Mt. Carmel and Elijah PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Mt. Carmel and Elijah
Geopolitical background
Elijah: The Biblical Text
Epilogue and Comment

Elijah on Carmel: the geopolitical background (or Why Marry Jezebel?)

elijah.jpgIn ancient Israel, the key to wealth and power was twofold: to control the roads and to maintain an alliance with Phoenicia. The roads formed the sole land bridge between Asia, Africa and Europe. As for the Phoenician connection: Israel's coast was straight, affording few harbors. To the north, however, the mountains of Lebanon pushed the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon against the sea, leaving little agricultural land, while the roots of these mountains formed excellent breakwaters. The Phoenicians became, therefore, the great sailors of the biblical world, opening up and even founding (as at Carthage) the markets of the Mediterranean shore.

Thus Phoenicia's economy complemented that of Israel, and Phoenicia was always its natural ally.

Its natural enemy was Damascus. For the main roads united at the great oasis of Damascus, going on from there as a single highway to Mesopotamia. The economy of Damascus competed with that of Israel for control of these roads (hence the campaigns against the Arameans at Ramoth Gilead, recorded in 1 Kings 22: 3-29; 2 Kings 8:28; 2 Kings 9:1). 

The complementary economies formed the geographical background of the alliance between David and Hiram of Tyre. Solomon renewed it, employing Phoenician cedars and workmen in his building projects, including the Temple. Here then was a principle of Israelite statecraft: control the trade routes and make an alliance with Phoenicia.

After the death of Solomon, Israel split into a northern kingdom ("Israel") and a southern one ("Judah"). About 850 BC, the northern dynasty of Omri and his son Ahab tried to renew the key to wealth and power. They repaired the relation with Judah, and they cemented the alliance with Phoenicia through Ahab's marriage to the Sidonian princess Jezebel. The one missing link was the King's Highway, for which this dynasty fought in vain at Ramoth-Gilead.

Ahab's marriage to Jezebel seemed, no doubt, to make good geographical-economic sense at the time. But as any spoiled princess will, when forced to move to the sticks, she brought a few little things with her: "450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table" (1 Kings 18:19). And here the old "principle of statecraft" encountered something else. That principle depended on control of the roads. But the roads, in turn, depended on the presence of water to drink. And where did the water come from?

In bowing to Jezebel's gods, the people breached the covenant as expressed in Deuteronomy 11:13-17, cited above. God's response, as promised, was to shut up the heavens. The prophet Elijah announced a drought, which lasted three years. Then God commanded Elijah to approach King Ahab and challenge the prophets of Baal to a confrontation on Mount Carmel.

Why Mt. Carmel?

The Upper Carmel thrusts itself between Phoenician territory and Israelite, yet no one lived on it; hence it was a neutral zone, an ideal place for the confrontation between Baal (to Phoenicians the source of rain) and the God of Israel.
Another reason: A drought had afflicted the land. As a mountainous thrust into the sea, Mt. Carmel would be the first to get rain. It receives, indeed, a yearly average of 600 mm. (ca. 28 inches).

But if the Upper Carmel gets so much rain, why was no one living on it in Bible times? In fact, stone-age humans had lived in caves on its western side. Whenever a seafaring people got control (the Phoenicians under Persian rule) or a people from the West (the Crusaders, the modern Jews), its narrow, swampy coast became an important road linking Acco, Dor, and the cities between Phoenicia and Egypt. In the 17th century AD, the Druze founded villages above, but this exception proves the rule: persecuted by Muslims and Christians, they chose places that their more powerful enemies would not want. And the city of Haifa grew up the northern slope, spreading over part of the top in the 20th century. But for most of human history, and certainly in First Testament times, people did not want to live on top of Mt. Carmel. Why?

The varied limestone of the Upper Carmel is full of fissures, the result of a geologically tumultuous upbringing. When it rains, therefore, the water percolates deep into the rock. Not enough stays near the surface for grain. But the Israelites refused to live where they could not grow these three together: grain, grapes and olives: "your grain and your new wine and your oil." (Deut. 11:14; Psalm 104:15, Hosea 2:8. The three are mentioned together many times.)

Grapes and olives can grow on the Upper Carmel, for their roots go deep. Some think that the very name Carmel derives from kerem el, "the vineyard (or olive grove) of God." The mountain is biblically famous for its luxuriant vegetation: Isaiah (35:2) sings of "the majesty of Carmel and Sharon." But grain does not do well here.