Elijah and Mount Carmel: 1 Kings 18
Elijah and Mount Carmel: 1 Kings 18
This week's podcast is a meditation on and a retelling of 1 Kings 18. I read the text with some discussion first, and then read my retelling (below). I was still in the home of the widow of Zarephath and her son, who now adored me and followed me around like a shadow, when the word of the Lord came to me again. “Go,” He said, “show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” It had been three and a half years since I had originally prophesied the draught to Ahab. The famine had been severe even when I came to the widow two and a half years ago. People were dying of starvation. Still, I wasn’t thrilled about returning to Ahab, for I knew that as soon as the draught ended, he would try to kill me. Probably he would have done so already, had he been able to find me. I said my goodbyes to the widow and her son, and the little boy clung to me despite my prickly animal hair garments. I’d been his father figure for the last two and a half years, and I would never see them again, more than likely. A lump rose to my throat as I hugged him goodbye. I was less emotional than I might have been, though, had I not been so distracted by the prospect of what awaited me. One hundred miles I traversed from Zarephath back to Israel. This trip was less bitter than my original journey had been, because I carried water with me from the widow’s well. I also must have followed a slightly different path, because after I had reentered Israel’s borders, I came upon a spring of water in a valley. The jar I had brought with me from Phoenecia was long since dry, and I gratefully refilled it. When I straightened again, I saw a man I recognized from Ahab’s court coming toward me. He seemed hesitant at first, and then ran and fell on his face before me. “Is that you, my lord Elijah?” I knew him as Obadiah, who was in charge of Ahab’s household. Yet I also knew that he feared the Lord. He must have kept that from the king and queen, or he would surely be dead now. “It is I,” I replied. “Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’" A shadow of terror passed over Obadiah’s face. “H-how have I sinned,” he replied, “that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you.” Huh, I thought. No wonder the Lord sent me all the way to Zarephath. Obadiah went on, "And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water?” I started at this—I had not known. I was impressed, too: for Obadiah to do such a thing right under Ahab’s nose! Obadiah finished, "And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here,’ and he will kill me!” I promised him, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” To emphasize my point, I sat down, indicating that I would wait right there. Obadiah grimaced. “As you say, my lord.” Obadiah must have believed me enough to tell Ahab where to find me, but not enough to return with him when he came. Presently, Ahab crested the hill alone before the valley where I sat. When he was still a long way off, he cried out to me, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” I balked a little. I knew he blamed me, but really! I called back, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals!” He approached me, and I stood up to look him in the eye. “Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” Ahab narrowed his eyes at me, understanding my implied challenge. Mount Carmel was where the altar of the Lord had been during the time of the Judges, before Jezebel’s prophets had thrown it down. He knew I meant for this to be a showdown. No doubt in his mind, it would end with my public execution. I suspected that was the reason for the malevolent glint in his eyes as he hissed, “Agreed. I shall assemble them all there at sunrise tomorrow. In the meantime,” he took a step closer, until we were nose to nose, “you will come with me. I’m not letting you out of my sight again.” I grinned back at him, lifting my chin a bit to show that he did not intimidate me in the least. “I am a man of my word, Ahab. I told you I would be there, and I will be there. But do not attempt to arrest me now. It’s just you and me here, and if it came to a struggle—we both know who would win.” Ahab blinked, gritted his teeth, and took a step back, fixing me with a gaze of purest hatred. My threat rang true: though Ahab and I were evenly matched in terms of size and strength, I had the Lord on my side, as the three and a half year draught clearly proved. The king was a coward at heart. I knew he would back down. “Sunrise," he snarled. “Sunrise,” I agreed. Then he was gone. I climbed to the summit of Mount Carmel the next morning when streaks of pink stretched across the morning sky, and found that I was almost the last to arrive. Hundreds, if not thousands of Israelites had camped out on Ahab’s orders--awaiting my bloodshed, probably. Obadiah was there among Ahab’s servants. He caught my eye and gave me the tiniest nod of encouragement. My servant was already on top of Carmel as well, waiting for me. Behind the prophets, I saw that some of Ahab’s servants had brought animals for sacrifice. Good. The dull roar of chatter died down as soon as I made my appearance. “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” I cried out to the people. “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” I stopped, waiting for a reply. They gave none, but hung on my every word. “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men,” I went on. I knew this wasn’t strictly true because of what Obadiah had told me, but it still was, for practical purposes. I was the only prophet no longer in hiding. “Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” I didn’t know whether or not the people would understand my reference. As it was written in the Chronicles, when Solomon built and consecrated the Temple, the Lord answered with fire from heaven, consuming the sacrifices. Whether they caught the reference or not, though, a murmuring ripple passed through the crowd. “That sounds fair,” I heard several of the braver voices say, and, “It is well spoken.” I turned to the prophets next, and cried out, still in my stage voice, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” One of Ahab’s servants came forward with the largest and finest bull they had brought, and the crowd of prophets swarmed around it. The bellows of the bull abruptly ceased, and many of the prophets took part in preparing its remains for the sacrifice. They laid it upon the wood on their altar, and formed a ring around it. The people hushed, and then the prophets raised their voices as one. “O Baal, answer us!” they cried out. “O Baal, burn up this offering we have prepared for you! O Baal, answer with fire!” The cacophony of supplications grew louder. They danced, they leapt, they raised their arms to heaven. But nothing happened. Hours passed. Their shouts grew hoarse. Their dancing turned to limping. The people grew restless. Many of them stopped watching altogether, unpacking the food they had brought with them and chatting amongst themselves. I smirked. “Cry aloud,” I taunted the false prophets, “for he is a god. Either he is musing, or perhaps he is relieving himself! Or he is on a journey. Or perhaps he is asleep, and must be awakened!” The prophets cried out all the more at this, unsheathing their swords and lances and drawing their own blood, as was their custom. When there was still no reply, they cut themselves all the more, until they were too weak to dance or shout, covered in their own blood. Enough of this, I thought, getting to my feet. I grew bored myself, and I’d made my point. It was clear nothing was going to happen, and most of the people had now finished their lunch. “Come near to me,” I called out to the people of Israel, who had scattered. “Gather around.” I waited until they had obeyed, though most of them still looked as if they didn’t expect much. With my servant’s help, I began to repair the twelve stones of the altar of the Lord from antiquity. A few of the men of Israel, when they saw what I was doing, reluctantly moved to help me. When we had finished, I dug a deep trench all around the altar. The men who had been helping me looked at me quizzically, but I did not bother to explain. Two of them took over. “Deeper,” I commanded when they looked to me for direction. I, meanwhile, assembled the wood, and slaughtered the bull given me for my sacrifice. “Is this deep enough?” one of the men digging the trench asked me. It was about enough for one seah of seed. I shook my head. “Double it,” I commanded. The three men exchanged a look, but did not argue and set again to work. Meanwhile, my servant and I cut the bull’s carcass in pieces, laying it upon the wood. When the men had finished digging, next I commanded them, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” I glanced at Ahab when I said this, whose expression deepened into a scowl. Water was a precious commodity these days. I didn’t care. The men did what I asked, filling jars down at the Kishon Brook at the base of the mountain and returning again to douse the offering. Then I commanded, “Do it a second time.” They hesitated slightly, glancing at each other and at Ahab, whose arms were crossed tightly across his chest with disapproval. But he did not contradict me, so they obeyed. “Do it a third time,” I told them when they’d finished. I had everyone’s attention now. With the third drenching, the people now understood the purpose of my trench: the water saturated the offering, the wood, the altar, and filled up the trench too. It was yet another taunt against the false prophets, without words. Doesn’t matter how hard you make this, it told them. The Lord can handle it. I glanced at Obadiah, whose lips twitched, trying not to smile at my audacity. My heart pounded in my chest with anticipation. I was not afraid, though; I knew full well that the Lord was about to do something spectacular. I raised my hands to the sky. “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,” I declared in a booming voice, “let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back!” The answering bolt of lightning seemed to rent the heavens in two. I was momentarily both blind and deaf with the sound and the flash of it. When the dust cleared, there was nothing left at all: the offering, wood, stones, water, and indeed a huge chunk of the ground beneath the altar had been vaporized, leaving a crater behind. There was a moment of terrified silence, and then to a man, the people of Israel fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God!” I looked to the prophets of Baal. They were frozen, shaking in terror. I turned back to the people on their faces, and commanded, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape!” My words galvanized everyone at once. The prophets began to flee down the mountainside, while the people pursued them. I met them all down at the Kishon, and drew my sword. I had not known why I had brought it, until this moment. The Lord had commanded the death of the false prophets in Deuteronomy, lest his people be led astray by them. And who was there now to carry out the word of the Lord but me? So, at the Kishon Brook, I slaughtered every last one of them. The men of Israel apprehended the prophets, each of them awaiting my sword of vengeance. I cannot explain how I did it. I’d never killed anyone before, yet suddenly I killed eight hundred and fifty men in a single day. A part of me was utterly horrified even as it was happening. Ahab watched, but did not intervene—not that he could have, if he’d wanted to. The hearts of the people were with me now. When I’d finished, I was as soaked in blood as if I’d bathed in it. I turned to Ahab, who seemed transfixed in utter disbelief. I stalked toward him, trembling all over with left over adrenaline, and pointed at his carriage. Then I declared, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” The sky was blue and cloudless, but Ahab’s eyes widened. He had not eaten throughout the ordeal, though I did not doubt that he had brought a feast with him from the fortress. Without a word, he moved toward his carriage with his servants—including Obadiah, I noted. He tried to catch my eye, but I turned away. I threaded my way through the crowd of amazed onlookers, and gestured to my servant to follow me. Together, we climbed back to the top of Mount Carmel, and the men of Israel, their wives and children, dispersed to their homes. When I reached the summit, I sat down beside the crater that had once been the altar of the Lord, and put my face between my knees. I did not want to look at the sky, to behold its cloudlessness. I needed to see with my spirit, rather than with my eyes. My servant said nothing, probably too shellshocked at everything we had witnessed that day to question my strange behavior. With my head hidden and my voice muffled, I told my servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea. Then return and tell me what you see.” He went, and as he was gone, I prayed, Lord, bring rain. You commanded me to bring rain. Fulfill your word now. I heard my servant’s footsteps return. “There is nothing,” he declared. “Go again,” I told him. Again, the footsteps receded, and I prayed, Lord, bring rain. Fulfill your word. Seven times we did this. Never once did I look up to the sky. The seventh time, the servant returned, and told me, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” I lifted my head from between my knees, and smiled. Then I pointed at the base of the mountain where Ahab still feasted with his servants. “Go, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot an go down, lest the rain stop you.’” My servant did as he was told. As he went, I watched as the heavens grew black with clouds. The wind kicked up, and Ahab climbed into his chariot down below and made for Jezreel. I stood too, and began my descent from Carmel. As I did so, the first drops of water began to fall from the sky. As I drew level with my servant who waited for me at the foot of the mountain, something came over me—the hand of the Lord? The desire to burn off the excess buzz of energy from the day I’d just had? Regardless, I felt the sudden need to run. I tucked my garment in my waistband, and flew like the wind just as the heavens opened and the downpour began. “Where are you—?” I heard my servant begin to ask, but the rest of his question was lost in the sound of rushing rain. Behind me, I thought I heard him swear in frustration. Ahab had quite the head start, and he was in a chariot while I was on foot, yet I outstripped him in moments. Why was I running to Jezreel, anyway? I had no idea. But where else would I go? I had only just come from Zarephath, in Phoenicia, and I was now essentially homeless. The Lord had not yet told me where to go next, nor what to do. For now, though, I was fully in the moment. My muscles burned with the joy of exertion, and the water washed away the blood of the false prophets, making me clean again. It was the most glorious bath I’d ever had.