Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “ Israel shall be your name” (1 Kings 18:31 ESV)
After the prophet’s of Baal had tried and failed to rouse their god from slumber, and answer their prayers for fire on the altar, it was now Elijah’s turn. It is interesting how Elijah begins, the first thing he does is to ask the people to come near to him (verse 30) , they would be witnesses to all that would happen, there would no trickery or smoke and mirrors. Then Elijah begins to repair the altar that had been thrown down ( verse 30) . Before he even got round to cutting up the bull or before he had begun to lay the wood in order or dig the trench , there was something else he knew he had to do, he repaired the neglected altar of Jehovah God of Israel. Verse 31 makes it very clear that Elijah built an altar in the name of the Lord. He didn’t use the pagan altar that the prophets of Baal had used. Instead Elijah did something remarkable, something which would have spoken volumes to those who witnessed it that day.
Elijah took twelve stones “ according to the number of the tribes of Jacob “. We can imagine him carefully and deliberately placing them, and naming them to himself, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar , Zebulun, Naphtali, Gad, Dan, Asher, Joseph. Ten stones for the tribes of the north, but then something we might easily miss, eleven Judah, Twelve Benjamin . At this time Judah and Benjamin were a separate and hated kingdom in the South. Judah was a different kingdom with a different king, Jehoshaphat was king of Judah ruling from Jerusalem , as Ahab ruled from his ivory palace in Samaria. What Elijah did though would have spoken volumes to all those watching. The word of the Lord had come to Jacob and his sons saying ‘ Israel shall be your name’. How could they be Israel if two tribes were missing? Elijah was deliberately ignoring politics and local sensitivities in favour of the word of God which said that Israel would one.
Elijah is highlighting starkly the need for unity among God’s people. Never has this truth been more necessary. We have to recognise schism and division in the church for what it is SIN in God’s eyes. God hates division among his people and much as we would like it to be otherwise does not recognise our petty divisions and denominations . He desires His people to be one, as God Himself is one . In John 17:11 we read in the words of Jesus’ “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” We are familiar with the words of the psalmist in Psalm 133 , the blessing of dwelling together in unity life that shall never end.
Elijah is offer a complete sacrifice on a complete altar. He offers the bull ( and it would not have been lost on people that what Elijah was doing was as a priest would offering a sacrifice for himself ( as Exodus 29/ Leviticus 1 show) not particularly for the people. It is as if saying “ Whatever else Lord, I want to be right with you’. He arranges it carefully, so that nothing is missed, it is to be a whole burnt offering, offered on a whole altar before the Lord.
The application of this verse is every bit as challenging as it was in the day of Elijah. It is challenging, but it is also obvious, everything has to be laid on the altar before God, if we would have an answer from Him. The question is do we do that? Or is just too hard to do so? Offering a complete sacrifice is costly, it is meant to be, it means that something has to die, and a price has to be paid. Years before King David had learned that, he was not prepared to build an altar that cost him nothing ( 2 Sam 24:24) . There is a price in making this sacrifice , there is cost, there is a Cross to be carried if we are to follow Jesus.