1 Kings 17:1-19:21 – Elijah Battles Baal
SummaryFirst Kings draws on another source for these dramatic stories that relate the battle between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the Canaanite god Baal.
AnalysisOmri was followed by his son, Ahab. Ahab's queen, Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre (a city in modern Lebanon), tried to introduce the worship of Tyrian Baal as the state religion of Israel and violently dealt with any prophetic opposition. The confrontation between Jezebel and her lord, Baal, and Elijah and his lord, Yahweh, will occupy the closing chapters of 1 Kings and the first third of 2 Kings. Chapters 17-19 form a self-contained triptych of Elijah: the first panel presents Elijah's call (17:1-24), the second his success as Yahweh's prophet (18:1-19:1), and the third his dismissal (19:2-21).
In chapter 17, Elijah bursts upon the scene with the declaration that there "will be neither dew nor rain these three years, except by my word" (v. 1, emphasis added). Usually the word of the Lord precedes the prophetic announcement; since it now follows in verse 2, Elijah's outburst is shown to be premature. He must learn what prophets are all about. At the Wadi Cherith (vv. 3-6) he is sustained by ravens and learns to obey ("went and did according to the word of the LORD" v. 5). When the wadi dries up he moves to Zarephath (vv. 7-16) where he learns to minister to a widow who, in turn, sustains him and obeys the word of Elijah (v. 15a). Finally (vv. 17-24), Elijah learns to pray in an intercessory fashion and God obeys Elijah by restoring life to the widow's son (v. 22). The widow now recognizes that Elijah is a prophet (as does the reader) when she says, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth" (v. 24).
In chapter 18, the actual contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal is engaged on Mount Carmel. Each side erects an altar and prepares a bull for sacrifice, but no fire is kindled. The contest consists in seeing which god will send fire for the sacrifice; that god will be the true god and worthy of worship. The prophets of Baal pray, dance, and even slash themselves with swords in an endeavor to invoke Baal's aid, all with no success. After taunting the prophets and ridiculing their ineffective measures and nonresponsive god, Elijah douses his altar with twelve jars of water (where this water came from in the midst of a three-year drought is a mystery) and calls upon the name of the Lord, who responds immediately with a bolt of lightning ("fire of the LORD") that laps up the water, consumes the bull and (to the utter joy of the "high-place-hating" Deuteronomistic editors) the altar itself. The prophets of Baal are then destroyed in accordance with Deuteronomy 13:13-15. This middle panel of the triptych exalts Elijah as Israel's true prophet even as it displays Yahweh as the true God.
In chapter 19, the scene shifts to Mount Horeb (Sinai) where Elijah, depicted as Moses, cowers before the wrath and death threat of Jezebel. When asked what he is doing so far from the battle against Baal, the prophet offers a long lament about the futility of the cause (v. 10). God responds with a non-theophany of wind, earthquake, and fire, again recalling the theophany to Moses at this very spot (vv. 11-12; compare Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:12). But when God again asks what Elijah is doing, Elijah responds with the same pitiful lament (1 Kings 19:13-14). As a result, God has no other option than to gently dismiss the "burned out prophet" from his duties and prepare the way for the next line of defense in the battle with Baal: Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu, emphasizing that it is God who battles Baal, not the prophets. When the prophets are willing, God will use them; when they are not, God will find others.