When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
There’s a little problem with lectionary readings –not enough context. What is Elijah doing, and why? Most of us are probably not experts on First Kings. So let’s back up a little.
After King Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into north – Israel – and south – Judah. Israel was ruled by a succession of kings, each worse than the last. Elijah began his prophetic mission in the time of King Ahab. Ahab had married a princess from a neighboring country, the infamous Jezebel – a worshiper of Baal and Asherah, a god and goddess who were thought to control thunder, lightning, and rain. Ahab began to worship them and even built temples for them; he also persecuted the Hebrew prophets – Elijah and many more – who preached against idol worship. Elijah came to Ahab and prophesied that there would be no rain or even dew in the land of Israel until Elijah gave the word. Then he fled, and was protected by God for three years. Now we resume the story.
So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no 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 is indeed God.”
All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, 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.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Once to every man and nation – hymn sung
It’s also not easy to find hymns that reference the stories from the Hebrew Bible, but the Hymnary website suggested this one. James Russell Lowell wrote the poem from which its lines are taken in 1845, when the US was heading toward the Mexican War and the abolitionist movement was heating up. Lowell was against the war and pro-abolition. We may envy Lowell – he only had two great moral issues on his mind. When was the last time you had to choose between truth and falsehood? If you read the paper or watched Meet the Press before church, maybe it was only an hour ago. We are inundated with information and opinions, and it’s not always easy when the moment to decide comes.
The prophet Elijah had no trouble making his decision. It was self-evident to him that God – Adonai Elohim – Israel’s one true God – was the only God, and that Baal and Asherah were merely idols. God had given him the power to withhold rain, to cause a widow’s meal and oil never to run out, and even to raise the widow’s son from the dead.
It’s not clear what led Elijah to provoke the showdown with the priests of Baal and Asherah. Maybe he had pity on the people of Israel – some of whom were still faithful – and decided it was time to bring rain once more. But he had to prove his point, so he set up the contest between the Lord God and the false idols. The Lord God and Elijah prevailed, and, cannily left out of the lectionary reading, Elijah had all the priests of Baal killed, and the rains came.
The powerful Queen Jezebel didn’t like this, and threatened to kill Elijah, so he fled again. He also became very depressed, begging the Lord to let him die in the desert. He and God had won the contest, but Ahab and Jezebel were still in power. But God saves Elijah yet again. He lives to prophesy again to Ahab, who finally repents; but Ahab’s son will still pay the price for his disobedience, as will Jezebel.
What does this story mean to us today? At first glance it seems almost juvenile, a macho contest of “my dad can beat up your dad.” We don’t worship idols – or do we? How often do we put our faith in a particular -ism, our favorite political commentator or news source, or someone who rants and raves like the priests of Baal? Often today it seems that truth indeed is on the scaffold and falsehood on the throne, and each day brings a new crisis. What will I decide, what will you decide, when the moment comes? I take hope and courage from Lowell’s last word:
Tho’ the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Tho’ her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own. Amen.