Formations 01.18.2015: Elijah’s Challenge

1 Kings 18:17-24, 38-40

Baal with thunderbolt, found at the acropolis in Ras Shamra (Ugarit), Syria

Baal with thunderbolt, found at the acropolis in Ras Shamra (Ugarit), Syria

After years of drought, Elijah at last demands a meeting with King Ahab. He rebukes the king as the one who is troubling Israel and proposes a contest on Mount Carmel to decide once and for all whether Baal or Yahweh is worthy of worship. There, Elijah accuses the people of hobbling back and forth between two opinions. It is time for them to make up their minds.

This lesson could easily explore the issue of divided spiritual loyalties today, and this topic is indeed worthy of attention. Remember, however, that the unit deals with “Elijah’s Witness.” What was it like for Elijah to be given such a challenging, even dangerous, message to impart? What fears keep us from speaking the truth about the failings of our own culture?


• When have you needed to tell a powerful person something he or she was not likely to want to hear?
• When have you felt shunned or mocked for holding an unpopular opinion?
• How can Christians speak the truth about God—and about the idolatries of their culture—without an attitude of self-righteousness or triumphalism?

Reference Shelf


The Canaanite god, Baal, is referred to in both the OT and the Ras Shamra Ugaritic texts. The Ras Shamra tablets, which date to about the fifteenth century B.C.E., describe Baal as a weather or storm god. The storm god’s role is reflected in the sculptured representations of Baal who is featured as a man equipped as a warrior, with a thunderbolt as a spear in his left hand, an uplifted mace in his right hand, a short kilt around his waist and thighs, and a helmet with horns. The horns were symbolic reminders of the bull, Baal’s sacred animal and symbol of fertility, and of Baal’s role as the god of fertility. Baal was one of a number of gods comprising the Canaanite pantheon. He is identified as the son of Dagon, the fertility god of the Philistines (Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 5:2); however, El was generally recognized as the father of the gods of the pantheon. Baal is also referred to as Hadad or Baal-Hadad, though Hadad, a semitic storm god, and Baal are usually recognized as separate deities. As a storm god, Baal was described as ‘”the rider of the clouds” reminiscent of a description of Yahweh (Ps 68:4). Baal was also called “the Prince.” Baal was associated with Mount Zaphon. In the Ras Shamra texts, Anath, described as “the virgin Anath,” was both sister and consort of Baal.

One of the greatest surges of Baal worship came during the reign of Ahab. Prompted by his wife Jezebel, Ahab initiated a cultural reform movement, the focal point of which was the Tyrian Baal, the god of Jezebel’s homeland (I Kgs 16:31). The cultural reform, which was in essence a missionary program, included the construction of a temple for Baal (1 Kgs 16:32), and the importing of Baal missionaries, that is, the prophets of Baal and Asherah (1 Kgs 18: 19). The statement that the prophets of Baal and Asherah ate “at Jezebel’s table” (v. 19c) probably indicates this was a government-funded program.

Lamoine Devries, “Baal,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 79–80.

The Context on Mount Carmel

The meeting is a dramatic confrontation that consists in only one quick exchange (18:17-19). The king speaks first (18:17). He should, because he is the king. He asks a question that parallels the question of Obadiah in v. 7. But whereas Obadiah’s question is an act of deference, Ahab’s is an accusation. He identifies Elijah as a disturber of Israel. The implication is that the realm would not be in trouble if it were not for the prophet; that is, there would be no drought. The accusation is not unlike the ill- informed statement of the widow in 17:18.

Elijah’s response is denial and countercharge (18:18-19). It is the king who in fact troubles Israel. This is an amazing charge against the king, that the king is a disturber of the peace. The charge con- cerns not only the king, but the king’s family, that is, the House of Omri. We have seen that the dynasty is formidable (16:23-34); but we have also seen that the dynasty, from Yahwistic perspective, is evil. The consequence is the contest at Carmel that will involve 450 prophets linked to Baal, 400 with Asherah, all under the patronage of Jezebel. The issue is joined! There is no doubt that Israel is “troubled.” We will see who is to be blamed….

The actual contest is wondrous street theater with everything dramatized and overstated (18:20-40). Mt. Carmel may indeed be simply a convenient location, or it may be that as a “high place” it is appropriate to divine presence. Or it is possible that the name “Carmel” is appropriated as “vineyard of God,” thus alluding to fertility. Elijah sets the issue of the meeting in his initial address to the people (18:21). The purpose is to force a decision among the people who have refused to decide. “Limping” means to engage in a cultic dance in celebration of Baal while professing Yahweh. The prophet insists that the two loyalties are mutually exclusive and one cannot have it both ways. The response of silence may indicate the resistance of the people. The last thing they want is to decide. Elijah directs the preparation for the contest with bulls and fire. He lays down the ground rules so that there will be no doubt when the scores are tallied….

The response is decisive. The people drew the only conclusion that could be drawn (18:39): “Yahweh is God, Yahweh is God.” The verdict is inescapable. There are no more “two opinions.” There is one opinion. Yahweh is acknowledged, Baal is routed and eliminated from consideration. But the response is more than affirmation. As Elijah is vindicated, so the prophets of Baal, the ones linked to Jezebel, who worked in vv. 22-29, are thoroughly discredited. This is a contest for “keeps” and they have lost. Within the context of the narrative, they are likely not surprised at their fate. They are executed as Elijah surely would have been had things gone otherwise. Perhaps ironically, they are killed in the wadi, the gully that is now dry, but that will, by the gift of Yahweh, soon surge with water. Yahweh is known to be God, but Yahweh must always and again demonstrate power and defeat rivals who endlessly challenge.

The narrative culminates with the overwhelming gift of rain, thus exhibiting the outcome of Yahweh’s victory, Yahweh’s sovereignty, and Elijah’s confirmation (18:41-46). Importantly, Yahweh’s victory is over Baal, for it is Baal who is reckoned in Canaanite religion to be the rainmaker. The announcement of drought (17:1) and of rain (18:1) are defiant claims on the part of Yahweh; it is Yahweh and not Baal who makes rain. The contest and victory over Baal in vv. 20-40 are now a harbinger that Yahweh will give rain, the firstfruits of the rule of Yahweh in an arid, drought-ridden context. This is Yahweh the creator, the maker of heaven and earth, the guarantor of fruitfulness who now gives rain as gift and as sign of sovereignty.

Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 222–24, 226–27.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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