Elijah: Champion of Israel's God
John A. Tvedtnes
(Ensign, July 1990)
The rise of Baalism and the attempt to eradicate it constitute one of the major themes of 1 and 2 Kings. The major figure in this great religious struggle is the prophet Elijah.
The worship of Baal seems to have had no royal approbation in Israel until the time of Elijah’s antagonist, King Ahab. While many of the king’s predecessors are condemned for following the path of Jeroboam in the worship of the golden calves (see 1 Kgs. 12:26–30; 1 Kgs. 15:25–26, 33–34; 1 Kgs. 16:18–19, 25–26), it appears that Ahab was responsible for adopting Baal worship as Israel’s official religion:
“And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him.
“And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him.
“And he reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria.
“And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings that were before him.” (1 Kgs. 16:30–33.)
The introduction of Canaanite worship as an official cult in Israel can be attributed directly to Jezebel. She did this by (1) destroying the prophets of the Lord (see 1 Kgs. 18:4, 13) and (2) sponsoring false prophets (see 1 Kgs. 18:19).
Elijah’s famous contest with the prophets of Baal was the most dramatic achievement of his mortal ministry. His major concern was for the conversion of his people to the worship of the true God. His bold statement to them atop Mount Carmel, as he prepared to prove Jehovah’s existence, illustrates his goal: “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kgs. 18:21.)
The unique method chosen by Elijah to provide evidence for the existence and power of Israel’s God was designed to impress those who had begun to be swayed by the Canaanite religion introduced by Jezebel.
The Bible has very little information on Canaanite beliefs and practices, except insofar as it condemns them. Until a little more than half a century ago, only a few extrabiblical texts were available to provide supplementary information on the subject. These included some Phoenician (Canaanite 1) and Punic inscriptions and the Phoenician history written by a priest from Beirut named Sanchoniathon. 2 But in 1929, at Ras Shamra, Syria (ancient Ugarit), a fourteenth- to thirteenth-century B.C. library was discovered that has shed a great deal of light on the beliefs of the peoples who lived in Syro-Palestine before the Israelites. By combining what we now know of Canaanite beliefs from biblical, classical, and Ugaritic texts, we now understand certain biblical events, such as Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal, better than ever before. It is, therefore, at the Canaanite religion that we must first look to see its numerous details in Elijah’s famous contest.
The Canaanite pantheon comprised a large number of nature deities, each one responsible for his or her segment of the universe.
According to Canaanite mythology, the king of the gods was El (meaning “god” or “strong one”) 3 , who is depicted in the Ugaritic texts as a bearded, graying old man, dwelling on an island and noted for his wisdom. His wife was Asherah, a fertility goddess whose name means “grove.” The groves (generally of oak or terebinth trees) condemned so frequently in the Bible were dedicated to her worship.
Myths concerning four of the children of El and Asherah are also important to our understanding of the story of Elijah:
Baal is a title meaning “lord,” but also “husband.” He also bore the name Hadad, “thunderer,” for he was the weather god, responsible for lightning, thunder, wind, and rain.
Anath is sometimes called “the virgin,” but as the “mother of nations” she is often depicted as the wife of her brother Baal. Her name means “surface (of the earth),” and as such she received the rains sent down by Baal to produce vegetation. 4 She is therefore a fertility goddess, like her mother, Asherah. Considered a very powerful being, Anath was also the goddess of war, much like the Greek goddess Athena.
Yamm (“sea”) was the god of the waters on and under the earth. Many natural phenomena were interpreted in terms of his struggle with Baal for power. For example, sea storms were thought to occur when Yamm cast his waves up toward Baal. Baal would respond by throwing down winds, rain, and lightning and shouting with his voice of thunder. In the end, of course, the clouds, wind, and rain would disappear, leaving the calm sea the victor.
Mot (“death”) was the god of the underworld, where the spirits of the dead were sent. He was the antithesis of Baal, the god of life-giving processes, and though brothers, they were enemies.
One of the most important Canaanite myths represented in the Ugaritic texts concerns the death of Baal. In the texts, the sky-god sponsored a banquet in his palace atop Mount Zaphon. During the banquet he brought a platter of food and “stood before El.” The idiom meant that he not only served his father, but that he was also the heir apparent of El.
During the course of the banquet, messengers arrived from Yamm, who, being Baal’s sworn enemy, had not been invited. Yamm challenged Baal to a duel to the death. 5 Baal left the banquet to meet the challenge and was slain by Yamm. Anath brought the tragic news to her father, El. The elderly king thereupon left his throne to sit in ashes on the ground, where he began making incisions in his skin with a sharp stone. This Canaanite practice of mourning is frequently cited in the Bible. While sackcloth and ashes were of common use in Israel, the law of Moses forbade making incisions in the skin for the dead. (See Lev. 19:27–28; Lev. 21:4–5; Deut. 14:1.)
As time went by, the death of Baal proved to be disastrous, for without rain, the earth languished in drought and famine. Something had happened to Baal, but the earth’s inhabitants, according to the Ugaritic texts, were uncertain as to whether he was asleep, dead, or off hunting with his lightning spears.
While others debated the issue, Anath took action to solve the problem. First, she slew Yamm. Then she descended into the underworld to strike a bargain with Mot. The god of the dead, of course, had something to lose in this matter, too. Once all vegetation disappeared from the earth’s surface, so, too, would animal and human life, and he would receive no more subjects into his dominion. Anath convinced him that it was in the best interests of all to allow Baal to return to the sky.
At length, Mot agreed that Baal could remain in the sky for six months out of the year, providing rain to nourish the earth. During the other six, he would have to return to the underworld, while the earth’s surface dried from lack of rain. This story was the Canaanite means of explaining the annual vegetation and rain cycles.
There had no doubt been many droughts before Elijah’s time, but the one recorded in 1 Kings 17–18 was especially severe [1 Kgs. 17–18]. Elijah announced its coming in these words: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” (1 Kgs. 17:1; see also 1 Kgs. 18:15.)
All Israel was put on notice that the drought to come would be caused by Jehovah, God of Israel, and not by Baal, the supposed weather god. In making this announcement, Elijah declared his authority to speak for the Lord by adding the words “before whom I stand,” perhaps with deliberate reference to the fact that in the Canaanite beliefs, Baal “stood before El.” 6
Three years of drought followed, during which time there was much suffering in Israel. Then the Lord instructed Elijah to announce the end of the drought and the coming of rain, in order to further prove that Jehovah was the only one who could control the weather:
“And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.
“And Elijah went to shew himself unto Ahab. And there was a sore famine in Samaria.” (1 Kgs. 18:1–2.)
When the king and the prophet met face-to-face, Ahab accused Elijah of troubling Israel. But Elijah replied that it was the royal family which had “troubled Israel” by deserting Jehovah (“the Lord”) and following “Baalim” (the plural of Baal). It was then that Elijah issued his challenge: He would prove, by miraculous means, that Jehovah was God and that Baal did not exist. To do so, he would challenge Baal’s prophets to a contest. Whichever deity replied to the petition of his servant(s) would be considered the true God. The contest was designed by Elijah to “stack the cards” in Baal’s favor, in order to make a greater impression on the people.
Elijah designated the summit of Mount Carmel as the site for the encounter. The name Carmel comes from Hebrew/Canaanite karm-El, meaning “vineyard of El,” and was probably considered by the Canaanites to be sacred to the old Canaanite God, as well as to Baal 7 and to the Canaanites’ two chief goddesses. Atop the mount there still exists today one of the largest forests of oak trees in Israel, these being the symbol of Asherah. As the most prominent piece of land in the area, it was considered part of the body of Anath, the earth goddess. Furthermore, because it is the highest mountain in the region, during thunderstorms it receives more lightning strikes than other points; probably this was thought to indicate Baal’s presence. The mountain also receives more rainfall than any other spot in Israel, making it an even more suitable representation of Anath, on whom Baal sends his rain.
Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal to represent their god, while another 400 came to speak for his mother, Asherah—she of “the groves.” (See 1 Kgs. 18:19.) Elijah asked that two bullocks be provided, one for Baal and another for Jehovah. While sheep or goats were most often sacrificed in Israel, the bullock was the symbol of El, whose full title in the Ugaritic literature is “Father Bull El.” Again, everything seemed to favor the prophets of Baal.
The results of the contest are well known. The prophets of Baal called upon their deity “from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered.” (1 Kgs. 18:26.) The expected “voice” of Baal would be thunder, an indication that he was still in control of his domain. (The Hebrew/Canaanite word qol means both “voice” and “thunder.”)
When the priests received no answer, Elijah mocked them. He suggested that Baal might be away on a journey, busy in conversation (undoubtedly hosting one of his renowned banquets), or even asleep. (See 1 Kgs. 18:27.) These possibilities were also considered four centuries earlier by priests of Ugarit during a drought. Just as those earlier priests had done, the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel apparently concluded that their god must have died. Following the traditional Canaanite mourning practice, they “cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.” Still, there was no thunder, “neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” (1 Kgs. 18:28–29.)
It was now Elijah’s turn. He did several things to illustrate that Jehovah was Israel’s only God. First, he rebuilt the altar of Jehovah, which had been torn down, using “twelve stones, according to the number of tribes of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name.” (1 Kgs. 18:30–32.)
Next, Elijah dug a trench around the altar and placed wood (probably from the native oak trees) and the bullock atop the altar. He then ordered that twelve barrels of water—again, the number of the tribes of Israel—be poured atop the sacrifice, drenching the altar and filling the trench. (1 Kgs. 18:32–35.) The use of the water, which would inhibit ignition, was another of the steps he took to make the contest more favorable to Baal.
Elijah then addressed God in words deliberately chosen to stress the fact that Jehovah was Israel’s God, substituting “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” for the usual “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Elijah then asked Jehovah to let the people know that Jehovah was “the Lord God.” (1 Kgs. 18:36–37.)
The reply from heaven was spectacular: “Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” (1 Kgs. 18:38.)
The true and full nature of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal eludes most Bible readers. The appearance of the lightning was but one of several factors that brought the people to bow down and declare that “the Lord (Jehovah), he is the God.” (1 Kgs. 18:39.) Jehovah had shown that it was he, and not Baal, who was able to cast down lightning from heaven (in this case, out of a clear blue sky) and that it was he and not the fictitious Baal who had brought three years of famine into the land.
But the divine lightning had an even greater significance. It destroyed the bullock, symbol of El, as well as the wood, symbol of El’s wife Asherah, thus making Jehovah more powerful than any of the Canaanite deities. The fire also destroyed the water, symbol of Yamm, who, as the destroyer of Baal, was more powerful than Baal. More powerful even than Yamm, however, was Anath, the goddess of war, who had slain Yamm. Jehovah’s lightning bolt consumed not only the stones of the altar, but also the dust—both elements sacred to this earth goddess. There could be no doubt in the minds of those who observed this great miracle: Jehovah was the God!
It remained to show that the Lord was more powerful than Mot, the Canaanite god of death, who was able to hold Baal captive for half of each year. Therefore, Elijah ordered that the false prophets of Baal be taken to the Kishon river, which runs near the base of Mount Carmel, to be slain. (See 1 Kgs. 18:40.) The event was timed so that the rains, which would soon come, would wash the earth of the blood of the slain prophets. This was no doubt another jab at the Canaanite religion. In the Ugaritic texts, we read that Anath, the earth, washes in the rains sent by Baal after a bloody battle, casting her filth into the sea, just as the Kishon river would have brought the bodies of the false prophets into the Mediterranean a dozen miles distant.
Ordinarily, one would be expected to mourn and fast for those who had died. But Elijah clearly instructed King Ahab to eat and drink on the mountain, as though celebrating a victory over the enemy. 8
By this time, Jehovah had demonstrated his power to bring destruction on the earth in the form of drought and fire from heaven. It yet remained to show how, by his miraculous power, he could be merciful to Israel. Elijah, therefore, prayed for rain, after which “the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.” (1 Kgs. 18:45.) He sent word to Ahab to quickly return to Jezreel. While Ahab rode in his chariot, Elijah, girding up his loins, ran to the city—a distance of about eleven miles as the crow flies—and arrived there before the king. (See 1 Kgs. 18:45–46.)
It is likely that Ahab’s chariot—like those of Sisera a few centuries previous to this, in the same area—had become bogged down in the mud newly formed in the valley by the rainfall. At any rate, Elijah, on foot, beat Ahab to the gates of Jezreel, and the outcome of the footrace plays a role in Elijah’s attack on the worship of Baal.
In the ancient Near East, it was traditional to test the powers of the king—the chief warrior of his people—by having him run a footrace and throw a javelin. This was an important test of divinity for the Canaanites. The Ugaritic texts, for example, note an attempt to replace the dead Baal with another of Asherah’s sons. El objects that the newcomer could neither run across the clouds nor throw the lightning spear with accuracy and was hence unsuited to become the sky god.
The Lord may have used this tradition to strengthen his position in the eyes of the Canaanites as the one true God. He had already demonstrated his ability to throw the lightning spear to earth with great accuracy when he burned up Elijah’s sacrifice. Now his personal representative, Elijah, the prophet who “stood before the Lord,” had won a footrace against Ahab, Baal’s Israelite representative. Jehovah’s right to reign over Israel was firmly established.
The story does not end here, for the struggle against Baalism continued after Elijah’s departure. Moreover, the Lord had yet another message concerning his true nature to pass on through Elijah. This lesson was to be taught at Mount Horeb in Sinai, where Jehovah had manifested himself in fire and thunder to Israel to reveal his law. (See Ex. 19:16–20; Ex. 20:18.) Israel had broken his law by turning to Baal. Now the Lord would reveal himself to Elijah in much the same terms as he had done to Moses and all Israel some centuries earlier:
“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
“And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kgs. 19:11–12.)
Though Jehovah controlled the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, he was none of those phenomena of nature. He was not the wind, as some depicted Baal. Nor was he the earth, whose quaking was considered by others to be the movement of Anath. He was not the fire or any other of the elements. Rather, it was the Lord who controlled them all, and he manifested himself—as he does today—in the “still small voice” of his Spirit. (See D&C 85:16.)
It is a voice with which we all need to become familiar if we are not to succumb to the strident voices of today’s false gods. 9 Elijah’s contest on Mount Carmel set a pattern for us. By viewing the story in its Canaanite context we can better understand and appreciate the power it had on the Lord’s people three thousand years ago—and the power it can still have for us today.
1.The people called themselves Canaanites, but the Greeks called them Phoenicians. The term Punic means “Phoenician” and refers to those Phoenicians who had colonized islands and foreign ports throughout the Mediterranean basin.
2. Sanchoniathon’s history is known to us only from the few quotes given by some Greek historians. There exists no Phoenician copy, though some Greek historians held that he had lived in the eleventh century B.C.
3. Some readers will recognize a few of the names of these Canaanite deities as having meaning in Hebrew. This is because Hebrew and Canaanite/Phoenician are part of the same language family. It is likely that no translators were needed when Israelites spoke with Canaanites.
4. The Canaanites, in order to induce fertility in the earth, practiced a form of sympathetic magic in their temples. Men would frequent sacred prostitutes in these temples to imitate the gods and cause rain to descend on the earth. At one point in their history, the Israelites found themselves enticed to introduce this practice from the cult of Baal-Peor ( “Baal of Peor”), and one man even attempted it at the tabernacle. (See Num. 25:6–8.)
5. The Canaanites and many other ancient peoples believed that the gods could be slain in combat with other gods and sometimes by daring mortals. Indeed, through much of the ancient Near East, the king of the gods was believed to have won the throne by slaying his father.
6. To “stand before God” is to serve him. See Jer. 15:1. (A similar translation should be read from the Hebrew of Gen. 18:8.) By using the idiom, Elijah evidently was stating his case for the kingship of Jehovah, the true God, as opposed to that of Baal.
7. On the “Black Obelisk” of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, carved a generation after Elijah and uncovered by archaeologists in Numrûd in 1845, Mount Carmel is called “Baal of the Headland.”
8. See 1 Kgs. 18:41–42. This, too, was a common practice in the ancient Near East, where conquerors would consume the food of the enemy’s land. A generation later, when Jehu had killed both Ahab’s wife (Jezebel) and son, he entered the palace and sat d eat. (See 2 Kgs. 9:16–34.)