JAMES 5:14–18: Did God Really Stop the Rain?
In James 5:14–18, James encourages the elders of the church to lay hands on and pray for the sick, the sinful, and those in need of healing prayer. He writes “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” The context is not intercessory prayer on behalf of others from a distance but prayer that is up close and personal. I am in full agreement with James: face-to-face and hand-to-hand prayer in faith is vital to the health of the church. It is petitionary prayer on behalf of others from a distance that I am seeking to reimagine.
James writes, “Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth” (James 5:17 NRSV). Teachers of petitionary prayer often use this reference to demonstrate the power of petitionary prayer. But, does James’s use of the Elijah account prove that if we pray, God will unilaterally act in the world and change lawlike regularities (laws of nature) such as naturally occurring weather patterns? Should the Elijah account be a model narrative demonstrating the power of petitionary prayer? I am not convinced.
James uses the legendary Elijah account to fit his needs. I understand some may be uncomfortable with the word “legend,” or a similar word like “myth.” Just mentioning those words puts me in a category of “liberal” and one who questions the inerrancy of Scripture. But I am merely trying to suggest that while Elijah was most likely a real figure and a person of extraordinary faith, the texts written concerning him added some nuances that might not have been factually true. It is hard to believe that the ancient Israelites would not have incorporated myth and legend into their writings. They would have been the only ancient Near Eastern culture not to have done so.
The fact that some of the Elijah narrative as told by 1 and 2 Kings or retold by James may be legendary does not mean the story is not inspired by God to be in the Bible. God inspired the accounts we find in the Hebrew Bible, and he inspired James to include that account in his letter. But the fact that the text is inspired does not mean we should take everything literally, ignoring genre, metaphor, the standard practice of exaggeration, and the creative use of literary devices to communicate a message. Although not every detail happened the way it is presented in the text, this does not mean the narrative has no value and cannot inspire communal prayer or faith in God. Since the narrative is inspired enough to be part of Scripture, it is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16 NRSV). There is certainly a lot that God desires to teach us through the Elijah narrative to equip us to love and do good works for one another.
How, then, did James add to the Elijah account? First Kings 18, which details this story, does not mention “three and a half years” as James does, but only “in the third year of drought” (v. 1). Neither the text of 1 Kings 18 nor Jesus’s words as recorded in the New Testament suggest that Elijah’s prayers initiated the drought. James is unique in adding those details to the narrative. He probably did so to bolster his inspiring message that extraordinary faith can achieve miraculous results. Or perhaps it is simply how the story was told to him.
One of the main reasons why the account is hard to accept as evidence for petitionary prayer is the way God’s character is portrayed. Once again, we are back to the question of a coherent theodicy regarding a God whose nature is love. Because God’s nature is love, I don’t believe Elijah’s prayers asking God to stop the rain for so long would have influenced God to cause harm to his creation. For the same reason, I don’t believe God encouraged Elijah to pray such a prayer. Pastor and author Tony Evans writes,
“Elijah’s prayer didn’t make God do something He hadn’t intended to do, but it did reach into heaven, grab and draw down what God had already told Elijah He would do.”
I am not sure how specifically this prayer reached into heaven, grabbed, and drew down God to do what God said he would do. That sounds confusing. I do know that a three-and-a-half-year drought would cause an enormous amount of suffering and death to plants, animals, and human beings (as an example, The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-92 claimed millions of lives (one-third of the population) in the areas hit by drought. Jesus also mentioned the suffering and death caused by the drought mentioned by James (Luke 4:25). That act would demonstrate a total disregard for life on the planet, a disregard that would be at odds with the loving and uncontrolling nature of God.
Additionally, if God chose to stop the rain, God was simultaneously choosing to ignore other people’s desperate prayers for rain. God would be doing so to make a point to those whom he considered rebellious. God certainly cannot be a vindictive, sadistic, moral monster. Like Transformers, there must be more than meets the eye with this story. Gregory Boyd writes:
I submit that we dishonor God and the covenantal relationship he forged with us on the cross if we do not assume that ‘something else is going on’ when he appears in the OT in ways that conflict with the nonviolent, agape-centered character he displays on the cross (Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 652.)
Therefore, there must be something else going on with the Elijah account. If a text portrays God in a way that is contrary to the Quadrilateral Hermeneutic of Love, the text may be portraying a culturally conditioned and immature view of God. The Quadrilateral Hermeneutic of Love is a four-part lens I came up with that gives us an accurate image of God, which all other biblical texts should be submitted to. The hermeneutic is based on the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22); the biblical definition of love (1 Corinthians 13:4–7); the only explicit parabolic picture Jesus gave of God the Father, found in the story of the Prodigal Father (Luke 15:11-31); and the radical self-giving, others-empowering life of Jesus Christ, who is the full revelation of God.
Thomas Oord aptly writes,
“If love is the center of the biblical witness and the core of Christian experience, it should be the primary criterion for theology” (Thomas J. Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, 2.).
The destruction of life depicted in the Elijah account does not seem like the action of a non-violent, loving God. Is a God who wreaks havoc on the earth by causing a deadly drought in line with the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit? Is that God in line with the compassionate, patient, loving, sin-covering father we see in the story of the Prodigal Father? Is he in line with the definition of love found in 1 Corinthians? Is he in line with who we see in the nonviolent, others-embracing Jesus? I don’t think it is. Therefore, based on the Quadrilateral Hermeneutic of Love, while the text is inspired and a community of faith should wrestle with the application of the narrative, it should not be a text in which we affirm an accurate portrayal of God.
If we avoid taking the Elijah account at face value, what is really going on in this text? Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic gives us another plausible perspective. He details his hermeneutical approach in his massive tour de force, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Since this work is composed of over fourteen-hundred pages, I can only offer a brief snapshot here.
While the Elijah account is inspired, the Old Testament writer of 1 Kings wrote from a culturally conditioned perspective. The writer had a fallen and immature concept of God. Since God does not unilaterally change people’s minds and forcefully download the right image of himself into people’s brains, he accommodates them in his inspiration. He therefore allowed the writer’s perspective of God to remain and take on an ugly, antithetical appearance.
But while the writer was culturally conditioned, that is only half of the hermeneutical story. Boyd believes that while the verses in question may represent a sub-Christ-like portrait, they are still inspired. He writes, “For with the eyes of our cross-informed faith, we can discern in these literary crucifixes the same humble, stooping, self-sacrificial, sin-bearing God that we find in the historical crucifixion.” Verses that portray God as one who commits and commands violence are inspired not because they are factually true but because they “bear witness to God’s nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-loving character that was definitively revealed on Calvary.” God, in his patience, allowed the writer to hold to a false, projected image of him, while continuing to be a faithful covenantal partner.
Boyd makes the point that we should be honest with the text—that we should call certain passages of the Bible violent and horrific when it is necessary to do so. Indeed, it can be dangerous to leave a violent passage of Scripture unacknowledged as such. If a text represents God in a manner that is contrary to his loving, non-violent nature, it most likely came from the flawed writer’s perspective and was a product of his time and culture. Interestingly, although Jesus mentions the drought, he does not attribute it to God (Luke 4:25). Some suggest the violent text when written was not inspired (God-breathed) but remains inspired because God inspired it to be in the sacred canon of Scripture.
While sub-Christlike portraits can be horrific (such as the account of 1 Kings in which God causes a devastating drought that kills animals, vegetation, and people), they can also point to the love and fidelity of God. While human beings have always projected their worst onto God, God still came in the flesh, lived, died, and rose again for humanity and all creation. According to Boyd, horrific passages are inspired, and for those who see with eyes of faith, they point to the covenantal, unsurpassable, and, I would add, uncontrolling love of God.
Let’s say the story of Elijah and his prayer is literally true. What would a biblical application of this narrative be to our everyday lives? Should we follow in Elijah’s footsteps? Should we be open to praying for devastating droughts that destroy the blessedness of life in regions where people worship other gods? Should we do this to teach them a lesson so they can turn to God? That is the context, isn’t it? The problem is, it doesn’t appear to be very loving and is definitely not conducive to loving one’s neighbor.
Would Jesus encourage his followers to pray for the punishment and suffering of those who do not know him? If you spoke to someone at your church, and they said, “I just prayed to Jesus that the sinful people in my town would suffer a devastating tsunami,” what would be your response? I bet you would probably suggest they were not being led by the Spirit. I am also sure you knew the character of Jesus well enough to know he would not oblige (at least I hope). Jesus’ character remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. Just as he would not singlehandedly cause a natural disaster to destroy children, men, and women today, he would not have done so thousands of years ago at the request of Elijah.
Our desire for proof texts for the power of petitionary prayer, and our anxiety-ridden need for a pristine, inerrant Bible with no myths, legends, exaggerations, mistakes, and contradictions, cannot be had at the cost of making God look like a horrific, violent-prone killer, with no regard for diverse forms of life.
It is amazing the vehement pushback I receive because of my proposal. People would rather believe that a justly loving God killed millions of men, women, and children in a drought, just so they can hold to a hyper-literal account of the Bible. I can’t imagine the intense heat in some regions without water. I can’t imagine a loving God would think that it would be good and just that because people worshipped other gods, they should get baked by the sun with nothing to quench their thirst. You know who else who cooked people to death—Hitler. God has to be more loving and just then freaking Hitler. Come on people!!
But Elijah’s miraculous feat in being able to stop and start rain merely by praying causes another concern. It encourages superstitious thinking and conveys the idea that we can change weather patterns simply by praying and having enough faith. Lawrence Richards sincerely writes,
“What an example for us. If we have a prayer meeting for rain, we’d better bring an umbrella.”
This potentially conveys an unfortunate message to the surviving family members of faithful Christians who prayed for their relatives to be saved from droughts, tsunamis, storms, and other natural disasters. Apparently, they, unlike Elijah, didn’t have enough faith.
Suggesting James’s Elijah account is hyperbole or legend does not mean the Bible is erroneous. I suspect James’ intention was to inspire, not to give a well-thought-through, scientific, one-hundred-percent-accurate historical account. James was being pastoral, not an objective history teacher, a fact that is evidenced by his possible changing of a couple of details in the narrative. He was trying to inspire the community to prayer, especially by use of the phrase, “Elijah was a human being like us” (James 5:17).
In other words, if our spiritual heroes can pray for the miraculous and experience extraordinary results, so can we. Although inspiring, the belief that God can unilaterally intervene in the world, that he can ignore lawlike regularities that cause weather patterns to fluctuate, and that he causes catastrophic suffering to happen is not a plausible reading of the Elijah narrative. Such an interpretation is not accurately based on God’s nature and does not entail practical application for modern-day believers. Therefore, while the James text should inspire us to pray, especially for one another in proximity, as the context suggests, it should not be used as proof of the power of petitionary prayer for others from a distance.
There is power in petitionary prayer. It is not to make God into a Genie and do our bidding. Isn’t God more loving then we are? Doesn’t God want what we want more than we do, especially if it is to love, heal, save, deliver, set free, etc.? We don’t have to twist God’s arm to be loving. God is love! The power of petitionary prayer is in the intimacy that is developed when we share with God our mutual aches for the well-being of others. It is also demonstrated in transformed hearts, that when possible, conspire with God to be the answer to the prayers they were praying.
In this piece, you are just getting some snapshots of the type of content found in the Deconstruction section of Divine Echoes. To find out more about my attempt to investigate, deconstruct, and reconstruct petitionary prayer, pick up the book. You may be surprised at what you find. As theologian Thomas Oord has said about my book, “His proposals may shock you, but good medicine can sometimes do that.”
Karris, Mark, Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God (Quoir, 2018).
Gregory A. Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2(Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017)
Thomas J. Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology(Atlanta: Chalice, 2010)