So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said,
‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’
The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people,
‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’
All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal,
‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’
So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made.
At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
It is decision time for Israel, gathered at Mount Carmel. Will they trust Yahweh, or follow Baal? These narratives are set at a time before monotheism had developed and the gods of the nations were understood to exercise real, if limited, power; but Israel’s identity was based on the idea that they have no other god than Yahweh. So they cannot sit on the fence, nor can they trust in different gods to exercise power in different spheres of human life.
Elijah calls for a competition to demonstrate whether Yahweh or Baal truly has power in and over Israel; and sets himself against 450 prophets of Baal as divine agents. He lets his opponents choose their sacrificial offering; but he proposes the rules. The people agree and the prophets of Baal accept the challenge. The narrative presents Elijah mocking their invocation of Baal to send down fire and consume the offering; and also mocking Baal when there is no response.
Then it is Elijah’s turn. He begins by repairing an altar to Yahweh which had been torn down. The 12 stones symbolise the tribes of Israel: this altar is to the God who brought Israel into being in the land. Elijah prepares an offering in the same manner as his opponents but then asks for water to be poured over the offering and the wood, three times. Only a supernatural power could set fire to such a soggy pile – but that’s tomorrow’s reading.
How can we convince people about God’s truth? Do large numbers supporting any particular claims add credibility? Can complex rituals influence decisions, or do they seem like magic tricks to onlookers? Should we ever put God to the test? Does this encourage the fallacy that faith requires evidential proof?
Thankfully, our Christian calling is to point to Jesus and trust that God’s self-revelation in Christ is all sufficient.
Eternal God, your truth is revealed in Jesus Christ and I trust in you. Help me in my unbelief when other options dazzle. Forgive me when I foolishly behave as though my words or deeds have power to convince others that you are the true God.
May my life point towards Jesus so that in Christ, through the activity of the Spirit, others come to trust you for themselves. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.