The gentleman from the high council rested his right arm on the podium and leaned forward into the microphone. Looking into the congregation, he lowered his voice and took us into his confidence. “The Old Testament,” he said, “concerns itself with carnal commandments intended to cleanse the body, with outward performances and all that sort of thing.”
Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the OT than the polemics of Heb 9:10, or there would be no reason to spend a year studying it in GD. For example, there’s a bit of Good News called the Shema, a passage that takes its name from the Hebrew imperative of the verb “to hear:”
Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your might.
Then there’s another nice morsel of Good News, this time from Lev 19:18b, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef seems to have been particularly fond of precisely these passages. And as commandments go, they don’t sound all that carnal to me.
It will not surprise you to learn that I have another piece of Good News, this time drawn from a narrative context in the Elijah cycle.
The culmination of the contest between God and Baal is narrated in 1 Ki 18:21-40. Once again, the story is divided into three sections. In each section precisely two “characters” interact with each other: Elijah and the Israelites (vv. 21-24); Elijah and the priests of Baal (vv. 25-29); and finally Elijah’s offering and prayer to God (vv. 30-39). Verse 40 stands alone as an epilogue.
Elijah opens the story by posing a question to the assembled Israelites. In the AV, the question captures the thrust of Elijah’s mission, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” Read literally, however, the imagery is far more explicit, “How long will you limp between two tree branches?” (HALOT, s.v. סעפ)
Elijah is addressing his countrymen as if they were cripples, bobbing and weaving on crude, uneven crutches as they slowly make their way through life. This captures both their failure make a decision and their unfitness to approach God, since Lev 21:18 forbade the lame from serving as priests.
Elijah’s follow-on statement, “If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal then follow him” elicits a sullen failure to answer from the Israelites. This, in turn, results in a certain amount of confusion among modern readers. The key point is this: we routinely think about God in either/or categories, but Elijah’s countrymen generally worshipped various gods, each in his/her own sphere. To their way of thinking, there was no advantage to be gained and potentially much to be lost by taking the exclusivist approach Elijah demanded.
Finally, Elijah proposes the contest. Every advantage goes to the priests of Baal: they provide the bulls and get first choice of the animals, there’s far more of them to perform the priestly intercession, and they get to go first. When Elijah gets to the point that he should say that the priests of Baal will call on their god, he says to his fellow Israelites “you will call on the name of your god.” No choice is apostasy, not tolerance.
Elijah’s interaction with the priests of Baal (vv. 25-29) is actually quite funny. Although he’s alone, he gives all the instructions and is obeyed. After half a day of importuning Baal, the narrator tells us that “there is no voice, there is no answerer.” The present tense and the final participle, “no answerer,” indicate that it’s not that Baal isn’t answering in this particular case, but that there is no Baal to answer.
Around lunch time, Elijah openly mocks the priests of Baal. Precisely what he says is unfortunately lost because a key term is unknown. Following the NAB:
Call louder, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has retired, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.
The expression translated “he has retired” is hapax. It may be that this is simply a sound-play and therefore untranslatable, it may be a general term for being busy, or it may be that it is actually a suggestion that Baal is occupied in the bathroom, so to speak, and unwilling to attend to their business before he finishes his own (HALOT, s.v. שיג “dross;” in the LXX, “gossip, prattle;” in the Vulgate, “he is busy;” in the Peshitta, “completes a project” ).
Finally the narrative turns to Elijah’s sacrifice (vv. 30-39). Twelve stones go into the rebuilding the altar and twelve jars of water drench the offering and its environs. The symbolism is unmistakable but it is the wording of Elijah’s prayer that seals the key theological insight (vv. 36-37):
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, give them to know this day that you are the God in Israel and I am your servant and I have done all these things according to your word.
Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people will know that you, Lord, are God and that you have turned their heart backwards.
Although the traditional articulation of this scene is that Elijah called down fire from heaven, the reality encoded in the theological passive of v. 38 says otherwise. The emphasis is not on Elijah’s power over fire, but on God’s love for Israel in responding to a prayer opening with the rare formulation “Lord God of…Israel.”
In this particular story, God’s care is displayed in God’s memory, specifically in God’s memory of the person Israel, the land Israel, and the people who should also be Israel, but are not and must continually be re-claimed. This and similar stories are the well-spring of what Paul will later call the uprightness of God, or his covenant fidelity.
And finally, the heart of the Christian testimony, the Good News, simply adds that God “remembers” through Christ Jesus, whom he raised to stand next to him until there is no longer a need for this sort of memory.