This chapter has one of the Bible's most thrilling me-against-the-world, cinematic climaxes. When the chapter starts, the drought is still raging. There are also much worse, man-made crimes occurring in Israel, as a parenthetical note informs us. The note tells us that Ahab's chief of staff, Obadiah, is a holy man: "When [Ahab's wife] Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took 100 prophets, hid them 50 to a cave, and provided them with bread and water." The queen was committing mass propheticide! Jezebel, we've already learned, worships Baal. The parenthetical makes it clear what kind of royal couple we're dealing with—a Lady Macbeth with a somewhat wicked, but mostly weak, husband.
Elijah visits King Ahab. As soon as Elijah walks in the room, the king and prophet start slinging insults like they're playing the dozens. Ahab greets the prophet, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" To which Elijah responds, "I have not troubled Israel, but you have." Elijah explains the reason for his visit. He wants a showdown with Jezebel's priests, her 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. So, Jezebel's prophets and the people of Israel gather at Mount Carmel. 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.)