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One of the most popular Old Testament stories shows up in 1 King 18, the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Or, perhaps better said, it’s the showdown between Yahweh and Baal.  While certainly there is a contest between Elijah and his opponents, ultimately what this event proved is the superiority of Yahweh to Baal.

 

The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament gives us a little background help in understand the significance of this story.  The contest really begins back in 1 Kings 17:1, where Elijah reports that Yahweh will not allow rain in Israel, where Baal was worshipped (at least at that time).  As the authors point out, “By withholding rain, Yahweh is demonstrating the power of his kingship in the very area of nature over which Baal is thought to have jurisdiction.  …If Baal is the provider of rain and Yahweh announces that he will withhold it, the contest is on” (p376).

 

So, the showdown has already been started when we get to Mt Carmel (right in “Baal territory”).  The authors break down 18:23-24 into 3 main points (all from page 378):

 

1.  Fire is an indication of the presence of God.

 

2.  Fire is connected to the lightning of the storm god.

 

3.  Fire represents the acceptance of the sacrifice.

 

I’d like to focus mainly on the second point, the connection between fire and the storm god.  Since the contest was spurred on by the drought in the land of Israel, it was thought by the prophets of Baal that Baal would surely prove himself more powerful than Yahweh.  Baal, as their storm god, would be able to control the rain as well as the lightning, able to send both rain and fire to the earth. 

 

What some of this background knowledge helps us understand is that this battle is staged in Baal’s favor.  Sending fire and rain is supposed to be right in Baal’s wheelhouse, and the contest happens right in his backyard.  This would be like challenging Einstein to a calculus quiz or Michael Phelps to a swimming race.  God picks a fight with Baal and skews the rules in Baal’s favor.

 

Now, we know that Baal didn’t really exist; there was no god hanging out over Israel sending storms.  But they didn’t know that- at least until Yahweh whipped Baal in what seemed to be a one-sided contest.  Obviously you don’t have to know a bit of ancient history to get the main point of this passage.  But knowing what the prevalent beliefs were about Baal helps us to understand just how decisive this victory was for Yahweh.  Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that when God said “you shall have no other gods before me”, He really meant it.

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