The famous story of Elijah on Mount Carmel is read as the haftarah for the portion of Ki Tisa. In it, Elijah, the prophet of G‑d, puts to the test what was at the time perceived as the most supreme and powerful of all the gods—Baal. The central story in the Torah portion is that of the Golden Calf, and thus the story of the haftarah serves as an obvious sequel to this unfortunate episode.

The time was that of Ahab, king of Israel. Historically, most of the kings who ruled the state of the Ten Tribes (known as “Israel”) were far from virtuous. Ahab, however, took this to an unprecedented low: “Ahab did more to anger the L‑rd, the G‑d of Israel, than all the kings of Israel who had preceded him.”1

Ahab’s behaviour was influenced in no small measure by his wicked wife, Jezebel. As a princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Sidon, she led both her husband and his kingdom into the thick of the pagan culture in which she was so immersed. Upon marrying her, Ahab fell entirely under her spell.

During the period of the First Temple, which includes Ahab’s reign, prophecy was still available and widespread. The principal prophet and sage of the time was Elijah (Eliyahu). It was Elijah who singlehandedly undertook the opposition to Ahab and Jezebel. In view of Ahab’s terrible conduct, Elijah came before the king and swore in the name of G‑d that rain would cease to fall in the entire region. This decree would remain in place until he, Elijah, would revoke it.

Sure enough, after some time a fierce drought raged in the region. Elijah went into hiding, as Jezebel was bent on killing him as well as all the other prophets of G‑d. Three years had passed, and G‑d spoke once again to Elijah. This time he was to appear again before Ahab, in the hope that the time would be ripe for the harsh decree to be rescinded.

The situation had grown so desperate that Ahab had personally joined his chief of staff, Obadiah (Ovadyahu), in a search for animal fodder. They divided the territory between themselves, and each of them continued alone in the field. Now, Obadiah was a very righteous man: under the very noses of Ahab and Jezebel, he hid one hundred prophets of G‑d and taken responsibility for their sustenance.2

While on the search, Obadiah met Elijah as he came towards him. Elijah instructed Obadiah to tell Ahab that he had arrived. Seeing how terrified Obadiah was to do this, Elijah swore to him that he would indeed appear before Ahab and not disappear as he had done before. Obadiah conveyed to Ahab that Elijah was in the vicinity, and Ahab made his way towards Elijah.

After an initial sharp exchange between the two, Elijah said that if the king wanted any rain to fall, he was to gather the entire people on Mount Carmel. Joining them were to be the entire cohort of eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Asherah (another one of the primary gods/goddesses of the time).

Having no choice, Ahab conceded. The people gathered in excitement and anticipation. As for the cohort of prophets that Elijah spoke of, only the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal made it to the gathering. The four hundred prophets of Asherah were actually supported by Jezebel, and she, in whichever way, made sure they would not be in attendance.

Elijah stepped forward and began haranguing the people: “How long will you be dancing between two ideas? If the L‑rd is G‑d, go after Him, and if the Baal—go after him!” The scene was utterly surreal. The people were quiet. They were torn. In their heart of hearts they knew who was the true G‑d—the G‑d of their fathers, whom they had forsaken. On the other hand, the influence and lure of the popular culture was so immediate and powerful. Could it all be just tossed away as nonsense?

Knowing exactly what was going through their minds, Elijah continued. He asserted the fact that he alone had publicly remained faithful as a prophet to G‑d, while standing right there were hundreds of prophets of Baal. But he was ready to go to the test. Elijah proposed that two sacrifices should be brought, and the god who would answer the call by sending a fire to consume it, He would be deemed the true god. The people eagerly agreed.

While most of the people were of the wavering sort that Elijah described, it is hard to know what the thoughts of these Baal prophets were. Were they simply lifelong con artists? Brainwashed? Self-deceptive? A mixture of the above? This may relate to the question of whether these men were actually Jewish, or imported “mavens” from the the neighbouring nations.

Regardless, what remains incredible is that they all sheepishly followed every proposition of Elijah, even as he made them a total laughingstock. It is readily demonstrable that Elijah, with nothing but the power of the faith that he projected, took command of the entire event, even though quantitatively he was totally outnumbered. A lesson for all generations!

The bull for Baal was slaughtered, cut in pieces and placed on the altar. Over the course of the entire morning the prophets paced up and down, calling and praying that Baal answer them. As noon came, Elijah began poking fun at them: “Call with a loud voice… Perhaps he is talking, or he is pursuing enemies, or he is on a journey; perhaps he is sleeping and will awaken.” The Baal prophets whipped themselves into a frenzy, lacerating themselves with swords and spears—anything to get Baal to respond. But nothing came.

Now it was Elijah’s turn. He called all of the people close, and began by mending “the torn-down altar of the L‑rd.” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that Saul, the first king of Israel, had built an altar for G‑d on Mount Carmel after returning from his war with Amalek. The kings of Israel had destroyed every altar that had been built for G‑d, replacing them with altars for idol worship. Elijah now went about repairing this altar.

In building the altar, Elijah took twelve stones, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. Around it he dug a trench, 100 by 50 amot (cubits)—equivalent to at least 1200 square feet. After slaughtering the bull, cutting it up and setting it on the firewood, Elijah instructed that four pitchers of water be filled and poured over the sacrifice. He repeated this three times, making a total of twelve pitchersful—again corresponding to the twelve tribes.3 Not only was the sacrifice drenched, but the entire trench was also filled with water. This was all in order that the spectacle of the consuming fire should be magnified all the more.

The time of the afternoon offering came—the time when today we pray the Minchah prayer. The verse makes an obvious reference to this, from which the Talmud infers that “one must always be vigilant with regard to the afternoon prayer, as Elijah’s prayer was answered only at the afternoon prayer.”4 Elijah stepped forward and prayed that he now be answered, and that through this the people would know the true G‑d.

In his prayer Elijah adds a request that through the miracle the people will know that he is truly the agent of G‑d, and that G‑d had instructed him to do all this. The commentaries actually differ whether G‑d had actually instructed Elijah to perform this demonstration. Some say that this was the case, while others contend that Elijah had done this on his own accord, this being the most efficient way by which he could get the Jews to return to G‑d. The Talmud says that this was also a prayer that the people should recognize that the fire was a G‑dly answer, and that it had not come by means of magic and sorcery.5

Elijah’s prayer was answered. A G‑dly fire came down and consumed the entire offering, including all the water, and even the stones and earth of the altar. The people fell on their face and cried out “The L‑rd, He is the G‑d! The L‑rd, He is the G‑d!”

The text of the haftarah finishes here, but the story continues… After the fire came down, Elijah immediately instructed that the Baal prophets be seized. The people, led by Elijah, dragged them down to the Kishon brook and killed them on the spot.

Now that Baal and its prophets and been dealt with, it was now time for another prayer. Elijah told Ahab that he could go, eat and drink, for rain would soon come. Elijah himself ascended to the summit of Mount Carmel, crouched to the ground, and put his face between his knees; another miracle had to happen, and it had to happen now. He sent his attendant seven times to look to see if any cloud had appeared over the sea. Finally, by the seventh time, a tiny cloud was spotted. Elijah knew he had been answered. He sent a message to Ahab that he should rush home so that the rain would not hinder his travel. Soon after this the skies grayed, and a downpour of rain descended on the Land of Israel.

Ahab arrived home and related the entire episode to his wife. Jezebel, however, was not to be fazed by this; on the contrary, she was incensed at the slaying of the Baal prophets, and swore to take revenge upon Elijah. Now again the faithful and courageous prophet had to flee. The story of Elijah continues…6