I recently re-read Elijah’s story (1 Kings 17-19) – a familiar story that we should read and ponder periodically. Elijah, the Tishbite, was a prophet called by God. As we read the story, we see that he was successful in all he did. He predicted a famine that came true. During the famine, he (God through him) miraculously provided ingredients for a starving widow and her son – enough to feed them and Elijah as well. When her son fell sick and died, Elijah laid on top of the boy and brought him back to life. The God of Elijah demonstrated his favor in the midst of famine and pestilence.
During this time, King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, reigned over Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. Influenced by Jezebel, Ahab abandoned the Lord, setting up a temple to establish the worship of Baal. The Israelites, the people God had rescued from Egypt, followed his lead, abandoning Yahweh to worship the god, Baal. God was not happy. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. Not something one would want on their résumé.
Elijah’s famine prediction was given to Ahab in person – a bold move since Ahab tended to eliminate (kill) prophets that brought bad news. But it was more than a prediction. At Elijah’s word only would rain break the famine. Ahab was not happy. Elijah went into hiding, as did all of God’s prophets. It was while he was steering clear of Ahab that Elijah encountered the widow and her son.
Then God instructed Elijah to go present himself to Ahab with updated information about the famine. God’s instruction to Elijah: Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth. Elijah’s God directed him to go see Ahab, the king that killed prophets, the king that referred to Elijah as “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah quickly pointed out that Ahab was the real troubler. He then proceeded to show Ahab which god was really in charge – Yahweh or Baal. This is where the story got really good.
Elijah instructed Ahab to assemble the people at Mount Carmel and to bring along the 450 prophets of Baal as well as 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah. Interestingly, Ahab obeyed Elijah and gathered up all the people and prophets. Elijah then spoke to the people: How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. The people had no response. Elijah suggested a demonstration, a lab test of sorts, to help the people in their decision-making process…
I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left*, but Baal has 450 prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.
The people’s response? “Well said.” So the demonstration began. The 450 prophets of Baal prepared their bull on an altar and called on their god. And they called and called. No response. From morning until noon they called. Nothing. At noon, Elijah couldn’t contain himself and started to taunt the prophets of Baal…
You’ll have to shout louder than that to catch the attention of your god! Perhaps he is talking to someone or is out sitting on the toilet, or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!
So shout they did – for a few more hours. Nothing! Then Elijah summoned the people. He rebuilt the altar that Ahab had destroyed years earlier. He had the bull prepared, dug a trench around the altar, and had the people soak the bull and the wood. They soaked it so completely that the runoff filled the trench. Then it was Elijah’s turn…
O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.
Immediately the fire of the Lord consumed the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. Success! When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”
Elijah then wrapped up the day by instructing the frenzied crowd to seize and slaughter the prophets of Baal. A complete victory! It’s the stuff movies are made of, starring the likes of Charlton Heston or Matt Damon or Liam Neeson. Good versus evil kind of stuff. It’s the kind of stories we love.
But this is only part of the story. It gets better. Next time, the rest of the story!
* This was hyperbole on Elijah’s part. Elijah knew that Obediah, the “Jarvis” of Ahab’s palace, secretly hid 100 prophets in caves before Ahab could have them killed.