Imagine standing on Mount Carmel in Israel, watching the contest between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). For nearly 12 hours, Baal’s prophets have danced around his altar, whipping themselves into a frenzy and screaming for Baal to set their sacrifice on fire. Nothing happens. Then Elijah steps up and, after drenching the altar to the Lord with water, calls on the God of Israel.
Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” (1 Kings 18:38–39, NASB)
The story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on an apparently cloudless day presents a scientific challenge to the Bible’s accuracy, yet one that can be explained from the perspective of hypernaturalism—which we define as extraordinary use of natural law by the God of the Bible. (God created the laws of nature and is able to control and use them. When God performs a miracle hypernaturally, He employs natural law and natural phenomena with extraordinary timing, location, and/or magnitude to effect His will.)
The phrase “fire from heaven” is an ancient designation for lightning. In the previous chapter Elijah had declared that “there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1, NASB). Since rain comes from clouds, we can infer that this region had not seen clouds for some time. How can lightning occur naturally without a cloud in the sky? Our study suggests this may well be a hypernatural miracle.
Miracles in the Bible almost always had a religious or social significance. What is the significance of fire from heaven?
As our story opens, it had not rained for three years (1 Kings 18:1) because of Elijah’s proclamation. Thus this event took on great social importance to the average person, because much-needed rain would revive crops and replenish dwindling water supplies. The event also took on great religious importance because people believed rain came from the gods.
Elijah framed the contest as a major challenge to the god Baal. In polytheistic religions the deities were each endowed with a set of powers that defined their significance. Baal was a storm god who also had the associated power of fertility. Rain was one of the gifts he granted to his faithful worshipers, and lightning was one of his weapons (along with magical clubs).
This is illustrated by the depiction of Baal on a stela (inscribed stone slab) from the Ras Shamra excavation in modern Syria; he holds a club in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. In ancient texts he is often given the accoutrements of a storm—clouds, wind, and rain.1
In the Old Testament the alleged powers of other “deities” were often assumed by the singular God of Israel. This point is illustrated in the Elijah narratives. In this set of stories, God not only assumed the powers of Baal’s office but also those of other gods as well. For example, when Elijah said, as noted earlier, “there will be no dew or rain during these years except by my command!” (1 Kings 17:1, NASB), he was assuming the powers of Baal’s daughter Tallai, who is referred to as the maid of morning mist (dew). Later in the same chapter Elijah raised a widow’s son, which was one of the supposed powers of Baal’s father, El the Bull. This power was indispensable because, on occasion, Baal would die and have to be raised to life again.
In the fuller context, Jezebel, wife of King Ahab and queen of Israel, had replaced worship of the God of Israel with worship of her god, Baal. The focus of this story is the question of who is able to bring lightning and the associated rainfall. Lightning and rain were believed to be powers of Baal, but Elijah proposed to show that these powers belong to the God of Israel alone; Baal was a fraud.
To emphasize his point, Elijah allowed the prophets of Baal to go first. For around 12 hours they performed some of their more potent magical rites, which included slashing themselves with lances—but they failed (1 Kings 18:25–29).
Then, without a cloud in the sky, Elijah called down fire from heaven to prove the superiority of Yahweh, the God of Israel. But how can lightning occur without a thundercloud? This appears to be supernatural. It could be. However, there is a plausible hypernatural, science-based explanation, based on a type of lightning strike commonly called a “Bolt from the Blue.” According to the U. S. National Weather Service:
Bolt from the Blue lightning flashes are a particularly dangerous type of lightning flash, as they appear to come out of clear sky….Lightning can, and does, strike many miles away from the thunderstorm cloud itself.2
To demonstrate this phenomenon, the website provides a graphic example of a lightning flash that struck in east central Florida which “travelled to the east 40 KILOMETERS (~25 miles) in less than 1 second, and then struck the ground!”3
The Bible does not say exactly where on Mount Carmel the contest occurred, but Mount Carmel is at most 5–6 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Although there were no clouds in the sky above Mount Carmel, clouds were probably already forming above the sea. This notion is inferred from the fact that clouds coming in from the sea caused a severe rainstorm soon after Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:44–45).
Hence the miracle on Mount Carmel could be a prime example of a hypernatural miracle. It utilized a natural phenomenon that is rare yet common enough to be observed and measured. In this context it is plausible that Elijah’s miracle was a Bolt from the Blue from a cloud above the Mediterranean. The miracle is hypernatural because it occurred at just the right time, at just the right place, and with just the right intensity to accomplish God’s purpose. It appeared immediately after the prayer of the prophet Elijah which, when compared to the lengthy prayers of the prophets of Baal, would represent a very narrow window of opportunity.
This miracle answered the question as to the identity of the true God. Was it Baal? Was it Yahweh? As it turned out, the true God, Yahweh, controlled the very forces of nature. That same God remains Lord over all creation and he invites his creatures; namely humans, to learn of his power, love, and glory.
- Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith, Stories from Ancient Canaan, 2nd ed., (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, Kindle ed.), 7.
- “Bolts from the Blue,” Lightning Safety, National Weather Service, accessed June 19, 2014. http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/bolt_blue.htm.
By Hugh Henry and Daniel Dyke
Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.