Theme: Elijah still calls to Mount Carmel
I like Elijah. He’s a strong, forthright character in a time of dangerous idolaters and wishy-washy compromisers. He has deep insight into the stories, the law, and the kingdom of Yahweh. He lets himself be guided by Yahweh-spirit, and in the strength of that he publicly challenges the king’s policies, denounces the queen who is leading the king and the people only further into worship of Baal, and he calls out 450 priests of Baal to meet him on Mount Carmel to see whose god’s way – that of their Baal or that of his Yahweh, is really the one to save the kingdom from the economic, environmental, political and social crisis into which it has fallen.
Elijah is clearly the hero of the story – the prophet with the powerful, penetrating voice the people need at this time in their history. We’re supposed to like him.
But at the same time, I wonder, should we really be too hard on the priests of Baal – or at least, on the people increasingly falling under their sway? Because what really is Baal and Baalism?
On one hand, it is an ancient pagan fertility religion with strange rites – some fanciful, some terrible. Baal was the local god of Canaan who was worshiped to serve the well-being of those who lived in that land. If a field was not producing, for instance, a little statue of Baal buried in the corner of the field would help turn things around. If a couple was newly married and wanted children, lay a little statue or a gift to the god under the bed. For general well-being, a sacred sexual rite might be in order. And if things were really bad and more drastic intervention were needed – like being saved from plague or an invading enemy or total social breakdown, more drastic sacrifices – even of human lives, could be required.
It sounds so anciently pagan. Something now only in books. Not something we need to worry about, or have sympathy for.
But I wonder. Is it just an ancient fertility religion built around a local God of old Canaan? Or is it something more universal – more widely and commonly human than that? Are we really free, even now, of the tendency and temptation at times to idolize our own country, our tribe, our family, and our home and hearth? Are we still willing sometimes, to make sacrifices we shouldn’t – or make others make sacrifices in ways they shouldn’t have to, to serve our prosperity and save the well-being of our little part of the world?
In the story, the line between Elijah who worships Yahweh-God – the God of human liberation and holy community-formation anywhere on Earth, and those who worship Baal – the god of purely local prosperity and well-being – is drawn pretty hard and fast – in pretty absolute terms. And no doubt that’s part of the attractiveness of the story. But I wonder if the line is ever that sharp or that hard and fast in real life. Or whether we all somehow straddle it – and if in different ways at different times the line between commitment to God and commitment to Baal goes right through the middle of all of us, all our life long.
Which makes me wonder then, too, about the mass killing of the 450 priests of Baal at the end of the contest and the end of the story. I really do like Elijah; but the story nowhere says Yahweh told him to finish the contest with mass murder and extinction of the losing side. I wonder what Yahweh thought of it when it happened. Whether God in any way approves of it? Or whether Elijah – for all his charisma and heroicness, is also not perfect – makes mistakes – is as human, imperfect and sometimes plain wrong as the rest of us?
The priests of Baal certainly thought so during the contest, because just think of it, and of how the way the contest went must have seemed to everyone there at the time. It’s easy for us to read the story and see it simply as a test to see which of two gods will prove to be stronger, with more firepower, and therefore more to be feared, and listened to, and worshiped. Which is the same test religious fundamentalists and terrorists are still foisting on the world today – acting out the belief that their god is stronger, more fiery, and will win out in the end.
But there was something other than that at stake in the contest on Mount Carmel. Remember the situation. The kingdom is in crisis – economically, environmentally, politically, socially and morally, and the question is which god will save them. Which god will really help lead them out of their crisis and to a new and better place? Which god will be the real answer to their prayers, with a good way to follow?
So the priests of Baal did their thing. They put together a magnificent offering to the God of local prosperity. They spent all day doing the right things, chanting the right prayers and songs, even offering their own blood in just the right way. They gave it their all as they always had for the prosperity of Canaan. And nothing happened. Nothing changed. No answer, no way forward, no promise of a better day or a real solution to the problems of the day.
So then it was Elijah’s turn. First, to repair the broken-down altar; the priests of Baal must have snickered at how much time that took. Then, to put in 12 special stones – one for each of the 12 tribes of old Israel; broad smiles all around, because the tribes had separated into two kingdoms for as long as people could remember – what a nostalgic fool Elijah was! And then, when he finally got around to putting on his sacrifice to call Yahweh’s attention, what does he do but douse it with water – all over, three times, totally waterlogging it! How the priests of Baal and even the people looking on must have howled at how inept and foolish this man named Elijah was. How could Yahweh ever show his saving presence and attract people to follow his way, with a sacrifice as badly conceived as this?
Except, that’s exactly what happens. Fire comes down from heaven, and touches the altar. The sacrifice catches. It bursts into flame. And then it burns, it burns up and up and up, all the way down to cinders and ashes. The sacrifice – as foolish and improbable as it was, has been accepted. It has attracted Yahweh’s attention, and drawn the power of Yahweh to save, into the affairs of the kingdom. The way forward – the way out of the mess they are in, the way to a better way of being in the world, is clear. And it’s not the way of Baal; it’s the way of Yahweh.
All of which leaves me with two questions.
One is, in the crises we face today, is the way of Yahweh still the way to go, rather than the way of Baal? And if so, what does that mean for us?
And the other is, are even the most imperfect sacrifices and foolish offerings we make in the name of Yahweh, still powerful and effective to draw the real saving power of God into the life and affairs of the world, and to the attention of people today?