Elijah at Mount Carmel
- Main text: 1 Kings 18:[17-19] 20-39
- Optional text: Mark 9:2-4
What this passage means to us
At first appearance, it can seem odd that Elijah is one of Israel’s most revered prophets. Unlike other prophets, there is no book with his name, and the actual records of his exploits only make up a small section of the history recorded in first and second Kings. Yet Elijah was often viewed as the next most important prophet in Israel’s history after Moses and it came as no surprise to the disciples when Elijah appeared to them during the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-4).
Part of this no doubt lies with his mysterious transportation up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). Or Malachi’s prophesy, found at the very end of the Old Testament, that Elijah will return to Israel before the Day of the Lord (Mal 4:5). Yet, it would be hard to speak of Elijah’s renown without mentioning this passage with its powerful image of Elijah standing alone before 450 enemy prophets in a climatic showdown.
Yet at the heart of Elijah’s story is Israel’s idolatry. The showdown highlights that Israel’s choice is not between two rival gods. There is only one God, and Israel needs to decide who it is. The competing claims of Yahweh and Baal make them mutually exclusive, and Israel needs to make a decision. This is a theme that Jesus takes up in the gospel of Matthew when he comments on storing up treasures on earth or in heaven – it is impossible two serve two masters (Matthew 6:24) and a choice is required of us. In many ways, our secular society offers up the same issue when it argues that all faiths are equal, while clearly respect and tolerance are required in multi-faith dialogue, at the end of the day the claims of Christianity are either true or false and it is folly to suggest that all religions lead to God.
Context and Storyline
“Israel found the worship of Baal attractive. The idols of the Canaanite fertility god offered them something tangible to worship, and Baal’s festive occasions fed Israelite passions for wine and immorality. Baal was lord of the vine, and god of fertility, so Baalism taught heavy drinking and sexual license as religious duty.” After King Ahab had married a Phoenician, Jezebel, the worship of Baal became widespread in Israel, leading to Elijah’s pronouncement in 1 Kings 17:1 that a drought will come to Israel.
The contest in our passage comes after the drought had entered into its third year. Despite Baal being known as a thunder god, his prophets had been unable to relieve the drought and at Elijah’s request a contest is arranged between himself and 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. Elijah’s challenge is ‘how long will you waver between two opinions’ (1 King 18:21), i.e. how long will you try to serve two masters? To worship both Baal and Yahweh.
In the ensuing contest, Elijah goes to great length to ensure that the prophets of Baal have every opportunity for success. There are 450 of them, he lets them choose which bull they want to sacrifice, he lets them go first and lets them continue to call upon Baal for hours, but to no avail. The prophets of Baal even mutilate themselves in an effort to call upon their god.
When Elijah’s turn comes, what he does is highly charged and symbolic. He repairs the altar of the Lord that had been torn down using 12 stones to signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The altar is then doused 12 times (three emptying of four jars), which would have brought to mind the crossing of the Jordan in the time of Joshua (Johsua 4:1-7, 19-24).
This water not only served to remind Israel of her history, it also highlighted what was at stake. This contest was not just about fire, it was about which God had power over life, which God could bring, or withhold, the rain. The drought was so fierce at the time that King Ahab had sent his palace administrator out looking for water (1 Kings 18:5), and here Elijah is wasting the precious water on dousing an altar, removing any chance that the prophets of Baal could claim that they have been cheated.
When the moment comes for Elijah to call upon God, his prayer is simple. He calls upon the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, the God of Israel’s ancestors, to let it be known that Yahweh is Lord in Israel. God answers Elijah’s prayer and the the fire is so intense it consumes the stones and soil itself. Israel responds by falling ‘prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”’ (1 Kings 18:39). As Israel returns to the Lord, the drought is lifted and the rains return to Israel (1 Kings 18:44).
- Matthew 6:19-34
- James 5:17-18
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and References
- William S. LaSor et al, Old Testament Survey: The message, form and background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, 1996). 202.