Last week, we met Elijah—one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. About 870 BC, he stormed into the presence of Israel’s king Ahab and announced that God was bringing a drought upon the land because of Ahab’s treason (briefly explain). Then God hid Elijah from Ahab for 3 years and trained him for the climactic event we will study today—the showdown on Mount Carmel (MAP). To get a feel for the drama of this event, let’s read through most of the narrative...
Read 18:1,2a. Did you notice the COMMAND & PROMISE & FAITH (LAST WEEK)? Since Ahab has been trying to kill him, this sounds like a death sentence. But years of training have taught Elijah that the safest place is the center of God’s will.
Summarize 18:2b-15. Elijah runs into Obadiah, who works for Ahab but is a follower of God and has hidden and fed 100 prophets for the last 3 years.
Read 18:16-19. It’s time for a public contest on Mt. Carmel (1740’ up from sea level). “All the people” refer to leaders. Do the 400 Asherah prophets wind up being no-shows?)
Read 18:20-24a. Elijah polarizes the opinion leaders of Israel, and proposes a contest to determine who they should follow. They get the “home field advantage” because Mt. Carmel was an abandoned God altar (18:30), now a favorite site for Baal worship. He stacks the sides in Baal's favor. Baal gets 450 prophets to call on him, while Elijah is the only prophet of God. Baal was the god of lightening and fire, so this test plays to his strength. They get “first pick” of the two bulls, and they get to go first—when Baal (god of the sun) is ascending in strength (18:26).
Read 18:24b. The people agree to the terms of the contest.
Read 18:25-29, noting Baal's non-response and Elijah's mockery (“relieve himself”). The point is that Baal is impotent/non-existent.
Read 18:30-35. Elijah insisted that the sacrifice be made humanly unburnable. (The water probably came from the Mediterranean.)
Read 18:36-39. “Fire” may refer to a lightening bolt. The timing and extent unmistakably attest to God’s existence and superiority.
Read 18:40-46. The people repent, and God ends the drought. Elijah beats Ahab to Jezreel, anticipating Ahab's repentance and Jezebel's surrender. But that's another story...
What a dramatic story! What lessons can we learn from it? We’ll look at three lessons, and the first is a response to our culture’s biggest objection to this passage...
LESSON #1: There are valid limits to religious tolerance
One of the ways you can chart shifts in our culture’s prevailing world-view is by noting which biblical concepts offend most people. Thirty years ago, in a modernist culture that rejected the supernatural, most people stumbled over the main event—the fire consuming the sacrifice, wood, stones, dust and water. In today’s postmodern culture, what is the biggest objection? Elijah’s execution of the Baal prophets (with the evident approval of God). “How intolerant can you get! Elijah must be some kind of Old Testament ayatollah, slaughtering all these innocent people just because they hold different religious views! It’s this kind of religious intolerance that turns me off to the Bible!” Before you write Elijah/the Bible off, you should take a closer look at Baalism.
RITUAL PROSTITUTION: Since Baal and the Asherah were fertility gods, Baal needed to have sex with the Asherah in order to cause crops to grow and livestock reproduce. In order to induce Baal to do this, male worshippers needed to have sex with priestess-prostitutes (sympathetic magic). This made Baal worship pretty popular with the men, but the priestesses were sex-slaves who were carried off against their will in childhood and horribly abused by the men who used them.
Baalism involved the worship of Molech (the Ammonite counterpart to Baal), who demanded CHILD-SACRIFICE. “The central act of this worship was the sacrifice of the first-born of every woman’s body. According to one tradition, there was an opening at the back of the brazen idol, and after a fire was made within it, each parent had to come and with his own hands place his first-born child (on the) white-hot, outstretched arms of Molech. According to this tradition the parent was not allowed to show emotion, and drums were beaten so that the babies’ cries could not be heard as it died in the hands of Molech.”1
Seen in this light, Elijah’s actions look different, don’t they? He was acting on behalf of God, who deplored this practice (Jer.32:35) and wanted it eradicated from the nation who was called by his name! He was doing what Ahab (as king) should have been doing—protecting the people from this horror!
The lesson, then, is that while freedom of religion is very important, there are valid limits to religious tolerance. What if Baal sect was in central Ohio—and they took your daughter? Kidnapping for sexual slavery and child murder are capital crimes, even if they are done in the name of religion. Is this wrongful religious intolerance, or is it wrong to tolerate these religious practices? What about Islamic extremists who use children as decoys for car bombings (explain recent incident in Iraq)? What if this happened in Columbus and your children were the decoys? Should we tolerate this because it is a religious practice, or should we arrest and prosecute them?
LESSON #2: Religious relativism is out of bounds
We can get at another related lesson of this story by considering what Elijah could have said when he called the people of Israel together: “You must progress beyond your primitive religious absolutism to the realization that all religious paths lead to the same destination. Instead of choosing between Baal & God, you should create a religious smorgasbord that appeals to your own tastes—and affirm everyone else’s religious preferences as equally valid.” This “smorgasbord spirituality” is called religious syncretism, which is rooted in religious relativism: no one right way to God; all are equally valid (“one mountaintop, many paths”). Had this been Elijah’s counsel, there would have been a celebration instead of a showdown!
Instead, Elijah condemns their religious syncretism and calls on them to choose either Baal or God (18:21). They were “wavering between two opinions”—trying to worship both God and Baal by combining features of each (“wavering” is the same word describing the Baal priests’ “wild dancing” in 18:26). Since God is the only real God, their religious syncretism/relativism is actually a rejection of God.
The lesson, then, is that religious relativism is out of bounds. And, of course, this lesson is directly antithetical to 21st century American spirituality, which rejects all absolute religious claims as arrogant power plays (explain). But religious relativism is out of bounds not just “because God says so,’ but also because it is untenable. I say this for many reasons—here are two of the most obvious:
When immoral practices are central to a religion, that religion is wrong. How many Americans insist that Baalism is a valid religion even though child-prostitution and child-sacrifice are central to it? Who would disagree that Nazism is disqualified as a religion because anti-Semitism is central to it? Who will argue that Islamic sects that emphasize suicide terrorism are valid religions? To (rightly) condemn such practices as immoral is to condemn the religions that advocate them as wrong. So not all religions are equally valid after all!
Second, many of the differences between world religions are foundational & irreconcilable. Is it really true that all religions are simply different paths that lead to the same mountain-top? If you believe this, you have probably never studied world religions.
This was the case with God and Baal. God claimed to be the only God who existed; Baal was merely the most powerful of a whole pantheon of gods. God created life on earth by speaking it into existence; Baal created life on earth by having sex with Anath. God was morally perfect and required people to approach him via the blameless sacrifice he provided; Baal was amoral at best and could be stimulated into action by ritual prostitution or placated by child-sacrifice. These are not superficial differences; they are foundational, irreconcilable differences.
It is the same way with the major world religions. Steven Turner’s sarcastic observation is accurate: “We believe that all religions are basically the same...They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God and salvation.”2 Turner is right—and there is another key difference—how to attain salvation (explain “DO” vs. “DONE”). They are not only different paths—they are on completely different mountains leading to completely different summits!
So out of love, Elijah confronts them and calls on them to choose: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him...” In the same way, Jesus calls on us to choose. In many areas of life, there are legitimate “both-and” scenarios. But in this all-important area, it is “either-or”—you either choose for Jesus or you choose against him. This is because he claims to be God’s unique Son who lived a uniquely perfect life so that he could die a unique death which pays for our sins (Jn. 14:6). These unique claims are either true or false. If they are false, Jesus is a horrible liar. If they are true, he deserves your exclusive allegiance. To “waver between two opinions”—to claim to believe in Jesus and other ways of salvation—is actually to call Jesus a liar and reject him. Will you reject Jesus—or will you bow to him as the Lord?
LESSON #3: God wants us to relate to him personally, not religiously
A final lesson we can learn from this passage is that God wants us to relate to him personally, not religiously. There is an unmistakable contrast between the way the Baal prophets relate to Baal and the way Elijah relates to God—and this is the contrast between religion and biblical spirituality.
The Baal prophets related to Baal through CHANT (18:26a), RITUALISM (18:26b “dance wildly”), and SELF-ABASEMENT (18:28). They did these things to get Baal’s attention, to merit his favor, and to manipulate him into doing what they wanted.
These are essential features of almost all world-religions—except those rooted in the Bible. How sad it is that many people think this is how the God of the Bible wants us to relate to him! How tragic that they think this because people/churches have taught them that these practices are biblical/Christian—especially when the New Testament clearly states that God doesn’t want us to relate to him like this (Matt.6:7; Col.2:18,23).
How differently Elijah relates to God (18:36,37). He doesn’t try to merit or manipulate—he trusts God’s faithfulness to his promises (explain). And he doesn’t drone on for 9 hours of chant and ritual; he talks to God personally in 63 sincere words (fewer in Hebrew).
In the same way, once you receive Christ you can talk to God personally, as a child talks to his loving parents. This is because God promises to permanently accept you and welcome you into his presence—not because of your works for God, but because of Christ’s finished work for you. How wonderful this kind of security is!
Don’t you want this kind of secure and personal love relationship with God? You can begin this kind of relationship with God today by receiving Christ (EXPLAIN HOW). And just as the fire fell immediately when Elijah prayed this prayer, God will forgive you and indwell you immediately when you pray to receive Christ.
1 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971), pp.54,55. The source is Rashi, 12th rabbi: “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.
2 Steve Turner, British Journalist; quoted by Ravi Zacharias in Harvard lecture “Is Atheism Dead? Is God Alive?” in November, 1993
Copyright 2002 Gary DeLashmutt