Was Elijah Permitted to Make an Offering on Mount Carmel?
The story of Elijah’s dramatic contest against the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18) was chosen as the haftarah reading for Parashat Ki-Tissa, which relates the sin of the golden calf. Elijah is to some extent patterned after Moses, and both passages focus on proper and improper worship. Correct worship of YHWH cannot be compromised, either through an illegitimate physical representation of YHWH such as the calf, or by worshipping YHWH alongside a foreign god such as the Phoenician Baal. Elijah makes this latter point clear:
מלכים א יח:כא וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל כָּל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר עַד מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים אִם יְ־הֹוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו וְאִם הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו וְלֹא עָנוּ הָעָם אֹתוֹ דָּבָר.
1 Kgs 18:21 Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If YHWH is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!” But the people answered him not a word.
Elijah organizes a contest between him and the prophets of Baal. Each would set up an offering and call to his god. Only the “true” god will accept his prophet’s offering by consuming the sacrifice with heavenly fire. The prophets of Baal go first but all their rituals and prayers are to no avail. Finally, by the afternoon, Elijah takes his turn:
מלכים א יח:ל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלִיָּהוּ לְכָל הָעָם גְּשׁוּ אֵלַי וַיִּגְּשׁוּ כָל הָעָם אֵלָיו וַיְרַפֵּא אֶת מִזְבַּח יְ־הֹוָה הֶהָרוּס. יח:לא וַיִּקַּח אֵלִיָּהוּ שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה אֲבָנִים כְּמִסְפַּר שִׁבְטֵי בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר הָיָה דְבַר יְ־הֹוָה אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ. יח:לבוַיִּבְנֶה אֶת הָאֲבָנִים מִזְבֵּחַ בְּשֵׁם יְ־הֹוָה…
1 Kgs 18:30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. He repaired the damaged altar of YHWH. 18:31 Then Elijah took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob—to whom the word of YHWH had come: “Israel shall be your name”—18:32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of YHWH…
The story continues with Elijah bringing fire down from the heavens on his altar, thereby winning the contest. The Israelites then acclaim: “YHWH is God” (v. 39), a quote which caps the final, Neilah service of Yom Kippur.
What About Cult Centralization?
Two noteworthy points emerge from this passage about Elijah on Mount Carmel:
- A Yahwistic altar had existed at some earlier point on Mount Carmel, but had been damaged and fallen into disrepair.
- Elijah’s clear intention is to offer a sacrifice on this restored Yahwistic altar.
The text views Elijah’s actions positively, as part of his admirable behavior in defense of YHWH worship. And yet, it seems ironic that, in the context of the very contest whose purpose was to uphold the purity of YHWH worship, Elijah restores and uses a sacrificial altar on Mount Carmel that, according to the law of cult centralization (Deut 12:8–14), is illegitimate:
דברים יב:ח לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו. יב:טכִּי לֹא בָּאתֶם עַד עָתָּה אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ. יב:יוַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מַנְחִיל אֶתְכֶם וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכָּל אֹיְבֵיכֶם מִסָּבִיב וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח. יב:יאוְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם עוֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם…
Deut 12:8 You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases, 12:9 because you have not yet come to the allotted haven that YHWH your God is giving you.12:10 When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that YHWH your God is allotting to you, and He grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security, 12:11 then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where YHWH your God will choose to establish His name: your burnt offerings and other sacrifices…
יב:יג הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תַּעֲלֶה עֹלֹתֶיךָ בְּכָל מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה. יב:יד כִּי אִם בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הֹוָה בְּאַחַד שְׁבָטֶיךָ שָׁם תַּעֲלֶה עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְשָׁם תַּעֲשֶׂה כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּךָּ….
12:13 Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like; 12:14 but only in the place that YHWH will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you….
In the Deuteronomic law itself, the location of the chosen place is left unspecified; it is presented as something that will only be determined in the future (Deut 12:10–11). The Book of Kings, however, clarifies that:
- The period of “safety from enemies,” a prerequisite for cult centralization, has been reached.
- The place that YHWH has chosen for his sanctuary is identified with Jerusalem.
Solomon makes these points clear in his message to Hiram king of Tyre (1 Kgs 5:16–19):
מלכים א ה:טז וַיִּשְׁלַח שְׁלֹמֹה אֶל חִירָם לֵאמֹר. ה:יז אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת דָּוִד אָבִי כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לְשֵׁם יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו מִפְּנֵי הַמִּלְחָמָה אֲשֶׁר סְבָבֻהוּ עַד תֵּת יְ־הֹוָה אֹתָם תַּחַת כַּפּוֹת (רגלו) [רַגְלָי]. ה:יח וְעַתָּה הֵנִיחַ יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהַי לִי מִסָּבִיב אֵין שָׂטָן וְאֵין פֶּגַע רָע. ה:יט וְהִנְנִי אֹמֵר לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לְשֵׁם יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהָי…
1 Kgs 5:16 Solomon sent this message to Hiram: 5:17 “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of YHWH his God because of the enemies that encompassed him, until YHWH had placed them under the sole of (his) [my] feet. 5:18 But now YHWH my God has given me respite all around, there is no adversary and no mischance. 5:19 And so I propose to build a house for the name of YHWH my God…”
Indeed, at the beginning of Solomon’s long address for the Temple’s dedication, he presents YHWH’s choice of Jerusalem as going hand in hand with his choice of David whose son was destined to erect the Temple (1 Kgs 8:14–20).
The Prevailing Attitude in Kings toward Sacrificial Worship outside of Jerusalem
The Book of Kings takes nearly every Judahite king to task for tolerating the bamot (often translated as “high places”), sacrificial altars that were scattered around the countryside, outside of the Jerusalem temple. For example, King Ahaz of Judah is criticized thus:
מלכים ב טז:ד וַיְזַבֵּחַ וַיְקַטֵּר בַּבָּמוֹת וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת וְתַחַת כָּל עֵץ רַעֲנָן.
2 Kings 16:4 He sacrificed and made offerings at the bamot, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.
Only Solomon is given a dispensation at the beginning of his reign for using the bamot because the temple had not yet been constructed:
מלכים א ג:ב רַק הָעָם מְזַבְּחִים בַּבָּמוֹת כִּי לֹא נִבְנָה בַיִת לְשֵׁם יְ־הֹוָה עַד הַיָּמִים הָהֵם. ג:ג וַיֶּאֱהַב שְׁלֹמֹה אֶת יְ־הֹוָה לָלֶכֶת בְּחֻקּוֹת דָּוִד אָבִיו רַק בַּבָּמוֹת הוּא מְזַבֵּחַ וּמַקְטִיר.
1 Kgs 3:2 The people, however, continued to offer sacrifices at the open shrines, because up to that time no house had been built for the name of YHWH. 3:3 And Solomon loved YHWH and followed the practices of his father David, only he also sacrificed and offered at the shrines.
Even kings like Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoash, and Azariah (Uzziah), who are otherwise regarded as “doing what was upright in the eyes of YHWH,” are subject to criticism on the issue of the bamot (1 Kgs 15:11, 14; 22:43–44; 2 Kgs 12:3–4; 14:3–4; 15:3–4).
In short, the Book of Kings, which is part of the Deuteronomistic History, believes that once the central shrine has been established, it is forbidden to make offerings to YHWH anywhere else. So how can it be that the great hero of YHWH worship, Elijah the prophet, did exactly that on Mount Carmel? Moreover, why does the Book of Kings not criticize him for it the way it criticizes other otherwise righteous people for their failure to keep the no-bamot law?
The classical rabbis were very much aware of the tension between Elijah’s sacrifice on a countryside altar and Torah law. Two main solutions are offered in the rabbinic sources:
1. Elijah was granted a special divine dispensation.
The midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah 14:1 reflects this solution:
לי גלעד אמר האלהים שלא יבא אדם ויהרהר אחר אליהו שמגלעד שהקריב באיסור במה ובנה מזבח בהר הכרמל והקריב עליו קרבן ובית המקדש היה קיים והתורה אסרה עליו שנא’ (דברים יב) השמר לך פן תעלה עולותיך וגו’ כי אם אל המקום וגו’, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אני הוא שאמרתי לו שיעשה כך שנאמר (מלכים א יח) ובדברך עשיתי הוי לי גלעד,
“Gilead is mine” (Ps 60:9)—God said that no man must come and criticize Elijah, who hailed from Gilead, for sacrificing on the forbidden high place, building an altar on Mount Carmel and offering a sacrifice thereon while the Temple was in existence, although the Torah forbade it, as it says, “Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place … but in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut 12:13–14). It was I, said the Holy One, blessed be He, who told him to do so, as may be inferred from the text “I have done all these things at Thy word” (1 Kgs 18:36)—This is the meaning of “Gilead is mine.”
Other rabbinic sources that take 1 Kings 18:36 to mean that God specifically permitted Elijah to sacrifice on Mount Carmel include Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:8 (paralleled in Yerushalmi Megilla 1:11) and Midrash Tanḥuma, Naso 28.
2. Elijah as a prophet had the authority to override a Torah law in extraordinary circumstances.
Throughout the episode of the contest on Mount Carmel, Elijah appears to take his own initiative rather than carrying out specific divine instructions. Thus, Elijah’s sacrifice outside of the Jerusalem temple was a הוראת שעה (an instruction for the time), namely a prophetically sanctioned overriding of Torah law permitted in extraordinary circumstances (b. Yevamot90b):
ת”ש: אליו תשמעון – אפילו אומר לך עבור על אחת מכל מצות שבתורה, כגון אליהו בהר הכרמל, הכל לפי שעה שמע לו!
Come and hear: “Unto him [the true prophet] you shall hearken” (Deut 18:15). Even if he tells you, “Transgress any of all the commandments of the Torah,” as in the case, for instance, of Elijah on Mount Carmel, obey him in every respect in accordance with the needs of the hour.
To be sure, there are certain caveats that accompany this startling rabbinic principle:
- The prophet’s instruction to transgress a Torah law must be for the purpose of safeguarding an even greater matter (מיגדר מילתא).
- The prophet in question must already be recognized as a true prophet (b. Sanhedrin 89b).
- Under no circumstances may the prophet instruct the people to worship idols, since according to Deut 13:2–6, no prophet is ever permitted to do this.
Elijah met these criteria, and he became the example par excellence of a prophetic הוראת שעה (“overriding of Torah law”).
Indeed, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) understands Elijah’s proclamation “I have done all these things at Your word” in a more general sense:
אין פירושו שעשה זה בצווי אלקי, כי אם שעשאו על דבר כבוד שמו ובעבור תורתו שהיה דברו,
The meaning is not that [Elijah] did this through a divine command, but that he did it for the glory of God’s name and His Torah which was His word.
Elijah Considers These Altars Legitimate
The rabbinic solutions stem from the a priori assumption that Elijah’s sacrifice outside of the Jerusalem temple was an aberration, albeit a divinely sanctioned or temporarily justified one. However, this is nowhere suggested in the biblical story. And the following story makes it even clearer that Elijah considers altars outside of Jerusalem legitimate places to worship YHWH.
After winning the contest, Elijah seizes the moment and slaughters the Baal prophets (1 Kgs 18:38–40), predictably arousing the wrath of Queen Jezebel, who then puts out a warrant for Elijah’s life (1 Kgs 19:1–2). Elijah reacts by escaping far away to Horeb (Mount Sinai), where he enters a cave and speaks with YHWH. In his explanation for why he came to Horeb, Elijah explains:
מלכים א יט:י וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּי עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ.
1 Kgs 19:10 He replied, “I am moved by zeal for YHWH, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.”
Elijah specifically bemoans to YHWH the destruction of Yahwistic altars outside the Temple. Rashi, recognizing the problem, takes these Yahwistic altars to refer to the
במות יחיד הנעשות לשם שמים שהרי מזבח בית הבחירה בירושלים היה
Bamot of individuals that were constructed for the sake of heaven (i.e., not for use), since the altar in the Jerusalem temple was in existence [for the purpose of sacrifices].
However, this is clearly a forced interpretation, since in almost all cases, an altar is meant for sacrifices. Rashi gets the idea from the story of the symbolic altar erected by the Transjordanian tribes in Joshua 22, but this is a unique case, and nothing suggests that the altars to which Elijah was referring were anything other than the standard bamot of Kings.
Rashi is forced to offer this creative reading to explain why Elijah bemoans the destruction of these altars that are outside of Jerusalem. Elijah should actually be pleased by the removal of Yahwistic shrines that were no longer legitimate! Even if the Baal worshippers who were engaged in their destruction were not themselves motivated by Deuteronomic law, removing the bamot is precisely what the Book of Kings expected the Davidic kings to do! Yet, Elijah regards the destruction of these altars as no less than a tangible manifestation of Israel’s abandonment of God’s covenant with them.
The Historical-Critical Approach
The matter-of-fact description of Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel stands at odds not only with the Deuteronomic law of cult centralization, but more significantly, with numerous passages within the Book of Kings itself that take this Deuteronomic precept for granted (e.g., 1 Kgs 3:2 quoted above). According to the accepted scholarly model, the dominant ideal of cult centralization in the Book of Kings reflects the stance of the editors of this book, who were heavily influenced by Deuteronomy’s laws, language, and theology.
As I wrote in “How the Jerusalem Temple Was ‘Chosen’ as the Only Place of Worship,”(TheTorah.com, 2017), cult centralization as propounded by Deuteronomy appears to have its origin in the reign of Hezekiah (late eighth century B.C.E.), but didn’t firmly take root until a few generations later under Josiah (second half of the seventh century B.C.E.).
But even though the Book of Kings was put together after this period, it contains a variety of sources that may be significantly earlier. Three of these are mentioned explicitly by name in the text: “The Book of the Annals of Solomon” (1 Kgs 11:41), “The Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kgs 14:19; 15:31; 16:5, 14, 27, etc.), and “The Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kgs 14:29; 15:7, 23; 22:46, etc.).
The Tales of Elijah and Elisha
Other sources not explicitly mentioned but hypothesized by modern scholars include temple records and prophetic tales. The Elijah and Elisha narratives (i.e., the bulk of 1 Kgs 17:1–2 Kgs 8:15, as well as 2 Kgs 13:14-21), which focus on the wondrous deeds of their main protagonists, belong to the latter category. These appear to have originated among prophetic circles in the Northern Kingdom, perhaps among the group referred to in the tales themselves as בני הנביאים (“sons of the prophets”; see 2 Kgs 3:3, 5; 4:1, 38; 6:1, etc.).
These tales evince little if any Deuteronomistic influence, so it is unsurprising that they lack the theme of cult centralization. Indeed, it is quite possible that these tales stem from a period before cult centralization became the accepted, authoritative norm.
Positive Evaluation of Yahwistic Altars
Elijah’s protestation that the Israelites have forsaken YHWH’s covenant by their wrecking his altars and killing his prophets, suggests that Yahwistic altars such as the one on Mount Carmel were damaged as part of the wave of persecution sponsored by the Phoenician Queen Jezebel against Yahwistic prophets (see 1 Kgs 18:13 for an earlier reference to Jezebel’s slaying of Yahwistic prophets). But Elijah’s construction of an altar on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18 and his complaint to YHWH about the destroyed altars in 1 Kings 19 are notable exceptions to the Book of Kings’ overwhelmingly negative attitude toward Yahwistic altars outside of the Jerusalem temple.
Clearly, in Elijah’s perception, Yahwistic altars such as the one that he repaired on Mount Carmel were not only legitimate, but their destruction represented an affront to YHWH, indeed a tangible expression of the people’s abandonment of their covenant with YHWH. The contrast between such a perception and the Deuteronomic law reflected in the Book of Kings itself that proscribes sacrificial worship outside of the Jerusalem temple could hardly be greater!
Why were the Prophetic Tales Incorporated into the Book of Kings?
How did a story that contradicts the Deuteronomistic editor’s notion of cult centralization enter the Book of Kings? Steven McKenzie, professor of Hebrew Bible at Rhodes College, argues that many of the prophetic tales found their way into the Book of Kings at a very late stage, namely only after the sixth century B.C.E. Deuteronomistic redaction of the book:
The post-Dtr insertion of these chapters [1 Kgs 17–19] would also help to explain the references to legitimate Yahwistic altars outside of Jerusalem in 18:30–32 and 19:14. Dtr would hardly have left these references unrevised.
Another option is possible, however. Biblical literature is replete with works that include pre-existing sources, even when those earlier sources contradict the author/editor’s own stance. One need not go further than the Book of Chronicles, which maintains that King Asa removed the bamot (2 Chr 14:4), even as the Chronicler preserves the notice from the Book of Kings stating the exact opposite (2 Chr 15:17 paralleling 1 Kgs 15:14).
As regards the Book of Kings, Mordechai Cogan, Professor Emeritus of Biblical History at Hebrew University, writes:
The discrimination of the various sources that have been brought together in the composition of Kings calls for a remark on ancient stylistics and editorial procedure. The book’s author does not seem to have made any effort at erasing the telltale signs of the individual sources; each was left to speak out in its own distinctive idiom and particular statement.
The Deuteronomistic editors of Kings would have been attracted to the Elijah narratives, due to the recurring theme therein of God’s word being fulfilled through his prophet (e.g. 1 Kgs 17:16, 24; 2 Kgs 1:17), a central idea shared by the Deuteronomists (see Deut 18:21–22; 1 Kgs 2:27; 12:15; 14:18, etc.). They also would have approved of Elijah’s uncompromising stance toward foreign cults. These factors may have motivated them to include the Elijah narratives in their work, despite Elijah’s apparent ignorance of cult centralization.
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Dr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Chronological Displacement in Biblical and Related Literatures.
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