Elijah on Mount Carmel – 4 – Elijah

This unit divides nicely into scenes.  As you study them, try to “flesh out” the picture in your mind.  The event is composed not only the words spoken, but also the setting and the body language of those present.

Opening Scene: 18:21-24

Who are active in this scene?

While the Baal priests are present (where are the Ashera priests that were summoned?!) it is the People of Israel that are addressed.

What is the reaction of the people to Elijah’s demand in v.21?

Why this reaction?  They may not have spoken, but what was their body language?  What might be going through their minds?  Why did they come to Mount Carmel when summoned?

How accurate is Elijah’s speech to the people?

Do the people perceive themselves as indecisive? Is Elijah the only prophet-of-the-Lord left? (Think back to last class.)  We should note how Elijah perceives himself.  The first part of v.22 might shed light on much of Elijah’s behavior.

In v. 24 is a “seam” in which Elijah begins to involve the Baal priests.  How does he make sure that his plan will be the one that will be done?

Pay attention to how he uses the people to create pressure.  Why are the people willing to respond here, but not in v.21?

Scene 2: 18:25-29

Who is active in this scene?

Even Elijah is a bystander.  The Tanakh pushes him forward by allowing him to speak one line, but how did the people perceive these hours?

What is the trial that will prove the real God?

Note how the Baal priests pray in v.26.

The root ע.נ.ה. (respond) appears many times in this narrative and underscores how similar the calling to the deity is for both sides. (And similar phrases are used by us in the Selichot/high holiday prayers.) The callers are all human, and their understanding of gods is quiet similar.  This might be the key to understanding how Baal worship was able to spread with such ease.

Is Elijah mocking the Baal priest in v.26?

Regardless of what your translation says, probably not.  It is in Elijah’s interest that everyone sees that it was a fair and honest trial.  We might understand his words as mockery because of our concept of God (which is strongly influenced by thinkers that lived one or two millennia after Elijah.) But the best indication that it was intended as such is the reaction of the baal priests.  They take his advise seriously and do not seem offended by it at all.

Scene 3:  18:30-40

We will look at the entire scene.  Later we will discuss Elijah’s prayer.

Several biblical stories are echoed in this section.  Below are suggestions, but without discussing why these stories are echoed here.  Try to find the connection.  Feel free to add more references.

Genesis 44:18 (look in the Hebrew), Exodus 24, Gen 32:28-29, Gen 22:9

What is odd about the use of water on and around the altar in this particular story?  What might it tell us?

Elijah’s prayer is answered.  What is the reaction of the people?

The narrative could have ended here, but since it continues for several more chapters, it was apparently not so simple…  On a current note:  Our Yom Kippur service ends with the words the people cried out on Mount Carmel.  As we continue reading the story, think of how the composers of the service commented on this act.

Closing Scene: 18:41-46

The declaration of the people needs to be answered by God.  It is time for rain.

Who is back in this scene?  Why has he been absent from the rest of the narrative of the conflict between Elijah and the Baal priests?

One could have expected the king to have a VIP seat in the front row.  Instead, his voice has been absent and he has not been addressed until now.  What does this add to our understanding of Ahab?

Elijah is confident enough in the arrival of rain to send Ahab to eat and drink (not an acceptable behavior during a famine,) yet he is not done with his work.  How do you understand his behavior in vv.42-43?

Stop and read v.45 again.  And again.  Anybody who has waited for the first rain after the hot, dusty summer in Israel can imagine the unbelievable joy the sight of rain clouds and the sound and smell of rain brings after having been absent for 3 years.  It carries a promise, hope, life.

So much hope that even Elijah, the lonely dooms-day prophet of the Lord, runs in front of Ahab’s chariot all the way to the palace in the Jezreel Valley.  What does it mean to run in front of the chariot of the king?

(We have hints to the practice in II Sam 15:1, I Kings 1:5.)  How should the story continue from here?  Did Elijah succeed?

Elijah’s prayer – 18:36-37

Brief but difficult.  Elijah’s prayer has been commented on by many.  We will look at some of the classic medieval Jewish commentators.  However, before we look at their views, let’s consider the text.

Analyze the structure and content of Elijah’s prayer.

How many parts are in the prayer?  What is the focus of each part? Which part seems to be more likely to get a Godly response?  Why?

Does this prayer remind you of other biblical prayers?

We have several prayers by Moses.  He prays to save the people immediately following the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:11-13,) and after the spies’ incident (Numbers 14:13-19.)  Try to compare these prayers with Elijah’s prayer here.  Notice if they are divided in their focus, what are the arguments that he uses to get a favorable reaction (for the people) from God?  It is interesting to note that none of the prayers are very long.

ובדברך עשיתי את כל הדברים האלה ‘And by Your word I did all these deeds’ (18:36).  What deeds is Elijah referring to?

When did The Lord command him to do these actions?  What part of the activities on Mount Carmel did you think that he was commanded to do, and which were his own initiative? A similar question was raised already in the first session:  Did Elijah declare the drought by divine instruction or at his own initiative?  Does this affect your answers in session 1?  Finally, can you think of biblical cases where a person took a drastic action about which we were not informed that he was commanded to do so?

ואתה הסבת את-לבם אחרנית ‘And you turned their heart backwards’(18:37b). How do you understand this sentence?

What was your initial reaction upon reading this closing of Elijah’s prayer?  Are you able to provide an explanation that you are comfortable with? This line forced every commentator to deal with it.  Below we will sample some of them.


רש”י מלכים א פרק יח פסוק לז  Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki) I Kings 18:37

(לז) ואתה הסבות את לבם – נתת להם מקום לסור מאחריך ובידך היה להכין לבבם אליך.

For You have turned their hearts backwards – You gave them a place to turn away from You, and in Your hand [is the ability] to point their hearts towards You.

Rashi is very blunt. Why does he not explain away this awkward saying?

(Rashi actually has a continuation which he calls a Midrash Aggada (a story) but this is the main  point of his commentary here, and the rest does not help much.) Can the prophet blame God for the People’s trouble? Do we have any other places where a prophet is putting the weight on God?


רד”ק מלכים א פרק יח Radaq (R. David Qimhi) I Kings 18:37   

ואתה הסיבות את לבם אחורנית – פירש הגאון רב סעדיה לבם שהיה אחורנית תסב אותו אליך עתה אם תענני. ויש מפרשים לבם אחורנית מאמונת הבעל, וידעו כי שקר נסכם. ויש לומר אם תענני ידעו כי אתה האלהים לבדך. ואתה שלא הראית להם עד עתה מופת גלוי, שיכירו כי אתה אלהים, ידמה שאתה הסיבות את לבם אחרונית.

For You have turned their hearts backwards – The Gaon R. Saadia explained; their heart, which was backwards, You will turn towards You now if You answer me.  And some explain their heart backwards from the belief in the Baal, and they will know that their sacrifices were a lie.  It should be said:  if you answer me they will know that You alone are the God.  And since you have not shown them a clear miraculous sign until now, so that they will recognize that You are the God, it is as if You turned their heart backwards.

Radaq quotes Saadia Gaon.  Note how he plays with the language of the verse.  What does he achieve?  What might he have lost?

Saadia Gaon re-reads the verse separating the statement of blame for the people’s backwards heart from God.  God will now step in as the savior who will turn them to Him.  The gain is clear, but the loss?  He changes the tense from past to future, as well as the subject of the blame. His second suggestion is also turning it into future ‘you will turn their hearts away FROM BAAL WORSHIP.  Where did that come from?!  It is only in his last suggestion that Radaq allows some critical speech to seep in.  What seems to have been guiding Radaq in his commentary here?


רלב”ג מלכים א פרק יח Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershon) I Kings 18:37   

(לז) וידעו העם הזה כי אתה ה’ הוא האלהים – יכירו בזה כי אתה ה’ הוא האלהים לבד ומה שנראה להם לפעמים שיענם הבעל בבא בקשתם הנה זה לא היה מהבעל אבל אותן הפעולות באו מאתך וכאילו הסיבות את לבם אחורנית בהשפע אותם הפעולות מאתך כי הם חשבו שיהיה בסבת הבעל.

That this people may know that You, O Lord, are the God
– They will recognize with this that You O Lord are the God alone. And what might seem to them sometimes that the Baal is responding to them, when their request is granted, it was not from the Baal but those things came from You. And it is as if You turned their heart backwards by bestowing on them those things from you, because they thought it was caused by the Baal.

According to Ralbag, why did the people worship other gods?

This might indeed be the best explanation as to why the people were so easily swayed to worship foreign gods.  But are we to understand that Elijah is blaming the victim?  How can The Lord prove that He is The God to avoid such confusions among the people?


ר’ יוסף קרא מלכים א פרק יח R. Joseph Kara I Kings 18:37 

ואתה הסיבות את לבם אחורנית – ראיתי בפתרוני ר’ שלמה זצ”ל:  נתת להם מקום לסור מאחריך, ובידך היה להכין לבם אליך. ובפתרוני רבי מנחם הזקן ראיתי: ואתה הסיבות את לבם אחורנית – הסיבות את לבם לטובה, והם – אחורנית. ולשון הראשון קשה לאומרו, והשני – גמגום בו.

For You have turned their hearts backwards – I saw in the solutions of R. Shlomo of blessed memory:  You gave them a chance to turn away from You, and in Your hand [is the ability] to point their hearts towards You.  And in the solutions of  R. Menahem The Elder I saw:  For You have turned their heart backwards – You turned their heart – to a good thing, but they – backwards.  But the language of the first is difficult to utter, and the second – it stutters.

Who is R. Shlomo that R. Joseph Kara is referring to?

You met him on the top of the section.  R. Joseph Kara lived in France and was a little younger than Rashi.  He might have studied in Rashi’s seminary and was close with Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson.

What is his criticism of Rashi’s commentary here?

In poetic language he claims that the commentary is difficult to utter – how dare one say such a thing against God?  In light of this comment, reconsider Rashi on this verse.  What might it teach us about Rashi’s principles of exegesis?

What is his criticism of R. Menachem The Elder?

Which other comment(s) in this collection might deserve the same comment?  Why did people explain the verse in such a jumbled manner?

How does R. Joseph Kara propose understanding the verse?


שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ח ד”ה וכבר באר Maimonides Eight Chapters chapter 8   

וכבר באר ה’ על ידי ישעיה, שהוא יתעלה פעמים יענוש קצת הממרים בשימנע מהם התשובה, ולא יניח להם לבחור בה, כמו שאמר: (ישעיהו ו, י) “השמן לב העם הזה ואזניו הכבד וכו’ ושב ורפא לו”. וזו לשון גלויה, שאינה צריכה פירוש, אלא היא מפתח מנעולים רבים. ועל זה העיקר נמשך מאמר אליהו, עליו השלום, על הכופרים מאנשי דורו: (מלכים א’ יח, לז) “ואתה הסבת את לבם אחורנית“, רצונו לומר, שהם כאשר מרו ברצונם – היה עונשך להם שהסירות ליבותם מדרך התשובה, ולא הנחת להם בחירה ולא רצון לעזוב זה המרי, והתמידו בגלל זה בכפירתם.

And the Lord has already explained through Isaiah (6:10) that He, may He be exalted, sometimes will punish some of the rebels by denying them [the option of] repentance….While the language there is clear, it is the key to many locks.  And this is mainly the meaning of Elijah’s words about the deniers of his generation For You have turned their hearts backwards, meaning that they rebelled of their own will, and You punished them by turning their heart away from the path of repentance and You did not give them the choice nor the will to leave this rebellious way, so they persisted at it….

What is the principle by which Elijah’s words should be understood?

We usually say that Teshuva, repentance, is always an option.  But here Rambam (Maimonides) suggests a slightly different view:  Teshuva is a benefit that can be taken away. So where is the free will?  How does Rambam solve this?

The “Eight Chapters” is Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary on tractate Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) in the Mishnah.


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