The time period of Shlomo HaMelech marked a high point in Jewish history. Finally, some five hundred years after the Exodus, Am Yisrael had attained its fullest borders, the economy flourished, unity was achieved, and the Bet HaMikdash was built in the new capital of Jerusalem. (See Board #1.)
However, only a short time later, the empire crumbled. Not only did the kingdom split between Rechavam [Yehuda] and Yerovam [the Ten Tribes], Sheyshak, king of Egypt, attacked, leaving the country in shambles. (See Board #2.) Even though Yehuda recovered rather quickly during the reigns of Assa and Yehoshafat, the situation of the Ten Tribes went from bad to worse. Yerovam's dynasty lasted only two generations, as did the dynasty of his rival Baasha. Afterward the country suffered from a war between generals (Zimri, Omri and Tivni). Finally, Omri managed to secure the kingdom, and he moved its capital to Shomron.
[For more details, read Melachim I chapter 16.]
Achav, King of Israel, and His Treaty with Sidon
Omri's son - Achav - was the first king to put the Ten Tribes 'back on the map.' He stabilized the internal political situation, built a strong army and boosted the economy by entering into an alliance with Sidon (in Lebanon), opening Israeli trade to the entire Mediterranean basin. (See Board #3.)
As part of this alliance, Achav married Eyzevel, the daughter of the King of Sidon (a common practice in ancient times when two countries enter a treaty or cooperation). Unfortunately, together with the new trade routes, Eyzevel brought with her Canaanite culture. The establishment of 'state sanctioned' houses of worship for Ba'al and Asheyra (16:30-33) was the price that Achav was willing to pay for his treaty with Sidon.
In Achav's own eyes, this newfound prosperity was in Israel's best interests, and therefore, he was willing to pay the price, for without this treaty, the country may very well have fallen apart.
Eyzevel and Eliyahu
Eyzevel, after rising to a powerful position within Achav's government, began to purge the country of its prophets (see 18:4, 18:13). In her opinion, these backward 'religious fanatics' would prevent Israel from molding into an integral part of the 'new Middle East' that Sidon was creating. Even though there were other high ranking officials in Achav's government, such as Ovadyah, who remained sympathetic to God's persecuted prophets (see 18:4), Eyzevel's policy became dominant during the early years of Achav's rule.
Furthermore, Achav had made peace with Yehoshafat, king of Yehuda (their children intermarry as well). For the first time since the split of the kingdom, prosperity returned and tribal unity was re-established.
It is at this point that Eliyahu enters. His plan is quite simple: If he can convince Achav and his countrymen to repent, a new 'messianic' time period similar to that of Shlomo could be re-created. (See Board #4.) However, the primary obstacle to Eliyahu's plan is Eyzevel.
It is Eliyahu's assumption that Bnei Yisrael are not following Eyzevel for ideological reasons, but rather for practical ones. They have accepted Eyzevel's Canaanite culture only because it has brought them prosperity. If however, Eliyahu can prove to the people that it is God who controls their prosperity (e.g. the rain, etc.), and not Ba'al (the Canaanite rain god), surely the people would return to Him. Therefore, Eliyahu's first step is to decree a terrible drought upon the Land (see 17:1). By bringing this drought, Eliyahu hopes to convince the people that it is indeed God who controls their destiny, and not Ba'al, Asheyra and an entire pantheon of gods.
After three years of drought, Eliyahu is ready for the big 'showdown' with the prophets of Ba'al. On Har Carmel, he hopes to prove to the people that it is God who brings the rain, and not Ba'al.
Before this confrontation, Eliyahu enters into a heated debate with Achav over whom is responsible for the terrible situation that the drought has brought. Achav accuses Eliyahu that he has brought on the demise of Israel (18:17). Eliyahu retorts that Achav himself is responsible, because of his alliance with Eyzevel and the Ba'al worship that she has instituted (18:18).
Just One Miracle...
Eliyahu is sure that with one big miracle he can 'turn everything around.' He invites the prophets of Ba'al to a showdown on Har Carmel. All the people gather to watch (18:19-20). From his censure of the people before this showdown, we see that Am Yisrael are actually torn between both cultures:
"Eliyahu came to people and told them: For how long can you continue to 'straddle the fence?' If Hashem is God, then follow only Him, and if Ba'al is god, then follow him, but the people could not answer him." (18:21)After the prophets of Ba'al are unable to cause their god to answer them (18:22-29), Eliyahu gathers the people around his mizbayach, and prays to God that He answer him in order that Bnei Yisrael become certain the He is indeed their God (18:30-37). God answers Eliyahu's prayer and consumes his offering. The people, amazed by this event, declare their belief in God (18:38-39).
Even though the Haftara ends of this 'happy note,' the final outcome of this miracle falls very short of Eliyahu's hopes. The very next day, Eyzevel, unmoved by these events, declares that the fate of Eliyahu will be like that of the prophets of Ba'al ??? (19:1-2).
Upon hearing this, Eliyahu is distressed. He had hoped that this miracle would have caused the people to revolt against Eyzevel. Instead, she remains in power, and Achav remains powerless against her. Eliyahu, realizing that he has failed (19:3-4), 'gives up' his battle and 'runs away' to Har Chorev (19:5-14). (See Board #5.)
The meaning of God's "hitgalut" to Eliyahu at Har Chorev, and the lesson that God is teaching him, is an exciting topic, but beyond the scope of this week's shiur. Im yirtzeh Hashem, we will discuss it in our shiur on the Haftara for Parshat Pinchas.
For Further Iyun
1. See Rashi on Melachim I 17:1 concerning the first confrontation between Eliyahu and Achav during their "shiva call" to Chiyel bet ha'Eili. Relate this Midrash to the above shiur.
2. Why do you think that Eliyahu's approach was ultimately unsuccessful? How is Elisha's approach different?