The following chapter is a strange one, and I’m really not surprised that I never heard about Elijah in Sunday School. While the story is one of Yahweh’s triumph over Baal, it functions as a blueprint for dismissing all gods (sort of, but I’ll go into more detail when we get to the right spot in the narrative).

Three years later, we’re introduced to Obadiah, a faithful Hebrew and Ahab’s steward. When Jezebel ordered all the prophets of Yahweh killed, Obadiah sheltered a hundred of them in caves, sneaking them bread and water. It seems in this chapter that the word “prophet” is used somewhat interchangeably with “priest.” If there’s a distinction, I’m not picking up on it.

The famine has been particularly hard on Samaria and, in an attempt to save at least some of his animals, Ahab decides to search for water springs. He has Obadiah go one way while he goes the other. It’s during this search that Obadiah happens upon Elijah, who has been sent back by God to confront Ahab.

When Elijah tells Obadiah to go fetch Ahab, Obadiah has a little freak out. Ahab has been looking everywhere for Elijah. If Obadiah tells him that he’s found him, and then they find that he’s disappeared again, Obadiah will be killed! There seems no possibility, in Obadiah’s mind, that Elijah intends to remain. But Elijah convinces Obadiah to go by promising to stay put.

And he does! When Ahab arrives (Obadiah is not dropped from the narrative), Elijah is waiting for him. They have a one-liner exchange in which Ahab calls Elijah “troubler of Israel” (1 Kgs 18:17) and Elijah turns it back against him with a clever “I know you are, but what am I?” Followed with an invitation to gather all the Israelites, including 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, at Mount Carmel. Surprisingly, rather than just killing Elijah on the spot, Ahab complies. As usual, his motivations are never explained.

Interestingly, the prophets of Baal and Asherah are specified as the ones who “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), and I have a feeling that that’s significant. There’s no mention in our readings so far as a table being described as belonging to a woman rather than to her husband, so it seems clear that the author is trying to highlight something. I’m thinking that there are two plausible ways to read this: a) Jezebel is the true ruler of Israel, not Ahab, or b) Ahab tolerates his wife’s religion, but has not converted himself (therefore they are her prophets, not his).

The Contest

The location appears to have been chosen to make a point. According to my New Bible Commentary, “Carmel was one of the heights on which were located places of worship to Baal, and in choosing this Elijah moved into Baal’s own home territory” (p.343).

Ahab arrives, along with all the Israelites. Interestingly, though, the 400 prophets of Asherah are never mentioned at Mount Carmel. It could be that they had been added into the earlier reference, or perhaps Elijah simply never bothered to challenge them. Or maybe they just didn’t show up. For the purposes of the story, it seems clear that this is about a battle between very similar gods, gods who were clearly in competition for the same niche. From a narrative standpoint, this becomes a sort of mirroring, so challenging Asherah as well just wouldn’t have fit.

Elijah addresses the crowd, telling them that they can’t keep waffling between God and Baal. They must choose their god, and they must do it now. The people remain silent, so Elijah proposes a contest: They will fetch two bulls, each cut one bull to pieces and lay it on a pyre. They will then each pray to their god and, whichever sacrifice ignites and consumes itself will declare which god is true.

So the 450 prophets of Baal select their bull and prepare it, and dance around it for hours. At around noon, Elijah starts mocking them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). It could be that Elijah is being literal, asking if Baal really did fall asleep on the job. It feels more like plain mocking, making up absurd excuses to pre-emptively attack the prophets of Baal for what they must surely be preparing to do themselves. Also interesting here is whether Elijah believes that Baal used to be a god who has now been defeated, if he believes that there is and has always been only one god, or if he believes that this is a further demonstration of Yahweh’s power because he is blocking Baal from being able to perform the miracle.

Regardless, I imagine that this passage must be troubling for any adherents who give it some thought. If we challenge God, if we demand a miracle, is failure proof that He has gone aside? That he is asleep?

The prophets of Baal, predictably, react by redoubling their efforts. They cry out and cut themselves, which the text tells us was their way. This reference to self-harm may be intended to be more than just a description of their religious practices. In Deut. 14:1 and Lev. 19:28, where the practice is forbidden (possibly as an attack on Baal worship), it is connected with the worship of the dead. So it could be that the prophets of Baal are starting to lose faith, perhaps they believe that their god has already been defeated and have begun mourning.

Tim Bulkeley mentions the Canaanite Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, in which Baal is taken to the underworld by Mot. According to him, Anat and El call Baal back to life by cutting themselves. If this is the case, it could be that the use of mourning rituals might have become part of Baal worship. However, I was not able to find this detail in the time I spent Googling (it seems instead that it is Mot who is cut up). What I did find was that the story may be intended as a drought myth, rather than a seasonal myth – which seems more than a tad relevant here.

But no matter how hard the prophets of Baal try, the pyre will not self-ignite.

Elijah’s Turn

Elijah begins by rebuilding God’s altar, which we’re told had been torn down. It’s interesting that Elijah, though clearly presented as a proper prophet of God in the middle of a Temple period, is able to build an altar without any sort of condemnation. The rules seem rather flexible when it comes to putting Baal worshippers in their place.

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

He builds the altar using twelve stones, which our pedantic narrator feels the need to tell us represent the twelve tribes. Once this has been done, he digs a large trench around the altar, piles on wood, and lays cow bits over top. To make his magic trick even more astounding, he has the Israelites pour twelve jugs of water over top – soaking the wood and filling the trench that surrounds the altar. That the people were willing to waste so much water is rather surprising.

When Elijah summons God, fire bursts out on the altar, consuming the bull pieces and even moving into the trenches to evaporate the water.

People who really want to see the Bible as a reliable historical record but don’t want to admit that miracles are real have found several ways to explain this one. The most obvious, that Elijah used water from near a fracking site, is a little anachronistic (but I won’t fault the person who came up with it because it was me). That said, some have seriously proposed that Elijah used some hyper flammable liquid instead of water, or perhaps combined two liquids that exploded on contact. Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that the fire was caused by lightening, a first sign of the rain that will come later in the chapter. To all these speculations, I think my New Bible Commentary has the perfect response: These are “only the frenzied attempt to hold on to the Bible without having the faith to believe it” (p.344).

The case is closed, the contest one, and the Israelites are convinced (for now). On Elijah’s orders, they chase down the 450 prophets of Baal and slaughter them.

His blood lust sated, Elijah climbs back up Mount Carmel and puts his face between his knees. He sends his servant to look out toward the see seven times and, on the seventh, the servant sees a little cloud. The drought is about to end.

Elijah tells Ahab to head home quick, because the rain is about to start. That one little cloud doesn’t wait long, though, and the downpour begins. Elijah then girds his loins and runs, managing to beat Ahab back to Jezreel.