For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied I Kings 18, which is about Elijah’s confrontation of the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel.
I learned something new in my study today, which, apparently, most commentators (both older and recent ones) know. You know how Elijah outruns the chariot of King Ahab in v 46, after Elijah has brought an end to the drought that God caused in punishment of Israel’s Baal worship? Elijah was actually doing that out of respect for King Ahab, for kings had people who outran their chariots (see I Samuel 8:11; I Kings 1:5). At first, I thought that Elijah was showing off to Ahab by outrunning his swift chariot, or that God was teaching Ahab that a prophet running with God’s power is superior to the mighty chariot of a king. Actually, the latter may have been one lesson that God wanted Ahab to learn, for the verse stresses that the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, right before it says that Elijah outran Ahab’s chariot. So Elijah was showing proper respect to Ahab, and also demonstrating to the king the power of God.
Who lives, and who dies? That’s a question that was on my mind in today’s quiet time. I Kings 18:40 says that Elijah slew the prophets of Baal, but there’s no statement that he also killed the prophets of Asherah. Was that because he believed that even the true God needed a consort (his Asherah)?
John MacArthur states: The killing of the 450 prophets of Baal (18:19) fulfilled the law’s demands that false prophets be executed (Deut. 13:1–5) and that those embracing idolatry or inciting others to practice it were worthy of death (Deut. 13:13–18; 17:2–7).
Okay, so Elijah killed the prophets of Baal in obedience to Deuteronomy, but he didn’t kill everyone who had embraced idolatry. Before his successful confrontation of the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel, most of Israel halted between two opinions, worshipping both the LORD and Baal. But Elijah didn’t slaughter them, notwithstanding the command in Deuteronomy. Why did Elijah punish some and not others?
Then we have Elijah showing respect to Ahab by outrunning his chariot. Okay, Ahab has repented, and now he’s a king who supports the worship of Yahweh alone. But, not long before, he had promoted Baal worship, or at least he allowed his wife to do so.
Maybe the people Elijah didn’t kill were spared because of their repentance, whereas the prophets of Baal were slaughtered because they did not turn to the LORD. Perhaps the prophets of Baal didn’t say “the LORD is God” while the mass of the Israelites were doing so. But I’m reminded of the Golden Calf scene in the 2006 ABC movie, The Ten Commandments. Moses was mad at the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf, and he invited people to join the LORD’s side. Some did so, including Aaron, who made the calf. Others did not. They included those who were defiant against the LORD, and also children, who didn’t know what was going on. Moses then tells the side that had joined him to kill the side that had not, and Aaron enthusiastically started to plunge his sword into people.
But, even if Aaron had repented, what right did he have to be so enthusiastic in murdering those who worshipped the calf—the calf he had made? Shouldn’t a newly-recovered sinner be a little more humble?
I also confronted the question of “Did God violate the Israelites free-will?”, which I Kings 18:37 invites. In v 37, Elijah is asking God to send fire on the altar that he had built to show the Israelites that the LORD is the true God, as opposed to Baal, who didn’t send fire on the Baalite altar. My translation is as follows: “Answer me, LORD, answer me and this people will know that you the LORD [are] the God, and you caused their heart to turn backward.”
There are at least two different interpretations of this verse. One says that God caused the Israelite’s to worship Baal. In its favor is the fact that “caused their heart to turn backward” is in the past tense, and so it can’t refer to the Israelites’ repentance because that has not yet happened during the time that Elijah is delivering up this prayer. So, for adherents to this view, v 37 refers to Israel’s apostasy. Also, there are passages in which God is said to harden the hearts of Israel and to cause them to err (Isaiah 63:17). So God is in the practice of doing that sort of thing.
The second interpretation of I Kings 18:37 is that it refers to God turning the hearts of Israel towards himself, the true God. In its favor is that fact that there are passages in which “and you shall know that I am the LORD when I have done such-and-such” refers to a future event: the “such-and-such” may be in the past tense grammatically, but it’s referring to an event that will take place in the future (see Exodus 10:2; Isaiah 41:20; Ezekiel 21:5). So Elijah is asking God to send fire on the Yahwist altar so that Israel will know that God is the one who brought them to repentance, after the fire has come down, that is.
Then there are different interpretations of how God brings Israel to repentance. Does God make the Israelites repent in a Calvinist, “irresistable grace” sort of way? Or does God influence them to repent by the miracle of sending the fire onto Elijah’s altar, which gets their attention and leads them to the realization that the LORD is the true God?
If I’m reading the Jewish commentator Rashi correctly, Rashi goes with the view that God turned the hearts of the Israelites towards Baal, yet he asserts that the Israelites’ free-will was still in the equation. He states: You have given them a place to turn away from following You, although You were able to direct their hearts toward You. Rashi appears to be saying that God allowed the Israelites to turn away from him, not that he forced them to do so.
What’s interesting is that, even in Isaiah 63:17—a verse that says God has hardened the Israelites’ hearts and caused them to err—the Israelites are asking God not to do so, but to lead them to repentance. So, somehow, the Israelites are still able to reject their hardening and to desire something better. This may relate to some of Ken Pulliam’s discussions on original sin, and how God can hold us responsible for sin when we’re born with a sinful nature—see Christian Philosophers Attempt to Defend “Original Sin”–Part One, Christian Philosophers Attempt to Defend “Original Sin”–Part Two, and Paul Copan’s Comments on the “Original Sin” Post.
Speaking of free-will and determinism, I was thinking this week about my quiet time on I Kings 16—see The Old South, I Kings 16. In I Kings 16, God uses General Omri to punish King Zimri for his sins. Omri acts according to his own personal ambition, yet God is somehow using him to effect his righteous will. Is Omri’s God’s puppet?
My thought this week was essentially, “Who cares?” I’m going to live my life assuming that I have free-will—that God is not using me as a puppet. That gives me hope: I don’t have to make the same mistakes, but I can choose a different path. It’s in my hands! Yet, some in Alcoholics Anonymous would say that I’m flawed, that I need to trust in God to keep me sober and work with God, who will remove my character defects. Part of me agrees with that point-of-view. So, on a practical level, I need free-will, but I also want God’s help. And, personally, I don’t think that God is going to use me to do something bad for his glory. God has brought me to the point where I desire good, not bad. And, in my opinion, God only uses the selfish ambition of man (as he did with Pharaoh or Omri) when that selfish ambition is already there! God doesn’t put it there, but he uses what is there.
I also encountered a beautiful lesson in Rashi. In I Kings 18:26, “he”—presumably Elijah—gives the prophets of Baal the bullock that they will use for their offering. This is in tension with other parts of the chapter. V 23 says that the prophets of Baal are giving out the two bullocks that are to be used in the competition between them and Elijah, and v 25 states that the prophets of Baal select the bullock that they will use. One scholar I read said that Elijah was trying to avoid the charge that he was fixing the contest, so he allowed the prophets of Baal to select their own bullock.
So what’s Rashi say about v 26? He says that the bullock that the Baalites selected tried to get away, for he didn’t want to be offered to a false god. But Elijah told the bullock that God will be glorified through that act, and Elijah then gave the bullock back to the Baalites. So there’s a lesson here about God using people and animals for his glory.