broom tree might be what we all need in our times of despair, in our times of catching only trouble even in victory. A rest. A bit of protection. A reminder of what we are called to do.
But what about Elijah’s request to die? Is he depressed? Is he just saying he’s not worthy of being a leader of Israel? So often, the Bible seems to use language that is exaggerated to my ears. Last time that Elijah was on the run, the Lord sent ravens, and then community. This time, Elijah sleeps (he must be exhausted). And so often we sleep when we are completely out of resources for dealing with our life. And instead of ravens, this time an Angel touched him.
Elijah is not happy; if this is depression, he isn’t cured yet. But he has slept, he now eats. Baby steps, but important.