YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between May 29 and June 4 if after Trinity Sunday)
1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39
The reading set for today is taken from the middle of the Elijah story which begins in 1 Kings 17. We need to go back even further to 1 Kings 16 to get the background to the story. The setting is the northern kingdom of Israel. The united kingdom under David and then Solomon had divided into two after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The latter was ruled by a continuous line of descendants of king David. The northern kingdom, on the other hand, was ruled by a series of five dynasties, most of which were short lived. One of its longer lasting and more powerful dynasties was that of Omri. His story is told very briefly in 1 Kgs 16: 25-28. The brevity of the biblical account of Omri does not do service to that king’s prowess of which we know from ancient documents outside the Bible. He was a powerful king with a great reputation. In fact, the northern kingdom of Israel was known in the region as ‘the house of Omri’ well beyond the end of Omri’s actual dynasty.
The Biblical story focusses not on Omri but on his well-known son and heir Ahab. He too was a powerful king in the region although the biblical story paints him as weak in places, especially where his wife Jezebel is involved. We know right from the start of the biblical story of Ahab that he is not favoured by God or the writers (see 1 Kgs 16:30). He quickly becomes the protagonist of the prophet Elijah. At the start of Elijah’s story we are told that through him the Lord declares a drought on the land of Israel (1 Kgs 17:1-7). That is the setting for the story in chapter 18.
At the start of chapter 18 Elijah is sent by the Lord to confront Ahab. They meet in vv. 17-19 where the issue between them is highlighted. Ahab is accused in part of following ‘the Baals’, and hence promoting Baal worship. Elsewhere it stresses that Jezebel was a major instigator of this and was killing prophets of Israel’s God, Yahweh (see 18:4, 13). Baal was a major god of the Canaanites and other peoples in the region. Jezebel had been a Phoenician princess before marriage to Ahab so it makes sense she is involved in this as Baal and Asherah were the major god and goddess respectively of the Phoenicians. Baal was a storm god and considered responsible for the fertility of the land. The drought declared by Yahweh is then an affront and challenge to Baal’s power, and hence the basis of Ahab’s power. There are political as well as religious issues involved.
The struggle between Yahweh and Baal, and between Elijah and Ahab, begins for real in vv. 20-21. The nature of the contest is outlined in the section which may be omitted from today’s reading, vv. 22-29. Two altars are constructed and a bull is to be offered on each, one to Baal and one to Yahweh, and they are to see which god sends fire down on the offering to consume it. The prophets of Baal seem to have the advantage in going first and perform as much ritual, noise and activity as they can muster. While the narrative paints the prophets of Baal in a rather comical and pathetic way there is the suggestion that some of the rituals described may have been associated with the worship of Baal. In the end, however, the writer says ‘there was no voice, no answer, and no response.’ (v. 29) Elijah had urged them ‘Cry aloud! Surely he (Baal) is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and has to be awakened.’ (v. 27) There is significant irony here and ridicule because either Baal is attending to his own religious life (meditating or on pilgrimage) or is overcome by human needs (wandering, possibly relieving himself, or sleeping). Is this the work of a god? Another suggestion is that the sleeping idea might relate to the belief that during the dry season in the land Baal did indeed take rest.
Elijah is cast in the story as being up against it at a number of levels. He is massively outnumbered (cf. v. 22). When his turn comes he makes the task even more difficult by building a trench around the altar and dousing the lot with water until the trench is full. Elijah’s prayer to Yahweh is simple and short compared to the lengthy rituals of the prophets of Baal, but nevertheless fire descends from heaven to consume not only the offering on Elijah’s altar, but the stones themselves. All this is accomplished by Yahweh with Elijah essentially reduced to a servant preparing the scene. Against this is the fact that Baal's prophets work as hard as they can only to have their god unresponsive.
The prayer that Elijah offers before the fire comes (vv. 36b-37) summarises the whole episode. It is a matter of who is god, Yahweh or Baal, and which god do the people put their trust in. Elijah’s building of his altar alludes to the old traditions of Yahweh: he repairs the altar of Yahweh which had fallen into disrepair, the name of the patriarch Jacob is mentioned, and he uses twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 30-32). The context of the drought already proclaims the end of the contest. Yahweh calls the drought, something which Baal, the bringer of rain and fertility, should be able to counter but cannot. In his mockery Elijah said of Baal ‘Surely he is god’ (v. 27). Finally the people proclaim emphatically in v. 39 ‘Yahweh is indeed God, Yahweh is indeed God.’
This is a passage about one’s ultimate allegiance and faithfulness and whether the history with and the experience of Yahweh, with its release from slavery, will weigh up against more immediate and tangible ‘benefits’ of rain and crop growth attributed to Baal by those peoples around Israel. It is also a matter, especially in the figure of Elijah, whether that history and experience will weigh up against the terrible pressure coming from Jezebel’s persecution and killing of those prophets who remained faithful to Yahweh. There were those who secretly aided the faithful (vv. 3-4) but later even Elijah feels the pressure of the persecution (1 Kgs 19:9b-10). The passage makes it clear that worship and faith are matters of choice. That choice is set before the people by Elijah at the very start (v. 21). They make their choice based on what happens before them at the end of the story (v. 39). The ‘miracle’ of the story becomes the convincing factor. But the story was not written for just the generation of supposed witnesses to the ‘miracle’. Like the end of John’s Gospel the real point in the story is for those ‘who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (see John 20:20). Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal is a reminder to us who, although not faced with the issue of religious syncretism as in Elijah’s story, still have a choice of commitment in the face of scepticism, apathy, a smorgasbord of so-called ‘spiritualities’, or a developing vigorous atheism which surrounds the church in the present world. Even more dangerous perhaps are some expressions of Christian faith that focus on Jesus the ‘good man’ without concern for the theological thought about Jesus in the New Testament and the life of the Church.
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