Elijah and Ahab
1 Kings 18:1-46
With the contest between God and Baal on Mt. Carmel, we come to one of the 2 great dramatic events in all of the OT. The first dramatic event must be the exodus from Egypt, especially the rescue of God's people at the Red Sea. The second though must be what occurs on Mt. Carmel. Not only is the build-up filled with tension; the climax is awesome. It is the event in which God demands that Israel choose once and for all who will be her God, the Baal of Tyre or Yahweh of Abraham. This is THE moment for Israel. It will determine her ultimate fate as a nation.
What is interesting about this whole episode is that it strikes right at the heart of the worship of Baal. Jezebel promoted Baal as a fertility god; in other words, worshiping Baal was supposed to lead to rains and bountiful harvests. God though shows how impotent this Baal is by inflicting Baal's worshipers with drought, the very thing that Baal was supposed to prevent. By inflicting Baal's worshipers with a drought, Yahweh was showing that either (1) Baal was impotent against the power of Israel's God, Yahweh, or (2) that Baal did not really exist. In either case the Israelites should have never taken their allegiance away from Yahweh and given it to Baal.
THE CHALLENGE IS ISSUED (18:1-19)
Three and a half years have passed since God afflicted Israel with the drought. God speaks to Elijah and informs him that it is now time to end the drought; however, it will come only to an end after God has dramatically demonstrated to the people that He alone is God over Israel.
The drought has become so severe that Ahab is hard-pressed to find fodder for his horses, most likely the horses which drew his chariots for war. In order to find any type of pasture for his horses, he sends Obadiah, his chamberlain, to seek for pasture in half of Israel, while he himself searches for pasture in the other half. 1 Kings informs us that Obadiah was God-fearing. He had demonstrated it by hiding and feeding 100 prophets of the Lord in 2 groups of 50 when Jezebel began to exterminate the priests of Yahweh.
Note here the regression in Israel. When Jezebel and Ahab introduced the worship of Baal into Israel, they claimed that they were not doing away with the worship of Yahweh; rather they were adding to it, even improving it. In fact Ahab named 2 of his sons with names which honored Yahweh (Jehoram has the abbreviation of "Jehovah" in it, while Ahaziah has the abbreviation for "Yahweh" in it). That's the way compromise always starts in religion. "We're only trying to improve Christianity"; or "we're only trying to be relevant"; or "you can't say those things any more or else you will alienate your target audience." For example, you shouldn't go around saying, "Jesus is THE way"; rather you should say, "In my experience I have met God through Jesus, whereas you may have met Him some other way." Of the core beliefs of Christianity, the deity and lordship of Jesus Christ, there is no compromise. To compromise is basically to destroy Christianity, not to improve it. Obadiah obeys Ahab and starts searching for pasture.
While Obadiah is searching for green pastures, he is met by Elijah. Elijah instructs Obadiah to return to Ahab and inform him that he wishes to meet with him. Obadiah responds by asking him what he has done to warrant such a fate. Obadiah is sure that once he leaves to return to Ahab that the Lord will spirit Elijah away and that Ahab who has been so frustrated in his attempts to locate Elijah will vent out his frustrations on Obadiah. Obadiah (stretching the truth to prove his point) claims that Ahab has not only searched every nation for Elijah but has also made the rulers of those nations swear an oath saying they had no knowledge of Elijah's whereabouts. Elijah assures him though ("as the Lord lives") that he will not desert Obadiah but that he will appear before Ahab.
Up until this time Obadiah though a follower of the Lord has been only a secret follower of the Lord. It is now time for Obadiah to come out of the closet and publicly demonstrate that he is the Lord's. Too often we are too quiet about our commitment to Christ. We are so quiet that at times it is quite possible that we really are not committed to Him. Don't use the excuse either that our actions speak louder than words, that we just need to live like Christians and everybody will then know. One man claimed that "silent" Christians were the ones who kept him from being a Christian because believing that they were not Christians, he thought he could have a good life like theirs apart from Christ. Maybe in much of our lives we are able to be silent about our relationship with Christ; however, a time will come when silence will no longer be acceptable. We will either have to come out into the light like Obadiah, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, or shrink back into the darkness at our own peril.
Elijah makes good his word and shows up to confront Ahab. When Ahab encounters Elijah, he charges him as "the troubler of Israel." For all practical purposes Ahab is accusing Elijah of treason, a crime punishable by death. Elijah though does not cower before Ahab. Many times our stands for Jesus are so feeble. We take a stand for Christ, and then when somebody confronts us, we shrink back and almost apologize for what we have said. Not so with Elijah. He strikes right back at Ahab: "I have not troubled Israel; you have troubled Israel." He then goes on to challenge Ahab: "Meet me on the top of Mt. Carmel with 450 priests of Baal and 400 priests of Asherah. There we will determine once and for all who really is God over Israel: Baal or Yahweh." Ahab agrees to the contest.
THE CONTEST ON CARMEL (18:20-46)
At the appointed time Ahab along with the leading men of Israel and the 450 priests of Baal (apparently Jezebel refused to allow her 400 priests of Asherah to attend) meet Elijah on the top of Mt. Carmel. Carmel is not technically a mountain but rather a ridge, located just south of modern-day Hoffa, running southeast towards Bethshan (just southwest of the Sea of Galilee). The ridge at the traditional site for this episode measures 1635 feet above sea level, while at its base runs the brook Kishon.
When the assembly arrives, Elijah tells them that the time to choose has come. They are to quit vacillating between Baal and Yahweh (literally, "hopping from one leg to the next"); instead they are to choose once and for all who will be their god: Baal or Yahweh. When the people remain silent (still wishing to have it both ways), Elijah issues the challenge to the priests of Baal and the leaders of Israel. He suggests a contest. They are to set up a sacrifice minus the fire, and he is to set up another sacrifice minus the fire. Whichever god supernaturally lights the sacrifice by sending fire down from heaven, that god will be Israel's god. The people are impressed with the challenge, giving their whole-hearted approval. You can just hear them think: "This oughta be good." The priests of Baal are trapped. If they refuse, they will have shown that Baal is not god; if they agree, they know that nothing will happen since their god is a hoax. The most they can hope for is that Elijah's God is a farce also.
Since Elijah has suggested the contest, he takes extra steps to make sure that he has been as "fair" as possible. He allows the priests of Baal to select their own altar and the animal they wish to sacrifice. He even allows them to go first. The priests of Baal build their altar, place wood upon it, and then place their slain ox upon it. Starting that morning, they begin to appeal to Baal to honor their prayers by sending down heavenly fire upon their sacrifice. This goes on all morning long. 1 Kings gives a description which describes Baal's pitiful response to this situation: "there was no voice and no one answered."
Finally, around noon Elijah begins to taunt and mock the priests of Baal. He sneers at their attempts to rouse Baal. Maybe Baal has gone to sleep; maybe nature has called and he's preoccupied; he may have even gone on a journey. This sends the priests into a frenzy. They take their knives and begin to lacerate their bodies. Although this may seem bizarre to us, this was standard practice for many of the ancient religions. There are stories of the cult of Cybele in which the male worshipers not only lacerated themselves but actually engaged in self-mutilation. They did this in hopes of moving him to compassion for his worshipers. In any case all the dancing, screaming, and bleeding had no effect on Baal: "there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention." Baal had failed miserably in this contest. Would Elijah's God do any better?
It is about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the time of the evening sacrifice. Elijah takes 12 stones and rebuilds the altar which had originally been on Carmel and which had been dedicated to Yahweh. By using 12 stones instead of 10 for the altar, Elijah is communicating that God had never intended for the nation of Israel to be divided religiously, politically maybe, but never religiously. The true worship of Yahweh at Jerusalem was the only worship He sanctioned. Next, he places the wood and the animal on the altar.
At this point Elijah does an "in-your-face" move. He digs a trench which would hold about 5 gallons of water round the base of the altar. Then he orders some men (maybe some of the priests Obadiah had previously hidden) to take pitchers of water taken from a nearby stream and soak the animal and the wood with the water. He commands them to do this 3x. The result is that not only are the wood and animal soaking wet but that the trench itself is overflowing with water. This heightens the tension and drama of the situation.
Elijah now steps back and prays to Yahweh. Note the difference between his prayer and the prayers of Baal's priests. Whereas they prayed all day long, Elijah prayed for just a moment. Whereas they lacerated themselves with knives so that blood flowed from their bodies, Elijah engaged in no such activity. Just the simple prayer of a man totally in communion with God. How we pray is not as important as who we pray to.
He addresses his prayer to "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel." Note that he calls Jacob "Israel" instead of "Jacob," Israel being the name God gave him AFTER He had transformed him. He does this to show that although the 10 northern tribes called themselves "Israel," they alone did not constitute Israel; it took all 12 tribes to make up God's people.
By appealing to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Elijah is also referring to Him as the God who made a covenant with these 3 men and their descendants. God has kept His part of the covenant; He has remained faithful to the people. The fact that He sent Elijah to them and that He was about to prove that He alone was God was evidence enough that He was still faithful to them. It was not He who broke the covenant; it was they who had broken the covenant. They were the ones who had been faithless in their relationship with God. As Paul says: "[Our] unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true though every man be found a liar, as it is written, 'That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged' " (Rom. 3:3, 4). God is never the cause of our broken relationship with Him. The full responsibility of a broken relationship lies with the person, not with God.
At this point one of the greatest moments in Israel's history occurs. Fire shoots down from heaven and consumes the animal and the wood; it also incinerates the stones themselves, even licking up the water in the trench. What happens next is almost comical. The people don't simply fall down and declare: "Yahweh is God!" It is like they are scared out of their wits. They fall down and keep on repeating: "Yahweh is God! Yahweh is God!" (It's like what Larry Talbert told me the day the US tried to lay a bomb right on top of Saddam Hussein. They may not have gotten him; however, he had to take a shower right after that. In the same way several of the people there had to take showers right after this episode occurred.)
The people are overwhelmed by what they have just seen and realize that Elijah is certainly God's man. They will do whatever he tells them to do. Elijah now seizes the moment and orders them to execute the prophets of Baal. The people comply, taking the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slaughtering them. (This is not vengeance on Elijah's part but rather the execution of God's judgment against false prophets and idolators. Although the church is not entrusted with this task, a worse judgment will befall these kinds of violators on Judgment Day.)
Next Elijah sends word to Ahab and tells him to start feasting because he can hear the sound of rain coming. He then goes with a servant boy to the edge of the Carmel ridge overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and starts praying for rain. The posture he assumes is one of utter humility; he sits on the ground with his head between his knees. After praying, he asks the servant boy if he sees any rain clouds coming. When the boy replies: "No," Elijah returns to praying. This same episode occurs 7x. On the 7th occasion the boy replies that he sees a cloud the size of a hand approaching. Elijah now knows that rain is coming.
Elijah rushes down to Ahab and tells him that he must hurry in his chariot back to his palace in Jezreel if he wants to escape getting caught in a quagmire caused by the rain in the Valley of Jezreel. Elijah though does not send Ahab off by himself. Instead, empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, Elijah not only runs by Ahab's chariot, he actually outruns Ahab's chariot from Carmel to Jezreel (over 20 miles in distance). The site of these 2 men traveling together to Jezreel demonstrates the relationship God wanted His prophets and kings to have all along. They were not meant to be antagonists but rather co-leaders in ruling His people. This is for all practical purposes the last glimmer of hope Israel will experience for the next 100+ years. Israel's repentance was short-lived. In spite of this spectacular event, Israel will lapse once more into idolatry. She is headed for the cataclysm of 721 BC.