The Prophets of Baal

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bible, especially concerning how all of Scripture leads up to the final revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The text of Scripture under consideration today is 1 Kings 18. In this chapter, Elijah has a confrontation with the prophets of Baal. This confrontation, though, isn’t really about Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but actually between the Lord God and all other “deities.” One Orthodox man I’ve spoken with recently about this chapter even went so far as to say this chapter is ultimately about the kingdom of God against all other claimants to power, any anti-god world system. Hopefully, I’ll return to various ways of reading OT narrative later (because the Orthodox way of interpreting Scripture is rather fascinating), but for now, let’s consider the narrative as it stands.

The challenge is made by Elijah to see who is actually the real power of the universe. The challenge includes an altar and a bull that is to be consumed by the true God. A large part of the day is spent by the prophets of Baal calling out to Baal, cutting themselves, dancing and performing other rites of passage. Once they realize their attempt is futile, because there is no god like Jehovah, actually no god at all besides the Lord God, they all make their way to Elijah’s altar. Elijah adds another element of difficulty by soaking the altar in water (sacrifices do need wood to burn, after all!). So, after the altar is soaked repeatedly, Elijah offers a simple prayer. The Lord responds miraculously by consuming the sacrifice and the altar. At this point we see the amazing power of God. He demonstrates that he alone is God. Baal never responds. Evil has no ultimate power. God is in control. Praise the Lord! The chapter doesn’t end there. Where it actually ends is where I hope to focus.

1 Kings 18:40 says, “Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.” (Italics mine)

There it is. Again, I don’t want to undermine the authority of Scripture. The Bible is the word of God. Yet, it is possible our traditional understanding of “inspiration” has trouble areas. Allow me to explain.

I’ve read over 1 Kings 18 and haven’t seen a command given to Elijah to kill the prophets. Might I have missed it somewhere else? Absolutely possible! But, could it be that Elijah made a mistake here? Prophets do make mistakes, after all. Abraham made them. Moses made them. David made them. Might this be another example of such a mistake? Why does this matter?

Jesus is very clear. Matthew 5:43-48 says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Italics mine) Loving you enemies demonstrates God’s perfection. Elijah is not loving his enemies here, right? Now, it must be said that Jesus’ final revelation of himself is hundreds of years later. Also, it must be said that God has the full right to judge all people. God is, after all, absolutely perfect. However, Elijah is not God. Elijah, like us, are ultimately called to be image bearers of God’s image. We are to be the light of the world, to be Jesus’ hands and feet. In other words, our deeds and words should look like God’s. So, again, we find ourselves at odds with Elijah’s action (or, at least I do).

But, maybe that’s the point. Maybe this text is an example in the Old Testament where an action is recorded, not endorsed. Elijah does demonstrate God’s existence and power, and we should seek to do the same. Elijah does have the courage to stand as one against many (though one + God is the majority – not mine, heard it somewhere before). Those are good things. Yet their slaughter cannot be a good thing, right?

God’s love for his enemies isn’t just a New Testament idea, either. There are other examples where God’s enemies are drawn to himself. Technically, every sinning soul is an enmity with God (Rom. 8). So, technically, Abram was an enemy before being called. And, the same would be true of all the other Old Testament saints. Could it be Elijah hadn’t grasped this aspect of God’s character? Could it be that the OT honestly records Elijah’s actions based upon still incomplete knowledge of God? I’m not sure why this isn’t possible. Jesus is the final, full revelation of God’s character, right? If that is so, and I believe it is, then doesn’t that mean that all other revelation up to that point was incomplete (notice I am not saying unhelpful, outdated, inaccurate, fallible, errant, etc.). If I’m running a marathon, miles 1-25 are rather significant, aren’t they? I’d think so.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies. But, this command to love our enemies isn’t empty words. Rather, they are our proper response to his love for us, while we were enemies, too (Romans 5). Once we look at the cross and look back, does Elijah’s killing of the prophets line up with Jesus’ command to love our enemies? And, if it doesn’t, does it take anything away from the “inspiration” of the book? No. That is my point.

Allow the Old Testament to speak honestly about man’s condition. Allow the Old Testament to continue leading towards Christ. Why assume that Elijah knew all that we know about God’s character? Can we not allow for the possibility that Elijah made a mistake in killing the prophets of Baal? I sure know I make mistakes. And, what does these mistakes ultimately do? That’s the beauty of it. Our mistakes point to God’s greatness.

Elijah messed up (though, admittedly you don’t have to agree). His mess up serves to highlight the magnificence of God’s grace and love in Jesus. He loved his enemies. When they nailed him to a tree, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Likewise, David’s mistakes, Abraham’s mistakes, or even my mistakes all point to the matchless perfection of our God and King. Our sins and rebellions pale in comparison to his love and acceptance of us in Jesus Christ. Where we fail, he remains faultless. Maybe that’s the message of some of the hard passages of the New Testament. Maybe, if we really listen to the Old Testament, we hear the longing and need man has for Jesus. Maybe that’s the point.

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