A Taste of the "Former Prophets": Elijah and Micaiah
Deep Into his Fiery Heart: 1 Kings 18.1-40
In these stories, the conflict between the worship of YHWH and the worship of Baal moves into a new phase -- the drought is about to end and Elijah is sent back to Israel to announce the fact. But first before the rain returns, the powerlessness of Baal and his worshippers must be demonstrated before all the people, as it had previously been demonstrated on a smaller scale by the events in Zarephath. A new phase of the conflict begins, focussing on the support for Baal worship and the accompanying opposition to YHWH worship from the Crown, specifically from Jezebel, Ahab's queen.
The opening story, how Elijah encounters Obadiah, the chamberlain of the palace, while he is on his way to the king in obedience to YHWH, confirms something that could be inferred from Elijah's flight, that the king was searching for him, and in no friendly fashion. But it tells us something else too, something far more unusual even, that Jezebel has been killing the prophets of YHWH. Normally at this time worshippers of one god did not attack the worshippers of another god -- if there was a war between two kingdoms, then priests and prophets would be as open to attack as any other leaders, but religious wars or persecution was not a common thing. But the new factor of monotheism changed things here as well -- YHWH was not just any god, YHWH was the God. YHWH is an exclusive God -- in the words of the commandment, the Lord was a jealous God. And that clearly provoked a reaction. Baal worshippers would not have expected to worship Baal exclusively -- they would sacrifice to others as well, as the need or desire arose -- and clearly some worshippers of YHWH simply added Baal-sacrifice to their religious options in the same way. But prophets of YHWH would not have let that pass -- they would have opposed any compromise of the exclusivity of the Lord. That, it seems, triggered a backlash from Jezebel, who emerges as a promoter and sponsor for the cult of Baal far beyond her own household of followers brought from Tyre.
Once Obadiah is reassured that it's safe to tell Ahab about Elijah, that Elijah will not be wafted off to safety and leave him holding the bag with an angry Ahab, he arranged the meeting between the king and the prophet that sets up the next scene in the drama. Contrary to our expectations, given the Lord's words to Elijah, the prophet does not say anything to the king about the drought coming to an end -- that will come later -- instead, he challenges the king to summon all the people to witness a confrontation between Elijah and the pagan priests that Jezebel supports at Mt Carmel.
This Ahab does, and at Mt Carmel, Elijah puts a question before the people and poses another challenge. The question is really quite stark, and one we've been discussing: "How long," the prophet asks, "will you go limping along with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." This is the choice that monotheism demands. And the challenge is a way to settle once and for all which deity is the one God -- by fire. Unlike the fire of which the poet sings, this one will not be set deliberately by people, but by the one God. Each side will prepare a sacrifice, Elijah proposed, and the true God will send fire from heaven to consume the one that is correctly offered.
It is of course an offering that the devotees of Baal cannot refuse -- refusing this challenge would have been the same as saying that they did not believe that Baal had the power to do so. Instead they tried to call down the fire in various ways, engaging in ritual dance, inducing an ecstatic trance through fatigue and blood loss -- all in vain. Not only does Elijah mock them -- yell louder, maybe Baal's just asleep -- but he makes a mock of the challenge itself by calling for water to drench the wood piled ready on YHWH's altar. Surely only fire from Heaven could set that wood ablaze!
The choice of Mt Carmel itself was all part of the challenge -- it was formerly the site of an altar to the Lord, now destroyed and abandoned -- a powerful symbol of the abandonment of YHWH by people turning to Baal. But Elijah symbolically rebuilds it with one stone for each of the Twelve Tribes as part of his call for all the people to return to YHWH.
Well, we know how the story played out -- YHWH did send down fire to consume the sacrifice -- so powerful is that fire that it even consumes the stones from which Elijah had rebuild the altar and the very dust. And the people, in the kind of convert enthusiasm that is characteristic of such reversals of emotion, turn back to YHWH and at the same time turn against Baal and his prophets. With their help the prophet hands out the same fate to the forces of Baal that he doubtless would have suffered had he lost. Given this behaviour, it will come as no surprise to those who read on when they discover Elijah only a chapter later lamenting to YHWH that the people have abandoned YHWH and the covenant yet again -- this kind of emotional reaction often doesn't last.
The poet speaks in his song with the voice of the fire, expressing its desire and hunger to consume. And in our story we see both literal fire and the fire of enthusiasm -- their power, their promise, and their danger. The struggle for dedication and devotion to the one God that was played out with such mixed and bloody results on that coastal mountain will be repeated again and again in the Scripture -- and in more oblique ways it still plays out for us today as we make choices between God and the gods of the marketplace and our culture. To what fire will we be wood?
Continue to the final section.