Sunday, December 07, 2008

Elijah Stories

Jewish culture has a tradition of Elijah stories. In these folk tales Elijah has returned to earth after he ascended to heaven in Second Kings 2:11, to do more tasks appointed by God. Usually he is in disguise and reward or punishes people according to God's will.

For me, Elijah stories are difficult to write. Except for being disguised Elijah has no traditional repertoire of special abilities: instead he prays, knowing what is God's will, and his prayers are answered. I find it extremely tricky to write a satisfying story with a deus ex machina character.

I would love to be more gifted at writing Elijah stories, especially to tell little Smiley bedtime stories. Making up songs involving bottles and diapers was engaging for many months, but by month eight is getting old.

The most famous of Elijah stories involves a sick cow that dies and a crumbling fireplace that hides treasure. But there are hundreds of others.

Here is an Elijah I wrote for sermon I gave in March of 2004. It is an adaptation of a tale told by Peninnah Schram, with a better ending.
Once there was a kind and pious couple who had five children, and deep faith, but no money. The father was a farmer, but his animals had died from disease, and he had not been able to find work for many weeks. His family was increasingly hungry as they tried to use their last food slowly.

Each morning the mother would pray for her husband, “May God grant you favor today, that someone at the marketplace would hire you. We must not give up hope.” Then the farmer would walk to the town’s market, and look for work, but find none. In the evenings they would both weep and pray.

On the morning when their last food was eaten, the mother prayed, and the father left for the market. On the road he met a very old man who seemed unbent by age but well wrinkled by wisdom. The old man carried two tools: a measuring-line and level. He waved to the pious farmer, and said, “I am Elijah, messenger of God, and master of disguises. God has heard your prayers. You must take me past the town to the city’s slave-auction, and sell me as a slave. Give me one gold coin, and use all the rest to buy food and animals and seeds for your family and farm. And keep my identity a secret!”

The farmer did as he was told. In the city that day the king’s minister was buying slaves to build the king’s palace, and he paid 80 pieces of gold for the old man who was a master builder. The father gave one piece to Elijah, who breathed on it and then pressed it very flat and scratched into it the words “may blessings flow”. Elijah gave this piece of gold to the farmer, and said, “I must go with my new master now. Wear this gold plate on a necklace under your clothes, and your animals will prosper and you will never suffer poverty again.”

The king’s minister took all the slaves he had purchased to the flat land where the palace was being built. “Hear me, new royal slaves!” he said. “The palace was supposed to be finished many months ago, but the slaves building it were careless and built badly. The king is angry, for we had to delay to fix what was built wrong. Now, when he visits this site, we worry he will beat us—myself included. Such is your lot as well.”

Elijah spoke to the king’s minister and said, “Sir, I am a master builder. Would you give me my freedom if I made sure the palace was complete before the month’s end?”

The minister replied, “Surely I would, but such a goal is impossible.”

That evening, Elijah prayed and many angels came down from the heavens and finished building the palace. Then they left, taking Elijah with them. In the morning, the minister woke early and saw the palace complete, and found that the master builder had disappeared. Realizing a miracle had occurred he lifted his hands and called out, “Whether you were angel or a man of God, enjoy your freedom!”

Years later, when the farmer was financially secure, Elijah visited him again and asked to take back the gold inscription, so that he might give it to another who needed it. As the farmer handed him his necklace he said, “O great tzaddik, of course I heard about the palace being built in one day and see that the miracle must have been in your plans and why you were disguised as a master builder. But why did you ask me to sell you as a slave? You could have simply given me money, and built the king’s palace as a free man visiting the palace.”

Elijah replied, “God Most High works in situations, not around them.”

No comments: