This week we meed Elijah, the last remaining prophet of God in Israel (the northern kingdom). After a three year drought, Elijah comes to King Ahab and tells him to assemble all of the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to have something of a throwdown between the gods. Elijah challenges the people to choose who they will follow: Baal, or The Lord. But people remain silent. So Elijah sets up a demonstration. As I read the preparation for that demonstration, all I could think about was that Elijah was acting like a consummate performer. A world-class illusionist couldn’t have set it up better. Baal’s prophets get to choose which bull to use. They get to prepare it themselves. And when nothing happens, Elijah toys with them, egging them on with taunting to more and more extreme methods to try and get a response from Baal. Then, when it’s his turn, he has them douse the offering with water three times. I can just see him saying, “See? Nothing up my sleeves.”
The people react exactly as you’d expect.
When the flames come down and consume the soaking wet offering, the people finally proclaim that the Lord is God.
This chapter seems to be loaded with what feel to me to be more like magic tricks than acts which show the glory of God. Elijah (and Elisha) divided the Jordan River by striking it with a cloak; Elijah causes a flask of oil to stay full; Elisha causes an axe head to float. What’s the point of these “parlour tricks?”
The key, I think, is in the people’s reaction to Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal. They took a “wait and see” attitude until they got something flashy to catch their eye. Then they were willing to support Elijah as he killed all of the prophets of Baal. All those other “tricks” were more of the same … not just for people of Israel at the time, but for those who come after, us included. We want to say we have faith in God, but wouldn’t we really like to see a few miracles, just to give us something to hold on to? I know I would.
Even Elijah was guilty of wanting God to be in the big and theatrical. When he was on Mount Horeb, feeling sorry for himself because Jezebel wanted to kill him, God said that he would pass by, so that Elijah could experience the glory of God. But God wasn’t in the great wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. It wasn’t until the still, small voice, that Elijah experienced the presence of God.