Edward Feser Thinks God Flashed Fire Upon Elijah’s Sacrifice

Given the level of sophistication that the philosopher Edward Feser brings to his defense of medieval Thomism, I was somewhat taken aback recently to see him write at his blog the following:

I think a divine cause was the source of the fire in the case of the priests of Baal.

Such a casual statement, but think of its implication: God hates it when people worship false gods and is jealous for his reputation. He sometimes bypasses the laws of nature and directly causes such things as fire to come down from heaven. In this particular instance, Feser appears to literally believe that God did this miracle to vindicate Elijah in his prayer competition with the priests of Baal, and that God then approved the prophet’s slaughter of those priests for being worshipers of a false god.

Weird. Crass. Primitive. Medieval. Here’s the biblical passage (1 Kings 18:38-40):

38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God. 40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.

Again, Feser, a highly educated and accomplished intellectual, loses his mind here. He thinks this really, really happened–and he apparently approves of Elijah’s behavior. In bringing up the incident, he certainly says nothing–nothing–to distance himself from the story’s grotesque outcome–the mass killing of a whole people’s religious leaders.

Is this what taking seriously medieval Thomistic philosophical notions of God leads one to? Feser’s remark about the priests of Baal incident reminds me of another intellectual apologist for religion, William Lane Craig, who defended God’s slaughter of the Canaanites in this way:

God stays His judgement of the Canaanite clans 400 years because their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability!  This is the long-suffering God we know in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He even allows his own chosen people to languish in slavery for four centuries before determining that the Canaanite peoples are ripe for judgement and calling His people forth from Egypt.

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.  The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18).  God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel.

All such talk is too much for me. If this is what believing in the God of classical theism brings one to, who can endure it? Better to be a Buddhist, an agnostic, an atheist, a deist, or a Reformed Jew. When, for example, the literary critic Irving Howe, at the age of fifteen, told his Jewish uncle that he was an atheist, his uncle smiled and replied, “You think God cares?” How sensible, how freeing–how funny. It hits the spot. No narcissism. No threats. Just good sense–and a bit of noodling to keep the young Howe on his intellectual toes.

So in their confidence monotheism, Craig and Feser can have their One True God of fire, blood, ethnic cleansing, and war, for it echoes too comfortably with the silly, silly prayer that a fundamentalist prayed at a McCain rally in 2008:


When apologists like Craig and Feser claim to defend a sophisticated view of God, it’s good to ask: What about the Canaanites? What about the priests of Baal?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Edward Feser Thinks God Flashed Fire Upon Elijah’s Sacrifice

  1. keithnoback says:

    Yes, well perhaps it was the formal essence of fire, not, you know, actual flames.

  2. noir-realism says:

    You seem to bewail the priests of Baal, but never mention they, too, were bloody bastards who sacrificed children to their own god Baal. The other problem in your apparent moralizing is that you seem to have a misplaced sense of ethnological bias, assuming a superior moral stance on a culture whose history and morals were quite different from your own. Even Rene Girard in many of his works on sacrifice, violence and the sacred, scapegoating spoke of the horrors of those ancient peoples and what they perpetrated upon others. The Koran, too, cites that same incident of the killing of the priests of Baal.

    Are you more concerned that Fester and Craig spoke truth of what happened, or that violence is just a horrendous issue in ancient times? Or is it that their supposed “claim to defend a sophisticated view of God” suddenly fell down into the horror itself?


    Beginning with the founding of the Phoenician colony of Carthage in about 814 BC, mothers and fathers buried their children who were sacrificed to Baal. The practice was apparently distasteful even to Carthaginians, and they began to buy children for the purpose of sacrifice or even to raise servant children, instead of offering up their own. However, in times of crisis or calamity, like war, earthquakes, drought, or famine, their priests demanded the flower of their youth. Special ceremonies during extreme crisis saw up to 200 children of the most affluent and powerful families slain and tossed into the burning pyre. During the political crisis of 310 B.C., some 500 were killed. On a moonlit night, the body was placed on the arms of an effigy of Baal made of brass. The Priests lit fires that heated the effigies from its lower parts. The victims were placed on the burning hot outstretched hands. As they were burned alive they vehemently cried out. The priests beat a drum sounded flutes, lyres, and tambourines. This drowned out the cries of the anguished parents. The father could not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.

    • noir-realism says:

      Must add: being an atheist myself, I find it interesting that people seem to have never studied the Old Testament, which is one of the bloodiest books every written… Yaweh is a dictator, a creature who even sacrificed his only begotten son, etc. Let’s face it just one horror after another…

      Obviously, these new testament types always try to white wash the blood, and see if all in some sophisticated prefiguration of Christ, etc., but once you read these books you see the hate spill over in passage after passage…

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      You make good points. The priests of Baal were bad news, but you would think a book that was genuinely divinely inspired would rise above such crassness in some manner (rather than taking the whole clash-of-the-gods thing for granted). And yes, I was focusing on the whiplash transition in Feser and Craig from sophisticated theological defense to expressions of support for outlandish and obscene biblical stories.

      • noir-realism says:

        Ah… of course, that’s the key… divinely inspired by what? I mean, really, read that old testament and what do you get – a bully who slaughtered all humans during Noah’s age, then decided to pick out a special people, the Israelites, and have them slaughter land after land of goddess worshiping people.

        At least to me it’s just one long tale of blood and revenge, both human and divine, with an endgame that will slaughter the rest of us unbelievers in some apocalyptic frenzy in some staged freak show at the end of time: all in the name of love to show an elite group of freaks that – see, this is how much I love you because you chose to be under my thumb…

        Oh yes, wonderful god there… lol

        Let’s face it there can never be a rational defense of that… not now, not then… so I’ll agree Feser and Craig are looney toons hyping a bloody god and his even bloodier prophets as icons of peace… lol

  3. colinhutton says:

    ‘ “You think God cares?” ‘ – beautiful!

  4. Cristero says:

    This is a clear demonstration of your ignorancy and philosophical impotency, comrade.

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