Whose Altar? Which Lord?

Whose Altar? Which Lord? January 10, 2019

I was reading a Bible passage from the first book of Kings the other day.
It’s a story I keep coming back to. You must have heard it yourself:

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

Then Elijah said to them, “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 Baal’s prophets 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.”

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.”  So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”  So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.”  With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the 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, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Then 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.

 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”


I’ve been told that the word “Baal” in Hebrew is just another word that translates as “Lord.”

I don’t speak Hebrew so I can’t tell you the difference between “Baal” and “Adonai,” both of which get translated as “Lord.” But in some contexts, “Baal” can apparently refer to Adonai, the God of Abraham. “Baal-Perazim” means “The Lord has broken out,” for example, and King David was referring to the God of Israel when he named that place.

That’s what’s so remarkable to me. As I understand the story, those false prophets of a false god were hopping around the altar, carried away with prophetic fervor, saying “Lord, answer us!”

But they were not prophets of Adonai, of the Lord God. They were prophets of the pet idol of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. In the name of this idol, Jezebel went about murdering the prophets of Adonai. The prophets of Adonai had to hide out in caves at the mercy of righteous men who remembered Adonai, or they wouldn’t have been made it. Ahab and Jezebel did whatever they pleased, with the Lord as an excuse– they went on to have a man stoned for blasphemy so that they could take his vineyard to use as their own vegetable garden. And every time the prophet Elijah came to them to show them what they’d done, they despised him. They had other prophets, ones who told them what they wanted to hear.

Those were the prophets that hopped around the altar. They weren’t prophets of Adonai. They were prophets of an idol in more ways than one– they were prophets of a certain Canaanite figure, and  they were also state prophets for the whims of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. And they remained idolaters, even as they appeared to do all the pious things, hopping around the altar crying “Lord, answer us!” They prayed hard. They were overwhelmed with pietistic fervor. They hurt themselves with swords and spears, fueling their martyr complex. And their idols didn’t answer.

One of the ways I apply this story to my own life, is as a reminder that we must always examine ourselves and ask if what we’re doing is actually in God’s name, when we find ourselves hopping around an altar saying “Lord.” That it’s entirely possible we’re mistaken. Even if we’ve prayed; even if our fervor seems so passionate we feel it must be the Holy Ghost; even if we’ve convinced ourselves that our anger is righteous indignation and that God gave us this sense of justice about our actions, we can be wrong. We must understand that it’s a possibility we’re blaspheming the True God through our actions, as we hop around the altar crying “Lord.” The precedent has been set. It does happen.

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