Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum.
(1 Kings 19:10)
Carmelites take their primary inspiration from the fiery prophet of Mount Carmel, Elijah the Tishbite. The Books of Kings relate the exploits of this committed man of God, a hero to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. His name means “My God is Yahweh,” and Elijah is uncompromising on that fact.
The story is set in the 9th century B.C., during the violent reign of King Ahab, who probably ruled from about 869 to 850 B.C. He represents a new low in corruption and infidelity to Israel’s faithful God. Ahab complicated his own shortcomings by marrying Jezebel of Tyre, a queen whose name has become synonymous with evil and debauchery. Jezebel worked actively to stamp out the worship of the true God, and kill those who tried to remain faithful.
She promoted the worship of Baal, the Tyro-Canaanite god of storms and fertility. Baal (“the Lord”) was identified with the forces of nature which sustain crops and domestic animals. Worship was simple and uncomplicated by any moral standards. Symbolic offerings of grain and animals were seen as “bribes” for favorable weather conditions. Male and female prostitution through temples of Baal invited worshipers to “greater union” with the god. Jewish prophets preached vigorously against contact with idolaters, because of the dangers of following these rites in a moment of weakness.
So Elijah’s confrontation of Ahab and Jezebel is presented as a showdown between Yahweh and Baal. It is not a question of which god is stronger, but of which is truly God. Elijah asserts that “No rain or dew will fall on Israel until the word comes from my mouth.” Since rain and weather were the realm of Baal, Elijah effectively slaps Ahab’s god in the face.
Israel begins to dry up. Elijah went to his town of Tishbe beyond the Jordan. Beside the Wadi Cherith, ravens brought him food, just as God had fed the Israelites in the desert. When even this water source went dry, God directed him to the town of Zarephath, near Sidon. Deep in the heartland of Baal’s cult, Elijah stays with a poor widow, who is also feeling the scarcity of the drought. The widow is not Jewish, but she recognizes the holiness of her guest. Her supply of food never fails, and God even raises her son to life. This simple woman accepts Elijah as a man of God.
After 3 years of drought, God sends Elijah back for a final test of strength. Jezebel likely ran the religious and domestic affairs of the kingdom, so Elijah takes aim at her hold on power. He challenges her prophets of Baal to a contest. On the slopes of Mount Carmel (a parallel to Sinai) he arranges for his competition. Two bulls are slaughtered and placed on altars to be burnt. Only the fire is missing. He taunts the prophets that their god of lightning and fire should make short work of the sacrifice.
As they pray and shriek loudly, Elijah ridicules the prophets and their god, very effectively making fools of them. He suggests that Baal is too stupid or incompetent to hear them, even day-dreaming, napping, or “on a journey”…which means answering the call of nature. After hours of wasted hysteria, the prophets have totally discredited themselves. Elijah calls the people to God. He drenches the bull and altar with water, an extravagant waste after a three-year drought.
Elijah addresses a simple prayer to God, and receives fire without delay. Just as the fire and the blood are the people’s proof of God’s power, so the rain will be the proof for Ahab. Elijah announces that rain will finally come. The wisp of cloud rising from the sea represents the hand of God, present in human affairs. The cloud grows, the rain begins, and Elijah runs ahead of Ahab’s chariot back to Jezreel. There is no doubt who has won the contest between gods.
Ironically, Elijah has a crisis of courage after his greatest triumph; he feels afraid, and runs for his life. This retreat from Israel presents a vibrant image of our prophet as one who truly “stood before God.” By describing himself in this manner, Elijah is describing an attitude: he lives in the conscious recognition that God and his power are everywhere.
Elijah’s pilgrimage to Horeb takes him into the southern desert, away from Israel. God’s question “Elijah, why are you here?” is a mild rebuke to one who has left his assigned land. Elijah responds with self-pity that he is the only faithful one left. So God points out that there are still thousands of good people and that Elijah’s work is already bearing fruit. God confronts this lack of courage with a demonstration of his presence. We learn that God is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire. Yet Elijah finds God’s presence in the gentle silence which follows the more spectacular physical display. God is spirit, not a natural force, and talks to prophets as directly as he wishes.
Elijah returns home to food and companionship, and prepares the final stroke against Ahab and Jezebel, who compound their evil activity by the murder of Naboth. Poor Naboth is treacherously killed because he is faithful. Elijah predicts the end of king and queen in grisly detail, and passes out of their lives forever. God is done with them, and so is he!
He selects Elisha as his successor, and then is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. The “double portion” of his spirit which Elisha requests is a special blessing, since the eldest son traditionally got twice the inheritance of other children. Elijah’s cloak symbolizes his continuing presence, and the chariot stands for the protection which God gives to faithful people.
Elijah shows how God is exciting enough to take our breath away. He lives in God’s presence, confronts injustice and evil, and stands for a kind of allegiance to God which no one can misunderstand. If Ahab and Jezebel seem to be hapless victims of their own mistakes, their first failure was ignoring the God who is really there.