The name Elijah stands prominent in the minds of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This Old Testament prophet lived and ministered during one of the most despicable periods of Israel’s history. Yet his ministry extended to future dispensations as well. Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, foretold of his return “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5). The first fulfillment of this prophecy occurred on a high mountain upon which the Savior had brought Peter, James, and John (Matt. 17:1-13). Upon that mountain, he, along with the Savior and Moses, restored the keys of the kingdom to Peter, James, and John (see Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.158; Bruce R. McConkie, “The Keys of the Kingdom,” Ensign [May 1983], p. 22). The next fulfillment took place in the Kirtland Temple where with Moses and Elias, Elijah restored to Joseph Smith the keys of temple work and sealing powers (see D&C 110).
The latter-day mission of Elijah is well known: to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers. An understanding of his former-day mission will aid in understanding the meaning of his latter-day mission. The former-day mission of Elijah is recorded in 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 2. But as is typical of all the books of the bible, the writer of 1 and 2 Kings assumed that the reader understood several things. Without such knowledge, the full impact of the story is lost. The following notes will help illuminate some of the assumptions that should be understood by the reader of 1 Kings 17-19. Following the historical and religious background notes will be several notes regarding 1 Kings 17-19.
NOTES ON HISTORICAL AND RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND
Theology of 1 and 2 Kings
The underlying theological premise of 1 and 2 Kings centers on the reason the Lord allowed Israel and Judah’s destruction and scattering. Israel was a covenant people. They had entered into a covenant relationship with Jehovah who promised to bless them with prosperity, security, and freedom to worship Him if they honored the covenant. If, however, they broke the covenant, God would allow them to be cursed, smitten, and eventually scattered (see. Deut. 27-28; Joshua 8; 24). Israel’s part of the covenant was to keep the law of Moses. However, 1 and 2 Kings reveal that Israel, led by their kings, broke the covenant by entering into political alliances with foreign nations and worshipping the gods of their neighbors. These books also show that the Lord’s mercy was extended several times to Israel in an effort to try to get wayward Israel to repent and turn back to Jehovah and the covenant.
Omri and Ahab
At the core of the story of Elijah is the marriage of Ahab and Jezebel. This marriage reeked havoc upon the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was the son of Omri whose history is found in 1 Kings 16:15-28. Omri’s origins are obscure. First mention of him is in 1 Kings 16:16 where we are told that Omri, who had been the commander of Israel’s army, was made king over Israel. Oddly enough, we are not told his father’s name or given his tribal affiliation. He just appears out of the blue. It is generally assumed therefore that Omri “was not of Israelite origin and that he himself belonged to that class of foreign mercenaries which, since the time of David, had formed the backbone of the Israelite military” (“Omri” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 Vols. [New York; Doubleday, 1992], 5:17). Omri rose to power through a coups d’etat (the violent and illegal overthrow of a government), which had characterized monarchical change in the northern kingdom. During his reign, Omri built a new capital for the northern kingdom on a hill northwest of Shechem that had previously been uninhabited. The new capital was called Samaria.
The Old Testament tells little of Omri’s reign. However, based upon indirect references and extrabiblical sources, Omri was in worldly ways “one of Israel’s greatest, most energetic, and most foresighted kings.” His governmental policies were “treaties without and parity within.” “Omri introduced a foreign policy in which Israel sought to win the support of certain neighboring states by means of treaties and diplomatic marriages” (“Omri” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:18). An example of such an alliance was the marriage of his crown prince son, Ahab, to Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Phoenicians.This alliance was designed to strengthen Israel’s hand against the expanding Syrian kingdom of Damascus. Though such political alliances may have seemed shrewd, it was in fact a violation of the law of Moses since such alliances betrayed Israel’s trust in Jehovah who had promised to fight their battles. Besides seeking political alliances, Omri sought for parity within his kingdom made up of Israelite and Canaanite factions (recall, the Canaanites were never fully destroyed by Israel). Besides following and promoting the apostate for of Jehovah worship initiated by Jeroboam (1 Kings 16:26), “Omri initiated a policy of parity, a policy that aimed at equal treatment for both factions of the population. Included within this policy was a recognition, and even fostering, of Canaanite religion on the part of the state” (“Omri,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:19). Once again, such a policy, though seemingly prudent, was against the law of Moses. Hence, 1 Kings 16:25 states: “But Omri wrought evil in the eyes of the LORD, and did worse than all that were before him.”
Ahab continued his father’s policies and practices. But we are also told: “And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him” (1 Kings 16:31).
Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Phoenicia (or Tyre and Sidon – when the kingdom of Tyre had expanded sufficiently to include Sidon, it was sometimes called Sidon or Zidon). Ethbaal was not only king but a priest of the gods Baal Melkart and his consort Astarte. He ruled for thirty-two years (887-856 B.C.) during which time he greatly expanded the commercial activities of the Phoenicians. His granddaughter Dido founded the famous Phoenician city of Carthage in northern Africa.
It was common practice in Mesopotamia and regions round about that the daughter of the king was appointed as the high priestess of the chief local god. The two together, king and high-priestess, wielded considerable political, economic, and religious power. Therefore it commonly accepted that since Ethbaal was the priest of the Baal Melkart and Astarte and worship among the Phoenicians, Jezebel was the high-priestess of cult of Baal Melkart. When she became queen of Israel, and being used to exercising such great power, Jezebel continued to play an active role in both the political and religious policies of Israel.
When she came to Israel, she brought with her the worship of Baal Melquart, which differed in some ways from the Baal worship than was practiced among the Canaanites. Further, she was evangelical in her promotion of her form of Baal worship. Of this Bernard Anderson wrote: “Ahab tired to make his bride at home in the new capital, Samaria, where he was continuing the building program initiated by Omri. Just as Solomon built shrines in Jerusalem for his foreign wives, so King Ahab built a ‘temple of Baal’ equipped with an altar and an image of Asherah [KJV calls this ‘a grove’], the mother goddess (1 Kings 16:32-33). The Baal in this case was Baal-Melkart, the official protective deity of Tyre and the Phoenician version of the Baal nature religion that had been making subtle inroads into the covenant faith ever since Israel’s entrance into Canaan. Notice, however, that Baalism had now also acquired a political drive, for Phoenician imperialism was at its very height in the Mediterranean world. In antiquity, one way to recognize the political supremacy of another nation was to acknowledge and appropriate the religion of that country” (Understanding the Old Testament [Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998], p. 244).
In her fanatical attempt to eradicate true Jehovah worshipers (which apparently survived despite the sins of Jeroboam – see note on the “sons of the prophets”), Jezebel “slew the prophets of the LORD” (1 Kings 18:13). However, we are told that because of the work of Obadiah, a hundred of Lord’s prophets were hidden from her persecution (1 Kings 18:13). Speaking of Jezebel’s persecution of Jehovah, Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas have written: “The standard religious systems of the ancient Near East were openly tolerant of worship of any deities.To ignore a potentially powerful deity or to persecute his worshipers would make one vulnerable to divine anger and punishment. Religious intolerance or persecution do not arise until much later in history. Policies that may look like religious persecution in the ancient world are usually political in nature. . . The agenda of Jezebel was to enthrone Baal as the king and national god of Israel instead of Jehovah” (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament [Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 377).
Religious Attitudes in Ancient Near East
Cyril Eastwood, in writing of the religions of ancient peoples, said: “There is no doubt that their occupations shaped their religion. The hunters had their distinctive ceremonies, so had the farmers” (Life and Thought in the Ancient World [London: University of London Press, 1964],p.7). This was true of the religions practiced by Israel’s neighbors. The basis of their beliefs was primarily agriculture and those forces that controlled the elements essential to the productivity of the land. Agriculture techniques in the ancient Near East were of two types, rain?agriculture and irrigation?agriculture. Along the Nile valley as well as along the Tigris?Euphrates river basin, irrigation?agriculture was the rule. Those people who lived along these rivers depended almost entirely upon the waters brought by the rivers from the high country to water their crops. Since these were major rivers, these people seldom experienced the fear of not having enough water. Unlike those people who trusted the rivers to bring their water, those living along the Levantine coast (Syria?Lebanon-Palestine), Asia Minor and upper Mesopotamia had to depend entirely upon the rains to bring them water for their crops. The rains in these areas are not entirely predictable, consequently, the peoples in these areas often experienced the pangs of famine.
Because of this dichotomy, the religion of those who lived in rain?agriculture areas differed somewhat from those who lived along the river valleys. To those who resided in the rain?agriculture areas,the forces that controlled the weather became their gods, for they were utterly dependent upon those powers for their survival.
G.E.Wright has observed that these people believed that nature was “alive and full of strange forces, difficult for him to control. Basically, therefore, his religion was a combination of faith, magic, and superstition. Life was a desperately serious matter, and it was imperative that he develop ways and means of controlling the forces about him. Otherwise, he could not live, let alone prosper. His religion, accordingly, was centered around a variety of acts, controlled and regulated by long lists of rules, and designed to turn the attention of the gods to him that he might prosper his ways. There was little in his religion that might make him a better man. Society had developed its control or laws, and these were given religious sanction but the primary attention was toward these ritualistic, outward acts which would make the gods more favorable to him (Biblical Archaeology [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957], p.112).
The word baal (pronounced ba ‘AL) is commonly found in Semitic languages such as Hebrew and means ‘lord’ or ‘master’. It can be used as a designation for both god or man. Generally, in the bible, baal has reference to the main deity worshipped by the Canaanites. Baal was a storm-and-fertility deity. It was believed that he controlled the life-giving forces of nature that produced fertility to the ground and therefore was an agriculture deity. Little was know relative to Baal until the discovery of Ugarit, an ancient city on the northern Levantine coast. At Ugarit, several tablets were found in a building associated with and located next to a temple to Baal.
These tablets reveal that Baal was one of several deities worshipped by the Canaanites. The head god of the Ugaritic pantheon was El. His consort was Asherah. They had several children. Chief among them were Baal (god of storm and fertility), Anat (Baal’s consort and goddess of war), Yamm (god of seas, rivers, lakes, etc.), and Mott (god of the underworld, aridity, drought).
The Ugaritic tablets reveal much of the mythology held in connection with Baal and the other Canaanite deities of worship. One myth is of great interest in biblical studies. Scholars refer to it as the Baal cycle. The myth tells the story of the struggles Baal has with Yamm (the Semitic word for sea) and Mott (the Semitic word for death).In the first part of the myth, there is a battle between Baal and Yamm in which Baal defeats Yamm and controls the unruly waters. In the second part, Baal builds a palace in which there is a window place. When he opens the window, rain is poured out upon the earth. In the last part, Baal and Mott have a contest in which Baal is apparently killed and taken to the underworld. El and Anat mourn Baal’s death through a strange rite consisting of cutting their cheeks, chests, backs, etc., with a knife (cf. with 1 Kings 18:28). El begins to look for another god to take Baal’s place. When one is suggested, he is refused because he is not as fast as Baal was in a race. Another is suggested but likewise refused because he is not as large or tall as Baal.
Eventually, Anat, Baal’s consort, forces Mott to release Baal from the underworld and he is resurrected. (The complete text can be found in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton: Princeton Unv. Press, 1969], pp. 129-135).
The myth is best understood in light of the climatic conditions of the Levantine coast. The conflict between Baal and Yamm arises out of the desire of both to control and possess the earth. In Palestine, towards the end of October the dry summer months give way to cool, rainy months. The first rains are “continuous and torrential and the whole world seems blotted out in a smashing tumult of water” (Denis Baly, The Geography of the Bible [New York: Harper & Row, 1974],p.48). To the Canaanite mind, Yamm was gaining control over all the land and all seemed to be doomed as floods would sweep the land. However, Baal had the power and ability to gain control over the waters by subduing Yamm. To have Baal as “Lord of the Earth” meant that there would be order and consistency in the rains and fertility. The building of the palace with a window meant life-giving rains would come to earth. The last part of the myth reflects the hot summer months in which rain is ever absent. During these months the crops mature and are harvested. To the Canaanite, Mott had subdued Baal bringing about the needed drought for crop maturity.
How the myths were utilized in the worship of Baal is not at all clear. We do know that associated with the worship of ancient gods was magic. Magic is defined as the use of charms, spells, and rituals in seeking or pretending to cause or control events, or govern certain natural or supernatural forces” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1972). “And so, the earliest religions and rituals exhibit the qualities of magic with a strong belief in the effectiveness of symbols, either acts or words, to make things happen” (“Fertility Cults,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 2:792).
The place to perform magic associated with fertility to the land was in the fertility cult. “A characteristic feature of the fertility cult was sacral sexual intercourse by priests and priestesses and other specifically consecrated persons, sacred prostitutes of both sexes, intended to emulate and stimulate the deities who bestowed fertility” (“Fertility Cults” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1962), 2:265).
Scholars have noted that in many cultures and societies that have existed throughout world history there seems to be a relationship between woman, agriculture and sexuality, (see for example Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion [New York: Meridian, 1958], pp.331-336; Theodor Gaster, “The Religion of the Canaanites,” in Forgotten Religions, Ed. Vergilius Ferm [New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950), pp. 111-143). They note that women are often associated with the land because of fertility and they believe that their fertility can have a powerful influence upon the productivity of the earth. “Clearly, if women can have such influence upon the plant world, ritual marriage and even collective orgy will, a fortiori, have the most excellent effects upon the fertility of the crops” (Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, p. 333). After citing a few examples of this, Mircea Eliade, a well known and respected scholar on comparative religions, states: “These few examples, drawn from an extraordinarily rich collection, make clear the ritual nature of the work of agriculture.Women, fertility, sexuality, and nudity are so many centers of sacred power, so many starting-points for ceremonial drama (p.334).
Further, he said: “What we can be fairly clear about is the basic outline of the drama. Thus we can perceive that the endless variety of agricultural rites and beliefs all involve the recognition of a force manifested in the harvest. This ‘force’ may be conceived as impersonal, like the ‘power’ of so many things and actions, again it may be represented in mythical forms, or concentrated in certain animals or certain human beings. The rituals, whether simple or elaborated into complicated dramas, are intended to establish favorable relations between man and these ‘powers’, and to ensure that the powers will continue to be regenerated from time to time (Eliade, 1958: p.335).
All this seems to ring true with regards to the ritual dramas discovered at Ugarit. At several points during these ritual dramas the gods have sexual intercourse with each other and even with animals. Following a similar line of thinking as Eliade’s, Bernhard Anderson, offers this commentary on Canaanite mythology and its role in ritualistic worship: “The ground, it was said, is the sphere of divine powers. The Ba’al of a religion is the ‘lord’ or ‘owner’ of the ground; its fertility is dependent upon sexual relations between him and his consort. When the rains came and the earth and water mingled, the mysterious powers of fertility stirred again. New life was resurrected after the barrenness of winter. This astonishing revival of nature, men believed was due to sexual intercourse between Ba’al and his partner . . . Furthermore, man was not a mere spectator of the sacred marriage. It was believed that by ritually enacting the drama of Baal it was possible to assist – through magical power – the fertility powers to reach consummation, and thereby insure the welfare and prosperity of the land . . . Besides the rehearsal of this mythology, a prominent feature of the Canaanite cult was sacred prostitution. In the act of temple prostitution the man identified himself with Ba’al, the woman with Ashtart. It was believed that human pairs, by imitating the action of Ba’al and his partner, could bring the divine pair together in fertilizing union . . . Through sexual ceremonies farmers could swing into rhythms of the agricultural world, and even keep those rhythms going. (The Living World of the Old Testament [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966], pp. 103-104).
Whether Anderson’s view is accurate or not waits to be seen. But what can be certain is that some sort of sacred prostitution seemed to be prevalent among the fertility cults of the Canaanites whatever the reason might have been.
NOTES ON 1 KINGS 17-19
“How Long Halt Ye Between Two Opinions” (1 Kings 18:21)
When Elijah gathered all Israel to Mt. Carmel, he declared unto them: “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). This is a revealing statement. Israel had not forsaken Jehovah for Baal worship as often supposed. They are worshipping BOTH! Remember that polytheism was the basis of religious belief in the ancient Near East. The Israelites had become polytheistic in Egypt. Despite the work of Moses and Joshua, the Israelites remained polytheistic. Therefore, it appears that Jehovah was only one of many gods worshipped by ancient Israel.
What can modern Israel learn from this? The gods of the Canaanites and Phoenicians represent that ways of the world. They are their beliefs and philosophies.
Israel walked both in the ways of Jehovah and the ways of the world. Modern Israel, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, must be careful not to fall into the same trap. We must be careful to worship only one god and not a multitude of gods. We fall into the same trap ancient Israel fell into when we enter into covenants with the Lord, attend church, go to the temple, read our scriptures, etc., and at the same time live by some of the philosophies of the world or focus our attention at gaining the things of the world.
President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “Modern idols or false gods can take such forms as clothes, homes, businesses, machines, automobiles, pleasure boats, and numerous other material deflectors from the path of godhood.Intangible things make just as ready gods. Degrees and letters and titles can become idols. Many people build and furnish a home and buy the automobile first—then they find they ‘cannot afford’ to pay tithing. Whom do they worship? Young married couples who postpone parenthood until their degrees are attained might be shocked if their expressed preference were labeled idolatry. Many worship the hunt, the fishing trip, the vacation, the weekend picnics and outings. Still another image men worship is that of power and prestige. Many will trample underfoot the spiritual and often the ethical values in their climb to success. These gods of power, wealth, and influence are most demanding and are quite as real as the golden calves of the children of Israel in the wilderness” ( Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], p. 244).