There was no doubt it was coming to this. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had instituted Baal worship into the northern kingdom of Israel and God's prophet, Elijah was calling them to account and calling on the people to return to the worship of the one true God of Israel, Yahweh. There was no room for compromise on either side. The king and queen had forsaken the Law and were even killing the prophets of Yahweh. Anyone willing to resort to such extreme measures will not stop until their program has been fully instituted. They were not going to abandon their ways; but Elijah, this "troubler of Israel" in the words of Ahab (18:18), would relinquish no ground to them either.
So, a showdown was inevitable. According to Elijah, compromise between the worship of these two incompatible deities was like walking around in life with a severe limp (18:21), unable to move about with ease. Yahweh could tolerate no rivals. When the Ten Commandments insisted that the Israelites would have no other gods in addition to Yahweh there were no technicalities that allowed the people to fudge on the Law. "No other gods" meant nothing more and nothing less than that. And if the people were limping in their faith, it was Baal who was dragging them down.
"So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel" for a one huge smackdown. It's the one remaining prophet of God, Elijah vs. four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Elijah names the conditions of the challenge:
Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.Elijah might be outnumbered, but the challenge to both sides is the same. The four hundred and fifty prophets begin their entreaties to their ancient Near Eastern storm god. For hours they prayed and cried and yelled and even cut and slashed themselves as a demonstration of their devotion, but nothing happened. The dead sacrifice just laid there upon the altar as untouched as a steak on a grill over cold charcoal.
While waiting for his turn, Elijah decided to play the role of heckler at the comedy club:
Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.But the writer of 1 Kings states succinctly, "there was no voice, no answer, and no response."
Now it was Elijah's turn and he summoned the people on Mount Carmel to come close and listen to him. Earlier when he had asked the people about their limping compromise with paganism they gave no answer, but now they seemed to be willing to listen since it has become clear the one deity they had given their loyalty to had let them down.
Elijah raises the stakes for his side. He soaks the sacrifice in so much water that it is running down into the trench dug around the altar. And now it is Elijah's turn to call upon his God, Yahweh. It is very important to note that Elijah's entreaty to Yahweh is very different in character from the entreaties of the prophets of Baal. Roger Nam writes,
Elijah and the people of Israel have matched the fervent activity of their Baal opponents. But despite all of these actions, the prayer of Elijah does not center on this activity, nor the obedience of the people. Rather, the prophet highlights the character of God, and the nature of his relationship to God. Elijah acknowledges God, the connection with the patriarchs, and the prophet's divine servanthood.The devotion of Elijah and the people to Yahweh is shown in the building and preparation of the altar; it is revealed in their obedience, not in their willingness to mutilate themselves for the deity. Many years before the Prophet Samuel said, "to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Samuel 15:22). Worshiping the Lord alone and obeying the covenant is what God requires.
Whereas the verbalizations of the Baal's prophets were many and long, Elijah's prayer is short and to the point:
O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back (18:36b-37).As it turns out the Mount Carmel smackdown is a one-sided affair-- "Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench" (18:38). This was no medium rare t-bone taken off the grill too soon; this was an incineration that took everything with it. God's answer to Elijah's prayer is total and complete. Again Roger Nam states, "By turning to God, the contest is no longer a contest."
After this display of divine power, the people worship Yahweh and acknowledge him. But the dilemma the people will continue to face is being faithful in the midst of the routine of life and yes, in the midst of the difficulties. They must continue to worship the Lord God and be faithful to the covenant without having to be reminded by a divine smackdown. To obey is better than sacrifice; to constantly know that the Israelites are God's people is better than having to be reminded in dramatic fashion because they have forgotten.
Obedience needs memory; disobedience is the product of amnesia.