The familiar story in 1 Kings 18 offers clear evidence of Yahweh’s power over Baal, but much greater perspectives are available when we understand some of the ancient Near Eastern context in which the story operates. John Monson offers clarification in his commentary on 1 Kings in ZIBBCOT.
Fire is the clearest possible indicator of the divine presence, an impressive theophany. The irony of Yahweh’s victory is all the more potent when one considers the Canaanite religious tradition that Baal controlled lightning and rain. In one passage from Ugarit, Baal states, "I understand lightning, which not even the heavens know."1
The lightning, however, is more than just an impressive show of power. The sacrifices were ostensibly offered along with petitions for rain, typically sent by storm gods. The fire indicated that God was listening to and answering Elijah’s prayer, so that when the rain came in the following verses, it was clear that it was sent by Yahweh rather than by Baal. The lightning was also one of the weapons of the divine warrior; thus, here we see the warfare going on between Baal and Yahweh for the last couple of chapters brought to a climax.2 It is natural, then, that this should result in the slaughter of the prophets of Baal and Asherah. As a result of this contest, the petition of Elijah is heard (the sacrifice is consumed), Yahweh sends rain (the drought ends), and the warfare with Baal is concluded (prophets are slain), with Yahweh having demonstrated himself superior to Baal in Baal’s own terms.
This information from the ancient world helps us to understand why this particular kind of contest was chosen and how all of the pieces fit together into one unified whole.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 COS, 1.86:251.
2 For the gods using lightning as a weapon to support kings in battle see CAD, N/1, 26.