THE BOOK OF 1 KINGS
Lesson 7: Chapters 16:29-18:46
Part II: The Divided Kingdom
The Reign of Ahab and Jezebel in Israel and the Elijah Saga
You told David that You would punish the Davadic kings as a human father is expected to punish his sons. You show Your love for us not only in Your blessings and mercies but also in Your judgments when we are disciplined for our sins. The moral lessons we are intended to learn from those judgments are meant to prevent those sins from becoming iniquities—sins that become a pattern in life. Help us to remember, Lord, that good parenting is an obligation not only to the child but is also a duty we owe to You. You created those lives You placed in our care, and it is our obligation to help to guide the destiny of those children to faith in Jesus Christ so that one day they will come home to You in Your heavenly kingdom. Please send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in our lesson on the failures and successes of the kings of Israel and Judah. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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I am Mesah, son of
Chemosh ..., king of Moab, the Dibonite—my father had reigned over Moab thirty
years, and I reigned after my father—who made this high place for Chemosh ...
because he saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my
adversaries. As for King Omri of Israel, he humbled Moab many years, for
Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son [Ahab] followed him and he
also said, "I will humble Moab." In my time he spoke thus, but I have
triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished forever! Now
Omri had occupied the land of Medeba, and Israel had dwelt there in his time
and half the time of his son Ahab, forty years; but Chemosh dwelt there in my
Inscription of the "Moabite Stone," a black basalt stele three feet three inches high placed at Dibon in Transjordan by King Mesha of Moab in the 9th century BC. The stone provides evidence that supports the Bible's account of the historical reigns of King Omri and his son Ahab.
The Bible does not provide a great deal of information concerning the reign of Omri king of Israel (c. 885-874 BC), but we know from the records of the Assyrians that he was considered a successful and respected ruler. It was during his reign that the Assyrians became a power within the region. In 876 Assyrian King Ashernasirpal marched out of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (modern Mosel, Iraq). He crossed the Euphrates River and, as we know from Assyrian records, he received a heavy tribute from the Neo-Hittite city of Carchemish. Ashurnasirpal continued west, taking tribute and attacking cities all the way into Syria and Phoenicia (Sidon and Tyre) until he reached the Mediterranean Sea, adding more local people to his army. When towns would not surrender, he destroyed the towns, brutally slaughtering all the inhabitants. The Assyrians did not extend their borders at this time. The invasion was more a lucrative raid. The campaign did, however, put the region on notice that the Assyrians were a force to be reckoned with and may have led to the treaty alliance between Phoenicia and Israel that was sealed in a royal marriage between King Omri's son Ahab and King Ethbaal's daughter Jezebel. The Assyrians will become God's instrument of judgment against the Northern Kingdom of Israel about a century and a half later.
Chapter 16:29-34 ~ Ahab succeeds Omri as King of Israel
1 Kings 16:29-34 ~ Introduction to the reign of Ahab son
of Omri of Israel (c. 874-853 BC)
29 Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel in the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned over Israel for twenty-two years in Samaria. 30 Ahab son of Omri did what is displeasing to Yahweh, and was worse than all his predecessors. 31 The least that he did was to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam son of Nebat: he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians, and then proceeded to serve Baal and worship him. 32 He erected an altar to him in the temple of Baal which he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also put up a sacred pole and committed other crimes as well, provoking the anger of Yahweh, God of Israel, more than all the kings of Israel his predecessors. 34 It was in his time that Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. Laying its foundations cost him his eldest son Abiram and erecting its gates cost him his youngest son Segub, just as Yahweh had foretold through Joshua son of Nun.
The inspired writer follows the same formula that he introduced in summarizing the reigns of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. This time when comparing the Israelite king Ahab to Jeroboam he does not say he was as bad as Jeroboam; he says that Ahab is worse than Jeroboam and all his predecessors (verse 30).(1)
he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal, king of the
Sidonians, and then proceeded to serve Baal and worship him.
The inspired writer condemns his marriage to the pagan princess, Jezebel of Sidon; however, other kings of Israel and Judah had married foreign daughters of kings. She is mentioned because she became Ahab's partner in promoting pagan worship of the chief Phoenician deity, Baal, and persecuting believers in Yahweh. Scripture often speaks of Baals in the plural (Baalim) since every major city or ethnic people had their own version of Baal, like Baal of Peor of Moab in Numbers 25:1-3.(2) The worship of the Phoenician Baal was probably Baal-Shamem, "Lord of the Heavens," venerated as a weather god.(3)
The particular name of this manifestation makes Elijah's pronouncement of Yahweh's judgment especially fitting in 17:1.
Unlike Judah's kings, some of whom were bad and others who
were good, the kings of the Northern Kingdom Israel are progressively worse in
their sins of promoting the people's apostasy from Yahweh and encouraging idol
Question: What were Ahab's sins that were greater than the sins of his predecessors?
34 It was in his
time that Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. Laying its foundations cost him his
eldest son Abiram and erecting its gates cost him his youngest son Segub, just
as Yahweh had foretold through Joshua son of Nun.
In Ahab's desire to refortify towns located at strategic locations, Hiel of Bethel was assigned the task of rebuilding and probably acting as the royal governor of Jericho, located near an important forge on the Jordan River. It was the same forge the children of Israel crossed when Joshua led them in the conquest of Canaan.
Question: What was the curse Joshua placed on Jericho after the city was conquered by the army of Israel? See Josh 6:26. What is the significance of the foundation and the gates?
Answer: Joshua placed a curse judgment on any man who rebuilt Jericho, saying that he would lay its foundations at the cost of the life of his first-born and set up its gates at the cost of the life of his youngest son; these are the two points in the beginning and end of the construction process.
It is possible that the curse was fulfilled by Hiel himself who may have sacrificed his firstborn son to Baal in the foundation stone of the walls and his youngest when setting the post for the gates. Child sacrifice was part of Baal worship and the worship of other pagan gods (Lev 18:21). The same tragedy was repeated in February 134 BC, when Simon Maccabeus (Maccabean ruler of Judah 140-134 BC), together with is eldest son Judas and his youngest son Mattathias, were all murdered by Simon's son-in-law Ptolemy, the governor of Jericho, while visiting the fortifications Simon had ordered be built at Jericho (1 Mac 16:11-17). A document written by the community at Qumran recorded that this event was another fulfillment of Joshua's curse (Testimonia, cave 4).
King Ahab's queen was the Phoenician princess Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians who ruled the city states of Sidon and Tyre on the Phoenician coast north of Israel. According to the 1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus, Ethbaal (who Josephus calls by the Greek name Ithobalus) was a priest of Asherah (Astarte). He killed the former royal family and seized power in Tyre at about the same time as Ahab's father Omri seized power in Israel; Ethbaal ruled Sidonia for 32 years (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 8.13.1 [317-18], 2 , Against Apion, 1.18 . The two usurper kings became allies and sealed their covenant treaty alliance by a family marriage.
The introduction of the Phoenician Baal into Israel is an historical fact. Ahab and Jezebel reigned in Samaria, the new capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that had been built by Ahab's father, Omri, the founder of the dynasty. Ahab was very likely influence by Jezebel in the construction of a temple to Baal. The result was a confrontation between the king and queen and Elijah, prophet of Yahweh.
Chapter 17: The Reign of Ahab of Israel and the Beginning of the Story of Elijah the Prophet
Covenant curses for
disobedience recounted by Moses to the people: But if you do not obey the
voice of Yahweh your God, and do not keep and observe all his commandments and
laws which I am laying down for you today then all these curses will befall and
overtake you ... The heavens above you will be brass, the earth beneath you
iron. Your country's rain Yahweh will turn into dust and sand ...
Deuteronomy 28:15, 24
Elijah was a human
being as frail as ourselves "he prayed earnestly for it not to rain, and no rain
fell for three and a half years; then he prayed again and the sky gave rain and
the earth gave crops.
Elijah was Yahweh's zealous prophet during the reigns of Ahab and his son Ahaziah, during the first half of the ninth century BC, fighting against idolatry and injustice in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His name in Hebrew means "Yahweh is [my] God" and can be regarded as the mission of his life. His prophetic objective was to awaken Israel to the conviction that there is no other god but Yahweh—Yahweh alone is God. His dress was distinctive; he dressed in hairy animal skins and wore a leather loincloth or belt (2 Kng 1:8). His manner of dress suggests that he belonged to a family of shepherds or herdsmen in the Transjordan.
Elijah is the protagonist in three stories which Bible scholars refer to as the Elijah cycle:
1 Kings 17:1-6 ~ Elijah prophesies a great drought
1 Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "By the life of Yahweh, God of Israel, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these coming years unless I give the word." 2 The word of Yahweh came to him, 3 "Go away from here, go east and hide by the torrent of Cherith, east of the Jordan. 4 You can drink from the stream, and I have ordered the ravens to bring you food there." 5 So he set out and did as Yahweh had said; he went and stayed by the torrent of Cherith, east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread in the morning and meat in the evening, and he quenched his thirst at the stream.
Chapter 17, in the first part of the Elijah cycle, is composed of three episodes concerning Elijah's activities during the three year drought and three miracles within that period:
1 Elijah the
Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead
A number of prophets in Scripture are identified by their hometowns (e.g. Ahijah of Shiloh in 1 Kng 11:29).
Question: Where was Elijah's hometown? Consult a map and find the Gilead.
Answer: He was from Tishbe in the Transjordan region of Gilead (on the east side of the Jordan River in what is today modern Jordan).
The Gilead was a rugged region between the Arnon and Yarmuk Rivers. In antiquity this region was densely forested (see Jer 22:6), and it was a territory that was especially well-suited for herding (Num 32:2). The northern part of the Gilead was assigned to the tribe of Manasseh, but the region was lost to Israel after the Assyrian conquest in 721 BC. The town of Tishbe has never been discovered in the Gilead but Tobit 1:2 mentions a Tishbi in the Galilee. The LXX (Greek Septuagint) translation, however, reads Tishbon in Gilead. Early Christian tradition sanctified a site just north of the Jabbok River in the Transjordan and built a chapel for pilgrims.
"By the life of Yahweh" and "Yahweh God of Israel says" were typical invocations or formula statements that preceded a divine pronouncement sanctioning an oath by a prophet. Elijah's first prophetic act in Yahweh's name was to withdraw all moisture in the form of rain or dew (1 Kng 17:1). This action was intended to generate a famine upon the land because of the cooperation of the king and the people with the introduction of Baal worship into the land (1 Kng 16:30-33). This is Elijah's first miracle. According to 1 Kings 18:1, "these coming years" in verse 1 lasted three years. This may be a rounded number since in Luke 4:25 Jesus gives the length of time the famine lasted as three and a half years, or the numbers may be symbolic with the three years pointing to a short length of time or a period according to God's divine plan while three and a half is often used as a number indicating a period of great distress (Dan 7:25; 12:7; Rev 11:9; 12:14).
Question: Baal was the Canaanite and Phoenician god
of storm (rain) and fertility (growth of crops). How was Elijah's prediction
of the drought at Yahweh's command a direct challenge to Baal?
Answer: If Baal was a true god, he would have the power to overturn Yahweh's drought and the resulting famine since he is worshipped as a storm god who controls the rain and fertility of the earth.
2 The word of Yahweh
came to him, 3 "Go away from here,
go east and hide by the torrent of Cherith, east of the Jordan.
The Wadi Cherith which the text locates as east of the Jordan River, has never been positively identified. A wadi is normally dry most of the year so water provided by this source under drought conditions is a miraculous sign of God's protection. The wadi is probably near Elijah's home and is familiar territory.
Question: Why did God send Elijah away to a remote area and how did God provide for his prophet in verses 2-6? See 1 Kngs 18:4.
Answer: God sent him away to protect him from Ahab and Jezebel's retribution. God miraculously provided for His prophet's nutritional needs by having ravens feed him.
A number of species of ravens are common to the Holy Land.
The habit of some species of ravens to store up food and to feed their young
who cry out when hungry may be why God used these birds (see Ps 147:9 and Job 38:41;
also see Lk 12:24).
Question: That God made the ravens bring him bread in the morning and meat in the evening, repeats what other miracle that God provided for the children of Israel in their Exodus journey? See Ex 16:8, 12.
Answer: It is the same order in which God fed the children of Israel: manna from heaven in the morning and quail in the evening.
1 Kings 17:7-16 ~ The widow at Zarephath and the miracle
of the flour and the oil
7 But after a while the stream dried up, for the country had had no rain. 8 And then the word of Yahweh came to him, 9 "Up and go to Zarephath in Sidonia, and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to give you food there." 10 So he set off to Sidon. And when he reached the city gate, there was a widow gathering sticks. Addressing her he said, "Please bring a little water in a pitcher for me to drink." 11 She was on her way to fetch it when he called after her. "Please", he said, "bring me a scrap of bread in your hand." 12 "As Yahweh your God lives," she replied, "I have no baked bread but only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug; I am just gathering a stick or two to go and prepare this for myself and my son to eat, and then we shall die." 13 But Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid, go and do as you have said; but first make a little scone of it for me and bring it to me, and then make some for yourself and for your son. 14 For Yahweh, God of Israel, says this: 'Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied, before the day when Yahweh sends rain on the face of the earth.'" 15 The woman went and did as Elijah told her and they ate the food, she, himself and her son. 16 The jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied, just as Yahweh had foretold through Elijah.
The entire region of the Levant was devastated by the
drought and resulting famine. God commands Elijah to leave the Transjordan
region and journey to a Mediterranean coastal city in Phoenician territory to
seek refuge with a widow.
Question: What is ironic concerning the new place of refuge?
Answer: Elijah's life is in danger from King Ahab who is promoting Baal worship, which Elijah has condemned through the drought judgment, yet God has sent him into the very heart of Baal worship to seek refuge.
9 "Up and go to
Zarephath in Sidonia, and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to give you
The woman is identified as a widow; it is an indication of her poverty since a widow, unless she had a grown son to support her, was entirely on her own and probably lacked the means to support herself. It must have shocked the prophet that Yahweh told him to seek refuge in the home of a Gentile, Phoenician woman, but he obeyed without questioning the command.
10 So he set off to
Sidon. And when he reached the city gate, there was a widow gathering sticks.
Zarephath was a town on the Mediterranean coast just 8 miles south of the important Phoenician trading city of Sidon which had jurisdiction over the town (Sidon is the home of Jezebel) and 14 miles north of Tyre.(4) Elijah probably recognized her as a widow by her widow's garb, clothing typically worn long after the mourning period (Gen 38:14 and Jdt 8:5; 10:3; 16:8). He knew that the woman didn't have enough resources to sustain herself much less him, but he understood that Yahweh words "I have ordered a woman there to give you food" meant that a miracle was to be associated with this woman.
Question: How does Elijah test the woman to see if
she is the right widow? How many times does he "test" her?
Answer: First he asks her for water, and then knowing that she and her son are starving, he asks her to bake him a little cake of bread.
Question: Elijah, servant of Yahweh, testing of the
widow to see if she is the one Yahweh had chosen by asking her to bring him
water recalls the testing of what other woman by Abraham's servant in Genesis 24:10-20?
Answer: The incident recalls the actions of Abraham's servant who was sent to find a bride for Isaac in the Aramaean homeland of Abraham's extended family. He tested Rebekah by asking for water in Genesis 24:17 to see if she was the one Yahweh had chosen as a wife for Isaac.
In the story of Elijah and the widow and Abraham's servant and Rebekah, the sought after woman is discovered using the same tactic. Rebekah only underwent one test, but Elijah tests the widow a second time by requesting that she bake him a cake of bread. Both women were blessed by Yahweh for their generous response to a traveler's request.
12 "As Yahweh your
God lives," she replied, "I have no baked bread but only a handful of meal in a
jar and a little oil in a jug; I am just gathering a stick or two to go and
prepare this for myself and my son to eat, and then we shall die."
Question: How did the Gentile woman know that Elijah was an Israelite who worshiped Yahweh? Lev 19:27; Num 15:37-39; Dt 22:12; Mt 9:20; 23:5 and 1 Kng 19:13.
Answer: The dress and the habits of Israelites who worshipped Yahweh made them stand out from other peoples in the region: they could not cut or shape their beards, as was the custom of Gentile men, and all Israelite men faithful to Yahweh wore an outer cloak with tassels at each of the four corners.
This was a very patient woman: she is in desperate straits, Yahweh
was not her God, and yet she did as Elijah requested. Her act of mercy for
God's prophet counted toward her salvation both temporally and spiritually.
Question: What blessing did Elijah give the woman in the name of Yahweh?
Answer: For the entire time until the end of the drought, the woman's jar of oil and her jug of meal will remain full.
15 The woman went
and did as Elijah told her and they ate the food, she, himself and her son. 16 The jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of
oil emptied, just as Yahweh had foretold through Elijah.
Elijah's prophecy was fulfilled and the woman and her son were blessed because of her generosity in cooperating in God's plan for His prophet's care and for her well-being.
1 Kings 17:17-24 ~ Elijah restores the widow of
Zarephath's son to life
17 It happened after this that the son of the mistress of the house fell sick; his illness was so severe that in the end he expired. 18 And the woman said to Elijah, "What quarrel have you with me, man of God? Have you come here to bring my sins home to me and to kill my son?" 19 "Give me your son," he said, and, taking him from her lap, he carried him to the upper room where he was staying and laid him on his bed. 20 He cried out to Yahweh, "Yahweh my God, do you mean to bring grief even to the widow who is looking after me by killing her son?" 21 He stretched himself on the child three times and cried out to Yahweh, "Yahweh my God, may the soul of this child, I beg you, come into him again!" 22 Yahweh heard Elijah's prayer and the child's soul came back into his body and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. "Look," Elijah said, "your son is alive." 24 And the woman replied, "Now I know you are a man of God and the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth itself."
The woman accuses Elijah of uncovering her sins and of causing the death of her son as her judgment. The woman's understanding of suffering and hardship being a punishment for her personal sins was common for pagan peoples and for the covenant people. While it was true that sin often brings its own punishment, all suffering cannot be attributed only to sins of the afflicted person as Jesus corrected His disciples in John 9:1-3.
20 He cried out to
Yahweh, "Yahweh my God, do you mean to bring grief even to the widow who is
looking after me by killing her son?" 21 He
stretched himself on the child three times and cried out to Yahweh, "Yahweh my
God, may the soul of this child, I beg you, come into him again!"
The prophet had no prior knowledge of the child's death, and he is both shocked and dismayed that this tragedy should befall his benefactress. For the first time we learn that the widow has even provided Elijah with a living space in her house. He took the child into his room in the upper story of the house and stretched his body upon the lifeless child as he prayed to God to restore the child's life. He does this a significant three times. The number three in Scripture can signify a short passing of time or an event that is part of God's divine plan, like the three days between Jesus' death and resurrection. Some have tried to dismiss the miracle by suggesting the child was only unconscious, but verse 21 clearly states that the child's soul/breath had left his body, the result of which is physical death. See CCC 2583.
Question: There are two results from Elijah's
miracle; what are they?
Answer: The miracle not only restores life to the woman's son but brings about the woman's conversion: 24 And the woman replied, "Now I know you are a man of God and the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth itself."
Jesus will mention this Gentile widow and this miracle in
Question: Why does Jesus use this story as an example to the congregation at Nazareth, and what does Jesus say about this woman?
Answer: He cites the story as an example of how a prophet is often unwelcomed in his own country. Jesus also makes the comparison between Elijah's rejection by his own kinsmen and the gracious acceptance of the prophet by the Gentile woman.
Question: How does Elijah the prophet's rejection by
his own people foreshadow Jesus, the divine prophet's mission? What does the
Gentile woman's cooperation in Elijah's mission foreshadow for the future of
Answer: Elijah's rejection by the leaders of his own people foreshadows the rejection of Jesus the Redeemer-Messiah and His kingdom of the New Covenant by His own people and their religious and civil leaders. But the widow's willingness to cooperate in God's plan for Elijah's mission foreshadows the embrace of the Messiah and the New Covenant Church by the Gentiles who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and cooperating in God's divine plan for mankind by spreading the Gospel message of salvation to the Gentile nations across the earth.
Question: How is the miracle concerning the Gentile
widow's son also a foreshadow God's plan for the Gentile nations? How does the
location of the miracle foreshadow a greater miracle?
St Ambrose makes the comparison between the widow of Zarephath's sorrow at the death of her son and Mother Church: "... the widow signifies Mother Church, weeping for those who are dead in sin and carried beyond the safety of her gates. The multitudes looking on will praise the Lord when sinners rise again from death and are restored to their mother." St. Ambrose's point is when we are dead in sin, it is Jesus Christ who with outstretched hand and with the word of His representative the priest raises us up from spiritual death brought by sin and restores us to the embrace of our mother, the Church. In every act of repentance and restoration to fellowship with Christ and the Church, the saints in heaven, "the multitudes" in Ambrose's teaching, or the "cloud of witnesses" St. Paul wrote about (Heb 12:1), rejoice.
Chapter 18: Elijah's Victory over the Priests of Baal
Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire, his word flaring like a torch. It was he who brought famine on them and decimated them in his zeal. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, three times also he brought down fire. How glorious you were in your miracles, Elijah! Has anyone reason to boast as you have? - rousing a corpse from death, from Sheol, by the word of the Most High; dragging kings down to destruction, and high dignitaries from their beds... anointing kings as avengers, and prophets to succeed you; taken up in the whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with fiery horses; designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God's wrath before the fury breaks, "to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children", and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
Chapter 18 is the continuation of the Elijah cycle part I and is composed of three episodes:
1 Kings 18:1-15 ~ Elijah and Obadiah
1 A long time went by, and the word of Yahweh came to Elijah in the third year, "Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the country." 2 So Elijah set off to present himself to Ahab. As the famine was particularly severe in Samaria, 3 Ahab summoned Obadiah, the master of the palace. Obadiah held Yahweh in great reverence: 4 when Jezebel was butchering the prophets of Yahweh, Obadiah took a hundred of them and hid them, fifty at a time, in a cave, and kept them provided with food and water. 5 And Ahab said to Obadiah, "Come along, we must scour the country, all the springs and all the ravines in the hope of finding grass to keep horses and mules alive, or we shall have to slaughter some of our stock." 6 They divided the country for the purpose of their survey; Ahab went one way by himself and Obadiah went another way by himself. 7 While Obadiah was on his way, whom should he meet but Elijah. Recognizing him he fell on his face and said, "So it is you, my lord Elijah!" 8 "Yes," he replied, "go and tell your master, Elijah is here.'" 9 But Obadiah said, "What sin have I committed, for you to put your servant into Ahab's power and cause my death? 10 As Yahweh your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my master has not sent in search of you; and when they said, 'He is not there,' he made the kingdom or nations swear an oath that they did not know where you were. 11 And now you say to me, 'Go and tell your master: Elijah is here.' 12 But as soon as I leave you, the spirit of Yahweh will carry you away and I shall not know where; I shall go and tell Ahab; he will not be able to find you, and then he will kill me. Yet from his youth your servant has revered Yahweh. 13 Has no one told my lord what I did when Jezebel butchered the prophets of Yahweh, how I hid a hundred of them in a cave, fifty at a time, and kept them provided with food and water? 14 And now you say to me, 'Go and tell your master: Elijah is here.' Why, he will kill me!" 15 Elijah replied, "As Yahweh Sabaoth lives, whom I serve, I shall present myself to him today!"
It is now the third year of the drought and famine. God commands Elijah to present himself to King Ahab; it will be a meeting that God tells His prophet will result in God sending rain to end the drought. The conditions caused by the drought have severely reduced the fodder for the kings' horses. We know from secular sources that King Ahab maintained extensive cavalry and chariot units (from an Aramaean stele fragment). The king is so desperate that he is willing to lead a search party for fodder himself and sends his steward to lead another search party. Obadiah's name means "servant of Yahweh," and his name describes his true allegiance.
Question: How do Obadiah's actions demonstrate his
allegiance to Yahweh?
Question: Why is Obadiah less than enthusiastic about
his part in Elijah's plan?
Answer: He is certain that announcing that Elijah is in the land will result in his execution.
Obadiah's terror is almost humorous but it demonstrates how vicious King Ahab is in his determination to kill Elijah and that Obadiah, although loyal to Yahweh, is an ordinary man who is susceptible to fear. The contrast between the iron willed prophet and the fearful steward is dramatic. Obadiah realizes that from Ahab's point of view Elijah is a fugitive from justice since his words and deeds have threatened the kingdom. Ahab could have called upon allied kingdoms to extradite Elijah if he was found in their territory, and it was probably Obadiah who had assured his king that Elijah could not be found.
11 And now you say
to me, 'Go and tell your master: Elijah is here.' 12 But as soon as I leave you, the spirit of
Yahweh will carry you away and I shall not know where; I shall go and tell
Ahab; he will not be able to find you, and then he will kill me.
Elijah had so successfully eluded Ahab's soldiers that Obadiah is sure Yahweh will spirit him away to protect him from a confrontation with the king and Obadiah will be killed.
Then in verse 13 Obadiah offers evidence to Elijah of his loyalty to Yahweh. The hundred faithful prophets of Yahweh left in the Northern Kingdom were probably members of communities of prophets who lived an aesthetic lifestyle and devoted themselves to prayer (see 1 Sam 10:5; 2 Kng 2:5, 7). However, all his frantic talk did not dissuad the prophet who insisted, making an oath in Yahweh's name and using the title "Yahweh of Hosts" (referring to the "army" of angels who serve Yahweh), on seeing Ahab "today."
1 Kings 18:16-24 ~ Elijah confronts Ahab and proposes a
contest at Mt. Carmel
16 Obadiah went to find Ahab and tell him the news, and Ahab then went to find Elijah. 17 When he saw Elijah, Ahab said, "So there you are, you scourge of Israel!" 18 "Not I," he replied, "I am not the scourge of Israel, you and your family are; because you have deserted Yahweh and followed Baal [Baalim = Baals]. 19 Now give orders for all Israel to gather round me on Mount Carmel, and also the four hundred prophets of Baal [and the four hundred prophets of Asherah]* who eat at Jezebel's table." 20 Ahab called all Israel together and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah stepped out in front of all the people. "How long", he said, "do you mean to hobble first on one leg then on the other [hopping between two crevices]? If Yahweh is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him." 22 But the people had nothing to say. Elijah then said to them, "I, I alone, am left as a prophet of Yahweh, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty. 23 Let two bulls be given us; let them choose one for themselves, dismember it but not set fire to it. I in my turn shall prepare the other bull, but not set fire to it. 24 You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of Yahweh; the god who answers with fire, is God indeed." The people all answered, "Agreed [it is good/the matter is good]!"
[..] = literal translation IBHE, vol. II, pages 949-50. [..]* this phrase is not in all manuscripts and is considered by some scholars to be a later addition.
Mt. Carmel is a chain of mountains that begin near the Mediterranean coast (modern Haifa, Israel) and runs about 18 miles to the south-east. At its highest point, Mt. Carmel is 1800 feet high. Imagine the scene: the ragged prophet dressed in animal skins confronting the king of Israel in his richly embroidered garments. The king verbally attacks Elijah, calling him "scourge of Israel" while the prophet, who is not intimidated by the king, answers back with equal force, saying: 18 "Not I," he replied, "I am not the scourge of Israel, you and your family are; because you have deserted Yahweh and followed Baal [Baalim = Baals]. Elijah probably uses the plural, Baals = Baalim, because the Israelites have not only offered worship to the different Canaanite manifestations of Baal but now also to the Phoenician Baal-Shamem, a storm/rain god revered under other names such as Baal-Hadad and Hadad-Rimmon in various Phoenician and Aramaean centers (for other uses of Baalim see footnote 2).
Question: Why does Ahab agree to the contest that
Answer: He believes he has the advantage with either 450 prophets of Baal or a combined 950 prophets of Baal and Asherah against a single prophet of Yahweh. He also probably sees this as an opportunity to discredit Yahweh in front of the people and strengthening the cause of Baal worship.
Considering the fate of the prophets of Baal (18:40), it is likely that they are apostate Israelites who were recruited to serve Baal. In this part of Elijah's story, the inspired writer makes a contrast between Elijah, who is obedient to Yahweh, and Ahab, who has turned away from Yahweh to embrace a false god who cannot stop the drought and famine. Elijah takes his stand by "Yahweh Sabaoth" (Yahweh of hosts/armies; verse 15), a description that recalls the power of God who has authority over all Creation, including over the heavenly host. Elijah's courage and fidelity is a model for the Christian who trusts "in the great goodness of God who never fails to help the one who has left everything for His sake" (St. Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, 1.2).
21 Elijah stepped
out in front of all the people. "How long", he said, "do you mean to hobble
first on one leg then on the other [hopping between two crevices]? If Yahweh
is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him." 22
But the people had nothing to say. The phrase "hopping between two
crevices" is the literal translation in the Hebrew which can also be translated
"dance between two branches."
Question: When Elijah addresses the people, what is his accusation against them, and what is his challenge to them?
Answer: He uses an expression that suggests they are trying to have it both ways, using an image of a person trying to jump or balance between two cracks in a rock (or a branch) as they are trying to worship both Yahweh and Baal when they know Yahweh demands total loyalty and fidelity.
It was common in pagan worship to acknowledge and worship many gods and to be tolerant in acknowledging the gods of neighboring peoples. Therefore, it would not have been uncommon for the people of the Northern Kingdom to recognize both Yahweh and Baal as legitimate gods worthy of worship and sacrifice in imitation of their pagan neighbors. That Yahweh demanded total loyalty and fidelity from His people and forbid the worship of gods other than Himself was absolutely unique to the Sinai Covenant.
Elijah then said to them, "I, I alone, am left as a
prophet of Yahweh, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty.
We know from Obadiah's testimony that there are still 100 prophet of Yahweh who have survived the persecution (verse 13), but it is only Elijah who has directly challenged idol worship in Israel. It is because of Elijah's singular, courageous campaign against Baal worship in Israel that he is acknowledge as the era's unequaled prophet of Yahweh.
Elijah sets the contest in the offering of a bull in sacrifice
by both sides. It is significant that Baal's animal symbol was a bull.
Question: Why would the failure of the bull offering to be consumed in fire by the priests of Baal be a significant sign?
Answer: If the priests of Baal fail to make fire consume their bull offering, it would prove that their god was powerless to fulfill their petition and couldn't even accept his own animal totem.
Question: Why did Elijah also propose to offer a
Answer: Elijah is also offering a bull to be entirely destroyed with fire from Yahweh as a symbol of the destruction and total defeat of the false god whose symbol is a bull.
According to the Law of Moses, a bull was a sin sacrifice for the covenant people as a whole for inadvertent or unintentional sins (Lev 4:13-15). However, it is highly unlikely that Elijah is judging the sin of idol worship as an unintentional sin since Yahweh's one sacred altar of sacrifice is in the Jerusalem Temple and it is only on that altar that legitimate sacrifices of whole burnt offerings, sin and communion sacrifices can be offered (Dt 12:8-12; 1 Kng 11:13, 36; 2 Chr 6:6).
The people respond in agreement to Elijah's contest by saying, "It is good!"
1 Kings 18:25-29 ~ The attempt of the priests of Baal
25 Elijah then said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one bull and begin, for there are more of you. 26 Call on the name of your god but light no fire." They took the bull and prepared it, and from morning to midday they called on the name of Baal. "O Baal, answer us!" they cried, but there was no voice, no answer, as they performed their hobbling dance round the altar which they had made. 27 Midday came, and Elijah mocked them. "Call louder," he said, "for he is a god: he is preoccupied or he is busy, or he has gone on a journey; perhaps he is asleep and needs to be woken up!" 28 So they shouted louder and gashed themselves, as their custom was, with swords and spears until the blood flowed down them. 29 Midday passed, and they ranted on [prophesied] until the time [hour] when the offering is presented, but there was no voice, no answer, no sign of attention. [..] = literal translations IBHE, vol. I, page 951.
In the contest, the priests of Baal are commanded not to
light the altar fire; their god must light it as a sign of his power. Elijah
gave the priests of Baal, the majority party, the first opportunity to display
the power of their god and patiently gave them every opportunity for success.
Question: What techniques do the priests of Baal use to attract their god's attentions?
Answer: The yell and dance around the altar they had made. As time passes their actions become more desperate and they offer ritual bloodletting.
It is humorous scene made more humorous by Elijah's taunting in verse 27. In the mythology of pagan gods, they are presented as very human-like: they eat and sleep and go on journeys, they have children, and their morals are as bad as or worse than the humans who worship them. This accounts for the form of Elijah's taunts in verse 27.
29 Midday passed,
and they ranted on until the time when the offering is presented
Midday or noon is the preparation time for the afternoon liturgical worship service at the Jerusalem Temple when the second Tamid lamb is brought out to the altar and inspected. As midday (noon) passes into late afternoon, the prophets of Baal become more desperate and "ranted", literally "prophesied", meaning the worked themselves into a prophetic frenzy. This continued until "the hour of the offering." The "offering" is the perpetual burnt offering of the afternoon Tamid lamb in the Jerusalem Temple worship service (Ex 29:38-42; Num 28:4-8). It was the premier sacrifice of the covenant people taking precedence over all other sacrifices. It was the offering of an unblemished male lamb that was sacrificed twice daily with unleavened bread and a wine libation in a morning and afternoon liturgical worship service for the atonement and sanctification of the covenant people that was to last so long as the Sinai Covenant endured. According to the Jewish priest/historian, Flavius Josephus, the afternoon Tamid lamb was sacrificed at the ninth hour, or our 3 PM, as the temple doors opened for the congregation to attend the afternoon worship service (Antiquities of the Jews, 14.4.3 ). It was at the time of the beginning of the legitimate sacrificial worship service at the Jerusalem Temple that Elijah will defeat the priests of Baal! See the schedule of the single sacrifice of the morning and afternoon Tamid lambs.
1 Kings 18:30-40 ~ Elijah's victory over the priests of
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come over to me," and all the people came over to him. He repaired Yahweh's altar which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yahweh had come, "Israel is to be your name," 32 and built an altar in the name of Yahweh. Round the altar he dug a trench of a size to hold two measures of seed. 33 He then arranged the wood, dismembered the bull, and laid it on the wood. 34 Then he said, "Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood." They did this. He said, "Do it a second time;" they did it a second time. He said, "Do it a third time;" they did it a third time. 35 The water flowed around the altar until even the trench itself was full of water. 36 At the time when the offering is presented, Elijah the prophet stepped forward. "Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel," he said, "let them know today that you are God in command. 37 [O Yahweh, answer me] Answer me, Yahweh, answer me, so that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God and are winning back their hearts." 38 Then Yahweh's fire fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood [and the stones and the dirt] and licked up the water in the trench. 39 When all the people saw this they fell on their faces. "Yahweh is God," they cried, "Yahweh is God!" 40 Elijah said, "Seize the prophets of Baal: do not let one of them escape." They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon, and there he slaughtered them. [..] = literal translation IBHE, vol. IV, page 952.
The contest took place on a slope of Mt. Carmel that had enough space to accommodate a large crowd. There had apparently been an altar to Yahweh on the site at one time that that had been destroyed but the stones remained. It may have been an altar that existed from the time of the Patriarchs when the father of every family served as a priest and built altars and offered sacrifices whenever and wherever he so desired, or it was an altar a desperate people, cut off from the Jerusalem Temple, had set up. This practice was now forbidden in the Sinai Covenant where only one altar of Yahweh was permitted and that altar was now in the Jerusalem Temple complex (Dt 12:11-14; 1 Kng 11:36 2 Chr 3:1-2). It was possible to erect a temporary altar for a special purpose, like the altar Joshua built of undressed stones for the covenant renewal ceremony after the beginning of the conquest of Canaan (Josh 8:30-31). Such altars, like the ones from the age of the Patriarchs, were not like the Bronze altar God commanded for His desert Sanctuary or the Jerusalem Temple (Ex 27:1-8; 38:1-7; 1 Kng 8:64). The other altars were built of undressed stones on four sides and filled with dirt that was packed down firmly. The wood for burning the sacrifice was placed on top of the dirt (see verse 38).
Most Fathers of the Church defend the building of the altar
as a temporary measure that was necessary and which suspended the regulation of
Deuteronomy 12:11-14 because of the emergency situation. Elijah built the
altar with twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
Question: What measured did Elijah take to ensure that no one could question the miracle was an act of Yahweh?
Answer: He dug a ditch around the altar. He had water poured on the wood on the altar that drained into the trench until it was full.
36 At the time when
the offering is presented, Elijah the prophet stepped forward. "Yahweh, God of
Abraham, Isaac and Israel," he said, "let them know today that you are God in
command. 37 Answer me, [O] Yahweh,
answer me, so that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God and are
winning back their hearts."
The Tamid lamb is sacrificed at about 3 in the afternoon in the liturgical worship service at the Jerusalem Temple, and then as the service continued, the cut up and salted body of the lamb was placed on the altar fire at about 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon along with a wafer of unleavened bread, wheat flour and a wine libation poured out at the altar. The worship service concluded at about 5 PM. Verse 36 may be referring to the time when the offering of the afternoon Tamid was placed on the altar fire at the Jerusalem Temple as the time that Elijah called on Yahweh to accept his sacrifice.
As all the people who gathered around the ditch watched as Elijah called on Yahweh. First he invoked Yahweh in the name of the patriarchs (36b), and then he used the same words as the prophets of Baal in verse 26b ["O Baal," answer us,], except he used Yahweh's divine name ["O Yahweh," answer me].
38 Then Yahweh's
fire fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood [and the stones and the
dirt] and licked up the water in the trench. 39 When all the people saw this they fell on their faces.
"Yahweh is God," they cried, "Yahweh is God!"
Fire came from heaven that consumed Elijah's sacrifice and destroyed the altar. That the altar itself is destroyed by God reinforces that there is only one true altar of sacrifice and that is the one at the Jerusalem Temple. The fire is a manifestation of the power of God's spirit and is the answer to the test in verse 24: the god who answers with fire, is God indeed." A fiery apparition often symbolizes Yahweh's presence in Scripture (e.g., Ex 3:2; 19:18; 24:17). See Sir 48:1; CCC 696.
Fire symbolized the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit's actions while water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit. Elijah, who the inspired writer of Sirach describes as one who "arose like fire" and whose "word burned like a torch" (Sir 48:1), appealed to God who brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mt. Carmel. This event is a Biblical "type" of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what He touches. Eight centuries from this event, St. John the Baptist, who went before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah (Lk 1:17), will proclaim Christ as the one who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Lk 3:16). Jesus will say of the Spirit: "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!" (Lk 12:49). And at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will rest upon the disciples in the Upper Room and fill them with Himself in the visible image of "tongues of fire" (Acts 2:3-4).
The Fathers of the Church recognized the similarity between the fire of Elijah's offering and the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic sacrifice. But the typology can be extended further. The Catechism tells us: "The sacrifice on Mount Carmel is a decisive test for the faith of the people of God. The Lord's fire consumes the holocaust, at the time of the evening oblation. The Eastern liturgies repeat Elijah's plea in the Eucharistic epiclesis" (CCC 2583). Note the "evening sacrifice" took place in the afternoon since the day ended at sundown and the catechism is referring to the afternoon Tamid liturgical worship service.
The contest ended in the humiliation and slaughter of the prophets of Baal and in the victory of Israel's God. In response the people cried out "Yahweh is God" which, fittingly, is the meaning of Elijah's name. See CCC 2582. The heretic prophets of Baal paid the ultimate price for their opposition to Yahweh and His divine plan for the Israelites in the same way the rebels who opposed God by trying to establish Golden Calf worship at Mt. Sinai (Ex 32:25-29), and the rebel Levites who tried to establish their own idea of the priesthood in opposition to God's plan (Num 16:1-3, 8-11, 35), and the Moabites who seduced the Israelites at Baal-Peor (Num chapter 31). They died in their stubborn resistance to the God of Israel. They were executed by Elijah and the people Israel according to the Law in Deuteronomy 13:13-19, which prescribed exactly such a punishment for prophets of pagan divinities in order to safeguard the religious purity of the chosen people. The execution took place at the Wadi of Kishon were their blood was washed away by the water and did not pollute the holy land God gave to Israel.
1 Kings 18:41-46 ~ The drought ends
41 Elijah said to Ahab, "Go back now, eat and drink; for I hear the approaching sound of rain." 42 While Ahab went back to eat and drink, Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel and bowed down to the ground, putting his face between his knees. 43 "Now go up", he told his servant, "and look out to sea." He went up and looked. "There is nothing at all," he said. Seven times Elijah told him to go back. 44 The seventh time, the servant said, "Now there is a cloud, small as a man's hand, rising from the sea." Elijah said, "Go and say to Ahab, 'Harness the chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'" 45 And with that the sky grew dark with cloud and storm, and rain fell in torrents. Ahab mounted his chariot and made for Jezreel. 46 But the hand of Yahweh had come on Elijah and, hitching up his clothes, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.
Throughout the contest, King Ahab has remained silent. With
the victory of Elijah over the prophets of Baal, there is nothing he can say,
and he probably fears for his own life.
Question: Why does Elijah tell the king to leave the mountain side?
Answer: True to his word in 18:1, the drought is over and the rain will soon begin. In the torrents of rain that will fall, it will be dangerous for the horses and the king's chariot on the mountain side, and he tells the king to go home and resume his life in the knowledge that only Yahweh is God. Yahweh's mercy has been extended to the king.
For the first time we learn that Elijah has a servant. It
is probably one of the prophets saved by Obadiah who has offered his services
to the Elijah. While the king returns to his palace in the Jezreel Valley,
Elijah climbs nearer to the top of the mountain and reverently bows down to
Yahweh and makes his petition for rain to end the drought. He then sends his
servant higher up the mountain and tells him to look west toward the sea.
Baal, the false god of storms and rain, could not bring the rain, but Yahweh,
the One True God, will bring rain and end the drought.
Question: How many times does Elijah send his servant up to the top of the mountain to look for signs of rain?
Answer: Seven times.
In the symbolic meaning of numbers in Scripture, seven is
one of the "perfect numbers" (also 3, 10, and 12). It is a number that represents
Holy Spirit (Is 11:1-2) and the perfection of the Holy Spirit who is at work in
this miracle and now brings out of a small cloud the size of a man's hand a
great storm and water/rain to give new life to the earth. The Fathers of the
Church also saw the number as a foreshadow of the sevenfold graces of the Holy
Spirit to be given to the New Covenant Church in the seven Sacraments (St.
Ephraim the Syrian, On the First Book of Kings, 18.44; also CCC 1830-32,
Question: What three symbols of the Holy Spirit are present in the miracle of the defeat of the prophets of Baal and the end of the drought?
The cloud brought the rain in the same way the Holy Spirit will renew mankind with the symbol of water and new life in Christian baptism. Fire, water, and cloud are all symbols of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (see CCC 555, 697 = cloud; 696 = fire; and 694, 1137, 2652 = water), and all three symbols are present in this story.
St. Augustine saw Elijah praying on the top of Mt. Carmel as a Biblical type of Christ: "Elijah prayed and offered sacrifice, and Christ offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. Elijah prayed on Mount Carmel, Jesus Christ on the Mount of Olives. Elijah prayed that rain might fall on the earth; Christ that divine grace might flow into human hearts. Elijah's command to his servant: 'Go up and look out seven times', is a foreshadowing of the seven-fold grace of the Holy Spirit to be given to the Church. And the small cloud rising up out of the sea that the servant saw is a symbol of the incarnate Christ born in the sea of this world" (St. Augustine, Sermons, 40.5).
For other Catholic scholars, the little cloud is seen as a figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just as the small and humble cloud brought abundant rain to renew the earth and make it fruitful, so too, the humble virgin of Nazareth cooperated with God's divine plan and gave birth to Christ through whom the grace and mercy of God are poured out abundantly on mankind and the whole earth.
45 And with that the
sky grew dark with cloud and storm, and rain fell in torrents. Ahab mounted
his chariot and made for Jezreel. 46 But
the hand of Yahweh had come on Elijah and, hitching up his clothes, he ran
ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.
As Ahab received the final sign of Yahweh's power over Baal in the rain storm, he did as Elijah told him and left in his chariot for the Jezreel Valley. In hopes of a repentant king with a new commitment to the God of Israel, Elijah graciously acknowledges Ahab as the rightful king by accompanying him as part of the honor guard and running ahead of his chariot, under the power of God's spirit, all the way to the king's palace in Jezreel. Unfortunately, Elijah's hopes for the king's repentance are not to be realized. There is still Jezebel who is a formidable enemy of both the prophet and Yahweh.
Question for group discussion or reflection:
Obadiah was an ordinary man who was called upon to make a courageous stand in support of Yahweh's divine plan and the cause of justice. Can you think of any examples when you or others have been called upon to make a choice that was the righteous choice but also meant that suffering unjustly could be the price of that stand? Look up the story of St. Maximillian Kolbe and read about his courageous decision in the face of Nazi brutality.
1. Ahab is named in an Assyrian cuneiform inscription where he is called "Ahab the Israelite", and where he is mentioned for having made a significant contribution in military personnel to the anti-Assyrian league that was organized against Assyrian king Shalmaneser III in 853 BC.
2. For Scripture with the plural form of Baal see Judg 2:11; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6, 10; 1 Sam 7:4; 12:10; 1 Kng 18:18; 2 Chr 17:3; 24:7; 28:2; 33:3; 34:4; Jer 2:23; 9:14; Hos 2:13, 17; 11:2.
3. The cult of Baal was not extirpated until Jehu's rise to power in c. 843 BC (2 Kng 10:18-28). For the later history of the Temple of Baal in Samaria see 2 Kng 10:21-29.
4. Zarephath is mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus from the 13th century BC and in a Neo-Assyrian clay tablet from the 7th century BC. It was a commercial center for the export of wine, olive oil, and purple dye as well as a manufacturing center for textiles, pottery and glassware.
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