Is God punishing or loving?

There is always some truth in a stereotype. The sense of God conveyed in the New Testament is more approachable, in general, whereas the God conveyed in the Old Testament is more awesome, in general....


Written By Susan Hanson

Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." The people did not answer him a word.  —1 Kings 18: 21

We first meet the prophet Elijah when he is at the home of Hiel of Bethel, consoling the Israeli commander following the death of his two sons. Tragically, Hiel had ignored the religious mandate against refortifying the city of Jericho, and now he was paying the price. According to Jewish tradition, Elijah had not wanted to visit Hiel, but he changed his mind when God promised to fulfill whatever prophesy Elijah made against the godless people he so despised.

King Ahab, on whose orders Hiel had acted, was also present when Elijah arrived. Not surprisingly, the king and the prophet began a verbal sparring match almost immediately. Ahab struck first, saying

Was not Moses greater than Joshua, and did he not say that God would let no rain descend upon the earth, if Israel served and worshipped idols? There is not an idol known to which I do not pay homage, yet we enjoy all that is goodly and desirable. Dost thou believe that if the words of Moses remain unfulfilled, the words of Joshua will come true?

Enraged by this challenge, Elijah announced that because of the king's idolatry, a great drought would soon occur. And it did. For three years, while Israel suffered through terrible famine, Elijah kept himself hidden, surviving through the generosity of others. But after that time, the Midrash tells us, God felt compassion for the people and "tried to induce the prophet to release Him from His promise." Elijah did so, but only after God caused the creek he used for water to go dry. 

It was at this point also that the prophet proposed what amounted to a 9th century dual: He challenged Ahab to gather the prophets of Baal and meet him at Mount Carmel, where the two factions would each invoke their god to start a sacrificial fire. According to the account in 1 Kings, the prophets of Baal prayed from morning until night with no result, save to encourage Elijah to mock them: "Surely [Baal] is a god,"  the prophet said; "either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."

To humiliate the prophets of Baal even more, Elijah ordered that his own kindling be soaked with water, thus making it doubly difficult for God to set it ablaze. Then, in response to Elijah's prayer, "the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water…"

Like most prophets—both then and now—Elijah was seldom comfortable to be around. He not only trusted God implicitly, a trait that made his actions seem audacious at times, but he also confronted people with truths they didn't want to hear and questions they didn't want to address. Perhaps none of these is as important today as the one he posed on Mount Carmel: "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him."

O God, help me to love you with my whole heart and to follow you with constancy and faith, trusting that in doing so, I will live more deeply and completely in your grace.