In a previous post, I explained that seeing the locations of biblical events can help you connect the dots in the text of the Bible, revealing a more complete picture of what is being described. To help you see how this works, I began a series of posts entitled “Dotwatch.” In this dotwatch post, we’ll look at the showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
Elijah first appears in the pages of the Bible after king Ahab of Israel adopted the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal.
Baal was the storm god the Canaanites depended on to send rain. In contrast to the God of Israel who demanded absolute loyalty and holiness, Baal could be manipulated through sacrifices, offerings, and sensually indulgent acts of worship. It was a seductive alternative which now had the official endorsement of the king.
So the LORD sent Elijah before Ahab with a startling pronouncement:
As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. (1 Kings 17:1, ESV)
The drought which followed was a direct assault on Baal’s alleged power to bring rain. It lasted for three years, during which Baal seemed powerless to answer. Elijah was in hiding the entire time.
When Elijah finally returned, he told Ahab to assemble all the royal prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. There he set up a public showdown between the two deities, proposing that Baal’s prophets prepare, but not ignite, a sacrifice to their god, while he would do the same for the LORD. Then they would pray to their respective deities to send fire from heaven to ignite the sacrifice. The one that answered would then clearly be revealed as the one true God.
Why this test? Fire from heaven certainly sounds dramatic, but doesn’t it seem a little random? And why did this showdown take place on Mount Carmel? Why not at Ahab’s capital in Samaria or some other more populated area?
It’s interesting to note that when Elijah proposed this test, the people all accepted it as perfectly reasonable. They don’t appear to have questioned the nature of the test or the choice of location. Why is that?
A little knowledge of Israel’s weather patterns and geography helps us to make sense of all this. First, we need to understand that the rains in Israel tend to be blown in from the Mediterranean Sea. Second, we need to realize that Mount Carmel is actually a range of peaks which extends from the central hill country all the way to the Mediterranean coast. Mount Carmel is therefore one of the first places in Israel to receive rainfall, and it receives more annual rainfall than most other locations in the country. Finally, we need to remember that Baal was the god who was supposed to send lightning and rain.
Connect those dots, and we begin to see how Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal was a direct challenge to the pagan deity on his own turf. After causing a three-year drought in which Baal was powerless to bring rain, Yahweh now challenges the Canaanite storm god to light his own sacrifice with “fire” from heaven—that is, a bolt of lightning. This was a duel in which Baal was allowed to use his preferred weapon, and it took place on the spot where his power would have been thought to be greatest: the verdant mountain range which captured the most rainfall.
Giving Baal all of these apparent advantages made his eventual defeat that much more resounding. He was utterly disgraced in the eyes of the people, who began shouting “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).
Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal is one of those stories which is perfectly understandable even without these contextual details. Yet without them the narrative can seem a little disembodied and fanciful. Connect the dots, and you see that the LORD was systematically stripping Baal of any credibility. First He withheld the rain Baal should have been able to send. Then He sent the lightning Baal was thought to control. Only after Baal had been utterly disgraced did the LORD send the rain his people so desperately needed. That way, there could be no doubt that He was the one who sent it.
The original audience of the Book of Kings would have understood all this. Now that we’ve connected the dots, we do too.