Igniting Faithfulness in Despair
This passage in 1 Kings is a difficult one, even after the arrangers of the lectionary removed the most disturbing and bloody portions. Between verses 22-29, Elijah taunts and even mocks the priests of Baal. This juvenile display is made gruesome by the self-mutilating practice of the Baal priests as they cut themselves in petition to their god, blood flowing all over them. In the final verse of this narrative, also removed from the lectionary reading, Elijah has the priests rounded up and kills them all himself (v 40).
And yet, even after the removal of the gruesome, this passage poses difficulty to the interpreter and preacher. Is Elijah invoking divine miracles just for the sake of winning an argument? Is this not a prime example of putting God to the test?
There are subtle clues in this text that the scene is about something more than just proving who's right. The most telling of these comes when Elijah arranges the stones for his altar—twelve of them, "according to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, 'Israel shall be your name" (v 31). This reference is not about Elijah choosing his favorite number, but a signal to the reader or hearer of the text that Israel's identity is at stake here. Elijah's conflict with the priests of Baal is broadened into a concern for the continuing viability of the people of Israel in their brokenness.
1 Kings as a whole reinforces this broader context, so a brief summary of the book to this point will be helpful. As King David is on his deathbed, Solomon is made king through the manipulative maneuvering of his mother Bathsheba (1 Kings 1-2). Solomon reigns in wisdom, though his reign is not unambiguously good (1 Kings 3-11). It culminates in the division of the kingdom, eventuating in a series of good and bad kings, ruling a broken and fractured people (1 Kings 12-16).
Elijah enters the narrative as a prophet to a people in despair. Israel, the people called to live by promise, has become a beleaguered and divided people, marked by disillusionment as the monarchy they fought with God to establish has torn their one nation literally in two. Ahab, the king of so-called Israel (the two new kingdoms are now called Israel and Judah), has married the foreigner Jezebel and is worshipping her gods, notably Baal. Which raises the question: who is really God? But the context provides a different angle, asking more directly: to whom does Israel belong, and with whom does her future identity rest?
God is not in the business of making grand displays of power just to win an argument. Don't forget the lesson coming in 1 Kings 19: God is not in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire. God does not need self-legitimation. All the great acts of God in Scripture are acts of creation and restoration, not divine self-legitimation. So, this second question proves more pertinent: whose people will we be, and with whom does our future identity rest? Elijah arranges twelve stones for the twelve tribes, reiterating the word of God that came to Israel, saying, "Israel shall be your name." "Israel"—the one who wrestles with God, walking away with a limp and a new name (Gen 32:22-32).
This act of arranging twelve stones and pronouncing the name of Israel on all twelve tribes is politically subversive of Ahab's reign. As the king of so-called Israel, Ahab should have the authority to name this people, to establish their identity. Elijah makes a provocative and decentering claim—the true Israel is not the nation Ahab rules, but the restored tribes of Jacob. And this people's name is given not by any king but by the very word of God. Elijah's battle with the priests of Baal, then, is not an exercise in modern apologetics. It is a prophetic act. A visible word by which Elijah enacts a pronouncement of whose people Israel really is and who will effect their restoration.
Israel lies on the altar before God, drenched in water—in a history of stubborn resistance to God's purifying fire. This pitiful image has no ability to bear God's glory, no in-built tendency to ignite to flame. For not only are the stones soaked but the whole altar is entrenched by water. Rather than be aflame with God's glory as witnesses to the life God extends to all peoples, Israel has hedged herself in, so entrenched in self-legitimating practices, in striving for power and self-glorification, that they've squelched the promise God offers.
Elijah's prophecy is like Ezekiel's, then. Will these dry bones live? (Ezekiel 37) Will this broken, divided, and soaking wet people bear God's glory once again? The answer hinges on the answer to another question, our fundamental concern: whose people will Israel finally be? Elijah dramatically enacts an answer: they will be Yahweh's people, because this God, the God who named them and promised to sustain them is the one true God. Elijah does care which is the true God, Baal or Yahweh, but this matter is not the final goal of these verses. Demonstrating that Yahweh is the true God serves to remind Israel whose people she is.
The Church too is a broken, fragmented people. We too have received a promise, a "yes" spoken in Christ that by the Spirit we may live as witnesses to God's resurrection life. As with Israel, the problem is that we are so unfaithful. Our divisions and failures are a result of our striving for power like all other people. Israel wanted a king to make them like everyone else. We want to elect the right president to make us the "moral majority"—i.e., the voice with all the power. God called Israel—and calls us—to become an alternative politic—an alternative body of people—so that we might bear witness to the good life God offers, the beauty of living in fellowship with God.
The question we face in our unfaithfulness—and this church has in fact been unfaithful—is whose people will we be? From whom will we receive our name, our future identity? Perhaps we, like Elijah, need to present our broken, wet, and flame-retarding life on the altar before God, that in God's grace it might be ignited once again. That we might be made faithful in our despair.