Jesus and the Dirty Birds
1 Kings 17:2-6 And the word of the LORD came unto [Elijah], saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.

It is claimed that YHWH "contradict[ed] His own law by using unclean birds" who also presumably brought Elijah meat they had torn from carcasses. Some use this story to promote the JEDP thesis and to claim that this proves that the law was compiled after Elijah's time.

There are two points to ponder before we go that route.

  • First, it is possible that "ravens" should read "Arabs".

    The consonants are the same for both Hebrew words; the LXX says "ravens," but as Glenn Miller has noted in his article on the LXX, some of Kings is excellent in translation, and some is horrid. This would mean that Elijah was fed by the indigenous Bedouin of the land, which makes perfect social sense -- both in light of ANE hospitality, and likely (superstitious?) reverence for a holy man.

    Note that this is not contradicted by the point that Elijah is "hiding" himself (v. 3), so that it could be argued that the Arabs should not know where he is. Elijah was hiding not from the indigenous Bedouin, but from those who wanted to kill him. One would further point out that hiding out in a nomadic, indigenous population -- one that looks similar, lives pastorally and spread far apart in tents, and isn't a good idea to bother -- is nothing if not a perfect hiding place.

    Also, it does not require that ALL of the Arabs in existence knew where he was.

    I'll add as well that in an older issue of Expository Times (Vol. 68) a letter-writer made the point that there were Arabs in the 1800s in that area so dark-skinned that they were called "ravens".

  • Second, even these ARE ravens, there's a perfectly good social reason for the purity violation.

    Ritual purity was about drawing boundary lines; the law was about separating the Jews from their neighbors. Since Elijah IS out in the wilderness, he is in fact ALREADY outside the social boundaries, and so he is already ritually unclean according to the ancient mindset, and a bit more raven spit isn't going to make him any worse off.

    Indeed, as a reader noted, since the primary purpose of ritual purity was to make you suitable to be in the Temple and bring sacrifices, Elijah didn't have a whole lot to be worried about here.

    An ineffectual reply to this is that Elijah, as an example of "supreme holiness," isn't going to violate any boundaries.

    Indeed? No more than Ezekiel, when he cooked over dung; or Isaiah, when he walked around naked; or Hosea, when he married a harlot. If anything Elijah's situation makes for one in which he WOULD symbolically enact ritual uncleanness (not at his OWN behest, but because God instructs him to -- 17:2) -- precisely because he is "outside the boundaries" living in the wilderness.

    -JPH