In Elijah 18, Elijah takes on all the prophets of Baal in a contest on Mt Carmel. The prophets of Baal are challenged to have their god send fire from the sky to light the altar; Elijah would pray to the LORD God to do the same. Without a doubt, Elijah’s God – the LORD God of Israel – won. While Elijah’s taunting of the prophets and his pouring of water on the altar to God (in the midst of a drought) make this an odd story, there is no doubt about Elijah’s courage.
How do we, humans like and unlike Elijah, imitate that? Are we even to do so, or is that simply moralizing the story? That was the fundamental question we were left with in our study of this passage at Campus Edge the other week.
I think most of us envy Elijah’s fiery passion and would like to be the sort of courageous person who’d be willing to fight like him and so provide a clear testimony to God’s power that Elijah had. However, I’d argue that God-infused courage for Christians today, especially here in North America, looks a lot different from the encounter given in 1 Kings 18.
Elijah lived in a culture where belief in God was highly restricted. We don’t. In fact, we live in a culture where (Protestant) Christianity has historically been privileged. Because of that, a fiery confrontation, like that of Elijah, is more likely to turn people away from God than persuade them to recognize that God is all powerful (as in 1 Kings 18).
So how then does one allow God’s word to fill us with courage to confront false beliefs around us and point people to God? The answer is, unfortunately, not so obvious. In fact, it’s been something Christians have been struggling with for years, and we still haven’t come to any obvious, clear consensus.
At the same time, perhaps the first part of 1 Kings 18 provides one option: it’s a strange story of Obadiah encountering Elijah and a recollection of how Obadiah has been serving God and saving God’s prophets. One can see Obadiah’s efforts as being somewhat mediocre. Robert Alter makes a note of the length of Obadiah’s speech in comparison to that of Elijah. After Elijah asks Obadiah to tell the king that he is there, Obadiah
“reacts with a relatively lengthy speech (1 Kings 18:9-14) full of repetitions in which his words seem to stumble all over each other as he expresses his horror at the risk involved for him in announcing to the king the presence of his mortal enemy Elijah. Elijah’s response to all this terrified verbal commotion is a succinct statement of inexorable purpose: ‘By the Lord of Hosts whom I have served, today I will appear before him (1Kings 18:15). The contrastive form of the dialogue, which has a certain element of grim comedy, dramatizes the profound difference in character between the two speakers: the one, a God-fearing person who has taken certain chances because of his conscience but who is, after all, an ordinary man with understandable human fears and hesitations; the other, a fiercely uncompromising agent of God’s purpose, impelled by the imperative sense of his own prophetic authority.” Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), 92
Goldingay puts it slightly differently, seeing Elijah’s and Obadiah’s examples as two different ways of serving God: Elijah does not compromise, while Obadiah “tries to be a servant of Yahweh who works via the structures the political realities.” John Goldingay, 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone (2011), 82.
I think I’d like to see myself more like Elijah, but perhaps courage and wisdom in today’s world requires to follow the less flashing, but nonetheless successful, pattern of Obadiah. Or perhaps it requires something completely different. It is a question that continues to to be worth thinking about.