The Story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

The haftarah1 for parshat Ki Tisa tells of the confrontation between Elijah, the prophet of G‑d, and 450 prophets of Baal.

The Jewish people were at an all-time low. Queen Jezebel of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who introduced Baal worship to the northern ten tribes, set out to kill all the prophets of G‑d. She was successful in killing almost all of them—aside for 100, whom Obadiah had hidden in two caves and provided with food and water, and Elijah, who had eluded capture.

Elijah appeared before her husband, King Ahab, who blamed Elijah for the famine that gripped the region because he knew that Elijah had the ability to pray for it to end. Elijah told Ahab that the famine was because he turned away from G‑d and worshipped the Baals. He then told Ahab that if he wanted the famine to end, he should summon all of Israel to Mount Carmel, together with the prophets of Baal.

The people gathered at Mount Carmel, and Elijah spoke to the people of Israel: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If G‑d is G‑d, then follow Him. And if it is Baal, then follow him."2 The people didn't know what to say.

Then Elijah proposed a challenge: "I alone am left as a prophet of G‑d, and the prophets of Baal are 450 men."3 He then laid down the rules of the contest. Each side would be given a bull to offer to their deity. It would be prepared and placed on the pyre, but no fire would be put to them. "You will call on the name of your gods and I will call on the name of G‑d. The G‑d who answers with fire, He is G‑d."4

The people agreed.

Elijah said that the prophets of Baal should go first, because they were the majority. They chose a bull, prepared it, and put it on the wood on their altar. They called in the name of the Baal from morning until afternoon and "there was no sound, and there was no answer."5 They jumped and pranced around their altar, but it was to no avail.

At noon, Elijah started to ridicule them: "Cry louder ... maybe he is walking, or deep in thought, or on a journey. Or perhaps he is sleeping."6 They cried louder and they cut themselves until they were gushing blood, but "there was no sound, there was no answer, and there was no listener."7

Elijah commanded the people to "come near me,"8 so they would know that there was no trickery involved in what he was about to do. He took 12 stones, one for each tribe of Israel and built them into an altar for G‑d, and he dug a ditch around it. He prepared his bull, arranged the wood and put the bull onto it. He told the people to pour water over the bull and the wood, again and again, until the whole trench was filled with water.

It was at the time that the minchah (afternoon) offering was brought in the Temple,9 and Elijah called out to G‑d, "...answer me G‑d answer me, and this people will know that You, G‑d, are G‑d…”10 A fire of G‑d descended and consumed the offering, the wood, the stones, the earth and the water that was in the ditch. When the people saw this, they fell on their faces and said, "G‑d is G‑d, G‑d is G‑d."11

The Connection and the Lessons

Parshat Ki Sisa tells of the sin of the golden calf and the forgiveness the Jewish people received from G‑d (through the 13 Attributes of Mercy and the giving of the half shekel).

The Haftarah also tells of a sinning people that return to G‑d

Also, in the parshah, the Jewish people sinned with a calf (a young bull). And in the Haftarah, it was through two bulls that they were put back on the right path.

There are many lessons to be learned from this Haftarah. I will touch on a few.

Elijah asked the people, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If G‑d is G‑d, then follow Him. And if it is Ba'al, then follow him."

From his word it seems as if he almost wished they would serve Baal rather than waver between the two. Isn't idol worship one of the worst things a Jew can do? Yes, but in a sense, wavering between two paths is even worse, as will be explained.

How does it happen that Jews, "believers, the children of believers,"12 could serve idols?

The Rambam13 explains that it was because the flow of Divine energy comes through the stars and constellations. People therefore began to honor the celestial bodies, hoping to get something from them. But this was silly, like asking a hammer to drive in a nail. It is not the hammer, but the person holding it, who has the power to make that decision.

They were yearning for something and mistakenly thought that the celestial bodies could give it to them. They had no meaningful connection to the celestial bodies. They just wanted to get something from them. It is like someone who becomes your friend because he wants something from you, without a real base to the relationship.

This is the essence of idol worship, serving for a possible gain.

This is also how it was possible that the Jews were tempted into idol worship, not that they had any meaningful connection to it, but they saw it as a means for a personal gain.

In response, Elijah asked the people of Israel, "How long will you waver between two opinions?”14

There are, in fact, two kinds of wavering. First, there is the person who is simply not sure. He is in doubt as to whom to serve, so he serves both.

The second is the person who really doesn't care whom he serves; he just wants the gain, and he will serve whoever he thinks will give him that.

There are three ways that wavering is worse than idol worship.

First, it is much more difficult to repent and return to G‑d. Since he still serves G‑d, he doesn't not feel the same urgent need to repent. In contrast, someone who just serves idols, when he recognizes that G‑d is the only true G‑d, he will immediately realize his mistake, and repent with all of his heart.

Second, when someone believes in and serves idols, although he is committing a grave sin, at least, he has a general belief in spirituality, and a desire to do the right thing. So, when he finds out that G‑d is the only true G‑d, he will drop what is false and immediately embrace what is true. In contrast, the one who lacks spiritual conviction is usually cold to the whole idea altogether. It is very hard for a person who thinks this way to find his way to G‑d.

The third problem is the negative effect his beliefs and actions have on others. Someone who wants to follow the Torah will not learn from someone who is an ouvert idol worshipper. But the waiverer has a facade of someone who follows the Torah. Others may learn from him and be lead astray.

Idol Worship Today

Even though idol worship is not an issue today, there are those who worship money, honor, power, or fame. All for personal gain, it is the same as idol worship.

Wavering in this case means acting according to Torah most of the time but occasionally dropping observance when convenient. And this is harmful because of the same three reasons mentioned above.

Even the waverer could repent and come close to G‑d, but it takes intense repentance, a sincere search for the truth, and an embrace of extreme clarity—like the Children of Israel on Mount Carmel who proclaimed, "G‑d is G‑d! G‑d is G‑d!"15

The Belligerent Bull

The Midrash16 tells us that the bull that was to be offered to Baal didn't want to go. He said to Elijah, "I and my friend came out of one belly17... he will go up to the portion of G‑d, and the Divine name will be sanctified through him, and I will go up to the portion of Baal, to anger my creator."18

Elijah responded to the bull: "Just as the name of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will be sanctified through this one that is with me, so will it be sanctified through you."

From Elijah's words, it seems that the sanctification of G‑d's name of both bulls are equal. But the one that Elijah brought up for G‑d was part of an open miracle, that everyone saw how a fire of G‑d consumed it. This miracle showed them the truth of G‑d. On the other hand, the bull that was brought for Baal merely showed that Baal was false. How can they be equal?

The answer is that through what Elijah did on Mount Carmel, the oneness of G‑d was revealed, as they all proclaimed, "G‑d is G‑d! G‑d is G‑d!"

And when the oneness of G‑d is revealed, the true G‑dly purpose of everything shines through. This means that everything in the world has a G‑dly purpose, even the things that we perceive as negative or bad. And when you begin to understand that it is all from G‑d, you realize that underneath the facade of bad lies G‑d's will and purpose. You recognize the good hidden in everything.

Here, the essential oneness of G‑d was brought out through the bull that was brought for Baal. And this revelation is equal everywhere, so both bulls equally sanctified the name of G‑d.

This is a lesson to us. Some may think: "I only want to deal with the bull for G‑d, only with the people who clearly serve G‑d, but I don't want to have anything to do with the bull for Baal, those who don't serve G‑d." And in truth, the oneness of G‑d is in them as well, and if you invest your time and heart into that person who may be far from the Torah path, even though it takes you away from your own growth in Torah, you will uncover the oneness of G‑d in that person, and he will return to G‑d. When that happens, all that you perceived as negative in that person become meritorious. Because, when someone does repentance, his transgressions turn to merits.

This work, investing time and effort into someone who is far from Torah, is very important and should come before your own growth. As we read, that first the bull for Baal was offered and only after, the bull for G‑d.19

May we strengthen our resolve in our service to G‑d, and recognize His true oneness. And through our work with others, we will help them to also recognize the oneness of G‑d. This will surely bring us to hear Elijah herald the coming of Moshiach, when all will proclaim, "G‑d is G‑d! G‑d is G‑d!" May it happen soon.