Elijah and mission in a world full of gods (1 Kings 18)

“What are you doing here Elijah?”

This is the question we left off on in yesterday’s post.  The reason God’s question is so apt is that up until now, Elijah had been a man of great success.  More specifically, he’d been a servant of God (his name literally means something like “My God is Yahweh”) during a time of great cultural crisis.  And he kept his cool, so to speak, even when his fellow Israelites were fanning the very flames of hell.

You see, during this period in Israel’s history, the whole nation—even often the leaders—blended their devotion to God with devotion to a whole host of other gods and goddesses, chief among them being a being known as Baal.  It was during the reign of King Ahab—the king during Elijah’s ministry—that a temple and altar are built for Baal (1 Kings 16:31-33).  This all forms the backdrop for Elijah’s mission: to show God’s supremacy over Baal.

It’s worth noting that in our own world we live in a culture of intense spiritual confusion.  Not long ago people tended to be Christian almost as a matter of birthright.  As Americans, we encountered few Muslims or Buddhists or other such faiths, so we concluded that we must be “Christian.”  But in the years since World War II America has seen a great deal of immigration, and the modern movement toward globalization has meant that you and I occupy a world that is significantly more diverse than ever before.  In the face of such diversity, Christianity has lost a great deal of its public force as the “default” American religion, and in its place we celebrate the fact that ours is a nation of great religious pluralism. 

What is pluralism, you ask?  It’s a word we use to describe the diversity of different religions that all operate within our nation’s borders.  If you travel down the highway, you may encounter a bumper sticker that looks something like the image posted here.  “Coexist,” it exhorts us, and the letters of course come from the religious symbols of several major world religions.

Lesslie Newbigin, former missionary to India, has written extensively on this very issue.  If Newbigin were to see that bumper sticker, he’d say that it can mean one of two things:

  • We should coexist because all religions are the same, or…
  • We should coexist because all people should have the freedom to express their own religion.

As Christians, what do we make of this?  Well, whenever we ‘re faced with something like this, we have to ask ourselves: What can I affirm about this?  What might the gospel call me to challenge?  Positively, we may affirm that it there is indeed something good about a culture of religious pluralism, because the freedom of my neighbor to practice Islam assures me that I am free to practice Christianity.  This freedom is a good thing.  But we might also challenge any notion that says that all religions are essentially the same.  Theology aside, I don’t know how to respect my neighbor if I tell him or her that our beliefs are basically the same, and the things that make his beliefs so unique don’t really matter.  That’s not respect; that’s not compassion.  So we can live in harmony with other religions, but we can’t possibly harmonize these other belief systems with Christianity.

I mention all this because this is the essence of the cultural war going on in Elijah’s day.  Elijah’s mission, however, wasn’t primarily about shutting the doors to Baal’s temple; it was about making Baal’s temple go out of business.

Baal, as we mentioned, was one of a host of ancient gods, but the reason he was so popular was that he was thought to be in control of things like the seasons, the crops, and even the power of life over death. If your money came from agriculture, Baal would be a good god to have on your side.  He was useful; he served you as long as you served him.  Who wouldn’t want to devote themselves to Baal?

Elijah had already shown that God was a greater god than Baal.  In the presence of a widow he’d miraculously multiplied food and brought her son back from the dead.  And in 1 Kings 18, we find the most famous story of all: Elijah and the showdown at Mount Carmel.  This was Elijah’s challenge:

20 So Ahab summoned all the people of Israel and the prophets to Mount Carmel. 21 Then Elijah stood in front of them and said, “How much longer will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” But the people were completely silent. (1 Kings 18:20-21)

In his careful study of this chapter, Roland de Vaux points out that Israel and the cult of Baal were thought to “share” this mountain.  So this was a test to see who would really triumph—God or Baal.

22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only prophet of the Lord who is left, but Baal has 450 prophets. 23 Now bring two bulls. The prophets of Baal may choose whichever one they wish and cut it into pieces and lay it on the wood of their altar, but without setting fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood on the altar, but not set fire to it.24 Then call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!” And all the people agreed.

25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “You go first, for there are many of you. Choose one of the bulls, and prepare it and call on the name of your god. But do not set fire to the wood.” (1 Kings 18:22-25)

Now, what follows is as fascinating as it is grotesque.  It was what was known as an “awakening” ceremony.  If the people were loud enough and worked themselves into a sufficient frenzy, then they could curry the favor of Baal and he would respond.  These rituals were known to a surprisingly wide array of ancient writers and historians, some of whom were openly repulsed by the sight of men and women cutting themselves in these ceremonies:

26 So they prepared one of the bulls and placed it on the altar. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made.

27 About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

28 So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. 29 They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response. (1 Kings 19:26-29)

Again, it’s darkly fascinating, but it availed nothing.  Now it was Elijah’s turn:

30 Then Elijah called to the people, “Come over here!” They all crowded around him as he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been torn down. 31 He took twelve stones, one to represent each of the tribes of Israel, 32 and he used the stones to rebuild the altar in the name of the Lord. Then he dug a trench around the altar large enough to hold about three gallons 33 He piled wood on the altar, cut the bull into pieces, and laid the pieces on the wood.

Then he said, “Fill four large jars with water, and pour the water over the offering and the wood.”

34 After they had done this, he said, “Do the same thing again!” And when they were finished, he said, “Now do it a third time!” So they did as he said, 35 and the water ran around the altar and even filled the trench.

36 At the usual time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet walked up to the altar and prayed, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. 37 O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.”

38 Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell face down on the ground and cried out, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!”

40 Then Elijah commanded, “Seize all the prophets of Baal. Don’t let a single one escape!” So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there. (1 Kings 19:30-40)

God—working through Elijah—came through in a colossal display of power.  Elijah had demonstrated the laughable weakness of the Baal cult, and had done away with the people who promoted this worship to continue.

This isn’t as hard a lesson to apply today as you might think.  Again, we have to recognize that our own religious landscape isn’t much different.  Our schools, our neighborhoods, or workplaces are more religious diverse than they were even ten years ago.  Our mission—like Elijah—is to show that Jesus is superior to other belief systems.  How do we do that?  By demonstrating through our lives and testimony to the amazing power of God.

In the next section, Elijah prays to God who ends a three-year drought.  The very thing that the people looked to Baal for would be found instead in God.  What is it people are looking to other religions for?  Purpose?  Community?  God doesn’t deny these impulses, but instead shows that these desires are fulfilled through him.  But unlike Baal, unlike any other religion, we don’t meet these needs by reaching out to God, but we have these needs met through God reaching down to us.

 

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