1 Kings Chapter 18 tells the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. We read that Elijah and Ahab confront each other, and Elijah challenges Ahab’s new god, Baal, and his priests in showdown of divine power. After the priests are unable to summon Baal’s power to burn their scarified offering, Elijah succeeds in doing so by engaging the powers of heaven. Everyone learns a good lesson about not trusting in idols and the need to serve God, but a rather disconcerting detail about what Elijah does next is often overlooked.
After soundly defeating the priests of Baal, the Bible tells us that Elijah captures all the priests, and murders each one of them—there were four hundred and fifty of them. (See 1 Kgs. 18: 22) We read:
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. (1 Kgs. 18:40)
This is certainly uncharacteristic behavior for a prophet, and this point, a modern LDS reader will likely pull the “as far as it is translated correctly” card, allowing room for error or license to reject something in the Bible that may be jarring.
But what could possibly be mistranslated or mistranscribed into a description of a merciless prophetic massacre? I had a mission companion who offered the following plausible explanation:
One of the details in the verse is that “Elijah brought [the priests] down to the brook Kishon,” to kill them. Why would he pick a body of water to carry out a mass execution? And why would he want to execute them in the first place? Hadn’t they just witnessed and been convinced of God’s power? The Mosaic law certainly was quite liberal in its application of the death penalty, but did the crimes of the priests really warrant this?
Perhaps Elijah never killed anyone at all. Maybe he chose to take them down to the brook because that is where he was going to baptize them.
The ordinance of baptism, which LDS doctrine teaches us was around in Old Testament times, embodies in part the symbolism of death—of burial—of forsaking and slaying the old man of sin. It signifies the moment that a new creature is born in Christ, and the former creature dies. Also, baptism often follows the process of spiritual conversion—something the priests of Baal likely would have experienced after what they witnessed.
If this is true, and if the original account of 1 Kings 18 had been written in poetic, symbolic or figurative language, is it not plausible that a description of a group baptism could have been interpreted by future readers as a mass murder?
It seems it could be that after Elijah demonstrated the power of God, many people believed, were converted, and requested baptism. Elijah takes them to a body of water, and “slays the man of sin” within them through baptism. Later, some transcriber, confused about the idiom and/or unfamiliar with the ordinance of baptism, assumes it is describing Elijah actually killing everyone, and writes it as such.
So is this just an empty attempt at reinterpreting scripture into something that it’s really not? Or does a fresh perspective on the passage give us a more accurate (not to mention far less barbaric) portrayal of the prophet Elijah?
If this interpretation does have any credibility, what else does this tell us about the flexibility of scriptural interpretation?
If not, are we OK with accepting a prophet who’s hands are stained with the blood of 450 “potential converts”?