The prophet Elijah was a mixture of emotions and convictions. At times he stands as a giant of faith and courage. On other occasions, he appears to wilt in the face of adversity. Perhaps that is why so many of us are drawn to him; we are cut from the same fabric. In this study, let us survey one of the grander occasions in the life of God’s great prophet, who was one of only two men never to experience death (2 Kings 2:11; cf. Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5).
In approximately 935 B.C., the kingdom of Israel split. The northern segment of ten tribes continued to be known as “Israel.” The southern regime consisted of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, together with a smattering from Levi and perhaps Simeon (cf. Genesis 49:7b).
In the 9th century B.C. (ca. 875-50 B.C.), during the reigns of Ahab and Ahazriah (a span of approximately 24 years), the northern kingdom was at the height of its economic and political prosperity; but it was on a spiraling spiritual departure from Jehovah, to be culminated by the brutal invasion of the Assyrians, and the deportation of Hebrews into Assyrian captivity. According to Assyrian records, some 27,290 captives were led away, in the most horrible fashion imaginable (Pritchard, 195).
Noble prophets of God, however, had warned the people repeatedly to repent of their sins (with a heavy focus on their idolatry), and return to the Lord. The messages fell on deaf ears for the most part. One of the courageous spokesmen to appear on the scene was Elijah, the prophet. Very little is known of Elijah directly. He was a Tishbite of the region of Gilead, the central region to the east of the Jordan River (sandwiched between Bashan and Moab).
From the prophet’s name certain inferences may reasonably be drawn. First, in a land saturated with the idol worship, e.g., Baal and Asherah, what dedication it must have taken on the part of those Hebrew parents to name a baby boy “Elijah” (“Yahweh is God”). The very name was a challenge to heathenism. Second, what courage it would have taken, on the part of the prophet himself, to retain the name, which would have been the equivalent of waving a red flag before a dust-pawing bull. This tells something of the intestinal fortitude of the prophet and his dedication to the true God.
The sacred record detailing Elijah’s ministry is found in 1 Kings 17, through 2 Kings 2 — a total of eight chapters. In order to appreciate the biblical record of Elijah’s ministry, one needs to know something of the political background that underlies this theme.
Elijah’s two major adversaries were Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab was the seventh monarch of the northern kingdom of Israel, and he reigned 22 years (1 Kings 6:29). He majored in politics and minored in sacred religion. His marriage to the infamous Jezebel was more political than romantic; it strengthened his economic tie with Ethbaal, king of Tyre, but had the religious baggage of Jezebel’s strong affinity with Baal worship.
Jezebel was a headstrong religious fanatic who hated the worship of Jehovah, vigorously persecuted the Lord’s prophets (1 Kings 18:4, 13), and kept her pathetic little husband in line. She won the spineless Ahab to her cause (a classic example of the danger of marrying out of the faith), and later he was able to inject the dreaded Baalism into the southern kingdom by means of the marriage of his wicked daughter, Athaliah, to Jehoram, the fifth king of Judah in the south.
A bit more should be said regarding Baal worship, for this is key to understanding the mission of Elijah. The name “Baal” is said to mean “lord,” “possessor,” “husband.” The pagans of Canaan believed that various “Baals” inhabited sacred trees, springs, mountain heights, etc. The prevalence of this false religion is demonstrated by the presence of the cult name all the way from Babylon in the east, to Egypt in the west. The discovery of the Ras Shamra tablets in Syria, between 1929-60, have provided a wealth of information regarding this malevolent influence among the people of God.
This was the challenge that faced the honorable Elijah. The Bible student is introduced to the prophet in 1 Kings 17:1ff, where he confronts Ahab with this seemingly enigmatic statement. “As Jehovah the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except according to my word.” Note: One later learns from the New Testament that there was no rain nor dew for the span of three years and six months (Luke 4:25; James 5:17). There are three important points to note: (a) The affirmation that “Jehovah, the God of Israel” is the true God. (b) In spite of the superficial appearance of things, Jehovah is “living”—not dead, as Ahab and his deluded followers soon would learn. (c) It is God who controls nature—not Baal.
One aspect of Baal worship was the belief that he was “the god of fertility”;therefore he brought the rains, with accompanying storms and lightnings. A stele (inscribed stone monument) from the Ras Shamra collection pictures Baal as holding a lightning bolt in his hand, thus depicting him as the god of storm and thunder. But was he? That’s what the upcoming contest would determine.
Brief Retirement and the Wait
Elijah was instructed by the Lord to go eastward toward the Jordan, there to conceal himself and wait. Meanwhile, he would be cared for by the Lord. The prophet obeyed the word of Jehovah, traveling about fifteen miles, where he dwelt by the book Cherith, a stream that now is identified as flowing from the rocky region of Gilead, east of the Jordan (Harrison, 111). Amazingly, the Lord provided for his prophet by sending ravens with bread and flesh each morning and evening (17:6). Some have sought to explain the “ravens” as merely friendly Arabians, but the Septuagint and the testimony of Josephus confirm the common reading, and the “Arab” theory appears to be an “unnecessary rationalization” (Wiseman, 165).
Subsequently, God’s word came again to Elijah, instructing him to proceed westward to Zarephath in Phoenicia, about eight miles south of Sidon on the road leading to Tyre. This was in the very stronghold of Baal worship and would be a test to see whether or not the prophet could survive in this hostile territory.
Jehovah had communicated with a poor widow, instructing her to care for this man of God. As Elijah approached the widow’s home, he saw her gathering a few sticks for firewood. He requested water, and she proceeded to comply; but as she went, he further asked for bread. She slightly protested, but note her preface: “As Jehovah your God lives....” Formally, Jehovah is not her “God.” And yet he “lives”! Where is Baal? Has he “dried up” in her heart, just as had in the surrounding landscape? She is a convert in the making!
She stated her case, namely that she had only a minute amount of meal and oil, and when that was consumed by her and her son, they both would die. Elijah urges her not to be afraid, and then tests her faith further; she was to first make him a cake with her meager supply. He then promised that Jehovah would not let her want for meal or oil until the day when he again blessed the land with rain. Amazingly, she “went and did according to the saying of Elijah” (17:15), and her supply of food was continuously replenished and all of them were sustained “many days.”
Presently, the poor lady’s son fell sick and died. But Elijah prayed to God and the lad’s “soul” again entered his body. This is the first biblical case of a resurrection from death, and it must not be “explained away” as a mere misdiagnosis, with the accompanying allegation that the boy merely needed to be revived by “natural means” (Hammond, 387). The woman knew more about the situation that modern rationalists; she declared: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that Jehovah’s word is in your mouth” (17:24). Modern paramedics frequently can revive a person; only One is able to empower his servant to resurrect the dead (cf. Acts 20:9-10).
The Prophet Confronts the King
After a certain period of time (“many days”
- 18:1), Elijah determined to confront Ahab. Obadiah, a servant of the king-but one who feared Jehovah, after some nudging, informed Ahab that Elijah was on the way. The evil and determined king went out to meet his adversary, the prophet. It was a case where a seemingly unstoppable force was on a collision course to meet an immovable object!
Presently the two met head on. Ahab sarcastically asked: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” The prophet courageously replied: “I have not troubled Israel; but you, and your father’s house [have], in that you have forsaken the commandments of Jehovah, and you have followed the Baalim” (18:18). The fertility orgies associated with Baal worship, in which Israel had become involved, hardly needs elaboration (cf. Numbers 25).
And so Elijah issued a specific challenge. Ahab was urged to assemble the people of Israel (perhaps the leaders of the tribes), along with the “prophets” of Baal and Asherah (850 total) for a contest to determine the identity of the true God—Jehovah or Baal.
The battlefield was to be at Mount Carmel, which is situated at the promontory point where Canaan is thrust out into the Mediterranean Sea in the north-western region of the land. This was depicted as “Carmel by the sea” (Jeremiah 46:18). Carmel is actually a short range of mountains(13 to 14 miles long), the highest of which is 1,742 feet. J.W. McGarvey, who visited the region in 1879, located a site that conforms to the biblical record at about 100 yards from the mountain summit where there is a:
“plateau sufficiently broad for the assembly, and [can be] reached by roads which ascend the slopes of the mountain from various directions....The plateau answers in every particular the demands of the narrative, even to the possibility of Ahab’s chariot ascending to it [see 18:44], and there is no other [location] on the mountain that does” (308-309).
The rules of the contest would be simple. Baal’s devotees were to choose two bulls for sacrifice (no chance of chicanery on Elijah’s part), one for themselves and the other for God’s prophet. The slaughtered animals were to be cut up, and laid on wood as sacrifices, either to Baal or to Jehovah. The Baalites were to petition their god to send fire, thus consuming the offering. Elijah would do the same, calling on the Lord. The God that responded obviously would be the true God. The stage was set; let the drama begin.
Beginning in the morning and continuing until noon, the Baal cult cried out: “O Baal, hear us!” The silence of the response was deafening. The Baal prophets began to dance, leaping around the altar. Not a twitch or jerk availed! About noon, Elijah interrupted the fiasco with a taunt (mocking them — 18:27).
We must here comment on Elijah’s conduct, for some would suggest that he acted unbecoming of a prophet of God; mocking honest, though misguided, souls. How very insensitive!
The “crudeness” is an invention of the critic’s warped mind. There is not a word of censure in the sacred text of Elijah’s actions.Rather there was purpose in the sharp verbal barbs from the man of God. We quote here the words of Oxford’s celebrated scholar, Rawlinson: “The object of the irony is twofold—to stimulate the priests to greater exertions, and to make their failure more complete, and to suggest to the people that such failure will prove absolutely that Baal is no god” (592).
Thus clearly there was a benevolent motive ultimately. An exploration of Elijah’s five-pronged stab is fascinating.
The True God vs. The Bogus “god”
Elijah upbraided the pagan priests with these biting words:
“He [Baal] is a god.”
This statement is made with the utmost sarcasm. The thrust is: “According to your claim, he is a ‘god’ isn’t he? Thus, why is he not responding, in view of all your contorted gesticulations?” This was a goad right to the gut.
“Perhaps he is musing.”
“Musing” suggests the idea of being in deep meditation, pondering options, attempting to figure out what to do. It strikes at the very heart of a fallible, bumbling “god,” in vivid contrast to the omniscient God who never needs to contemplate a maneuver.
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” (Romans 11:33-34).
“He is on a journey.”
The reason Baal has not answered may be because he is out of town! Could it be that he has business in Mesopotamia or Egypt? What an impotent “god.” He seems to be wholly unaware of what is happening at Carmel. Baal must be quite impotent if he is strangely absent at such a crucial time as this, when his very ability to control the weather, for which he is so renowned, is at stake.
On the other hand, there is this reality regarding Elijah’s God: “Do not I fill the heaven and earth? says Jehovah” (Jeremiah 23:24). Is it not the case that “there is no creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do”? (Hebrews 4:13).
“He is gone aside.”
This rendition in our older translations (e.g., KJV, ASV) scarcely reflects the significance of the original text. Adam Clark thought the original was so “degrading” that he would only render it in Latin (II.458). Wiseman goes to the gross heart of the matter: “Had he gone aside to answer the call of nature?” (169). Or, as the ESV has it: “He is relieving himself.” A more colloquial rendition, which I can scarcely resist, is that he is visiting the “pagan potty.” It reflects a biting insult that lowers Baal to the basest level imaginable.
“Maybe he is sleeping.”
Here it is noontime (v. 26), and Baal is not out of bed yet! In the pantheon of ancient mythology, the “gods” had all of the weaknesses common to man. Sometimes, they “slept,” even for months, while the world became increasingly unraveled. How magnificent, then, is the Psalmist’s thrilling declaration: “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).
The idols of paganism, however, “are like scarecrows in a cucumber field” that “cannot speak” but “have to be carried, for they cannot walk.” Thus, “do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:5 ESV).
The Dramatic Conclusion
There was, of course, no response at all from Baal. Hence, Elijah repaired one of the sacred altars of the Lord that previously had been thrown down (cf. 19:10). He then took twelve stones, representing the tribes of the nation, built an altar, and surrounded it with a trench. Wood was placed on the altar and the pieces of meat on the wood. The meat and wood were then drenched with water (from a nearby deep well that does not dry up even when the streams do, e.g., the Kishon in the vicinity — McGarvey, 309).
At about 3:00 in the afternoon (cf. 18:36), Elijah prayed for the miracle of fire that “it might be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done these things at your word” (v. 36b).
This is a marvelous passage demonstrating the purpose of biblical miracles, in contrast to the frivolous claims of the modern Pentecostal movement. Note the contrast between the prophet’s contrite and simple prayer, and the frenzied antics (even mutilation of the flesh – 18:28) of the Baal zealots!
The fire descended from heaven; it is characterized as “the fire of Jehovah.” The holy fire consumed the sacrifice, wood, stones, and water. Under normal circumstances, water puts out fire; in this case, fire extinguished the water! Two things then happened. The people expressed their vigorous conviction that “Jehovah, he is God!” Second, the prophets of Baal were taken down to the Kishon stream (1,400 feet below) and executed—a fate justly deserved.
Though God is not dealing with purveyors of error in such a dramatic fashion today, modern “prophets of Baal” ought to beware of the ultimate Judgment to come (Hebrews 6:8; 10:31; 12:29).