The biblical Elijah stands as a very tall figure on the landscape of biblical personalities. He first appears in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings. He lives in Israel, the northern kingdom, during the time of King Ahab. His home is on the east side of the Jordan River in a place called Tishbe of Gilead, today a part of Jordan. Ahab’s idolatrous indulgences mean that Elijah had his work cut out for him, so to speak. As God’s prophet it is evident that he had a role of spiritual authority over the king. So by God’s decree, Elijah announced to King Ahab that there would be no rain in the land for a number of years, “…until I give the word.”
It is evident that the prophets often lived and did their work supernaturally. So it was for Elijah. During the famine, God provided for him with water from a brook and with bread that ravens brought to him. And when the brook dried up because of the famine, God provided for him through the hospitality of a widow lady and her son, who miraculously had enough provision for each day’s need — just as God promised through Elijah. And when her son became ill and died, Elijah prayed and raised him from the dead.
Elijah’s most impressive ministry, however, came in the third year of the drought when God told him to tell Ahab that he would soon send rain. Apparently, Ahab had been searching for Elijah everywhere, presumably because he felt he was to blame for the terrible season of drought and famine. Obadiah, another prophet, who was also in charge of Ahab’s palace, met Elijah as he was on his way to see Ahab. (Obadiah’s role as a prophet while in public service in Ahab’s government is also a very interesting side-note since it demonstrates how God’s special agents are often serving in places of honour, incognito. The Bible says Obadiah was a devoted follower of God who, secretly no doubt, kept 100 other young prophets alive in two separate caves by feeding them from the king’s table!)
Obadiah was given the potentially dangerous responsibility by Elijah, of telling Ahab that Elijah was on his way. So, as expected, when Ahab met Elijah he blamed Elijah for the drought. However, with godly authority, Elijah said the drought was due to Ahab and his family’s worship of Baal, the Canaanite god of nature. Elijah then directed Ahab to bring all his Baal and Asherah prophets to Mount Carmel for a true contest with the God of Israel. When all the prophets and people had gathered, Elijah announced the terms of the contest, the outcome of which would prove who really was God.
The contest itself is an amazing story of Elijah’s humiliation and ridicule of Ahab and his prophets of Baal. In the end, in contrast to the ceaseless unanswered incantations of the Baal prophets, Elijah successfully quickly calls down fire from heaven to consume the slaughtered bull that lay upon the altar. Suddenly, it was clear to everyone that Elijah’s God was the true God. The people quickly bowed in acknowledgement of God as the true God. Then Elijah, as a consequence of the contest’s outcome and God’s judgment of idolatry among his people, led an execution of all the prophets of Baal in the Kishon valley.
No doubt, people of our times would quickly cringe at this image of judgment upon people by the hands of Elijah. The answer to this seeming injustice has to do with God’s call to exclusive worship among his people in the light of the clear revelation of his power and majesty earlier on. As a testimony to Elijah’s amazing representation of God in those very dark times in Israel, God vindicated him and through him made a show of Satan’s deplorable weakness and sickening idolatry.
The whole event reminds us of St. Paul’s words in Colossians 2 where he speaks of how the death and resurrection of Christ is the basis of our victory over Satan. “…having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Any claim to the glorious victory we have over Satan and his hordes of idols has everything to do with our faith in Jesus’ victory on that cross and his resurrection. And it’s just a matter of time before the world will see the final consequence of that victory in Christ’s final salvation and judgment.
Elijah stands as a great icon of biblical history in what it means to live as a true follower of Jesus in our days. There is an important sense in which we live by divine calling and authority, by dependence upon God’s daily and miraculous grace, and as instruments of righteousness in a dark and idolatrous world.