1 KINGS 16-18: THE CONTEXT
Ahab succeeded his father Omri, a king who "did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh... (and who was) wickedly above all who were before him " (1 Kings 16:25). Ahab then married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon in Phoenicia (the center of Baal worship), and began to worship Baal. Ahab, following in his father's footsteps, did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him" (16:33).
In chapter 17, Elijah (whose name means "Yahweh is God") confronted Ahab with the prophecy of a drought (17:1-7)-a prophecy aimed squarely at the heart of Baal worship, given that Baal was supposed to control fertility and rain. The drought occurred as prophesied, lasting three years (18:1), plunging Israel into such want that Ahab found it necessary to join his servant, Obadiah (whose name means "Yahweh is salvation"), in searching for grass to keep the horses and mules alive (18:5). Ahab was unaware that Obadiah was secretly sheltering God's prophets whom Jezebel was trying to kill (18:4).
The drought is not only a punishment for worshiping Baal, but it also presents a challenge to the leadership of Ahab. Once the people perceive that he, as king, has led Israel in the wrong direction-that their suffering is directly attributable to Ahab, they cannot long be expected to accept his kingship.
Now Elijah challenges Ahab and the prophets of Baal to a contest-a context between Yahweh and Baal to determine which god is truly God. He tells Ahab: "Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel to Mount Carmel, and four hundred fifty of the prophets of Baal, and four hundred of the prophets of the Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table" (18:19). Elijah wants the contest to be as public as possible, so that the people can see that Yahweh is the true God.
1 KINGS 18:20-24. THEN ELIJAH SAID TO THE PEOPLE
20 So Ahab sent to all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together to Mount Carmel. 21Elijah came near to all the people, and said, "How long will you waver between the two sides? If Yahweh is God (Hebrew: yhwh - Yahweh), follow him; but if Baal, then follow him."
The people answered him not a word.
22Then Elijah said to the people, "I, even I only, am left a prophet of Yahweh; but Baal's prophets are four hundred fifty men. 23Let them therefore give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under; and I will dress the other bull, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under it. 24You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh. The God who answers by fire, let him be God."
All the people answered, "It is well said."
"So Ahab sent to all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together to Mount Carmel"(v. 20). Ahab, who tends toward passivity, does as Elijah tells him to do. He assembles his people and his prophets at Mount Carmel, located on the Mediterranean Sea about 20 miles (32 km.) northeast of Jezreel (the location of one of Ahab's palaces) and 30 miles (50 km.) south of Tyre-on the southern border of Phoenicia (Jezebel's original home and the center of Baal worship). Mount Carmel is actually a short range of coastal mountains that separates Israel (to the south) from Phoenicia (to the north).
At its highest point, Mount Carmel is about 1750 feet (535 m.) high. While that is not especially high for a mountain, Mount Carmel is the high ground in that area, and is ideally located for a witness to Yahweh to both Israel and Phoenicia.
"Elijah came near to all the people, and said, 'How long will you waver between the two sides?'" (v. 21a). Israel has long been in a covenant relationship with Yahweh, but has from the beginning often succumbed to the temptation to worship other gods. In this case, Jezebel persuaded Ahab and all of Israel to worship Baal. She also killed Yahweh's prophets (18:4).
But Yahweh is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5) who will not tolerate Israelites who limp along with two different opinions, dividing their loyalties between Yahweh and another god.
"If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him" (v. 21b). Elijah throws down the gauntlet-demands that Israel choose one side or the other-that they trust either Yahweh or Baal-that they quit trying to straddle the fence.
"The people answered him not a word" (v. 21c). The people, caught between the passion of this prophet of Yahweh and a king who worships Baal (and a queen who kills Yahweh's prophets) move not one inch. They do not respond at all, which means that they continue to sit on the fence. They aren't sure what will happen on this auspicious day, and they will make their choice once the events of the day are unveiled.
"Then Elijah said to the people, 'I, even I only, am left a prophet of Yahweh'" (v. 22a). As noted above, Jezebel has killed some of Yahweh's prophets (18:4), but Elijah fails to acknowledge the hundred prophets of Yahweh that Obadiah has saved (18:4)-probably out of consideration for Obadiah, who is one of Ahab's high officials but a secretly a follower of Yahweh. However, Elijah does stand alone as Yahweh's prophet on this mountain.
"but Baal's prophets are four hundred fifty men" (v. 22b). Elijah asked Ahab to assemble the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah (18:19), but we hear nothing further about the latter. At the end of this story, Elijah will kill the prophets of Baal, but there is no mention of the prophets of Asherah (v. 40). Later, Ahab will consult four hundred prophets, presumably the prophets of Asherah (22:6). In the cult of Baal, Asherah is either Baal's mother or his wife.
"Let them therefore give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under; and I will dress the other bull, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under it" (v. 23). Once again, Elijah dictates the terms of the contest. Two bulls are to be provided as a sacrifice. Elijah specifies that the prophets of Baal be allowed to choose which bull they want, and he will take the other. He will continue to give them this sort of preferential treatment throughout the story as a way of highlighting the fairness with which he is structuring the contest. The fairness of the contest will help to make it crystal clear that Yahweh is the true God.
"You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh" (v. 24a). Elijah sets forth the final portion of the contest in clear, unambiguous language. Everyone who hears him will understand what they should be looking for-and if any fire is produced, the winner (Baal or Yahweh) will be obvious.
"The God who answers by fire, let him be God" (v. 24b). This is another point at which Elijah gives the prophets of Baal the advantage. They believe that Baal, the god of fertility and rain, also controls lightning. If Baal is capable of doing anything, he should be capable of sending lightning to consume the sacrifice offered by his prophets.
"All the people answered, 'It is well said'" (v. 24c). This time the people who were so reticent to commit themselves earlier (v. 21c) give hearty approval to the terms of the contest as outlined by Elijah. In doing so, they show that Elijah, by his fairness and clarity, is beginning to gain their trust.
1 KINGS 18:25-29. ELIJAH SAID TO THE PROPHETS OF BAAL
25Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one bull for yourselves, and dress it first; for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it." 26They took the bull which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any who answered. They leaped about the altar which was made. 27It happened at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, "Cry aloud; for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he sleeps and must be awakened." 28They cried aloud, and cut themselves in their way with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. 29It was so, when midday was past, that they prophesied until the time of the offering of the offering; but there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any who regarded.
"Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, 'Choose one bull for yourselves, and dress it first; for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it '" (v. 25). Elijah reiterates the terms of the contest that he specified in verses 23-24, but this time he directs them as instructions to the prophets of Baal. He allows them to choose the bull that they prefer and to prepare it first "for you are many"-drawing attention to the superiority of their numbers-four hundred fifty to one.
"They took the bull which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any who answered" (v. 26a). The prophets of Baal spend hours calling on their god with no effect. During these several hours, the people of Israel are observing and making judgments. They see nothing that would encourage them to believe in Baal.
"They leaped about the altar which was made" (v. 26b). Earlier, Elijah accused the people of "limping with two different opinions" (v 21). Now the frustrated prophets of Baal limp (the same Hebrew word) about their altar. In the first instance, limping involved indecision. In this second instance, it represents ineffectiveness.
"It happened at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, 'Cry aloud; for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he sleeps and must be awakened'" (v. 27). In his mocking, Elijah spurs the prophets of Baal to greater efforts. He suggests various reasons for Baal's failure to respond. Perhaps Baal is meditating-or on a journey-or asleep. Surely he will hear if his prophets will only cry louder.
"They cried aloud, and cut themselves in their way with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them" (v. 28). Again, Elijah sets the tone and the prophets of Baal do what he says. They not only cry loudly, but they also begin to inflict wounds on themselves to arouse Baal's attention-a kind of ecstatic frenzy-a desperate measure.
"It was so, when midday was past, that they prophesied until the time of the offering of the offering; but there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any who regarded" (v. 29). The hours are wearing on. Noontime has come and gone. The prophets of Baal have been at it all morning and part of the afternoon. They have to be tired-hungry-discouraged, but they keep on keeping on. But there is no response-none-nothing-nada.
1 KINGS 18:30-35. ELIJAH BUILT AN ALTAR IN THE NAME OF YAHWEH
30Elijah said to all the people, "Come near to me;" and all the people came near to him. He repaired the altar of Yahweh that was thrown down. 31Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yahweh came, saying, "Israel shall be your name." 32With the stones he built an altar in the name of Yahweh. He made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures (Hebrew: sa∙ta∙yim - two seahs) of seed. 33He put the wood in order, and cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, "Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the burnt offering, and on the wood." 34He said, "Do it a second time;" and they did it the second time. He said, "Do it a third time;" and they did it the third time. 35The water ran around the altar; and he also filled the trench with water.
"Elijah said to all the people, 'Come near to me'; and all the people came near to him" (v. 30a). Now Elijah steps forward. It is his turn to call on Yahweh. Until now the mountain has swarmed with hundreds of prophets of Baal, but Elijah is the only prophet of Yahweh on the mountain. He invites the people of Israel to stand closer to him, and they do.
"He repaired the altar of Yahweh that was thrown down" (v. 30b). This is the first of several steps that are described in detail concerning Elijah's preparation for the sacrifice.
There has been no mention of an altar that was thrown down, but Jezebel might have destroyed the altar as part of her anti-Yahweh campaign-or the prophets of Baal might have damaged the altar during their ecstatic frenzy (v. 28).
"Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yahweh came, saying, 'Israel shall be your name'" (v. 31). Elijah uses twelve stones to link Yahweh's altar to Yahweh's people and their covenant heritage. His action alludes to the building of a twelve-stone altar when Israel first crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land (Joshua 4:1-9).
"Israel shall be your name" alludes to Genesis 35:10, where God said to Jacob, "Your name is Jacob. Your name shall not be Jacob any more, but your name will be Israel."
"With the stones he built an altar in the name of Yahweh" (v. 32a). Elijah didn't just build an altar, but he built it "in the name of yhwh". In verse 31, he linked the altar to Yahweh's people. Now he links it to Yahweh.
"He made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures (sa∙ta∙yim - two seahs) of seed" (v. 32b). A seah is a little less than one-third of a bushel, so a trench large enough to hold two seahs would be relatively shallow.
"He put the wood in order, and cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, 'Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the burnt offering, and on the wood '" (v. 33). Now Elijah places the wood around the altar, cuts the bull into pieces, and lays it on the wood. He commands the people to bring four jars of water to pour on the offering and the wood. His purpose is to make it more difficult for fire to consume the offering, and therefore to make it especially clear once fire does consume the offering that Yahweh is a very powerful God.
We don't know how large these jars of water are. We do know that the people have suffered a drought for three years (18:1), so water is a precious commodity. It is a great display of faith to use so much water-and it is a great display of faith to wet the wood before calling Yahweh to consume it with fire.
"He said, 'Do it a second time;' and they did it the second time. He said, 'Do it a third time;' and they did it the third time. The water ran around the altar; and he also filled the trench with water" (vv. 34-35). Elijah commands the people to bring four more jars of water-and then four more (twelve total). We aren't told where they got the water, but offering up twelve jars of water after three years of drought is a sacrificial act.
The people pour the water again and again over the altar and the sacrifice and the wood. The water drains off the altar onto the ground and into the trench, soaking the soil and filling the trench. Elijah is making it clear that Yahweh is powerful enough to do what is needed even with the deck stacked against him.
1 KINGS 18:36-39. THE FIRE OF YAHWEH CONSUMED THE BURNT OFFERING
36It happened at the time of the offering of the offering, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, "Yahweh, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37Hear me, Yahweh, hear me, that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God, and that you have turned their heart back again." 38Then the fire of Yahweh fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces. They said, "Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!"
"It happened at the time of the offering of the offering, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, 'Yahweh, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word'" (v. 36). Unlike the prophets of Baal, Elijah doesn't cry aloud or cut himself or rave on. He doesn't pray for pyrotechnics, but simply prays to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, again linking his prayer to Israel's heritage-reminding the people of their history with Yahweh. He first prays that Yahweh will make it known that Yahweh is the true God of Israel, and he then prays that Yahweh will acknowledge Elijah as his servant.
"Hear me, Yahweh, hear me, that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God" (v. 37a). Elijah repeats his petition that the people will know that Yahweh is the true God.
"and that you have turned their heart back again" (v. 37b). These few words of Elijah's prayer get at the heart of what is happening on Mount Carmel. Yahweh's primary interest is not in providing a circus-like display that will impress his audience. Yahweh's primary interest is the redemption of the Israelite people-in turning their hearts back to the true faith-in restoring the covenant relationship that they have broken-in securing their repentance so that he might forgive their sins.
"Then the fire of Yahweh fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench" (v. 38). But the fact that Yahweh's primary purpose is not in providing a circus-like display doesn't mean that he is unwilling to do that. The fire from heaven burns so fiercely that it consumes everything-the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even the water in the trench. It is a convincing display of power.
"When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces. They said, "Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God '" (v. 39). Elijah prayed twice that the people would know that Yahweh is the true God (vv. 36-37), so now his prayers are answered.
1 KINGS 18:40. THEY SEIZED THE PROPHETS OF BAAL
40Elijah said to them, "Seize the prophets of Baal! Don't let one of them escape!"
They seized them. Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and killed them there.
The people who formulated the common lectionary left out this verse even though it is clearly part of the story-probably because of their distaste for violence. However, in eliminating this verse, they have done violence to the text. It is always weak hermeneutics (the art or science of Biblical interpretation) to pick and choose verses based on the cultural values of the age and place in which we happen to live.
In demanding the death of these false prophets, Elijah is acting in accordance with the Torah to purge the evil from their midst (Deuteronomy 13:5, 13-18; 17:2-5).
Earlier, the people remained silent when Elijah challenged them to choose between Yahweh and Baal (v. 21). Then they gave their assent to the terms of the contest as set forth by Elijah (v. 24). They then acknowledged Yahweh as the true God (v. 39). Now they confirm their commitment to Yahweh by obeying the command of Yahweh's prophet to kill the prophets of Baal.
Brook Kishon would be dry when the prophets of Baal die there, but the rain that follows immediately thereafter (vv. 41-46) will soon fill it with water. This brook "flows toward Phoenicia, implying that the blood of the false prophets should flow back to where it belongs" (Dilday, 197).
1 KINGS 18:41-46. POSTSCRIPT
These verses are not in the lectionary, but provide complete the story.
Earlier (18:1) Yahweh told Elijah that the three-year drought would be coming to an end. Now, after the Israelites acknowledge Yahweh as God (v. 39), Elijah says to Ahab, "Get up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain" (v. 41), and Ahab does as he is told (v. 42). Ahab says nothing-has said nothing since verse 17.
Elijah then sends his servant to look toward the sea. At first, the servant sees nothing, but then he sees "a small cloud, like a man's hand, is rising out of the sea" (v. 44a). Elijah tells Ahab, "Get ready and go down, so that the rain doesn't stop you" (v. 44b)-and a heavy rain begins (v. 45). Ahab rides off in his chariot. "The hand of Yahweh was on Elijah; and he tucked his cloak into his belt and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel" (v. 46).
We find Elijah's concern for Ahab puzzling, but it seems that Elijah wants the same redemption for Ahab that he wanted for the rest of Israel. Elijah has proven his point. He has won the contest with Ahab and Ahab's prophets, but resists any impulse to gloat and instead responds to Ahab with compassion-compassion with a purpose-compassion aimed at redemption.