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Fellowship and Forbidden Fruit

The tragic case of the “Man of God” (1st Kings 13) bears special relevance to Adventist belief. For starters, Jeroboam does two things that mark him as a shadowy precursor of the Anti-Christ: he makes the Hebrew religion “easier” and he also messes about with the Hebrew calendar. On both counts he anticipates, quite neatly, Ellen White’s warning of an emerging “Apostate Protestantism”, fully enamored with both false revivals and false sabbaths.

Jeroboam’s political anxiety fastens upon the notion that, because the temple that served both nations lay within the territory of Judah, his people might, over time, begin to dream of reunification. In order to preempt this, the king indulges in some revisionist theology. The facts of the Exodus remain, but their allegiances shift. The two golden calves find new meaning, not as idols, but as gods of deliverance (idols now get the credit for delivering Israel from idolatry). And the Feast of Booths (arguably, Israel’s most celebratory sabbath) gratuitously moves to a new date on the calendar, exactly one month after its proper time. These modifications all find their ostensible rationale in Jeroboam’s argument that it is just “too hard” to have to travel all the way to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. The arguments for convenient religion promise a blithe return to Edenic bliss, but they always forget that grim and sword-bearing angel at the gate.

Into the middle of this ersatz celebration (Jeroboam ignores Moses’ warning to not employ images during the Feast of Booths) strides the lean figure of patient integrity. The Man of God’s dire prediction, the shattered altar, and Jeroboam’s withered hand find a natural corollary in the Man of God’s refusal to eat anything. By not eating, he witnesses against false enjoyment or the idolatrous celebration of life. He stands against the idea that religion requires no discrimination; that it should never entail guilt, shame, or strict accountability, or that one can slide into Heaven on a diet of celebratory pastry.

Jeroboam’s invitation to the Man of God to share a meal with him seems gracious enough, but in this context, a meal signified a lot more than just eating. If the Man of God had eaten with the king, that act would have allied him to the king’s brassy worship style. This is in the nature of a shared meal. To eat merely is to survive, but to share a meal with another person implies commonality. Eve did not eat the forbidden fruit because she needed food, she ate because she wanted to join what C.S. Lewis calls the ‘inner circle’ — she wanted to be a “god” among gods. By not eating, the Man of God eschews common cause with the dominant culture of false satiety. The state of being hungry, in this context, marks true religion as sometimes depriving itself of one of God’s seminal gifts in order to draw a severe line between true satisfaction and the illusory fullness of sin. How can a hungry Man of God demonstrate the fullness of God? Well, the paradoxes of faith will persist, but I would suggest a hungry man is less likely to settle for something that is not food than a man who insists upon his right to never miss a meal.

When the “Old Prophet” hears of what the “Man of God” has done, he responds with uncanny speed. The Bible does not reveal his motives — and that’s a good thing. Also, instead of the Bible telling us that the Old Prophet was envious, or an “agent of Satan” (the Bible rarely moralizes), we get only a stark narration of his acts. Contrary to what we expect, nearly everything the Old Prophet says and does tokens a modicum of good will towards the Man of God. No doubt, the Old Prophet had converted to Jeroboam’s facile new faith; this could explain why God did not send the Old Prophet to confront the king. As a probable advocate of an easier Judaism, the Old Prophet’s mendacity could have been justified on rhetorical grounds (the end justifies the means). Does he lie to the Man of God in a sincere attempt to win him over to a progressive faith? At the same time, the Old Prophet appears eager to win recognition as a fellow prophet. Does he harbor some nostalgia for his own lost integrity, or does the lying prophet simply want to bring a good man down? We cannot elucidate precise motive here, but we ought to note that, in working out this range of possibilities, we inevitably get schooled in the base entendre of our own dark hearts.

It would be easy to think that the temptation under the oak tree only concerned food. But the real hook must have been the promise of renewed fellowship (or maybe even the prospect of winning a convert). When the text identifies the Man of God as both “deceived” and guilty of an act of “rebellion”, it tells us more than we want to know (about ourselves). We don’t like to bring those two words together. We think of the deceived as harmless victims and the rebellious as wicked perpetrators, but the text refuses this distinction. When the Old Prophet exclaims, “I am also a prophet like you” the Man of God must choose between what he knows to be true, and his now quite beleaguered need to be liked. The prospect of mundane acceptance, good-will among fellows, and the security of shared beliefs in a hostile place all converge like so many welcome blessings upon the Man of God.

Oh, it’s easy enough for the stalwart Adventist to vow that he would never violate the Sabbath even at the cost of not being able to “buy or sell”. But rarely do we contemplate how little fortitude we can muster for enduring the status of the social pariah. Loneliness and the prospect of painful anonymity terribly haunts the bold reformer as he realizes, perhaps too late, that nobody might join him after all. Jeremiah’s painful isolation, Peter’s denial of Jesus, and Jerome’s recantation: these figures best know the true severity of that leafy seduction. To deny ourselves (at testing time) our fundamental need for human society (or human recognition) seems counter to the very nature of our being — and it is. But from our very creation this has been a dangerous world of seeming friends and benefactors where shady groves harbor asps and grinning publicans poison our food.

When the old prophet unexpectedly finds himself the voice of God, he must bear witness not only to the rebellion of the Man of God, but also to the wickedness of his own heart. Thus, the Man of God’s doom becomes the Old Prophet’s gut wrenching “second chance”.

We might remember Moses’ earthly fate and wring some hope (and fear) from it — he too died for a single act of rebellion and forfeited his temporal life with its promised land. It seems unfair that Moses should die for a single rebellious act while the children of Israel lived on to sin another day. Yet, we should recall that Moses’ earthly fate did not prevent him from going to Heaven, and it may help others get there too.

The Man of God, like Moses, could perhaps be punished more severely than his wicked counterpart on the simple grounds that he was ready to die — an axiom that can be applied throughout the Bible to both the irreversibly righteous and wicked. We may, perhaps, take from this that the Man of God will be in heaven, and the Old Prophet may well be there too.

The Old Prophet’s confession that, indeed, the Man of God was truly a “Man of God” (and not just another false prophet like himself) creates space for a curious end of life request that offers still further hope. The Old Prophet’s request, “bury my bones with his bones”, holds out a more honest invitation to fellowship than the original promise of a shared meal ever did, and, as we discover later, that morbid pairing of dead men’s bones produced a remarkably durable (and fire-resistant) union.

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