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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Kings 17

 

 

Verses 1-7

ELIJAH

1 Kings 17:1-7

"And Elias the prophet stood up as fire, and his word was burning as a torch."

- Sirach 48:1

"But that two-handed engine at the door Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more."

-LYCIDAS

MANY chapters are now occupied with narratives of the deeds of two great prophets, Elijah and Elisha, remarkable for the blaze and profusion of miracles and for similarity in many details. For thirty-four years we hear but little of Judah, and the kings of Israel are overshadowed by the "men of God." Both narratives, of which the later in sequence seems to be the earlier in date, originated in the Schools of the Prophets. Both are evidently drawn from documentary sources apart from the ordinary annals of the Kings.

Doubtless something of their fragmentariness is due to the abbreviation of the prophetic annals by the historians.

Suddenly, with abrupt impetuosity, the mighty figure of Elijah the Prophet bursts upon the scene like lightning on the midnight. So far as the sacred page is concerned, he, like Melchizedek, is "without father, without mother, without descent." He appears before us unannounced as "Elijah the Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead." Such a phenomenon as Jezebel explains and necessitates such a phenomenon as Elijah. "The loftiest and sternest spirit of the true faith is raised up," says Dean Stanley, "face to face with the proudest and fiercest spirit of the old Asiatic Paganism."

The name Elijah, or, in its fuller and more sonorous Hebrew form, Elijahu, means "Jehovah is my God." Who he was is entirely unknown. So completely is all previous trace of him lost in mystery that Talmudic legends confounded him with Phinehas, the son of Aaron, the avenging and fiercely zealous priest; and even identified him with the angel or messenger of Jehovah who appeared to Gideon and ascended in the altar flame.

The name "Tishbite" tells us nothing. No town of Tishbi occurs in Scripture, and though a Thisbe in the tribe of Naphtali is mentioned as the birthplace of Tobit, the existence of such a place is as doubtful as that of "Thesbon of the Gileadite district" to which Josephus assigns his birth. The Hebrew may mean "the Tishbite from Tishbi of Gilead," or "The sojourner from the sojourners of Gilead"; and we know no more. Elijah’s grandeur is in himself alone. Perhaps he was by birth an Ishmaelite. When the wild Highlander in Rob Roy says of himself "I am a man," "A man!" repeated Frank Osbaldistone; "that is a very brief description." "It will serve," answered the outlaw, "for one who has no other to give. He who is without name, without friends, without coin, without country, is still at least a man: and he that has all these is no more." So Elijah stands alone in the towering height of his fearless manhood.

Some clue to the swift mysterious movements, the rough asceticism, the sheepskin robe, the unbending sternness of the Prophet may lie in the notice that he was a Gileadite, or at any rate among the sojourners of Gilead, and therefore akin to them. It might even be conjectured that he was of Kenite origin, like Jonadab, the son of Rechab, in the days of Jehu. {1 Chronicles 2:55} The Gileadites were the Highlanders of Palestine, and the name of their land implies its barren ruggedness. They, like the modern Druses, were

"Fierce, hardy, proud, in conscious freedom hold."

We catch a glimpse of these characteristics in the notice of the four hundred Gadites who swam the Jordan in Palestine to join the freebooters of David in the cave of Adullam, "whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were as swift as the roes upon the mountains." Though of Israelitish origin they were closely akin to the Bedawin, swift, strong, temperate, fond of the great solitudes of nature, haters of cities, scorners of the softnesses of civilization. Elijah shared these characteristics. Like the forerunner of Christ, in whom his spirit reappeared nine centuries later, he had lived alone with God in the glowing deserts and the mountain fastnesses. He found Jehovah’s presence, not in the

"Gay religions, full of pomp and gold,"

which he misdoubted and despised, but in the barren hills and wild ravines and bleak uplands where only here and there roamed a shepherd with his flock. In such hallowed loneliness he had learnt to fear man little, because he feared God much, and to dwell familiarly on the sterner aspects of religion and morality. The one conscious fact of his mission, the sufficient authentication of his most imperious mandates, was that "he stood before Jehovah." So unexpected were his appearances and disappearances, that in the popular view he only seemed to flash to and fro, or to be swept hither and thither, by the Spirit of the Lord. We may say of him as was said of John the Baptist, that "in his manifestation and agency he was like a burning torch; his public life was quite an earthquake; the whole man was a sermon, the voice of one crying in the wilderness." And, like the Baptist, he had been "in the deserts, till the day of his showing unto Israel."

Somewhere-perhaps at Samaria, perhaps in the lovely summer palace at Jezreel-he suddenly strode into the presence of Ahab. Coming to him as the messenger of the King of kings he does not deign to approach him with the genuflections and sounding titles which Nathan used to the aged David. With scanted courtesy to one whom he does not respect or dread-knowing that he is in God’s hands, and has no time to waste over courtly periphrases or personal fears-he comes before Ahab unknown, unintroduced. What manner of man was it by whom the king in his crown and Tyrian purple was thus rudely confronted? He was, tradition tells us, a man of short stature, of rugged countenance. He was "a lord of hair"-the thick black locks of the Nazarite (for such he probably was) streamed over his shoulders like a lion’s mane, giving him a fierce and unkempt aspect. They that wear soft clothing are in king’s houses, and doubtless under a queen who, even in old age, painted her face and tired her head, and was given to Sidonian luxuries, Ahab was accustomed to see men about him in bright apparel. But Elijah had not stooped to alter his ordinary dress, which was the dress of the desert by which he was always known. His brown limbs, otherwise bare, were covered with a heavy mantle, the skin of a camel or a sheep worn with the rough wool outside, and tightened round his loins by a leathern girdle. So unusual was his aspect in the cities east of Jordan, accustomed since the days of Solomon to all the refinements of Egyptian and Phoenician culture, that it impressed and haunted the imagination of his own and of subsequent ages. The dress of Elijah became so normally the dress of prophets who would fain have assumed his authority without one spark of his inspiration, that the later Zechariah has to warn his people against sham prophets who appeared with hairy garments, and who wounded their own hands for no other purpose than to deceive. {Zechariah 13:4} The robe of skin, after the long interspace of centuries, was still the natural garb of "the glorious eremite," who in his spirit and power made straight in the deserts a highway for our God.

Such was the man who delivered to Ahab in one sentence his tremendous message: "As Jehovah, God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand"-such was the introductory formula, which became proverbial, and which authenticated the prophecy-"There shall not be dew nor rain these years but according to my word." The phrase "to stand before Jehovah" was used of priests: it was applicable to a prophet in a far deeper and less external sense. {Leviticus 26:19; Psalms 134:1; Hebrews 10:11} Drought was one of the recognized Divine punishments for idolatrous apostasy. If Israel should fall into disobedience, we read in Deuteronomy, "the Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon thee until thou be destroyed"; and in Leviticus we read, "If ye will not hearken, I will make your heaven as iron and your earth as brass." The threat was too significant to need any explanation. The conscience of Ahab could interpret only too readily that prophetic menace.

The message of Elijah marked the beginning of a three, or three and a half years’ famine. This historic drought is also mentioned by Menander of Tyre, who says that after a year, at the prayer of Ethbaal, the priest and king, there came abundant thunder showers. St. James represents the famine as well as its termination as having been caused by Elijah’s prayer. But the expression of the historian is general. Elijah might pray for rain, but no prophet could proprio motu, have offered up a prayer for so awful a curse upon an entire country as a famine, in which thousands of the innocent would suffer no less severely than the guilty. Three years’ famine was a recognized penalty for apostasy. It was one of the sore plagues of God. It had befallen Judah "because of Saul and his bloody house," {2 Samuel 21:1} and had been offered to guilty David as an alternative for three days’, pestilence, or three years’ flight before his enemies. We are not here told that Elijah prayed for it, but that he announced its commencement, and declared that only in accordance with his announcement should it close.

He delivered his message, and what followed we do not know. Ahab’s tolerance was great; and, however fierce may have been his displeasure, he seems in most cases to have personally respected the sacredness and dignity of the prophets. The king’s wrath might provoke an outburst of sullenness, but he contented himself with menacing and reproachful words. It was otherwise with Jezebel. A genuine idolatress, she hated the servants of Jehovah with implacable hatred, and did her utmost to suppress them by violence. It was probably to save Elijah from her fury that he was bidden to fly into safe hiding, while her foiled rage expended itself in the endeavor to extirpate the whole body of the prophets of the, Lord. But, just as the child Christ was saved when Herod massacred the infants of Bethlehem, so Elijah, at whom Jezebel’s blow was chiefly aimed, had escaped beyond her reach. A hundred other imperiled prophets were hidden in a cave by the faithfulness of Obadiah, the king’s vizier.

The word of the Lord bade Elijah to fly eastward and hide himself "in the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan." The site of this ravine-which Josephus only calls "a certain torrent bed"-has not been identified. It was doubtless one of the many wadies which run into the deep Ghor or cleft of the Jordan on its eastern side. If it belonged to his native Gilead, Elijah would be in little fear of being discovered by the emissaries whom Ahab sent in every direction to seek for him. Whether it was the Wady Kelt, or the Wady el Jabis, or the Ain Fusail, we know the exact characteristics of the scene. On either side, deep, winding and precipitous, rise the steep walls of rock, full of tropic foliage, among which are conspicuous the small dark green leaves and stiff thorns of the nubk. Far below the summit of the ravine, marking its almost imperceptible thread of water by the brighter green of the herbage, and protected by masses of dewy leaves from the fierce power of evaporation, the hidden torrent preserves its life in all but the most long-continued periods of drought. In such a scene Elijah was absolutely safe. Whenever danger approached he could hide himself in some fissure or cavern of the beetling crags where the wild birds have their nest, or sit motionless under the dense screen of interlacing boughs. The wildness and almost terror of his surroundings harmonized with his stern and fearless spirit. A spirit like his would rejoice in the unapproachable solitude, communing with God alike when the sun flamed in the zenith and when the midnight hung over him with all its stars.

The needs of an Oriental-particularly of an ascetic Bedawy prophet-are small as those of the simplest hermit. Water and a few dates often suffice him for days together. Elijah drank of the brook, and God "had commanded the ravens to feed him there." The shy, wild, unclean birds "brought him"-so the old prophetic narrative tells us-"bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening." We may remark in passing, that flesh twice a day or even once a day, if with Josephus we read "bread in the morning and flesh in the evening," is no part of an Arab’s ordinary food. It is regarded by him as wholly needless, and indeed as an exceptional indulgence. The double meal of flesh does not resemble the simple diet of bread and water on which the Prophet lived afterwards at Sarepta. Are we or are we not to take this as a literal fact? Here we are face to face with a plain question to which I should deem it infamous to give a false or a prevaricating answer.

Before giving it, let us clear the ground. First of all, it is a question which can only be answered by serious criticism. Assertion can add nothing to it, and is not worth the breath with which it is uttered. The anathemas of obsolete and a priori dogmatism against those who cannot take the statement as simple fact do not weigh so much as a dead autumn leaf in the minds of any thoughtful men.

Some holy but uninstructed soul may say, "It stands on the sacred page: why should you not understand it literally?" It. might be sufficient to answer, Because there are many utterances on the sacred page which are purely poetic or metaphorical. "The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the brook shall pick it out, and the young vultures shall eat it." {Proverbs 30:17} The statement looks prosaic and positive enough, but what human being ever took it literally? "Curse not the king for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." Who does not see at once that the words are poetic and metaphorical? "Where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched." How many educated Christians can assert that they believe that the unredeemed will be eaten forever by literal worms in endless flames? The man who pretends that he is obliged to understand literally the countless Scriptural metaphors involved in an Eastern language of which nearly every word is a pictorial metaphor, only shows himself incompetent to pronounce an opinion on subjects connected with history., literature, or religious criticism.

Is it then out of dislike to the supernatural, or disbelief in its occurrence, that the best critics decline to take the statement literally?

Not at all. Most Christians have not the smallest difficulty in accepting the supernatural. If they believe in the stupendous miracles of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, what possible difficulty could they have in accepting any other event merely on the ground that it is miraculous? To many Christians all life seems to be one incessant miracle. Disbelieving that any force less than the fiat of God could have thrilled into inorganic matter the germs of vegetable and still more of animal life; believing that their own life is supernatural, and that they are preserved as they were created by endless cycles of ever-recurrent miracles; believing that the whole spiritual life is supernatural in its every characteristic; they have not the slightest unwillingness to believe a miracle when any real evidence can be adduced for it. They accept, without the smallest misgiving, the miracles of Jesus Christ our Lord, radiating as ordinary works from His Divine nature, performed in the full blaze of history, attested by hundredfold contemporary evidence, leading to results of world-wide and eternal significance-miracles which were, so to speak, natural, normal, and necessary, and of which each revealed some deep moral or spiritual truth. But if miracles can only rest on evidence, the dullest and least instructed mind can see that the evidence for this and for some other miracles in this narrative stands on a wholly different footing. Taken apart from dogmatic assertions which are themselves unproven or disproved, the evidence that ravens daily fed Elijah is wholly inadequate to sustain the burden laid upon it.

In the first place, the story occurs in a book compiled some centuries after the event which it attests; in a book solemn indeed and sacred, but composite, and in some of its details not exempt from the accidents which have always affected all human literature.

And this incident is unattested by any other evidence. It is, so to speak, isolated. It is quite separable from the historic features of the narrative, and is out of accordance with what is truly called the Divine economy of miracles. No miracle was wrought to supply Elijah with water; and if a miracle was needed to supply him with bread and flesh, it is easy to imagine hundreds of forms of such direct interposition which would be more normal and more in accordance with all other Scripture miracles than the continuous overruling of the natural instincts of ravenous birds. It has been said that this particular form of miracle was needed for its evidential value; but there is nothing in the narrative to imply that it had the smallest evidential value for any one of Elijah’s contemporaries, or even that they knew of it at all.

Further, we find it, not in a plain prose narrative, but in a narrative differing entirely from the prosaic setting in which it occurs-a narrative which rises in many parts to the height of poetic and imaginative splendor. There is nothing to show that it was not intended to be a touch of imaginative poetry and nothing more. Part of the greatness of Hebrew literature lies in its power of conveying eternal truth, as, for instance, in the Book of Job and in many passages of the prophets, in the form of imaginative narration. The stories of Elijah and Elisha come from the Schools of the Prophets. If room was left in them for the touch of poetic fiction, or for the embellishment of history with moral truth, conveyed in the form of parable or apologue, we can at once account for the sudden multitude of miracles. They were founded no doubt in many instances on actual events, but in the form into which the narrative is thrown they were recorded to enhance the greatness of the heroic chiefs of the Schools of the Prophets. It is therefore uncertain whether the original narrator believed, or meant his readers literally to believe, such a statement as that Elijah was fed morning and evening by actual ravens. It cannot be proved that he intended more than a touch of poetry, by which he could convey the lesson that the prophet was maintained by marked interventions of that providence of God which is itself in all its workings supernatural. God’s feeding of the ravens in their nest was often alluded to in Hebrew poetry; and if the marvelous support of the Prophet in his lonely hiding-place was to be represented in an imaginative form, this way of representing it would naturally occur to the writer’s thoughts. Similarly, when Jerome wrote the purely fictitious life of Paul the Hermit, which was taken for fact even by his contemporaries, he thinks it quite natural to say that Paul and Antony saw a raven sitting on a tree who flew gently down to them and placed a loaf on the table before them. Ravens haunt the lonely, inaccessible cliffs among which Elijah found his place of refuge. It needed but a touch of metaphor to transform them into ministers of Heaven’s beneficence.

But besides all this, the word rendered ravens (Orebim) only has that meaning if it be written with the vowel points. But the vowel points are confessedly not "inspired" in any sense, but are a late Masoretic invention. Without the change of a letter the word may equally well mean people of the city Orbo, or of the rock Oreb (as was suggested even in the Bereshith Rabba by Rabbi Judah); or "merchants," as in Ezekiel 27:27; or Arabians. No doubt difficulties might be suggested about any of these interpretations; but which would be most reasonable, the acceptance of such small difficulties, or the literal acceptance of a stupendous miracle, unlike any other in the Bible, by which we are to believe on the isolated authority of a nameless and long subsequent writer, that, for months or weeks together, voracious and unclean birds brought bread and flesh to the Prophet twice a day? The old naturalistic attempts to explain the miracle are on the face of them absurd; but it is as perfectly open to any one who chooses to say that "Arabians," or "Orbites," or "merchants," or "people of the rock Oreb" fed Elijah, as to say that the "ravens" did so. The explanation now universally accepted by the Higher Criticism is different. It is to accept the meaning "ravens," but not with wooden literalness to interpret didactic and poetic symbolism as though it were bald and matter of-fact prose. The imagery of a grand religious Haggada is not to be understood, nor was it ever meant to be understood, like the page of a dull annalist. Analogous stories are found abundantly alike in early pagan and early Christian literature and in mediaeval hagiology. They are true in essence though not in fact, and the intention of them is often analogous to this; but no story is found so noble as this in its pure and quiet simplicity.

Let this then suffice and render it needless to recur to similar discussions. If any think themselves bound to interpret this and all the other facts in these narratives in their most literal sense; if they hold that the mere mention of such things by unknown writers in unknown time-possibly centuries afterwards, when the event may have become magnified by the refraction of tradition-is sufficient to substantiate them, let them hold their own opinion as long as it can satisfy them. But proof of such an opinion they neither have nor can have; and let them beware of priding themselves on the vaunt of their "faith," when such "faith" may haply prove to be no more than a distortion of the truer faith which proves all things and only holds fast that which will stand the test. A belief based on some a priori opinion about "verbal dictation" is not necessarily meritorious. It may be quite the reverse.

Such a dogma has never been laid down by the Church in general. It has very rarely been insisted upon by any branch of the Church in any age. A belief which prides itself on ignorance of the vast horizon opened to us by the study of many forms of literature, by the advance of criticism, by the science of comparative religion-so far from being religious or spiritual may only be a sign of ignorance, or of a defective love of truth. A dogmatism which heaps upon intelligent faith burdens at once needless and intolerable may spring from sources which should tend to self-humiliation rather than to spiritual pride. Abundet quisque in sensu sue. But such beliefs have not the smallest connection with true faith or sincere Christianity. God is a God of truth, and he who tries to force himself into a view which history and literature, no less than the faithful following of the Divine light within him, convince him to be untenable, does not rise into faith, but sins and does mischief by feebleness and lack of faith.


Verse 7

ELIJAH AT SAREPTA

1 Kings 17:7; 1 Kings 18:19.

"The rain is God’s compassion."

-MOHAMMED

THE fierce drought continued, and "at the end of days" even the thin trickling of the stream in the clefts of Cherith was dried up. In the language of Job it felt the glare and vanished {Job 6:17} No miracle was wrought to supply the Prophet with water, but once more the providence of God intervened to save his life for the mighty work which still awaited him. He was sent to the region where, nearly a millennium later, the feet of his Lord followed him on a mission of mercy to those other sheep of His flock who were not of the Judaean fold.

The word of the Lord bade him make his way to the Sidonian city of Zarephath. Zarephath, the Sarepta of St. Luke, the modern Surafend, lay between Tyre and Sidon, and there the waters would not be wholly dried up, for the fountains of Lebanon were not yet exhausted. The drought had extended to Phoenicia, but Elijah was told that there a widow woman would sustain him. The Baal-worshipping queen who had hunted for his life would be least of all likely to search for him in a city of Baal-worshippers in the midst of her own people. He is sent among these Baal-worshippers to do them kindness, to receive kindness from them-perhaps to learn a wider tolerance, and to find that idolaters also are human beings, children, like the orthodox, of the same heavenly Father. He had been taught the lesson of "dependence upon God"; he was now to learn the lesson of "fellowship with man." Traveling probably by night both for coolness and for safety, Elijah went that long journey to the heathen district. He arrived there faint with hunger and thirst. Seeing a woman gathering sticks near the city gate he asked her for some water, and as she was going to fetch it he called to her and asked her also to bring him a morsel of bread. The answer revealed the condition of extreme want to which she was reduced. Recognizing that Elijah was an Israelite, and therefore a worshipper of Jehovah, she said, "As Jehovah thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but (only) a handful of meal in the barrel, and a little oil in the cruse." She was gathering a couple of sticks to make one last meal for herself and her son, and then to lie down and die. For drought did not only mean universal anguish, but much actual starvation. It meant, as Joel says, speaking of the desolation caused by locusts, that the cattle groan and perish, and the corn withers, and the seeds rot under their clods.

Strong in faith Elijah told her not to fear, but first to supply his own more urgent needs, and then to make a meal for herself and her son. Till Jehovah sent rain, the barrel of meal should not waste, nor the cruse of oil fail. She believed the promise, and for many days, perhaps for two whole years, the Prophet continued to be her guest.

But after a time her boy fell grievously sick, and at last died, or seemed to die. So dread a calamity-the smiting of the stay of her home, and the son of her widowhood-filled the woman with terror. She longed to get rid of the presence of this terrible "man of God." He must have come, she thought, to bring her sin to remembrance before God, and so to cause Him to slay her son. The Prophet was touched by the pathos of her appeal, and could not bear that she should look upon him as the cause of her bereavement. "Give me thy son," he said. Taking the dead boy from her arms, he carried him to the chamber which she had set apart for him, and laid him on his own bed. Then, after an earnest cry to God, he stretched himself three times over the body of the youth, as though to breathe into his lungs and restore his vital warmth, at the same time praying intensely that "his soul might come into him again." His prayer was heard; the boy revived. Carrying him down from the chamber, Elijah had the happiness of restoring him to his widowed mother with the words, "See, thy son liveth." So remarkable an event not only convinced the woman that Elijah was indeed what she had called him, "a man of God," but also that Jehovah was the true God. It was not unnatural that tradition should interest itself in the boy thus strangely snatched from the jaws of death. The Jews fancied that he grew up to be servant of Elijah, and afterwards to be the prophet Jonah. The tradition at least shows an insight into the fact that Elijah was the first missionary sent from among the Jews to the heathen, and that Jonah became the second.

We are not to suppose that during his stay at Zarephath Elijah remained immured in his chamber. Safe and unsuspected, he might, at least by night, make his way to other places, and it is reasonable to believe that he then began to haunt the glades and heights of beautiful and deserted Carmel, which was at no great distance, and where he could mourn over the ruined altar of Jehovah and take refuge in any of its "more than two thousand tortuous caves." But what was the object of his being sent to Zarephath? That it was not for his own sake alone, that it had in it a purpose of conversion, is distinctly implied by our Lord when He says that in those days there were many widows in Israel, yet Elijah was not sent to them, but to this Sidonian idolatress. The prophets and saints of God do not always understand the meaning of Providence or the lessons of their Divine training. Francis of Assisi at first entirely misunderstood the real drift and meaning of the Divine intimations that he was to rebuild the ruined Church of God, which he afterwards so gloriously fulfilled. The thoughts of God, are not as man's thoughts, nor His ways as man's ways, nor does He make all His servants as it were "fusile apostles," as He made St. Paul. The education of Elijah was far from complete even long afterwards. To the very last, if we are to accept the records of him as historically literal, amid the revelations vouchsafed to him he had not grasped the truth that the Elijah-spirit, however needful it may seem to be, differs very widely from the Spirit of the Lord of Life. Yet may it not have been that Elijah was sent to learn from the kind ministrations of a Sidonian widow, to whose care his life was due, some inkling of those truths which Christ revealed so many centuries afterwards, when He visited the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, and extended His mercy to the great faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman? May not Elijah have been meant to learn what had to be taught by experience to the two great Apostles of the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision, that not every Baal-worshipper was necessarily corrupt or wholly insincere? St. Peter was thus taught that God is no respecter of persons, and that whether their religious belief be false or true, in every nation he that feareth Him and doeth righteousness is accepted of Him. St. Paul learnt at Damascus and taught at Athens that God made of one every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth, that they should seek God if haply they might feel after Him and find Him, though He be not far; from every one of us.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Kings 17:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-kings-17.html.

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