The Sarcastic Bible Hero

David Plotz in Slate:

Elijah issues his challenge—my God vs. yours, for all the marbles. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Elijah proposes an incineration contest. He’ll get one bull and the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah will get another. Both will call on their gods, and whichever incinerates the animal is the true Lord.

The rival priests go first. They shout to Baal all morning long, to no effect. Elijah interrupts their fruitless prayers with perhaps the first insult-comic routine in history, a hilarious, sardonic attack on Baal and his silence. “At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ ” Reading this, you can imagine exactly what kind of man Elijah was—brilliant, blunt, and sarcastic. (Have you ever heard Barney Frank interviewed? That’s what Elijah sounds like.)

The Baal priests grow increasingly frantic, cutting themselves with swords and raving to their god. But, of course, Baal doesn’t answer. Then, Elijah takes center stage. A superb showman, he has the Israelites gather close around him, heightening the drama. Then he builds an altar with 12 stones—one for each tribe—and soaks the altar and the bull three times with water, so there will be no charge of spontaneous combustion. (For all you animal rights fans, I should note that the bull is already dead.) Elijah prays to the Lord, “Let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me.” The Lord ignites the bull, the stones, and even the water. The Israelites fall on their faces and pray to Him. At Elijah’s urging, they seize the 850 false prophets and slaughter them.

More here.