The Haftara: Eliyahu's Dual Prayer on Mt. Carmel

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The Haftara: Eliyahu's Dual Prayer on Mt. Carmel

(Melakhim I 18)

By Rav Elchanan Samet



In a regular year, the haftara of parashat Ki-Tisa is set aside in favor of the special haftara for Parashat Para. A leap year (such as the present one) provides an opportunity to explore the fascinating haftara of Ki-Tisa - the story of the "test" arranged by Eliyahu on Mt. Carmel.


The parallel between the parasha and haftara is clear: both Moshe and Eliyahu take bold action in confronting the nation's idolatry; both return the people to God, punish the sinners, and pray for God's forgiveness. But their different tactics are dictated by their respective positions in society: Moshe is the leader of Israel, and utilizes his authority in confronting the problem. He has no need for proofs or miracles. Eliyahu, on the other hand, is not the leader of the nation, but rather an isolated and persecuted prophet, lacking the means of coercion. By a sophisticated maneuver, he gets the nation to agree to a test that will demonstrate whether they should follow God or (lehavdil) Ba'al, and relies on God's miracle to provide proof.




Following Eliyahu's protracted preparations for the appearance of the fire that will consume his sacrifice (v.30-35), the tension reaches its climax. Elihayu now has nothing left to do but to turn to God in prayer that He will send fire and thereby demonstrate His approval of the acts of His servant. His prayer draws all the attention of his audience at Mt. Carmel, as well as the attention of the readers of the story. An analysis of his prayer shows that it consists of two parts, verse 36 and verse 37, which parallel one another:



(36) Hashem, God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael

(37) Answer me, Hashem, answer me


(36) Today it shall be known

(37) And this nation will know


(36) That You are Lord in Israel

(37) That You are Hashem, the Lord


(36) And I am your servant, and by Your word I have done all these things.

(37) And You have turned their hearts back.


What are the differences between these two verses?


  1. In verse 36 the national significance of the event is emphasized, in the context of the historical connection between God and His nation. The prayer in this verse twice mentions the word "Israel:" first as the name of the third forefather, and then the nation is called "Israel." All of this is lacking in verse 37: here the appeal to God is personal - "Answer me, Hashem" - and the nation is simply referred to as "this nation."
  2. Verse 36 highlights Eliyahu's status as the prophet of God. Eliyahu requests not just that it be known that Hashem is the God of Israel, but also that it be known that Eliyahu is God's servant, and that it was at God's behest that he performed "all these things." In verse 37 this aspect is completely lacking - Eliyahu prays here only that God and His actions be known.
  3. In verse 36, Eliyahu introduces his request without mentioning himself at all: "Hashem, God of Avraham..." In his appeal to God at the start of verse 37, on the other hand, he begins "Answer me, Hashem, answer me." Yet in verse 37, there is no reference to his status as a prophet.


These differences create a completely different atmosphere in the two parts of the prayer. In verse 36 the mood of the appeal is ceremonial and relaxed; it radiates quiet and unshakable confidence that what Eliyahu is praying for will indeed come to pass. The appeal in verse 37, however, is very emotional and personal; it expresses uncertainty with regard to God's response. What is the meaning of this contrast?




The test at Mt. Carmel has two different meanings, and Eliyahu seeks the clarification of both. One aspect is suggested by Eliyahu at the start of his speech to the nation and to the prophets of Ba'al. We shall refer to this as the "universal religious significance:"


(21) "If Hashem is God, then follow Him; if Ba'al - then follow him."


This suggestion is proposed by Eliyahu in his capacity as a private individual: that a test be held to clarify the identity of the true God worthy of their faith and worship. From the point of view of this test, there is no special significance to the fact that the "judges" of the test are the nation of Israel. The decision here is objective and is meant to make a deep impression on the consciousness of everyone present.


(24) "'The God who will answer with fire will be the true God.' And the nation said, 'This is good.'"


In order to preserve the neutrality and objectivity of the test, Eliyahu gives equal weight to both possible outcomes - both in his appeal for a decision (v. 21) and in his proposal of the details of the test (vv. 24-25). He avoids chastising the people, for fear of introducing charges of bias in his experiment.




But even at this early stage, Eliyahu slips an equivocal hint into his proposal:


(22) "Eliyahu said: I alone remain a prophet of God while the prophets of Ba'al are four hundred and fifty men."


At first glance, this would appear to be purely a preparatory explanation for Eliyahu allowing the prophets of Ba'al to act first at each stage of the test. But these words also hint to the persecution of the prophets of God at the hands of Izevel, the gentile queen, and the promotion of the foreign prophets of Ba'al whom, it appears, she brought from her homeland. Here we find the first hint that the issue that is being put to the test is not neutral and universal but rather something that goes to the very heart of Israel's definition as the nation of God, reflecting the conflict between Israel and its pagan neighbors.


That which until now has only been hinted at is now clearly articulated in the actions that Eliyahu performs silently - the detailed preparations that precede his prayer:


(30-32) "... And he repaired the destroyed altar of God; and Eliyahu took twelve stones, like the number of the tribes of the sons of Yaakov to whom God's word came, saying, 'Your name will be Israel.' And he made of the stones an altar in God's name..."


All these actions have a practical purpose, but at the same time each action has symbolic value which is conveyed to the nation silently. After repairing the basis of God's broken altar, Eliyahu continues to rebuild the upper portion using new stones. Eliyahu ensures that the altar will be built of a total of twelve stones. Presumably, Eliyahu made certain that those present would pay attention to the number and its significance. How he did this - whether by speech, or by some other method - is unknown. Why emphasize the twelve tribes of Israel, here and now?


As noted by the Pesikta Rabati (4:2), this action is obviously reminiscent of Moshe's similar act in building an altar at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when he came to seal the covenant between the nation and God (Shemot 24:3-8). In following Moshe's example, Eliyahu hints at his desire to renew the covenant between all of Israel and God. The nation now present at Mt. Carmel is representative of all the twelve tribes, and the altar that Eliyahu repairs will soon become the foundation for the revelation of the sign of God's covenant with the tribes of Israel. The fire that descends from God onto this altar comprised of twelve stones will be a sign of the Shekhina's dwelling among Israel and the renewal of the bond between the nation and their God: "Today it will be known that You are God in Israel" (v. 36).


But we should also point out the differences between these two instances. Moshe is about to seal a covenant between God and the nation concerning their acceptance of the mitzvot; but the actual faith in Hashem as the God of Israel required no sealing of a covenant nor any special clarification. Eliyahu, in contrast, comes to renew the covenant between the nation and God in its most fundamental context: a covenant concerning the recognition and of His Godliness.


Another difference between the two instances is that Moshe receives a response in advance from the nation eager to enter into the covenant (24:3): "And all the nation answered with a single voice and they said, 'All the words that God has spoken we shall do.'" Eliyahu, on the other hand, is met with hesitation and suspicion, and it is only after the descent of the fire from heaven that the nation gives voice to its wholehearted recognition.


These differences also exist against the backdrop of the different times at which the two events take place. The covenant at Mt. Sinai is sealed in the morning (24:4): "And [Moshe] arose early in the morning and the built an altar at the foot of the mountain." This "morning" is also representative of the morning of their nationhood. Eliyahu, in contrast, acts "at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice," at twilight, a historic moment in which darkness and light are mixed up in the life of the nation that is "dithering between two opinions." But when the fire comes down from heaven, it illuminates the darkness with a great light, and all the dithering and doubts will instantly disappear. Then the words of the prophet are fulfilled (Zekharia 14:7): "There will be one day that will be known as being God's; neither day nor night, and it shall come to pass that towards evening there will be light." Indeed, the Yalkut Shimoni (II:47) beautifully depicts the relation between Sinai and Carmel, concluding that the first commandment given at Sinai ("I am the Lord your God") was reinforced at Carmel.


We have not yet exhausted the significance of verse 31. The text does not suffice with the numerical connection between the twelve stones taken by Eliyahu and the twelve tribes of Israel, but adds: "Like the number of the tribes of the children of Yaakov, to whom God spoke, saying, 'Your name will be Israel.'" What is this coming to teach us?


In order to answer this question, we shall again have to compare the covenant at Mt. Sinai with the renewal of this covenant at Mt. Carmel. Mt. Sinai is located in the heart of the great wilderness, a place of isolation. Only Israel and God were present at the covenant made there, separated from all other nations. Mt. Carmel, in contrast, is located in the heavily-populated northern region of Eretz Yisrael, and it served as a well-known site for idol-worship by many different nationalities. The height and beauty of this mountain "rising out of the sea" is what made it a place of worship for everyone, and especially for the Ba'al worshippers of Sidon.


The difference between Sinai and Carmel is the difference between what took place on these two mountains. The covenant that Eliyahu wishes to renew between God and Israel His nation is not like the covenant sealed at Sinai, in which God chooses His special nation and the nation chooses its God while at a distance from the rest of the world. At Carmel, they are in the midst of the conflict with the neighboring nations who tempt Israel with their wealth and their culture, drawing them closer to their pagan beliefs and customs. In the midst of this mighty battle with the nations of the world, Eliyahu has to bring about a victory for monotheism in nation's consciousness and a renewal of the ancient covenant. In the background to Eliyahu's battle stands Izevel, daughter of Etba'al, king of Sidon, and the group of prophets of Ba'al who eat at her table and are apparently of her nationality. Eliyahu is faced with the task of negating his nation's faith in Ba'al, god of Sidon and head of the pagan pantheon of Canaan.


The emphasis on the children of Yaakov here is thus also aimed at drawing a line separating Israel from the foreign influences that threaten its unity and uniqueness. Yaakov's name specifically is meant to remind them of Yaakov's battle with the angel - the representative of the nations of the world ("the prince of Esav," in the words of Chazal). In this battle, Yaakov was victorious; following Yaakov's example, his children too will prevail in their battle against the four hundred and fifty foreign prophets of Ba'al (see the Metzudot here).


We may therefore summarize and say that Eliyahu's preparatory actions, performed in silence, gave the experience at Carmel a clear character; the message thereby conveyed to the nation was a very specific one. It was meant to wedge a barrier between the nation of Israel and the foreign prophets of Ba'al; to remind the nation of their previous loyalty to the Divine service symbolized by the broken altar; to remind them of the covenant between the nation and God, sealed by Moshe at the foot of Mt. Sinai; and to bring to mind Yaakov, the father of the nation who, in his battle with the angel, "fought and prevailed."


From this national-particularistic perspective, the events at Mt. Carmel were meant to bring about a renewal of the covenant between Israel and God; not an empirical proof that God is indeed the Lord of the Universe, but a return to previous revelations of God in fire before His chosen nation in order to rest His Shekhina amongst them; not the end of the period of doubt and double allegiance, but rather the beginning of a new era in the covenantal relationship between the nation and their God.


From this perspective, Eliyahu's task also changes: he is no longer someone who comes proposing an objective test, carefully maintaining a balance between the two options. He is a messenger of God and performs all his actions on Mt. Carmel by God's command. His purpose is not to bring about a decision between his "way" and the "way" of the prophets of Ba'al, but rather the classical mission of the prophet in Israel: reconciliation between Israel and their Father in Heaven. In this context, Eliyahu stands before the nation with no connection at all to the foreign prophets of Ba'al.




It is now easy to understand that Eliyahu's two corresponding prayers express quite explicitly these two significances that the prophet seeks to attach to the event at Carmel. The order of the prayers is inverse to the order of his actions, creating a chiastic structure. His first prayer, in verse 36, is a direct continuation of his actions in rebuilding the altar - actions which focus on the national-Israelite aspect. This prayer continues the line of what is hinted at in his actions, elevating them to the verbal plane. The connections between his symbolic acts and the prayer in verse 36 are easily detected: in taking the twelve stones, he hints at the "twelve tribes of the sons of Yaakov," and in his prayer Eliyahu mentions all three of the forefathers. The nation "Israel" appears both in the context of his actions ("to whom God spoke saying, Israel will be your name") and twice in the prayer in verse 36.


In his prayer in verse 36, Eliyahu highlights his function as a prophet of Israel: "And I am Your servant" means here "Your prophet, Your messenger." "And by Your word have I performed all these things" - in other words, despite the apparently neutral way in which Eliyahu treats the test that he initiates, in this too he is following God's word with a view both to bringing Israel back to God and to bringing the Shekhina back to dwell amidst Israel.


From the point of view of this aspect of the Carmel experience, Eliyahu's prayer is uttered with festivity and confident calm, for there is no doubt as to God's response. There is no request in verse 36, but rather an advance notice of what is about to take place: "Today it shall be known...." This notice is formulated as a declaration and with a direct appeal to "Hashem, God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael." The certainty expressed in his first prayer arises from the fact that Eliyahu is acting as God's messenger, and the descent of the fire itself is done "by God's word." Therefore, there is no room for doubt.


The prayer of verse 37 is very different. This prayer brings us back to the objective test that has been set up between Eliyahu and the prophets of Ba'al. In this test, Eliyahu does not appear as a prophet acting on God's command, but rather as a person seeking to phis faith to the test. Therefore the tone of this appeal is personal - "Answer me, Hashem, answer me" - as well as very emotional and tense. As a person acting on his own initiative, Eliyahu cannot be certain that God will answer his prayer, and he must implore Him and provide a good reason for his beseeching request. His reason is entirely anchored in a desire to sanctify God's name: "And they will know that YOU are the Lord... and YOU have turned..." Eliyahu himself has no role to play here - neither in the act that is about to be performed (the descent of fire from the heaven) nor in causing its result (the faith in Hashem as God, rather than Ba'al).


Because of this universal religious character of the test at Carmel, the name "Israel" is omitted altogether from verse 37. The nation is called "this nation," and even Eliyahu himself is not referred to in this verse as a prophet. The linguistic connection between Eliyahu's prayer in verse 37 and the proposal of the test at the beginning of his speech to the nation, as well as to the cries of the prophets of Ba'al, is clear: where the prophets of Ba'al call out, "Ba'al - answer us" (at two different stages), Eliyahu prays, "Answer me, Hashem, answer me." And corresponding to his words to the nation, "If Hashem is God," he prays "And this nation will know that You are God."




We now need to ask the question that arises from all that we have said so far: isn't there a contradiction between the two significances of the assembly at Carmel? Can two such different prayers be juxtaposed? In other words, if Eliyahu is speaking as a prophet sent by God, certain of the outcome of his mission, then why does he later need to cry out to God, "Answer me, Hashem, answer me?" Moreover, if the significance of the event is supposed to be a renewal of the covenant between God and His nation, what value is there in a test between faith in Ba'al and faith in God? Eliyahu, in his rebuilding of the altar and his first prayer, elevates the event to such a lofty plane that its first manifestation, as a religious test, seems childish and unnecessary, as does his second prayer.


The answer is that not only is there no contradiction between the two aspects of the event at Carmel, but they in fact complement each other and are interdependent. The dependence of the renewal of the historic covenant on the fundamental test of faith is clear: until the nation makes its decision between the two options, until they recognize the exclusivity of faith in God and His service and nullify the existence of Ba'al, there is no point in renewing the covenant. Therefore the order of events has to be first and foremost a call by Eliyahu to the nation to decide, and a proposal of the test that will help them to recognize that Hashem is God while Ba'al is nothing. Only thereafter does Eliyahu perform actions that hint at the renewal of the covenant between the twelve tribes of the children of Yaakov and Hashem, God of Israel.


On the other hand, the possibility of suggesting a test such as the one that Eliyahu proposes, and of receiving a response from God in the form of fire raining down from heaven, is not something of which every person or every nation is worthy. It is only the great love felt for Israel by the God of their fathers, and the status of Eliyahu as a prophet of God, that allow him to propose such a test with the faith that God will indeed answer him. In other words, only the historical connection between Israel and their God, the bond of the covenant, makes the universal-religious test possible. Therefore in his prayer Eliyahu first mentions the bond of the covenant and the chosenness of Israel as a basis for his confidence in God's response, and only thereafter does he add, on that basis, his personal plea for God's response to the actual test that he has set up.


In other words, the bond of the covenant between Israel and God is what facilitates the test against the prophets of Ba'al, while God's response to the test that Eliyahu has arranged facilitates the renewal and reinforcement of that same covenant. This explains the inverse order between Eliyahu's actions and prayers in the chiastic structure noted above. The second prayer - the test - would not have been answered had it not been preceded by Eliyahu's first prayer. It was only the mention of the forefathers and their merit protecting their descendants that made it possible for Eliyahu to arrange the test and to expect a response to his personal plea - "Answer me, Hashem, answer me." Indeed, the mood of each of the two prayers teaches us a clear lesson as to which was uttered in anxiety and uncertainty and which was uttered with complete faith.


(Translated by Kaeren Fish)




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