Text: 1 Kings 18:17-39
When he [King Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
One chapter prior to this one, the prophet Elijah mysteriously makes his entrance onto the stage of the northern kingdom of Israel, while Ahab is king. From the get-go, Elijah positions himself as one who stands against king and royal household. He makes it known that he (and God) want nothing to do with the ways of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and the worship of Baal and the other Canaanite gods and goddesses that Ahab has allowed to permeate his kingdom.
For Elijah, the problem of Baal worship was not simply that it was worshipping a false god. The problem of Baal worship was its social implications as well. As the scholar Walter Brueggemann writes in his commentary of 1 and 2 Kings (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2000),
The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic… it is a rather deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community (219).
In other words, the conflict was about more than just paying lip service to false gods. It was about the ways in which that falsehood becomes embodied in concrete ways in the life of the people of Israel. For Elijah, the people of Israel cannot have things both ways. They cannot worship God and worship Baal. The two loyalties are mutually exclusive. It is time for Israel to make their choice.
The contest itself begins. The prophets of Baal do their best. They work themselves into a frenzy, shouting, cutting, dancing zealously, waiting for their god to answer with fire. They get nothing. Only silence. Elijah, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make it clear that when God answers, it is God and God alone. He douses the altar not once, not twice, but three times until it is saturated with water. When the fire comes from heaven, there can be absolutely no confusion. The God of Israel is the one who decisively answers. Fire comes down and consumes the wood, the stones, the soil, and even the water.
The people of Israel are reminded of God’s power. They had been seduced and subdued by the myth of Baal – that by calling upon the false god, people could control and manipulate the world for their own benefit. In this decisive act, they are called back to the affirmation and proclamation that the world is not actually theirs for the taking and bending to their own will – the world belongs to God, and God alone.
We live in a different time and place today, but in many ways, we struggle with the same temptations of Israel in Elijah’s day. We want to profess faith in God, while at the same time, we seek to lay hold of God’s creation, manipulating it and exploiting it for our own benefit. I share this further commentary from Walter Brueggemann because he articulates it so well:
…We may see that a sense of the world as a mystery from God marked by a neighborly ethic is in deep dispute, in our own day, with the reduction of life to a manipulation of technical knowledge… I should imagine that medical research, the potential of military devastation shamelessly embraced, the industrial destruction of the ecosystem, the cheapening of the life of those who are not productive, all suggest that this profound contest is replicated and reenacted often among us in policy disputes as well as in more daily decisions about neighbors (229).
For Elijah, there is no middle ground. Phew. What a challenging passage and what difficult ideas to ponder! I invite you to wrestle with them along with me.
o What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o Where do you see this contest played out in our society today? How are you personally challenged?
o How do you hear God calling you to care for your neighbor today?
Consider the ways in which our society constantly seeks to manipulate and exploit creation for our own benefit. What is one issue that you want to learn more about? Perhaps it is about water security and safety. Perhaps it is about energy resources. Perhaps it is about carbon footprint. Take some time this week to begin learning more, and what steps you might be able to take to move away from destructive practices that affect that particular part creation.
Spend time out in God’s creation. Simply rest and appreciate that which God has made in whatever way feels best to you.
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the one true God. You were present at the creation of the world, and all things have come into being through you. Help me to care for all that you have created, recognizing that it belongs to you and not to me. Show me the places in my life where I am following “two opinions.” Speak decisively into my heart, that I may be transformed by you and for you. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.