The good folks of the church in which I was raised taught me the Bible, and had the good sense not to edit out the violence in the Old Testament, for they understood it was there to teach us something. One account I have found memorable from youth is that of the ecumenical prayer conference of the prophets of Baal in I Kings xviii 21f. What I find most striking here is the deep religious sincerity of these devotees of the Lord (for that is what “Baal” means—an excellent interchurch device for friendly comprehension of the God of Israel with the gods of the surrounding districts). The prophet Elijah, as was, alas, his custom, showed no respect at all for their piety or devotion. In fact he made fun of it, demonstrating a most un-Christian attitude toward these sincere efforts to unify the Church, treating them instead as apostasy from the one, true, and embarrassingly proprietary God—and to top it off had the lot of them massacred at the end, sincerity and all. The narrative bears repeating:

Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you halt between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people answered him not a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, and I only, remain a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks, and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under. I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under it.  Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God that answers by fire, let him be God.”

And all the people answered and said, “It is well spoken.” And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, “Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first, for ye are many, and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.”  And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which had been made. At noon, Elijah made fun of them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is conversing, or hunting, or on a trip–or maybe he’s sleeping and you need to wake him up.”  So they cried aloud, and cut themselves in their customary manner with knives and lancets, till they gushed blood. When midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any divine response.

Elijah said unto all the people, “Come near me.”  And all the people came near him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be thy name.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. He put the wood in order and cut the bullock in pieces, laying him on the wood, and said, “Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it the third time.” And they did it the third time. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near, and said, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that you are the Lord God, and that you have turned their heart back again.”  Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, 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 said, “The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.”

And Elijah said unto them, “Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they took them, and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.

No one who understands this account will be overly impressed by supposed exercises in piety—like “much prayer,” “consultation with wise and devout brethren,” “earnest searching of the scriptures,” the “consensus of the Council of Bishops,” or even “Evangelical New Testament scholars!” or other modern forms of jumping up on the altar and calling on “God”–where plain, reasonably skeptical intelligence indicates the real point of the whole business is an attempt to evade doing the right thing. Really, does one even need to “pray about it” where we have already been instructed on what the right thing is?

Many examples come to mind, but here is one from personal recollection: I once knew a congregation that established a months-long prayer meeting to “seek the Lord’s face” on whether they should stay in a downtown location where they would be required to devote their ministry to the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind in a changing neighborhood–or move to a fine new suburban building. What do you think “the Lord” told them? Yep—you guessed it–God’s comfort zone matched their own–and could have guessed it before the meetings started.

Might one suppose it will be more tolerable in the Judgment for a church that made such a move (or even did something pretty wicked) just admitting it didn’t have enough faith for the work rather than making a religious show of justifying its own desires in God’s name—another way of taking it in vain? Might one think that some Elijah in that church who refused to attend the prayers and was labeled unspiritual for his recusance was the one who went down to his house justified?