Lecture 19: Elijah and Syncretism
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1 Kings 14–18 tells the story of Elijah and his battle with false religion. The word of the day was “syncretism,” the mixing of two religions. In our day, we are faced with the same challenge, especially the mixing of Christianity and secular culture. Elijah challenges us to not have divided hearts or divided loyalties.
A. United Monarchy
B. Divided Monarchy
C. Judah and Israel
IV. Elijah’s Message in the New Testament
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
We use the term “united monarchy” to describe the time in Israel’s history when Saul, David and Solomon were kings. It was a united monarchy, they were kings over all of Israel.
Following Solomon’s death we move into the time period that is called the “divided monarchy,” and we are reading in 1 Kings 12. After Solomon dies the kingdom splits and the southern two tribes of Judah and Benjamin follow Solomon’s son, whose name was Rehoboam, and they become known as the Southern Kingdom or Judah. The northern ten tribes follow a fellow named Jeroboam, and they become known as the Northern Kingdom or Israel. The capital of the Judah remain Jerusalem but the capital of Israel is Samaria, a term that eventually was used for the whole land.
Judah and Israel
In other words, the words Judah and Israel mean two different things depending upon where you are in the Bible. At the time of the divided monarchy, Judah refers to the Southern Kingdom and Israel refers to the Northern Kingdom. Jeroboam has a problem with his new kingdom because all worship is happening in Jerusalem. All the religious festivals are in Jerusalem and Jerusalem is south of the border. (Jerusalem is in Judah.) He is concerned about his people going to that other kingdom in order to worship. So Jeroboam creates two new worship centers. One is in Bethel, which is in the southern part of his kingdom just next to the border, and the other is in Dan, up to the northern end of Israel. This was a big no-no. It is very clear in the Mosaic Law that there is only one place you worship, and that is in Jerusalem. But Jeroboam creates these two new worship centers in Bethel and Dan, and then he creates two golden calves and he puts one in each of the worship centers. He claims that these golden calves are the gods that brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. He institutes a religious festival on the same day as the religious festival that they were used to having and even has his own priesthood. They are not Levites, again another big no-no, but he creates his own priesthood and gives them fancy clothes so it still “feels” like that old familiar religion they were used to worshiping.
Jeroboam’s answer to his problem is syncretism. Syncretism simply means the mixing of two religions. It is a great word to know. Jeroboam, the syncretist, merges the Mosaic religion of Yahweh with the Canaanite religion of Baal and Asherah. Baal is the chief god in Canaanite religion often pictured as a bull, which is why he made golden calves. He was also the fertility god; he was in control of the fertility of the land and humans. He was also the storm god and so, among others things, he controlled the rain. Asherah was his consort, his girlfriend. So Baal and Asherah are the god and goddess of the Canaanite religion, and Jeroboam merges Canaanite worship with Yahweh worship, with the religion of the true God. It still “feels” somewhat like that old religion. “Yeah, there are things that are different. We’re not in Jerusalem. There are gold calves, we’re not used to that but it still feels the same.” That is the power of syncretism. Yet in substance, Jeroboam fundamentally altered worship and Yahweh, the Lord, simply became another god in the pantheon of Canaanite gods who was subservient to the power of Baal. That is what Jeroboam, the syncretist, did. Through the prophet Elijah God condemns Jeroboam in I Kings 14:8, “[God says to Jeroboam] Yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart doing only that which was right in my eyes.” This becomes the standard of judgment all the way through this time period of the divided monarchy. If the king was faithful to the Mosaic covenant, if he was faithful to what God had revealed in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, if the king was like his forefather, David, then God pronounced blessing and praise upon that king. But if that king compromised, if that king tried to mix the religions of the world with the religion of the Book he was condemned. It did not matter how powerful and good the king was in other areas. It did not matter how he was politically, militarily or socially, none of those things matter to the writer of I Kings. The only thing that matters is if they were you faithful to the covenant. Were you like David, or did you try to mix the religion of the true God, Yahweh, with the religions of the land? The message of this one comment through Elijah's story is that we must not compromise. We must not compromise by mixing the worship of the true God with the worship of false gods. We must not compromise by trying to straddle the fence between religions and gods. We must not compromise by mixing the teaching of the true God with the teachings of the false gods. That is the standard by which kings are judged during the divided monarchy.
The stories continue and we read about a series of kings who reigned in Judah. The writer starts with Rehoboam, David’s son, chapter 14:23, and he talks about how the Judeans build “high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes” and he concludes: “They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord rove out before the people of Israel.” In other words, in one generation, or perhaps two, they became just like the Amorites that Joshua drove from the land.
Then it goes from Rehoboam to his son, Abijam. It goes from Abijam to his son, Asa. And Asa is actually one of the few good kings during the time of the divided monarchy. In I Kings 15:11 we read, “And Asa did what was right in the eyes of the Lord as David his father had done.” See, there is the standard of judgment; there is the stamp of approval; there is faithfulness to the covenant. Yet as you read on even with Asa, verse 14: “But the high places [places of Canaanite worship, of Baal and the Asherah] were not taken down. Nevertheless, the heart of Asa was wholly true to the Lord all his days.” Asa is a good guy. He is a good king. And yet, he allowed the syncretism; he allowed the compromise with the religions of the world to continue and he did not destroy all the high places.
The author of Kings then turns from the Southern Kingdom to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and there is one bad king after another. Starting with Jeroboam the author works his way through five different kings and finally arrives at Ahab. In chapter 16:30 we read this: “And Ahab the son of Omri did evil I the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him." As if it was only a small problem for him to walk in the sins of Jerobam the son of Nebar, he did something more evil and took for his wife Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal (you hear Baal in her father’s name), king of the Sidonians and served Baal and worshiped him. "[Ahab] erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria [(he actually built a temple to Baal in his capital city)] and Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” Syncretism. Compromising and mixing always leads to paganism. It is a slippery slope. Jeroboam always leads to Ahab.
This sets the stage for the prophet Elijah. We are somewhere around 870 BC in I Kings 17, and we meet the prophet Elijah. Even his name tells us what he is about. The name “Elijah” means “Yahweh is my God.” In his very name, Elijah is proclaiming that he is not going to worship Baal, but that he is going to worship the Lord. He is going to worship Yahweh. The prophet Elijah prays that it not rain for three years. There is significance in that because Baal supposedly had control of the weather. But the prophet of Yahweh prays to Yahweh and Yahweh shuts up the heavens so that there is no rain for three years. Then in chapter 18 Ahab finally confronts Elijah. Starting at verse 17, “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” Ahab is trying to pass the buck, trying to say that it was not his fault. It is like blaming the fireman for the fire. And Elijah answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals.’” (When “Lord” is in all capitals, it is God’s personal name; that is the translators way of saying that they are not translating other names for God. It is the name he gave Moses at the burning bush, Yahweh. It is a personal name.) Then in verse 19, Elijah issues his challenge: “Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s temple.” It is a center of Baal worship. Elijah is not looking for neutral ground. He wants to go into the heart of the enemies camp and do what he is going to do. Jezebel was a proselytizer, she pushed Baal religion and she took care of all the prophets. So Elijah says, “Let’s get everyone together up on top of Mount Carmel.” And then we have the challenge in verse 20: “So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.’ And the people did not answer him a word.” Elijah is saying, “Will you all make up your mind! Will you fish or cut bait! Will you park it or milk it! Will you stop sitting on the fence!” Or in the words of Joshua in Joshua 24:15: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Elijah’s challenge is that the time for compromise is past. You cannot live with one foot in each camp. You have to choose. You cannot live with one foot in the worship of the true God and the other foot anywhere else. Whether it is a mixed religion or a pagan religion, you cannot do that.
Then at 18:23 he spells out the details of the contest: “’Let two bulls be given to us [notice they are bulls; there’s a ton of symbolism going on. Let’s take something that you associate with Baal.] and let them [the prophets] choose one bull for themselves and cut into pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you will call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of Yahweh, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’” So the contest is spelled out. Verse 26 it starts: “And they [the prophets] took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, ‘O Baal, answer us! But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made.” I would have loved to see Elijah’s face during this three or four hour period. I hope when we get to heaven we get to relive the history of the Bible because I have lots of questions. I wonder if Elijah was sitting there rolling his eyes? I wonder if he was mimicking them? I wonder if he just turned his head in disgust? I really wish I knew what Elijah was doing during those 3 or 4 hours. In verse 27 we do know what he does and he gets nasty. “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, [cry louder] for he is a god. Either he is musing [deep in thought] or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
My Hebrew buddies assure me that the Hebrew for “relieving himself” is extremely crass. Elijah is not suggesting that maybe he is “gone to the bathroom.” I will let you fill in what a real translation would be. “And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed [(notice how long this has been going on)] they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered. No one paid attention.” You can picture the scene in your mind. Now it is Elijah’s turn. Elijah builds an altar in accordance with the Mosaic Law, clearly in contradiction to Canaanite practice and he cuts a trench all the way around it. He puts the wood on it. He kills the bull and put the dead animal on top of it. And then he has the people douse it with water. He does not want anyone to think that just somehow a fire started. So they doused it four times, to the point that the trench around the altar is full with water. Starting part way through verse 36, Elijah says (I am going to switch God’s personal name because I do not want you to think "LORD" is a general name for God.): “Oh Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob [Elijah says] let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Notice how quickly God answers him. “Then the fire of Yahweh fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it they fell on their faces and said, ‘Yahweh, he is God; Yahweh, he is God.’ And Elijah said to them siege the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon [(which runs along the base of Mount Carmel)] and slaughtered them there.” Elijah is going to remove any forces of syncretism and compromise that he possibly can.
The story comes to a close by God ending the drought and sending the rain. Yahweh is vindicated. It is He, not Baal who is sovereign over all, including the weather. And as you read on through the book of I Kings and into the beginning of II Kings you will read about other things that Elijah did. Eventually he passes on his prophetic role to his disciple named Elisha. Then Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind in a chariot and is taken home to heaven. Elijah is one of the two people in the Bible who never died.
Elijah’s Message in the New Testament
That is not the end of Elijah because the uncompromising message of Elijah continues throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament. There continues to be an insistence that there be no compromise with the world, that we absolutely can not straddle the fence. We cannot live with one foot in the kingdom of God and the other foot in the kingdom of Satan, which is this world. Jesus says in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon refers to that which is material and it has its primary reference to money, but its basic reference is to that which is material, that which is of this world. Jesus says that you cannot serve both of them. You have to choose; you cannot straddle the fence. In the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, Jesus is addressing seven churches that are in the southwestern corner of what is modern day Turkey. In Revelation 2 he talks to the church that was in a town called Thyatira. Listen to what he says to these people: “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. [In other words, you’re growing.] But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food [offered] to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead.”
There is no place for theological syncretism. There is no place to mix false teachings with the teachings of God. When Paul writes to the Galatians he excommunicates he pronounces an anathema on anyone who preaches salvation through works. There is no place in the New Testament for the toleration of false doctrine. Go on to chapter 3 in Revelation where Paul turns to another city called Laodicea. To Laodicea in Revelation 3 starting in verse 15 God says, “I know your works: you are neither cold or hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Laodicea is situated between two famous towns, on one side is Colossae and the other side is Herapolis. Colossae was famous for its cold water springs. Herapolis is famous for its hot water springs. The water comes out at around 140 degrees. What the people in Laodicea did was create small aqueducts that brought the cold water from Colossae and the hot water from Herapolis into Colossae. (You can still see the pipes today.) But the problem was that the cold water was warm and the hot water was warm by the time the water got to Laodicea. In other words, it was worthless. You could not do anything with it and he picks that up and he says, “Oh that you would be cold or hot.” Make your choice! But this lukewarm, this being in the middle, this straddling the fence of not being a fully devoted disciple, I will spit you out of my mouth. The message of Elijah goes all the way through the New Testament. The message that we dare not straddle the fence, that we dare not live with one foot in God’s kingdom and the other foot still in the world in Satan’s kingdom. You know, sometimes I think we have a sense of safety when we straddle the fence. “I have one foot in God and I have the other foot over here where I am a little more comfortable.” We have a feeling that straddling the fence is safe, but the message of Elijah is that the middle is the single most dangerous place that you and I can go. God says that He will not be straddled. He will not be compromised. You may not be lukewarm. There is no place for that in the kingdom of God. I think of the analogy of a marriage and the beauty of a godly marriage where there is no compromise; where you do not share your spouse and you do not share your self. How beautiful is it when partners are totally committed to the covenantal marriage and how ugly marriage can turn when compromises begin and you start to share yourself and you break your covenant with your spouse. That is why we are called the “Bride of Christ,” that is why when you abandon, when I abandon, when the Israelites abandon the covenant, they are called whores. Because it is an all or nothing thing and God demands complete and total covenantal loyalty. He demands that we not straddle the fence, but that we give ourselves wholly to him. He says, “Stop limping around. Make your choice. It is either me totally or it is something else, but you cannot straddle the fence.” First John 2:15 is one of the strongest statements of this in the Bible where the apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” It is a hard verse because the world is beautiful as God has created it. That is what the gospel says. You either love God or love the world. You cannot do both. The world teaches that we can straddle the fence. The world teaches that you can love God and the world at the same time. The syncretistic church of today preaches compromise with God’s holiness. It proclaims the gospel of holiness that does not have the message of living God and of hating sin. The syncretistic church today preaches that we should be people-pleasers and not God-pleasers, that we should lower our standards. But when we compromise our standards, when we choose to try to love God and love the world, Jeroboam always moves to Ahab. Syncretism always moves to paganism. Statistically there is now no discernible difference between the church and the world. In fact, some of the statistics are even higher in the church and we have often ceased to become a light to the world because we look just like the world. Jeroboam always moves to Ahab. The gospel says that our goal is to be like Jesus. The gospel says that we are to be mature in our faith. That is what is the most important thing.
1 John 3 says we are supposed to look like Jesus. Romans 8:28, 29; Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4 all teach that suffering and pain can drive us to maturity, can drive us to look more like Jesus. Therefore, we are actually to rejoice in our suffering because of what the suffering produces or can produce in us. A hard doctrine opposed to the world's that teaches the goal of life is the avoidance of pain. The syncretistic church compromises God’s goal for our lives. It preaches a health and wealth gospel that says God’s ultimate goal for us is that we be healthy and wealthy, that wisdom is not important and pain is always the sign of sin, a lack of faith and God’s displeasure. These people have not read the book of Job, because pain is something we rejoice in (the clear teaching of Scripture). The gospel says that we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34). The gospel says that we are to be fully devoted disciples, living not for ourselves. We are to deny ourselves. We are to live every day as people who have been crucified to themselves. We are to not live for ourselves but we are to live for him. Clear teaching right in Scripture. There is no question on that; it is clearly what the Bible teaches. This syncretistic world, on the other hand, teaches that the only thing that really matters is the unholy trinity: me, myself and I. The world says, “Don’t deny yourself. Everything is about you. You’re the center of the universe. Don’t deny yourself. That’s foolishness.” And so the syncretistic church preaches the salvation of what is called “cheap grace.” That once you get your “get out of hell free” card that you can go and live anyway you want and it does not matter. “You don’t have to deny yourself. You don’t have to take up your cross. Just raise your hand, say the magic prayer and go out and live anyway you want.”
In ''The Cost of Discipleship'', Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the practice of the syncretistic church's teaching of a cheap grace, grace without discipleship: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism with out church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living incarnate. Costly grace, what the Bible teaches, is the treasure hidden in the field. For the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which a servant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” The time for compromise is past. That is the message of Elijah and it never was more true than it is today. The time for compromise, for straddling the fence, for thinking that we can love God and love this world at the same time is past. Choose this day whom you will serve. How long will you go on limping between two different opinions. If Yahweh is God, follow him. If Baal, then follow him.
- Review the terms we learned and be able to locate them on a map.
- Review the ways on which Jeroboam altered Mosaic religion but kept some of its forms.
- What are standards of success that we may tend to use that do not agree with God’s standards?
- What are ways in which the world belittles God’s standards of success?
- Can you think of any modern examples where it started with syncretism but slid down the hill to paganism?
- What do you think of Elijah’s rather crass verbal attack on the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-21? I am sure we would agree that it was accurate, but was it appropriate? Is there ever a time in which we can mock false teaching and its teachers?
- Can you think of any other verses in the Bible that emphasize that mixing anything with true worship is wrong? In other words, are there any other anti-syncretistic verses?
- In what ways have you seen the purity of the gospel message diluted and watered-down by the teachings of the world? I am thinking here specifically of things taught in the church.
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