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IV. Fire from Heaven (1 Kings 18)


            The conflict with the worship of Baal in Israel came to a head in the showdown on Mount Carmel. Jezebel had been married into the royal family of Israel, the northern kingdom, to Ahab, a morally weak but militarily strong king (as we learn from archaeological records). Jezebel was quick to turn the religion of the kingdom to the worship of her gods, notably Baal and Asherah. Her tactics included both promoting her religion and attacking the Israelite religion. For the first objective she supported 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (verse 19 says that they ate at Jezebel’s table, i.e., she fed them); for the second she proceeded to kill the prophets of Yahweh, so that many fled and 100 of them were hidden in caves. Moreover, her daughter Athaliah married the king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and then when her time came she tried to exterminate all the line of David. She failed because the priest Jehoiada hid a young prince from her. If readers of the Bible think that Elijah was cruel to put the false prophets to death, they need only consider the wicked practices of those in the service of Jezebel--they were murderers as well as idolaters who were corrupting the morals of the nation.

            The nation was caught in the middle between this exciting new religion and the old historic faith. But they could not have them both; their respective claims ruled the other religion out. Either Yahweh or Baal was God and should be served. But how could this be decided for the people? The prophet called for the confrontation on Mount Carmel to see which side could prove the truth of their faith. The setting was perfect; the Carmel range forms a natural boundary between Israel and the region of Phoenicia to the north where the worship of Baal was the popular religion. And the challenge to call fire from heaven was appropriate; after all, Baal was known for that ability.

The Text

            The story is well-known by students of the Bible. Elijah sent word to King Ahab that he was there and would meet the king. When Ahab went to meet Elijah he immediately accused him of being the one who troubled Israel. But Elijah straightened that out quickly--he was not the troubler of Israel, but Ahab was in that he had abandoned the law of the Yahweh and followed the Baals. The exchange is typical. Even today those who introduce liberal, heretical doctrines into the Church try to say that the conservatives who oppose them are divisive and un-Christian. Those who affirm the historic Christian faith must like Elijah make it clear who is causing the trouble.

            So Elijah told the king to summon the prophets of Baal and meet him on Mount Carmel. Ahab sent word throughout all the kingdom and gathered them to the mountain. This would take days to complete; but they would not have tarried because they would have seen it as an opportunity to get rid of this rustic prophet. Mount Carmel was not only ideally located for such a showdown; it was steeped in religious tradition. The name "Carmel" (Hebrew kerem ’el) means "the vineyard of God." It could be a general reference to a deity, perhaps stressing the superlative degree identifying the place as the greatest vineyard, the richest land. But it could also be an ancient religious site, a place of worship, as so many mountains and high places in the land were. Whether there was a shrine there or not, the choice of Mount Carmel would have been appealing to the prophets of Baal, for the rainfall in that area was significantly better than elsewhere in the land. To them, a mountain that received a lot of rain and had rich vegetation was surely evidence of the presence and power of Baal.

            But Yahweh had shut up heaven for three years, so there had been no rain.

            Multitudes came to the mountain along with the invited prophets and royalty. When the people had gathered, Elijah set before them the challenge: "How long will you halt between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow him; if Baal is God, follow him." He then set forth the plan: the prophets of Baal would go first and through their religious efforts try to get Baal to send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. He warned them not to try to deceive everyone by putting fire on the altar. Their god would have to do that. This was fair enough; Baal was portrayed as bringing a lightning bolt from heaven in the storms. After they had their turn, then Elijah would prepare the other bull and call on Yahweh to send the fire. The God who answered by fire was truly God.

            The challenge was enormous--one confrontation, winner take all. Of course Elijah knew that a victory here would not remove idolatry from the land once and for all; it would not go away easily because the pagan religion was entrenched in the land. But he knew that a victory here would be a major blow to the steady march of the Baalization of the land. And he was confident, even though he appeared to be in the minority: 850 prophets to one, or as Elijah would have seen it, 850 prophets to one prophet plus the true God. Even his name announced his confident faith: the Hebrew name ’eliyahu (pronounced ale-lee-yah-hoo) means "my God is Yah[weh]."

            So the prophets of Baal proceeded to do exactly what Elijah had said. They prepared the bull on the altar, and then prayed, "O Baal, answer us." But there was no response. So they cavorted around (perhaps leaped upon) the altar they had made.

            And Elijah, then, brimming with confidence, began to taunt their foolishness. He told them to cry louder--"Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be wakened." In fact, as we shall see shortly, the prophet was using their own ideas to taunt them, for these were things they often said when Baal was unresponsive. (If one is going to taunt the false claims of the pagans, one better be confident enough that the true God will show his power).The amazing thing is that here they did as Elijah told them. They cried louder, and even cut themselves according to their custom, pouring out their blood as an inducement for the god to act. And this went on all day long til it was time for the evening oblation. If it was simply a matter of sincerity, these false prophets would have been believable. But sincerity matters little if the god worshiped is a lie. There was no answer; no one paid any attention to them--because even though their god Baal had lips, he could not speak; even though he had ears, he could not hear; eyes he had, but he could not see; hands, but he could not save. They worshiped an idol of stone, or gold, or wood. This is not to say that there was no spirit force, say an evil spirit, that frequently enough worked through their image and their ritual to deceive them. But in a confrontation with the living God, no such power was available.

            Then Elijah stepped forward to make his case. The text says that he repaired the altar of Yahweh that was in ruins--there had been a place to worship the true God on this mountain, but it was in disrepair. He took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of "Jacob." Then the text adds, "to whom the word of Yahweh had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel’." The reference is to the crippling of Jacob in Genesis 32 in which the patriarch’s name was changed. "Jacob" had come to mean "the supplanter, the scrappy fighter, the deceiver and manipulator." The prophets used the name to describe the nation when it was rebellious and disobedient. They used the name Israel to speak of the people blessed by God, for "Israel" means "God fights"--for Israel, but also with Israel if the nation like Jacob is disobedient. So here on the mountain the prophet was dealing with the nation of "Jacob"--but he was convinced before the day was over they would repent and turn to Yahweh, that is, be "Israel" again and blessed by Yahweh (with the abundance of rain).

            Elijah also told the servants to pour four large jars of water on the bull on the altar, water taken from a cistern in the area of the cult center. (It would take far too long to go down the mountain to the sea to get water, let alone do it three times). He had them do this three times--so twelve large jars of water, until the altar was soaked and the trench around it filled with water. The number twelve, already introduced with the twelve tribes of Jacob, probably carries the same significance here. Elijah was making it difficult for the fire of Yahweh to burn, just as the twelve tribes of Jacob had hindered the fire of Yahweh on the altar. But Yahweh would overcome all of this to demonstrate that he was the true and living God.

            The prayer of Elijah is short, clear and direct (v. 36). He invoked the God of the fathers to let it be known that he was God in Israel and that Elijah was his prophet doing his bidding. He prayed that Yahweh would answer his prayer so that the people would know that Yahweh was God, and that he was turning their hearts back to him." There was no loud shouting, no cavorting around the altar, no blood libations. In a couple of sentences the prayer of faith was offered to Yahweh at his altar. And the fire fell from heaven.

            This fire was clearly supernatural: it consumed the sacrifice, and the stones of the altar, and the dirt, and licked up the water in the trenches. What people would use to put out fire--the dirt and the water--were consumed! And when the people saw this they responded immediately: "Yahweh--he is [the true] God; Yahweh--he is [the true] God."

            Finally, Elijah gave the command to seize the false prophets--these men who had been murdering the prophets of Yahweh and perverting the faith of the people. They were taken down to the valley, by the brook Kishon, and put to death there.

            There is an aftermath to the events on Carmel--rain! Elijah announced that there was the sound of the abundance of rain, even though the skies were clear and it had not rained for years. But Elijah knew the word of God--when the people turned to Yahweh and obeyed and worshiped him, he would send the rain. Now it was time to pray for rain, and so Elijah did just that, from the top of Carmel. He sent his servant to look for a sign of rain--seven times to go and look. And on the seventh time he saw a cloud about the size of a man’s hand. A little cloud. But the abundance of rain! But the clouds grew and the sky blackened, and a heavy rain came (see the earlier discussion of the "Rain Motif"). Ahab rode in his chariot to his summer palace in Jezreel, about 10-12 miles across the valley to the east of Carmel. But the Spirit of Yahweh came upon Elijah, and he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.


The Fire Motif

            The Canaanite texts from Ugarit indicate that Baal was not only the god of rain and vegetation and fertility, but also of fire and lightning. One stone pillar shows Baal holding a club in one hand and a stylized thunderbolt with a spearhead in the other. He is standing on two undulating lines separated by three horizontal lines. These may be interpreted in a number of ways, but it seems most likely that the three horizontal lines represent the earth, and the undulating lines represent the waters above the earth and the waters beneath--the deep. This may symbolize Baal’s victory over Yam (the Sea god). The club in Baal’s hand is clearly thunder, and may also be the magical weapon he used to defeat Yam. Some say that the spear is a plant, since he is the god of vegetation; but in this depiction it probably represents lightning. The carving, as well as the texts, indicate that Baal was thought to have power over fire and lightning.

            We find in the texts numerous passages that confirm this belief in Canaan. Text 51 (V. 71) is usually translated "he flashed lightning to the earth." But the verb probably means "he threw"; and the object is plural: "he threw lightning flashes to the earth." Also, text 67 (V. 6-7) says, "And you, take your clouds, your wind, your lightning, your rains." Interestingly, Psalm 29 describes a huge thunderstorm with clouds, rain, wind and lightning--in Lebanon and Sirion, Canaanite country. But the psalmist describes that storm as "the voice of Yahweh"--seven times the psalm uses this, probably to contrast with the sevenfold thunderings of Baal in the Ugaritic texts.

            But text 51 is the clearest claim that Baal has dominion over fire. The text first tells how a house was built for Baal to the great rejoicing of everyone concerned. The house was built of wood from Lebanon and Sirion. But when the house was filled with fire, it did not burn: "Fire ate into the house, flame into the palace." This went on for seven days until on the seventh day the fire departed. The fire apparently completed the building, since it turned the silver into blocks, and the gold into bricks. This shows that Baal was said to have dominion over the fire--things that the fire would normally consume on the spot, the twigs and branches, were not burnt in his house, but used in the construction and solidified by the fire of Baal.

            The stories of Elijah and Elisha reveal that it is Yahweh who controls the fire. For example, in 2 Kings 1:12 when the messenger of the king comes with a company of men to find Elijah, he calls down fire from heaven and they are consumed. Elijah is called "the man of God" (Hebrew ’ish ’elohim, pronounced eesh eloheem); and he calls down the "fire of God" (’esh ’elohim, pronounced eysh eloheem), forming a powerful wordplay. One who is a "man of God" is one whose relationship with God has replaced any natural ties to family and home. One can expect such a one to use the weapon of God.

            But our passage on Mount Carmel is the most memorable example of Yahweh’s prior and true claim to control the fire (but compare also passages like Job 1:16; Judges 6:21ff.; and Judges 13:20ff.). Baal could not send the fire, even though that was the main claim for him. But Yahweh could, and did, consuming everything in and around the altar.

            Fire also is a factor in other passages concerning these two prophets of God. When Elijah ascended, it was in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). But it is described as "a chariot of fire with horsemen" (we shall look at this later in the Ascension Motif). And Elisha also saw that a mountain was "full of horses and chariots of fire" (2 Kings 6:17). Angels in the Bible are described as chariots and as flames of fire.

            One additional comment on the motifs connected to the event on mount Carmel is important. When the prophets of Baal were fully engaged, Elijah taunted them, saying, "Cry louder, for he is a god! Either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be wakened." In the pagan religions the gods were pictured as human, subject to all the attributes of humans, showing the same failings and conflicts that humans have. But in the Bible, while anthropomorphisms1 are used, the message is clear that God is the sovereign and holy Lord God of the universe, the eternal and omnipresent Spirit. He does not eat the sacrifices, but even if he were hungry he would not tell humans because he owns everything (Ps. 50). He has no wife, no children--no rival. There are no other gods. And he does not allow anyone to make an image of him, for that too would lead to confining him in human form.

            The Ugaritic texts do not refer to Baal being asleep, but they do refer to the high god El sleeping and having a dream or a vision (text 49 [III, 4-5]). By contrast, Psalm 121 makes it clear that Yahweh, the Keeper of Israel, neither slumbers of sleeps. In the Canaanite texts we have the frequent expression (in chorus) that the god being referred to was awake, "behold, he is awake." This indicates there was the need to waken the deity, or catch him when he was awake.

            The Ugaritic texts do speak of Baal’s being away on a journey. Text 76 (II, 1-9) say "Baal is not in his house, Hd is not in his palace. His bow he took in his hand, his darts in his right hand; then certainly he set his face toward the meadow of shmk, full of buffaloes." Elijah was probably aware of the myth that told how Baal was not available because he was away on a hunting trip.



            The biblical text clearly is recording the account of Elijah on Mount Carmel in its full impact--the destruction of the beliefs of the Canaanites. The miracles were not simply miracles for miracles’ sake. They were designed by God on the one hand to undermine the religion of Baal and show it to be fraudulent, and on the other hand to establish again the clear power of God over all nature and all elements--and so over all people as well. The myths made tremendous claims about Baal; but they could not be performed in reality. The people would see that the real power belonged to Yahweh alone, and that he was the one true God.