Section 2: The Altars

Word Of God - Word of Earth
by B. Davie Napier

Section 2: The Altars

1. After a long while, this Word of Yahweh occurred to Elijah: You can go now to face Ahab; I'm ready to let it rain over the

2. land. So Elijah went to confront Ahab.

3. Since the famine was critical in Samaria, Ahab called in Obadiah, his chief steward (omitting 3b-4 with many scholars) and said to him, "Come on; we'll

explore all the sources of water and all the wadis in the land in hopes of finding enough grass to save at least some of our horses and mules and so not

6. lose all our animals." Then dividing the land between them for their search, Ahab went one way, and Obadiah took the other way by himself.

7. Now, while Obadiah was on his way, whom should he encounter but Elijah; and recognizing him, he fell on his face. Then he

8. said, "So it is really you, my Lord Elijah?" He answered, "It is!

9. Go say to your master, 'I've just seen Elijah!" But Obadiah countered, "What have you got against me, that you consign

10. this servant of yours to death at Ahab's hand? By the life of Yahweh your God, the nation kingdom doesn't exist to which my master hasn't already sent to

apprehend you; and when they answered, 'He isn't here,' he demanded a formal declaration from that kingdom or nation that you were not to

11 be found. And you're telling me to go say to my master, 'I've

12 just seen Elijah!' What will happen? As soon as I leave you, the

Spirit of Yahweh will whisk you away I know not where; I

will go in to report to Ahab; and when he can't find you, he will

kill me-and I, your servant, I've been from childhood on a

13. Yahweh worshiper! Has no one told you, my Lord, what I did

when Jezebel slaughtered the prophets of Yahweh; that I hid a hundred of the Yahweh prophets in caves, by fifties, and kept

14. them supplied with food and drink? And now you command me to announce to my master that Elijah is here! He will kill

15. me!" Elijah replied, "I swear by the life of Yahweh of hosts whom I serve (to whom I am committed or in whose presence I live) that I will confront him

this very day."

16. Obadiah then left to intercept Ahab; and when he broke the

17. news to him, Ahab went to meet Elijah. As soon as Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, "Is it (really) you, you troubler of

18, Israel?" Elijah answered, "I'm not the one who's troubled

19a. Israel, but you and your father's entourage. Now will you convene all Israel for me at Mount Carmel (with support

20. omitting all 19b)." So Ahab sent a summons throughout Israel

21. and brought all of the people together on Mount Carmel. Elijah stood and addressed them all: "How long will you go on vacillating between the two

alternatives? If Yahweh is God, follow him; or if Baal, follow him." The people answered him

22. not a word. Again Elijah addressed the people: "I myself am the only prophet of Yahweh left; but the prophets of Baal

23a. number four hundred fifty. Now let us have two bulls (23a)."

25a. Then to the prophets of Baal, Elijah said, "You all choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, because there are a lot of you

23c, 24 (25a); and I will myself prepare the other bull (23c). You pray aloud in the name of your God as I will do in the name of Yahweh; and it shall be that

the God who responds with fire, he is God." To which all the people responded with a shout of approval (24).

26. Accordingly, they (the prophets of Baal) took the bull, prepared the sacrifice, and from morning until noon they prayed in the name of Baal, shouting, "0

Baal, answer us!" But there

27. was no sound, nor any response. Now they performed their limping dance around the altar they had made; until at noon Elijah called out, taunting them,

Cry louder, for he is a god:

maybe he's meditating; or he's gone to the john; or he's off on a 28. trip; or perhaps he's asleep and needs to be waked up." Crying

louder and louder, and in conformity with their tradition, they gashed themselves with swords and spears until they were

29. bleeding profusely. Even with the passing of midday, they continued in prophetic ecstasy; but there was no voice, there

30. was no answer, there was no sign of attention. Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come in closer toward me"; and they all moved in toward him. He rebuilt

the (old) Yahweh altar which

33. was in ruins (omitting 31-32), laid the wood (for the fire), carved the bull and placed it on the wood. Then he said

37. (omitting to v.37), "Answer me, Yahweh, answer me, so that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God, and that as you let them go from you,

it is yours also to bring them back."(1) Then the fire of Yahweh struck (omitting the balance of v.38),

39. and when the people saw it, they fell, prone, and then cried,

40. "Yahweh, he is God; Yahweh, he is God!"(2) Elijah said to the people, "Seize the prophets of Baal; let none of them escape. They seized them; and Elijah led them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there.(3)

41. Now Elijah said to Ahab, "Get moving; eat and drink; because

42. there is the sound of the swish of rain." So Ahab went to eat and drink; but as for Elijah, he climbed up to the top of Carmel and crouched down on the

ground with his face between his

43. knees. He said to his servant, "Go over there, now; look out to sea." He went and looked: "There is nothing at all," he said.

44. Seven times Elijah asked him to go back; and in fact the seventh time, he reported, "Yes-I can see a cloud no bigger than a man's hand rising up out of the

sea." Elijah said, "Go tell Ahab, Harness your chariot and get going, before the rain

45. stops you." Even as this was taking place, the skies grew dark with clouds, the wind came, and then heavy rain. Ahab

46. mounted his chariot and made for Jezreel; and with (as it were) the hand of Yahweh upon him, Elijah pulled himself together(4) and went, as runner to the

chariot, all the way to Jezreel.


The fundamental and perennial circumstance of crisis has always obtained for a majority of the people of earth, although many of them, as now, living tenuously, perilously, miserably, vulnerably, have been innocent of a sense of crisis. If in all ages some have believed themselves to be, or have in fact been, on relatively secure and durable plateaus; if, as appears to be the case, some of our present companions of earth regard the conditions of their life as being thus established and unassailable, such an assessment is now patently naive. The crisis of the relatively secure of the earth is made the more critical by their real, or it may well be feigned, complacency. One wonders whether apparently confident, comfortable, successful church persons are, in the depth of their being, as certain of the durability and righteous justification of their status of relative vast privilege in the world as appearances are contrived to suggest. Is the sociologist-critic of the church describing the real thing or a masquerade of both people and preacher when he writes, "It is as if there had been no Sermon on the Mount.... Sunday will remain the same: the American silent majority sitting righteously in the pews listening to silent sermons."(5) Pretended complacency, if that is what it is, is profoundly sick and makes the condition of crisis the more insidious.

But it is much more than this, isn't it? We, the privileged of earth, have appropriated and exploited the earth and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell therein; we have founded our folly now even upon the seas; and we have established the ineradicable marks of our vandalism over the virginal, variegated, speechless faces of the earth and, by the billion, on the innocent and until now largely submissive faces of the human family. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, explorer, lover and physician of the oceans, has written of the fabulous, creative, life-sustaining qualities of the seas:

Surely this blessed miracle of life is the greatest treasure on earth. Yet do we humans cherish and guard it? On the contrary. Each month we now pour so many millions of tons of poisonous waste into the living sea that in perhaps twenty years, perhaps sooner, the oceans will have received their mortal wound and will start to die.(6)

Who is we? All of us together of the earth are pushing in number close to four billion. But we who have our way in the earth are only about 30 percent of the total, living in North America, Europe, the

Soviet Union, and Japan. We earn generally more than $3,000 a year, which is well over $8 a day. We consume 92 percent of the world's energy (the United States alone takes a third), and most of the other mineral wealth of the earth. The other 70 percent of the world's population get by on an average 65 cents a day and divide among themselves the remaining 8 percent of the world's energy and its leftover minerals.(7)

And this too, of course, heightens and intensifies the very critical tensions of our time with which, for an indefinite future, we shall have to live. From among our own oppressed in North America and Europe, as well as from the Third World continents of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, eloquent voices, many from our own ranks of church and ministry, are telling us, the 30 percent, that these conditions of gross inequity and imbalance may not and will not endure. Innocence of the ghastly conditions of their particular human crisis-grinding poverty, economic slavery, disease; malnutrition that stunts the development of the brain and maims intelligence; thwarted, inhibited stature, physical and psychological shockingly premature death-innocence of this awful truth is at a furious pace giving way to a new consciousness and conscience, to conscientization. The day of the sustained maintenance of the conditions of the comfortable, secure, developed plateau are over.

The poor countries (writes the Peruvian priest, Father Gustavo Gutierrez) are becoming ever more clearly aware that their under development is only the by-product of the development of other countries. . . . Moreover, they are realizing that their own development will come about only with a struggle to break the domination of the rich countries. . .. A broad and deep aspiration for liberation inflames the history of mankind in our day liberation from all that limits or keeps man from self-fulfillment liberation from all impediments to the exercise of his freedom.(8)

Part of the definition of our own condition of crisis -- crisis USA -- lies precisely here. If we say to Father Gutierrez, "Power to your revolution; power to your people," he will respond, as he has, that "there can be authentic development for Latin America only if there is liberation from the domination exercised by the great capitalist countries, and especially by the most powerful, the United States of America."(9)

It is most emphatically not my intention to suggest solutions for these overwhelming problems of earth out of the ancient narratives about Elijah, as remarkable a creation as he and they are. But what meager stuff we have on that ministry puts it consistently in a context of crisis as severe for its ninth century B.C. setting as ours in these waning years of the twentieth A.D.. How does the consciousness of crisis affect a North American ministry that quite apparently up to the present has been conducted in and on the plateau?

Now the famine was critical in Samaria; the crisis was severe.

The text before us, I Kings 18, begins with the promise of rain and ends in fact with the relief of the drought. The three sections of the chapter deal centrally, successively, and brilliantly with three persons, two altars, and one priest.


In the preceding chapter we remarked the narrator's skill in conveying character and personality in the response of person to situation and of person to person. The first section of this chapter is in three brief scenes in which persons, simply and wholly as persons, respond under consciousness of urgency to the critical situation and/or to each other.

Ahab and Obadiah: vv. 2b-6

The famine was critical in Samaria; the crisis was severe. King and First Chancellor, President and Chief of Staff as it were, or, in the ecclesiastical establishment, Minister (or, you should excuse the expression, Senior Minister) and Chairperson of the Board or the congregation themselves and in person take on work deemed under the old "normal" conditions of life on the plateau to be the appropriate task of lesser persons, persons of lower rank or, as we have always preferred to say, persons who do not have to bear the heavy responsibilities that are ours. No less an Old Testament scholar than Hermann Gunkel insisted that this notice has to be a piece of pure legend:

Die Soge steilt sich in ilirer Kindlichkeit vor, Ahab habe in eigener Person Zusammen mit seinem hochsten Minister Futter fur die Rosse gesucht; wofur der geschichtliche Ahab doch wohl geringere Beomte gehabt hatte.(10)

How naive, Gunkel argues, to represent the king and his highest-ranking minister out looking for feed for the horses themselves, since the historical Ahab certainly had lower-ranking staff for such a task! But this is Israel, not Phoenicia; the United States, not South Africa; this is the people of Yahweh, not the people of Baal; this is the Church, not the State. And it is drought in Israel, where horses, and no doubt people, are dying; as it is crisis in our land and on our earth, where people, good people, innocent people, in appalling numbers and proportions are hope-less and, in essence, life-less.

If it was legitimate on the plateau to pull ministerial rank, or to preach and live as if there existed a kind of clean Christian rank for all of us in the church, we know now that this may not be in Israel in drought, in the church-in-the-world under conditions of sustained exigency. The Word of God and the word of earth are met in us, and we are left without rank. We go ourselves in search of green grass and of such means as may alleviate the ravages of an earth whose prevalent systems are advantageous for so few and demeaning and destructive for so many.

And we will have our own critics who will tell us that this is naive and childish; that in real history it will always be given to some to live with death and to us, by the grace and calling of God, to live. But what of Yahweh, what of Christ -- in whose presence we exist? What of the biblical faith in which we stand? What of the Word of God and the word of earth -- which is the Word of the Gross? Whatever the past, ministry now demands that we ourselves take to the dirty, dangerous roads on behalf of life that is in jeopardy.

We will find Elijah there.

Obadiab and Elijah: vv. 7-15

Shift identification now in the second scene. It is Obadiah and Elijah. It is parishioner and minister. And God be praised that in the midst of crisis and even the near presence of death, there is place for playful imagination, for humor, for laughter, for caricature, for irreverance, for wild hyperbole -- and in all of this, and because of it all, an implicit display of human affection. If on that hard, irrecoverable ground of facticity somewhere underlying the story, the historical Elijah heard such a marvelously creative, whimsical outburst from the historical Obadiah, then Elijah must have laughed aloud before he reassured Obadiah with an oath that he would by God face the king that day! Of course if the narrator had originally informed us of Elijah's pleasure and amusement in Obadiah's superbly comic performance, subsequent traditionists would have removed the notice as out of keeping with the proper character of a proper prophet. In any case it would not have survived down to this day. Some years ago at Yale I introduced to a visiting European biblical scholar one of my own Ph.D. students who was writing a dissertation on humor in the Old Testament. When I said this to my distinguished colleague, he froze in horror and said indignantly, "What humor?"

In our own expression of ministry as we are living it, as we will live it, we will laugh and let laugh. And to my ordained colleagues I say, since it is in God's presence that we exist or, more literally, before whose face we are standing, there is no essential difference in our stance before an Obadiah or before the altar; and quite deliberately I seize this moment of the text to urge that in preaching and in the conduct of public worship, laughter be permitted, encouraged, elicited. Every one of us in the business knows the occasional inevitable liturgical goof. God is better praised by our capitalizing on it than by the pious attempt to gloss it over. Not all but most sermons miss the chance to strike a blow for the kingdom that do not at some point hold up for general laughter some quality of the familiar common life of our time and place.

I'm saying of humor, love it, cherish it, cultivate it, even and especially when you yourself are the quality upheld. The Elijahs and Obadiahs both are better able to live with each other, and particularly under straitened circumstances, when laughter is a constant companion of total ministry.

Elijah and Ahab: vv. 16-19

Here it is Elijah and Ahab: prophet and king; minister and establishment -- or structure, or system, or institution; or church and state. Let me reiterate the authenticity, the authority, of the Elijah model. In the traditions of Judaism he is ranked second only to Moses. The impression that he made on his contemporaries and on succeeding generations down to the Christian era and beyond is eloquently attested, of course, in the narratives that we are addressing; in the stories and legends about him in 2 Kings (1 and 2) and 2 Chronicles (21:12ff.;) in the remarkable word of Malachi (4:5f.) that before the "great and terrible" Day of Yahweh, Elijah will come to heal the alienation between parents and children; in the praise heaped on him by Ben Sirach in Ecclesiasticus (48:1-11), culminating in the couplet, "Happy are those who saw you/and were honoured with your love!" (so NEB); in repeated references reflecting unsurpassed esteem in apocalyptic tradition (e.g., Rev. 11:3ff.) and in the Gospels where, among other tributes, Elijah, Moses, and Christ are the three transfigured images on the Mount; of course also in Talmudic and Midrashic sources; and in the fact of Elijah's annual dramatic "reappearance" during Judaism's celebration of the Seder.

In broad-ranging, informed consensus, he is not so much the last of the preclassical prophets as he is the first of that phenomenal succession which continues, then, in the next century in Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. Hermann Gunkel, in a sense the unique father of us all in modern biblical scholarship, despite his insistence on saga's supervision of the Elijah narratives as we receive them, nevertheless affirms on the one hand Elijah's kinship with the greatest of all ministers of ancient Israel, Moses, in their mutual contention with their own people; and, on the other hand, Elijah's legitimate and immediate relationship to the great prophets who follow him and who, essentially, continue the work he began. (11)

The precise phrase that Ahab uses in greeting Elijah does not occur again in subsequent prophetic narratives, but the sense of it conveys the consistent, prevailing annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger, or hostility of king and people -- can we say politicians and middle Israelites? -- toward the prophet (or the prophetic church): "You troubler of Israel, you!"

In such a matter as this, it may be that no one may call the terms for another, no ministering person for any other minister, no citing of attributes for ministry in general from one's own assessment of general ministry. But you will let me speak personally and say that I do not see how ministry that presumes to honor the prophetic model, as at least in part determinative of the role, can be fulfilled without drawing intermittently but persistently the same essential charge. The worship of Baal, in middle Israel or in middle America (we should say middle USA), is rampant. It is what Paul called the exchange of "the splendour of immortal God for an image shaped like mortal man (Rom. 1:23, NEB)." In this world, in this time; in ministry responsive to the Word of God and the word of earth; in a nation and a church in which it is as if there were no Sermon on the Mount; in such a time of durable earth crisis, we will not only be called troublers of Israel, we will be in Ahab's sense troublers of Israel.

And we of the faith will have to have the courage to do what Elijah did, that is, fling the epithet back in the accusers' teeth (12): It is not I who have troubled Israel, but you and your father's house, you and your kind, you and your acquisitive systems. It was not the draft-and-war resisters who were troublers of Israel, but you the guardians of structures of racism, of imperialism, of exploitation. It is not Cesar Chavez and his union that have troubled Israel, but you and your devices of callousness and greed which hold in subhuman servitude the life of farm-working Chicano families from young to old. It is not militant Blacks; it is not aggrieved, bitter native Americans; it is not a newly assertive breed of women; it is not the alienated, intellectual radical left who are troublers of these states of ours, but us, U.S., we, all of us of relative power, who let the dream for all of us become a nightmare for all of them. Prophet/Minister, to people and nation: Not I (or maybe even I?) but you and your father's ways are troublers of the earth.

A great contemporary Elijah, Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, urges on us all the creation of "a world that is more breathable."(13) It is not he, or the vast majority of Brazilians, but a few of them, in part under our demonic tutelage, that create and preserve there and similarly in other parts of the earth the nonbreathable world, the miserable conditions of human suffocation.

Three persons: Ahab, Obadiah, Elijah. Ahab to Obadiab: We'll do it ourselves. Obadiah to Elijah: You're a spook, buddy! Elijah to Ahab: Troubler of Israel -- not I, but you. Word of God, word of earth. Ministry.


In the center of this scene stand two altars, one of Yahweh, one of Baal.(14) The issue of the Carmel convocation is drawn, not by the desertion of one for the other, not by the defection of Yahwists to Baalism, but by the widely held assumption in Yahwist Israel that Yahwism may also embrace Baalism and that one may worship at the Baal altar and at the same time remain Yahwist. In the course of the scene Elijah repairs the Yahweh altar (the primary sense of the Hebrew verb here is that he "healed" the altar) which had been ruined -- we can only guess -- perhaps by an act of religious vandalism, or by neglect, or indeed immediately in the course of the frenetic, violent performance of the Baal prophets. Elijah understands that the two altars may not stand in the same sanctuary and that the Baal altar may not be honored without tacit denial of Yahweh and the prostitution of the faith of Israel. His own prophetic passion comes to a boil over the accommodation of Yahwism to Baalism. How long will you go on believing that you can be Yahwist when you are also Baalist?

Professor von Rad comments on the scene:

It must have come as a great surprise to [the Carmel Convocation] that Elijah viewed the matter as a case of "either-or." At the time no one else saw as he did that there was no possibility of accommodation between the worship of Baal and Israel's ancient Jahwistic traditions. . . . (For Elijah) the co-existence, or rather the coalescence, of the two forms of worship, in which the rest of the people were perfectly at home, was intolerable.(15)

"Coalescence" is a good word for it. Elijah's address to the Carmel assembly begins with a question, enigmatic in the Hebrew, which I have translated, "How long will you go on vacillating between the two alternatives (that is, Yahweh and Baal)?" (16)

The Revised Standard Version reads: How long will you go limping with two different opinions?

The Jerusalem Bible: How long do you mean to hobble first on one leg then on the other?

The New American Bible: How long will you straddle the issue? The New English Bible: How long will you sit on the fence? (17)

Montgomery's Commentary on Kings (ICC): How long are you hobbling. . . at the two forks (of the road), i.e., hopping now on one leg, now on the other, before the dilemma.. .. Elijah is here using some popular phrase.(18)

And Skinner's commentary: The literal sense of the Hebrew is obscure, but the idea of the question is clear from what immediately follows. It satirizes the attempt to combine two religions so incongruous as those of Baal and Yahweh.(19)

However rendered, this is the perennial prophetic question which was and still must be addressed unceasingly to the institutionalized manifestations of the biblical faith whose easy coalescence with Baal worship takes place whenever and wherever that faith becomes provincialized, parochialized, and accommodated to the culture in such a way that the adherents lose altogether the sense of critical distinction between Yahweh and Baal, between the Word of God and the word of persons, between the word of earth and the word of the system, between God who is and god who is made, God who creates and god who is created -- in sum, between God and his cultural image or, more bluntly, between Christ and mammon. Jesus said, "You cannot serve both," knowing full well that this was precisely the prevailing religious situation of his own people. He spoke prophetically.(20)

In her series of essays entitled Liberation Theology, Rosemary Ruether cites in several contexts the fourth-century alliance, mutually beneficent in certain respects, between Constantinian Rome and Palestinian Christianity. She writes that it is

the ambiguity (How long will you vacillate between the two alternatives) and tragedy of Christianity (that) a faith with roots in revolutionary messianic hope . .. was co-opted into the imperialist ideology and social structure of the later Roman empire. . . . Christianity itself was used to sanctify and perpetuate the hierarchical society and world view of classical culture.(21)

For the church it was of course a kind of alliance which has been repeated and reinforced down to this moment. This ambiguity and tragedy in all the institutional expressions of biblical faith may be in some measure always and inevitably present. The process of coalescence, of accommodation, of succumbing to co-optation is to some degree continuous, and it must be therefore continuously exposed, challenged, and checked. This is of the essence of prophetic ministry, a ministry never done, never completed.

This process, this working tendency toward the coalescence of Yahweh and Baal, can be observed in almost any church in this country, in almost any pulpit, in almost any pew. We will not agree, perhaps, as to where or in whom a patently co-opted faith, an ambiguous Christianity, appears most conspicuously, most tragically; but many of us are painfully aware of it in some of the most popular, widely heard, sometimes lionized clergy of our time. I think it is true of them and their hearers, as apparently it was in the Israel of Elijah and Ahab, that they really do not know the extent to which their Word of God has been twisted, tortured, and adulterated by its possibly innocent and unconscious fusion with the word of decent, respectable, prosperous, white, capitalist, North American woman and man. The biblical faith, with roots in revolutionary messianic hope which is itself rooted in the prophetism of ancient Israel/Judah, is even now, and daily, used to sanctify and perpetuate the life, culture, security, and privilege not now of imperialist Rome but of the imperialist United States.

Is it possible that the presence of the flag of the United States of America in the sanctuary of the church signifies the coalescence of Yahweh and Baal, of Christ and culture? In other settings that flag may represent our best and highest national achievements and aspirations. But I can't escape the feeling that in the church, the national flag betrays again the ambiguity and tragedy of contemporary biblical faith, rooted in revolutionary messianic hope but, alas, comfortably accommodated to the self-seeking ways of an inevitably corrupted temporal state.

From time to time I am compelled to address myself to that vastly overworked, unresolved, often heatedly controverted subject of the relationship of the seminary to the church. Some in the church tend to believe that the seminary -- at least "liberal" interdenominational seminaries like ours -- are, with horrendous results, hopelessly detached from the realities of the workaday world and -- such is the mind of our most bitter (and most reactionary) critics -- that our graduates are rendered in fact maladroit if not downright incompetent by the very training designed to fit them for ministry. They become fit, if they do at all, only when prudent, mature lay and other clergy minds already in the church prevail over them, and when the hard realities of the church in this particular capitalist society are beaten into them. Precisely.

I suppose I have already suggested how some of us in the seminary tend to see the church. On the whole, I'm optimistic about the increasing detente between church and seminary and, at the same time, over the mutual creativity and productivity of the inevitably continuing tension in their intimate, indispensable relationship. As a consummately biblically oriented seminarian I remain unalterably persuaded of one requisite quality in the relationship. The seminary must remain in some sense prophet to the church. The one thing we may not do in seminary is send out into the church clergy who do not know the difference between the two altars and who, in the language of the model, bless the altar of Baal in the name of Yahweh, or the enterprises of the system in the name of Jesus Christ. The seminary must purify itself and the church against the unceasing incursions of Baal. But it would be oversimplification if not institutional idolatry to suggest that the seminary play in fact the very role of Elijah to the contemporary church of the two altars. God knows the seminary has its own dual or multiple altars to work through and around. I can tell you that my recent moments of greatest frustration and discouragement have been on that recurrent June day when I have handed an M.Div. diploma to a young, bright graduate who has nevertheless survived four years of college and three years of seminary unemancipated from the prevailing cultural slavery, unawakened to the word of anguished earth, indiscriminate between the Word of God and the word of the nation, undisturbed by, or even unaware of, the urgency of prophetism, and apparently innocent of the radical and loving, ruthless and merciful, devastating and redeeming claim of the gospel upon us. That claim is Elijah to us and the church: "How long will you go on in this egregious fusion of Yahweh and Baal?" How long, how long?

All of us in our varied ministries tend to be awed by the structures and potency of the establishment of Baal, even though we know, somewhere down there in the timid, secret resources of faith, that all the stuff of Baal doesn't make God -- power, technological sophistication, machismo, sex, political, military, and economic domination, energy independence (ha!). Out of Baal, even at high noon (which is right now) with all his desperate, violent prophets screaming around his altar -- out of Baal we really know, don't we, that there will be no sound, no response; no voice, no answer, nor even any sign of attention. The fire that lights the sacrifice and kindles worship, and the Word that creates, judges, and redeems, is not there.

In the Elijah model, part of the work of ministry is the courageous, authentic appropriation and imposition of the taunt of Elijah (v.27) upon ourselves, upon the seminary, and upon the respective constituencies of our ministry. It is the staid, very scholarly, very proper International Critical Commentary that best describes it. "Elijah's satire in a nutshell is the raciest comment ever made on Pagan mythology."(22) Here too is high, if off-color, humor in the Elijah stories, this time from Elijah himself. Sure Baal is God; a meditating, trip-taking, sleeping-waking, and -- in the midst of all that, dropped as it were casually -- toilet-going God! Pagan mythology it is, ensconced in our time and embraced in our church, where we have supposed that we can know the glory of immortal God while worshiping also at the altar of our powerful and overwhelmingly impressive national Baal, an image, in the final analysis, simply made by human minds and hands.

In the first draft of this chapter, before I had really worked this section freshly through again, I concluded the discussion of the text of 1 Kings 18:20-40 with this conventionally pious and liberal comment:

I reject vehemently (I wrote) and out of hand the last verse of this section (v.40): "Elijah said to the people, 'Seize the prophets of Baal; let none of them escape.' They seized them; and Elijah led them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there." (Then I went on to say) I quite understand the ancient, binding custom of what is called the "ban" by the imposition of which, as the Jerusalem Bible apologetically footnotes, "in this war between Yahweh and Baal those who serve Baal suffer the fate of the conquered in the warfare of the times." But (I said in this earlier draft) it is an utterly time-bound notice, and its value in the text is, for us, sharply negative.

I take it back now. I took it back. Again, I cannot presume to make for anyone else the precise contemporary interpretation of the notice of the slaughter of the Baal prophets; but this awful scene, whatever the facts underlying it,(23) is absolutely coherent with and essential to what has gone before. Elijah denies us the course of courteous rapprochement by which, the sermon preached, the Word spoken (as we believe and hope), the "victory" won, we shake hands all around-and continue to live with the two altars. That's what prophets and ministers in the biblical faith-with all too uncommon exception-have been doing for thousands of years.

If now Elijah's drought of the moment ends, our essential situation of crisis appears to be continuous in our future. A radical break is called for, a radical separation of the two altars and a radical renewal of the biblical faith. In and of themselves, these lines of slaughter are horrible. We do not want to hear them or translate them or, in whatever way appropriate to our own time and ethic, act upon them. But there it is, and it is a "true" word, if we "translate" it sensitively. "Elijah said to the people, 'Seize the prophets of Baal; let none of them escape.' They seized them; and Elijah led them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there."

God grant that no one reading this take me to be condoning for our own time any such violence, to say nothing of slaughter. The sense of the model for us is the urgency of the imperative: Break, totally and radically, with Baal!


I think one cannot find in Hebrew prose

A passage more poetically conceived

And executed. In its choice of words

As in its structure, it is unsurpassed.

Elijah said to Ahab, "Stir yourself,

Take fond and drink; because I hear the swish

Of rain." So Ahab went to eat and drink.

But not Elijah; climbing to the top

Of Carmel, crouching on the ground with face

Between his knees, he asked his servant, "Now

Go out and look across the sea." He went.

"But there is nothing there at all," he said;

So, seven times Elijah sent him back.

The seventh time the servant said, "Yes sir!

I see a cloud no bigger than a hand Arising from the sea." Elijah said,

"Go quick, tell Ahab, 'Harness up and move,

Before the rain prevents you!"

All the while

The skies grew dark with clouds, the wind arose -- Then heavy rain. Mounting his chariot,

The king made for Jezreel. By Yahweh's might

The prophet pulled himself together; and,

As runner to the chariot, he went

With Ahab all the way to Jezreel's gate.

The prophet/minister is one -- one priest Who must be minister and priest to all.

What does this say to ordained ministry,

In crisis now sustained and durable?

What now of ministry for those of us

Who serve the "better" churches of the land?

What now of ministry to royalty,

To those who eat and drink and ride about

In mighty chariots; who know no hurt

Though drought and famine stalk the earth

And decimate the human family;

Who do not know, or will not face the fact,

That their secure existence is maintained

At frightful cost to all the dispossessed?

How, minister to royalty, who call

The prophets troublers of the church,

Disturbers of the Christian peace, meddlers

In matters -- so they say -- irrelevant

To life in faith and hope and love; for whom

The double altar is imperative;

Who seek to shape the deity in form

That sanctifies the royal of the earth?

What then of ministry to royalty-Since quite precisely it is these to whom

We minister? Indeed, we have to say,

We've met the royalty and they are us!

The prophet/minister is one -- one priest

Who must be minister and priest to all.

Elijah does not cut himself adrift

From them; he does not cry a plague on them

And on their fathers' house-not yet at least.

One commentator notes Elijah's courtesy

"In bidding monarch to refresh himself."(24)

But while it is the wont of royalty

To eat and drink, the prophet/minister,

Close to the word of earth and sensitive

To Word of God, searches and waits for sign

And way of blessing of the families

Of earth, of sweet relief from poverty,

Injustice, and oppression-from the drought

Of inhumanity and misery.

The prophet/minister is one-one priest

Who must be minister and priest to all.

We minister among the royalty.

We serve the Word of God and word of earth.

Numbered among oppressors, in the main,

Are our constituents, whom we must hold

In love and understanding, though we know

The royal ways.

We do not enter, then,

Their chariots, but run somehow along,

In touch with them, beside them, holding on.

By Yahweh's might, his hand on us, we keep

Our own integrity and work to see

The single Yahweh altar in the church.

The prophet/minister is one -- one priest Who must be minister and priest to all.


Study Guide

1.Circle the sentences that have to do with the crisis of the earth:

A.We have vandalized the resources of the earth.

B. The Communists are taking over nation after nation. C. The Third World peoples are causing trouble.

D. The exploited of the earth are rising up with new claims.

E. The old values are no longer upheld.

2. What did Elijah mean when he said to Ahab, "I'm not the one who's troubled Israel, but you"?

3. Who are the troublers of the earth today?

4. For Elijah, the issue was between two altars: worship of God and worship of BaaI. What are the alternatives, or double altars, that claim our attention? (List on newsprint.)

5. Dr. Napier suggests that for Elijah to slaughter the prophets of Baal is a call to a radical separation and break between the two altars. What could such a radical break mean for our churches?



1. This is not translation but paraphrase. The reading I prefer of the four Hebrew words is: So that this people may know "that you turned their heart backward"; that is, that you, Yahweh, are responsible, not Baal, for the backward heart. The alternative literal reading of the Hebrew is in any case implicit; that is, "that it is you who brings them back" (to their authentic allegiance). The sense is not ambiguous. It is as Rashi put it (Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac, that magnificent rabbinic scholar of the eleventh century), "Thou gavest them place to depart from thee, and in thy hand it is to establish their heart toward thee." See further James A. Montgomery in Montgomery and Gehman, The Book of Kings, in the series The International Critical Commentury (New York: Charles Scribmer's Sons, 1951), p.305.

2. One cannot but wonder whether "Elijah" may not have been an assumed name, a name given to the prophet subsequent to the event underlying the present narrative (whatever its factual proportions). The name means "My God is Yahweh," or even simply "God is Yahweh."

3. "For (this) ugly sequel, if authentic, the history of religion and politics down to our own day is sad apology." So Montgomery, op. cit., p.306. It appears to me to be in any case gratuitous to read, as Gunkel does (in an argument against the historicity of the event), "dass Elias die 450 Propheten Baals mit eigener Hand geschlachtet habe" (Hermann Gunkel, Elias, Jahwe und Baal ,Tubingen: 1906, p.36). The narrative does not here name the number, and it is improbable that all the prophets of Baal in the land were present at the Carmel assembly. The number 450 may not anywhere be reliable, and surely the statement that Elijah executed the Baal prophets does not require or warrant the reading "with his own hand."

4. This is, literally, the familiar biblical phrase "girded up his loins." NEB puts it nicely: "he tucked up his robe."

5. Charles Y. Glock et al., Wayword Shepherds (New York:Harper & Row, 1971), pp.95 and 121f.

6. In a letter from The Cousteau Society, Inc., Box 1716, Danbury, Connecticut 06816, July 1974, p.1.

7. James B. Sterba, The New York Times, December 23, 1973; quoted in an undated letter from CROP, 919 North Emerald Avenue, Modesto, California 95351 (National Office: Box 968, Elkhart, Indiana 46514), on behalf of the Community Hunger Appeal of Church World Service.

8. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orhis Books, 1972), pp. 26f.

9. Ibid., p.88.

10. Gunkel, op. cit., p.41.

11. Ibid., p.48.

12. I have borrowed this phrase in this context from Montgomery, op. cit., p.299: "The clash of words between (Ahab) and the undaunted man of God is classical. The epithet, Troubler of Israel, is flung back in the king's teeth."

13. In an address prepared for delivery at Harvard University, June 13,1974, on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate in recognition of his defense of human rights. The address appeared in Christianity and Crisis, vol.34, no.14, p.176. The quotations that appear here are reprinted from that issue (August 5, 1974) of Christianity and Crisis, © copyright 1974 by Christianity and Crisis, Inc. Used by permission.

14. There is dispute over the antiquity and priority of the two altars on Carmel, and in particular concerning the status of the Yahweh altar. But the symbolism of the two altars is not in question.

15. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), vol.11, p.17. Von Rad further comments here on why the people do not answer Elijah. Their silence "argues lack of understanding of the question rather than any feeling of guilt (v.21). Elijah had to make a Herculean effort before he succeeded in forcing them to make a decision for which no one saw the need."

16. James Cone tells us that in the black community this is known as "shuffling." A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: Lippincott 1970), p.122.

17. RSV, New York, 1952; JB, Garden City, N.Y., 1966; NAB, New York, 1971; NEB, New York, 1971.

18. James A. Montgomery, op. cit., p.301.

19. J. Skinner, Kings, in the series The Century Bible (Edinburgh. Oxford University Press, 1904), p.231.

20. Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13.

21. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Liberation Theology (New York:

Paulist-Newman, 1972), p.176. Copyright © 1972 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York. Used by permission of Paulist Press.

22. Montgomery, op. cit., p.302.

23. As I have already commented (in note 3), it is quite unnecessary to insist that the text means to say that all 450 prophets in Israel (if that number is anywhere reliable) were present at the Carmel convocation and that Elijah himself, in person, was the executioner, dispatching them all with his own hand. So, again, Gunkel, op. cit., p.36: "Wenn es heisst, dass Elias die 450 Propheten Baals mit eigener Hand geschlachtet habe, so finden wir dass ein wenig zu heldenhaft." This reading is certainly de trop.

24. Montgomery, op. cit., p.306.