Haftarah Ki Tisa

“Confronting Idolatry”

1 Kings 18:1-39 (A); 18:20-39 (S)

by Mark Huey

The dramatic incident of the golden calf in the wilderness dominates this week’s Torah teaching (Exodus 30:11-34:35). Contemplating the great contrast between Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, personally inscribed upon two stone tablets by the finger of God, with the worship of an idol made with human hands, is a vivid reminder of man’s tendency to wander away from the path of righteousness. Aaron’s lack of patience provoked him to fashion an idol from the gold worn by the teeming mob, as they pressured him with a demand for something visible to worship.[1] Rereading the incident in light of current events, one might wonder where the silent majority against this was to be found. Since the severe judgment enacted for the Israelites’ sin only resulted in the death of three thousand,[2] we should surely wonder what was happening with all of the other people in the camp.

Did they simply cower to the boisterous few? Did they become nominal participants, or simply observers of the revelry, somewhat like an obsequious horde relegated to stadium bleachers? Naturally, when the Sages pondered these events, the heroic episode of the Prophet Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel was chosen for further reflection. After all, what set of circumstances in the history of Israel could better describe the repetitious pattern of a rebellious people, chronically succumbing to the desires of the flesh, in lieu of following the (obvious) commanded ways of the Holy One?

There is little doubt that the recalcitrant behavior of the Israelites around Mount Sinai, as Moses was receiving God’s commandments, was clearly known by those who lived during the time of Elijah when King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled the Northern Kingdom. Clearly by this time in the history of Ancient Israel—no longer a united and prosperous kingdom ruled by Kings David or Solomon—some judgment from God for Israel’s rebellion and idolatry was obvious. Beyond the predominance of the masses who followed after the religious activities of the prophets of Baal and Asherah—in this scene the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were reduced to a remnant minority of about 7,000 (1 Kings 19:18). Idolatry had overwhelmed the society to the point that Queen Jezebel was actively hunting down the prophets of the Lord as a judgment of famine was ravaging the land:

“Now it happened after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the face of the earth.’ So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. Ahab called Obadiah who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly; for when Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave, and provided them with bread and water)” (1 Kings 18:1-4).

Whether the famine in Samaria was directly connected to the preponderance of deviant behavior is up to conjecture, but the fact remains, that through this physical challenge, the Almighty was orchestrating circumstances which would teach a profound lesson down through the ages. King Ahab considered the Prophet Elijah to be a serious threat to his administration. When they finally crossed each other’s paths, a showdown between the false gods and the God of Israel was seen:

“When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is this you, you troubler of Israel?’ He said, ‘I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and you have followed the Baals. Now then send and gather to me all Israel at Mount Carmel, together with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.’ So Ahab sent a message among all the sons of Israel and brought the prophets together at Mount Carmel. Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.’ But the people did not answer him a word” (1 Kings 18:17-21).

As the challenge for the dramatic encounter was initiated, the people in Ahab’s party who witnessed the interchange were silent. They did not know what to say. When the details of the challenge were proclaimed and the gathering on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal and Asherah was convened, the crowd was gathered for a duel. The spectators appeared to be very curious about what the outcome would be. Those who were the prophets of Baal and Asherah were totally committed to their cause. They were not bystanders, but fully dedicated to their beliefs to the point of participating in all kinds of abominable rituals.

The details of the challenge were remembered by most, because of the impressive display of God’s affirmation that He is truly Lord of Lords and King of Kings. After innumerable attempts starting in the morning, running through the middle of the day until the evening—calling upon the false gods to bring down fire to burn the sacrifices—to the point of even drawing their own blood, the false prophets flailed among themselves (1 Kings 18:25-29). It was not until the end of the day after a thorough drenching of the sacrifices and wood with water, that the Prophet Elijah finally called upon the One True God to ignite his sacrifice:

“At the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that You, O LORD, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again.’ Then the fire of the LORD 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. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God’ (1 Kings 18:36-39).

After a fire falls from Heaven consuming the sacrifices, wood, stones, dust, and even the water in the trenches—the witnesses present were fully convinced that the God of the Prophet Elijah is the One True God and Lord of all. The reaction to the fire falling from Heaven was the people falling on their faces in awe shouting that the Lord is God! This echoes the time in Ancient Israel’s desert journey when Moses and Aaron offered up sacrifices before the people, and they witnessed a consuming fire lick up the offerings:

“Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he stepped down after making the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting. When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:22-24).

From the similar reaction of the people at the Tent of Meeting, it seems reasonable to conclude that the glory of the Lord was also present when the fire consumed Elijah’s sacrifices on Mount Carmel. The witnesses to both supernatural events ended up on their faces—perhaps thankful that the fire did not consume them! In the case of the false prophets challenging the Prophet Elijah, an unseen death from something like lightning may have been preferable to the bloody, hacking death of an enraged and righteously indignant prophet of God:

“Then Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there…Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword” (1 Kings 18:40; 19:1).

In contemplating the similarities between the riotous scene at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the subsequent challenge to the Levites to slay all who participated wholeheartedly in the idolatrous revelry—with the events on Mount Carmel and by the brook Kishon—you just might want to ask yourself a few questions.

If you were alive at either of these memorable events, how would you have reacted? Excluding Moses and Elijah, who would you identify with in each of these situations? Would you be like the Levites who disdained the idol worship, or would you have been found dancing around the golden calf? Could you possibly be one of the priests of Baal or Asherah, or simply a person in the entourage of Ahab witnessing the contest? Would the temptation of paying homage to a golden idol intrigue you? Would you have been patiently waiting for the return of Moses, or perhaps have been tired of waiting, easily lured into another form of worship? Would you be rooting for the prophets of Baal as the blood from their self-induced gashes turned their garments red?

If you have watched some of the video clips of various Muslim mourners or worshippers in Mecca, or for that matter some revelers at Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans or other alcohol-induced celebrations—you might get a small picture of what it was like in the two scenes we are considering this week. Flesh-driven acts can lean extensively toward debauchery, depravity, licentiousness, and all sorts of ungodly behavior. Worshipping anything other than the Holy One of Israel, whether by omission or commission, is a vile affront to Him.

Lamentably, many fall into these sorts of practices because they do not have a fervent desire to know the Lord by seeking Him with all their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. Instead, the tendency can lean toward complacency, especially if one does not see God actively involved in the mundane affairs of life. Without a persistent pursuit of God and His righteousness, scales of callousness can begin to form on the human heart. Access into His presence is not denied, but it is less frequently sought.

We may be reminded of the rebuke Yeshua issued to the assembly of Laodicea, which largely became apathetic in its devotion to Him:

“To the angel of the [assembly] in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent’” (Revelation 3:14-19).

God has a problem with those who are what He calls lukewarm. Both cold and warm water can be used, one for refreshment and another for bathing—and both can be used for healing. But lukewarm water has no real usefulness. The assembly at Laodicea was lukewarm because of its relative comfort, and the people thinking they were doing just “all right” in the eyes of the Lord. They did not consider how He was able to look right through their costly garments or praising lips into their very hearts.

God truly desires that His people repent of any lukewarm attitudes and that they be zealous before Him like Moses and Elijah. While we certainly recognize the glory of God present in dramatic events, do we really have to see dramatic events to know that He is there? Do you see God present in the every day affairs of your life? Can you see His hand upon the smaller, somewhat inane actions of ordinary living? Are you sensitive to His presence residing in your heart on a moment-by-moment basis? Are you in communion with Him throughout the days of the working week, and not just when you are witnessing His actions during corporate activities on Shabbat?

What about confronting idols? Do you recognize an idol when it gains some attraction in your own heart? Are you willing to realize that it is even in there, confronting it with honesty? Or does confronting idols in your life only occur when you find yourself dancing around “golden calves,” fervently calling upon false gods (of your own imagination) to get your way? The admonition to avoid or flee from idols is replete in Scripture. In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians that these examples recorded in the Tanakh actually serve as a “warning” (RSV) for Believers in Messiah Yeshua:

“Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY’ [Exodus 32:6]. Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:6-14).

After you may have to confront some idols in your heart, repenting before the Lord that you will not return to them, there is another gentle warning in 1 John you may consider. After describing in great detail what it means to be a true Believer in the Messiah Yeshua, John simply concluded by saying, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). He understood how insidious idols can become for many people. They do not necessarily need to be overt and obvious, but most insidiously they can be buried deep inside someone’s heart. They can be a spiritual deterrent that keeps someone mediocre in faith, rather than useful for the Lord. But most important, children fall prey to idols—mature adults in faith do not!

May we each forcefully confront the idols that tempt us, while we humbly seek to be in the presence of the glory of God!


[1] Exodus 32:1-10.

[2] Exodus 32:11-35.

This teaching has been excerpted from Torahscope Haftarah Exhortations by William Mark Huey.