The Narrative Lectionary continues marching us forward with an important segment of the story of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In Sunday’s reading we hear about King Ahab, who is the seventh Northern king of Israel. His wife, Queen Jezebel, was from Sidon and this created a political alliance between the northern kingdom and the Phoenicians. Ahab’s rule was marked with conflict with the Assyrians to the north and with Moab to the East and the South.
Jezebel brought the worship of Baal with her. Baal was associated with the storm and the fertility god Hadad from the region around Syria. Baal was also associated with agriculture and was called the ‘giver of life’ by his adherents. Baal was the god most worshiped by the Canaanites. Asherah was a goddess of fertility that mythology told that she was married to El, the strongest god of the pantheon. She was also the mother of Baal according to the mythology.
It is with this background in mind that Elijah, the only remaining prophet of Yahweh, faces off with the 450 prophets of Baal. On the surface, things are not looking good for Elijah. He’s outnumbered, the people have no loyalty to Yahweh and haven’t for some time, the government is totally dedicated to the pantheon of gods associated with Baal. Ahab confronts Elijah and they agree to a prophet face off.
Elijah lets the prophets of Baal go first. He goes out of his way to make plenty of accommodations for them so there can be no accusation that he is doing anything to hinder their efforts. And as the day goes on, he starts to insult the prophets and their god. While the English translation misses the biggest insult of all, the Hebrew captures it well having Elijah wonder aloud if Baal fell asleep on his heavenly toilet. Elijah throws insult after insult at the prophets and their god. Why isn’t Baal answering them? Because Baal is a false god and no amount of the prophets wailing, screaming, or cutting themselves is going to wake up something that doesn’t actually exist.
After the 450 prophets of Baal fail to get their god to light the sacrifice on fire, it’s Elijah’s turn and again, he goes to great lengths to show that Yahweh is real – dousing the sacrifice and wood three times with water to the point that it is sitting in a pool of water. And then he calls on Yahweh to reign down fire and God does, consuming the sacrifice and the water. The battle is over – Yahweh is real, Baal is shown to be a fake. Immediately following the Narrative Lectionary’s selected verses, we hear about Elijah having all the prophets of Baal killed. This upsets Queen Jezebel and she proceeds to be on the hunt from a fleeing Elijah.
While we don’t talk about false gods in our world today, there are plenty of them. A god is just something that we worship or turn to first when we have to make a decision. Our society has plenty of these gods – money, ideology, famous people, work, sex, other addictions, entertainment, objects we become enamored with, and more. What are the things we turn our ear guidance? Do we first seek out what money has to say? How about what some politician or a political party that we happen to be a member of? Do we consider our work above everything else?
This can lead to many other challenges – assumptions and expectations about what others are to do or not do. Relationships can break or be stressed as a result. Even the church itself can fall for false gods – for example, believing that the building is most important or that how things were done in the past, under different circumstances that no longer exist, are the “correct” and God-ordained way of operating.
Elijah doesn’t waver in the faith he has been given in spite of how the odds look against him. He isn’t looking at the world through the lens of false hope and false gods. Rather, he is looking at the circumstances through faith in Yahweh – the God of Israel who is alive and active in the world. The God who does miracles and makes transformation happen in the least expected way. The God who shows up when it seems unlikely. This is the continuing story of God that carries through all of Scripture and into our world and our lives today.
Questions for reflection
Do you hold a separated worldview – that God is somewhere distant (maybe out there somewhere in heaven, far away)? How does that match with God being active in our world today? Do we feel safer or more in control when we think we have God at a distance? What is it that we fear in having God right here and active in our lives? How has God given you faith and where have you seen God show up – especially in unlikely circumstances?