Mount Carmel in Israel and the statue of Elijah
“Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s daydreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.”
Elijah’s sarcastic challenge to the frantic Baal worshippers in 1 Kings 18 still adds some humor to an otherwise dire situation in Israel’s history to choose whom they would worship, the fertility god of the Canaanites or Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt. Their decision on Mount Carmel to identify with the true God of Abraham made the mountain legendary.
The god of the farming Canaanites was in direct opposition to Israel’s God where as wanderers in the desert their profession was primarily as shepherds. Coming to a fertile land with Baal worship forced an identity crisis for them–who was the true God of life that deserved their worship?
As recorded in 1 Kings 18, Elijah’s seemingly impossible victory set the stage for the dramatic choice that begins and ends on Mount Carmel. A symbol of fertility throughout the Old Testament, Mount Carmel means “God’s vineyard” or “God’s garden,” and its lush slopes mark the site for one of the most entertaining stories in the Bible.
The prophet Elijah, whose name gives away the ironic answer to their dilemma means “Jehovah is God,” set himself up against one of Israel’s worst kings when he declared to Ahab that there would be no rain without his say-so (17:1). In a country where it does not rain for nine months out of the year, this would be especially devastating for an agrarian society!
Enjoying the Baal view from Mount Carmel
Why did the Jews worship Baal and forget the God of Israel? The answer is still debated today, but lies in who Baal was to them. Baal means Lord, Master, or Husband and his mate was the fertility goddess/sister/wife Asherath. Baal is the God of storms, rain, and lightning…the perfect god for a farmer to worship, but it was a strange religion.
Baal worship involved offering animal sacrifices where priests would officiate, and some even made their sons pass through fire as sacrifices to Baal. Male and female prostitutes were available to worshipers to inspire the fertility of both the land and the people. Baal was usually associated with a bull and with a threatening lightning bolt in hand. His whole presence shouted, “I am the one who gives life (fertility) through rain!”
The Jews went after this Storm god, Baal; a god they thought would bring them rain, but instead brought God’s punishment on their crops, a drought, and a famine. So Ahab’s god and Elijah’s God meet in a classic showdown here on Mount Carmel with 850 false priests and prophets of Baal (450), Asherah (400), and Elijah (1). Long odds indeed.
In a final irony, when the prophets of Baal were defeated in dramatic fashion, the people recited Elijah’s name, “Jehovah is God,” after God consumed Elijah’s sacrifice with fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:39).
The view from Mount Carmel
Today the beautiful Mount Carmel (kerem) is peaceful and located on the far tip of the Jezreel Valley near the coast, a limestone mountain range that stretches for 24 miles from the Mediterranean near Haifa into the heart of Israel’s hinterland. It is dotted with springs that provide all sorts of growth (carob trees, oaks, pines, cedars, myrtles, laurels, and tamarinds), and covered in tiny volcanic cave entrances that open up into spacious hideaways, suitable for prophets or criminals on the run (Amos 9:3).
In the 12th century a Catholic Order was created here called the Carmelites (based on a cave that they believed to be the grotto where Elijah stayed), and although there is no evidence for it, a monastery was later founded at the location called The Star of the Sea (Stella Maris).
Unfortunately, there are no archaeological ruins to see to match Elijah’s story on Mount Carmel, but the view from the top of the Stella Maris Monastery is a spectacular photo opportunity! You can see the Jezreel Valley, Mount Gilboa, and the hills of Galilee. Be sure not to miss the statue of Elijah flashing his knife at the vanquished Baal prophets who learned the identity of the true God of Israel.