Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?
I am currently teaching through the Books of Kings and we have been looking at the ministry of Elijah. This portion of Scripture (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2) contains a number of stories that disturb believers and unbelievers alike. One of the major themes of these chapters is idolatry. A number of the stories focus on Elijah’s battle to re-establish the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s God, over the worship of Baal. A number of violent incidents are recorded in these chapters. After Elijah calls down fire from heaven, demonstrating that “the Lord, He is God,” he commands the people to seize the prophets of Baal and execute them (1 Kgs. 18:40). Another story within these chapters relates how an unnamed prophet rebukes Ahab for showing mercy to Ben-Hadad King of Syria, insisting that he should have killed him (1 Kgs. 20:38-43). Returning to Elijah, we read of him once again calling down fire from heaven, this time to incinerate two companies of 50 soldiers each (2 Kgs. 1:9-15). Perhaps the “icing on the cake” in terms of violence, concerns Elisha’s (the successor to Elijah) curse of the young boys who are mauled by two she-bears (2 Kgs. 2:23-24). Not only do these stories raise the ire of many atheists, but one can also find certain Bible commentators who seem embarrassed by these stories, even offering apologies! What then are we to make of these stories? Are they examples of a brutal, unjust God? Do they give us just one more reason to reject the Bible as advocating “religious fanaticism?” I will look at the objections raised by some as I examine each of these stories (including future posts), while offering responses for you the reader to consider.
The Execution of the Prophets of Baal
As noted above, following the contest on Mount Carmel, when Yahweh rains down fire from heaven, Elijah orders the execution of the 450 prophets of Baal. One blogger commenting, not only on the story, but on an artistic rendering of it reproduced here (on the left), writes, “Elijah, being the most holy and most loyal, simply did what any conservative religious person of faith would do when threatened with extinction in the face of other, more popular religious movements: kill all trespassers. Israel was being punished by God because Israelites were worshipping Baal. Solution? Kill the priests of Baal. Burn their temples, destroy (or steal and put in Christian churches) their artifacts. This pattern is repeated throughout the history of the Jews and the Christians, who often did the same thing to Pagan counterparts” (Derek Murphy, read the whole article at http://www.holyblasphemy.net/elijah-kills-the-prophets-of-baal). There are several problems with Murphy’s objections. First, some of his comments are directed toward the artistic rendering of the account and do not accurately reflect what is written in the story (see my comments under the picture). It is one thing to take issue with the story, but basing an argument on artistic inaccuracies, or on a misinterpretaion of the picture itself, is no way to establish the validity of a position. Second, Murphy’s main point in the article seems to be that the motivation for slaughtering the prophets of Baal merely had to do with Baalism becoming more popular than worship of Yahweh. So when Christians and Jews feel that their religion is threatened, they respond by killing their opponents. However one interprets other events in history, such an argument distorts the context of this story. The issue is not “your religion’s becoming more popular than mine so I’ll kill you,” the issue is idolatry. I realize that to an atheist, idolatry is a poor excuse to execute people. I will deal with the rationale behind this later in this article.
Several other responses are important to the objections raised by Murphy. First, the context of the story clearly shows that the initial aggressor (in terms of slaughtering prophets) is not Elijah, but Jezebel. 1 Kings 18:4 begins, “For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water” (NKJV). This “cutting off” (literal rendering) of the Lord’s prophets forced those who were left to be hidden. When Elijah appears on Mount Carmel, he is outnumbered 450-1. If the prophets of Asherah had shown up (1 Kgs. 18:19–which apparently they didn’t), Elijah would have been outnumbered 850-1. At this point in the story, the people are not on Elijah’s side (1 Kgs. 18:21); he is clearly alone. Elijah is not operating from a point of numerical strength! These observations are important because the Israelites, or their godly leaders, are often pictured by atheists as the bullies on the block who outnumber and outgun their opponents, when actually, the opposite is true (not only here, but in other stories as well). To be clear, I am not arguing, “I better kill you before you kill me” to justify the execution of the prophets of Baal, I am only establishing the proper context. Again, the motivation behind the execution is more than self-preservation (although I would be surprised if even atheists would not seek to defend themselves against an aggressor!).
We should not be surprised when atheists attack stories like this when even some Bible commentators seem apologetic about Elijah’s actions. For example, Terence E. Fretheim seems to want to excuse God by blaming Elijah and his times for the execution of Baal’s prophets. He writes, “Yet human violence is in evidence here as well (v. 40). This should not be explained away, but neither should it be considered necessarily just, even if it is understood to obey the law (Deut. 13:1-5). Once again…God does not act alone; but God works in and through that which is available, with human beings as they are, with all of their flaws and foibles” (First and Second Kings, Westminister Bible Companion, pp. 106-107). Although I appreciate many of the insights from Fretheim’s books, I believe he has missed the mark here. He himself admits that the Law prescribes the death penalty for false prophets (see Deut. 13:1-11).
Dale Ralph Davis’s remarks are more on target. Here are a few comments that he makes on this passage. “This Kishon slaughter [the river where the execution took place] was not an act of personal revenge but of capital punishment in line with the Torah [the Books of Moses]….Remember Israel was a theocracy; what we call church and state functioned as one. And here Elijah simply carries out Israel’s constitution, the provisions of Yahweh’s covenant law, relating to solicitation to apostasy” (1 Kings, “The Wisdom and the Folly,” p. 241). Davis continues, “The problem is not with Elijah or the Old Testament but with us. We react the way we do because, in our subliminal view, apostasy is not that big a deal. We simply don’t understand Yahweh’s violence against rebellion in his people. He uses surgery not breath mints on cancer. The problem is not God’s lack of refinement but our lack of sanctification….The nasty episode at the Kishon testifies that we have little horror of sin and calls evangelical Christians in particular to repentance” (p. 242).
I am in agreement with Davis on many points, but particularly his statement that we (meaning many in our contemporary western society) don’t see apostasy as a big deal. Certainly this is Richard Dawkin’s point of view when he writes about God breaking into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god” which resembles “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind” (“The God Delusion,” p. 243). Dawkin’s reaction demonstrates the naivete or the ignorance of the atheist who sees no harm in idolatry. In a previous post in this series entitled “The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5,” I examined in some detail the biblical concept that God is the Giver and Source of life. Since God is the source of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice for death (see the article for a more indepth treatment). This is why God is adamantly opposed to idolatry and the worship of false gods. Idolatry leads to death. Therefore, God seeks to protect people from idolatry by destroying those who, not only persist in idolatry themselves, but who also lead others into idolatry, such as the prophets that Elijah executed. Davis’s assertion that sin is no big deal to many today, is at the heart of the problem. Sin is tolerated, excused, denied, ignored, or glorified by many in our society, therefore, few are willing to hear the message that sin is dangerous and deadly. The title of an article by Clay Jones states the problem clearly: “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites” (Philosophia Christi, vol. 11, no. 1, 2009, pp. 53-72. Click on the link provided to read the entire article). Jones pinpoints the problem on the first page of this article when he writes, “Could it be that because our culture today commits these same Canaanite sins we are inoculated against the seriousness of these sins and so think God’s judgment unfair?” (p. 53).
Looking at the immediate context of the Elijah story, as well as the overall biblical context, brings clarity to the story of Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal. It also challenges our passivity or acceptance of idolatry in our own lives. This story is not the only one that speaks of fire from heaven. In our next post, I will look at 2 stories: the unnamed prophet who condemns Ahab for sparing his enemy (1 Kgs. 20:38-43), and Elijah’s destruction of two companies of soldiers by calling down fire from heaven (2 Kings 1).