How to Carmelize This Onion?

Why doesn’t the Deuteronomist disapprove of Elijah’s sacrifice at Carmel during his showdown with the prophets of Ba`al in 1 Kings 18?

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Anyone who has studied Deuteronomy and the concept of the “Deuteronomistic History” is aware of the emphasis on centralizing cultic (worship ritual) activity in “the place which YHWH will choose to set his name to dwell there” (Deut 12:11ff). This turns out to be Jerusalem as the story unfolds; David “completes” the Conquest by capturing Jebus (Jerusalem) and brings the ark of God there (2 Sam 5-6 // 1 Chr 13-16). In a recent conference paper, I’ve argued that the Deuteronomist and the Chronicler have a bit of a disagreement over the proper centralized location for sacrifice during the time that the ark is in Jerusalem and the tabernacle/tent of meeting is elsewhere, until both are consolidated into the new temple (essentially 2 Sam 6 // 1 Chr 16 through 1 Kgs 8 // 2 Chr 5).
But after the temple is built, it’s clear that Jerusalem is considered by the Deuteronomist (and the Chronicler) to be the proper cultic center, even for Northern Israelites after YHWH orchestrates the division of the kingdom (1 Kgs 12:21-33). Jeroboam is castigated for building an altar to YHWH (no other god is mentioned in 1 Kgs 13) at Bethel, despite the well-documented pedigree of Bethel as a cultic site (Gen 12, 13, 28, 35; Jdg 20; 1 Sam 7:16). Jerusalem is the only valid cultic location, because it is “the city which YHWH had chosen from all the tribes of Israel to put his name there” (1 Kgs 14:21).
So, why is it OK for Elijah to sacrifice at Carmel? And, for that matter, why is it OK for Elijah, “a Tishbite of Gilead” (i.e., not a Levitical priest), to officiate at the sacrifice?
Perhaps the second question is slightly easier to answer. Earlier in the Deuteronomistic History, it becomes obvious that the Priestly rules found in Leviticus don’t apply strictly in this narrative, with regard to what portions of sacrifices are eaten and also who conducts the sacrifice. Samuel, an Ephraimite (1 Sam 1:1), takes the priestly mantle from Eli, an Aaronide. Saul conducts an apparently legitimate sacrifice (1 Sam 11:15) and David’s sons serve as “priests” (2 Sam 8:18).
The Carmel location is a little more difficult. One way of explaining it is that it was a unique event, a one-off sacrifice to demonstrate YHWH’s superiority to Ba`al. This explanation has some merit. Elsewhere in scripture, including 1 Kings, YHWH moves outside of his typical domain (his “comfort zone”?) in order to demonstrate his superiority over other gods or spiritual forces on their “home turf.” In 1 Kings 20:13-30, YHWH is backed into the uncomfortable position of giving wicked King Ahab victory over the Arameans, because the Arameans had made the mistake of reasoning that YHWH as a mountain-deity would not be able to give the Israelites victory on the plains where their god supposedly held sway. In Numbers 23-24, Balak of Moab hires Balaam the Seer to curse the Israelites, and when Balaam is twice only able to bless the Israelites, Balak suggests that they try another spot from which to utter the imprecation: “And Balak said to Balaam, ‘Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please the gods that you may curse them for me from there'” (Num 23:27).
There are two problems with the “one-off” defense of Elijah’s Carmel sacrifice. First, there is no explanation or defense of Elijah given in the text–something like the Deuteronomist’s embarrassed explanation of Solomon’s sacrifice at the Gibeon high place (1 Kgs 3:15). All the author would have needed to say was something like, “Now, Elijah used to sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, and henceforth only offered sacrifices and burnt offerings at the house of God that Solomon had built.” But there isn’t anything like that.
Second, 1 Kings 18:30, 19:10, and 19:14 imply that there had been Yahwistic altars at Carmel and other locations in Israel (and Judah), and that those altars had been torn down–and that they should not have been torn down.
“Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me,’ so all the people drew near to him. And he repaired the altar of YHWH which had been torn down” (1 Kgs 18:30).
“And he [Elijah] said, ‘I have been very jealous for YHWH, God of armies; for the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, your altars they have torn down, and your prophets they have slain with the sword–I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it!'” (1 Kgs 19:10 // 19:14)
So, in Elijah’s view–and perhaps in the view of the author of this bit of Kings–the problem was not that they were sacrificing to YHWH at more than one sanctuary. The problem was that they were sacrificing to other gods (at YHWH’s sanctuaries, and at other sanctuaries) in addition to YHWH, or even to the exclusion of YHWH. This would seem to be at odds with the polemic against the Bethel and Dan sanctuaries (1 Kgs 12:25-14:18), where it’s the location of Yahwistic worship that seems to be the problem (see 12:28).
In short, there is a difference between monolatry (worshiping one deity) and cultic centralization (worshiping at one place). 1 Kings 12-14 certainly advocates both monolatry and centralization, but 1 Kings 18-19 seems to advocate only monolatry.
How can we account for this difference of approach to centralization in the same book? I have tipped my hand already by implying that “the author of this bit of Kings” might not be the same as the person or school responsible for the final form of the book of Kings or the so-called Deuteronomistic History (Deut-Josh-Jdg-Sam-Kgs). The book of Kings, like other books of the DtrH, appears to contain a middle section of Northern Israelite traditions that was incorporated into a larger work that is Judah-centered in its final form. The precise boundaries of this Northern-centered section of Kings (remember: Kings was one book before it was translated into Greek and divided into two scrolls for the sake of space) are debatable. The narratives of the significant Northern prophets, Elijah and Elisha (1 Kgs 17 to 2 Kgs 8) would likely constitute the core. On the front end, 1 Kings 15-16  (Nadab and Baasha) might be part of this section, and on the back end, 2 Kings 9-10 (Jehu ends Omride dynasty) might be included.
But it seems clear that there is a Northern section that was incorporated into the Deuteronomistic work. In this section, the standards to which the characters are held do not always align with Deuteronomy–let alone Leviticus. Elijah’s sacrifice at Carmel is not a problem, because the Northern Yahwistic perspective emphasizes monolatry but not necessarily centralization. In addition, there are some…”sketchy” statements that are not qualified or criticized by the author–examples would be Elisha needing music in order to prophesy (2 Kgs 3:15); the apparent effectiveness of the king of Moab’s sacrifice of his son to Chemosh (2 Kgs 3:26-27); and Elisha perhaps excusing Na’aman’s service to the Aramean god (2 Kgs 5:17-19–“Same God” controversy, anyone?).
The puzzle for me–here, and in other sections of DtrH–is why the Deuteronomistic editor(s) chose to incorporate these Northern Israelite traditions, and, more importantly, why the editor(s) left them apparently unchanged. We have examples, both in Chronicles and in DtrH, of a pro-Judah, pro-Levi, Deuteronomistic Tendenz leading an editor/redactor to shape a text toward greater ideological and theological consistency. Yet DtrH still has a great many of these “awkward” (from the perspective of strict “Deuteronomism”) bits remaining.
I don’t have an answer, and there might not be one. But the final forms of these texts continue to fascinate me. My reverence for the texts as inspired scripture and experience with the sophistication of other HB texts leads me away from thinking of these instances as editorial oversights or shortcomings, and rather as part of a consensus-building strategy. A great deal more needs to be done–not so much in the way of picking apart the texts into sources, but rather in understanding how the parts came together and how this informs our reading of the final product. Someone wanted us to have this particular form of the text, and not another–why?
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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to How to Carmelize This Onion?

  1. Pingback: Best of 2016 | think hard, think well

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