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Written November 25, 2007

I still stand by the speech I made to Ahab that day.  Praying for rain makes no sense.  

My name is Obadiah, from the tribe of Dan.  From childhood I was brought up to worship Yahweh, the god of Israel.

I had the good fortune to find employment under the great king of Israel, Omri.  This was at his new palace in Samaria a couple of years before he died.  Then Omri was succeeded by his son Ahab, and King Ahab appointed me Comptroller of the Royal Household.

Archaeologists found this little glass
head that might portray Ahab or Ethbaal.

As you know, our administration has formed an alliance with the Phoenicians in Sidon.  Their ruler is King Ethbaal.  (His name alludes to the god Baal.)

To cement the alliance, King Ahab married King Ethbaal's daughter.

Ahab calls his bride Princess Jessie, although her full name is Jezebel.

Our administration feels that the people of Israel should have the freedom to worship as they choose.  When he first came to the throne, Ahab had built an altar for his god (and mine), Yahweh, and prostrated himself before it.  Then when he married Jessie, he built a temple for her god Baal and set up a Festivus pole, and he prostrated himself before that altar as well.  I was offended by this at first, but I came to realize that Ahab is the king of all the people and must give equal respect to all their gods.

Naturally, the prophets of Yahweh don't see it that way.  They insist that their god is the only true god of Israel and we must not honor any others, especially those with foreign connections.

An Ultimatum

The leader of those prophets, Elijah, is a hothead from Tishbe on the east side of the river Jordan.  He organized a protest and marched into the palace one day, demanding to see the king.  "I am a servant of Yahweh, the god of Israel," he declared.  "And I swear by the life of Yahweh that, unless I give the word, there will be neither dew nor rain these coming years!"

"Duly noted," Ahab replied dryly.  "We're in for another drought.  Now get out of my palace!"

Elijah fled, and no one knew where he went.  We assume he crossed back over to his side of the Jordan, or maybe he found some place to stay up in the Sidon country, where our spies couldn't find him.  Believe me, they tried.  No one threatens a king that way.

But his prophecy did come true.  For the next two years, we had very little rain, and the streams began to dry up.  The water level in our reservoir north of the city began dropping alarmingly, and our experts warned that we had only a few months' worth of water left.

Queen Jessie, taking Elijah at his word, decided that the prophets of Yahweh were behind the drought.  She ordered them killed.  I thought this was outrageously barbaric.  I located a couple of caves up in the hills where the prophets could hide out, and I led fifty prophets to each cave and made arrangements to keep them fed.

King Ahab had a more practical approach to the drought.  You can't find water by executing prophets.  You can only find water by looking for it.

We organized a survey of the land.  The king himself went west toward Haifa, and I went east, checking the conditions at every spring and wadi.  If we could find enough grass, Ahab said, we could graze our horses and mules and not lose any of the animals.

The Fugitive Reappears

I was not more than a day into my travels when, much to my surprise, here came Elijah!  "Is it really you?" I asked him.

"Indeed," he replied.  "And you are Obadiah, are you not?  A servant in the house of Ahab, and a servant of Yahweh?"

"I have been a worshipper of Yahweh all my life," I answered.  "And when the queen ordered the massacre of Yahweh's prophets, I kept a hundred of them alive in secret caves."

"Good, good."

"But it is now the third year of this drought, and desperation is beginning to set in."

"That is the reason I have emerged from hiding.  I have received the word of Yahweh.  Go, tell the king that I am here to appear before him.  When I do so, Yahweh shall send rain upon the land."

"I can't be your messenger," I protested.  "You'll just run away again."

"No," he said, "as Yahweh lives, I swear that I shall show myself to the king this day."

So I went to find the king and give him the message, and he came to confront Elijah.  When Ahab saw the prophet, he exclaimed, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?"

"I am not the one who caused this trouble," Elijah replied.  "You and your family are responsible, because you turned away from Yahweh to worship Baal.  And I can prove it.  Meet me on the ridge of Mount Carmel, and bring all the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the goddess Asherah too.  We shall dance and pray for rain!"

I advised Ahab against this charade, but the king was not one to back away from a challenge.  "I'll do it!" he exclaimed.  "I'll try anything to resolve this crisis."  And so the word went out throughout all Israel to assemble at Carmel.

Speaking My Mind

I asked to talk with Ahab privately.  "My king," I said, "whether one's deity is Baal or Yahweh or Asherah or some other god, the same principles apply.

"God sends rain when he sees fit.

"God knows everything.  We are mere mortals.

"With all due respect, I would be embarrassed to watch you, as the leader of our enlightened people, performing a ritual in the hopes of changing the mind of God.

"I know you want rain, but to express your desire by petitioning God is worse than useless.  God would not be omniscient if he did not already know your desires.  Do you dare question his omniscience?  That is blasphemy.

"Is God so stupid that he does not know that our land needs rain?  Is he so forgetful that he needs to be reminded to send rain each year?

"Or did he knowingly cause the drought for reasons of his own?  If he did, then how dare you assume that you know better?

"How arrogant it would be for you to try to persuade God to change his divine plan!  How superstitious it would be for you to think that some special words could do so!  Though a king may command his own subjects, everyone is subject to forces of nature beyond anyone's command."

I'm afraid that the king did not appreciate my speaking to him in that manner, and he has been cool to me ever since.  Nevertheless, on Mount Carmel he didn't do a rain dance, and he refrained from leading any public prayers himself.

The Magic Show

When the people of Israel assembled on the mountain, we thought that we were there to entreat all the gods for an end to the drought.  But Elijah changed the subject.  He had a trap planned for his enemies, Baal's prophets.

He looked at the Yahwists and Baalists in the crowd and demanded, "How long will you sit on the fence?  Choose a side!  If Yahweh is God, follow him.  If Baal is God, follow him."  No one answered.  Elijah continued, "You can't decide?  Then let us conduct a little experiment.

"Please remember that I am at a slight disadvantage.  I'm the only prophet of Yahweh left.  There are 450 prophets of Baal over there.

"Bring us two bulls.  There are more of you Baalists, so you can choose whichever bull you like.  Slaughter it and cut it up.  Erect an altar and lay the meat on the wood as a sacrifice, but don't set fire to the wood.  I'll do the same with the other bull.  Then invoke your god by name, and I'll invoke my god by name.  The god who answers by fire, he is God."

So the ritual butchering took place, the Baalists on one side and Elijah on the other.  He reconstructed an old Yahweh altar, using twelve stones.  He dug a trench around it and put the whole-offering on it.  But he allowed the Baalists to try first for fire.

They danced around their altar and called to Baal for hours.  Nothing happened.  Elijah urged them, "Call louder!  Maybe Baal is busy.  He's lost in thought, or out of town on a trip.  Or maybe he's fallen asleep.  Wake him up!"  They ranted and raved and cut themselves to draw blood, but the wood did not ignite.

"All right, now it's my turn," said Elijah.  "Please step back from the altar of Yahweh.  And, to make my demonstration even more impressive, I shall wet the wood.  I shall drench the offering.  Despite this soaking, Yahweh will show his power by setting the sacrifice afire!"  The people murmured in anticipation.

"Bring the water!" Elijah called to his assistants.  They carried four pottery jugs to the altar and poured the liquid onto the whole-offering.  My first thought:  we should not be wasting water in time of drought.  My second thought:  that doesn't look like water.  It wasn't olive oil, either, but somehow it seemed thicker than water and had a yellowish tint.  "Bring more water!" Elijah commanded.  Four more jugs were poured.  "Do it a third time!"  The liquid began dripping off the altar and even filled the trench.

Elijah prayed.  "Yahweh of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, let it be known today that you are God in Israel.  Answer me, and let this people know that you are God.  Answer me, Yahweh!"

There was a whoomp sound, and suddenly there was fire!  There was much more fire than is normally seen on an altar.  The flames shot high into the air, consuming the wood and charring the meat into an inedible mass.  The spectacular blaze was so hot that the stones of the altar cracked, and the fire even licked up the "water" in the trench.

How was it ignited?  Possibly with a magnifying lens or reflector.  The first chapter of 2 Maccabees describes a similar “miracle.”  In this case, the liquid was naphtha, a highly volatile, flammable hydrocarbon mixture found in crude oil; the place where it seeped out of the ground was later commemorated with a highly profitable shrine. 

19  When our forefathers were being carried off to Persia, the devout priests of those days secretly took fire from the altar and concealed it inside a dry well.

20 After many years had passed, in God's good time Nehemiah was sent back by the king of Persia.

He dispatched in search of the fire the descendants of the priests who had hidden it, and they reported to our people that they found, not fire, but a thick liquid.  36  Nehemiah and his companions called the liquid nephthar, which means “purification,” but most people call it naphtha.

21  He ordered the priests to sprinkle this liquid over the wood and the sacrifice.  22  This was done, and after some time the sun, till then hidden by clouds, began to shine.  To everyone's astonishment, there was a great blaze of fire on the altar.

31  After the sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that what remained of the liquid be poured over some great stones.  32  At this a flame shot up, but hardly had the light been reflected from the altar when it burnt itself out.

33  The king of Persia was told that a liquid had appeared which Nehemiah and his companions had used to burn up the materials of the sacrifice.  34  After he had verified this, the king had the site enclosed and declared it sacred.  35  The custodians he appointed received a share of the very substantial revenue the king derived from it.

I suspected a trick, but the people were convinced.  They stood amazed until the flames died down; then they bowed down and declared, "Yahweh is God!"

Elijah responded, "If Yahweh is God, then Baal is not.  Seize the false prophets of that pretender!  Don't let them escape!"  The people grabbed the 450 unlucky Baalist prophets, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon and slaughtered them there in the valley.

How long, O God, will we continue killing each other in your name?  I would like to think that we have become too civilized for this kind of retribution.  We no longer live in the Stone Age.  This is the Iron Age, and we should have learned to respect our brothers, even those who disagree with us.

Looking For Clouds

There was still the matter of the drought.  All things must pass eventually, including the lack of precipitation.

Back on the mountain, Elijah told King Ahab, "Go now and eat and drink, for I hear the sound of heavy rain."  Ahab heard no such thing, and neither did I.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  But it was suppertime, and we retreated to the royal tent.

As Elijah's servant told us the story later, he and Elijah went up to the crest of Carmel, and Elijah bowed down and put his face between his knees.  The servant heard Elijah's muffled voice:  "Go and look toward the west."  He did, and reported back that there was nothing to see, only a clear sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in the distance.  "Look again," said Elijah.  "I know that rain is on the way."  He looked again; still nothing.  They kept this up for quite some time until finally the servant reported that he did see a small cloud, "no bigger than a man's hand," coming up from the west.  "I knew it!" Elijah exclaimed, leaping to his feet.  "Now go and tell the king to harness his chariot and be off, before the downpour turns the roads to mud."

The servant brought this weather forecast to the royal tent.  We had already finished our evening meal, so we decided to take the advice.  As we set off for the winter palace at Jezreel, some dark clouds did roll in and the wind rose and a few drops of heavy rain fell.

Exulting in his victory in the great test, Elijah came to join us at Jezreel.  But Queen Jessie swore revenge on him for killing her prophets, as she had tried earlier to kill his.  Elijah had to go back into hiding.

I've heard that he's now spitefully organizing foreign enemies against our administration!  And it will take much more than a few drops of heavy rain to refill our reservoir.

I hope that if our people remain on the side of Yahweh, Yahweh will be on our side.            



(a retelling of I Kings 16:29 through 19:18)

Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.


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