This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. I like it, primarily, because it is easy to visualize. It is well-written. The scene is cinematically described. We are a visual, image driven culture. We think in movies. When funny things happen to us, we say, “that would be a great television show” or “who do they think they are, the Kardashians?” You read a passage like this, you immediately start to cast actors and see this action depicted on the big screen. With modern special effects, 1 Kings 18 would make one awesome scene in a Biblical movie. The fireball alone would be worth the price of the ticket.
So what does this mean? Is this a one sided account of God opening a can of divine whoop butt on the worshippers of Baal? If so, he went to a great deal of trouble to make the point. God, who is on record as having a sense of humor, clearly wants to make a point beyond the point. Let’s start pulling back the layers of the ritual onion and see if we can find out what’s going on.
The first thing we need to acknowledge is we’re in operating in a world which acknowledged the existence of more than one God. Even the Israelites talk about other gods but they do so in a way which gives primacy and singular importance to Yahweh. This does not diminish God. It’s a fact of human history. To our modern ears, this may sound strange. The three dominant world religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are monotheistic. This means we worship one God. A devout Muslim will tell a Christian that our belief in the Trinity disqualifies us as monotheists. They take monotheism very seriously. Why is this? We all came out of the same Middle Eastern environment where every tribe had multiple gods or goddesses. However, if you believe that we don’t worship other gods in the second decade of the 21st century, then you’re delusional. Yes, people worship money. People also worship countless other pursuits. Idolatry doesn’t come labeled and in carved figures sold by a local idol maker. We substitute the worship of God for the opportunity to worship at the temples of nature, the human body, or simply hanging out with friends. What God used to do for people, what the church community once provided; is now comfortably found somewhere else. The reality is undeniable: what was once received here is being obtained elsewhere. We are not that different from the people read about in 1 Kings. Which God are we worshipping? Whose side are we on? And by “side”, I don’t mean “good” or “evil”. This is not taking sides with the devil over God. No, it’s far more innocuous and insidious. Are we on our own narcissistic side, a side that serves our own self-interest or God’s side?
What is God up to in this era of divided loyalties? Have no doubt, our loyalties and priorities are being called into question.
This is a showdown. It might be best to think of it as an old west gunfight. Elijah is outgunned and outmanned. He is the US Marshal in a town that doesn’t want law and order. His opponents, the cattle rustlers from the outskirts of town are the priests of Baal. Baal is the other big named god and he has a staff of 450 priests. Baal has got plenty of money, fancy clothes, and the backing of all the important rich people. If you were to call central casting and order up a “bad guy God”, they would send over Baal.
They’ve decided to have a “God-off”. Imagine the final of American Idol and every other reality television show rolled into one; God vs. God. In order to see which God the Israelites would follow, they would set up a contest between the Gods. Up to this point, as Elijah says, “they had been hobbling between two opinions.” This wasn’t totally their fault. The King was pro Yahweh and his wife was in the Baal camp. Elijah decides to have a contest to help end their confusion. Right there you ought to see a problem. A red flag should shoot straight up. Why? A man made contest to decide who’s the best God; a human being had the idea to determine the rules and parameters for what would determine the best God. God doesn’t play by our rules. No matter the purpose or how elaborate the plan, God doesn’t conform to a structure we create. This is a recipe for failure and disaster.
If we are foolish enough to create a contest, a challenge for God, something which says our belief will hinge on God performing an action according to conditions we’ve set, we will be both disappointed and amazed by the outcome. God heal me and I’ll believe in you forever. God save my child, mother, father, daughter, and I’ll believe in you forever. God, if the IRS doesn’t audit my returns this year, I’ll give what I owe to the church and everyone else. Our contests aren’t as physically elaborate as the priests of Baal and Elijah’s but they are contests of our own design.
Elijah’s contest began by building a massive stone altar. Around the altar, he dug a trench large enough to hold 24 pounds of seed, evenly spread. On top of the stone, he arranged chopped wood and a slaughtered bull. At first glance, it looks like he’s prepping for a barbecue. The last piece of the puzzle was the water. Elijah took four large stone jars, filled to the brim with water, and doused the whole altar. He repeated this step four times. There was so much water the runoff filled the trench.
All afternoon they had waited for either God to answer by fire. Earlier in the day, the prophets of Baal had created their own super altar. They had their own BBQ bull recipe. According to their rituals, they sacrificed, slaughtered, and laid the meat on their stones. The 450 prophets accepted Elijah’s challenge not to light the fire with lighter fluid. One God or the other would light their altar fire-somehow, someway. Elijah’s use of water was a sign of how confident he was in Israel’s God.
Here’s where it gets a little funny. Throughout the morning, the prophets of Baal called on Baal’s name to fire it up. They shouted, the writer says, “Baal, answer us!” Can’t you see 450 men in crazy headdresses dancing around the carcasses of a slaughtered bull yelling, “Baal, answer us!” Nothing happens. They’re going through their checklist from the Baal Worship Book of Discipline.
About noon, Elijah starts to trash talk the other team. I think this maybe one the first Biblical occurrences of trash talking. “Shout louder,” he says. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny. He doesn’t stop there. “Perhaps he’s deep in thought, or busy or traveling. Maybe is sleeping and must be awakened.” He’s mocking them and it’s hilarious. Maybe your God is out of the office and didn’t tell you he’d be kayaking in the Adirondacks.
These Baal prophets go absolutely nuts. They scream louder, cut themselves with swords (as was their custom, says the Bible), and threw their religious fanaticism into high gear. Still nothing happened.
That’s when Elijah built his altar and everything blew up.
God blew up the altar; God didn’t simply set it on fire.
Imagine that you are one of these fence-riding people, limping along under the weight of too many gods. What have you just witnessed?
The prophets of Baal illustrate what we don’t want to admit: we confuse religion and spirituality. Spirituality, in all its nebulous forms, is our religion. Religion, has become too much like Baal worship; prophets, preachers, and practitioners limping about the altars we’ve made, crying, hurting ourselves, and raving in anger at unseen gods. Religion, whether in the weak tea of one size fits all Rumi quotes or fundamentalism, really is a miserable thing.
What is this story? Human beings trying to justify themselves before unseen forces and yet “there is no voice, no answer, no response”. What about a deep abiding confidence, love, and faith? There has to be a contest for the people to believe and have faith in God. How sad is that? That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Religion works this way, faith does not.
In 1 Kings, God swallows religion whole. Everything we created, “the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and the water that was in the trench” was obliterated. Nothing of our doing is left behind. The nothingness after the fire shows that God isn’t something we can contain or control. God isn’t from our world. When the temple was finally built, what was in the holy of holies? There was nothing at all. On Mount Carmel that afternoon, God created the Holy of Holies.
You can’t make Jesus up. You cannot create the preconditions for you own salvation. Jesus is completely the gift of God. He is of God and from God. He is God. And while we were yet sinners, messing around with altars, faith, stones and religion of our own comfort an design, God died for us. God became nothing, so that in our nothingness, we might be something. That is not religion. It is love.