Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go [limping/how long will you waver between] two [convictions]? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. – 1 Kings 18:21
Limping, I think, is probably a fair characterization of our faith in God. Maybe I’m just particularly weak, I don’t know. Personally, I find my lack of faith, at times, to be one of my defining features as a believer.
Of course, I’m not alone. The disciples themselves confessed as much. In the face of Jesus’ hard teaching that we are to forgive exactly the number of times it seems impossible, the apostles cry out: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) The father of the young man cursed with an evil spirit in Mark 9:24 declares the he believes that it may be possible for Jesus to deliver his son, but then implores Jesus to “help [his] unbelief.” Faith asks that we believe the impossible, not in a magic trick sort of way, but in a way wherein God can and will pick up exactly where our definition of possible ends.
In the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, we see this discrepancy between our hearts and God’s demands. The country has been hard pressed under a drought brought about, as we are told in 1 Kings 17:1, because of the waywardness of Israel’s king Ahab and his family, the household of Omri, Ahab’s father and previous king. Ahab and his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, seem to be the safe bet. The represent wealth, status, and that the nation has made it on the international scene. The Ba’al worship championed by Jezebel comes with all the trappings of power, and under Ahab, brings with it the force of the state.
By every definition of possible, it would seem as if Ba’al, Ba’al’s prophets, and the household of Ahab and Jezebel are the only game in town. In fact, Elijah’s challenge that the 450 prophets of Ba’al and the 400 of Asherah (Ba’al’s “divine” consort) that have eaten “at Jezebel’s table” meet him on Carmel tells you all you need to know about what the people were probably thinking when weighing their options. (1 Kings 18:19) Compared with Elijah’s grizzled appearance, given that he has been in hiding after being fed by ravens and widows, I imagine the flesh of the false prophets was rather full in the waist, groomed and opulent when examined by your average farmer called to witness this affair.
Yet, Elijah knows the truth, as do we, the readers. All the trappings of the possible are but illusions, and are, in fact, reasons leading to the present suffering of the people. The tendency of the Israel to be a people of Yahweh, yet entertain Ba’al on the side, is exactly what the people were warned about generations previously as the tendency of our hearts toward waywardness. (Deuteronomy 4:25-31) They have set themselves up for disappointment as Ba’al doesn’t have the power to answer. In fact, they will face bitter national disappointment as it becomes increasingly clear that Ba’al and Asherah only truly represent the power aspirations of a wicked king and his spoiled wife. (see Kings 21:1-16, 25, as well as 22:34-27, and 2 Kings 9:27-37) By the bent of their hearts towards his false lordship, they have alienated themselves from the One who indeed loves them.
To use a different framework, the Israelites were setting themselves up to experience what theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once called the “twilight of the gods.” (see Radical Monotheism and Western Culture) Here’s what that means: human life is fragile and short, and all kinds of things can happen. In order to protect ourselves from these fears, we worship at many altars; we devote ourselves to the ideal of family, economic success, knowledge, or anything else that can define us and bring us happiness. Like the Israelites in Elijah’s day, we have a whole marketplace of Ba’als who promise us our heart’s desires. We have Ba’al proper, lord of the storm, fertility and prosperity, who brings the rain and the promise of full crops. We have Ba’al Ha’amon, Ba’al Berith, Ba’al Zebub, Ba’al Peor, and all those other little Ba’als that feed our dreams. Our Ba’als don’t demand much, just a little sacrifice here and there; just bend the knee a bit, nod the head towards his lordship; all will be well.
Elijah’s challenge to the people that either the Lord or Ba’al is God, not both, is left unanswered by Israelites who shuffle their feet and look at their hands because they’ve been okay with acknowledging God in a cursory fashion — right up to that edge of the possible — while supplementing that faith with a little Ba’al on the side. They like hedging their bets. When Ba’al fails, that’s when we turn to the Lord God, send up a few prayers, and wait for answers. In fact, we are often up for a little competition so as to sort out who is really in charge, thus the people’s response that Elijah’s challenge is “well spoken.” (1 Kings 18:24)
However, while we may love Ba’al, but Ba’al doesn’t love us. Eventually, there will be no voice to answer, and eventually, no one will be paying attention. (v. 29) When Ba’al fails, twilight covers over our dashed hopes and dreams we once dressed up in God’s robes.
How long will be hobble and limp about, hedging our bets? That is Elijah’s challenge to Israel, and the limping imagery is powerful. At the height of their limping, they have cut themselves to the point of an early grave ’round Ba’al’s false altar. Exhausted from worshiping a god cast in their own image (how else would Ba’al present himself other than in guise of our wishes?), they limp around the altar. Faithlessness towards God is a congenital condition, and we are bereft of the ability to cure ourselves. How long we will take a convenient, single-serving side of god along with the main course of all the other big plans we have for our lives? Oh Ba’al, hear us… (1 Kings 18:26)
Answering this question, Elijah enters the fray with a drama that grabs our attention. He mocks the false prophets and builds up the altar of the Lord. Interestingly, I think there is some foreshadowing going on here of what will eventually befall the nation. 12 stones, representing the twelve tribes, are used to build the altar of the Lord back up from ruin. The writer of 1 Kings is ambivalent about this altar. Technically, it is a site of cultic worship outside Jerusalem, so in a very real sense, and unfaithful departure. At the same time, it is an altar to the Lord that has fallen into disrepair, symbolizing the people’s wayward hearts. When it is eventually destroyed, I think the writer/editor (likely during the Babylonian exile) is foreshadowing that Israel’s unfaithfulness will eventually end in disaster. That disaster will befall the North first (2 Kings 17), and the reason for the nation’s downfall is the long list of unfaithful worship and allegiance towards God stretching back to this episode with Elijah.
Interestingly, from a Christian perspective, one might read into this episode of the altar being destroyed christologically. Hebrews 5 equates Christ as both High Priest and sacrifice for the sins of the people, foreshadowing all that God’s Law had been pointing towards. (Hebrews 10:1) In Hebrews 10:20, Jesus is our entry way into the Temple “through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)” separating us from God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. In essence, one might see Jesus as High Priest, altar (association with Temple) and sacrifice. Thus, when God’s declaration of lordship and judgment on the idolatry of the people thunders from heaven and consumes the altar, we see Grace at work in that God’s judgment does not consume the people. Just as Christ himself was “consumed” for our sake, so too does the altar (along with the wood, the sacrifice, and the water) take the brunt of God’s judgment.
As the story will develop, those who limp today between opinions are amazed at what they witness, and for a moment confess “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!” (1 Kings 18:39) The drama serves its purpose for a while to turn the hearts of the people back, but it isn’t too long before the people fall back into their pattern of faithlessness and hobbling along.
Yet, what I find encouraging is that God forbears with us despite our limp. Even in the case of Ahab, despite all the wickedness he had done, when he is finally confronted with the depths of his perversion culminating in the murder of Naboth and God’s pending judgment, he repents. (1 Kings 21) While his repentance will not stave off his eventual demise, or the judgment to come upon the people, God relents for a little while. (1 Kings 21:29) When the twilight of the gods comes, there is a window in which we can come to our senses and hear the Good News that despite our limp, there is a place for healing. In light of the greatest news of all, Jesus the Christ, our healing comes to us as one of us, binding up our wounds and making us whole.
For such grace despite myself, I give God thanks!