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1 Kings xviii. 20-40.

"O for a sculptor's hand,

That thou might'st take thy stand,

Thy wild hair floating in the eastern breeze!"


It never occurred to Ahab to refuse the challenge, or to arrest the hated messenger. The hermit and the dervish are sacrosanct; they stand before kings and are not ashamed. Having nothing to desire, they have nothing to fear. So Antony stalked into the streets of Alexandria to denounce its prefect; so Athanasius fearlessly seized the bridle of Constantine in his new city; so a ragged and dwarfish old man—Macedonius the Barley-eater—descended from his mountain cave at Antioch to stop the horses of the avenging commissioners of Thedosius, and bade them go back and rebuke the fury of their Emperor,—and so far from punishing him they alighted, and fell on their knees, and begged his blessing.

The vast assembly was gathered by royal proclamation. There could have been no scene in the land of Israel more strikingly suitable for the purpose than Mount Carmel. It is a ridge of upper oolite, or Jura limestone, which at the eastern extremity rises more384 than sixteen hundred feet above the sea, sinking down to six hundred feet at the western extremity. The "excellency of Carmel" of which the prophet speaks638638   Isa. xxxiii. 9, xxxv. 2; Micah vii. 14. Its beauty and fruitfulness are alluded to in Jer. xlvi. 18, l. 19; Amos i. 2, ix. 3; Nahum i. 4; Cant. vii. 5. consists in the fruitfulness which to this day makes it rich in flowers of all hues, and clothes it with the impenetrable foliage of oak, pine, walnut, olive, laurel, dense brushwood, and evergreen shrubberies thicker than in any other part in Central Palestine. The name means "Garden of God," and travellers, delighted with the rocky dells and blossoming glades, describe Carmel as "still the fragrant lovely mountain that it was of old."639639   Sir George Grove, to whose excellent article in Smith's Dict. of Bible (i. 279) I am indebted, quotes Martineau (i. 317), Porter's Handbook, Van de Velde, etc. See, too, Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, pp. 353-56. It "forms the southern extremity of the Gulf of Khaifa, and separates the great western plain of Philistia from the plain of Esdraelon, and the plain of Phœnicia." "It is difficult," says Sir G. Grove, "to find another site in which every particular is so minutely fulfilled as in this." The whole mountain is now called Mar Elias from the Prophet's name.

The actual spot of the range near which took place this most memorable event in the history of Israel was almost undoubtedly a little below the eastern summit of the ridge. It is "a terrace of natural rock," which commands a fine view of the plains and lakes and the hills of Galilee, and the windings of the Kishon, with Jezreel glimmering in the far distance under the heights of Gilboa. The remains of an old and massive square structure are here visible, called El-Muhrakkah, "the burning," or "the sacrifice," perhaps the site of Elijah's385 altar. Under the ancient olives still remains the round well of perennial water from which, even in the drought, the Prophet could fill the barrels which he poured over his sacrifice. Elijah's grotto is pointed out in the Church of the Convent, and another near the sea. In the region known as "the garden of Elijah" are found the geodes and septaria—stones and fossils which assume the aspect, sometimes of loaves of bread, sometimes of water-melons and olives, and are still known as "Elijah's fruits." The whole mountain murmurs with his name.640640   On these Lapides judaici, see my Life of Christ, i. 129. Illustrations are given in the illustrated edition. He became in local legend the oracular god Carmelus, whose "altar and devotion" drew visitors no less illustrious than Pythagoras and Vespasian to visit the sacred hill.641641   Jambl., Vit. Pythag., iii.; Suet., Vesp., 5; Tac., Hist., ii. 78; Reland, Palest., pp. 327-30.

Here, then, at early dawn the Prophet of Jehovah, in his solitary grandeur, met the four hundred and fifty idolatrous priests and their rabble of attendant fanatics in the presence of the half-curious king and the half-apostate people. He presented the oft-repeated type of God's servant alone against the world.642642   Megiddo lies in the plain below, and this scene of conflict between good and the powers of evil was an anticipated Armageddon. Most rarely is it otherwise. They who speak smooth things and prophesy deceits may always live at ease in amicable compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But the Prophet has ever to set his face as a flint against tyrants, and mobs and false prophets, and intriguing priests, and all who daub tottering walls with untempered mortar, and all who, in days smooth and perilous, softly murmur, "Peace, peace, when there386 is no peace." So it was with Noah in the days of the deluge; so with Amos and Hosea and the later Zechariah; so with Micaiah, the son of Imlah; so with Isaiah, mocked as a babbler by the priests at Jerusalem, and at last sawn asunder; so with Jeremiah, struck in the face by the priest Pashur, and thrust into the miry dungeon, and at last murdered in exile; so with Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, whom they slew between the porch and the altar. Nor has it been less so since the earliest dawn of the New Dispensation. Of John the Baptist the priests and Pharisees said, "He has a devil," and Herod slew him in prison. All, perhaps, of the twelve Apostles were martyred. Paul, like the rest, was intrigued against, thwarted, hated, mobbed, imprisoned, hunted from place to place by the world, the Jews, and the false Christians. Treated as the offscouring of all things, he was at last contemptuously beheaded in utter obscurity. Similar fates befell many of the best and greatest of the Fathers. Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, were slain by wild beasts and by fire. Origen's life was one long martyrdom, mostly at the hands of his fellow-Christians. Did not Athanasius stand against the world? What needs it to summon from the prison or the stake the mighty shades of Savonarola, of Huss, of Jerome of Prague, of the Albigenses and Waldenses, of the myriad victims of the Inquisition, of those who were burnt at Smithfield and Oxford, of Luther, of Whitfield? Did Christ mean nothing when he said, among His first beatitudes, "Blessed are ye when all men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake and the gospel's"? Was it mere accident and metaphor when He said, "Ye are of the world, and therefore the world cannot hate you; but Me387 it hateth"; and, "If they have called the Master of the house Beelzebub, much more them of His household"? Which of His best and purest sons, from the first Good Friday down to this day, has ever passed through life unpersecuted of slanderous tongues? Has the nominal Church ever shown any more mercy to saints than the sneering and furious world? What has sustained Christ's hated ones? What but that confidence towards God which lives among those whose heart condemns them not? What but the fact that "they could turn from the storm without to the approving sunshine within"? "See," it has been said, "he who builds on the general esteem of the world builds, not on the sand, but, which is worse, upon the wind, and writes the title-deeds of his hope upon the face of a river." But when a man knows that "one with God is always in a majority," then his loneliness is changed into the confidence that all the ten thousand times ten thousand of Heaven are with him. "His banishment becomes his preferment, his rags his trophies, his nakedness his ornament; and, so long as his innocence is his repast, he feasts and banquets upon bread and water."

And so,

"Among the faithless, faithful only he;

Among innumerable false, unmoved,

Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,"

Elijah fearlessly stood alone, while all the world confronted him with frowning menace. The coward sympathies of the neutrals who face both ways may have been with him, but the multitude of such Laodiceans wink at wrong, and from love of their own ease do not, and dare not, speak. God only was the protector of Elijah, and in himself alone was all his state, as in his garment of hair he approached the people and confronted388 the idolatrous priests in all the gorgeousness of Baal's vestry. He, like his great predecessor Moses, was the champion of moral purity, of the national faith, of religious freedom and simplicity, of the immediate access of man to God; they were the champions of fanatical and unhallowed religionism, of usurping priestcraft, of unnatural self-abasements, of persecuting despotism, of licentious and cruel rites. Elijah was the deliverer of his people from a hideous and polluted apostasy which, had he not prevailed that day, would have obliterated their name and their memory from the annals of the nations. That he was a genuine historic character—a prophet of Divine commission and marvellous power—cannot for a moment be doubted, however impossible it may now be in every incident to disentangle the literal historic facts from the poetic and legendary emblazonment which those facts not unnaturally received in the ordinary recollection of the prophetic schools. Throughout the great scene which followed, his spirit was that of the Psalmist: "Though an host of men should encamp against me, yet will not my heart be afraid"; that of the "servant of the Lord" in Isaiah: "He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword, and in His quiver hath He hid me."643643   Isa. xlix. 2; Cheyne, p. 16.

His first challenge was to the people. "How long," he asked, "do ye totter between two opinions?644644   LXX., 1 Kings xviii. 21, ἕως πότε ὑμεῖς χωλανεῖτε ἐπ' ἀμφοτέραις ταῖς ἰγνύαις. Vulg., usquequo claudicatis in duas partes? Cheyne renders it: "How long will ye go lame upon tottering knees?" In Psalm cxix. 113, סֵעֲפִים are "the double-minded." In Ezek. xxxi. 6, סְעַפּוֹת, "diverging branches." In Isa. ii. 21, סְעִפֵי, "clefts of rocks" (Bähr). If Jehovah be God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him."


Awestruck and ashamed the multitude kept unbroken silence. Doubtless it was, in part, the silence of guilt. They knew that they had followed Jezebel into the cruelties of Baal-worship, and the forbidden lusts which polluted the temples of the Asherah. Puritanism simplicity, spirituality of worship involves a strain too great and too lofty for the multitude. Like all Orientals, like the negroes of America, like most weak minds, they loved to rely on a pompous ritual and a sensuous worship. It is so easy to let these stand for the deeper requirements which lie in the truth that "God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth."

Receiving no answer to his stern question, Elijah laid down the conditions of the contest. "The prophets of Baal," he said, "are four hundred and fifty: I stand alone as a prophet of Jehovah. Let two bullocks be provided for us; they shall slay and dress one, and lay it on wood, but—for there shall be no priestly trickeries to-day—they shall put no fire under. I, though I be no priest, will slay and dress the other, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under. Then let all of you, Baal-priests and people if you will, cry to your idols; I will call on the name of Jehovah. The god that answereth by fire let him be God."

No challenge could be fairer, for Baal was the Sun-god; and what god could be more likely to answer by fire from that blazing sky? The deep murmur of the people expressed their assent. The Baal priests were caught as in a snare. Their hearts must have sunk within them; his did not. Perhaps some of them believed sufficiently in their idol to hope that, were he demon or deity, he might save himself and his votaries from humiliation and defeat; but most of them390 must have been seized with terrible misgiving, as they saw the assembled people prepared to wait with Oriental patience, seated on their abbas on the sides of that natural amphitheatre, till the descending flame should prove that Baal had heard the weird invocation of his worshippers. But, since they could not escape the proposed ordeal, they chose, and slew, and dressed their victim. From morning till noon—many of them with wildly waving arms, others with their foreheads in the dust—they upraised the wild chant of their monotonous invocation, "Baal, hear us! Baal, hear us!" In vain the cry rose and fell, now uttered in soft appealing murmurs, now rising into passionate entreaties. All was silent. There lay the dead bullock putrescing under the burning orb which was at once their deity and the visible sign of his presence. No consuming lightning fell, even when the sun flamed in the zenith of that cloudless sky. There was no voice nor any that answered.

Then they tried still more potent incantations. They began to circle round the altar they had made in one of their solemn dances to the shrill strains of pipe and flute. The rhythmic movements ended in giddy whirls and orgiastic leapings which were a common feature of sensuous heathen worship; dances in which, like modern dervishes, they bounded and yelled and spun round and round till they fell foaming and senseless to the ground.645645   Herodian (Hist., v. 3) describes the dance of Heliogabalus round the altar of the Emesene Sun-god, and Apuleius describes at length the fanatic leapings and gashings of the execrable Galli—the eunuch-mendicant priests of the Syrian goddess. From these sources and from allusions in Seneca, Lucian, Statius, Arnobius, etc., Movers (Phöniz., i. 682) derives his description (quoted by Keil, ad loc., E.T., p. 281): "A discordant howling opens the scene. Now they fly wildly through one another, with the head sunk down to the ground, but turning round in circles, so that the loose flowing hair drags through the mire. Thereupon they first bite themselves on the arm, and at last cut themselves with two-edged swords, which they are wont to carry. Then begins a new scene. One of them who surpasses all the rest in frenzy, begins to prophesy with sighs and groans, openly accuses himself of past sins, which he now wishes to punish by the mortifying of the flesh, takes the knotted whip which the Galli are wont to bear, lashes his back, cuts himself with swords, till the blood trickles down from his mangled body." The people looked on expectant, but it was all in vain.


Hitherto the Prophet had remained silent, but now when noon came, and still no fire descended, he mocked them. Now, surely, if ever, was their time! They had been crying for six long hours in their vain repetitions and incantations. Surely they had not shouted loud enough! Baal was a god; some strange accident must have prevented him from hearing the prayer of his miserable priests. Perhaps he was in deep meditation, so that he did not notice those frantic appeals; perhaps he was too busy talking to some one else,646646   Verse 27. Others render it "meditating" (De Wette Thenius) or "peevish" (Bähr). Comp. Hom., Il., i. 423; Od., i. 22, etc. or was on a journey somewhere; or was asleep and must be awaked; or, he added with yet more mordant sarcasm, and in a gibe which would have sounded coarse to modern ears, perhaps he has gone aside for a private purpose. He must be called, he must be aroused; he must be made to hear.647647   This instance of "grim sarcastic humour" is almost unique in Scripture. It was made more mordant by the paronomasia כִּי־שִׂיחַ וְכִי־שִׂיג לֹּו (2 Sam. i. 22).

Such taunts, addressed to this multitude of priests in the hearing of the people, whom they desired to dupe or to convince, drove them to fiercer frenzy. Already392 the westering sun began to warn them that their hour was past, and failure imminent. They would not succumb without trying the darker sorceries of blood and self-mutilation, which were only resorted to at the most dread extremities. With renewed and redoubled yells they offered on their altar the blood of human sacrifice, stabbing and gashing themselves with swords and lances, till they presented a horrid spectacle. Their vestments and their naked bodies were besmeared with gore648648   Plutarch (De Superstit., p. 170) says: "The priests of Bellona offered their own blood, which was deemed powerful to move their gods." Comp. Herod., ii. 61; Lucian, De Dea Syra, 50; Apul., Metam., viii. 28. as they whirled round and round with shriller and more frenzied screams.649649   עַד לַעֲלוֹת הַמִּנחָה, "till towards (Numb. xxviii. 4) the offering of the Minchah." LXX., θυσία; Vulg., sacrificium and holocaustum. In verse 39 it is omitted in the LXX. "There is a great concurrence of evidence that the evening sacrifice of the first Temple was not a holocaust, but a cereal oblation" (Robertson Smith, p. 143, quoting 1 Kings xviii. 34; 2 Kings xvi. 15; Ezek. ix. 4, Heb). They raved in vain. The shadows began to lengthen. The hour for the evening Minchah, the evening meal-offering, and oblation of flour and meal, salt and frankincense, drew near.650650   Heb., וַיִתְנַבְּאוּ; LXX., διέτρεχον; Vulg., transiliebant. Literally, they acted like frantic prophets (1 Sam. xviii. 10; Jer. xxix. 26). It was already "between the two evenings." They had continued their weird invocations all through the burning day, but there was not any that regarded. There lay the dead bullock on the still fireless altar; and now their Tyrian Sun-god, like the fabled "Hercules," was but burning himself to death on the flaming pyre of sunset amid the unavailing agony of his worshippers.

Then Elijah bade the sullen and baffled fanatics to stand aside, and summoned the people to throng round393 him. There was nothing tumultuous or orgiastic in his proceedings. In striking contrast with the four hundred and fifty frantic sun-worshippers, he proceeded in the calmest and most deliberate way. First, in the name of Jehovah, he repaired the old bamah—the mountain-altar, which probably Jezebel had broken down. This he did with twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Then he dug a broad trench.651651   LXX., θαλάσσαν, or "sea"—the name given to Solomon's molten laver; but the description, "as great as would contain two seahs of seed," is curious, for a seah was only the third of an ephah. Then, when he had prepared his bullock, in order to show the people the impossibility of any deception, such as are common among priests, he bade them drench it three times over with four barrels of water,652652   Blunt (Undesigned Coincidences, II. xxxii.) thinks that as the drought had been so intense the water must have been sea-water. But Josephus says it was drawn ἀπὸ τῆς κρήνης (Antt., VIII. xiii. 5); and the well still exists. from the still-existent spring, and, not content with that, he filled the trench also with water.653653   Priests, both pagan and mediæval, have been adepts at deception. At the Reformation the mechanism of winking Madonnas, etc., was exposed to the people. At Pompeii may still be seen the secret staircase behind the altar, and the pipes let into the head of Isis from behind, through which the priests spoke her pretended oracles. St. Chrysostom (Orat. in. Petr. et Eliam, which is of uncertain genuineness) tells us that he had himself seen (θεάτης αὐτὸς γενομένος) altars with concealed hollows in the middle, into which the unsuspected operator crept, and blew up a fire which the people were assured was self-kindled (see Keil, p. 282). One legend says that on this occasion a man was suffocated, who had been concealed by the Baal priests inside their altar. Lastly at the time of the evening oblation he briefly offered up one prayer that Jehovah would make it known this day to His backsliding people that He, not Baal, was the Elohim of Israel. He used no "much speaking"; he did not394 adopt the dervish yells and dances and gashings which were abhorrent to God, though they appealed so powerfully to the sensuous imaginations of the multitude. He only raised his eyes to heaven,654654   1 Kings xviii. 36. and cried aloud in the hush of expectant stillness:—

"Jehovah, God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel,
Let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel,
And that I am Thy servant,
And that I have done all these things at Thy word.
Hear me, Jehovah, hear me.
That this people may know that Thou, Jehovah, art God,
And that Thou hast turned their heart back again."

The prayer, with its triple invocation of Jehovah's name, and its seven rhythmic lines, was no sooner ended than down streamed the lightning, and consumed the bullock and the wood, and shattered the stones, and burnt up the dust, and licked up the water in the trenches;655655   Comp. Lev. ix. 24. Analogous stories existed among pagans (Hom., Il., ii. 305; Od., ii. 143; Verg., Ecl., viii. 105). Pliny says that annals recorded the eliciting of lightning by prayers and incantations (H. N., ii. 54; Winer, Realwörterb. 371). and, with one terror-stricken impulse, the people all prostrated themselves on their faces with the cry, "Yahweh—hoo—ha—Elohim, Yahweh—hoo—ha—Elohim!" "The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God!"—a cry which was almost identical with the name of the victorious prophet Elijahu—"Yah, He is my God."656656   It is after Elijah's time, and probably from his influence, that from this time proper names compounded with Jehovah become almost the rule—as in Ahaziah, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Joash, Pekahiah, etc.

The magnificent narrative in which the interest has395 been wound up to so high a pitch, and expressed in so lofty a strain of imaginative and dramatic force, ends in a deed of blood. According to Josephus, the people, by a spontaneous movement, "seized and slew the prophets of Baal, Elijah exhorting them to do so." According to the earlier narrative, Elijah said to the people: "Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there with the sword."657657   1 Kings xix. 1, בְּחָרֶב; LXX., ἐν ῥομφάιᾳ. It is not necessarily meant that he slew them with his own hand, though indeed he may have done so, as Phinehas sacrificed Jephthah's daughter, and Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord. His moral responsibility was precisely the same in either case. We are not told that he had any commission from Jehovah to do this, or was bidden thereto by any voice of the Lord. Yet in those wild days—days of ungovernable passions and imperfect laws, days of ignorance which God winked at—it is not only perfectly probable that Elijah would have acted thus, but most unlikely that his conscience reproached him for doing so, or that it otherwise than approved the sanguinary vengeance. It was the frightful lex talionis, which was spoken "to them of old time," and which inflicted on the defeated what they would certainly have inflicted on Elijah had he not been the conqueror. The prophets of Baal indirectly, if not directly, had been the cause of Jezebel's persecution of the prophets of the Lord. The thought of pity would not occur to Elijah any more than it did to the writer, or writers, of Deuteronomy, perhaps, long afterwards, who commanded the stoning of idolaters, whether men or women396 (Deut. xiii. 6-9, xvii. 2-4). The massacre of the priests accorded with the whole spirit of those half-anarchic times. It accords with that Elijah-spirit of orthodox fanaticism, which, as Christ Himself had to teach to the sons of thunder, is not His spirit, but utterly alien from it. If, perhaps two centuries later, the savage deed could be recorded, and recorded with approval, by this narrator from the School of the Prophets in these superb eulogies of his hero; if so many centuries later the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the first martyr-apostle could deem it an exemplary deed; if, centuries later, it could be appealed to as a precedent by Inquisitors with hearts made hard as the nether millstone by bigoted and hateful superstition; if even Puritans could be animated by the same false hallowing of ferocity; how can we judge Elijah if, in dark, unilluminated early days, he had not learnt to rise to a purer standpoint? To this day the names about Carmel shudder, as it were, with reminiscence of this religious massacre. There is El-Muhrakkah, "the place of burning"; there is Tel-el-Kusis, "the hill of the priests"; and that ancient river, the river Kishon, which had once been choked with the corpses of the host of Sisera, and has since then been incarnadined by the slain of many a battle, is—perhaps in memory of this bloodshed most of all—still known as the Nahr-el-Mokatta, or "the stream of slaughter." What wonder that the Eastern Christians in their pictures of Elijah still surround him with the decapitated heads of these his enemies? To this day the Moslim regard him as one who terrifies and slays.658658   Renan, Vie de Jésus, 100.

But though the deed of vengeance stands recorded,397 and recorded with no censure, in the sacred history, we must—without condemning Elijah, and without measuring his days by the meting-rod of Christian mercy—still unhesitatingly hold fast the sound principle of early and as yet uncontaminated Christianity, and say, as said the early Fathers, Βία ἐχθρὸν Θεῷ. Violence is a thing hateful to the God of love.

Even Christians, and that down to our own day, have abused the example of Elijah, and asked, "Did not Elijah slaughter the priests of Baal?" as a proof that it is always the duty of States to suppress false religion by violence. Stahl asked that question when he preached before the Prussian court at the Evangelical Conference at Berlin in 1855, adding the dreadful misrepresentation that "Christianity is the religion of intolerance, and its kernel is exclusiveness." Did these hard spirits never consider Christ's own warning? Did they wholly forget the prophecy that "He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall His voice be heard in the streets. A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench, till He send forth judgment unto victory, and in His name shall the Gentiles hope"?659659   Matt. xii. 19, 20; Isa. xlii. 2, 3; Ezek. xxxiv. 16. Calvin reproved Réné, Duchess of Ferrara, for not approving of the spirit of the imprecatory psalms. He said that this was "to set ourselves up as superior to Christ in sweetness and humility"; and that "David even in his hatreds is an example and type of Christ." When Cartwright argued for the execution of the heretics he said: "If this be thought savage and intolerant, I am content to be so with the Holy Ghost." Far wiser is the humble minister in Old Mortality, when he withstood Balfour of Burleigh,398 in the decision to put to the sword all the inhabitants of Tillietudlem Castle. "By what law," asks Henry Morton, "would you justify the atrocity you would commit?" "If thou art ignorant of it," said Balfour, "thy companion is well aware of the law which gave the men of Jericho to the sword of Joshua, the son of Nun." "Yes," answered the divine, "but we live under a better dispensation, which instructeth us to return good for evil, and to pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us."

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