Question and Response: Elijah and the 450 Prophets

Someone recently asked me:

I’m confused by Elijah killing 450 prophets...that just seems so cruel and excessive. Like, if someone told me that worshipping/following God meant killing hundreds of people - or anyone - I’d be like “uhm I’m not sure about this God.” I understand that it was a very different culture and time but I just don’t get it. My culture Bible doesn’t explain it either... Any insights?

Here's my response:

What a great question! And it's so good to wrestle with, because it radically alters how we view God today and what we think God could expect of us. I think this question is important to wrestle with especially on Indigenous People's day because America's "Manifest Destiny" theology sprung from reading the Israelite's conquest of Canaan as normative for today. I still know plenty of Christians who are totally cool with violence for that very "biblical" reason.

Here are four points that lead to a "therefore."

1. Jesus Will Not Imitate Elijah

The first place I would start is Luke 9:51-56 where the disciples ask Jesus if they want should call down fire from heaven to punish some Samaritans who refuse to welcome Jesus. Some New Testament manuscripts even include "Like Elijah did." Verse 55, "But Jesus turned and rebuked them." No fire called down. They move on. This, of course, is normative for Jesus. Whenever given the chance to respond with violence, Jesus refuses. He rebukes the disciples for wanting to emulate Elijah. He rebukes Peter for striking a solider with a sword, and instead heals the soldier. And so on.

2. God Is Like Jesus (and in God is no unChristlikeness at all)

Secondly, we then must remember our good Trinitarian theology: Jesus reveals what God is really like. "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus repeatedly says that He only does what He sees the Father doing. "Whatever the Father does, the Son also does." (John 5:19) And see Jesus "going around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38).

3. The Old Testament Is Not the Whole Story

Thirdly, we remember that in Christian thought the Hebrew Scriptures did not fully reveal what God was like. The New Testament constantly uses language like

  • shadow ("The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming, not the realities themselves," Hebrews 10:1. Jewish festivals "are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ," Colossians 2:17);
  • superior ("The ministry Jesus has received is as superior as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises");
  • and a formerly undisclosed mystery ("my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past," Romans 16:25 or "We declare God's wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory," 1 Cor 2:7).

4. Jesus Reveals God Perfectly—Even Through Imperfection

Fourth, we remember that God's character was revealed in Christ, even through human-implemented imperfection. Phil 2:5-7 tells us that Jesus, being in the nature God, emptied Himself and become human. That resulted in his death on the cross. Although humans tortured, abused, and killed Jesus, that did make Jesus less divine. While his human visage may have been obscured through human abuse, his divine glory (shown through others-oriented sacrifice) shown through.

Therefore: Jesus Reveals God Perfectly; the Old Testament Did Not

Therefore: Those four things put together mean, for me at least, that we have to read the Hebrew Scriptures dramatically different than we might otherwise. Long story short, while the characters of the Hebrew Scriptures may have earnestly believed they were representing God correctly, they did not always do so perfectly. The genocidal wars of Joshua and Judges; the execution of the prophets of Baal—these simply do not line up with the character of God as revealed in Christ. In hindsight we can look back on these tragic tales and see how God's character was misunderstood and obscured.

That's not to say that the Hebrew Scriptures utterly failed to reveal God's character. But we can confirm those moments only when they line up with the self-sacrificing, non-violent, others-oriented character of God as revealed in Jesus.

Why would God allow Scripture to include texts that would demean the divine character and obscure divine truth? Well, that is very much in keeping with the "self-emptying" character of God as shown through Jesus. Jesus also had a bad reputation among the religious people of his day (bad enough to lead to his death!) and felt no need to go around fixing it.

It's also a form of divine accommodation. We see this in the discussion concerning divorce in Mark 10. The Pharisees state that Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce. Jesus replies, "It was because of your hard hearts that Moses wrote you this law." In other words, Deut 24:1 was not God's intention, but an accommodation of human behavior. (It's also worth noting that Jesus doesn't say that God wrote Deut 24:1. He explicitly says, "Moses wrote you that law"...)

So, that's a really long-winded way to say that Elijah thought he was doing God's will in slaying those prophets. But Jesus shows us that God's not like that at all.