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Elijah and the Prophets of Ba’al.

1 Kings 18:20-45

2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Common Lectionary year C

©2016 Rev. Elisabeth R Jones

Why this text, why this sermon?
Primarily because of a question raised at the May 13 Taste of Syria event.The questioner wondered about the influence of those texts in the Qu’ran which condone violence in the name of religion. Afra Jalabi answered with grace and wisdom, but I also felt compelled to add to the conversation the truth that verse to verse, it’s our Bible which is the more violent. This got me to thinking hard about my own preaching choices over the past 5 years; in my heartfelt, passionate desire to share everything I can about God’s grace, love, fidelity,
wisdom, strength, justice, compassion,…. did I say love…?, I am guilty of avoiding Scripture’s texts of terror. This is ultimately not fair to you. I owe you better. It is just as important to wrestle with these terrifying texts as it is to bathe in texts of grace. Both are necessary for our growth as thinking, feeling, spiritually robust people of a life-affirming Christian faith living in a plural and often religiously polarized society.
And the lectionary, on cue, has given us one such text of terror.

Historically, we are back three thousand years ago, in the 9th century before the Common Era, or before the time of Jesus. The land of Israel is divided in two kingdoms; we are in the northern kingdom of Israel, during the time of King Ahab.

What we’re reading in the 1st Book of Kings is a theological history written 300-400 years after the events they describe. So it’s not journalism, not reporting, but historical literature, written to show,
often by rather spectacular satire and pantomime, which kings in Israel kept or broke the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” This particular story is a moral tale, designed to shock in order to make a theological point –namely, that YHWH, is God.

Let me begin:
King Ahab, son of Omri, descendant of David married
Jezebel, daughter of EthBa’al, king of Sidon.
Ahab let Jezebel worship her own gods,
but she, not content with this private arrangement,
demanded that the whole nation should worship Ba’al.
Ahab agreed.

YHWH was angry, (musical noise)
and cast a drought upon the land,
which lasted for three years.

When not a drop of water was left in the land,
when horses and cattle had died in the dust,
when grain had withered on dry stalks,
YHWH sent his prophet Elijah
to the King.

“King Ahab!
Get off the fence!
It’s time for you
and the people to choose, who is God in Israel.”

The King was silent.
The people were silent.

Into this silence,
the election cycle began, the platforms were released,
the adverts plagued every waking hour.
“Vote Ba’al!” (some placards)
Rallies were ordered by Jezebel at the high places.
Every ritual and sacrifice to Ba’al was performed,
Some of the people shrank in horror
while many others were dazzled at the splendour of the prophets of Ba’al.

from his wilderness hiding place, Elijah sang to YHWH
the God of Abraham and Sarah,
of Isaac and Jacob, Ruth and of David,
of Exodus, and Promise,
of justice and wisdom.
This is what he sang:
Anthem You are My Light.

At the appointed day
Ahab gathered the people of Israel together at Mount Carmel,
for them to decide who would be God in Israel.
It was to be a showdown a contest between
Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH
and the 450 prophets of Ba’al.

Elijah set the terms:
“Give us two bulls, O King.
Let Ba’al’s prophets choose one,
they can cut it apart, and lay it on the wood of the altar,
but they are not to set it alight.

I will take the second bull, and lay it on the second altar,
and will also not set it alight.
Then, all of you,call upon the name of your god,
and I will call upon the name of YHWH.
The god who answers with fire,..
that is the one true God in Israel.”

At dawn, the 450 prophets of Ba’al chose their bull,
fat and meaty and likely to crisp well on a pyre.
They stacked the wood, drought-dry,
high, reaching close to the heavens for Ba’al to
strike with his lightning.
And for good measure they danced around their altar,
calling out loud, “Ba’al answer us!”

They hopped and skipped, and pranced and danced,
and yodelled and sang,
and pleaded and hollered incessantly ….
from dawn to high scorching noon.

Not a spark, not a flicker, not a flame.

At noon, Elijah came to their great pyre, and watched
their prancing…
“Shout louder!” he egged,
“Is Ba’al on holiday?
Is Ba’al asleep, does he have earplugs in?
I don’t think he’s listening.”

So they shouted louder, they danced harder, (noise!)
they even slit their veins to draw the attention of their god.
Hobbling, gasping hoarsely, bleeding weakly, from
noon to sunset…..
And still nothing.
Not a spark, not a flicker, not a flame.

As the sun began to set,
Elijah called out to the people,
“Come closer.”
They closed in around him to watch
as he went to the old disused ruins of YHWH’s altar,
and there he placed 12 stones – one each for all the tribes of Israel,
remaking the altar.

Then he dug a trench around the altar, big enough to hold
two large jars of dry grain.
He stacked dry wood onto the repaired altar,
and butchered the remaining bull,
quartered it, and laid it on the wood.
Then he called for the people to find water
to fill four large jars.
Water in a drought is hard to come by, but they did.
He took each jar and poured the precious water
all over the bull, the wood, the stones, the ground.
And he said,
“Good, now do that again!”
So with four more jars of water, he soaked the wood,
he drenched the bull, he splashed the stones,
and filled the trenches all around with water.
And then he stepped back.

The people watched his lips move as he prayed to YHWH:
“You are my Saviour, and my help in time of need,
my refuge and my hope.
When troubles come and skies grow dark,
though the nations war and people rage
You stand beside me.
You are my light and my salvation
You are my hope through all my days.
Let the people praise you….
Let the people praise you…!”

You know what happened next.
A spark, a flicker, a flame,
a fire burned to ash the bull, the wood,
even the stones, and water in the trenches.

And that day at Carmel, so the writer tells us,
the people saw that YHWH is the one God in Israel.

This is the witness of Israel.
Thanks be to God.
Would that the story ended there.
We might just be able to enjoy its satirical pantomime
and move on, spiritually unmoved.
Unless of course we are – rightly – disturbed
by its not so subtle theological message that
“Our God is better than anybody else’s.”
We know too well where that has led humanity;
Pogroms, the Holocaust,
Jihadic or Sikh or Christian fundamentalism,
Hindu superiority policies,
cultural and ethnic genocides in every continent and century.

Some of us are equally disturbed by the notion that
God is a bull-burning magic trick dispenser:
put in the right coins, the right prayers,
and you get the right divine answer!
How many of us have prayed
to Elijah’s God with the earnestness
of those dancing prophets,
and received as silent an answer YHWH
as they received from Ba’al?
Our lived experience, many of us,
suggests that God’s fidelity to us is questionable.
Our fear of being abandoned by an uncaring God,
or worse, duped into believing in a non-existent one,
is agonizingly profound.

And to cap both of these two pressing dilemmas
presented by this text, is the third terror we did not read;
the one the lectionary tries to shield us from
by ending at v. 39 with a ‘shout of praise’
from the people, but the story doesn’t end there.
It ends like this:
Elijah ordered the death of the 450 prophets of Ba’al,
And their blood turned red the Kishon Brook,
while he sat on Mount Carmel looking seaward.

I don’t know about you, but religiously sanctioned murder
is still murder.
Today this would rightly be condemned
as a crime against humanity!
There is no saving grace in cloaking the evil of violence
in a mantle of “Biblical goodness.”

So, what are we to do with such a terrifying text,
and others like it, in our Scriptures?

a) Practically speaking,
we at the liberal end of the spectrum mostly ignore them,
we cut and clip our Bible until it holds only those texts of grace. [1]
We excise these texts as “crude stories of a “savage antiquity,”’ [2]
believing, hoping that as a human species we’ve outgrown such violence in the name of faith.
Except we know all too well from our newsfeeds,
and perhaps even from the urgings of our own hearts,
that we haven’t.

Some of us, less keen on dumping texts willy-nilly
will anemically suggest that herein lies a divine wisdom
we cannot comprehend.
This religious appeal to innocence or ignorance is terrifyingly dangerous, for it abdicates any moral responsibility
to take our faith and its consequences for others seriously.

We (as in liberal, progressive, open, affirming Christians)
have to be smarter, wiser in our care for and with this Bible
– this bookshelf of spiritual and religious memory –
if it is to serve us in our quest for
a just and loving God who can save us from the worst of ourselves.

We simply cannot, -I cannot-
and will not canonize, call sacred,
any action of xenophobia, intolerance, violence, murder, genocide
just because they fall between the covers of this book.
But I will not jettison them either.

There is another way.
It is to read these holy human texts with all our critical faculties in play. Somehow in western Christianity, we have lost the art
of biblical criticism.
Yes, criticizing, and flat out disagreeing with the text
is not a denial of faith, but the practice of it.

Almost 20 years ago now,
Walter Brueggemann argued convincingly
that the canon of the Old Testament
is a startling compilation of contradictory,
conflicting testimony regarding God,
and the nature of God’s covenant with the people. [3]
This contradiction, Brueggemann argues, is deliberate.
By presenting, for example,
contrasting understandings of the roles
of kings, or priests, or religious ritual,
or different possible solutions to Job’s problem of suffering,
those who read these texts are provoked to think,
“Which is right for us, now?”

From beginning to end of the Scriptures
we witness people of God wrestling,
daring, imagining themselves deeper into the richness of
the covenant with a God who both reveals Godself
and who is hidden in mystery.
We see that our faith is birthed,
not in in unanimity but in wrestling with contradiction.

Derek Flood in his book Disarming Scripture describes his lightbulb moment in dealing with these texts of terror.
It came in a study of the way Jesus himself wrestled faithfully with Scripture, prepared to question the dominant interpretation
of say, the Scribes and Pharisees,
in the name of a God of love, life, justice,
offered particularly for those most likely to be denied them. [4]
You see Jesus do this in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says
“You’ve heard it, ‘Love your neighbour, and hate your enemy’, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”[5]

If we do this, coming back to today’s text of terror,
we can faithfully read it by standing
against its message of religious superiority
and religiously perpetrated violence.
We can read it instead as a cautionary tale,
not to fall into the xenophobic swamp,
or the minefield of religious violence,
nor to prance uselessly in front of the household gods of
consumerism, or whatever other little idols
we’ve made for ourselves,
but to seek only the Living God of Love.


[1] An allusion to the Jefferson Bible.
[2] Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Essays ,
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament:Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. (Fortress, 1997)
[4] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus Did. (Metanoia Books, 2014)
[5] Mark 5:43-48.

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