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18:1-2 Three and a Half Years
Elijah was introduced in the last chapter, receiving a word from the Lord telling him to run and hide. Now this chapter begins with a word from the Lord saying that rain is on the way and so Elijah should go and show himself to Ahab. The passage here says three years, but in the New Testament (Luke 4:25 and James 5:17), we are told more precisely that the drought would last exactly three and a half years. The time is significant because it is the customary length of time that God allows for Gentiles to trash his house before he drives them out (see – Daniel 7:25, 9:27, 12:7 and Revelation 11:2, 12:6, 12:14, and 13:5). 18:3-15
Obadiah and the Famines
There is no reason to not think that this is Obadiah the prophet, whose short book we also have, although the book of Obadiah is aimed at the nation of Edom. There were two famines in the land – a famine of God’s word (Amos 8:11) and a famine of food. Ahab, unconcerned that the prophets have been “cut off,” is scared that the livestock might be “cut off ” (18:5). This is the opposite of what Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 9:9 and 1 Tim. 5:18 (citing Deut 25:4).
18:16-19 The Troubler of Israel
So Elijah shows up before Ahab and Ahab calls him the “troubler of Israel.” Ahab is attempting to scapegoat Elijah, to make him the problem in Israel. Just as when he tried to kill Elijah at the beginning of the plague, he still credits it to the preacher instead of to God. Elijah corrects him. Ahab is the troubler of Israel. But the question of who is the troubler is, more fundamentally, a question of who is God.
18:20-40 Victory on Mt. Carmel
Mt. Carmel is a peak on the northern boarder of Israel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its height it was a prominent place for pagan sacrifices. Egyptian Pharaohs from centuries before the time of Ahab listed it as favorite location for sacrifices. The Phoenicians had altars on it. And apparently, the Israelites had their own high place to Yahweh on it. Since it was on the border between Israel and Phoenicia and since it appears to have had a number of different worship services on it, it made a perfect place for a showdown between the one true God and Baal.
18:20-24 – The Israelites gather to watch and Elijah rebukes them for their hopping back and forth between two opinions. He challenges them to pick between Baal and Yahweh. But they remain silent (21). So he proposes the terms of the contest and now they are ready to say something (24).
18:25-29 – The priests of Baal offer their sacrifice and nothing happens. Elijah enjoys himself and taunts them. They begin cutting themselves. Self-mutilation was one of the ways that pagan mourners indicated their grief. This was also common in the worship of Baal. They then began prophesying around the altar and did so until evening. And it had no effect.
18:30-40 – Finally the people, having seen the failure of Baal to answer, respond to Elijah. He repairs an altar that had once been used to worship Yahweh. The people bring twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. This was done in –
Ex. 24:4 At Mt. Sinai as Israel made a covenant with God
Josh. 4:1-9 – As Israel crosses Jordan into promised land, twelve stones were set up as a testimony to Israel.
The effect is to call attention to the fact that these tribes belong to God, they are in covenant with him. He re- enacts moments from Israel’s history when they were called out as a nation to serve him. Notice that he calls attention to Jacob having been renamed Israel (18:31). And this is emphasized again (18:36) with the formula “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” Jacob’s name was changed to Israel right after God tells Jacob to put aside all foreign gods (Gen. 35:2-4, 10). Israel, above all else, is the name of a nation that does not serve foreign gods. He is saying to them, “You are all Israel, my twelve tribes. You serve Yahweh and not these false gods.”
18:38 – And fire fell from heaven, confirming that Yahweh is God. Why would Elijah now sacrifice on a high place, in what seems like a violation of Deut 12? Some just say that this was an emergency exception. But consider this. The temple fire was lit by God (Lev. 9:24, 2 Chron. 7:1). The priests were required to keep this fire perpetually burning (Lev. 6:9, 12-13). Nadab and Abihu were judged because they brought in their own strange fire (Lev. 10:1-2). So a likely explanation would be that the problem with offering sacrifices on the high places was that it necessitated using strange fire. Elijah does not use strange fire here, but God lights the sacrifice just as he did in the inauguration of the tabernacle and temple sacrifices.
18:39-40 – When the people see the fire, they finally move. The prophets of Baal are seized and executed.
18:41-46 The Prayer of a Righteous Man
Covenant ceremonies usually conclude with a meal. That’s why we finish our worship service here with the Lord’s Supper. The same thing happens in this passage. Elijah sends Ahab up to the meal. Meanwhile, Elijah give himself to prayer. Now the strange thing is, James later saw this prayer as proof of the power of prayer (James 5:17).