Part 2 of "Kings: An Epic Bible Story You've Never Heard"
Domenico Fetti - The Sacrifice of Elijah Before The Priest of Baal
(This entry is part of a series. If you haven't already, check out Part 1: Prophesy of Bones)
First, let me just say Part 2 is about my all time favorite Bible character, Elijah. I could write a series on just Elijah, but the purpose of this series is to focus on the overarching story. I omitted details from Part 1 to achieve this and I intend to treat Part 2 the same way, despite my utter fascination with 1 Kings 17 - 2 Kings 7. If you are interested in anything you read here, I would encourage you to do your own study of these chapters.
The books of Kings tell at least two stories. As the name implies, one of those stories is a chronicle of the kings of Israel and Judah. This story is corroborated by the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. The second story is that of the prophets. If the first story is about what is happening on Earth, the second story is about what is happening in heaven. The first story describes the evil reigns of Jeroboam and Ahab, the second story describes God's response to them.
I haven't bothered to count the number of distinct prophets in these books. A few (like the one who delivered the haunting prophesy to Jeroboam) aren't even named. Two prophets receive more attention than any others, they are Elijah and his successor, Elisha. Even if you've never read the Old Testament before, Elijah should sound familiar because he is the one for whom Jews pour a glass of wine for at each Passover Seder as well as the topic of much conversation during Jesus' life:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
In Part 1, Elijah was the prophet who confronted Ahab after the incident concerning Naboth's vineyard. When they met, Ahab called him "my enemy" because Ahab and Elijah had a history. Part 2 is about that antagonistic history and God's response to the nefarious reign of Ahab and his predecessors.
Part 2: who turns back hearts
A defining moment is a time when the essential nature of a character or group is revealed or identified. There is no better example of a defining moment than when God named Jacob "Israel". Throughout the Old Testament, whenever a person or thing is named, it is almost always done with intention. To name someone is to define it. There a several stories in the Bible when God himself renames someone. He names Abram 'Abraham', Sarai "Sarah" and Saul "Paul" during points in their lives that were life-altering. Jacob was unusual for at least two reasons: (1) after he was renamed, he continues to be referred to as both Jacob and Israel. (2) The story of God naming Jacob occurs twice in the Bible and the two instances are quite different. While explanations concerning Jacob's/Israel's uniqueness vary, the fact that these distinctions exist at least signifies a duality about the nature of Jacob and, by extension, the nation of Israel. Consider how Israel is sometimes described as a "bride" while other times described as a "prostitute". (Jeremiah 2:2, Jeremiah 2:20) During the reign of Ahab, the nation of Israel was behaving more like an earthly 'Jacob', abandoning God's ways and adopting the ways of the world, engaging in the idolatry of the people surrounding them and striving to fit in. As we will see, Elijah is the prophet God appointed to remind the people who they are.
When we first encounter Elijah, no attempt is made at introducing him. For other prophets we read things like, "prophet [...] Micaiah son of Imlah" or "prophet Jehu son of Hanani." The same treatment is not given to Elijah. We don't hear what his occupation is or who his dad is for the same reason no one ever says "Michael Jackson the pop singer" or "Michael Jordan the basketball player." Elijah was legendary and his reputation preceeded him. On the first encounter with Elijah, we simply read, "Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.'" (1 Kings 17:1)
Who does that!? Moses makes a request of pharaoh before the plagues. Nathan tells David a parable. Jonah warns Nineveh of pending doom. With Elijah there are no warnings, no lessons, no demonstrations. Elijah simply strolls into the Bible and says, "God told me to tell you your land is cursed now. Good luck with that. And by the way, this curse will only end when I say it will." Ahab probably didn't even believe Elijah at first, but Elijah went into hiding to escape the fallout that would result once things became desperate.
Three whole years go by without rain and the drought has caused a severe famine. Ahab has been searching far and wide for Elijah and at this point he's about to kill anyone who even mentions Elijah unless they can report that the drought-ender has been found. To end the drought Ahab has consulted every resource he and his advisors can think of but absolutely nothing has worked. While Elijah is now Public Enemy Number One, he's also Israel's only hope. Finally, Elijah declares, "As the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today."
When Ahab approaches Elijah, he says, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?"
But Elijah says, "I have not made trouble for Israel, you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals."
Elijah then invites Ahab to summon the people from all over Israel and 850 of the most influential prophets of Baal and Asherah and to gather at Mount Carmel. This is headline news. Elijah is basically asking Ahab to fill a football stadium for a showdown. And guess what? What Elijah asks for, Elijah gets because it has been three years and the king has learned only Elijah can bring back the rain.
When the day arrives, Elijah opens by asking the audience, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." As if to help the people make up their minds, Elijah calls for two bulls to be brought on stage and he make a proposition: "You call on Baal, I'll call on the Lord. The one who answers by fire is God."
That gives me pause. What does it mean to determine "who is God?" Elijah was posing his challenge to a nation that was surrounded by pluralism and was beginning to believe the Lord could simply be worshipped alongside any other god. I would imagine Elijah may have seemed intolerant, old-fashioned, foolish and naive. Abraham, Jacob and Moses died a long time ago and here Israel was, an independent nation in a modern world, doing nothing worse than what every other surrounding nation was doing. The Israelites had either neglected or entirely forgot the fact that the God of their fathers and grandfathers was completely incompatible with being worshipped alongside other gods. For a nation whose identity is tied so closely to God, whose name literally means "wrestles with God", in forgetting who God is, they had forgotten who they themselves were. Fortunately, Elijah was about to remind them.
The prophets of Baal work all day to arouse the attention of their false God. We read,
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
1 Kings 18:27-29
When at long lasts it seems the prophets of Baal have given up, Elijah confronts his people. In preface to what is about to become the most defiant act against idolatry in history, Elijah opens with an allusion to a defining moment in history: he picks up twelve stones.
"1... 2... 3... 4..."
These twelve stones were probably quite large because as he uses them to build an altar onto which he would later lay the pieces of the bull that was chosen that morning. I like imagining Elijah counting out loud as he added to the pile,
"5... 6... 7... 8..."
The number is a reminder of Israel's identity, the twelve tribes descended from Jacob and the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.
"9... 10... 11... 12."
Elijah finishes the altar. He looks finished, but now he has begun to dig a moat around the altar...
Though the prophets of Baal spent half a day attempting to conjure the spirit of Baal, Elijah has responded by spending half a day stacking stones and digging a moat. Once the moat is finished, he calls for the water. Four large pitchers are brought in but they aren't spilled into the moat as everyone expected, the pitchers are spilled out onto the bull. Elijah calls for water twice more. It isn't until the third dowsing that the altar is so sopping wet that the water has spilled out and filled the moat.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
1 Kings 18:36-37
This is a people who has forgotten who they are, forgotten who named them, and forgotten the idea of a singular God. How powerful is it when such a people are reminded that not only is there only one true God, but that they always were and always will be his. When Elijah asked for an answer from heaven, he requested that God reveal who he is: not a God of power (though this is true) not a God of mercy (though this is true) but a God who can turn back hearts. He is a God who can encounter this modern generation of Israelites in a way that has not been experienced since Mt. Sinai.
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
1 Kings 18: 38-39
After this, Elijah, whose name literally means "my God is The Lord", cooly turns to Ahab and says,
"Go. A heavy rain is on its way."
END OF PART 2