Part 2: Do Ancient Near-Eastern Studies cause a crisis for biblical faith?

Elijah’s Crisis

As we discussed in Part 1, the biblical text continually interacts with, adopts, rejects, augments, and ignores the cognitive environment of the ancient Near-East in a thousand different ways. In some instances, the interaction of the biblical text with the cultural environment of extra-biblical sources has led to a crisis of faith for biblical scholars, pastors and lay-persons.  When God’s self-revelation begins to look a little to earthly, a little too much like the other cultures of the ancient near-east we begin to question its divine authorship and authority.

This problem of enculturation was not unknown to the biblical writers themselves and it seems to be addressed almost head on in stories about the Prophet Elijah in the book of Kings.

Setting Elijah in his time and place

Most people would identify the contest on Carmel as the narrative climax of Elijah’s ministry. The contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, Yahweh’s prophet, occurred during the height of the Omride dynasty in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Mt. Carmel overlooked much of the Jezreel valley and became the symbolic vantage point from which Ba'al or Yahweh could bless Ahab's kingdom. Photo Courtesy of

Mt. Carmel overlooked much of the Jezreel valley and became the symbolic vantage point from which Ba’al or Yahweh could bless Ahab’s kingdom.Photo Courtesy of 

When Elijah’s ministry began, the King of northern Israel, Ahab, had built immense wealth on the back of his father’s military conquests. Indeed, Ahab’s father, Omri, had positioned Israel as a middle man between markets in Phoenicia, along the Mediterranean coast, and the producers of goods in Moab, on the other side of the Jordan river.

In order to control that trade route Ahab took a number of shrewd steps. He built lavish palaces at Samaria and Jezreel. He pacifies his fellow Isrealites to the south by marrying off his daughter to the crown prince of the southern kingdom of Judah. Finally, he re-affirms his trade relations with Phoenicia by marrying a Sidonian princess, Jezebel.

For all the standards of the day, Ahab was a prosperous near-eastern King. He should have been lauded by the Biblical writers for increasing the strength and position of God’s chosen nation, except for one thing: He started worshipping his wife’s Phoenician gods, Ba’al and Asherah, alongside Yahweh.

In response, God proscribed a drought for the land of Israel that would last three years.

Nearing the end of the drought we are told that God calls Elijah to confront Ahab’s disobedience at a place which overlooked much of Ahab’s precious trade route – Mount Carmel.

It is on top of Mount Carmel that Elijah sets up a contest between himself and four hundred-fifty prophets of Ba’al. Elijah directs the prophets of Ba’al to construct an alter and sacrifice a bull over it. Elijah would do the same. They would both call on their respective gods and the god that set the altar ablaze to consume the sacrifice would be identified as the true God.

Baalism in Ancient Israel

Elijah would have been familiar with Ba’al worship. During the three year drought Elijah traveled the length and breadth of Ahab’s Kingdom. He would have been very familiar with the syncretistic worship of Ba’al and Asherah identified both in the biblical text and the archaeological record of Israel.

Two things must be understood regarding the world that Elijah inhabited.

First, for the vast majority of Israelites, Yahweh was not the only divine power in the universe. The biblical text itself tells us Isreal and Judah frequently engaged in worship of other near eastern-gods. In some instances the Israelite kings themselves wholly adopted Canaanite religion in the state religious cannon, as Jereboam had done, and Ahab had only continued. In other instances, we simply hear about syncretistic worship occurring throughout the land and at places outside the Jerusalem temple, subsequently necessitating reforms from later Judean kings such as Josiah.

Archaeologically speaking, households throughout Israel and Judah included pillar figurines in their domestic worship practices (Something that would have been in violation of Israelite prohibitions on idolatry and images). We also have extra-biblical evidence, such as at Kintullet Ajrud, of Yahweh being worshipped alongside other Canaanite gods.

Second, the gods’ powers were written on the land, in nature. When ancient near-easterners thought about the machinations of the world they didn’t ask “why?” they asked “who?” The god’s themselves were in and the cause of natural phenomenon, like lightning, rain and floods.

Ba’al was no different. Best known from some twenty thousand religious texts found at the Late Bronze age site of Ugarit, Ba’al was identified as the “Rider of the clouds.”  He was the origin of rain and storms, the “welling-up of the deep.” His voice was thunder and his power manifest as lightning.

Ba’alism was attractive because Ba’al could be, like people, placated and controlled. Ba’al’s favor and blessing could be curried with the right ritual acts. In other words, Canaanite gods were attractive because, unlike Yahweh, the Canaanite gods needed humanity to do things for them.

This type of god was particularly useful in a place like Israel, where the fertility of the land depended on the rains from heaven, rather than perennial rivers. Six months out of the year, even the most fertile parts of Israel, like the Jezreel valley, didn’t see a drop of rain. Just one year of drought could have long term ramifications on the agricultural cycle. By worshipping Ba’al all the people of Israel, from Ahab down to the hand-to-mouth farmer had the ability gain the “rider of the clouds” favor and ensure the fertility of the land.

It is with this in mind that we must return to the contest on Carmel.

Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Ba’al

Elijah sets up the contest on Mount Carmel so that it was stacked in favor of the prophets of Ba’al.

First, Mt. Carmel was ground zero for Ba’al worship. As the highest and most eastern mountain, it was the first place to receive rain along the coast of Israel. It was well watered, and became the symbolic place were Ba’al could impregnate the fertile trees of Asherah with heavenly rain. If Ba’al was going to show up after three years of drought, this was the place it would happen!

Second, Elijah wants to avoid any claim of trickery on his part. So, while the kindling for the prophets of Ba’al’s sacrificial alter was left tinderbox dry, Elijah doused his alter with water three times until a trench dug around the alter had been filled. This was probably the most water the drought stricken farmers of Israel had seen in three years at one time!

Finally, Elijah defers to the prophets of Ba’al, allowing them to go fist.

You’re likely familiar with the story. The prophets of Ba’al begin calling on their god to show up, to manifest himself and set their sacrifice ablaze with lightning from the heavens.  By noon nothing had happened and Elijah begins mocking the prophets for worshipping a god who is so bound to natural phenomenon.

“Perhaps there is a drought because Ba’al is sleeping, perhaps he’s been defeated by the other god Yam, and needs to be awoken! Cry louder!”

They do so and Ba’al doesn’t show up.

“Perhaps he had to use the toilet or is travelling! Cry louder so he can hear you!”

In other words, Elijah is mocking them for calling on a God who is a little too much like humanity.

The Prophets of Ba’al cut themselves, but Ba’al doesn’t show up.

No one’s there, no one’s listening.

Elijah’s turn.  After rebuilding the alter, sacrificing the bull, and dousing it with water, Elijah begins to call on Yahweh to remind the people that Yahweh is their God.

God shows up, lighting the alter ablaze with fire from heaven to the point that even the water in the trench is dried up. The people cry out that Yahweh is God. The prophets of Ba’al and Asherah are seized and Elijah kills them in the valley below.

God’s not done proving his point though. Elijah declares that rain is also on its way and that Ahab should return to Jezreel. Ahab is caught in the rainstorm, and Elijah is able to run back to Jezreel before Ahab arrives.

The image here is this: Not only did God cause lightning to strike the alter igniting it, but he sends a massive thunderstorm. When Ahab set out on his chariot from Carmel across the flat plain of the Jezreel valley to the city of Jezreel itself, three years of drought would have made the ground hard and easily passable for his chariots and horses. The sudden onset of a thunderstorm from God meant that the chariots of Ahab became bogged down in the mire of the valley floor. With Ahab stuck in the mud, Elijah was able to easily run along the edges of the valley (where the ground was harder) to reach Jezreel before Ahab.

Elijah runs before Ahab but flees before Jezebel

The contest on Carmel is not the narrative climax of the Elijah story however. The chapter and verse divisions in our English bible translations make Elijah’s mad dash to Jezreel the natural stopping point of the narrative, but the Hebrew text didn’t originally come with these divisions. It seems likely that that the opening of chapter nineteen marks the point at which the narrative tension is the greatest.

Here we are told, that Ahab immediately told his wife, Jezebel, everything that Elijah had done. In response, Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah (who may have been waiting in the rain outside the city gate saying) saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them [the prophets of Ba’al] by this time tomorrow.”  In response, Elijah runs for the hills, fearing for his life.

Wait?! What?!

Elijah runs for his life when he confronts Jezebel!?!??

What is going on here? Elijah just won a major victory on behalf of God right!?!

Elijah just showed all of Isreal the futility of worshipping Ba’al.

  • He openly mocked Ba’al’s inability to answer the prayers of his prophets.
  • God just sent lightning down on behalf of Elijah and burnt up twelve jars of water.
  • Elijah and his cohort of prophets just killed eight hundred and fifty prophets to Baal and Asherah.
  • Elijah just outran a chariot because of God!?!

Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh, had thoroughly defeated and embarrassed Ahab, the king of Israel, worshipper of Ba’al, at his own game.

Elijah reaches Jezreel. Jezebel threatens to kill him, and he cowers and flees for his life! He runs so far away he finds himself in a cave in the wilderness of Sinai.

Jezebel should be cowering before him! Running for her life! Not him!

A rose by any other name …

So why does Elijah flee from Jezebel? I want to suggest, as others have done, that Elijah experienced a crisis of faith similar to that of some of my colleagues. When Yahweh showed up on Mt. Carmel he manifest himself in ways that were, for all intents and purposes, precisely the ways that Ba’al was expected to show up, namely, in natural phenomenon. He showed up as a strike of lightning, a voice of thunder, and fertility giving rain throughout the Jezreel valley. Who was this god that answered Elijah’s prayer?

What might have appeared to the people of Israel as a great victory for Yahweh, began to look, for Elijah, like a shell game. Elijah hadn’t beaten Ahab at his own game, maybe Jezebel’s was the only game in town.

Yahweh’s self-revelation was starting to look like it was steeped in the Canaanite culture that Elijah knew so well. Yahweh’s self-revelation, once stripped of all the pomp and circumstance of the contest was banal and worldly – Lightning and rain. Yahweh’s self-revelation was starting to look neither unique, nor transcendent.

In this crisis of faith, brought on by the worldliness of God’s self-revelation, Elijah flees to Sinai.

Sinai – the place where God first revealed himself to Moses.

Continue the discussion with Part 3: Reconciling a worldly text and a transcendent God 

In the meantime, join the discussion below: Have you ever thought about the Elijah narrative in this way? Is it valuable to understand the text in this way?

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