“And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.” 1 Kings 18:40
During weekday Masses in Ordinary Time, there is a continuous reading of the Elijah cycle in 1 Kings. For reasons of pastoral sensitivity, the editors of the Lectionary omit 1 Kings 18:40 (cited above). The idea that a man of God, a prophet, would slaughter adherents of another religion is deeply offensive to our post-modern sensibilities.
Context is crucial. Only years after the death of Solomon in 922 B.C., the northern tribes of Israel broke with the southern tribes. The kingdom of the south, with its capital and Temple in Jerusalem, was called Judah. The northern kingdom, with a new capital in Samaria, was called Israel. The kings of Israel did not like the fact that many of their subjects continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and erected places of worship in the northern cities of Bethel and Dan containing a molten image of a large golden calf in order to give their subjects alternative places of worship.
The worship of Ba’al was introduced to the Kingdom of Israel less than 50 years later when the crown-prince of Israel, Ahab, married the princess of Phoenicia and priestess of Ba’al, Jezebel. Ba’al was the chief god of the Canaanites, the grandson of their sky god El and consort of the godess Asherah. According to the Old Testament, worship of Ba’al involved cultic prostitution and child sacrifice. Extrabiblical sources indicate that this was not merely religious propaganda. The Phoenician colony of Carthage was notorious in the ancient world for its practice of human sacrifice, which was only put to an end when the Romans wiped out the city at the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.).
The marriage alliance between Phoenicia and Israel brought prosperity and peace. It also brought the worship of Ba’al into Israelite religion. Rather than acknowledging the worship of Ba’al and the Lord as different religions, there was a great deal of royal pressure to simply merge the two religions into one, which meant that child sacrifice and cultic prostitution would become part of Israelite monotheism. Elijah’s prophetic career was dedicated to resisting this pressure toward syncretism.
The first thing that Elijah did in his campaign against Ba’al was to call down a three-year plus drought on the Kingdom of Israel. If Ba’al were really the grandson of the sky god, one would think that he would have power to ensure that rain would fall in the land that was beginning to worship him. Elijah’s sign aimed at discrediting Ba’al. The second action of Elijah came in his challenge to the priests of Ba’al. Which god, the Lord or Ba’al, had the power to send miraculous fire down on the altar? After Elijah’s prayers brought down the fire and the prayers of the priests of Ba’al did not, Elijah took advantage of the popular sentiment to incite the execution of his adversaries.
Consider for a moment how we would react if someone were attempting to impose a religion on us that involved forcibly re-enslaving African-Americans, abrogating freedom of religion and a military alliance with a state dominated by al-Qaeda. We can only imagine that we would not take the time with the preliminaries that Elijah did and rise up in revolt. In the ancient world, where religion and politics were intertwined, as they still are in much of the world today, something like this was going on in the Kingdom of Israel. The government had just contracted an alliance, sealed by marriage, with a hated enemy. This alliance brought the imposition of a new hybrid religion that involved the forced re-introduction of social practices, like cultic prostitution and child sacrifice, that had been rejected long ago. The priests of Ba’al were the vanguard of this imposed cultural revolution. In the face of a state-enforced attempt to stamp out Israelite religion and culture, Elijah resorted to violence.
I am not arguing that we have to take what Elijah did then as model for us here and now. I am arguing that when placed in their proper context, his actions do not seem as repulsive as they do when considered out of context.
When many of us read Old Testament stories like Elijah slaughtering the priests of Ba’al, there is a great temptation for us to say that we do not accept the angry, Old Testament god, who threatened his followers with hellfire and brimstone, but we instead choose the God of love and compassion revealed by Jesus in the New Testament.
This position, while superficially attractive, misses the truth by half. Firstly, it is factually incorrect. Mentions of the concept of personal immorality with heaven and hell as distinct eternal destinations are very few if not entirely absent in the Old Testament. With reference to hell, it would be closer to the truth to say that the words of Jesus in the New Testament introduce the concept into our faith, although would not be entirely true.
Secondly, like most errors, the rejection of the Old Testament as authentic divine revelation mixes a truth with a falsehood. Christians believe that Old Testament, while being true divine revelation, is not the definitive divine self-revelation. We can understand this distinction better if we take human self-revelation as our baseline.
When we make a new acquaintances and decide that they are worth getting to know better, we start sharing things about ourselves with them. If we value honesty, we will never attempt to deceive them, but we will not start out our friendship by sharing our most deeply-guarded intimacies. In trying to let others get to know us, we are truthful, but we do not always tell the whole truth. Facts about persons require interpretation and contextualization. Sharing events of our past truthfully but without an interpretive context can easily lead to the other drawing false conclusions. Sometimes we have to tolerate misconceptions or even subjective errors about our message.
For this reason, we start by revealing things about ourself to others (which corresponds to the Old Testament) then progress to revealing ourselves to others (corresponding to the New Testament). On a factual level, it could appear that there are some contradictions between the first and the second, but these divergences seem to be only contradictions when we place both categories of knowledge on the same level. When both forms of revelation are appropriately distinguished, the appearance of opposition dissovles.
In the Old Testament God shares things about Himself, but does not reveal Himself. Can we blame Him? Would it have made any sense for Him to reveal Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit to a people who had not yet learned that He is One God? Would it have made any sense for Him to reveal Himself as compassionate, forgiving Love to a people who had not yet learned to limit themselves to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? First things have to come first. It would seem in His process of education of Israel, He judged that inculcating strict monotheism took priority over building a multi-credal civil society in which tolerance is of paramount importance.
Now that I think about it, I am not certain that tolerance and diversity as they are presented today easily find a place even in the teaching of Jesus. We would do well to actually read the New Testament rather than talk about what we think it says.
If we did, we would find that for all but the most holy among us it would boil us alive, but in ways that would surprise us. At least that has been and continues to be my own experience.