Saturday, January 25, 2014

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:16-40)

The following quote is taken from

"Murder - "At the customary time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet walked up to the altar and prayed, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command.  O LORD, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself."  Immediately the fire of the LORD flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust.  It even licked up all the water in the ditch!  And when the people saw it, they fell on their faces and cried out, "The LORD is God!  The LORD is God!"  Then Elijah commanded, "Seize all the prophets of Baal.  Don't let a single one escape!"  So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there."  (1 Kings 18:36-40 NLT)

This is part of the larger story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and of Elijah, one of God's prophets.  You can read the full story of Elijah's contest against the prophets of Baal here:

(For the entire story, please see 1 Kings 16 - 2 Kings 2).

            Elijah was one of God's greatest prophets.  He lived during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel (reigned circa 885-874 BCE).  King Ahab was one of Israel's worst kings.  He married Jezebel, a Sidonian princess, and together they instituted worship of Baal, a false god, in Israel.  "Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him" (1 Kings 16:30, NIV).  In addition to deliberately committing idolatry themselves and leading the Israelites to do the same, Queen Jezebel murdered many of the LORD's prophets (1 Kings 18:3-4). 
            In the verses preceding this one, Elijah presented himself to King Ahab at God's command, and they gathered the Israelites on Mount Carmel, together with the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, another false god that Ahab worshipped.  The intention was to determine, once and for all, which god was real and which one was false; to determine which god should be worshipped by the Israelites.
            Why was this such a serious issue?  The charge of idolatry is a very grievous sin, which God does not take lightly (see Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  God warned the Israelites on several occasions that if they committed idolatry, it was a crime that warranted the death penalty.  The Israelites' covenant with God demanded that they worship and serve him only.  They were not supposed to worship other gods or fashion idols for themselves.  God had warned them that if they did these things, it would lead to their destruction: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:19, NIV). 
            Why is idolatry considered such a serious crime?  The severity of the judgment, capital punishment, is due to the severity of the sin.  God is the only God, the Lord and creator of all the universe.  When anyone bows down and worships or pays tribute to a false god or idol, they are taking credit away from God and giving it to something undeserving of that credit.  "I am the LORD; that is my name!  I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8, NIV).  The crime of idolatry was so serious that it was often referred to as adultery against God (Ezekiel 6:9).
            In the contest that Elijah proposed, he would set up a sacrifice of a bull on one altar, and Baal's prophets would set up a sacrifice of a bull on another altar.  Then, each would call to their god, and the god who answered by fire was the true God.  The Israelites agreed to this contest.  The prophets of Baal went first - they spent the entire day crying out to Baal, dancing and mutilating themselves, but nothing happened.  Then Elijah had the altar with his sacrifice drenched with water three times.  He then prayed for God to answer him, and God answered with fire - it burned not only the drenched sacrifice on the altar, but also the wood, stones, soil and even the water in the trench.  After that, the people fell prostrate and declared the LORD to be the true God (1 Kings 18:16-39).
            The question that has been presented here is as follows: Why did Elijah have the prophets of Baal killed after this event?  The first and primary reason was because of their idolatry, and for leading the Israelites into a great sin against God.  The second reason was due to another sin. It is interesting that the author of does not mention this, since the website is focused on the condemnation of human sacrifice: human/child sacrifice was massively performed by those who worshipped Baal.
            Worship of Baal and Molech frequently involved the sacrifice of infants, particularly firstborn sons [1] [2] [3].  Sometimes the babies and children would be immediately burned to death in a fire, other times they would first be placed on an altar that had been heated by coals, and then rolled off of it into a burning fire as a sacrifice.  This practice was strongly condemned by God: "They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing" (Jeremiah 32:35, NIV; see also Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 19:5).  (A common question in response is, "If God was against human/child sacrifice, then why did he command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?"  See my earlier article for a discussion of this topic.)  Baal worship, besides human sacrifice and cultic prostitution, also involved self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:28).
            With all of this in mind, we can conclude that Elijah executed the prophets for violating God's commandments against idolatry and child sacrifice.  He was, in essence, doing to them what they had done to countless victims on their altars.   
[1] Exploring the World of the Bible Lands, Roberta L. Harris, 1995.  Pg. 53, 73, 89.
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 156.
[3] Archaeology of the Bible: Book By Book, Gaalyah Cornfield, 1976.  Pg. 52, 170.