When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ He answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.’
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.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.
We’re very good at remembering parts of the story. Some years ago I took part in a remembering exercise where the preacher asked us how the story of Elijah and the Still Small Voice started. Of course, I called out “having committed genocide, Elijah was on the run from the authorities.” I’m not entirely sure this was how my colleague wanted the story to start but…
We enjoy the still small voice story; I’ve preached sermons on God’s care for an exhausted Elijah. We sing that verse from Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (forgetting it comes from a Quaker poem about the evils of church practices like hymn singing) and feel terribly spiritual. I don’t want to undermine that – I love the story, adore the hymn, and get how we need food, drink, and sleep when we’re exhausted. It’s too easy, however, to ignore the bits in the Biblical stories that we don’t like – whether that’s Elijah’s genocide of pagan priests, Elisha’s setting a bear on some annoying boys, or some of the stories we’ve been looking at over the last week or so.
I think it helps to realise that the Bible is full of very human stories; we see strength and weakness, sanctity and atrocity, virtue and sin. We’re shocked by what we read, we understand why these passages don’t appear in the Lectionary, or Sunday School, but we need to know them. Why? Because we too are full of strength and weakness, sanctity and atrocity, virtue and sin.
Self awareness is a great gift – one that often religious folk don’t cultivate. I once heard it said that the Bible is the only book that reads us; maybe that’s so, but in the Biblical stories we see so many aspects of the complexity of human life and we can allow those stories, and our reaction to them, to shape and change us as we wrestle with them and their complexity.
Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be mute, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!
John Greenleaf Whittier (1872)
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.