09 September 2011

"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.'" (v. 21)


King Ahab had been searching for Elijah the prophet for almost three years, questioning people of surrounding nations under oath whether they had seen him. Ahab's wife Jezebel had been slaughtering any prophets of Yahweh, the God or Israel, that she found, because she worshipped Baal of Sidon (in today's Lebanon), the god of the rain-clouds. Ahab was getting desperate - there had been no rain-clouds in all that time, and so great was the famine that he was considering slaughtering some of his animals to preserve grazing for the rest.

It had started when Elijah had told Ahab that Yahweh ("the Lord") would show power over the rain by stopping it raining (1 Kings 17:1). The question was: who was in charge of the rain: the Lord, or Baal? Had Baal stopped it raining? Or was it the Lord who'd done it? A competition was proposed.

The strange thing is, 'Baal' means 'Lord'. It was used to apply to many different gods (hence the plural in verse 18), to avoid using their names, which were considered so holy they shouldn't normally be spoken aloud. The Israelites said "the Lord" instead of Yahweh; the Sidonians said "Baal" instead of Melqart. So all the prophets on the Mount Carmel were using the name of their own Lord to see who would act. (It was a sacred place for both parties, and was known for normally getting more rain than the rest of the land.)

Just consider the sheer extravagance of the use by Elijah of precious water. (It would be like pouring petrol away during a tanker strike). The water was sacrificed in order to ask for more. Yet unlike Baal, Yahweh had not "wandered away" (v. 27) - a euphemism like today's 'gone to the bathroom'. It was Yahweh who answered in falling fire - a lightning strike (verse 38). Not Baal - the god whose idols held lightning in their hands. The people answered "Yahweh indeed is God" (v. 39). Melqart's prophets were put to death. (And heavy rain followed.)

To Ponder

To what extent is it necessary to see God acting before believing in God? Why?

Jews, Christians and Muslims all serve the same God of Abraham. How should this make a difference to their relationships?

How do you think people who believe in different gods should behave towards one another today?

Bible notes author: The Revd Neil Cockling

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