Commentary on 1 Kings 18:20-39
This week’s passage focuses on the loyal prophet who is sent to persuade the wayward monarch and people to return to “the Lord” (Hebrew YHWH, called the tetragrammaton), the God of Israel.
Leaving God behind
Ahab son of Omri ruled the northern kingdom of Israel for 22 years (ca 874 – 853 BCE). The deuteronomistic historian (Dtr), a term applied collectively to the authors/editors of Israel’s historical narratives from Joshua to 2 Kings, judges Ahab as having done evil in the sight of the Lord more than any other Israelite king before him for promoting the spread of Baal worship in Israel (1 Kings 16:30, 33). A major theme in this corpus of literature is the tension between the prophet and king. The king was charged with seeing that the people were faithful to the covenantal law and the prophet was responsible for keeping the king accountable to the law.
The Dtr characterizes Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess Jezebel as the impetus for Ahab having chosen to serve and worship Baal, one of the gods worshiped by Jezebel and as a result, leading the people astray. Promptly after his marriage to Jezebel, Ahab built a temple for Baal in Samaria and erected an altar to Baal in the temple. Additionally, he made the Asherah, a sacred pole that is representative of the goddess Asherah (1 Kings 16:32-33). In response God sends the prophet Elijah to Ahab to pronounce judgment on Ahab.
Elijah announces that Ahab’s worship of the Baals has provoked God to cause a drought in the land (1 Kings 17:1). Ironically, when the drought occurs Ahab blames it on Elijah (1 Kings 18:17). The drought is a direct challenge by God to Baal’s influence as the storm god of rain, dew, and fertility in Canaan and Phoenicia. The move by God is meant to demonstrate God’s supremacy over Baal and the other deities in the Canaanite pantheon. Yet, for some readers, knowing that God intentionally caused the drought given the famine and suffering that ensued might seem an extreme means to make a point.
Elijah orders Ahab to summon the prophets of Baal and Asherah, who number 850 (1 Kings 17:19), to Mount Carmel for a showdown between Baal and God before an assembly of all Israel (1 Kings 18:20). Carmel was the highest peak in a mountain range known for its lush, fertile forests and as a sacred site of Baal worship. Elijah wanted the Israelites present to force them to choose whom they would serve: Baal or the Lord. He accuses them of “limping,” from the Hebrew root pasach for “to pass over,” “leap,” or “limp,” with “two different opinions” (v. 21). The implication is that their worship is half-hearted because they are not fully committed to either deity.
Some of us may question why the Israelites could not obey the command to worship only the God of Israel. Part of that answer may lie in the pluralistic milieu of the ancient world where many diverse religions peaceably coexisted. Many scholars agree that prior to the eighth century B.C.E., the ancient Israelites practiced a form of worship referred to in academic terms as “henotheism,” meaning that they pledged their allegiance to a single god while acknowledging the existence of other gods.
With each religion having attractive features it may have been difficult to choose to worship and serve one god only. Therefore, the people were silent when Elijah asked them to choose between the Lord, the God of Israel, and Baal. Perhaps they were waiting on the outcome of the contest between the two deities. Elijah proposed that he and the prophets of Baal be given two bulls between them to place atop a stack of wood. Elijah wagered that the first deity called upon to set the wood on fire was indeed God (1 Kings 18:24). The people agreed to these terms. The prophets of Baal outnumbered Elijah 450 to one. This was intended to demonstrate that the odds were on Baal’s side. Interestingly, Dtr represented this competition as between male opponents. Although Jezebel is depicted as the source of the trouble, she is not involved in the competition. Neither are the 400 prophets of Asherah.
The prophets of Baal went first. They called upon Baal morning to noon, but there was no response. They took to limping (Hebrew root pasach) or dancing ritually around the altar they had made (v. 26). Silence. Elijah began to ridicule the prophets, taunting them that perhaps Baal was meditating, on a journey or asleep (v. 27). The prophets cried louder and resorted to cutting themselves until they bled, but Baal was still silent (v. 28).
When Elijah’s turn came he implored the people to draw near. He built a trench around the altar and saturated the wood and bull atop it with water (vv. 32-34). Elijah offered a prayer unto God, petitioning God to answer him so that the people might know that the Lord was the God of Israel and repent. God responded by sending fire that consumed the bull, the wood, the altar, and all the water (v. 38). The people fell down in obeisance and declared, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God” (v. 39). In some regard this was yet another indictment on the people’s wavering faith — they needed evidence of God’s power before they believed. Nevertheless, the God of Israel indeed proved to the detractors which deity was god.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of Elijah, with great fire you made your presence known to the worshipers of Baal. Help us to resist the temptation to place our trust and faith in anything other than you. Receive our worship and strengthen our faith. Amen.
Holy is the true light, William Harris