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CHAPTER IV THE PROPHETS AND THE NEW GOD IN ISRAEL An appreciation of the strength of Elijah the prophet who was the central figure in this period must be based upon an appreciation of the ability and sagacity of King Ahab of northern Israel, with whom he measured his power. Ahab came to the throne by inheritance from his father, one of the ablest kings of Israel, about 875 B.C. From his strong capital at Samaria he had, encouraged by the prophets, assumed an aggressive attitude toward Syria, and had in fact won two decisive battles which restored a part of Israel's lost territory and gave assurance of temporary peace. Meantime a new and greater foe was appearing upon the horizon. Assyria was commencing her western campaigns, which held not only Palestine but Syria in deadly fear for centuries. All three nations, Syria, Israel, and Judah, banded themselves together in a temporary alliance against Assyria, sharing in a defeat which ended the brief confederacy. We find this event recorded on the Assyrian monuments. But Ahab had further strengthened his kingdom by an alliance with Phoenicia, confirmed by his marriage with the princess Jezebel, the daughter of the priest-king of Tyre, one of the chief principalities of Phoenicia.
In accordance with the custom of ancient nations the gods of both parties were recognized. Jezebel, a religious enthusiast, as well as a woman of great force, brought with her to Samaria a new and foreign religion, the worship of the Phoenician Baal. A species of Baalism had existed in Palestine from the earliest times, as the old religion of the Canaanites, who had preceded the Hebrews. It was a simple worship of the powers of nature, and had presented no great obstacle to the religion of Jehovah, its worst practices having been stamped out by the prophets, and its powers passed over to the current conception of Jehovah, who was now looked upon as the giver of fertility and the god of all the processes of Nature. .
The Phoenician Baalism was something vastly different. It not only attributed to Baal all increase in lands, flocks, and family, but its worship was accompanied by ceremonies most debasing, frequently amounting to debauchery and crime. Introduced as it was by the coming of a new queen, with a large body of professional Baal prophets, such a religion, giving license under the guise of worship to the worst passions of men and women, took a fearful hold upon a hot-blooded oriental people. The prophets of Jehovah, seeing clearly that it was only the distinctive and inspiring religion of Israel that had enabled her to avoid absorption by the surrounding nations, and that not only the religion of Jehovah was at stake, but the very existence of the nation itself, banded themselves together in a fury of opposition to the foreign god. It was a fight to the death. Jezebel, resenting their interference with what she considered her rights, instituted a persecution of the prophets of Jehovah, in which many were slaughtered and hundreds of them driven from the land. Her husband, King Ahab, seems not to have abandoned the religion of his fathers, but evidently saw no great danger in the Phoenician Baalism.
Here was indeed a crisis for the prophets. The glories and the insidious immoralities of Baal worship were pitted against the simplicity and the stern morality of the religion of Jehovah. Which would survive ?
Elijah the Spokesman of the Prophets.—Although well-nigh exterminated as an organized body, the faith of the prophets who survived the persecution of Jezebel was not shaken. There was need only of a spokesman strong enough for the situation. Such a one appeared in the person of Elijah. Coming from the east of the Jordan, clothed in the hairy mantle which seems at one time to have characterized the dress of the prophet, fierce and majestic in his solitude, unmindful of the terrors of Jezebel's persecution, he appeared before Ahab, ready, alone and unaided, to put to the test the power of Jehovah over the forces of Nature. The rain upon which all Palestine depended for life-giving showers should furnish the instrument of this test. The record tells us, “And Elijah from Tishbe of Gilead," said unto Ahab, As Jehovah the
1 Locate Gilead on the map east of the Jordan.
God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these three years, but according to my word.”
As suddenly as the prophet had come, he disappeared. We have stories of him, as he passed from place to place, driven by the drought, to find food and drink, until beyond the borders of Palestine, in Phoenicia, he waited until a sufficient time had elapsed to teach his lesson of Jehovah's hand in the drought. The following story of his return after three years is preceded by a tragic picture of conditions of famine in the land, as King Ahab and his chief minister, Obadiah, traveled, each in a different direction about the land, vainly seeking for water with which to save the lives of a few of the horses and mules from the royal stables. It also reveals to us the long and fruitless three years' search of Ahab for Elijah, and suggests mysterious disappearances of the unrelenting prophet when Ahab's pursuers were close upon his track.
And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said, “Is it thou, my lord Elijah ?" And he answered him, “It is I: go, tell thy lord, Behold,
Elijah is here." And he said, “Wherein have I sinned, that thou 5 wouldest deliver thy servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me?
As Jehovah thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee: and when they said, He is not here, he took an oath of the kingdom and nation, that they found
thee not. And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah Io is here. And it will come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee,
that the Spirit of Jehovah will carry thee whither I know not; and so when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find thee, he will slay me: but I thy servant fear Jehovah from my youth.: Was it not
told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the prophets of Jehovah, 15 how I hid a hundred men of Jehovah's prophets by fifty in a cave,
and fed them with bread and water? And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here; and he will slay me.” And Elijah said, “As Jehovah of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself unto him to-day.”2
1 * Note the thoroughness of Ahab's search. It is clear that Obadiah fears that Elijah may disappear as he has apparently done in former times, transported, as Obadiah thinks, by the spirit of Jehovah. Evidently there was great mystery surrounding the coming and going of Elijah.
2 *Jehovah of Hosts: here the god of battle, but later the term came to have a more spiritual significance.