1 Kings 18 – Elijah and The Prophets of Baal
It was a day like any other day for the prophet Elijah, which is to say it is never easy. His name says it all: My God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and, as it would turn out, Mohammad. In those days, like ours, there were other gods, and in particular a constellation of gods going by the general name Baal, which roughly translates as “lord.” The gods of Baal were worshipped, some associated with natural events like rain, thunder, lightning, while others were associated with cities and even public officials. So you might have the Baal of Baltimore or Washington D.C, or the Baals of Obama, McCain, Rove, Bachman and so on. If there is something to be worshipped there is a Baal to which one might appeal – money, the economy, the right to bear arms – just name your own personal sacred cow and there is likely a Baal you can worship. We think this stuff is primitive, but really, just a cursory glance or listen to the day’s news and it is pretty clear we are still a Baal centered bunch of folks whether your altar is at the bank, some sports stadium, congress, your favorite cable news network, a Furthur concert, a music festival, we all bow down to a Baal somewhere. And of course any Baal worth his or her salt has a bevy of prophets on the payroll with their job being, of course, promoting and defending a specific Baal.
The Elijah saga lays it out pretty clearly in the First Book of Kings. He is even given props in the Quran as one of the true and faithful greats! Why he is even mentioned in Rastafarian literature, he is so cool! Elijah is a lonely character. He and he alone repeatedly carries the mantle of promoting and defending monotheism amongst a degenerate leadership and people in the 9th century bce. The current king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel is Ahab. Ahab not only tolerates Baal worship, he actually builds a Temple for Baal in the palace and allows Jezebel to bring in a large number of Baal priests and prophets of Baal into the country. Throughout the kingdom are the remnants of Baal altars and shrines.
Elijah’s job is to warn Ahab that this cannot turn out well – to continue to split allegiance between Yahweh and the gods and prophets of Baal will result in the worst ever drought – there will not even be dew on the ground in the morning – perhaps a reference to the good old days in the wilderness when manna arrived just like clockwork (oops they did not have clocks then, did they?) first thing every morning, like dew on the ground. Ahab finds Elijah wearisome – “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah challenges the king and the people: how long will you continue to hedge your bets and worship every god that comes along? There is only one God. How long will you continue limping along with two opinions? If God is God, follow him. If Baal is god, follow him. Then, demonstrating that prophets of Yahweh will go where even angels fear to tread, Elijah proposes a contest on Mt. Carmel. Off he goes with 450 prophets of Baal, and, just for maximum effect, 400 prophets of Asherah (an ancient mother goddess aka Queen of Heaven) tag along. Two new altars are built, one for Baal and one for Yahweh. Wood is piled high and two oxen are slaughtered, one for each altar. Elijah then sets the challenge: call upon Baal to light the fire. The 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah begin to dance and sing and chant around the altar. They carry on for so long that they are now literally limping like the figurative limping of Ahab, Jezebel and the people of Israel. This goes on from dawn till noon, Elijah chiding them all the way. At noon they cut themselves and add their own blood to the sacrifice, a great offense to the Mosaic code. Still and all, no fire.
Elijah calls for water – four large jars of water are poured on the wood at the altar of the Lord. Three times they pour on four jars of water (by my count that is 12 jars, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel) on the wood. There is so much water that the trench around the altar is filled with water. Elijah gives Yahweh the signal, and alakazam! Fire falls from the sky, the wood, the ox, the altar and the water in the trench are all consumed. Elijah, feeling pretty flush, orders the prophets of Baal to be killed. And he orders the drought to end. It begins to rain. And rain, and rain, and rain.
This is perhaps the origin of that fundamental law of the universe that no good deed goes unpunished. Jezebel is furious. She orders Elijah to be killed. The prophet is on the run. He runs to Mt. Horeb/Sinai, birthplace of the Ten Commandments, the first four of which, at least one of my students remembered on the final (!), have to do with our relationship with God. Elijah is there for 40 days and 40 nights, hiding in a cave. The Word of God comes to Elijah: What are you doing here? "I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." No doubt the origin of that great country and western classic, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me. God calls him out of a cave to “stand before the Lord.” A great wind goes by, but God is not in the wind. An earthquake shakes the earth, but God is not in the earthquake. Fire appears, but God is not in the fire. All there that remains is a “still, small voice”: What are you doing here, Elijah?
That is the question for us all, isn’t it? What are we doing here, hiding behind whatever we hide behind, worshipping whatever cluster of gods we worship day and night on the promise that they will deliver prosperity, long life, ageless faces, endless happiness, and a partridge in a pear tree. The story is meant to make us consider our commitments. Are these commitments worthy of the sacrifices we make to such false promises, self-serving leaders, and endless entanglements with those things that have no possibility of promising life – eternal life – life lived with God? Note on the good news here: God does not leave Elijah alone. God revitalizes Elijah to go forth and witness to the good and the true another day. Be sure to read about his next encounter with Ahab. It’s all there in the First Book of Kings. The tale continues.
Whenever we get to thinking – no, believing – that we as a species upon this Earth have made so much material and spiritual progress, we ought to read and re-read the story of Elijah. Whenever we get to feeling that we are alone in our struggles, that the whole world is against us, we should read and re-read this story of Elijah. Whenever we finally come to the realization that our commitments to the Baals of this age will never get us out of Exile, we should read and re-read this tale of Elijah. For Elijah’s story is our own. This stuff is not primitive – it is eternal. We still have a lot to learn by going back over these ancient narratives and finding ourselves, our very selves, in the story. Perhaps then we will come to know that God is with us – Emmanuel – especially in those times when it appears the Lord is far far away. He is here. Now. Right now. Calling us. “What are you doing here?” Amen.