In 1000 BC Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem. The temple became the center of an animal sacrifice cult. The Kings and Priests of Israel always stood together on this.
Eventually a third force arose which changed the moral and religious climate and practice, the prophetic movement.
We have Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel but above
all and perhaps first in this line of transforming prophets is
Elijah, 900 BC
Ahab was the most wicked king ever to rule Israel.
“The Lord hath exalted thee from among the people and over his people hath made thee king. But thou, Ahab has done evil to provoke him to anger above all that were before thee. Thou hast made a grove and an altar to Ball and served him and worshipped him. Thou has killed the righteous and also taken their possessions. And the Lord shall smite all Israel as a reed is shaken in the water”
He also committed other crimes, 1 Kings 16:33. He made a foundational sacrifice. His son was sacrificed and placed under the foundation of the city wall. In 2 Kings 16:3 Ahab caused his son to pass through fire, a biblical euphemism for human sacrifice.
High places, as we spoke of on Transfiguration Sunday were the places where this was practiced. 2 Kings 21:35 speaks about Ahab building altars to the whole array of heaven in the courts of the temple of Yahweh.
Into this atmosphere comes Elijah, Ahab’s Phoenician wife Jezebel to:
“break all thy covenants and thrown down thine altars and slay all thy prophets, slay them with the sword. Only Elijah was left one prophet of the Lord Jehovah”.
Elijah confronted Ahab, and demanded a showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Saying:
Thou Ahab and all thy Fathers house have forsaken God’s command and thou hast followed Baal. So send and gather to me the whole of Israel unto Mt. Carmel. Summon the prophets of Baal and also the prophets of the Groves, who have feasted at Jezebel’s table. Then we shall see whose God is the Lord.
Select and say a bullock and put no fire under it. Uplift your voices and call the god ye worship, and I then will call on the Lord Jehovah. And the god who by fire shall answer, let him be God.
The prophets of Baal invoked their gods:
Baal we cry to thee, Baal we cry to thee, hear and answer us. Heed the sacrifice we offer. Baal, let thy flames fall and devout the bull!
Call him louder, for he is a god, he talketh or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, so awaken him, call him louder.
The priests of Ball shouted:
Hear our Cry oh Baal now arise end your slumber!
Call him louder. He heareth not. With knives and lances cut yourselves after your, manner. Leap upon the altar ye have made. Call him and prophecy, not a voice will answer you, none listen, none heed you.
Fire is sacred violence. It is human violence performed in a religious frenzy. If fire is to come down, the enthusiasm of the people must be kindled. This contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal is a contest to see who can fire up all Israel. By mocking the prophets of Baal and insulting them, Elijah raises an objection, a voice of question that is so destructive of religious unity, good or bad. When it came his turn Elijah threw water on his carcass to dramatize what he was doing.
But it was really his mocking cat-calls that had thrown cold water on the religious frenzy of his opponents and prevented the spectators from getting caught up in it.
That is why the prophets of Baal cut themselves and bled on their altar. Their attempted violence often could set in motion the display of sacred violence they wanted, in this case the rising up of the people against Elijah.
On the surface this story purports to demonstrated the superiority of Yahweh’s moral and religious power over the prophets of Baal. But as we shall see next time that would have made The Lord, just that a strong god against many instead of the One God.
Elijah cleverly redirected the frenzy that the prophets of Baal whipped up. Let’s look again at the contest. It is more complex than the 450 prophets of Baal first taking their turn and then Elijah.
Elijah’s ritual began the moment the prophets of Baal began their ritual. Elijah turned their ritual into a prelude to his won. Elijah’s ritual is so convincing because it was preceded by the violent and wild one. When Baal’s prophets ritual ended without having coaxed the god to answer with fire it was Elijah’s turn. With pride Elijah needed none of the crude ritual excesses in order to get his God to answer with fire. Elijah used the frantic power of his opponents’ rituals to his advantage.
The prophets of Baal may have understood that the god who answered by fire was the god whose worshippers became so filled with the god’s fiery zeal that they became the instruments of it. The prophets of Baal focused all their energy on the carcass. Elijah seems to have understood that the real power was in the gathered people, not in the carcass. He began his invocation by turning to the people.
“Draw near all ye people come to me.”
He repaired the altar of Yahweh which had been thrown down by Ahab and Jezebel and took twelve stones one for each tribe of Israel and rebuilt the altar of Yahweh.
“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, this day let it be known that thou are God and I am thy servant. Show unto all these people that I have done all these things according to thy word. O hear me lord and answer me and show all these people that thou are the Lord God, and let their hearts again be turned.
Elijah wanted it to be known that he was functioning as Yahweh’s representative and acting at Yahweh’s command. Then the fire descended from heaven, the flames consumed the wood, licked up the water in the trench and the bull. When the people saw it they fell on their faces and cried: Yahweh is God. Our God is one lord, and we have no other gods before the Lord!
Then using what he had created: Elijah said:
“Take all the prophets of Ball and let not one of them escape you. Bring them down to Kishon’s Brook and there let them be slain.”
Elijah himself by his hand murdered the prophets of Baal. In a way it is an anti-sacrificial sacrifice. Performed in an effort to root out the cult of human sacrifice.
Next time March 22 we will examine the results of all this. This splendid battle on Mt. Carmel changed Elijah and all Israel forever. Including what the still small voice of God said.