Introduction In 1 Kings 18-19 we are introduced to one of the most magical men in the Bible, and to one of the greatest miracles. Along with Moses and Jesus, Elijah is among the great miracle workers of the world. Elijah used miracles to bring Israel up out of shambles, if just for a moment. He also showed extreme faith and perseverance in the face of great odds.
But the true character of Elijah lies in his name, which literally means, Yahweh is my God (Anderson 246).
Prelude to The Contest In order to understand chapters 18 and 19 of 1 Kings, one must get some background on its main character. In 1 Kings 17, we are first introduced to Elijah. At the time, Israel is at one of its lowest points. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were not only endorsing the worship of Baal; they were trying to wipe out all worship of Yahweh (Stafford 388).
In addition, one of Ahabs men rebuilt the city of Jericho, which is strictly forbidden in Joshua 6: 23. Out of this defiance of Yahweh rises the prophet Elijah. In a rejection of Baal, the god of weather, he proclaimed that there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word (1 Kings 17: 1).
Because of this proclamation, Elijah had become a wanted man. It is at this point that we see the first sign of the relationship between Elijah and Yahweh. Yahweh tells Elijah to flee east of the Jordan, and for the next three years he lives a life on the run (Stafford 388).
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The Contest With the events of 1 Kings 17 as our background, we can now look to chapters 18 and 19. After three years in the desert, Yahweh tells Elijah to go to Ahab. On his way, Elijah meets one of Ahabs servants, Obadiah. Obadiah was a devout follower of Yahweh, and had saved a hundred prophets from their death. The fact that Ahab would keep such a believer in Yahweh as his servant shows us that he may have used syncretism, or combined the Yahweh and Baal religions. Elijah tells Obadiah to go to Ahab and tell him that he wants to meet with him.
When the meeting occurs, Ahab refers to Elijah as the troubler of Israel (1 Kings 18: 17).
Elijah responds by saying that Israel has brought the trouble upon themselves by worshiping Baal. This is the first statement of the reason that Elijah has been sent on this mission. Ahab is then instructed to gather all of his people and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18: 19).
It is at this point that we come to one of the most dramatic events in the entire Old Testament. One man, Elijah, challenges the most powerful king in the land and his prophets to a contest of faith. He declares that the worshipers of Baal will cut a bull into pieces and set it upon the altar of Baal. As the lone representative of Yahweh, Elijah will then cut up a bull and set it upon the altar of Yahweh. The prophets are then to call upon Baal to strike the altar with fire.
Elijah will then call upon Yahweh to strike his altar with fire. The true god could then be determined. The prophets do as instructed and call upon Baal to ignite their altar. They call out and dance, but nothing happened. All the while Elijah is taunting them, asking them why Baal is not responding. The failure of Baal to react is made even more dramatic when one recognizes the fact that Baal is the supposed god of weather, and was often depicted with a thunderbolt in his hand (Stafford 389).
Elijah then takes his turn. He lays the bull upon the altar, but then he pours water all over the offering. This is a demonstration of extreme faith and confidence in Yahweh. Elijah then calls out: Answer me, Yahweh, so these people will know that you are God (1 Kings 18: 37).
Yahweh answers in dramatic fashion. He burns the offering, the altar, and he even set fire to the water and destroys all of it completely.
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Because of this demonstration, the people of Israel once again proclaim Yahweh as their God (1 Kings 18: 39).
As one reads the account of this contest in 1 Kings 18: 22-38, one is reminded a couple of couple of basketball players playing a pickup game. One of them is talking trash throughout the game (Elijah taunting the prophets).
He is so confident of his ability that he plays with only one hand (Elijah pouring water on the altar).
But in the end the man with the supreme ability (or the supreme faith and god) comes out on top. In a basketball game this kind of confidence is not always appreciated, but in Elijahs time and under the circumstances, this total faith shows us just how devoted Elijah is to Yahweh. The Aftermath After the people had proclaimed Yahweh as their God, Elijah orders them to gather the prophets of Baal. They then took the prophets and, in a scene repeated throughout the Bible, killed every one of them. Then Elijah did a most unusual thing.
He released Ahab, the person who was mainly responsible for the downfall of Israel. Elijah may have done this because he thought that Ahab was finally convinced of his errors. Whatever his motivation for releasing Ahab, it soon backfires on him. Ahab goes straight to his wicked wife Jezebel and recounts to her what had happened on Mount Carmel. Jezebel proclaims that Elijah is as good as dead. Hearing this, Elijah runs for his life.
This is an interesting turn of events, for Elijahs faith in Yahweh seems to waver in the face of Jezebels threat. While Elijah is hiding from Jezebel in the desert, Yahweh provides for him. Elijah eventually flees to Mount Sinai. Finally Yahweh asks him What are you doing here (1 Kings 19: 9).
Elijah explains that he is the only prophet of Yahweh left, and is afraid that if he is killed, there will be no one left to carry on the word of the Lord (1 Kings 19: 14).
As usual, Yahweh guides Elijah through this difficult period.
He tells Elijah to find Elisha of Abel Meholah to become his assistant, and that Elisha will succeed Elijah as a prophet of Yahweh. The final scene in 1 Kings 19 gives us a good picture of what kind of man Elijah is. Instead of being scared of Jezebel for personal reasons, he explains that he is afraid that if he dies, so will Yahweh spirit. He is only concerned about placing Yahweh into the hearts of the people. This is what Elijah had done throughout his life. From when we are first introduced to him, Elijah had tried to guide the Israelites in the right direction.
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His contest with Ahab is his supreme test of his faith, and he wins it with flying colors. All in all, Elijah shows us what we all can do if we just believe and have faith in God. Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998. Stafford, Tim.
The Student Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.