Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

Not too long ago, I would have looked at this text and seen a simple illustration of the Lord’s greatness, and the fact that he alone is God. That’s true enough. But recently I noticed that the author twice reminds us of the evening sacrifice, once during the failed attempts of Baal’s prophets and once during Elijah’s prayer. The ordinary people of Israel may never experience anything like the spectacular miracle of 1 Kings 18:38, but they do have a daily reminder of this God’s dwelling among them. The daily sacrifices are signs of the Lord’s enduring presence with his people.

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1 Kings 18:20-39

I previously noted Gregory of Nyssa’s discovery of baptism in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. And while I had the same thought when I most recently read the text, I doubt that the authors of I Kings had Christian baptism in mind when they wrote it. That’s not to say that they weren’t concerned about the liturgy of the covenant. Repeatedly, the authors remind us of the evening sacrifice (or “oblation” or “offering” as other translations put it).

As 1 Kings tells the story, the prophets of Baal cried to their god all day long. They danced and even cut themselves in an attempt to call down fire on the sacrifice. Their ecstatic acts grew more intense as the day passed from morning to noon to midday. Finally, at the hour of the evening sacrifice, they gave up (1 Kings 18:29). At some point while this was going on, Elijah prepared his altar (whose 12 stones represented the tribes of Israel), dug a trench, arranged the wood and the ox meat, and then doused the whole thing three times with water (symbolically representing the rain that would soon relieve the three year drought, but making it doubly hard to set the sacrificial wood pile on fire). Then, the author tells us, at the hour of the evening sacrifice he prayed to the Lord, who responded by setting the sacrificial pyre alight. (1 Kings 18:36).

Twice, then, the author reminds us of the evening sacrifice, once during the failed attempts of Baal’s prophets and once during Elijah’s prayer. More on that in a moment.

Not too long ago, I would have looked at this text and seen a simple illustration of the Lord’s greatness. He makes the prophets of Baal look foolish and impotent while demonstrating his own ability to accomplish things that defy the imagination. The story reminds us that we all have to decide who is God, and what to do about it. “How long will you limp along with two opinions. If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:22). And all that’s true, except that I would no longer describe the story as an illustration, and I would no longer cast the story in those terms.

Now I see the story as one element in the great story of God’s salvation. The kings of Judah and Israel sat on David’s throne, but time and time again they fell short of what God wanted from those who reigned over his people. King Ahab set up shrines to Baal and led the people to worship an idol. Despite their sins, the Lord did not abandon his chosen ones. Instead, he acted through the prophet Eliijah to recapture the “hearts” of his people (1 Kings 18:37) and reestablish his sovereignty over the kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 18:40, a bloody slaughter). The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal portrays the Lord keeping his covenant in majesty and power.

On top of this, I have recently noticed how the author of 1 Kings casts this story in cultic terms. (I guess you should say, “Duh. It’s the story of a sacrifice.”) Both Baal’s prophets and Elijah attempt to offer sacrifices at the time of the “oblation.” Exodus 29:29-39 describes the two daily sacrifices which characterize Israel’s ongoing relationship with the Lord.

Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly each day. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; and with the first lamb one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory; I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God.

Elijah offers his prayer to the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,” the same God who led the people from Egypt, established the covenant of the law, brought the people into the land of promised and sat on the the throne of Israel. The ordinary people of Israel may never experience anything like the spectacular miracle of 1 Kings 18:38, but they do have a daily reminder of this God’s dwelling among them. The daily sacrifices are signs of the Lord’s enduring presence with his people. Just as Elijah’s sacrifice will let the people “know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:37), so the daily sacrifice is the means by which “they will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I may dwell with them” (Exodus 29:39).

As the great story of God’s salvation progresses beyond the age of kings, we discover that the Lord will do his most powerful work on in another manner. God will indeed offer a sacrifice that redeems Israel, but not through fire from heaven and a bloody sword. Instead, God will give himself in personal humility and public shame on a bloody cross.

We Christians, too, have an enduring sign of this God’s presence among us. The daily sacrifice in the temple was accompanied by an offering of grain and wine. In our offering of bread and wine, we are united to Christ’s offering for us.

Gregory of Nyssa saw the sacrament of baptism in this story. Maybe he had the wrong sacrament in mind.