Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Elijah and Fire From Heaven

Few Old Testament prophets were as colorful as Elijah. His best-known deed was the calling down of fire out of heaven, which event piques the curiosity of the inquisitive Bible student.

Perhaps few readers have ventured further in the Elijah story because beyond the basic concepts of a dramatic contest with the priests of Baal, the story becomes quite odd. But there is far more to his story that is instructive when one looks beyond the obvious. As ever, the catastrophist point of view illuminates and gives new meaning to the often-overlooked oddities in Elijah’s story.

The rest of the story

So, as Paul Harvey, the eminent news broadcaster, is fond of saying, “Here’s the rest of the story.”

Elijah’s ministry occurred during a time of gross apostasy in Northern Israel. King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, brought the worship of Baal, the god of her people, the Phoenicians, to Israel’s Northern Kingdom.

We pick up the Bible narrative where Elijah makes some demands of Ahab that will set the scene for a confrontation with the priests of Baal.

Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table. (1 Kings 18:19.)

Once so gathered, Elijah did not preach to the Israelites, nor did he lecture them. He simply, eloquently, put the vital question to the Israelites present:

How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. (1 Kings 18:21.)

When they had no answer for him, he challenged them.

I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. (1 Kings 18:22.)

This was a subtle, but unmistakable reference to the difference between his monotheism and the polytheism of those he confronted. He alone served the one, true God, while the multitude of gods (Baalim) that Ahab, Jezebel, and the Israelites worshipped had a multitude of prophets to serve them. The implication was that by force of sheer numbers, the many prophets of the Baalim should be far more powerful than the sole prophet of Jehovah.

Elijah’s challenge

This was Elijah’s challenge to the priests of Baal:

Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under;
And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. (1 Kings 18:23, 24.)

The challenge, then, was to see which god would light the fire of sacrifice — an imposing demonstration for the true God since he alone could command the elements to do so. Thus, Elijah set the stage for the most dramatic demonstration of the powers of Jehovah since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt during the Exodus.

Remarkable similarities

Indeed, the similarities between Moses, Joshua and Elijah are striking. Elijah, like Moses and Joshua, had clearly been informed by the Lord beforehand as to what was about to transpire in the heavens and how to take maximum advantage of the unusual phenomenon about to occur. It is also likely that none of these prophets completely understood what was about to happen, since they had never experienced anything remotely like this before. Still, they acted their part, as instructed.

A powerful lesson

A little foreknowledge goes a long way, giving considerable leverage and stature among onlookers to the one who seems to control such tremendous forces, especially when that information includes knowledge of the rare manifestations seen to accompany a major catastrophic event. There can be no better teaching aid.

Additionally, each worked his ‘miracles’ before thousands of people where failure was not an option. Such faith is rare. Most of us would rather go fishing than put ourselves in such a precarious position. One could easily lose reputation, if not his very life, if the promised miracles did not materialize.

Put yourself …

Imagine putting yourself in harm’s way as they did. The natural forces that would be unleashed in a natural catastrophe of the dimensions we are about to examine could as easily have destroyed the prophet if he failed to follow God’s instructions to the letter. Most of us would be inclined to run the other direction if we thought something catastrophic was about to happen in our neighborhood.

What is more, once they got over their astonishment at the event, the anger of the people for their humiliation and their loss in the wake of these Herculean phenomena would undoubtedly be directed at the prophet — an uncomfortable position, if not fatal, as Elijah learned. (See 1 Kings 19:10.) The bearer of bad tidings, say nothing of natural calamity, is often blamed for the outcome and held responsible with his life.

The idolaters take their turn

Returning to the narrative, we see that the priests of Baal initiated their part of the challenge on Mt. Carmel.

And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. (1 Kings 18:26.)

These verses imply that they expected not only fire from heaven to ignite their sacrifice, but they also expected a voice. This may be so because such manifestations of heavenly fire had been accompanied in the past by the voice of god, which is in keeping with the catastrophist model of such events and serves to explain why they held that expectation. Indeed, even the bloodletting may have been in similitude of the blood from heaven that also accompanied such an event.

… And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. (1 Kings 18:28.)

All their efforts were to no avail. Baal had failed to hear their pleas by sending fire from heaven, despite the fact that Baal was known as a fire god.

Elijah’s ‘miracle’

After verbally humiliating the priests of Baal at their failure, Elijah went to work on his part of the challenge. He built an altar with a trench around it.

And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. (1 Kings 18:33.)

Perhaps to add insult to injury, Elijah ordered water poured upon the altar three times until the sacrifice was drenched and the trench around the alter was full. Then he was ready.

And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. (1 Kings 18:36.)

Herein Elijah plainly states that he has been acting under the direction of God, as pointed out at the beginning of this article. Of course, the outcome of the challenge was predictable.

Fire from heaven

Fire fell from heaven, consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, the stones, the dust, and “licked up” the water that was in the trench. (1 Kings 18:38.)
Note that this “fire” did not simply light the wood around the sacrifice. It consumed everything in the area — bullock, wood, stones, dust and water! Clearly, this was no ordinary fire.

The rest of the rest of the story

The remaining part of Elijah’s story, which is usually left out of any exegesis, actually holds the final keys to understanding the nature of the entire episode.
Most notably, Elijah and Ahab were far from the altar when the fire fell from heaven. Elijah orders Ahab up the mountain, saying, “Get thee up, eat and drink,” then follows the king to the top of Carmel. Likely, they are both participating in the consumption portion of the sacrifice, an eating and drinking ceremony, which later came to be the ordinance we know as the Sacrament.

Elijah sets a lookout … but for what?

While so engaged, Elijah sends his servant to keep watch, with instruction to “look toward the sea.” Since Mt. Carmel is located inland from the coast, that would mean the servant was looking east, toward the Mediterranean. The servant repeatedly returned with news that “There is nothing,” whereupon Elijah would send him again to look again. Clearly, Elijah knew something was coming and wanted to be certain of his timing to match the approaching body.

Finally, the seventh time the servant is sent to look, he sees a “little cloud” arise out of the sea and reports it to the prophet who then sends the servant to warn the king to get off the mountain. Elijah knows that it is time to seek shelter from what is to come.

Much more than heavenly fire

Elijah’s foreknowledge of the fire from heaven included far more than that single event.

And it came to pass in the meanwhile, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.(1 Kings 18:45.)

Both Elijah and Ahab headed for Jezreel by different routes and means, assumably for the shelter of the city. But Elijah was immediately forced to flee when he learned that Jezebel, upon hearing from Ahab what Elijah had done, swore to take his life.

Wandering text

The narrative at this point diverts from the catastrophist nature of the events and becomes somewhat confused, making this author wonder if is not a later addition or a reorganization of the sequence of events by later writers. In this part of the narrative, Elijah once again takes a ritual sacrament of cake and water and interacts with an angel. This is all entirely plausible, but not in the time frame of the catastrophic event described.

What is clear is that Elijah was prepared to die.

… and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; … (1 Kings 19:4.)

But his resignation to death may not have been due to the threat uttered by Jezebel. The fact that Elijah ultimately takes refuge in a cave rather than some man-made dwelling suggests that he sought to escape a life-threatening, natural event of epic proportions that was unfolding around him. This was typical of past catastrophic events, even as it will be in future events. (See Revelation 6:15.)

Catastrophe spectator

Standing at the entrance to his cave, his face wrapped in his mantle for protection (vs. 13), Elijah watched the advancing storm.

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11, 12.)

This was the final chapter in a catastrophic event that only began with the fire from heaven. It properly should be connected with that event from the beginning of the narrative. The intervening text only serves to obscure that fact, leaving one to wonder if the chronicler truly understood what was going on at that point in time.

A possible model?

Searching for a catastrophist model that might explain all the strange manifestations reported in connection with Elijah’s challenge, perhaps the near-impact model best explains them.

Wal Thornhill, plasma physicist and proponent of the Electric Universe theory, does not agree with the typical impact scenario described by today’s planetary scientists and as depicted in recent motion pictures and television documentaries. He claims that long before most comets or asteroids that might have Earth in their crosshairs ever reach their target, a discharge or series of discharges leap across space to equalize the net electrical charge of the two bodies, Earth and the intruder.

Notably, the scenario outlined above fits the Elijah story very well. Not only would an interplanetary lightning bolt fall to earth from a clear sky, a mountain, elevated above a surrounding plane, would be a likely place for it to strike. Thus, Elijah’s decision to locate the challenge on Mt. Carmel would have facilitated such a strike.

Fire? Or lightning?

The fact that the lightning bolt not only consumed the sacrifice but the altars as well suggests another phenomenon that Thornhill ascribes to these interplanetary discharges: electric arc machining.

According to Thornhill, these discharges are not unlike the electric arc that welders use when they employ a carbon rod to machine away material from the point of contact. He theorizes that most cratering seen to scar the faces of planets and moons in our solar system are the result of electric arc machining. A brief arc of this type between the Earth and an intruder would suffice to explain the consumption by “fire” of Elijah’s sacrifice and altar.

A near impact

The “little cloud” that Elijah’s servant reports emerging from the sea was probably the approaching object as it seemed to rise from the horizon. Looking in the right place, one might see the object coming, depending upon its size, for several hours before it actually passed the Earth. This would also explain the subsequent events, whether the object impacted the Earth or narrowly missed.

Close pass or impact?

If the object passed close by the Earth, its gravitational and electrical influence would still have caused the darkened skies, wind and earthquake reported in the narrative. The sky would darken ominously, and what would have appeared to be a great storm would quickly approach as the effects of the intruder made themselves ever more manifest in the Earth’s meteorology. This would produce “a great and strong wind” followed immediately by an earthquake as the object passed by.

Hearing voices

The “still small voice” is often interpreted spiritually as the voice of the Holy Ghost. While that possibility cannot be discounted, it may be that this was not so in this case. Since the voice, in this case, occurred in immediate proximity to a series of catastrophic phenomena, it may have been another variation of the many sounds heard to come from the heavens in such planetary disasters. Sometimes it sounded like an spoken word, such as the name Yahweh, uttered as a roar or as a whisper. Other times it sounded like trumpets, bells, chimes, drums or cymbals. Sometimes it was harmonious, as a choir; other times it was more cacophonous and dissonant than the loudest rock-and-roll concert you can imagine. And sometimes, it was a “still small voice” that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Additionally, the narrative clearly differentiates between the “still small voice” and the voice of the angel that often conversed with Elijah.

Elijah’s catastrophe

So we see that the fire from heaven in the days of Elijah was likely only part of a greater catastrophic event. And like earlier prophets who came forward during ancient catastrophic events, Elijah was equal to the task. This puts him in elite company. Indeed, careful examination of the biblical record reveals that the greatest prophets, those most remembered and revered, served during times of planetary catastrophe.

Most biblical scholars, untrained in the discipline of catastrophism, fail to notice the larger picture. Thus, they focus on the various elements of the catastrophic event as autonomous and unrelated. In this author’s opinion, this presents a distorted and laconic view of the actual event. This is the case with many scriptural accounts, including Joshua’s Long Day, the Exodus and events predicted for the last days in Revelation.

One thing is certain. The catastrophist view of history and prophecy allows a more complete and revealing understanding of the scriptures than does the orthodox interpretation as we see in Elijah’s adventure.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2002

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