In any other context, if you heard about a wandering old man with a staff causing water to come out of dry rocks and armies to go blind, you’d assume we were discussing a wizard from a new fantasy novel. Let’s face it, Old Testament prophets are wizards. There is nothing wrong with that, and it just makes them cooler.
Fire From Heaven
Starting off with a bang, we have Elijah and the prophets/priests of Ba’al and Asherah. These are deities who were commonly worshipped in Israel at the time. Asherah was a mother goddess and fertility figure who may have been associated with sacred trees or “poles” being set up. Ba’al is not a single deity but more of a grouping and we don’t know that much about it, other than the worship practices tended towards a violent, physical offering that brought about things like good weather for crops, and so forth. Contrary to what you were probably taught in Sunday School, there is increasing evidence that what we think of now as the monotheistic religion that morphed into Christianity as one of its branches was actually a fringe cult with vocal support. The status quo was the polytheistic worship of a pantheon which included these other deities.
With that theory in mind, Elijah was representing the Lord of Lords, whose prophets were being actively persecuted (as the fringe group with crazy ideas of One God and so forth). He bravely marched into the palace and said to the king hey stop attacking us! Our God really is the strongest and you should be worshipping Him, not this random collection of losers!
Instead of executing him, King Ahab went hmmm this guy has a point, let’s do PROPHET BOWL on top of a mountain! It’ll be awesome! (Honestly if I was queen and a bunch of wizards wanted to show off, I’d be on board with it, too, popcorn in hand.) The contest was whose god will send fire to light up a burnt offering first.
First up: 450 prophets of Ba’al. They really put effort into it, complete with chanting, dancing and ritually cutting themselves. After taking most of the day with nothing happening (other than Elijah making sarcastic comments from the sidelines) it was his turn.
This is where it gets interesting.
Elijah uses a sacred number of 12 stones to build the altar, then he is so confident that he douses the entire altar in water three times (another sacred number). Then he offers a simple prayer with absolute faith that it will be answered.
BOOM! The entire area is doused in flames, even the soil and stones are burned. Everyone is like “WTF!” In true Old Testament style, Elijah didn’t stop there. He hunted down and killed every single prophet of Ba’al (they didn’t mess around back then). Meanwhile, King Ahab was sipping on his wine, Cersei Lannister style.
Too bad there was no TikTok back then, can you imagine the views on that? Anyway this is a classic example of where epic wizard battles are scattered throughout the Bible; you just have to be paying attention.
Truth Isn’t Easy
Sometimes we see prophet vs prophet conflicts going on, such as with Jeremiah. He was stuck in a horrible time period, knowing that terrible things were about to happen and nobody would believe him about it. Naturally people didn’t want to hear his doom and gloom message.
To visually show what was going on, Jeremiah put a yoke on himself and spoke to the leaders, telling them to ignore any other prophets, dreams, sorcerers etc who said that they would be freed from Babylon. Those would just be pretty lies.
Hananiah waited until there were a lot of people around, then loudly proclaimed that no, the Lord told him that everything would be fine. He then broke the yoke that Jeremiah was wearing, as proof. Obviously everyone was happy about that, except God, who hadn’t said a word about it.
Furious, Jeremiah prophesied in return that Hananiah was lying. “This year you will die, because of your rebellion” and sure enough, Hananiah died that year.
Be very careful about claiming a message is directly from God unless you are absolutely sure.
Power in Battle
Sometimes prophets got more directly involved in the conflicts going on, such as with Samuel. During his time, many people were worshipping Astarte (a war and sex goddess) and he pointed out that if they were going to win against the Philistines, it would be with the Lord’s help, not hers. Since Samuel was revered and apparently quite charismatic, the army agreed.
Samuel gathered them together at Mizpah, drew water and poured it out for the Lord while they pledged themselves to His service. They fasted that day and prepared for the attack, begging the prophet to intercede on their behalf.
He agreed, and prepared a burnt offering, then called for the Lord’s help in the battle. At that moment, the Philistines arrived in force. In response to Samuel’s call, terrifying thunder rolled out across the battlefield, sending the attackers into a panic. The calmer, more prepared force was able to defeat them.
In gratitude, Samuel set up a standing stone dedicated to the Lord.
Why were they suddenly so scared? I left out a long story about how the Philistines had earlier tried to take the Ark and got hit full-on “Indiana Jones” style, so that group was already freaked out about the Israelite’s god. Having a wizard, erm, prophet on hand who called for God’s help at the precise moment battle was joined was an extra bonus.
It took a lot of faith for the army to turn away from a gorgeous battle goddess to the Lord, so props to Samuel for convincing them.
Jesus in the Wilderness
This isn’t flashy combat with flames bursting in the air and staffs turning into snakes. The battle in the wilderness was a more subtle one using primarily wits and defensive magick. That does not make it any less impressive.
In preparation for his ministry, Jesus went out into nature and was fasting for a ritualistic 40 days when quite frankly he was attacked. There are libraries full of material on the subtleties of meaning contained in the temptations, but looking at it from a practical perspective, the result was a genuine struggle.
Turn Stones to Bread
Jesus could have turned stone into bread (he turned water in to wine, so why not?). That’s so cool! But he was in the middle of fasting, so the real temptation here was breaking a vow / ritual with God. Jesus retaliates by quoting scripture (otherwise known as the Sword of the Spirit in Ephesians). Mic drop.
After magickally transporting them both (could just have meant in a vision, but we’ve seen evidence of actual mystical travel elsewhere in scripture) to a high spot, Jesus is tempted to jump off and fly. After all, God wouldn’t let him die yet, so he would be fine. Sounds fun, right? Picking up on the earlier use of scripture, the Tempter quotes it at Jesus, like they are in some sort of holy rap battle. Not missing a beat, Jesus quotes right back at him. This scene reminds me of “Hamilton” but with more robes involved.
Greed & Power
This is the most obvious attempt, which is basically “mrhawhawhaw you could rule the world! Just make sure you worship me.” We might come across something similar, but in more subtle ways. As a Christian in a spiritual world, it is so easy to get distracted or confused or just plain “is this okay or not?” so while at first glance this particular temptation seems super obvious, it really isn’t. It can be as simple a question to wrestle with as can I have a portrait of Ma’at hanging on my wall because I like Ancient Egyptian art, or is that not okay as a Christian? Let’s look at the verse Jesus slammed back at this question: Deuteronomy 6:13.
This is a followup chapter to the 10 Commandments, which were added right after freedom from Egypt of all places. Mostly they are pretty straight forward and can be summed up with “don’t be a douchebag” or more kindly as “love your neighbor as yourself”. People are reminded that this is important – put the commandments on your doors, tie them on yourselves, etc. It goes on to say remember that when you are finally living in luxury with gorgeous outfits and great food, don’t forget who brought you there. Don’t follow the gods of people around you and forget the Lord, because he gets jealous and will retaliate.
If I had a girlfriend I was super in love with and she had a poster of Natalie Portman on her wall, would I be upset? Nope. However, if all she did was talk about Natalie Portman when we were together and kept asking me to constantly roleplay as Amidala or Black Swan…not okay in a relationship.
In this final temptation, it isn’t some stern, linear law that Jesus is quoting back, he is basically saying I am in a relationship with God, so He is the most important being to me and I’m not going to mess around with that, so beat it.
When in doubt, tell evil to fuck off. That’s what Jesus did.
It also helps to know a lot of awesome scripture quotes, so don’t let that Bible sit and collect dust. Knowing a few key, important truths that you can slam back when feeling depressed or tempted are great when in a tough situation or panicking.
Whether you believe that the book is canonical truth or mythology, it has some great zingers in it. Use them.