Has anyone ever told you they had a message from God for you? If so, have you ever felt worried that you might be attacked by a lion if you responded wrongly?

The Bible contains two such stories - fairly close together, actually. I think they’re interesting in themselves, but even more interesting when compared.

A message from a prophet

The first story is just after the nation of Israel has split off from the nation of Judah, and their first king (Jeroboam) has set up wrong worship to try and stop the people going back to Judah. God sends a prophet from Judah to confront Jeroboam and tell him that it won’t work out. You can find the story in 1 Kings 13.

The short version is that it seems the prophet from Judah does the “prophesying” part of his job perfectly. He gives a message from God. He provides dramatic signs of divine intervention when Jeroboam orders him arrested. What’s more, he even prays for healing for Jeroboam - and the prayer is granted.

So far, so good.

Then Jeroboam invites him for dinner. Perhaps to make him an offer he can’t refuse. Perhaps to have him arrested out of the public eye. Or perhaps it really is just a meal.

However, the prophet makes it clear the job isn’t done, and he’s still under orders:

I was commanded by the word of the Lord: ‘You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came.’

And so he sets off home by a different route, with not a lion in sight. But there’s a twist to the tale.

Enter another prophet

The city has a resident prophet, identified merely as “a certain old prophet”. Like Jeroboam, he really wants to have the first prophet back for dinner. So he catches up with him and invites him home.

When the first prophet objects, the second prophet claims he has a message from an angel ordering him to bring the first prophet back to his house and offer refreshments.

The omniscient narrator is very quick to say “But he was lying to him”. But think about it from the first prophet’s point of view. He knew that he’d received very clear orders from God, and so far he’d followed them. But that could have been days ago.

Right now, all he knows is that there’s someone standing in front of him claiming direct revelation from God. What’s more, direct revelation that he has no way of confirming.

Perhaps God had just wanted to make sure he didn’t take hospitality from the wrong people. But how could it be wrong to take hospitality from a fellow prophet?

And so the saga winds to its sorry conclusion. God speaks through the second prophet (that’s right, the one who previously claimed divine revelation when he didn’t have it - so should we believe him this time?).

The first prophet is condemned for disobeying God’s orders. He sets off home, and along the way is killed by a lion. The second prophet collects the first prophet’s body and buries it. He then leaves orders with his sons that he be buried with said prophet, as a token that the first prophet’s original message to Jeroboam was true.

Perhaps you’re thinking that the first prophet should have done what he thought right rather than listening to what someone else claimed was the word of God. If so, hold that thought. We’ll get back to it after the second lion story.

Now for the second lion

This one’s a simpler story. Two verses from 1 Kings 20, in fact:

By the word of the Lord one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” but he refused.

So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him.

Why he refused, we don’t know. Maybe he thought it was wrong. Maybe he was too squeamish.

But it seems to me he faced exactly the same conundrum as the earlier prophet from Judah. Standing in front of him is someone claiming direct revelation from God. But he has no way of confirming that message was actually from God.

In this case it’s not a complete stranger. It sounds like it’s someone he knows personally, and perhaps knows well. Perhaps he knows previous times the prophet made big claims that didn’t happen. Perhaps he sees the prophet as a show-off used to grandstanding. There could be all kinds of reasons why he wouldn’t just obey said prophet without question.

Putting the two messages together

I find each of these stories somewhat disturbing on their own, but even more so when put together. The message we get is something like “If you obey someone who says they have an order from God for you, God may send a lion to kill you. And if you disobey someone who says they have an order from God for you, God may also send a lion to kill you.”

(In case you’re wondering, I’m not sure if you’re safe just because you didn’t get a message, either: The second story is setting up the prophet to confront the king of Israel. He will be punished for not following a non-command of God that he should have just known).

The concession in the first story - that the second prophet lied - seems to me a far more serious problem than it appears at first. Does God just not care that people say the wrong thing while claiming to represent him? And how can God expect that people will obey the orders of other humans (claiming to be speaking from God) when they know humans sometimes lie?

I’ll also just note that, since these texts are a human record, we also have to rely on the chroniclers correctly guessing which people are actually representing God and which are just faking it.

Excusing God (also known as “Victim Blaming”)

Like I mentioned last year when talking about Uzzah, sometimes it seems believers go to extraordinary lengths to find some reason, any reason to blame someone other than God.

This can be seen clearly with our first story today. You might have been distracted by the involvement of the lion, but verse 14 clearly shows the prophet from Judah sitting under an oak tree rather than continuing on to Judah.

You know what that shows? He was insufficiently committed to his orders. If he’d taken those orders more seriously, he’d never have rested there, so the other prophet wouldn’t have caught him up, so none of this would have happened. It’s clearly his fault (in case you’re wondering, yes, I do remember this argument being made).

What, that doesn’t satisfy you? Well, don’t forget that the old prophet also lied. If he hadn’t done that, none of this would have happened. So perhaps it’s really his fault?

What’s that? You think it might be God’s fault? I know it looks like God sent the lion, but it can’t be his fault, because he’s, well, God. Wash your mouth out with soap and beg forgiveness for even thinking there might be a problem with God here.

What about natural consequences?

Sometimes, actions have consequences. I don’t really expect any god to protect their followers from all the consequences of their sub-optimal choices.

For example, in the case of Uzzah, if he had tried to catch the ark and was crushed by it, it would have been a direct consequence of his actions. And it’s not hard to see that our first prophet’s original orders might have meant something like “Don’t stay round in Israel, because if you do you’ll be arrested for blasphemy or high treason”. If the prophet had ignored those (potentially very sensible) orders and was then arrested and executed by Jeroboam, it still wouldn’t have been a nice story - but at least his death would have been a direct consequence of his disobedience of orders.

I just find it hard to see how “Being killed by a lion” is a natural consequence of either “stopping for a meal at a fellow prophet’s house” or “Refusing to injure a fellow prophet just because they asked you to”.

Was the punishment proportional?

I think we can acknowledge that neither of our lion-encounterers 100% obeyed orders (though perhaps in each case there were extenuating circumstances). So maybe there’s a case for docking their Christmas bonus, or something like that.

Looking at the big picture, though, what I see is that both cases ended up with God’s message getting to the king it was meant to get to. How is it reasonable to then punish any deviation from orders with a public death? What message does that send? (well, other than that a God who called himself “slow to anger” gets easily upset by deviations from his oh-so-perfect orders).

Didn’t God have other options?

What I said with Uzzah also applies here: God had other options.

Take the first case, for example. Like I mentioned, it could have been days since the first prophet received his orders. And he had followed them exactly until he received a new message. (Also, judging from our second case, I’d guess that if God had changed his mind and sent the old prophet, he’d have expected the first prophet to obey those changed orders without question).

So the most obvious solution would be for God to speak to the first prophet and make it clear that the “message from an angel wasn’t true” (then, because he had to punish someone, probably punish the old prophet for speaking in his name without his permission…). But even if he hadn’t done that, he could have said “You disobeyed my orders, and I’m not happy about it” without instantly reaching for death by lion as a punishment.

And in the second case, perhaps God could have directly given the man a message or some other confirmation that the message from the prophet was genuinely God-given. Or he could have found some non-lethal method of making his displeasure known.

Here’s the thing: Human stories thrive on miscommunication. Humans are fallible, our knowledge is limited, and tragic misunderstandings are a good way of driving the narrative. But that kind of miscommunication doesn’t make sense for a supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful god.

He must know when people are misrepresenting him, and apparently he doesn’t care about that - but he does care enough to punish people who act on this misrepresentation. Orders are to be obeyed without question - unless they’re not - punishments for non-compliance are severe, and no correspondence will be entered into. Bluntly, this makes him look like a sadistic control freak.

Perhaps there’s a case for God not communicating at all: Stepping back and leaving his creation to figure it out on their own. But that’s not what we see here. God is getting involved - he’s just getting involved at the wrong times and in the wrong ways. Basically, it looks like his interventions are choosing to cause tragedy rather than averting it.

Finding the will of God

Back when I was a believer, I don’t recall anyone ever giving me a message that they said came from God. But I’ve seen stories from others online, and it doesn’t sound good.

Perhaps it did happen to me and didn’t make an impression, or maybe I was just in the wrong denomination or the wrong part of the denomination (I suspect wrong denomination - finding God’s message any way other than the Bible was viewed with suspicion). I’m also certain that I never received a message from God to pass on to someone else.

Personally, I found it hard enough trying to find the will of God for myself without worrying too much about whether I could trust messages from others. There was certainly nothing as clear as “Go tell Prime Minister John Howard that Australia is on the wrong track and judgement is coming” or “You need to rough up one of your fellow believers so they can present a more convincing message from God”.

I think if God is choosing to communicate with you through someone else, the question is: Why is he not communicating with you directly? How can he expect you to know whether they passed on the message correctly or not? After all, perhaps their message is really based on their self-interest. Or perhaps it’s based on their interpretation of the Bible (in which case, surely you can interpret the Bible too?).

Another perspective

When looking at these stories, I stumbled across the aptly titled post Death by lion for not punching a prophet. This quote stood out to me (with their emphasis)

So we’ll say it again:

The Bible is an ancient text filled with stories that, on first (or second, or third) pass can seem very nasty, brutish, and short. But there is generally an underlying morality that makes perfect sense in an Ancient Near East context.

Also, they claim that in this case the person wasn’t killed by the lion (just badly injured). So I guess that makes everything OK?

Why this matters

The Bible isn’t the only ancient text filled with stories that seem very nasty, brutish, and short. It’s the one I know most about, but I’ve read some of the stories of the Greek gods and the Norse gods, and probably others. And I’m sure there are many other tablets and writings from across the years that I would disagree with the morality of. But it doesn’t matter so much if they’re just ancient documents that get studied by a few scholars.

The Bible is different because it’s being read right now by laypeople searching for the will of God - including former me, and including most of my relatives. For Christadelphians, there is an expectation that the entire Bible is read every year, following the approved reading planner. We did that growing up, and my relatives still do it (If you’re wondering how I noticed these tales: Last year the two chapters were in consecutive weeks at family readings I was at).

That means stories like these are read every year, and people use them to try and understand how God works and how they should live their lives. It’s not just their own lives, either: It can also affect their view of national and international politics, for example when considering the Israel - Palestine war. Maybe it doesn’t give them a “correct answer” for that conflict, but it sure gives them a view about which answers might be wrong (hint: “Dividing God’s land” is really bad…) or which sides might be in the wrong (hint: not God’s chosen people Israel). If this connection seems far-fetched, I’ll just note that in our second case, the injured prophet’s message to the king was that he should have killed a historically enemy king rather than making peace with him…

We could have a scholarly debate about whether they’re truly capturing the meaning of the texts they read every year, or whether those texts were actually meant to be used as they are being used. That doesn’t change the fact that they are using the texts that way, and that that has real world consequences. Not perhaps “sending a lion as punishment for disobedience” consequences, but still - consequences. And I’m sick of being caught in the middle of it.