5.63 1 Kings -- Blood in the Valley
There is surely no more dramatic scene than the showdown on the mountain (1 Kings 18:20-46). The odds were stacked against Elijah: 450 to 1. Elijah set the terms of the contest, and the people ratified them. It is easy enough to offer sacrifice to any god, but it is another matter altogether to have the deity participate in the offering!
"The god who answers by fire -- he is God" (1 Kings 18:24).
And so the Baal-worshippers went at it, and they put on a good show: praying, shouting, dancing, cutting themselves, "frantic prophesying." This is religion in one of its many guises, but the basic element is always the same: trying to work something up. Somehow, religionists believe, flesh can be transmuted to spirit, as alchemists tried to convert lead to gold.
Elijah was not particularly sympathetic to their efforts. He taunted them, he mocked them (1 Kings 18:27). Unlike the modern ecumenicist, he did not enter into friendly dialog with them. He did not point out areas of similarity and agreement between Baalists and Yahweh worshippers. He did not debate doctrine or ethics, or comment on their world-view. Mainly, he just waited. He let them go on interminably, from morning till evening, till they dropped. He did this because he was at rest, he was confident in his God, he could afford to bide his time.
And so, finally, the Baalists quit, because there was nothing more to do.
But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention (1 Kings 18:29).
The religion of Baal is shown up for what it is at heart: the religion of anti-Emmanuel. Baal is "the god who is not with us." This is also the heart of the modern Baal, secularism, which is the foundation of the modern nation-state. No matter how elaborately dressed up and paraded before the masses, the soul of secularism is a void, a hole, an emptiness. Baal is the sum-total of all human efforts to create meaning out of ourselves, apart from God: through law, ethics, social policy, culture. The Baal-myth is that all these activities can be (must be) human-centered, human-originated. And if we add human endevor to human endevor, consistently enough and with sufficient expertise, then the Baalists believe we will create something lasting in the world: peace, harmony, international comity, global prosperity. This is the age in which we find ourselves, and the prophets are very busy among us, in politics, media and universities: shouting, cutting themselves (and others), and frantically prophesying. They are re-engineering the human community on a global scale, creating a community in which man alone is the measure and the transcendent is banished, or more accurately, in which Man himself becomes the transcendent.
And God waited.
Finally we come to the end of all human effort. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah invited the people to come near. As in Exodus, on Mt Sinai, the people assembled to witness the acts of God (Ex 19).
He repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, "Your name shall be Israel" (1 Kings 18:30-31).
In losing touch with God, Israel had lost the knowledge of its own identity. They were no longer God's people. There was no longer an altar, a meeting place between God and His covenant people. So the first thing Elijah did was to rebuild the altar out of twelve stones, one for each of the tribes. This was to recover and restore what had been lost through neglect and idolatry.
He then drenched the altar with water. This was to ensure there was no possibility of human complicity in the sacrifice. No one could later claim "spontaneous combustion" or some magic trick had occurred. And the water soaked the offering, the wood, and the ground around the altar. Elijah then offered his prayer, which was a complete contrast to the ravings of the Baalites:
"O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again" (1 Kings 18:36-37).
As soon as he had said this, the divine fire fell from heaven and burned up the offering, the altar, the wood, and all the water. It was an instantaneous explosion, probably similar to a lightning strike, precisely targeted, and leaving nothing behind but burned ground, smoke, and the smell of the charred wood and sacrifice. As at Sinai, the people reacted immediately, in terror (Ex 20:18-19). They fell on their faces, and called on the name of the Lord. Elijah seized the moment to proclaim God's judgment: kill all the prophets of Baal.
Yet the mercy of God is also seen, in that, just as the fire from heaven was restricted to the altar, so the wrath of God was confined to the pagan priests and prophets. The people of Israel themselves had committed the sins of idolatry, inter-marriage with pagans, disobedience to the Law, but God did not hold them accountable. In fact, He even spared Ahab (unfortunately), who had permitted the spread of Baal-worship throughout the land.
The final request in Elijah's prayer, “that you are turning their hearts back again,” was the point of the entire miracle. It was not primarily to punish the prophets of Baal or to demonstrate God’s power. Instead, it was God’s statement that “I am here, I am real, you are My covenant people forever,” and thereby to win their hearts, not ensure their servitude. But the answer to this prayer was outside of God’s ability, because it depended on the response of a free people.