When I was working as a summer camp counselor 20 years ago, one of the things that I loved to do was tell Bible stories to the kids. I loved making the stories come alive.
And 1 King chapter 18 was one of those stories. It’s a story of God’s power, God’s faithfulness, of God answering prayer. Plus there was a little bit of smack talk in there from Elijah, which the young teenage boys appreciated. Keep shouting. Maybe your loser God is sleeping.
Elijah pouring water on the altar and it lighting on fire is like when somebody is mini-golfing, takes their eyes off the ball, looks at you and smiles, and says “Watch this.” Hole-in-one. (On a related note, Ashley and I have not gone mini-golfing since.)
The kids at summer camp loved it! They gobbled it up. God rules!
However, I don’t remember ever reading to them verse 40, the part where all the prophets of Baal were slaughtered.
And now that I’m a bit older and wiser than I was when I was 17, I look at this story with a different lens. This story feels like a fight at recess between two grade 5 students, circling each other, fists raised. “You know I can beat you up, you know.” “Yeah, but my Dad can beat up your Dad.” “Well, my Mom can beat up your Mom!” But instead of them getting sent the principal’s office and their parents getting a phone call, it ends with the slaughter of hundreds of people.
What is going on?
Okay. Let’s go.
here’s an expression: History is written by the victors. History is written by the winners. Have you heard that before?
Great. Here’s the thing that we CAN NEVER FORGET when we’re reading our Bibles. If we had remembered this thing, the history of the world would be quite different, and I’m not even exaggerating.
Most of the Bible was written by losers. Most of the stories we read to our children were written by the losers, not the winners. They were gathered and edited and written down not by the victors, but by people who were conquered and oppressed and marginalized and in jail.
To summarize in a ridiculously simple format, Israel was one kingdom under King David, quickly it split into two, a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom, and after a few centuries the Northern Kingdom was attacked by the Assyrians, and they left almost nobody alive. And the Southern Kingdom had a few more years before they were attacked by the Babylonians. The difference here was that the Southern Kingdom was taken as prisoners into exile into Babylon for 80 years. They were captives, prisoners, strangers, foreigners, migrants, displaced, aliens, victims of human trafficking, forced labourers. They were not winners.
And it’s here, in Babylon, where the children asked their parents, “Why they we captives in a foreign land and not at home in Israel?” It was here, in Babylon, that the Israelites REALLY started to pull together much of their story.
“Tell me about the good old days, grandpa.”
“Well, little Johnny, back in the day we walked uphill to school both ways in blizzards in July!”
Well, not quite like that. But they told their stories to explain who they were as Israelites, how they were different than the Babylonians, and part of their story was how Yahweh, their God, was the true God, not these other Gods around them.
“But Grandpa! How we do know that Yahweh answers prayer and is faithful and hears us and is on our side and is powerful?” “Oh, gather round the fire, children, because I am going to tell you a story about how Yahweh beat Baal, and how one prophet named Elijah, all by himself, bested 450 of his prophets.”
This story was written partly to help the captive Israelites to not despair. This was their Rocky Balboa moment where the coach Mickey is shouting in his ear. You got this. You’re strong. You can beat him. Remember your training! Remember who you are! (That’s also Mufasa from the Lion King.) Remember that it’s always darkest before dawn, remember the God who rescued our people from slavery in Egypt, and remember that time that God came down and showed those Caananites who the real God was!
This is a story of competing loyalties. What are we loyal to? Who are we loyal to? Why? Whom do we trust?
I don’t think we should be reading this story as one of Christianity vs Islam vs. Judaism vs. Atheists vs the Pastafarians. I think that that’s kind of ridiculous. I think we’re beyond the “My God can beat up your God and I’m okay if you get slaughtered” part of the conversation. It probably wasn’t that ridiculous 3000 years ago, when the lives of the Israelites were at stake, and ancient people probably understood that if your God can’t beat up the other Gods, what kind of loser God is that? If your God can’t win, then that God probably isn’t real. But for us, no. I don’t think we’re in a divine shouting match with other religions. Or if we are, we shouldn’t be.
For us, though, the question of competing loyalties, the question of whom do we trust, is a little harder to discern.
I’m in a group chat with a few other pastors, and I bounced this story off of them, and one of them suggested this:
To some degree, something similar might still hold up. You treat money as your god. You treat your own intellect or capacity as your god. You idolize power or status. Fine. How far will those things get you when life is really, really hard – the death of a loved one, the divorce of your kids, the car accident that cripples your spouse? Which god will you pray to in those scenarios?
Kind of direct, isn’t it? Well, yes, that was the point of this story, after all. Choose whom you will be loyal to. And when the rubber hits the road, who will be there for you? Will you trust in God’s way, or not? Choosing God or choosing something else IS what this story is about.
But what about the violence? Can we just ignore it? We can get the competing loyalties thing, but our idols of money and security and power and control don’t usually end with the slaughter of hundreds of people.
So why, in 2019, do we even bother telling these Old Testament stories that end with so much violence?
For me, it’s about the MOVEMENT that we see. It’s about telling a story that doesn’t end with the slaughter of the other side. This chapter ends in slaughter. But there are other chapters. There are other stories.
The very next chapter, after his great victory, we read about Elijah being so afraid for his own life that he wanted to die, but an angel visited him. And then we read about how we was to wait on mountain for the Lord to pass by, and as he was waiting, there was wind, there was an earthquake, there was fire, but God wasn’t found there. God was found in the silence.
There’s movement in this story. From violence to despair to silence and peace.
And, the benefit of us being here in 2019, and the benefit of us being Jesus followers, is that we are able to keep the movement going from Elijah to Jesus. The Bible moves is in that direction. And as Anabaptists, looking to Jesus is a legit move. We don’t worship our Bibles, or the stories in them. We worship God and follow Jesus.
And for Jesus to show up when he did and say the things that he did: Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, blessed are the poor in spirit, those who live by the sword die by the sword, or “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
Victory for us, now, does not look like the slaughter of our enemies but rather it looks like our Lord and Saviour hanging on a cross, forgiving those who nailed him to it.
There’s movement here. The Bible corrects the Bible.
Cynthia Bourgeoult says this: Like most other critically thinking Christians, I see the Bible as a symphony (sometimes a cacophony!) of divinely inspired human voices bearing witness to an astonishing evolutionary development in our human understanding of God.
There’s movement here. And if we forget that the Bible is moving somewhere, we are more likely to forget that we are moving somewhere too. And if we forget the stories of our past, of where we were, of the mistakes we made, then we miss out on seeing that movement and how revolutionary it actually is.
Elijah on Mount Carmel is a story is about people in captivity writing down their origin stories, trying to give hope and inspiration to each other.
It’s a story about competing loyalties, and invitation to ask “In whom do we put our trust?”
And it’s a story about movement, how God is never done with any of us, but rather is moving us as individuals and as a community to something that is more loving than we’ve been in the past.
And that is why we tell this story today.