Equinox of the Gods
OT: 1 Kings 18:17-40
NT: Mark 15:33-37
One of the most interesting of the cycle of Elijah tales is that you have just heard: the account of a side-by-side comparison of Yahweh and Baal. The deck seems to be stacked against the Hebrew god and in favor of the Philistine deity Baal Melkart, patron deity of Queen Jezebel. She had married the Israelite King Ahab, no doubt for the sake of an alliance to assure peace between the two countries. Ahab had promoted the cult of the neighbor god alongside that of Yahweh.
The logic was that if the gods of the two nations were in harmony, so would their worshippers be. We see an echo of this period in a bit of propaganda preserved in the story of Noah's Curse in which the patriarch Noah levels doom on the descendants of Canaan, but blesses Japheth and Shem, the ancestors of Philistia and Israel, who will, he says, dwell in one another's tents, i.e., intermarry.
But the fiery prophet Elijah will have none of it. For him, or at least for the redactor of the Deuteronomic History in which this story is embedded, Israel can have but a single god, Yahweh, the desert storm god who brought the nation out of Egypt. Elijah is disgusted and alarmed at the infringement upon Yahweh's unique prerogatives, and he challenges the cocky prophets of Baal to a duel. The idea is, put simply, my god can beat up your god. And, as you have just heard, that is essentially what happens in the story.
Let me pause to note the strong satirical tone of the passage, highly reminiscent of the Second Isaiah's comical tirade against idolaters. Elijah taunts and mocks Baal, asking his frustrated priests where their god has gone off to. Is he hunting? Asleep? In the bathroom? "Hey, what happened: ya fall in?"
It is fairly clear that this story is not meant to win over its readers in the way that the contest itself is meant to win over the gathered crowd. It is clear that the story is written for a readership of staunch Yahwists who have nothing but contempt for the memory of Baal. The author anticipates they will laugh at his jokes, not be antagonized by them.
Similarly, the point of the story is to gloat over the impotence of foreign idols, not to prove that point to those who don't believe it already. This point is crucial, since there can never have been such a contest. It is pure story. Reality does not work this way. Neither does God.
If you want to see the way reality works, just read a little further, where we have an altogether different story. There we read an entirely unconnected episode in which Elijah is despairing to the point of suicide, much like Jesus on the cross in Mark. In this condition he seeks out Mount Sinai, perhaps expecting God to speak in accents of thunder and earthquake as local legend said he had once done. But in fact it is finally in an inner whisper that he hears the oracle of God. And that is the way we, too, will hear it, if we hear it.
That I can identify with, but when I read the tale of Elijah's triumph over the prophets of Baal, I cannot identify with Elijah. I cannot join in the cheer-leading. No, I recognize myself in the empty-handed prophets of Baal. No fire falls. Ours is the god who will, alas, not reveal himself and vindicate our faith by miracles. If we boast that he will, we will only find disastrous disappointment. Even Jesus found it so. Elijah did not appear at the last moment to save the day for him as he did in the 1 Kings story. He did not call fire to descend from heaven to consume the foes of Jesus. And he never will.
It seems to me that the triumphalism of Elijah's victory over Baal has become the ensign, the banner, of modern successful media religion. It expects big things, and it gets them. Of course, it gets them the same way Cecil B. DeMille did--with big-budget special effects. But this has nothing to do with Christianity.
If we can still speak of the centrality of the cross (and there is a sense in which I believe we still can and we must), then surely Christianity is committed to the proposition that God does not deliver from peril. Surely the point is that God is experienced in the darkness and the depth of the real world. Trying to escape into a fantasy world where bad things don't happen to good people, to God's favorites, is just delusion. And it runs aground finally on the cross.
Many ask indignantly how God can allow evil and adversity to befall us. And yet have you ever tried to imagine the kind of world this question presupposes? What sort of reality such a questioner implicitly wants, or thinks he wants? It would be a cartoon world where death is impossible, where, as if you were Elmer Fudd, a stick of dynamite can go off in your hand--and all that happens is that your clothes are a little singed, your hair disheveled. And in the next frame even these will be back to normal.
It would be a world in which death and injury would be impossible. It would be a world with no depth, no rough edges. Toon Town, in other words; a Tweety cartoon. It's not so much that the world of death and disease is evil, as it is that the opposite would be absurd, somehow--silly.
So on one level we must identify with the disappointed Baal prophets--left waiting for their god, waiting for Godot. But, as I have said, that's not really even the lesson the writer probably had in mind. He meant to spoof idolatry, the worship of false deities. And that is a lesson we still need to learn even though
there is little danger of polytheism or statue worship these days. Where lies the danger?
It lies where Paul Tillich warned it lay. Tillich knew that a god need not claim the title of a god. A god is anything you give your life to. Your god, even if you are ostensibly an atheist, is your Ultimate Concern. It is what matters most to you. What you live your life for. A real atheist is the one who is concerned for nothing. But the idolater is the one who is quite concerned over something--something that however amounts to nothing. Something that does not merit such devotion as he gives it. Living for something inadequate.
Ask yourself what it is you are living your life for. When you reach the end of your life, if you have a few lucid moments, do me a favor: remember to ask yourself whether you used your threescore years and ten profitably. Were you concerned about something that merited it? Only you will be able to say. But one hears the stories of Howard Hughs and others like him who neared the end and realized they had lived for something unworthy. And then it is too late. Come to think of it, why not ask yourself now: Am I living for something worthwhile? Or am I an idolater?
An idol, an unworthy cause, a basket too small for all the eggs to fit into, will one day reveal itself as inadequate to carry your whole life, too small to nourish your whole personality. Why did Scrooge wind up the way he did, with no heart? No soul? Because the god Mammon had no nourishment to give to a heart, to a soul.
Yes, it is still true that one ought to shun the worship of idols for the true God. And what is that? Who is that? It is Jehovah, to be sure. It is the Father of Jesus Christ. But it is just as surely Allah, the Buddha Nature, Vishnu, Siva. It is the Truth. It is Beauty. It is the Right, the Good. All of these are facets of it, and it is probably true that we are too small, too limited, to be able to handle more than a facet of the true Ultimate, the true God. So we choose the name, the facet, that is most natural for us.
In fact, when the moment comes that we exalt our favorite facet, the one we can relate best to, and we come to believe it is the whole truth, the only name of God, and that others who take unto themselves different names, different facets, are worshippers of false gods, then we have become the idolaters. For such exclusivism, such intolerance, makes our God into an idol. Shrinks him down into a stunted effigy. Even God can become an idol.
It may seem that the ancient text of 1 Kings must be entirely innocent of these Tillichian sophistications, but in fact it anticipates them. The text knows that the issue of idolatry is not merely the question of the object of belief, this or that supernatural entity. Rather, the writer is fully aware that the deeper issue is whether one's concern with one's god is truly
ultimate or not. It may be the Ultimate that concerns you, and yet you may not be ultimately concerned with it.
In Elijah's mind the problem is not that Israel has turned away from the true God Yahweh. No, if you read the story carefully it becomes evident that they still venerate their traditional deity. But they have given Baal a place alongside him in a more spacious pantheon. They divide their worship, their concern, between Yahweh and Baal. They are ultimately committed to neither one.
One might imagine Baal being quite as jealous as Yahweh at this two-timing. Elijah says something very similar to the words of the Angel-Messiah in Revelation: "I wish that you were hot or cold, but because you are neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth." Elijah says: "How long will you go one limping between two opinions? If Baal if God worship him, but if Yahweh is God, worship him." Jesus says it, too: "You cannot serve two masters." Not that you can but shouldn't; no, it's impossible.
Note the word "limping:" it is a play on the dance the prophets of Baal performed in their ritual, but the point seems to be that one cannot walk straight and steadily if one is trying to walk in two directions at once! Don't try driving your car if the wheels are out of alignment! The tires will be ruined. And so will your life, only it is not so easily re-treaded!
Jesus says the same thing in the gospel of Thomas: "No one can ride two horses." You've got to choose one direction to go, not two at the same time. The Epistle of James says it again. It mocks the pathos of "the double minded man," who is "like the tossing waves of the sea." No wonder, James says, that he receives nothing from his God. No wonder that he gets nowhere! He hasn't decided which way to go, what to pursue. He doesn't yet know what he really wants. Do you?
The limper between two gods, the would-be servant of two masters, the rider of two horses, the double-minded man: all these have no ultimate concern. They are lukewarm, thus spiritually insipid. If they were cold, they would stand for something. If they decided on Baal, at least they would have decided on something.
In these declarations one almost senses the approach of that Tillichian insight that Baal might even be another name for Yahweh! The myths of the two, their roles and identities, are similar enough, practically just different names for the same Being.
Elijah, at least his narrator, then, lampoons the pathetic spectacle of those who play at religion, who play at life, never really venturing themselves on a commitment. A commitment to truth, a commitment to God, pick any synonym that sounds good to you. And I tell you, the abiding word of this text for you is this: if you limp between two gods, two commitments, not being quite able to decide between them, then no wonder the heavens will not yield their fire to consume your sacrifice. In other words, your life will never catch fire. Your religion, your opinions, will never have any real result at all. They will be pathetic mummery, like the hunched posturing and self-flagellation of the comical Baal priests. But I fear the joke will be on you.
Robert M. Price