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Elijah and the Prophets of Baal -- a study of 1 Kings 19:9-18

Elijah's story is amazing.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Kings 19:9-18

We finally come to the story of Elijah, one of the most important figures in the entire Bible. This week, we focus on his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, a very famous event. We see all of Elijah's charisma, showmanship, and sense of the moment in play, creating an unforgettable and unparalleled indictment of God's enemies.

“The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!”


Your Favorite Bible Story

The passage of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (that's this week's passage, btw) is one of my very favorites. It has it all -- action, drama, stakes, and SO MUCH SARCASM. And that got me wondering: what is my very favorite Bible story? What's your favorite Bible story?


On the internet, I quickly found a "Top Ten List" of most famous Bible stories. The ranking is bizarre. Here's the first part:

  1. The Crucifixion (it's a weird list)

  2. David and Goliath (again, it's a weird list)

  3. The Nativity

  4. Jonah and the whale

  5. Adam and Eve

  6. Daniel in the lion's den

  7. The Resurrection

  8. Creation

  9. Joseph and his coat

  10. Noah and the ark

  11. Abraham and Isaac

  12. Jesus walks on water

  13. The Good Samaritan

  14. Moses (I guess the whole bio?)

  15. Job

  16. The Prodigal Son

  17. Samson and Delilah

  18. Joseph and his brothers

  19. The Sermon on the Mount

  20. The Last Supper

  21. Cain and Abel

And so on. Elijah and the prophets of Baal checked in at #42.


I don't know what to do with that list except to take it as a challenge to make something better! Have your group create a top ten list of your ten favorite Bible stories.


Just like Wheel of Fortune comps R, S, T, L, N, E, I'm going to comp you the Resurrection and the Nativity. I'm just going to assume that everyone should want those two stories at the top. So, not including those, what are your ten favorite Bible stories?


Your Favorite Bible Character

Elijah is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, and that leads to a similar topic to the one above. The Bible is filled with amazing individuals. Who are your favorites? Maybe approach it this way -- if you had to pick five people in the Bible to teach a class about, who would you pick and why?


I'm going to give you the same comp as above -- Jesus is assumed. Everything in the Bible points to Jesus, so that only makes sense.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Elijah the Prophet

To be fair, I think that Elisha gets a short shrift -- his ministry lasts longer and has a wider impact than Elijah's, but Elijah gets all of the headlines. After all, who meets with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:4). Who was John the Baptist sent in the spirit and power of? Elijah (Luke 1:17).


Why? Essentially, Elijah plays the role of the "ultimate prophet". If we were to try to identify the three preeminent Old Testament Jews, we would just fine by settling on Moses (the law), David (the kings), and Elijah (the prophets). David is Jesus' ancestor, Moses and Elijah point the way to Jesus.


Elijah is a favorite of artists -- he was larger-than-life, dramatic, a bit wild, and more like a romantic hero than a stuffy prophet.

He's also a favorite of authors. He's a very complex man whose life was full of high highs and low lows. Plus, the stories of his in the Bible would be right at home in an action-adventure movie.


Here's a map from the Holman Bible Dictionary that covers the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. It's so very useful that I'll refer to it for a few weeks:

Here's a bullet point bio for Elijah:

  • Born in Tishbe (near the middle of that map)

  • First, he announces a drought to the king

  • Then he gets fed by ravens in the Kerith Ravine (maybe near Jericho?)

  • Then there is the miraculous flour and oil with the widow of Zarephath (top middle of map)

  • Then he raises the widow's son from death

  • Then there's this week's incredible episode with the prophets of Baal (Mt. Carmel)

  • Then Elijah runs from Mt. Carmel to Jezreel (20 miles)

  • Then Elijah flees from Jezebel and is fed by angels (Beersheba)

  • Then Elijah encounters God on Mt. Horeb while hiding

  • Then Elijah finds Elisha

  • Then Elisha calls fire from heaven on soldiers

  • Then Elijah parts the Jordan River

  • Then Elijah rides to heaven on a chariot of fire

That's a pretty good highlight reel, wouldn't you say?


For being so interesting and important, it is surprising that we only know about Elijah from the historical books (not his own book). Of course, that only adds to his mystique. His name means "Yahweh is God", and his ministry focus certainly emphasizes that:

  1. The dangers of recognizing any God but Yahweh (like Baal)

  2. The importance of living according to God's law

  3. God is not just the God of the Jews

The Bible dictionary summarizes Elijah's ministry in four categories:

  1. Miracles - just reread that list of highlights above

  2. Yahweh is God - even Elijah was amazed at God's power

  3. Prophecy - every prophetic word Elijah spoke came true

  4. Messiah - let's camp out on this

Elijah and Jesus.

One of the most important statements about Elijah is found in Malachi 4:

4 “Remember the instruction of Moses my servant, the statutes and ordinances I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.”

Jesus identifies this appearance of Elijah with John the Baptist (Luke 1:17). The point is that Elijah was a forerunner, and the greatest prophet ever to live (John the Baptist) was considered a "type" of Elijah. That's impossible to overstate.


Even the Koran speaks highly of Elijah, painting him as a true prophet (in respect to how he spoke boldly against Baalism).


Long story short: Elijah is a fascinating character and one of the most important figures in the entire Bible.

 

Where We Are in 1 Kings

I'm just going to give you a bunch of background information here. Read the passage first, then you can decide what of this is most helpful to you.


Last week, we learned that King Asa (of Judah) used some unethical tactics to stop the aggression of King Baasha (of Israel) (which worked). I also mentioned the Game-of-Thrones-esque follow-up to this story. After Baasha died, his son Elah became king. He was apparently a numbskull and was assassinated by a man named Zimri who declared himself king. When the army heard about this, they declared their commander Omri king and marched on the capital (Tirzah). Zimri responded by burning the palace down as an act of suicide, and Omri was declared king. He was a bad king.


He is noteworthy for two things: moving the capital of Israel to Samaria and being the father of Ahab. Let's camp out here.


About King Ahab

Here's what you need to know about Ahab:

30 But Ahab son of Omri did what was evil in the Lord’s sight more than all who were before him. 31 Then, as if following the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat were not enough, he married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and then proceeded to serve Baal and bow in worship to him. (1 Ki 16)
25 Still, there was no one like Ahab, who devoted himself to do what was evil in the Lord’s sight, because his wife Jezebel incited him. 26 He committed the most detestable acts by following idols as the Amorites had, whom the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites. (1 Ki 21)

Internet art doesn't really mean anything; we have no idea what this guy looked like. But I found it very humorous that in just about every picture, Ahab is pouting. (The NIV uses "sullen and angry".)

Well, every picture except this one. Isn't he so happy about his golden Baal bull! Sometimes, very rarely, the internet makes me smile.


Anyway - about Ahab. He survived as king for 22 years. He had political success. By marrying Jezebel, princess of Phoenicia (more about her in a sec), he removed any threat from his western border and opened a lucrative trade route. By marrying his daughter Athaliah to the prince of Judah (Joram/Jehoram), he improved relations with Judah. This led to lots of money. He built an ivory house for Jezebel (1 Ki 22:39) that's actually been excavated. He also had military success. He won a great victory over Ben-Hadad of Aram by the will of God (read 1 Kings 20 -- God takes a great personal interest in Ahab).

But really what we learn about Ahab is his apostasy. We know about his worship of Baal, but excavation of his palace has found images to way more deities than just Baal. It seems that he dabbled in Yahweh worship -- he named his kids after Yahweh, and he never really argued with the pronouncements of Yahweh's prophets -- but he was wildly influenced by the pagans in his life, particularly his wife Jezebel.


About Jezebel

Her father's name was Eth-baal ("with him is Baal"), telling you all you need to know about how she was raised. In Rev 2:20, a false prophetess was nicknamed "Jezebel", proving her lasting notoriety. She had a lot more influence over Ahab than he did her. Not only did she persuade him to join her in Baal worship, but she tried to bring all of Israel along for the ride! (That's this week's passage.) When Elijah successfully defied her, she tried to have him killed. She conspired to murder a man named Naboth so she could give his vineyard to Ahab. Importantly, she drew the ire of a violent man named Jehu who killed her son Joram (who had succeeded Ahab as king of Israel) and her son-in-law Ahaziah (who was king of Judah) and all of the members of Ahab's family, and then had her thrown out of her tower window. All of that was in fulfillment of the prophecies of Elijah and Elisha, but Jehu took it upon himself to fulfill them in a most violent way.


About Baal

The word "baal" is a generic word for "lord" that came to be used as the name of a supreme god in many Canaanite religions (much like the word "El" means "god" and became used as the name of the God of the Hebrews -- in part so they would not misuse His revealed name "Yahweh"). He was a fertility god, associated with storms. One belief variant was that during the dry season, Baal was trapped (in hell?) and needed their help to escape. They needed to convince his sister Anat (who was also his lover?) to rescue him.


I mentioned a few weeks ago that a bull or bull calf was a favorite idol to represent Baal. Bulls were strong and virile. We are going to read about some of the most common worship practices for Baal in this week's lesson, so let's get to it.


We also hear about Asherah. In many pantheons, Asherah is Baal's consort and lover. She's also his mom, which is weird. What matters is that she is the female counterpart to Baal -- they would often be worshiped together so as to make both men and women feel equally a part of worship (?). I really don't know what to say about some of this.

 

Part 1: Futility (1 Kings 18:25-29)

25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Since you are so numerous, choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first. Then call on the name of your god but don’t light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull that he gave them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “Baal, answer us!” But there was no sound; no one answered. Then they danced around the altar they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them. He said, “Shout loudly, for he’s a god! Maybe he’s thinking it over; maybe he has wandered away; or maybe he’s on the road. Perhaps he’s sleeping and will wake up!” 28 They shouted loudly, and cut themselves with knives and spears, according to their custom, until blood gushed over them. 29 All afternoon they kept on raving until the offering of the evening sacrifice, but there was no sound; no one answered, no one paid attention.

A Little More Context

I got sidetracked on Ahab and Jezebel, so let's cover a few last things. We have already been introduced to Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel. Elijah is an amazing prophet, Ahab is a scoundrel, and Jezebel is wicked. The very first thing we hear Elijah say is to king Ahab (17:1) that a multi-year drought will come on the land, and only Elijah can announce its end. That makes Elijah very unpopular in Ahab's court.


Three years later, when the land is suffering greatly from the drought, God sends Elijah to Ahab (18:1). During this drought, Elijah is staying with the widow at Zarephath, and Jezebel is killing God's prophets and employing prophets of Baal and Asherah in their place. One of Ahab's officials, Obadiah, had hidden some prophets to keep them alive. Elijah finds Obadiah and tells him to announce his return to Ahab. Obadiah, as brave as he must have been, is absolutely terrified. Elijah confronts Ahab about allowing Jezebel's detestable behavior. He challenges the cult of Baal/Asherah to a contest at Mount Carmel. This is the key verse:

21 Then Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. But if Baal, follow him.” But the people didn’t answer him a word.

Mount Carmel is a striking location near the Mediterranean.

That region was very fertile, so it was a haven for Baal worship.


Elijah convinces all of the people and of the false prophets to come to Mount Carmel. Here's the contest: they both get a bull to sacrifice. Whichever God sets the bull on fire must be the true God. To this point, Elijah has always acted in response to God's word, so we must assume that God told Elijah to do things this way. Elijah was not recklessly putting God to the test.


And that finally brings us to the passage.


I am drawn to Elijah as a character. He's brash, sarcastic, and a showman (and we will learn later that he also has self-doubts, gets discouraged, and dwells on the negatives). And if verse 21 is any indication, he feels completely alone in his fight against Baal worship.


A set-up question would be something like this: have you ever felt like it was "you against the world"? What was the situation? How did you come through it?


He allowed the Baal prophets to go first. We learn that their worship is about "getting Baal's attention". They yell, they jump, they cut themselves, they behave in outlandish ways for the purpose of getting Baal to listen to them.


It's important to remember that the land has been in a drought for three years. Baal, as the storm god, was responsible for the seasonal rains. After all of this time, the people were probably wondering if something had happened to Baal. Elijah certainly plays into this with some excellent sarcasm: "being such a great god, maybe Baal has his attention elsewhere, and they need to raise their game".

  • Maybe he's busy and hasn't noticed them yet

  • Maybe he hasn't decided if he's going to answer or not

  • Maybe he's stepped out for a moment (i.e. gone to the bathroom)

  • Maybe he's on a trip

  • Maybe he's sleeping

Elijah knows Baal mythology very well. They are afraid that Baal is still trapped in the underworld, so Elijah mocking his absence cuts deep. They go all day, all the way to the evening. We must assume that for many/most, blood loss has put them in precarious health.


The last line is great discussion fodder:

no one answered, no one paid attention.

What are ways that you or people you know have been let down by false gods? Remember that we've noted things like money and career and entertainment act as idols in today's world, so perhaps you might word the question like this: when have you been let down by something you thought would give you fulfillment?


The Lifeway material makes the best possible point: only a relationship with God through Jesus Christ can give you the kind of fulfillment you (and every person) need.

 

Part 2: Preparation (1 Kings 18:30-35)

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near me.” So all the people approached him. Then he repaired the Lord’s altar that had been torn down: 31 Elijah took twelve stones—according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Israel will be your name”— 32 and he built an altar with the stones in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar large enough to hold about four gallons. 33 Next, he arranged the wood, cut up the bull, and placed it on the wood. He said, “Fill four water pots with water and pour it on the offering to be burned and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “A second time!” and they did it a second time. And then he said, “A third time!” and they did it a third time. 35 So the water ran all around the altar; he even filled the trench with water.

I'm not sure I would have given this its own section. There's not much to say about it. There had been an altar on the mountain (probably very, very old). Elijah did the very symbolic thing of rebuilding the altar in the presence of the people -- only the most obtuse of the people would have missed the symbolism. The twelve stones together represented the unity of the twelve tribes (see Josh 4), another very important symbol. Elijah further cements this by reminding them that God named Jacob their patriarch "Israel", which is where their name came from in the first place! The symbolism of this altar is off-the-charts.


The trench, you'll note, isn't really that big -- about 1 gallon per side. Elijah wasn't being careless with precious water (but remember that the drought was soon to end). But he had them soak everything down really good.


Have you ever tried to set fire to wet wood? I have a burn pile in my backyard from a big branch that came down during a storm. I'm not going to try to burn it any time soon -- it just wouldn't keep! All it would do is smoke.


And of course the people would know that. Elijah really plays into the spectacle. The people are pretty much sheep at this point, listening to whoever puts on the best show, so to speak. This action really is designed to put everybody in their place -- the false prophets for their false religion, the leaders for encouraging this false religion, and the people for not knowing the difference.


The simple point is that no one would be able to mistake what was about to happen.

 

Part 3: Response (1 Kings 18:36-39)

36 At the time for offering the evening sacrifice, the prophet Elijah approached the altar and said, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. 37 Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the Lord’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!”

Was there any doubt what was going to happen? Of course not.


Elijah put on quite a show, but God put on a much better one! This is a favorite episode for illustrators.

While there are plenty of Bible events I would love to attend, this has to be close to the top. The history at stake, the three years of painful preparation, the full day of nonsense, the hour or two of very symbolic action, and then the few moments of speaking. The crowd would have gone through a full spectrum of emotion, and they probably were prepared to be underwhelmed. What was that moment like when fire fell from heaven?


God is not a God of spectacle. Jesus proved that when He saw through Satan's temptation at the temple. God doesn't jump through hoops or dance on puppet strings. The most famous time He allowed Himself to be put to the test was Gideon's fleece (Judg 6), and that was for the purpose of helping Gideon understand who He was. The situation is depressingly similar. In Judges, the people quickly forgot who God was and had few people to teach them. Here in 1 Kings, we have an entire nation of Jews, few of whom seem to know anything about God. Elijah makes it clear that the purpose of this episode is for the people to be reminded who God is. (Will it last? Well, how long did the miracles of the plagues in Egypt and parting the Red Sea leave an impression?)


Part of this circumstance is the fault of the people -- they had access to the truth about God in all of the places God had left around Israel for that purpose. But the leaders and prophets of the nation are much more to blame. It was, as we say, Elijah versus the world. But Elijah was not facing the world -- God was facing the world. Elijah had the responsibility of being His voice.


Sometimes, we put the equation like this:

You + God > World


In reality, it's this:

God > World


Which side of the equation you put yourself on doesn't change the equation. It will change your life and the lives of everyone around you forever! But it won't change the equation.


All of that to say this: God doesn't seem to work like that today. He doesn't have to. The greatest miracle of all time is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing can top that, and nothing else needs to happen. If we don't believe that miracle, we won't believe anything else.


So that leads to the important final question for us all: why does God perform miracles at all? Spend some time discussion that as a group.

 

Closing Thoughts: The Rest of the Story

What happens next is a bit odd and quite disturbing. Elijah orders the false prophets seized (all 450 prophets of Baal and maybe also the 400 prophets of Asherah), and he kills all of them. Quite gruesome, although it could be argued that this is a time of war, and those prophets should not have been allowed in Israel in the first place.


Then, Elijah prays for rain, and tells Ahab to race back to his palace before the storm arrives. And Elijah outruns his chariot. There, Ahab tells Jezebel what happened. Jezebel pays closer attention to "Elijah killed all of your prophets" than "God sent fire from heaven" and tells Elijah that she is going to kill him.


(Do we give Jezebel credit for sticking to her convictions? No, I don't think we do.)


And Elijah runs away!! The man who just faced down the entire nation is afraid of Queen Jezebel. But more on this next week...

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