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Tyre, the great centre of commerce in that age, and one of the wealthiest cities of antiquity. To cement this political alliance, Omri married his son Ahabthe heir-apparent to the throne — to a daughter of the Tyrian king, afterward so infamous as a religious fanatic and persecutor, under the name of Jezebel, — one of the worst women in history.
On the accession of Ahab, nine hundred and nineteen years before Christ, the kingdom of Israel was rapidly tending to idolatry. Jeroboam had set up golden calves chiefly for a political end, but Ahab built a temple to Baal, the sun-god, the chief divinity of the Phænicians, and erected an altar therein for pagan sacrifices, thus abjuring Jehovah as the Supreme and only God. The established religion was now idolatry in its worst form ; it was simply the worship of the powers of Nature, under the auspices of a foreign woman stained with every vice, who controlled her husband. For Ahab himself was bad enough, but he was not the wickedest of the monarchs of Israel, nor was he insignificant as a man. It was his misfortune to be completely under the influence of his Phænician bride, as many stronger men than he have been enslaved by women before and since his day. Ahab, bad as he was, was brave in battle, patriotic in his aims, and magnificent in his tastes. To please his wife he added to his royal residences a summer retreat called Jezreel, which was of great beauty, and contained within its grounds an ivory palace of great splendor. Anid its gardens and parks and all the luxuries then known, the youthful monarch with his queen and attendant nobles abandoned themselves to pleasure and folly, as Oriental monarchs are wont to do. It would seem that he was unusually licentious in his habits, since he left seventy children, — afterward to be massacred.
The ascendency of a wicked woman over this luxurious monarch has made her infamous. She was an incarnation of pride, sensuality, and cruelty ; and with all her other vices she was a religious persecutor who has had no equal. We may perhaps give to her, as to many other tiger-like persecutors in the cause of what they call their “religion,” the meagre credit of conscientious devotion in their cruelty; for she feasted at her own table at Jezreel four hundred priests of Baal, besides four hundred and fifty others at Samaria, while she erected two great sanctuaries for the Phenician deities, at which the officiating priests were clad in splendid vestments. The few remaining prophets of Jehovah in the kingdom hid themselves in caves and deserts to escape the murderous fury of the idolatrous queen. We infer that she was distinguished for her beauty, and was bewitching in her manners like Catherine de Medici, — that Italian bigot whom her courtiers likened both to Aurora and Venus. Jezebel, like the Florentine princess, is an illustration of the wickedness which is so often concealed by enchanting smiles, especially when armed with power. The priests of Baal undoubtedly regarded their great protectress as one of the most fascinating women that ever adorned a royal palace, and in the blaze of her beauty and the magnificence of her bounty were blind to her innumerable sorceries and the wild license of her life.
The fearful apostasy of Israel, which had been increasing for sixty years under wicked kings, had now reached a point which called for special divine intervention. There were only seven thousand men in the whole kingdom who had not bowed the knee to Baal, and God sent a prophet, - a prophet such as had not appeared in Israel since Samuel; more august, more terrible even than he; indeed, the most unique and imposing character in Jewish history.
Almost nothing is known of the early history of Elijah. The Bible simply speaks of him as “the Tishbite,” — one of the inhabitants of Gilead, at the east of the Jordan. He evidently was a man accustomed to a wild and solitary life. His stature was large, and his features were fierce and stern. His long hair flowed upon his brawny shoulders, and he was clothed with a mantle of sheepskin or hair-cloth, and carried in his hand a rugged staff. He was probably unlearned, being rude and rough in both manners and speech. His first appearance was marked and extraordinary. He suddenly and unaunounced stood before Ahab, and abruptly delivered his awful message. He was an apparition calculated to strike with terror the boldest of kings in that superstitious age. He makes no set speech, he offers no apology, he disdains all forms and ceremonies; he does not even render the customary homage. He utters only a few words, preceded by an oath: “As Jehovah the God of Israel liveth, there shall not be dew nor rain these years but according to my word.” What arrogance before a king! Elijah, an utterly unknown man, in a sheepskin mantle, apparently a peasant, dares to utter a curse on the land without even deigning to give a reason, although the conscience of Ahab must have told him that he could not with impunity introduce idolatry into Israel.
Elijah doubtless attacked the king in the presence of his wife and court. To the cynical and haughty queen, born in idolatry, he probably seemed a madman of the desert, — shaggy, unwashed, fierce, repulsive. To the Israelitish king, however, with better knowledge of the ways of God, the prophet appeared armed with supernal powers, whom he both feared and hated, and desired to put out of the way. But Elijah mysteriously disappears from the royal presence as suddenly as he had entered it, and no one knows whither he has
fled. He cannot be found. The royal emissaries go into every land, but are utterly baffled in their search. The whole power of the realm was doubtless put forth to discover his retreat, and had he been found, no mercy would have been shown him; he would have been summarily executed, not only as a prophet of the detested religion, but as one who had insulted the royal station. He was forced to flee and hide after delivering his unwelcome message.
And whither did the prophet fly? He fled with the swiftness of a Bedouin, accustomed to traverse barren rocks and scorching sands, to a retired valley of one of the streams that emptied into the Jordan near Samaria. Amid the clefts of the rocks which marked the deep valley, did the man of God hide himself from his furious and numerous persecutors. He does not escape to his native deserts, where he would most probably have been hunted like a wild beast, but remains near the capital in which Ahab reigns, in a deeply secluded spot, where he quenches his thirst from the waters of the brook, and eats the food which the ravens deposit amid the steep cliffs he knows how to climb.
The bravest and most undaunted man in Israel, shielded and protected by God, was probably warned by the divine voice to make his escape, since his life was needful to the execution of Providential purposes. He was the only one of all the prophets of his day who