Parshat Ki Tisa
(I Kings 8:1-39)
February 22, 2003
The religious situation in the days of Elijah was troubling. The kingdom of Israel was torn between the worship of God and the idolatrous worship of Baal. Elijah sought to remedy this situation. He proposed a contest to reestablish the preeminence of the belief in God over that in the Baalim. Each of the contestants would attempt to offer a bull to his deity. Elijah would offer a bull to God while the prophets of Baal would offer a bull to their deity. The contestant whose sacrifice was miraculously accepted had proof of the legitimacy of his deity. Two similar bulls were to be offered. The two verses which discuss who provided the bulls that were to be offered are, however, unclear. The first verse (verse 23) states: “Let them give to us [ to Elijah and to the prophets of Baal] two young bulls. Let them [the prophets of Baal] choose one bull…” This same ambiguity is found three verses later (verse 26): “They [ the prophets of Baal] took the bull that he gave to them”
In the following midrash, it is Elijah himself who provided the bulls: Elijah said to the prophets of Baal: ‘Choose for yourselves one of the bulls and prepare it first,’ (1 Kings 18:25) at that moment 450 prophets of Baal gathered along with 400 prophets of Asherah. None of them was able to get the bull that had been selected to budge from its place, as we see in what was written in a previous verse: ‘Let them [the prophets of Baal] give us two bulls and let them choose one bull for themselves.’ (verse 23) Elijah said to them: ‘Choose for yourselves twin bulls from the same mother who were tended in a single stall and select lots for each of them, one for God and the other for Baal. They chose for themselves a bull.’ Elijah’s bull followed after him, but the bull chosen for Baal refused to budge even though all of the prophets of Baal and Asherah tried by all means to get it to move. Only then did Elijah say to the bull: ‘Go with them.’ The bull replied to Elijah before all of the people: ‘The other bull and I were born of the same mother. We grew up in the same pasture, in the same stall. The other bull gets to be offered up before the Holy One Blessed be He. Why does he get to sanctify God’s name when I get to be offered to Baal, and in the process anger God.’ Elijah said to the bull: ‘Go with them so that they will not find a pretext for opting out of this contest. You will see that just as the name of God will be sanctified by the bull who is with me, so too God’s name will sanctified by you. The bull retorted: ‘This is your advise to me. I swear that I will do as you advise me, but only if you [Elijah] hand me over to them yourself’, as it is written: ‘And they took the bull which he [Elijah] gave to them and they prepared it.’(verse26) In the end, who gave the bull to them? Elijah himself. (adapted from Tanhuma Buber Massey 6)
Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French student of Rashi, accepted this line of thinking, but was reticent to say that Elijah did so of his own volition: “It is not that he took it [the bull] with his hand and gave it to them, but rather that on account of his proposal the deed happened.” Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal commentator, goes one step further in removing Elijah from providing the bull for idolatrous purposes. He dismisses this midrash out of hand since it was inconceivable to him that Elijah would wantonly provide an animal that would be sacrificed to idolatry. Instead he proposes that Ahab, the king, provided the bulls.
These different approaches to the question of who provided the bulls illustrates two ways of dealing with evil. The midrashic approach advocates active involvement in alleviating the problem even if it means, at times, ‘dirtying one’s hands’. R. Kimche’s approach would seem to advocate an indirect approach so that the agent of change might maintain his/her purity in solving the problem. The dilemma, of course, is to know when each of these approaches applies.