Commentary on 1 Kgs 18:20-39
The sacrifice on Carmel
Today we have the dramatic challenge that Elijah made to the worshippers of Baal and to his own idolatrous fellow-Israelites. It will give clinching proof of who the true God is and this will finally be confirmed by the ending of the drought (tomorrow’s reading).
The scene is on Mount Carmel, a mountain in northern Palestine near the Mediterranean coast. King Ahab, in conformity with a request from Elijah, has ordered all the Israelites to gather there together with the 450 prophets of Baal.
Elijah throws down the challenge to his people by asking them how much longer they are going to continue hopping from one leg to the other, alternating between their worship of God and of Baal and of trying to have the best of both worlds. Elijah is speaking sarcastically. In her religious ambivalence between her worship of Yahweh and of Baal, Israel is but engaging in a wild and futile religious “dance”. Elijah tells them to make up their minds and choose one or the other; they cannot follow two antagonistic ways of worship. He draws a sharp contrast between the worship of the Lord and that of Baal and puts out of their minds that both deities can be worshipped in some combined rituals.
Elijah now throws down the challenge – himself against the 450 priests of Baal. He is the only true prophet in Israel to stand boldly and publicly against the king and the prophets of Baal. (In fact, we are told earlier in the book that Elijah was on the run. Anyone who knew where he was hiding would be executed.)
The elements of the challenge are straightforward. The 450 priests of Baal will prepare an altar with a dismembered bull and Elijah will do the same. Each side will call on the name of their divinity and the one who answers by consuming the animal with fire is the true God. To this all agree.
It is not merely a matter of deciding whether Yahweh or Baal is lord of the mountain or which is the stronger, but simply which is the one, true God. Both the Lord and Baal were said to ride the thunderstorm as their divine chariot (see Ps 104:3 – “You make the clouds your chariot; you travel on the wings of the wind.”); thunder was their voice (see Ps 18:14 – “The Lord thundered from heaven; the Most High gave forth his voice.”). Elijah’s challenge is direct. His own statement, his later prayer and the people’s acclamation at the end of the reading make it clear: the uniqueness of the God of Israel is at stake.
Because of their greater numbers, Elijah told the priests of Baal to proceed first. They set up their bull on the altar and from morning to midday they called on Baal to send down fire while they danced from leg to leg (echoing the jibe against the Israelites “hobbling” between God and Baal). The ecstatic cultic dance was part of the pagan ritual intended to arouse the deity to perform some desired action. But nothing happened.
Elijah begins to mock them satirically. “Cry louder because he is a god! So maybe he is contemplating, is resting, or off on a journey. He might even be asleep.” In his mocking, Elijah also reveals he is aware of the myths surrounding Baal.
The priests shout even louder and, as is common in such religions, become wild and ecstatic, slashing themselves with knives and pouring blood. Self-inflicted wounds causing blood to flow were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing the deity to action but such mutilation of the body was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic law. As the deadline of noon passed they continued with their ecstatic and trancelike raving in which their ritual reached its climax at the time of the evening sacrifice. But the god was silent. “No one answered; no one was listening.” Their efforts had come to nothing; their god could do nothing to help them.
It is now Elijah’s turn. He calls on the people to gather round him. Using twelve stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel he rebuilds the altar. It is possible it had originally been built by the people of the northern tribes after the division of the kingdom (Jerusalem and the Temple were in the southern kingdom) but had been destroyed by the agents of Jezebel and the worshippers of Baal. The 12 stones represented all the tribes of Israel as God’s one people despite the political division into two kingdoms. What is about to happen concerns the whole people and not just the 10 northern tribes. The Lord had said to the people of all the tribes: “Your name shall be Israel.”
Around the altar Elijah had a large trench dug large enough to hold two measures of grain. Wood was placed on top of the altar and the dismembered bull on top of that. He then gave instructions for four jars of water to be poured over the sacrificial victim and over the wood. This was done three times altogether. By drenching the whole structure with water, Elijah was making the subsequent happening all the more convincing.
Then Elijah prays. His prayer is in marked contrast to the frenzied actions of the Baal priests. He calls simply on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, thus recalling the great covenants that had been made between God and his people. In plain language he calls on God to answer his prayer so that people will know not who is the more powerful but who is the one and only God. And he appeals to Israel to remember all that the Lord has done for her since the days of her forefathers.
The coming manifestation will demonstrate:
1, to the prophets of Baal and to Jezebel’s entourage of foreigners that there is no place for them in Israel where Yahweh is God; and
2, to the Israelites that Yahweh is the only God, the God who wins back wayward hearts.
In immediate response to Elijah’s prayer the Lord’s fire comes down on the altar, consumes the holocaust offering (sodden though it is with water) and totally evaporates the water in the surrounding trench. The people’s reaction is to fall down in awe and worship: “The Lord is God!” they keep repeating.
(The end of the story – not recorded in our reading – is that the priests of Baal were then seized and all of them executed by having their throats cut. Hopefully, we might think now of other less drastic ways of dealing with them.)
Life with our God is, in the long run, a simple and straightforward affair. There are people who try to make religion very complicated. For many, superstition and idolatry are not far away. The idols today, from which people expect great returns, are those of the consumer society, of money, fame, power and “success”. The god of Mammon has taken over the lives of many and many Christians, like the Israelites in the story, try to hop uncomfortably between the two. But Jesus said that we had to make a very clear choice – it has to be one or the other (cf. Matt 6:24). The God of the Gospel simply invites us to become closely united with him in prayer and love.
That is the God of Elijah and should be ours too.