Trial by Fire
Posted by foryourfaith on January 8, 2010
Elijah bursts across the pages of Scripture like a lightning flash. In the midst of the description of the reign of Ahab, King of Israel, without a word of introduction or explanation, the reader is suddenly confronted with a prophet who in the name of Yahweh turns off the fountains of heaven and proclaims a drought: “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the god of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word’” (1 Kings 17:1).
The sheer brashness of that last phrase “except by my word,” marks out for us the character of this man. We learn nothing of his childhood, of his ancestry, of his religious experiences, of how he came to be a prophet of the Lord. Still, with his first words he is shown to be a man of conflict and confidence, one who speaks for a God intent on renewing the vitality of his covenant with his people, and intent on punishing their betrayal.
Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is God,” and his life was a continual struggle to strengthen the worship of Yahweh in Israel against the encroaching presence of the Canaanite god Baal. Elijah came from Tishbe in Gilead, an area east of Jordan where the Canaanite culture had never been strong. The worship of Yahweh evidently maintained an exclusive, uncompromising character there. But when Elijah crossed into the northern kingdom of Israel, west of the Jordan, he came into a very different world.
In Israel, King Ahab ruled as the second in a powerful dynasty established by his father, Omri. Ahab was at least a nominal worshiper of Yahweh and gave names to three of his children incorporating the divine name (Ahaziah, Jehoram, and Athaliah). But his commitment to Yahweh was by no means exclusive. In order to cement his ties with the powerful Phoenicians to the north, Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, King of Sidon and a worshiper of Baal. In many ways the marriage mirrored the mixed character of the people under Ahab’s rule, a people that included dominant Israelites and many Canaanites.
To the extent of her powers, Jezebel fostered the worship of Baal, the lord of rain and giver of fertility. So great was her devotion to this pagan god, that she killed the prophets of Yahweh and replaced them with the prophets of Baal. Because of this transgression of faith on the part of Israel, Yahweh sent drought upon the land.
When Elijah came proclaiming the drought, he was attacking Baal on his home ground and asserting that it was Yahweh, and not Baal, who was lord of the life-giving rains. During the drought, Elijah hid by the Brook of Cherith. The length of this drought is not known. In the first century AD the Jewish historian Josephus cited a source that gave its length as one year. An alternative version, mentioned twice in the New Testament, describes the drought as lasting a full three and half years.
Throughout the drought Elijah was a wanted man as Ahab spared no effort to seize this “troubler of Israel.” The search ended only when Elijah summoned Ahab to meet him. Elijah charged that it was Ahab and his worship of Baal that had troubled Israel, and he challenged Ahab to set up a contest between the prophets of the two gods before all Israel on Mount Carmel.
The purpose of Elijah’s life was brought to its zenith in the confrontation that the first Book of Kings describes between the lone prophet of Yahweh and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah. With uncompromising clarity Elijah asserted the total incompatibility of the worship of Baal and of Yahweh.
“’How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ And the people did not answer him a word.” The silence of the people probably indicates that in their mixed society they were not accustomed to think in terms of such an exclusive choice. But they agreed to the dramatic contest by fire that Elijah set before them. Two sacrifices were to be prepared, one for Baal, one for Yahweh. The prophets of each were to pray, “and the god who answers by fire, he is God.”
Finally a clear demonstration of the divine would be available. they could choose not on the basis of ancient myth or stories of past generations but by an obvious and present verification of divinity.
The drama that ensued is laid before the reader in arresting detail. With confident generosity Elijah allowed his opponents to choose their sacrificial offering and go first. He did not hurry them but allowed hour after hour for them to raise their chorus of voices to Baal. the prophets in desperation cried, “O Baal, answer us!” and waited for a response. “But there was no voice, and no one answered” (1 Kings 18:26).
After a morning of such cries, Elijah mockingly suggested that perhaps their god was lost in thought, or on a journey, or asleep. As the afternoon passed, the scene became even more frenzied as Baal’s prophets lacerated themselves with knives in the entranced fervor of their prayers. Still, the narrators emphasize, “no one answered, no one heeded” (1 Kings 18:26).
As evening drew near, Yahweh’s prophets finally summoned the people to him, and the scene shifts from frenzy to a sense of calm and absolute confidence. Elijah restored tradition by rebuilding an old altar, using twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes. The wood was laid in order, and the sacrificial bull properly butchered. Then, in his confidence, Elijah made it impossible for any ordinary altar fire to burn the sacrifice. The offering, the wood, and the altar were thrice drenched with water.
The moment of truth had arrived. At the time for the sacrifice, the prophet offered a brief prayer. No raving and self-mutilation were needed. He called on Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, to answer, “that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).
Instantly Carmel was illuminated with consuming fire. the offering was gone; the wood was burnt up; even the stones and the water had been consumed. Perhaps the people had thought that they were going to choose between deities, but the narrators want to show that in fact it was God alone who chose. He turned their hearts back, and they could only respond, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39).
For the prophets of Baal, the day was far more than an embarrassment. Elijah immediately sentenced the false prophets to death, as the law prescribed in the Book of Exodus. With the help of the people and evidently without interference from Ahab, hundreds were summarily executed.
With this complete victory in the battle against Baal, the god of storms, Elijah immediately predicted the end of the drought. Yahweh would now give the rain, and the crisis that had brought on this contest of gods would be at an end.
So total and glorious was Elijah’s triumph that one might think that the narrators intended to portray the complete extinction of the worship of Baal. The succeeding events in Elijah’s life, however, show that for all its drama, the contest on Mount Carmel had little effect in restoring the devotion of the entire people to Yahweh. Paradoxically, the mighty miracle of Carmel, far from settling all theological questions, only intensified the conflict.