The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal illustrates a feature of Hillel Millgram’s treatment of the Elijah cycle in his The Elijah Enigma that has puzzled me. His way of treating the stories is under the influence of literary and canonical critics. They often do not see much importance in historical questions. But Millgram combines his literary analysis with a defense of a mostly literal understanding of the events themselves.
For instance in the Mount Carmel story from the last part of 1 Kings 18, Millgram seems to care a lot about where the water poured on the sacrifice came from. There had been a long drought. Water was in short supply. So how did they have so much water?
He rejects the notion that Elijah sent people to the River Kishon (where the story later says that the Baal prophets died). The whole story takes place in a few hours. So there would have been no time to make several trips to fill jars at the river, which may have become a dry bed by now anyway. He mentions the idea that the contest happened near a spring. But he argues, instead, that all the people brought flasks and Elijah made them empty their flasks into jars so that he could make a show of burning a soaked bull carcass.
This shows that Millgram takes the physical events described in the story very literally. Yet he thinks the author wrote this centuries later. He does not have much in the way of a source theory. So my question is how the scribe; perhaps Baruch writing in exile, could have known in detail what happened in the Carmel mountain range several centuries before his time. Over the years, might some hyperbole have come in with regard to Elijah’s showmanship and the number of people involved?
That does not stop me from appreciating aspects of Millgram’s view. One of the things I have always enjoyed about this story (I used it as a dramatic reading in an oratory class in college) is the sarcasm of Elijah when the Baal prophets are hopping around and even self harming in their futile prayers. Here is Millgam’s paraphrase 1 Kings 18:27:
Maybe your problem is that you are not praying loud enough. After all he is a god and may be busy. He may be talking to somebody; he may have a case of the runs and is closeted in the outhouse; maybe he isn’t at home, he’s gone out; maybe he is taking a nap and you’ve got to wake him up to get some action.
Another aspect of Millgram’s view is his focus on monotheism. He proposes modifying the translation of 1 Kings 18:21:
Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word (NRSV).
Here is a metaphor that pictures a bird hopping back and forth between two branches, unable to settle on one. The same word is used later for the “hopping” of the prophets of Baal upon their altar (v. 26).
But more significantly, the translation should be “the LORD is the God”. He is not just a member of the class: gods. He alone is the God.
Millgram sees how the story shows the contrast between the intolerance of monotheism and the tolerance of paganism. Ahab tried to effect a neutral and tolerant position. He did not directly interfere with Elijah or the pagan prophets. He probably thought that, if he gave Elijah enough rope, he would hang himself.
It seems to me that, writing during the exile, the author could have fervently objected to paganism on Israelite soil, and yet, following Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29), advocated tolerance on other soil.
I have two credibility problems with this story.
First there is the miracle of fire falling to consume the sacrifice. This is the lesser problem for me. Certain rare but natural phenomena seemed to attend the Exodus: east wind blowing the sea back, manna, quails falling exhausted in the desert. These natural phenomena became miracles when they happened at the right time to help Israel.
A “bolt from the blue“ is a natural phenomenon: see here.
The more difficult problem for me is the murder of the prophets of Baal depicted in this seldom-used icon of Saint Elijah.
The story partly justifies this by reporting that Jezebel had slaughtered prophets of YHWH. I have already doubted that event.
It seems to me that the slaughter of the Baal prophets is part of the shaping of this story to show Elijah as a second Moses. Moses had Levites kill idolaters according to a wilderness story (Exodus 32:15-34). Deuteronomy 13:5 legislates the death penalty for false prophets.
But I wonder if the Mount Carmel story wasn’t revised to give Elijah more agency than he had. The prophets of Baal greatly outnumbered Elijah, and Ahab would have been okay with his demise. The people were initially indifferent. “The people did not answer him a word.”
So a more credible story to me would be that the prophets drug Elijah off to lynch him. But some of the people were finally stirred to action and saved him at the cost of the lives of many of the Baal prophets.