Wednesday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

In the time of Elijah, the people of Israel were again turning from the commandments of God.  Not that they had a problem with the Lord – of course not – the God of Israel is just fine with them.  What they weren’t interested in was having to choose exclusively one God to worship.  The pagans offered a variety of rites and gods – especially one named Baal who was particularly concerned with storms.  This Baal had clearly not been doing much because there was a severe drought.  Elijah told everyone that the drought was caused by the Lord, but they weren’t ready to turn away completely from the foreign Baals and back to him.  Elijah tells them they are “straddling” the issue – but the word also means that they are limping around.  The same word comes back to describe the ceremony performed by the priests of Baal – limping around and crying out to Baal.  That would make them appear unfit to offer the true cult to the true God – and would make it seem that the people of Israel have become just as unfit to worship the true God by their wishy-washy straddling of the issue: is the Lord the true God or not?

The miraculous demonstration of the power of the true God brings the people out of their torpor and indecision.  Christ’s reminder about His coming to fulfill the Law – not abolish it –  also demonstrates how demanding and exclusive our discipleship needs to be.  It isn’t because Jesus might appear to be lenient that we ought to start disregarding teachings or commandments that we think are unimportant.  If we do, we will develop a “spiritual limp” in this life that could very well have eternal consequences!

The contest, detached from the preceding scenes, is left without introduction and motivation. The competition between YHWH and Baal regarding which of them is the true (and only!) God becomes significant by recalling the story’s subtext: the god Baal was viewed in Canaanite mythology as the bringer of rain (among his epithets was rkb ʿrpt, “Rider of clouds”), and the cycle of Baal’s death and revival (see Note to v. 27) is pertinent to the drought theme no less than it is to the question of his godhead. Consequently, the long-sought reprieve from the drought promised by YHWH in the opening verse materialized once YHWH’s supremacy had been manifested and acknowledged on Mount Carmel, and Israel declared its undivided loyalty to YHWH.1

To begin with, the people have nothing to say when Elijah upbraids them, but at the end of the episode (v. 38) they make a profession of faith which echoes in a way the faith of the prophet, who bears witness to the living God. The name of Elijah, “ ‘The Lord is my God’, foretells the people’s cry in response to his prayer on Mount Carmel” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2582).2

This event was a ‘figure’ of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes ‘before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Lk 1:17), proclaims Christ as the one who ‘who will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Lk 3:16).3

Elijah’s first speech is a direct challenge to the people, accusing them of wavering between deities. Elijah’s verb, psḥ (NRSV, “limping”), is of uncertain meaning. It refers to some sort of uneven or ungainly gait, perhaps limping, hobbling, skipping, or even leaping. In the present context it seems to refer to hobbling along on two uneven crutches. (The NRSV’s “with two different opinions” translates a Hebrew phrase that means literally “on two tree branches.”) The grotesque image is hardly flattering to the people, but awkwardness is not the only point of Elijah’s metaphor. In ancient Israel, crippling illness or injury was in itself a sign of divine disfavor. For this reason, one who was so afflicted was excluded from functioning as a priest (see Lev 21:18, where psḥ is listed among the disqualifying defects). As long, then, as the people continue to psḥ, they will be unfit for membership in Yahweh’s cultic community. And so Elijah insists on a clear, exclusive choice between Yahweh and Baal.4

[…] both sides will invoke their respective deities (v. 24a). At this point, however, Elijah unexpectedly changes pronouns. Instead of talking about the Baal prophets, “they will call on the name of their god,” he says to the people themselves, “you call on the name of your god.” Since Yahweh demands choice, as long as the people are unwilling to make a choice between Yahweh and Baal, they are in effect siding with Baal.5

First, the narrator does not say, “Baal did not answer,” as if Baal exists and can answer but for some reason remains silent. By phrasing the sentence in terms of absence (“There is no”) rather than presence, the narrator hints at Baal’s nonentity. Second, the terms express a present, not a past tense. Besides making the scene vivid for the reader, this too suggests an absolute judgment of nonexistence, not a mere observation about the nonoccurrence of an event.6

The significance of the line is that it describes the Baal prophets as “limping,” the same word that Elijah used of the people of Israel (Hebrew, psḥ; see the remarks above on v. 21). The effect is twofold. It satirizes the Baal prophets: their dance is ungainly and reveals them as unfit to offer sacrifice to Yahweh. It also creates a subtle link between the people of Israel and the Baal prophets, underscoring that the people’s “limping with two different opinions” is in effect a Baalist stance.7

The following loose paraphrase tries to capture something of the tone:

At noon Elijah mocked them, saying: “Cry louder! After all, he’s a god: he’s busy, in a tizzy, he’s off on the road! Or perhaps he’s asleep, and you can wake him!”8


  1. Cogan, M. (2008). I Kings: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 10, p. 446). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
  2. Gavigan, J., McCarthy, B., & McGovern, T. (Eds.). (2005). Joshua–Kings (pp. 493–494). Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers.
  3. Gavigan, J., McCarthy, B., & McGovern, T. (Eds.). (2005). Joshua–Kings (p. 494). Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers.
  4. Walsh, J. T. (1996). 1 Kings. (D. W. Cotter & C. Franke, Eds.) (p. 245). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
  5. Walsh, J. T. (1996). 1 Kings. (D. W. Cotter & C. Franke, Eds.) (p. 246). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
  6. Walsh, J. T. (1996). 1 Kings. (D. W. Cotter & C. Franke, Eds.) (p. 248). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
  7. Walsh, J. T. (1996). 1 Kings. (D. W. Cotter & C. Franke, Eds.) (p. 248). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
  8. Walsh, J. T. (1996). 1 Kings. (D. W. Cotter & C. Franke, Eds.) (p. 249). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
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