God warns his people Israel to be distinct from their idolatrous neighbors, so he prohibits them from copying these detestable pagan rituals to honor their dead or their idols. This principle of holiness, of being set apart and distinct from the unbelieving culture, is the mark of God’s people, whether in the old or new covenant.
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 18:20-46 (text); Revelation 2:18-29
August 8, 2010
Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel is one of the most well-known Old Testament stories. Mention the name Elijah in evangelical circles and images of fire from heaven at Mount Carmel are instantly painted. But like the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the Pharaoh, Moses and the Red Sea, Joshua and Jericho, David and Goliath, and Daniel and the lions, Elijah at Mount Carmel is just one of those nice Sunday school lessons for children. â€œIt’s an interesting tale, but what’s it to me and to you?â€
Mount Carmel is a landmark mountain by the seacoast overlooking the modern day city of Haifa in northern Israel. It offers a commanding view of the area in all directions. It was a strategically-situated place because of military and geopolitical reasons: it served as the gateway of the northern half of the nation. And whoever controlled the worship that took place on the mountain controlled the spiritual life of the nation. The priests and the prophets of Baal knew this well, so years earlier they had built an altar to their idol-god Baal on top of the mountain.
From ancient Near East history, we learn that Baal worship was a bizarre mixture of idolatry, perverted sexuality and child sacrifice. The god Baal controlled the sun, the seasons and the weather. He could send rain, fire, thunder and lightning on the earth. And since ancient Israel was an agricultural nation, Baal was an extremely powerful deity.
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Baal worship presented an attractive alternative or supplement to the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) for many Israelites throughout their time in Canaan, no doubt partly because that land was so utterly dependent on rain for its fertility.
It is in this context that the lastâ€”and worstâ€”of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel was Ahab son of Omri. He was described as an evil king, â€œmore than all who were before himâ€ (1 Kings 16:30). He added to the sins of the previous kings when he married Jezebel, a foreign woman and a Baal-worshiper, who eventually led him into the worship of Baal. In fact, Jezebel had hundreds of Godâ€™s prophets executed, so that only one hundred were left alive. In contrast, 450 Baal and 400 Asherah prophets ate at the kingâ€™s table.
Under the reign of wicked king Ahab, Baal worship had virtually swept the northern kingdom. The worship of the one true God had been almost completely extinguished. This was because Baal worship appealed, just as 1 John 2:16 says, first, to the idolatrous eyes; second, to the desires of the flesh; and third, to the pride in possessions of the people.
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