Bailie on Elijah

Excerpt from Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroads, 1995), pp. 167-173.


With Cain’s inept and superficial rejection of sacrifice, and then faithful Abraham’s act of animal substitution, the Bible begins the world’s most remarkable account of the world’s most daunting, morally compelling, and religiously daring enterprise: the gradual extrication of the human race from the grip of sacred violence, cult sacrificing, and scapegoating — undertaken in almost blind fidelity to the God who chose slaves as historical agents and a hanged man as the messiah. Because we humans are so socially and psychologically adapted to sacrificial arrangements, however, the renunciation of sacrifice has proceeded — and is still proceeding — by fits and starts. Except for the astonishing moment when Jesus looked down from the Cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” every rejection of sacrifice took place within the sacrificial system, albeit a system whose power is waning. Some may manage through grace, devotion, conversion, or selflessness to free themselves from mimetic compulsions and sacrificial reflexes, but they continue to inhabit a world — like the biblical one — that rejects sacrifice sacrificially.

With the emergence of Israelite national institutions, and especially with the building of the Temple of Jerusalem under Solomon, Israel entered an entirely new historical phase. To a considerable degree, it still saw itself vis-à-vis its enemies, and waging war against them was still a religious as well as a patriotic duty. But the impressive Temple at Jerusalem, the locus for Israel’s cult of animal sacrifice, became the new center of religious life. With varying degrees of cooperation and tension, the kings and the Temple priesthood presided over Israel’s political and religious life respectively. Eventually, a third force emerged, one destined to change the moral and religious landscape of Israel: the prophetic movement. The kings, the priests, and the prophets — these were the central forces in Israel’s cultural dynamism from the time of Samuel to the Babylonian exile.

The term “prophet” — in Hebrew nabi — can be used to refer to so diverse a group of ancient religious enthusiasts that it almost loses any specificity. Standing head and shoulders above all those to whom the term was applied, both in Israel and among her neighboring cultures, are Israel’s great prophets whose lives, words, and deeds are recorded in the books of the Bible that bear their names — Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on. These strange and striking men are easily distinguished from those prophets who were part of the prophetic guilds or brotherhoods that were active in many cultures of the time, Israel included. Though their writings are placed at the end of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible’s Old Testament, it was very largely their influence that brought the Bible as we know it into existence.

The Bible’s supreme anthropological value is that it allows us to see the structures and the dynamics of humanity’s conventional cultural and religious life and to watch as these structures give way under the weight of a revelation incompatible with them. It was a slow, historical process. Even though many of the early prophets possess only faint hints of the greatness of those who were to come after them, one can nevertheless see in their ministry the seeds of what was to come. Part of what we have to learn from Israel’s prophets, therefore, we can learn only by understanding how they emerged as the living embodiment of the anti-sacrificial impulse that had been incubating in Israel’s cultural history since its inception.

In what follows I will briefly discuss four episodes involving prophets from widely varying historical stages in biblical Israel’s spiritual and anthropological journey: Elijah, Micaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. As ancient as the events depicted in these episodes are, if all that could be achieved by reviewing them was the satisfaction of some historical curiosity, the exercise would not be warranted. On the contrary, however, by comparing and contrasting these texts, I think we can catch a vivid glimpse of the spiritual, historical and anthropological issues that are at the heart of our own cultural crisis.

Elijah: Anti-sacrificial Sacrifice

One of the most famous of the early prophets was Elijah, a man who lived during the reign of king Ahab, one of the most notoriously wicked kings in the Scriptures. Under the influence of his wife, Jezebel, Ahab built altars to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, and, as the text says rather euphemistically, “committed other crimes as well” (1 Kings 16:33). To better grasp the overall religious atmosphere of Ahab’s reign and the probable nature of the “other crimes,” the next verse in the First Kings narrative can be taken as a clue. It reads:

It was in his time that Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho; he laid its foundations at the price of Abiram, his first-born; its gates he erected at the price of his youngest son Segub . . . (1 Kings 16:34)

This is an explicit reference to what are called foundational sacrifices. Common enough in the Canaan of biblical times, these rituals sacrificed humans, typically children, to the patron god of the city or building being erected, and placed the bodies of these victims into or under the foundations or walls of the structure. By referring to this notorious practice in the verse following the reference to Ahab’s “other crimes,” the author of this text infers by innuendo that the Baal cult that thrived under Ahab could be expected to eventually tolerate sacrifices such as these. The text assumes that a drift toward such things was inevitable. Human sacrifice was often seen, not only as the most shocking of the Canaanite religious customs, but as the one toward which all the others ineluctably led. A later passage, for instance, says of Ahaz, king of Judah, that:

He followed the example of the kings of Israel, even causing his son to pass through fire, copying the shameful practices of the nations which Yahweh had dispossessed for the sons of Israel. He offered sacrifices and incense on the high places, on the hills and under every spreading tree. (2 Kings 16:3-4)

Causing a child to “pass through fire” was the standard euphemism for child sacrifice in the ancient world. The “high places” were sacrificial cults that had grown up in the countryside. Since human sacrifice was the most horrendous of the religious perversions that occurred at these shrines, the term “high places” became a synonym for shrines engaged in human sacrifice. Another reference to Ahab’s pagan ways occurs in the Second Kings account of the loathed king of Judah, Manasseh.

He did what is displeasing to Yahweh, copying the shameful practices of the nations whom Yahweh had dispossessed for the sons of Israel. . . he set up altars to Baal and made a sacred pole as Ahab king of Israel had one. . . . He built altars to the whole array of heaven in the two courts of the Temple of Yahweh. He caused his son to pass through the fire. . . (2 Kings 21:35-6a)

The condemnation of Ahab’s apostasy seems to be based on the understanding that, unless it is remedied, his pagan predilections would lead (or perhaps had already led) to the same abominable human sacrifices to which Hiel and Manasseh resorted. Among the “other crimes,” in other words — and most abhorrent of them all — was human sacrifice. In fact, since Ahab’s Syrian wife Jezebel had begun “butchering the prophets of Yahweh,” a non-ritual form of human sacrifice was already occurring. The question of course is: with what religious and moral resources will the anti-sacrificial forces under Elijah respond to this abomination? Will the sacrificial outrages be ended by sacrificial means? Will the outrageous behavior exert such a mimetic fascination that it becomes the model for the campaign aimed at eliminating it? All one has to do is look around to see that this question remains one of the most burning questions of our time.

Elijah confronted Ahab and accused him of apostasy. He demanded a showdown on Mount Carmel between himself, as the true Yahwist prophet, and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Once “all Israel” was assembled on the mountain, Elijah, as Yahweh’s sole spokesman, insisted on a contest between two rituals, one performed by all the prophets of Baal and the other presided over by Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh. Both he and the prophets of Baal were to build sacrificial pyres, slaughter a bull, dismember it, and lay it on the wood. Neither was to set fire to the pyre. Then the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the one prophet of Yahweh were to engage in a ritual contest to see whose god was the real God.

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal: “You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of mine. The god who answers with fire, is God indeed.” (1 Kings 18:24) The god who answers with fire is god indeed. What a central tenet of primitive religion this sentence is. In the Old Testament, as elsewhere, fire is a frequent synonym for sacred violence. When Aaron’s sons died as a result of a ritual meltdown, the text said: “from Yahweh’s presence a flame leaped out and consumed them, and they perished in the presence of Yahweh.” (Leviticus 10:3 NJB) In these and many other instances, fire is a synonym for sacred violence, but sacred violence is not something performed by metaphysical agents. It is human violence performed in a religious frenzy. If fire is to come down from Yahweh, or if a god is to answer with fire, the ardor of religious firebrands must kindled. The contest between Elijah and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal is a contest to determine who can “fire” “all Israel” with the more convincing quotient of primitive religious zeal. The ritual showdown begins with prophets of Baal.

[The prophets of Baal] took the bull and prepared it, and from morning to midday they called on the name of Baal. “O Baal, answer us!” they cried, but there was no voice, no answer, as they performed their hobbling dance around the altar they had made. Midday came, and Elijah mocked them. “Call louder,” he said . . . So they shouted louder and gashed themselves, as was their custom, with swords and spears until blood flowed down them. Midday passed, and they ranted on . . . but there was no voice, no answer, no attention given to them. (1 Kings 18:26-29)

By mocking the prophets of Baal with such audacity and hurling insults at them, Elijah injects precisely that discordant voice which is so destructive of primitive religious unanimity. When it came his turn to invoke the fire, Elijah would pour water on the carcass to dramatize the awesomeness of his deity. It was really, however, his mocking catcalls that had the effect of pouring cold water on the religious frenzy of his opponents and keeping the spectators from being caught up in it. The Baalist prophets responded to the dampening effect of Elijah’s mockery with wilder and more flamboyant ritual excesses, culminating in a frenzy of ritual violence during which the prophets “gashed themselves, as was their custom, with swords and spears until blood flowed down them.” The function of this “custom,” a familiar one in archaic societies, is clear. The mind enthralled in religious frenzy is a mind so mimetically excited that ritual gestures — especially violent ones resulting in bloodshed — can set in motion an orgy of violence of precisely the kind that its perpetrators interpret in retrospect as the violence of the gods. In other words, the behavior of the Baalist prophets makes perfect sense in light of their underlying goal conjuring into existence a convincing display of sacred violence.

The story purports to demonstrate the prophet of Yahweh’s moral and religious superiority over the prophets of Baal. Elijah’s superiority, such as it was, may have consisted of his clever exploitation of the mimetic frenzy which his religious opponents were able to whip up. It is mistake to think that the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal involves first the Baalist ritual and then the Yahwist one under Elijah. The ritual over which Elijah presided began the moment the ritual set in motion by the prophets of Baal began to exert its mimetic fascination of its onlookers. Elijah simply turned their ritual into the prelude to his own. In fact, what makes the conclusion to Elijah’s ritual so anthropologically convincing is that it was preceded by the wild and violent one performed by the prophets of Baal. When their ritual ended without having coaxed the god to “answer with fire,” it was Elijah’s turn. It is with a palpable sense of pride that the text notes that Elijah needed none of the crude ritual excesses in order to get his god to answer with fire, but the pride is misplaced. It is not that Elijah invoked divine fire without ritual, but that he invoked it by exploiting the mimetic power and cathartic potential which his opponents’ ritual excesses made available.

The prophets of Baal may well have understood, as ancients often did, that the god who answers with fire was a god whose worshipers became so filled with the god’s fiery zeal that they became enthusiastic instruments of it. (The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek en-theos and referred originally to a form of possession that typically accompanied ritual ecstasies.) Yet the prophets of Baal seem not to have understood the workings of this contagious phenomenon well enough to have consciously aimed their ritual at those assembled to observe it. Their liturgical focus was on their god and the sacrificial animal whose carcass they implored him to consume. Elijah, however, seems to have understood that the real locus of the religious violence he sought to conjure was not the pyre and the carcass but the people. He began his ritual invocation of the god who answers with fire by fanning the smoldering embers of the failed Baalist ritual. He turned to the people.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me,” and all the people came closer to him. He repaired the altar of Yahweh which had been broken down. Elijah took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob . . . and built an altar in the name of Yahweh. (1 Kings 18:30-32)

“Come closer to me,” Elijah said. To fully appreciate the ritual significance of this phrase we have to perceive its psychological as well as its physical reference. Elijah then poured water on the carcass of the slain bull, an almost comic antic that drew his opponents’ attention back to the altar. His attention, meanwhile, remained on his audience, the dry tinder on which the embers from the pagan spectacle of ritual violence were falling. His ritual consisted of blowing on those embers. If there was to be an epiphany of holy wrath, this was where the god who answers with fire would appear. Once the fire was kindled, Elijah insisted that what was about to happen was not his doing; but Yahweh’s.

At the time when the offering is presented, Elijah the prophet stepped forward. “Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,” he said, “let them know today that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, that I have done these things at your command.” (1 Kings 18:36)

Elijah wanted it to be known that he was functioning as Yahweh’s representative and acting at Yahweh’s command. As with Moses, his ability to successfully assert that claim was critical to the outcome of the ritual he was choreographing. In such a sacrificially surcharged situation, the solemn declaration that the spectacular events to follow were sanctioned by the god enraged by pagan idolaters would, by itself, probably be enough to set these spectacular events in motion.

Then the fire of Yahweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this they fell on their faces. “Yahweh is God,” they cried, “Yahweh is God.” Elijah said, “Seize the prophets of Baal: do not let one of them escape.” They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the wadi Kishon, and he slaughtered them there. (1 Kings 18:38-40)

It is not enough to see the obvious: that Elijah has resorted to human sacrifice. That may be a moral abomination, and it may shock the pious reader of the Bible to see it without rose colored glasses, but human sacrifice in one form or another was common enough phenomenon in antiquity. What makes this story unique is that Elijah’s dramatic act of human sacrifice was performed in an effort to root out the cult of human sacrifice and the religious delusions that led to it.

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