1 Kings 18 Elijah’s Showdown with the Prophets of Baal

1 Kings 18

Elijah Stained Glass Window By Cadetgray – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13329347

1 After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” 2 So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria. 3 Ahab summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Now Obadiah revered the LORD greatly; 4 when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, hid them fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water.) 5 Then Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the wadis; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” 6 So they divided the land between them to pass through it; Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.

7 As Obadiah was on the way, Elijah met him; Obadiah recognized him, fell on his face, and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” 8 He answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.” 9 And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would hand your servant over to Ahab, to kill me? 10 As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom to which my lord has not sent to seek you; and when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would require an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. 11 But now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.’ 12 As soon as I have gone from you, the spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where; so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have revered the LORD from my youth. 13 Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid a hundred of the LORD’s prophets fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water? 14 Yet now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here’; he will surely kill me.” 15 Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” 16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah.

17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32 with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33 Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.” 40 Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.

41 Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.” 42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; there he bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees. 43 He said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” He went up and looked, and said, “There is nothing.” Then he said, “Go again seven times.” 44 At the seventh time he said, “Look, a little cloud no bigger than a person’s hand is rising out of the sea.” Then he said, “Go say to Ahab, ‘Harness your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'” 45 In a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind; there was a heavy rain. Ahab rode off and went to Jezreel. 46 But the hand of the LORD was on Elijah; he girded up his loins and ran in front of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.

Elijah’s well-known confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel portrays a public demonstration of the LORD the God of Israel’s power over Baal or any other deity. King Ahab’s policies prior to the drought seemed to be leading Israel to a new time of prosperity: they were oriented on trade with Tyre and Sidon, we know from extra-biblical sources that he built up a large stables and chariot force, and Israel seems to be a force among the local kingdoms. Yet, the three years of drought have reduced Ahab and his palace steward to searching for forage for the animals he has collected. There seems to be little concern for the suffering of the population, at least as 1 Kings narrates the story. The horses and donkeys of the royal stables would have been both symbolic of the wealth of the king and instrumental in the military of Israel. Yet, for all their former strength, now these two men are reduced to seeking the last remnants of water and grass to attempt to keep some of their animals alive.

Obadiah is caught between competing loyalties. Obadiah reveres the LORD and has saved one hundred of the prophets of the God of Israel from those loyal to Queen Jezebel. Yet, Obadiah serves in a position of great responsibility and privilege as the steward of the palace. Obadiah is caught between his overt loyalty to the king, and his covert actions to attempt to care for the servants of the LORD. The appearance of Elijah troubles the delicate balance of his life between the LORD and his lord Ahab.

After three years of drought, and the near death of the widow’s son in the previous chapter providing a human face for the suffering of the years, God declares to Elijah that it is now the time to act and to declare that rain is returning to the region. Elijah will no longer hide in the wadi or in foreign territory. Now he is to go directly to Ahab and to bring the challenge directly to the king of Israel. Elijah’s absence from the public scene has allowed Ahab and Jezebel to eliminate many other prophetic voices that would trouble their reign. Now the king who built an altar to Baal and the prophet of the LORD of Israel are finally going to meet for the first time since Elijah declared an end to the rain and the dew.

Obadiah’s encounter with Elijah foreshadows the challenge Israel faces as it ‘limps between two opinions.’ Obadiah reveres the LORD and bows down before Elijah upon seeing him, and yet he is fearful of reaction of Ahab who has set out to destroy Elijah. The initial response of Elijah to “Go tell your lord the Elijah is here” can also mean “Go tell your lord Lo, the LORD is God.”[1] (NIB III: 132) Obadiah, whose name means ‘worshipper of the LORD,’ now has to choose between his loyalty to God and his prophet and the king who seeks the prophet’s life. Obadiah has danced between the two, saving prophets and serving the king, for years and he fears the potential of the king’s wrath. Elijah has been absent for three years as the king sought him and Obadiah fears that the LORD will whisk him away on the wind once he goes to alert the king. Yet, Elijah assures Obadiah that he will be present when the king returns. Obadiah, once the servant to the king, now goes forth as the messenger of Elijah and by extension Elijah’s LORD.

Ahab, on arrival, declares that Elijah is the ‘troubler of Israel.’ From Ahab’s point of view, Elijah declared the drought which has caused great suffering among the people and animals of the kingdom and has unsettled the land. Yet Elijah declares that it is Ahab and his household that have brought this trouble upon Israel by turning their back on the LORD the God of Israel and worshipping Baal. Elijah proposes a prophetic showdown on Mount Carmel so that the people can stop wavering in their loyalties and choose either the LORD or Baal as the focus of their worship.

Elijah’s challenge to the people is met with silence. Without some demonstration the people seem content with their dual loyalties, but when presented with a demonstration they believe that Elijah’s proposal is well spoken. The numerous prophets of Baal are allowed to begin the show by preparing their altar and bull and calling repeatedly upon the name of Baal. Yet there is no voice and no answer. Like the nation of Israel ‘limping’ between different opinions, the prophets of Baal ‘limp’ around the altar.[2] Elijah mocks their ineffectual cries and actions, declaring they should try harder to summon their god’s attention. Finally, the action of drawing blood is added to their cries and ‘limping’ to attempt to draw the attention of Baal but again there is no voice, no answer, and no response.

Elijah calls the crowd to himself after they have observed the priests of Baal in their wailing and limping and bleeding. Elijah build an altar with twelve stones, summoning the people back to their origin as twelve tribes. It is possible that Elijah is rebuilding a previously existing altar that existed on the site, but the construction of the altar with twelve stones harkens back to the actions to their forefathers. The dimensions of the trench around the altar is disputed, but the action of soaking the altar and the offering with water by the people makes the demonstration of the LORD’s power more impressive. Elijah’s brief appeal to the LORD brings about an instant response as the fire of the LORD consumes the offering, the water, the stones, the wood, and even the dust. The people, upon seeing this demonstration, immediately fall on their faces and reaffirm their loyalty to the LORD.

Elijah demands that the prophets of Baal be seized, and he executes them at the Wadi Kishon. Some view Elijah’s actions as similar to Jezebel’s action of killing the prophets of the LORD.  Jezebel and Ahab probably viewed the killing of the prophets of the LORD as a way of eliminating opponents to their reign. Yet, Elijah probably views this execution of the prophets of Baal as essential to cleansing the land from its idolatry and removing a temptation from the people to return to their divided loyalties. The text does not indicate that the prophets of Asherah are present at this event, but the death of these prophets of Baal in the dry streambed Deborah and Barak battled the forces of King Jabin of Canaan (Judges 4) reasserts the dominion of the LORD over Israel.

In the aftermath of the prophetic challenge, Elijah speaks to Ahab in a very civil manner telling him to go eat and drink. Ahab obeys. Elijah returns to Carmel to await the rain, bowing down and presumably praying for the rain to come. Elijah’s servant is told to look for rain clouds and report back, and after seven trips to the pinnacle to look toward the sea the initial rain cloud is seen. Elijah then sends the message to Ahab to return home before the rain makes the journey impossible by chariot. The action of Elijah girding up his loins and running before the chariot of Ahab can be seen as both a demonstration of the hand of the LORD on Elijah in granting him speed and Elijah serving as one who runs before the king and may indicate a second chance for Ahab.

For the moment, Elijah is safe as he enters Jezreel before the king. The rain comes and washes away the blood that was spilled. The crops and animals languishing in the drought finally have a chance of renewal. And Israel has an opportunity to stop limping between its loyalty to the LORD the God of Israel and the gods of the surrounding nations. Yet, Elijah who here runs before the king will soon run away from a vengeful queen and the way of life represented by Baal has not been uprooted. Miracles rarely seem to produce a lasting change in behavior.

The struggles of Obadiah and Israel as they attempt to limp through life with divided loyalties is a struggle that is relevant to the faithful as they attempt to remain true to their faith in the midst of the demands and constraints of the world. There are times where the faithful will have to reassert that they will follow the LORD and reclaim the obedience to the covenant way of life that the LORD expects. Even through the three years of drought where the prophets have been silenced, God has not abandoned the people and will not let Elijah remain in isolation. God continues to call the king and the people back to the way of the commandments. Yet, even Elijah will struggle with the forces that oppose the prophetic call of faithfulness to the LORD the God of Israel.

[1] Because Elijah’s name means the LORD is God there is this double meaning.

[2] Both are using the Hebrew verb psh. All Hebrew verbs are based on three letters and then conjugated into their form.

2 thoughts on “1 Kings 18 Elijah’s Showdown with the Prophets of Baal

  1. anitashope

    Proof that we still struggle and divide our loyalties even when we know better. Having faith and trusting can get waylaid by the visual chaos we see. Peter trying to walk on the water to Jesus is a perfect example of this…at least to me it is. Thank goodness a hand is always available for us to grab.

  2. Pingback: 1 Kings 19 Elijah Encounters the LORD at Mount Horeb and the Appointment of Elisha | Sign of the Rose

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