The Bible is a book about God. We might even say it’s a book that defines God and what it means to be in relationship with God. That makes the Bible sound like a dictionary, doesn’t it? And yet, I doubt anyone would really describe it that way. There’s simply too much story in it. For example, I’d like us to look at a fascinating Bible story which tells us a whole lot about God and who God is and how we’re supposed to approach God. To do that, however, we have to dig deep into some ancient history. Are you ready? Let’s go…
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1 Kings 18:1-2, 17-39
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.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria…When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 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. 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.”
So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 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. 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. 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. 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!” 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.” 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. 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.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 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.
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; 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”; 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. 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.” 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, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
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. 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.” 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. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”
“All People That on Earth Do Dwell” — William Kethe (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him and rejoice.
The Lord, ye know, is God indeed;
Without our aid He did us make;
We are His flock He doth us feed,
And for His sheep He doth us take.
O enter then His gates with praise,
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.
For why? The Lord our God is good,
His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
the God whom heaven and earth adore,
From earth and from the angel host
Be praise and glory evermore.
It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in 1 Kings 18 if we don’t have a good picture of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology. When we talk about cosmology, we’re talking about the way people understand the heavens, but not so much the stars and the planets. We’re talking about the celestial world, the world of the gods — angels, demons, hierarchies of divinity, and what not. You might think of classic Greek mythology with its pantheon of gods: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, and so on. Importantly, each of these gods had their own special powers or roles in the world. Poseidon was the god of the sea, the lakes, and the rivers. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, reason, and intelligence. Zeus was the king of the Greek gods, but he was also the god of thunder, lightning, and rain.
Ancient Near Eastern cultures — such as the biblical Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites — also had complex and extensive cosmologies. Like the Greeks’ Zeus, the Canaanites had a storm god who controlled the rain. His name was Baal. Also like the later Greeks, who viewed Hera as Zeus’ wife, Baal had a divine consort. They named her Ashera and, just like Hera, associated her with fertility.
This should help us make sense of why our story about Elijah and the contest on Mount Carmel comes in the context of a long drought that had spread across the land and God telling Elijah that he’s going to send some rain to help relieve it (1 Kings 18:1-2). The worship of Baal had increased and become all the more important during the drought precisely because Baal was thought to control the storms. To whom would you rather offer sacrifices when your crops need rain than the God of Rain and Lightning himself?
But, from the beginning of the Bible, we’re given a picture of God — the God the Israelites called Yahweh — as a jealous God. More than that, the Bible describes Yahweh as a God who is not only above all other gods. He’s a God who can do everything those other gods can do, but he can do it ten times better. Remember the song from Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you”? That’s kind of how the Bible talks about God and ancient Israelite cosmology.
Just consider the words of Psalm 89:6-7, “For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him?” We today like to think these other “holy ones” were simply angels, but more likely they were seen as competing gods whom the Israelites worshiped alongside of Yahweh throughout much of their history. The Bible thus tells a story of a people who slowly shifted from worshiping a pantheon of gods to worshiping only one God.
Today’s story about the test Elijah sets up between himself and the 450 prophets of Ashera and Baal is a key cog in this transition to monotheism. What were the parameters of this test? Build an altar, set a cow on it, and wait for your preferred god to send fire from the sky and burn it up. As a storm god, this should have been easy for Baal. We have ancient sandstone images of him holding a thunderbolt. Elijah’s test should have been right in Baal’s wheelhouse, but nothing happens. The Canaanite God of Storms remains silent and impotent despite his prophets’ wailing and pleading. Yahweh, however, sends a bolt of lightning that’s so powerful it burns up the hundreds of gallons of water still drenching the altar plus the bull, the stones, and all the surrounding dust. The message is clear: If you want to end this drought, you need only look to one God, Yahweh. As James Kugel points out, the Israelites’ repeated cry at the end of this story, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God,” is a realization that “worshiping any other god is unnecessary: the LORD can bring the rain and ripen the grain and protect His people in every other way.”
We like to think that the big issue here is that the ancient Israelites replaced Yahweh with other gods, that they kept forgetting Yahweh and instead worshiped Baal or Ashera or some other foreign god. But, that’s not exactly true. The problem wasn’t that they stopped worshiping Yahweh; it was that they worshiped other gods alongside of Yahweh. They, in a sense, hedged their bets, and this meant that their trust and their hope was fickle, split, and unsure.
After all, don’t we do the same thing today? Just this morning, I had socially distant coffee with a friend who reminded me that, during an election year, we normally find ourselves placing all of our hopes and dreams in the election of a certain candidate or the filling of a certain seat or the passage of a certain law when our true hope isn’t in those gods but in the LORD, who indeed is God. There’s a fine line here — after all, God works with and through us — but it’s worth remembering as we head into what promises to be an immensely stressful and tense next couple of months. So, let’s debate and vote passionately and humbly, but remember with the psalmist that, no matter what happens, “our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).
Holy God, we thank you for loving us so that we can go out and love your world without condition, proclaim your truth with boldness, and perform your justice with compassion. We thank you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
– James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), 528.