Hedging Spiritual Bets

Ahab holds the reputation of being the worst king of Israel, ever, primarily because of his choice in women. He married that Jezebel, Jezebel. Jezebel’s marriage to Ahab was a political alliance. Her father is king of the Phoenicians. The alliance, cemented by the marriage provided both nations military protection from powerful enemies as well as valuable trade routes. The princess Jezebel is brought to the northern kingdom of Israel to wed the newly crowned King Ahab. The Phoenicians worshiped a swarm of gods and goddesses but chief among them was Baal the chief fertility and agricultural god of the Canaanites. Jezebel was a good girl. She was raised to honor the deities of her native land.

Our local weather prognosticators have been telling us that this year we might have as little rain as last year but, hopefully, more snow on the mountains. It’s always been the case that those whose lives depend on the weather are more interested in weather predictions but now, urban dwellers from San Diego to Neah Bay share the concern as we are reminded just how essential adequate supplies of water are to our lives. To understand that is the first step in getting a handle on the Old Testament story of Elijah’s confrontation with the Prophets of Baal.

Read Ist Kings 18:18ff

It’s a great story. The hero is greatly outnumbered, the odds are against him, and yet he is, almost overbearingly, cocky. The stakes are high but he is willing to put it all on the line, and of course like all great stories the hero wins, with nothing less than a great stream of fire falling from the heavens. Elijah (although it is actually God) defeats the prophets of Baal and the people repent. It is too easy to mistakenly read this as a story about a miracle, wizardry or a title bout. It is really about the sacramental nearness of God in a complex society, sorting out a life of faith in the midst of the daily realities of a complex, competitive and confusing world. It’s a great story and at the heart of this story is a single question “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

The worship of Baal in Syria-Palestine, the Promised Land, was inextricably bound to the economy of the land which depended on the regularity and adequacy of the rains from heaven. In a good year, when the rains come in due season the land yields its increase, the trees produce their fruit there is food prosperity, and peace. But not all years are good, and in a bad year, when the rains fail, a man’s toil is futile for the earth will not yield its increase. A series of bad years was catastrophic. The Book of Ruth starts with a famine caused by drought in Judah. Thus in any year anxiety about the rainfall would be a continuing concern of the inhabitants which would suffice to give rise to rites to ensure the coming of the rains. Remember four years ago when Gov. Perry of Texas signed a proclamation asking for Texans to prayer for rain. It’s a sore subject now. Long before the Hebrew tribes began to settle there the people believed that rain was Baal’s bailiwick. Drought in that land so dependent on rainfall enhanced the appeal of the Baal cult. When the rains failed, it was inevitable that some of the people would resort to Baal, revert to the good old religion, ways of reviving or reactivating the rain-god. And the rains failed. Phoenician sources document a three year drought preceding Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal.

But this isn’t just a story about who is really the rain god. There was a much larger issue at stake. Ahab holds the reputation of being the worst king of Israel, ever, primarily because of his choice in women. He married that Jezebel, Jezebel. Jezebel’s marriage to Ahab was a political alliance. Her father is king of the Phoenicians. The alliance, cemented by the marriage provided both nations military protection from powerful enemies as well as valuable trade routes. The princess Jezebel is brought to the northern kingdom of Israel to wed the newly crowned King Ahab. The Phoenicians worshiped a swarm of gods and goddesses but chief among them was Baal the chief fertility and agricultural god of the Canaanites. Jezebel was a good girl. She was raised to honor the deities of her native land.

This foreign policy of security by alliance was intolerable to the writers of this piece of Israel’s history, not just because when Jezebel comes to Israel, she brings with her her foreign gods and goddesses. Settling into the Promised Land, establishing a monarchy and separating into a northern and a southern kingdom God’s chosen people continually went astray. They sinned against Yahweh in many ways, but the worst way was the way in which they slipped into putting their trust in other than God.

The foundational issue was Israel’s forming alliances with other nations rather than relying on God alone for it’s protection and prosperity. The Prophets warned Israel and its smaller sibling Judah against becoming the ally of other nations and the reason is interesting, it reveals a failure to trust God. Jeremiah is the most reknown for his Oracle Against the Nations. But the other major Prophets carry the same theme and Hosea’s story of marriage to a prostitute makes the argument clear. And the repeated forming of alliances wasn’t simply that the religious practices and perspectives of Israel get watered down it was that such alliances allowed the population and its leadership to be less dependent upon God for the future.

The children of Israel have trouble with the foundation stone of their faith, the Shema. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” That’s where today’s reading begins with a wicked king and a people caught in the midst of great drought and famine. Desperate to find salvation from their circumstances the people turned from trusting the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God who brought them from Egyptian bondage to the land of promise, to other gods, namely the local Canaanite god Baal.

The conflict of Yahwism and Baalism reached a crisis with Elijah’s challenge to Baal’s prophets to settle the question once and for all whether it was Baal or Yahweh who really supplied the rain. The contest on Mount Carmel was reported as demonstrating that Baal was an impotent non-entity and that the rain came only from Yahweh. The right remedy, according to Israel’s prophets, was to repudiate Baal completely and to seek and return to Israel’s true God. None of the foolish practices of the heathen could bring the rains; only Yahweh could and did according to Jeremiah. If the rains failed and drought and death came upon the land and people, it was YHWH’s way of meting out merited punishment to a faithless and sinful people.

But, of course it couldn’t be quite that simple. It hadn’t been a total conversion. The Israelites hadn’t totally rejected Yahweh they still worshiped the LORD but they were also worshiping Baal. The fact that the people were hedging their bets hadn’t gone unnoticed by God, so God gathered the people of Israel as well as the 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel he asks them this question ; “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

Sadly the spectacular the victory for Yahwehism it didn’t have a lasting effect. Jehu’s massacre of the Baal worshipers reported in II Kings 10 did not eradicate bull worship. In Judah the murder of the queen mother and the priest of Baal, and the smashing of the altars and cult images in the Baal temple did not wipe out the cult. Ahaz fostered Baal worship; Hezekiah attempted to eliminate it; Manasseh his son again gave it royal support; and Josiah in his turn purged the Temple of YHWH of the utensils made for Baal and Asherah.

So when Elijah says the people of Israel “how long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” I think we’d do well to hear that as a question for us today. Famine was wide spread and the people were desperate some would say because Ahab had turned Israel to Baal – trouble was that the commonly held belief of the people was that Baal was the god that controlled the rains.

The first commandments from Sinai demanded fidelity to Yahweh (no other God), but the people were attracted to other gods and goddesses. Through out the ages some folks continue to give entity and power to other gods. We keep running into this ambivalence in scripture. Is there no other God than Yahweh or is Yahweh one of innumerable deities spread unevenly over the whole of creation?

Baal’s influence has persisted through the centuries, as the unrelenting protests of the prophets and the sporadic efforts at reform attest. Just like ancient Israel we too struggle with the first commandment. The pantheon of gods today is just as broad as back in the time of Elijah. We don’t tend to think that because today’s gods don’t have names like Anat, Molech, Lotan, or Baal, for us it’s a little more subtle, our god’s names are wealth, beauty, comfort, security, relationships, material possessions. It’s whether we are willing to trust ourselves and our future to God and live obediently into that relationship. On its face the Old Testament story easily comes off as “Our God is stronger than your god.” But a better lens is: the LORD is the source of all life whereas the false gods have no life to give. Choosing God in our era means rejecting the culture’s values and striving to live in line with the teachings of Jesus. For example, capital punishment is off the table, so is torture, so is turning our backs on the poor and oppressed. Of course we do these things and more all the time as we are imperfect but the choosing is in the striving not in the achieving. It’s about keeping the choice of God alive in daily life. It’s not about challenging the gods that face other people; but the gods that we are tempted to trust. It’s about seeing and choosing the way of Christ for ourselves, and living that in such a way that others might say “How great is your God.”

There’s nothing evil about wealth, or relationships, or taking pride in your appearance, or material possessions, On their own they’re not evil. But as soon as we fail to keep those things in their proper place, as soon as we elevate them to a level where they become the thing we believe we have to have in order to be ok, then they have become our god.

Today’s reading ends with God’s overwhelming victory over Baal. The fire of the LORD fell from the sky totally consuming the drenched alter so that there was nothing left. When the people saw this they fell on their faces and said “The LORD indeed is God, The LORD indeed is God.” In other words, the people repented their following after Baal and turned fully to God. In an almighty act God broke the bondage of the Canaanite gods and the people were free once more from their life diminishing claims. In a challenging story about God’s demand of sole loyalty, God’s willingness to act yet again in such a way as to draw the people back to God is nothing less than an act of grace. It’s a reminder that long before God ever asks us to choose God, God has already chosen us. John 15:16 “You did not choose me but I chose you. In the John’s gospel Jesus says “You did not chose me but I chose you.” God is always the initiator, the gods of this world may pursue us and we might find that pursuit exciting but it’s nothing to the lengths God will go to draw us back into the kingdom. Not even death was not too far to go. And why? Because God loves us.

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One Response to Hedging Spiritual Bets

  1. Lois Kieffaber says:

    Great sermon, Nick, although I would rather have heard it in person. Now to go back and pick up last week’s one. Thank you for the explicit naming of our “gods” today. I wonder if Baal worship back then seemed as relatively harmless to them as our pursuit of other “gods” today seems to us. Especially as the Christmas season approaches.

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