1 Kings 18 – “Elijah Defeats the Prophets of Baal”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Elijah duels with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. After Baal is shown to be an inefficacious deity, God miraculously consumes Elijah’s sacrifice. The people kill the prophets of Baal, Ahab flees, and Elijah brings the rain.

II. Photo
Elijah brings the much-needed rain: “Meanwhile the sky grew black with clouds; there was wind, and a heavy downpour fell.” (v. 45a)

III. Important Verses
3-4: Ahab had summoned Obadiah, the steward of the palace. (Obadiah revered the LORD greatly. When Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and provided them with food and drink.)
25-29: Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull and prepare it first, for you are the majority; invoke your god by name, but apply no fire.” They took the bull that was given them; they prepared it, and invoked Baal by name from morning until noon, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no sound, and none who responded; so they performed a hopping dance about the altar that had been set up. When noon came, Elijah mocked them, saying, “Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.” So they shouted louder, and gashed themselves with knives and spears, according to their practice, until the blood streamed over them. When noon passed, they kept raving until the hour of presenting the meal offering. Still there was no sound, and none who responded or heeded.
33-35: [Elijah] laid out the wood, and he cut up the bull and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it over the burnt offering and the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. “Do it a third time,” he said; and they did it a third time. The water ran down around the altar, and even the trench was filled with water.
38-39: Then fire from the LORD descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “The LORD alone is God, The LORD alone is God!”
40: Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal, let not a single one of them get away.” They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there.
42b-45a: Elijah meanwhile climbed to the top of Mount Carmel, crouched on the ground, and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up and look toward the Sea.” He went up and looked and reported, “There is nothing.” Seven times [Elijah] said, “Go back,” and the seventh time, [the servant] reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising in the west.” Then [Elijah] said, “Go say to Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’” Meanwhile the sky grew black with clouds; there was wind, and a heavy downpour fell;

IV. Outline
1-2a. God sends Elijah to stop the famine
2b-6. Ahab and Obadiah search for water; Obadiah saves 100 prophets
7-14. Elijah tells Obadiah to summon Ahab; Obadiah’s protest
15-19. Elijah arranges a meeting with the Baal-prophets
20-24. Elijah and the Baal-prophets arrange a test
25-29. Baal does not respond; Elijah mocks the deity
30-35. Elijah drenches his sacrifice in water
36-37. Elijah’s prayer
38. A heavenly fire consumes the sacrifice, the altar, and the water
39. The people believe in God
40. Elijah kills the prophets of Baal
41-45. Elijah brings the rains
46. Elijah and Ahab leave

V. Comment
Chapter 18 relates how Elijah proves that God, and not Baal, is the one and only deity. Who was Baal? The word Baal is a common Semitic word for “owner, master, husband.” According to the Ugaritic texts, Baal was also the name of the most active and prominent of all deities. The text titled The Baal Cycle depicts him as a warrior; at times he brandishes two clubs, one representing thunder and the other lightning, to defeat his enemies. His primary consort was Anath, but at times he is helped by another goddess called Astarte. His dwelling was 25-30 miles to the north of Ugarit on Mt. spn, which is today called Jebel al-Aqra (1,780 m high). Jebel al-Aqra is the tallest mountain in Syria.

It seems that the Israelites practiced Baal worship from the beginning of their desert wanderings until the destruction of the first Temple. In Numbers 25:1-11 the Israelites “attached themselves to Baal-Peor, ate sacrifices for the dead, and indulged in sacred sexual orgies.” They also worshipped Baal during the period of the Judges (Judg 6:25-32). 2 Kings 11:18 describes the aftermath of Queen Athalia’s execution (835 BCE): “All the people of the land came to the Temple of Baal and tore it down; they smashed its altars and images; and Mattan, priest of Baal, they slew in front of the altars.” 2 Chronicles 28:2 describes how Baal worship was again taken up in the days of Ahaz (r. 732-716 BCE): “He went in the ways of the kings of Israel; he even made molten idols for Baal.” Manasseh (r. 697-643 BCE) gave Baal worship royal support (2 Kgs 21:3) and was presumably followed by many of his successors until the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. Thus, Baal worship is well attested to in biblical literature.

One might wonder: If there were so many ancient Near Eastern deities, why were the Israelites so enticed by Baal worship? Based on Ugaritic texts, Marvin Pope proposes the following answer: “The worship of Baal in Syria-Palestine was inextricably bound to the economy of the land which depends on the regularity and adequacy of the rains. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, which depend on irrigation, the Promised Land drinks water from the rain of heaven (Deut. 11:10-11)… Thus in any year anxiety about the rainfall would be a continuing concern to the inhabitants which would suffice to give rise to rites to ensure the coming of the rains. Thus the basis of the Baal cult was the utter dependence of life on the rains which were regarded as Baal’s bounty.” (89) Thus, the Israelites were attracted to Baal worship because of their dependence on rain for survival. It was Baal, they believed, who could deliver the much-needed rain.

It is in this light that the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal should be understood. As Ulf Oldenberg writes, “To many Israelites it became a question who was the stronger god, [Israel’s God] or Baal. Only a contest between the two gods could decide this question, who was the most efficient god to provide the rain upon which their welfare depended.” (179) Thus, immediately after demonstrating how the prophets of Baal were fraudulent, “Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up and eat and drink, for a rumbling sound of rain [is coming]!” (1 Kgs 18:41). Elijah is making the point that it is the Israelite God, and not Baal, who delivers the rains.

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Collins, John J. “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Day, John. “Baal.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 545.
De Vries, Simon John. “1 Kings” Word Biblical Commentary vol. 12 (Waco, Texas: Wordbooks, 1985).
Longe, Burke O. “1 Kings with an Introduction to Historical Literature” Forms of Old Testament Literature vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1984).
Oldenburg, Ulf. The Conflict Between El and Ba’Al in Canaanite Religion. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.
Pope, Marvin H. “Probative Pontificating in Ugaritic and Biblical Literature” (Munster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1994) 89.
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