1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls

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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.

Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment

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Judges 4 and Judges 5 retell essentially the same story – that of our only female judge, Deborah. The story in Judge 4 is told in prose form, while the story in Judge 5 is a song/poem supposedly sung by two of the principle characters as a summary of the events that have recently transpired. In that sense, it’s quite like Miriam’s song in Exodus 15.

Since the two cover much of the same ground, I will be following the Judges 4 account and only reference Judges 5 as interests me at the relevant points in the story.

The story takes up after Ehud’s death (skipping over poor Shamgar and his ox-goad), when God sells the people into the hands of King Jabin of the Canaanites. King Jabin, as I am certain you recall, was killed by Joshua in Josh. 11:10-11.

But not so fast, contradiction thumpers! Claude Mariottini has an alternative explanation:

In Joshua 11:1-14 Jabin appears as the king of Hazor who formed a confederacy of Canaanite kings to fight against Joshua and the people of Israel. In Judges 4:2, Jabin appears as a king of Canaan whose kingdom was in Hazor. For this reason, scholars believe that Jabin was a throne name for the kings of Hazor.

Or, of course, it’s possible that the author(s) of Joshua simply ascribed to him all the heroic conquest-related deeds that they’d heard of, which included some that had originally been told of local heroes, called ‘judges’ in this book.

This King Jabin has been oppressing the Israelites for 20 years with the help of his commander, Sisera. It is Sisera who plays the part of arch-nemesis to our intrepid heroes in these chapters, and he is certainly a worthy opponent. We are told that Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots! Nine hundred! Iron chariots, if you’ll remember from Judges 1:19, are the super weapon that even an army with God on its side can’t stand against.

The Song of Deborah is a little less clear on the aggressor-victim dichotomy, perhaps having been spared, by virtue of its poetic flow, the editing hand that has been making all these heroic stories conform to the ‘a) the people sin, b) God leaves them, c) God takes pity, d) a judge rises, e) the judge brings peace, f) it all starts again’ narrative pattern.

And so we are told of God marching out, causing the mountains to quake before him. And we’re told of the caravans ceasing in the days of Shamgar (yes, he does get a mention in Judges 5, though the preceding chapter seems never to have heard of him), implying perhaps that it was the Israelites who were raiding caravans.

It’s not clear and, frankly, the language is so awkward that I had trouble following it. It’s Collins who clued me in that there might be a difference between the two accounts:

According to Judges 4, the Lord delivered Israel into the hand of King Jabin of Hazor. One might assume, then, that Jabin was the oppressor. The song in chapter 5, however, gives a different impression, as it boasts that the Israelites were successfully plundering the caravan routes. The battle that ensued was not a war of liberation but simply a clash between two groups that had competing economic interests. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 110)

Enter Deborah

We are told of Deborah, Ephraimite prophetess and the wife of Lappidoth. We are told that she was “judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4) from under a palm between Ramah and Bethel, where the people would come to her for judgement.

I noted as I was reading that the situation looks just like a government seating, in which a leader (a king, chief, or elder) would hear petitions and arbitrate. But it struck me that this was being done under a palm tree – not in a courthouse, or a divan, or even at the city gates.

It changed the tone, and the image I got was less “sanctioned official of the law” and more “wise woman in the woods who has popular authority but not legal authority.” Claude Mariottini seems to agree:

Since Deborah would not have fit into the traditional social and legal structures of Israel and since she could not act as a judge at the city gate, she probably performed her role at another place and in another setting: under a palm tree.

It’s strange, both that she is unique as a female judge and that she seems to be operating outside of the normal social structure. In the words of God himself:

Verily, I have never divined what it was about the ancient Jews’ rigidly patriarchal polygamous society that made it so hard for its female chattel to succeed therein; Especially since women were regarded as clean, uncursed, and fit to appear in public nearly three-quarters of the time. (The Last Testament, Javerbaum. p.120)

Deborah summons Barak, a military leader. Whatever her seat under the palm tree may suggest, her ability to muster Israel’s armies certainly does give her an aura of formally recognized authority.

When she summons Barak son of Abinoam, of the tribe of Naphtali, she tells him in the prose version to gather together soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun.

In the verse, she has him summon Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (apparently another name for Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. The Transjordan tribes, Reuben and Gilead (apparently another name for Gad), and the coastal tribes of Dan and Asher refused to come. Judah, Simeon, and Levi get no mention at all.

And then there’s Meroz. According to Collins:

The song singles out the otherwise unknown Meroz to be cursed, because its inhabitants did not come to the aid of the Lord. The song suggests that there was an alliance of tribes who worshipped YHWH. There was some obligation of mutual defense, but there are no sanctions against the tribes that did not show up, with the exception of Meroz (which may not have been a tribe at all). The alliance did not extend to all twelve tribes. The omission of Judah is significant. The bond between Judah and the northern tribes was weak, and this eventually led to the separation of the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon.

Judah is included in the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, but there Simeon is missing. It would seem that the number twelve was not as stable in the premonarchic period as is often supposed. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.104)

As long as you follow

When given his instructions, Barak is unsure. He says: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8).

According to Claude Mariottini, all of this has to do with the belief that God is with Deborah:

Barak was so convinced that Deborah was sent by God that he refused to go into battle without her presence, since her presence with the army would insure the presence of God with Israel and victory against the enemies.

In response, Deborah agrees to go, but she tells Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). This, according to Mariottini, is so unthinkable that it would constitute proof that God really was involved in the victory.

It’s strange, because my impression when reading was the tonal opposite of what Mariottini sees. In my mind, Barak’s request that Deborah come along was a challenge – he was essentially challenging her legitimacy as a leader when, as a woman, she would not even be going into battle. She rebukes him, not only agreeing to go into battle, but then also taking away (by virtue of her connections with the Big Office) his glory in the endeavour, putting the victory into female hands.

It was the “the road on which you are going” phrasing that framed it for me, I think. What could that refer to, if not to Barak’s questioning of God/Deborah’s will in the matter, and his imposition of conditions upon his obedience to God/Deborah’s command?

Either way, they head off with their army (whatever its tribal composition), and Sisera takes the bait. In the Judges 5 version, a storm causes the Kishon river to sweep away Sisera’s army (presumably miring those terrifying iron chariots).

Seeing the tide of battle and river turn against him, Sisera jumps down from his chariot and runs off on foot.

In Jael’s tent

We are told of Heber the Kenite. Here, again, we are told that the Kenites are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (here called Hobab, which agrees with Num. 10:29. He is called Reuel in Exod. 2:18-21, and Jethro in Exod. 3:1, 4:18, 18:1, and 18:5). This matches their stated origin in Judges 1:16, though it creates problems in light of their clearly pre-dating Hobab (as they were mentioned in Gen. 15:18-21).

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

This Heber has separated from the rest of the Kenites and settled near Kedesh, where the battle is taking place. We are told, also, that there was peace between Heber and King Jabin, so when Sisera saw their camp, he must have thought that he would find asylum.

Instead of meeting Heber, however, he met Heber’s wife, Jael. She invites him into her tent and, in the Judges 4 version, hides him under a rug.

Before long, Sisera asks her for a drink of water, and she brings him milk instead (in both version of the story). In the poetic version, she also brings him “curds in a lordly bowl” (Judges 5:25). Sisera then asks her to stand guard at the door and to tell anyone who asks that she is alone.

In Judges 4, Sisera is exhausted (presumably from his battle and subsequent flight from such), and he falls asleep. Jael takes the opportunity to jam a tent peg into his skull with a hammer so hard that the peg comes out the other side and is driven into the ground. Even more badass, she apparently does it while he is awake in the Judges 5:27 account.

Having murdered Sisera, Jael goes out to meet Barak and shows him the body. For this, she is the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24), and fulfils Deborah’s earlier prophecy.

There are a few difficulties with Jael’s story. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that murdering their military commander qualifies as a violation of a peace agreement. Not only that, but she murdered a guest in her home – something that seems rather clearly to be a huge no-no in her cultural milieu. It seems that she opportunistically chose to back the winners. None of this is addressed in the text, she is simply lauded for her actions. It’s hard to wonder how this could be, except that her actions benefit Israel.

Claude Mariottini takes a different view:

However, Sisera’s action was a violation of Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Sisera’s action was a violation of Heber’s family and dishonored Jael by entering her tent. As a man, Sisera should had approached Heber and not his wife.

[…]

From the perspective of the writer of Judges, Jael’s action was justified. Since Sisera had already violated Jael’s honor, Jael’s act could be seen as a vindication of her honor. The killing of Sisera was one way by which she eliminated the threat to her clan and avenged the violation of her tent.

Sisera’s mother

The final portion of the story is mentioned only in the Judges 5 poetic version: We get Sisera’s mother fretting that her son still hasn’t returned, but comforting herself by imagining that he must be busy dividing the spoils – and, she thinks, “a maiden or two for every man” (Judges 5:30).

It’s rather horrendous that a woman is thinking so callously of the abuse and rape that she imagines others of her gender must presently be subjected to. Of course, in the poem, I suppose it’s meant to be funny – while she imagines her son nailing some captive women, it is in fact a woman who is nailing him.

The poem ends with her thinking about all the lovely spoils that her son will be bringing back for her.

Final notes

Claude Mariottini pointed out something interesting: that the only two women we’ve seen called prophets so far – Deborah and Miriam – both have songs. Deborah’s is, of course, in Judges 5, and Miriam’s is in Exodus 15.

I notice, also, that both songs seem to be quite a bit older than texts surrounding them, and that both appear to be somewhat fragmentary. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Canaanite culture was once far more female-friendly, and that the strongly patriarchal elements came later. Perhaps.

I should also mention that Claude Mariottini (who has clearly been a huge help to me in my reading of these two chapters!) has a post about the use of the term “judge” in this book – what it does mean, what it doesn’t mean, and what it may mean. If I tried to explain it here, I’d only be quoting the whole thing, so I’ll link to it instead.

Lastly, Jeremy Myers has a post up on Till He Comes that asks whether the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 might not be sexually suggestive. He uses a translation that is quite different from mine, but largely focuses on the juxtaposition between Jael “penetrating” Sisera (with a phallic tent peg) and Sisera’s mother guessing that he must be running late because he’s so busy “penetrating” all those lovely captive ladies.