Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Kings 18:1-40

Many people today, as in Elijah’s time, are attracted to religious syncretism. And the prophet’s ancient question is still relevant, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”

Elijah, greatest of all the Old Testament prophets, was called to serve God during a time of real crisis.

The Problem of Syncretism

The main problem facing the kingdom of Israel was neither political nor economic; it was a faith problem. “Make up your minds!” thundered Elijah. “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

The question, you see, that confronted the Israelites was which God they would serve: the true God of the Bible or the gods of their Canaanite neighbors. It wasn’t so much that the people of Israel were completely abandoning the Lord. It was that they didn’t want to have to choose. They didn’t want the Lord to be so exclusive. They wanted to hold on to him, sort of, while making room in their lives for newer, more tolerant deities as well. They wanted to acknowledge the God of Israel – to have his Word, to claim his power, to honor their heritage and their history – while also joining in the pagan rituals of their Canaanite neighbors. In other words, they wanted to sit on the fence, or, as Elijah so memorably put it, to go on limping between two beliefs, without marching firmly toward either one.

This sort of spiritual blending is a common thing. Scholars call it syncretism – combining different religious beliefs in a contradictory mixture. As you might expect, it is a significant problem today among those who have become Christians within cultures where traditional religions predominate. There Christianity is mixed with animism, or magic, or folk beliefs, or ancestor-worship. But we in the west who have grown up in countries with a Christian heritage are often just as syncretistic. Many people retain some of the forms or customs or language of Christianity, but their lives are actually shaped and motivated by materialism, or the cult of success, or New Age philosophy, or some of the other numerous idolatries of our culture.

Just recently I read about an interview that the movie star Jim Carrey gave on television. The interviewer reported that Carrey invited the cameras “to one of his most beautiful and private spots,” what he called his “center of the universe,” where he goes to escape the world. “This is where I hang out with Buddha, Krishna . . . all those guys,” says Carrey about a lean-to adorned with candles and a bed built high on his hillside property in Brentwood, California. “I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Muslim, I’m a Christian. I’m whatever you want me to be . . . it all comes down to the same thing.” Carrey says he believes that they are all the same God, and it is this conviction and spirituality that make him happy” (60 Minutes interview, November 2004.)

That’s a prime example of the form that syncretism usually takes today. The emphasis is not on historic Christianity or traditional faith, but on “spirituality,” a sort of vague acknowledgment of whatever’s “out there.” And spiritual figures, religious leaders, are blended into a stew of higher consciousness. Jesus is just one of the guys, the divine guys, along with Buddha and Krishna. God, Allah, whatever – they’re all the same. You don’t have to choose. You can hang out with any or all of them.

Showdown on Mount Carmel

The Bible says differently, and it says it most clearly in the story of Elijah. As we pick up that story in the Old Testament book of Kings much has already happened. When Elijah first confronted King Ahab he announced a prophetic sign of judgment: there would be no rain in the land for three years. Now he reappears at the height of the drought to challenge Ahab, Jezebel, the priests of Baal, and the misguided people as well. Elijah suggests a great contest to prove once and for all who is really God. The challenge is promptly accepted. Here’s how the biblical writer describes it:

So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And 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 are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people said, “It is well spoken.”

1 Kings 18:20-24

At first glance, it appears to be a terrifically uneven contest. All the advantage seems to be on Baal’s side. After all, he was supposed to be the god of the sun; he was also known as “the Rider of the Clouds” who held the thunder and lightning in his hands. Igniting one little sacrifice on an altar on Mt. Carmel should have been a snap for a powerful god like Baal, and he even got first crack at it! And then look at the disparity of forces involved – 450 prophets of Baal vs. the lone figure of Elijah. What chance did a single voice, no matter how courageous, have against all that spiritual clout? But numbers can be deceiving. Is popularity always the test of truth?

So the showdown on Mt. Carmel commences. Baal’s prophets arrange the wood on the altar. They lay out their sacrificial animal, and begin to pray. They call on the name of Baal their god to send the answering fire. Time passes. Their prayers grow in intensity, now with chanting and shrieking cries added, now dancing, gyrating, leaping up and down around the altar. Still no response from Baal. The heavens are silent.

Meanwhile, Elijah, standing to one side and watching all this frantic effort, begins to offer a sarcastic commentary. “Shout a little louder,” the prophet suggests, “after all, Baal is a god, isn’t he? Perhaps he’s off meditating somewhere; maybe he’s going to the bathroom, or he’s away on a journey. I know! He must have fallen asleep. You need to wake him up!” (18:27)

As the sun passes its high point in the heavens and the day begins to slip away, the pagan prophets of Baal whip themselves into a frenzy. In desperation they start slashing themselves with knives and lances, hoping that the sight of their flowing blood will arouse their god’s notice. But there was no answer. You can pray for answers as hard as can be, but if the god you’re praying to isn’t real, you will never get one.

The God Who Answers Prayer

Now comes Elijah’s turn. It’s just the hour of the evening sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, as the biblical writer carefully notes. The prophet proceeds deliberately and calmly. He first rebuilds the Lord’s altar, using twelve stones, one for each of the ancient tribes of Israel. This in itself was a provocative act, something like flying your flag in enemy territory, for it was a reminder that despite the political partition of the two kingdoms, the people of Israel were still one in the sight of God.

Then Elijah prepared his sacrifice, but before going further he had it repeatedly soaked, until the water ran down and filled the trench he had dug around the altar. From that day to this, religious fakes have staged phony signs and wonders to impress the masses. Elijah wants to make sure that there is no possibility anyone will think that what is going to happen is a fraud or some sort of trick.

Finally, the prophet prays, simply, calmly, eloquently. Elijah prays for two things: first and foremost, for the glory of God to be revealed. He asks God to let all know “that you are God in Israel” and to act “so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God” (vv. 36-37). He longs for God to glorify himself, not just vindicate Elijah. He wants God to reveal himself as God, to God’s own infinite praise. And then, Elijah prays for the salvation of the people. He desires God to act so that the people will know “that you are turning their hearts back again” (v. 37). And God answers Elijah’s prayer. Fire falls from heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the altar and all! And Israel is humbled and brought back to the Lord (vv. 38-39).

This contest of Mt. Carmel is still being waged in countless places today. What is being put to the test are some of life’s most basic questions: Is there a God? What is his name? Is one faith as good – or as true – as another? And God still answers those questions with fire from heaven. Not a lightning bolt igniting an animal sacrifice, but the light that flashed when the stone rolled away from Jesus’ empty tomb, the fire that fell in dancing tongues of flame on the heads of disciples who preached and prayed and loved the gospel into the world. God is real! Jesus is alive, and he is Lord!

And if Jesus is Lord, why do we try to compromise? How long will you go on limping between two opinions? “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” If Jesus is God, then serve him alone. If he isn’t, then forget about him, and serve whoever or whatever floats your boat! But whatever you do, reach a decision, make a choice. It’s time to get off the fence.