In the nation of Israel, since the division of the kingdom, there have been 7 kings and 4 different dynasties (successions of rulers who are of the same family). The year is 874 BC and the eighth king of Israel comes to the throne. His name is Ahab and his reign begins at about the time King Asa of Judah’s reign is ending.
Each of the previous kings of Israel has led the nation further and further from God, but Ahab is worse than all of them. Ahab marries a Phoenician princess named Jezebel in order to secure a trade alliance. Although this alliance helps Israel economically, it leads to spiritual disaster.
Jezebel is a devoted follower of the Phoenician god, Baal-Malquart (referred to as Baal hereafter). Baal is a storm god who is supposed to have power over the weather. Baal worshippers believed that he was responsible for the rain which enabled their crops to grow.
Jezebel’s intention was to have Baal worship replace worship of Yahweh in Israel. Her husband Ahab helped her by building a worship center for Baal in the capital of Israel, Samaria. He also built wooden poles for Asherah, the consort of Baal. Jezebel imported hundreds of Baal prophets into Israel to replace the prophets of Yahweh, whom she murdered.
At the peak of this crisis enters the greatest prophet of the Old Testament (after Moses), Elijah. In chapter 17, verses 1-6, we meet Elijah for the first time when he suddenly appears before King Ahab and tells him that, as a representative of the true God of Israel, there will be a severe drought in Israel for the next few years. Since Baal is supposed to control the rain in Israel, this is meant as a direct challenge to the growing Baal religion.
God then tells Elijah to hide from Ahab for the next few years, lest he be murdered by the king or his wife. God supernaturally sustains Elijah by first leading him to a secret water source and providing him food through ravens. Once the brook dries up, God tells Elijah to travel into the heart of Baal-worshipping Phoenician territory and stay with a widow and her son. Again, God miraculously provides all three of them food during the drought.
While he is staying with the widow and her son, the boy dies and the widow begs Elijah to help. Elijah prays to God and lies on top of the boy three times, after which the boy comes back to life. The widow rejoices, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” This is the first recorded incident of a person being brought back to life in the Bible.
In the third year of the drought, God commands Elijah to once again confront Ahab. Ahab has been searching for Elijah for three years, but he has been unable to find him. When Ahab sees Elijah, he asks, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah then issues a challenge to Ahab that he cannot refuse.
“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the LORD’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
Mount Carmel is evidently a place that held religious significance for both Yahweh and Baal worshippers. It is right on the border of Israel and Phoenicia, on the Mediterranean coast. What better place to have a showdown between these two gods? Once the prophets of Baal and Asherah are assembled on the top of Mount Carmel, in the sight of a large number of Israelites, Elijah explains the contest that is about to take place.
I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.
Everyone agrees and the prophets of Baal place their bull on an altar and begin praying for Baal to answer with fire. For three hours they shout, but nothing happens. At noon, Elijah begins to taunt them.
“Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
Elijah’s mocking of the Baal prophets illustrates just how certain he is that the God of Israel is the only true God. Only a man of great conviction would stand in front of a hostile crowd of hundreds and make fun of their most sacred religious rituals!
For three more hours, the prophets of Baal shouted louder and even cut themselves in an attempt to get the attention of Baal. After 6 hours, the supposed storm god of Phoenicia, the god who controls the wind, rain, and lightning, does absolutely nothing.
Elijah tells the prophets of Baal to step aside, for it is his turn. He builds up an altar made of 12 stones, for the 12 tribes of Israel. He then digs a trench completely around the altar. He places some wood and a bull (chopped into pieces) on top of the altar and then instructs bystanders to pour 12 large jars of water on the altar so that the excess water fills up the trench around the altar. If the bull catches fire, there will be no doubt that it is from God.
In one the most dramatic moments in all the Bible, Elijah steps forward and offers this prayer:
O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.
Immediately, “the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”
The assembled people of Israel loudly proclaim that Yahweh is the true God and they seize the false prophets of Baal and execute them. Elijah then tells Ahab to hurry home because a huge rainstorm is coming. Ahab does as he is told and shortly afterward, the first major rainstorm in years drenches Israel in a downpour, proving that Yahweh is God and Baal is a complete fiction.
Paul R. House, in 1, 2 Kings: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), aptly summarizes the victory of God over Baal:
God sustains and protects his prophets, while Baal lets his die. Yahweh feeds the orphans and widows and raises the dead, while Baal lets the needy suffer and requires Anat to raise him from death. Yahweh can send fire or rain from heaven, but Baal cannot respond to his most valiant worshipers. A god like Baal is no God at all. A God like Yahweh must be God of all. Rain is not just rain here but evidence of the Lord’s absolute sovereignty over nature and human affairs.