Ahab the son of Omri ascended the throne of Israel in about 874 BC, ruling from Samaria, the new capital city built by his father (1 Kings 16:24, 29). Immediately, Ahab showed himself as one who rejected Yahweh, the Lord of Israel and one true God of all. In fact, Ahab was the most notoriously wicked ruler in the northern kingdom’s history. Jeroboam I’s introduction of images and unapproved shrines into the worship of Yahweh was bad enough (12:25–33). However, Ahab gave state support to the worship of Baal, the Canaanite deity whom his wife Jezebel served (16:31–33). Paganism became so prevalent in the north that one man, Hiel, offered up his son Segub as a sacrifice while he rebuilt Jericho (v. 34).
Just when it appeared that Baal had won over the people of Israel, Yahweh sent His prophet to prove who was the true God. We meet Elijah for the first time in today’s passage (17:1). Although we know almost nothing about his background, his name, which means “my God is Yah[weh],” tells us almost everything we need to understand about his mission. Elijah would demonstrate the glory of Yahweh over Baal and become the paradigm for the Hebrew prophets after him.
Many ancient Near Eastern cultures worshiped Baal, who was associated with fertility since he was the god of the storm and the rain. For God to announce drought to a group of Baal worshipers, as He did when Elijah confronted Ahab, revealed who truly had the power. Israelites who worshiped Baal in order to get rain to make their crops succeed were foolish indeed, for not even this god of the storm could bring water to the earth once Yahweh decided to close the heavens (17:1–7). Furthermore, drought evidenced God’s displeasure with the northern kingdom, for drought was one of the curses that attended the breaking of the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 28:23).
To further prove His sovereignty over Baal, Yahweh sent Elijah to Zarephath in Sidon, which was the center of Baal worship. Remember that ancient Near Eastern peoples typically believed their gods were powerless outside the territories where they were worshiped. So, the prophet of Yahweh’s working miracles outside of Israel and in the land of Baal revealed that Yahweh could not be bound to one location. Moreover, ancient pagans believed the god of death defeated Baal each year. By raising the widow of Zarephath’s son, Yahweh showed His power over death and thus His superiority to Baal (1 Kings 17:8–24).