Holy Chutzpah – Elijah

Holy Chutzpah – Elijah

Holy Chutzpah – Elijah.

“When King Ahab went out to meet Elijah, Ahab exclaimed, ‘So, is it really you, you troublemaker of Israel?’ Elijah replied, ‘I have made no trouble for Israel. You and your family are the troublemakers, for you have refused to obey the commands of the Lord Yahweh and have worshiped the images of Baal instead!'” (1 Kings 18:16-18).

Chutzpah (hoots-pah) is a Yiddish word that long ago entered English usage. It is from the Hebrew word, “hutspah,” which means insolent or audacious. Chutzpah is a neutral word that can be either positive or negative. Chutzpah can be righteous or unrighteous, holy or unholy. It is an idea difficult to define, so there are a lot of synonyms for it, especially in the biblical sense: spiritual audacity; brazen gall; tenacious stubbornness; headstrong persistence; outrageous guts; shameless nerve; feisty assertiveness; brazen impudence; unyielding boldness; courageous spine; expectant defiance. The Holy Scriptures, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are overflowing with examples of holy chutzpah. One wonders not only if it’s a job requirement for saints and prophets, but also a faith requirement for all believers. In fact, God seems to love chutzpah in us when it is based on our ultimate trust in Him and His character, our unselfish motives, our yearning for justice and mercy. Chutzpah in front of others becomes holy when it is done in obedience to the Lord and is an outworking of our faith in Him. As Rabbi Schulweiss once said, “Spiritual audacity toward God finds a place of honor in Jewish religious thought.” The rabbis of old have always insisted that chutzpah is a valid expression of faith. Just a quick glimpse at the Gospels reveals that Jesus and His followers fully embraced the ancient Jewish ethic of holy chutzpah. When Jesus saw chutzpah in action, He usually said things like, “Great is your faith!” Maybe Christian scholar Dr. Brad Young said it best. “True faith requires bold perseverance. Sometimes it is expressed by brazen impudence. Faith can be defined as chutzpah. Persevere with unyielding tenacity.” (Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian).

Elijah (1 Kings 17, 18 and 19) thundered into town as a country bumpkin from Gilead, on the other side of the tracks. He was a unique character, full of spiritual audacity from the beginning of his ministry, one of the great personalities in the Hebrew Bible. Elijah enjoyed an unusual personal relationship with God. He was known around Judah and Israel for wearing a cloak made of fur and animal hair, a cloak that became famous and was given to Elisha to carry on the prophetic tradition in Elijah’s absence. He also wore a leather loincloth, a homemade piece of underwear that made him that much more a distinctive person when he walked down the street. He was a shaggy outdoorsman, a loner, and he often felt abandoned as a result. He often felt discouraged, if not depressed. Sometimes he literally ran from trouble, but often enough he ran right into the middle of it. He was unafraid to confront the evil king Ahab, for example, but then ran from Queen Jezebel. Elijah was a prayer warrior, a religious reformer, and a miracle worker. Strangely enough, he was once fed by ravens in the wilderness, and another time he was fed by an angel. As James says in the New Testament (5:17-18), “Elijah was human, just like us.” On the other hand, he was not like us at all. Some of his miracles included causing a drought through his prayers, and then three years later causing it to rain; multiplying food and oil for a poor widow, and then raising her young son from the dead. You don’t see that every day, even in the life of a prophet.

There came a time during Elijah’s ministry when he tired of seeing double-mindedness among the fickle faith of the Israelites. They can’t seem to choose who they want to worship. Should it be the Canaanite gods of Baal and Asherah, or should it be Yahweh, the God Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Or maybe an interesting mix of them all would be best. So Elijah confronted king Ahab, who was responsible for much of this idolatry, and issued his challenge. Elijah demanded that Ahab bring all his pagan prophets, all 850 of them, to Mount Carmel. Let’s have a duel of gods, says Elijah, and see who wins. We’ll see who has true divine power, so the people can see once and for all who to follow after.

What would be the betting odds if Las Vegas was running this contest? Elijah, all by himself, was challenging 850 prophets to a spiritual duel. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight at first glance. Some might be thinking that Elijah always liked the spectacular and dramatic, but maybe he went a bit overboard in this thing. Elijah, on the other hand, pities the pagan prophets. He thought that since he had God on his side, those prophets didn’t have a chance.

So there they all are, standing uncomfortably on a plain on the top of Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The pagan prophets were there, and so were all the people of Israel. They were anxious to get the show started. In the beginning Elijah laid out for the Israelites the main reason for this contest… “If Yahweh is God, follow Him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” The people didn’t know what to say to that challenge, so they remained quiet. Elijah then asked two bulls to be brought to sacrifice on the constructed altar. He told the prophets to butcher one of the bulls and lay it on the altar. All that was needed was for the wood to be fired up so the sacrifice can be offered. And then  later Elijah would do the same and lay his bull on the altar, and he would need for his wood to be kindled as well. Elijah proposed that the prophets pray to their gods, and Elijah would pray to his God, and whoever’s God lights the fire is the true God. Elijah is obviously going out on quite the limb here. He is assuming Yahweh is going to answer the challenge. Throughout this contest, Elijah is full of confidence and has no doubts whatsoever.

Elijah told the prophets to go first. So they laid the butchered bull on the altar and fervently prayed to Baal to light the fire. They prayed, they danced their special pagan dances around the altar, and still nothing happened. Elijah then started in with his trash talk. C’mon, shout a little louder! Dance a little faster! Maybe Baal is daydreaming! Maybe he is busy doing something else! Perhaps he is sleeping and needs to wake up! One translation has it said that Elijah was wondering aloud if Baal is going to the bathroom! The desperate prophets then started to cut themselves with knives and swords until their blood was everywhere. They thought this would show Baal that they are really serious about this request. By the time the middle of the afternoon arrived, after almost the whole day had been spent trying to get Baal to light the fire, the prophets were exhausted. All their feverish work had no effect. There was no reply. No sound. No fire.

So Elijah called the Israelites over to him so they could see him rebuild the altar with twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Then they dug a trench around the altar. Elijah then had the bull butchered and placed it on the altar over the wood. Having a flair for the dramatic, Elijah revealed that nothing is too difficult for his God. He had the people pour large jars of water over the bull pieces and the wood. Elijah didn’t think it was all soaked enough, so they poured water over everything two more times. There, Elijah said, that should do it.

After all this preparation, Elijah lifted his eyes to God and prayed a simple, straightforward prayer. “Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Yahweh, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.” (1 Kings 18:36-37).

Immediately a roaring fire descended from heaven and burned up everything, the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, even the dust. The fire was so intense that it licked up the water filling the trenches. Yahweh has been declared the heavyweight champion. This astounded the people of Israel, as one would imagine, and they all fell face down on the ground and cried out, “Yahweh is God! Yes! Yahweh is God!” Elijah then revealed that this whole episode was indeed a holy war, and the pagan prophets were combatants. So instead of trying to convert all those prophets, Elijah took charge of executing every single one of them. Evidently, there was no mercy for those responsible for leading the Israelites astray. From beginning to end of this confrontation on Mt. Carmel, Elijah was inspired with holy chutzpah, straight from God.