Calling down fire: who’s setting the agenda?

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 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. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 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. 24 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!” 25 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.” 26 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. 27 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.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 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.
30 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; 31 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”; 32 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. 33 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.” 34 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, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
36 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. 37 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.” 38 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. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

1 Kings 18:20-39

For the sake of completeness I have included in the above what happened when the prophets of Baal called on their gods. Maggi Dawn, in her book, gives only the challenge of Ahab and Elijah’s response.

As ever, I find myself wondering how the people involved felt.

Ahab, having worked long and hard and brutally to build a strong ppolitical power-base must have ben just so frustrated by the lone voice of Elijah continually attempting to call the people back to the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By this time he must have felt sufficently secure to issue his ultimatum to the people – “For goodness sake, make your minds up once and for all!”

Interesting that the people didn’t answer him at all. To me, that suggests that although they’d never dare say so out loud, they were by no means convinced by this new regime and baal-worship.

Oh, Ahab must have begun to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach… Here he was, all-powerful, attempting to whip up a postivie response from the people and all he gets is a sullen silence!

And then Elijah speaks – suggests a prayer-duel between the prophets of Baal and himself, the lone prophet of God. And now the people respond with a resounding “Yes!” Of course, form their point of view, whatever the outcome they were safe as they’d hedged their bets – hadn’t actually said “no” to Ahab, simply welcomed this opportunity for Elijah to take all the flak whould things go awry.

So the prophets of Baal – who, I’m guessing, were feelling more than a tad apprehensive by now as they weren’t calling the shots – get first pick of the bulls, and first attempt to produce fire through prayer alone. We’re told there were 450 of them – that’s a lot of prayers! But by the end of the day, despite all of their attempts to manipulate their gods through self-mutilation and loud cries, the result was one dead but very much un-burnt bull. Zilch. Prophets of Baal nil… Elijah yet to score.

By now Ahab and his prophets must have been seriously worried. But all was not yet lost… after all, if 450 of them had failed, what hope had lone Elijah?

And then Elijah, ever the showman, calls the people closer, as if to prove that no trickery was involved. He then rebuilds the altar of the Lord, and in placing the twelve stones, one for each tribe of Israel, he visibly reminds the people of their roots, of the foundations upon which their faith in the One True God was built. I can imagine a kidn of breathelss anticipation beginning to spread throughout the crowd.

Any minute now… surely Elijah is about tocall down fire… but no! In one final twist he calls for water. Why water, they wonder? is that in case the fire gets out of hand? Apparently not – to their utter amazement, and possibly dismay, he instructs that the bull and wood and altar are thoroughly dowsed with the water.

I wonder whether at this point the prophets of Baal and Ahab began at least to hope for a goal-less draw, for surely Elijah had finally lost the plot…

Then at last Elijah, “at the time of the offering of the oblation”, came near and prayed what was, in comparison with the antics all day of the prophets of Baal, a very low-key, matter-of-fact prayer. He simply asks that God will be God in this situation and reveal Himself to the people in order that they might turn back to Him.

And God did just that – the fire that came consumed not just the bull, not just the wood, but also the stones, the dust and the water in the trence.

Wow – what an outcome.

For me, the account of the failure of the proophets of Baal is an integral part of the story as it throws into sharp contrast their approach and that of Elijah.

The prophets of Baal believed that by much crying out, long pleading, self-mutilation and self-punishment, they could somehow get the attention of their gods and persuade them to co-operate with the prophet’s (and Ahab’s) agenda.

Elijah, on the other hand, pretty much did the reverse. He dowsed the offering with water, making it very, very clear that no human intervention could possibly achieve the desired result. And the wordsof his prayer indicate that his actions sprang out of a sense that God Himself was bidding him to behave in this way. He then offered his obedience back to God and trusted Him for the outcome. A brief prayer, succinct and to the point. A prayer of faith – not that God would act according to Elijah’s agenda, but that God is God and could be trusted.

I wonder which we are more like in our praying…

Do we, albeit rather more subtly than the prophets of Baal, attempt to manipulate, to persuade God?

Or do we trust Him and ask simply for what we believe is in accordance with His will? “Thy kingdom come, They will be done”…

May God open our hearts and minds this Advent to a deeper realisation of His power and presence at work in us and in our world. May He increase our faith in Him as we deepen our relationship with Him. And may we always work to His agenda, not our own.

Lord, teach us to pray.

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