WHEN LIGHTNING TICKLED HISTORY: “Let there be fire from Heaven!”
“LET THERE BE FIRE FROM HEAVEN!”
One the greatest moments in cinematic history came when John Charles Carter, born in
No Man’s Land, Illinois, shook a stick at the sky. Then came the Hollywood magic. John Charles Carter became Charlton Heston. The stick became a lightning rod and the parting of the Red Sea was done by filming water pouring from large U-shaped tanks in a studio back lot and then run backwards for the film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It was Cecile B. DeMille’s last film, “with a cast of thousands,” and it rightly won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects as, on film, Moses parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape the oncoming chariots of Pharaoh Ramses II.
There were a lot of historical inaccuracies in the film, the most glaring one being that the Israelites never crossed the Red Sea. They crossed a swampy area known then, and identified as such in the Bible, as the “sea of reeds,” which did not have a lot of sea water to part. [Most modern Bibles now refer to the “sea of reeds” as the “Red Sea.”] Another glaring historical shortcoming was that Moses never actually spoke to the Pharaoh. In the Bible Moses had a stutter, the reason he took his brother Aaron with him when he went to see Pharaoh. To DeMille’s credit, had he been historically accurate, the star of the movie would have been John Carradine who played Aaron and he did not have the box office draw of Charlton Heston.
But it was a very successful movie. It was the highest grossing film in 1957 with a net profit of $185 million. In 1957. That makes it the 5th highest grossing film in Hollywood history. Adjusting for inflation, that’s $977 million in 2010 dollars.
Hollywood loves the theatrical and there is nothing more dramatic than lightning. It appears suddenly, apparently out of the nowhere, and causes things to burn, explode or simply disintegrate ‘before your very eyes!’ But this is nothing new. In its day, the Bible was the medium of the day. For countless generations it was the most popular book in people’s lives because it was the only book in their lives.
As literature, the Bible is full of references to lightning. While Moses did not use lightning to part the Red Sea — that was done by DeMille — the historical Moses “stretched out his staff toward the sky [and] the LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground.” There was also thunder and lightning associated with the origin of the Ten Commandments, the first set, when Moses came down from mountain of Sinai. There were also lots of references to lightning when it comes to the plagues. Some of the best known references to lightning are as follows:
Moses and the Egyptians witness it in Exodus (Ex. 9:23–24; 19:16; 20:18). God reveals it in 2 Samuel and uses it to scatter enemies (2 Samuel 22:13, 15). Job talks all about God’s perfect, precise command of lightning and how God holds it in His hands and throws it down onto the earth (Job 36:30, 32; 37:3, 11, 15). The psalmists sing of it (Psa. 18:12, 14; 29:7; 97:4; 144:6, 148:8) prophets tell of it (Jer. 10:13), Jesus speaks of it (Mt. 24:27; Luke 17:24), and Revelation says Heaven is full of it (Rev. 4:5; 8:5; 11:19).
To be politically correct, the Quar’ an, sometimes called the Koran, is also replete with referenced to lightning:
And among His Signs, He shows you the lightning, by way both of fear and of hope, and He sends down rain from the sky and with it gives life to the earth after it is dead: verily in that are Signs for those who are wise.
Seest thou not that Allah makes the clouds move gently, then joins them together, then makes them into a heap? Then wilt thou see rain issue forth from their midst. And He sends down from the sky mountain masses (of clouds) wherein hail is: He strikes therewith whom He pleases and He Turns it away from whom He pleases. The vivid flash of His lightning well-nigh blinds the sight.
It is He Who doth show you the lightning, by way both of fear and of hope: it is He Who doth raise up the clouds, heavy with (fertilizing) rain!
Speaking of karma, in the Karma Sutra, Buddha stated that when you were struck by lightning it was because you had committed dishonest trading in a previous life. In ancient Chinese culture it was believed that lightning was dispensed by the Goddess of Light and her lightning strikes were to ward off evil. It was said that once upon a time there was no lightning and the God of Thunder killed an innocent woman by mistake. The God of Thunder was devastated at his mistake and confessed his mistake to the Jade Emperor. The Jade King was also grief-struck by the mistake and converted the deceased woman to the Goddess of Light. Together, the Goddess of Light and the God of Thunder work in unison to chase away evil spirit and punish criminals. Supposedly, the evil people killed by lightning had their crimes branded onto their burnt spines. The reason one sees a flash of light before the thunder is because the Goddess of Light is using her mirror to judge who the criminals are.
When it comes to the Judeo-Christian heritage, probably the best known Biblical incident of lightning tickling history is the story of Elijah. It is also highlights one of the ongoing sagas in human history, that of religious fanaticism supplanting tolerance and understanding. It is also an excellent example of why many scholars believe that God was either two entities within the combined New and Old Testament or one that matured over time. That is to say, the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and vengeful while the God of the New Testament is loving, forgiving and understanding of human frailties.
The story of Elijah takes place in the 9th Century BCE when the Promised Land was divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The two had been a single kingdom under King Solomon. Solomon, he of the 700 wives and 300 concubines , had been dead about 100 years and he was the last king to rule a united land. He was also the king who built the First Temple on what is now the Temple Mount.
But there was trouble in the Holy Land. The King of Israel, the northern kingdom, Omri, was a practical man. Not only did he have many Jews in his kingdom, he also had many members of the cult of Baal. And he had powerful enemies at his borders. So he did what any good politician would: he welcomed the worship of Baal within his borders and blunted the possibility of an invasion by allowing his son to marry the daughter of a powerful king next door. To achieve the first, he allowed temples to Baal to be built in the kingdom and appointed priests who were not of the Levites, the traditional family from which priests came. His son, Ahab, than married the daughter of the Phoenician King. The name of the woman was Jezebel. Yes, that Jezebel.
While the hard core Jewish religious fanatics did not like what happening, the proverbial Israelite in the street was pleased with the arrangement. The marriage of Ahab and Jezebel brought security to the borders. The happiness of the worshipers of Baal encouraged them to spend money. Locally. There is nothing better for nation that people spending money locally. It creates economic cycles and everyone gets a share of the wealth. We know that Kingdom of Israel was doing well economically because it was reported in the Bible to have been prosperous during this time period.
But the good times were not to last. They never do. When Omri died, the throne passed to his son Ahab and his daughter-in-law, Jezebel. Whether the population of the worshipers of Baal had increased or because of his wife’s influence, Ahab allowed the expansion of the worship of Baal even into the royal palace. And Jezebel encouraged the in-migration of priests and profits of Baal into the kingdom. All was apparently going well until a man known as “Elijah the Tishbite of the Tishbe in Galead” made an appearance. Today he would be called a prophet a doom, the kind of a person who walks around in a sandwich that reads “The End Is Near.” Somehow he was able to get an audience with Ahab and warned the ruler that he and Jezebel had “done evil in the sight of the Lord” — the Lord in this case being Yahweh — and that their combined Jewish/Baal kingdom was going to collapse on their deaths. Just as dramatic, a drought was coming that was going to be so severe that even dew would not fall.
He was not taken seriously.
But Elijah was taken seriously enough to be considered a danger. But before an accident could spell an end to Elijah, Yahweh urged him to get out of town. (When the Lord tells you to flee it’s a good idea to ‘get out of Dodge.’) Elijah fled the city and lived in the wilderness where he was fed by ravens. Apparently this sustenance was not enough for Elijah and his situation became desperate when the drought that he had predicted actually arrived. To keep him alive, Yahweh sent him to live with a widow in Phoenicia, the country from which Jezebel had originated. When Elijah arrived at the woman’s house she was less than thrilled to see him, even if he had been sent by Yahweh. She told him she didn’t have enough food for herself and her son much less him as well. Elijah then told her that she has nothing to worry about because as long as he was living with her she would never run out of flour or oil. In his own words, “Don’t be afraid..this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.”
Apparently the widow believed him because she allowed him to stay and miraculously, she had plenty of flour and oil. Later, when the widow’s son died, Elijah prayed that Yahweh would restore his life and in a second miracle, the son came back to life. This will be the first instance of someone coming back from the dead in the Bible. There are only three. The next was when Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. The third, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus.
After three years of drought and famine, the weather relented and Elijah returned to the Kingdom of Israel. Those three years must have been a period of grotesque civil unrest because there had been a lot of bloodletting, particularly when it came to the Jews. However, since the Bible was written by the Jews there is no way of knowing how many Baalites were killed during the same time period. All we do know from the Bible is that Obadiah, a servant in the place of Ahab and Jezebel, had hidden and fed hundreds of Jews. Apparently he was the Oscar Schindler of his day.
With these hundreds of Jews, Elijah confronted Ahab. Why Ahab saw him at all is not recorded and was probably not wise. But that is neither here nor there as the Bible states that the two had a face-to-face meeting. Ahab called Elijah a “troubler of Israel” and Elijah said that problems that had befallen the kingdom were because Ahab has allowed the worship of a false god. Elijah then went on to chastise Ahab and the people of the kingdom for allowing the worship of Baal: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal then follow him.”
Now comes the lightning. Elijah proposes a proof to show that Yahweh was a far more powerful god than Baal. Apparently the priests of Baal took up the challenge because a contest was arranged. Two altars of wood were built on Mount Carmel, one for Baal and the other for Yahweh. The priests of Baal went first. They sacrificed two oxen, butchered their bodies and placed the body parts on their altar. Then they proceeded to pray for Baal to light the pile of woods. Nothing happened. The priests of Baal prayed from morning until noon and cut themselves and added their blood to the pyre. Nothing happened.
Then it was Elijah’s turn. He ordered that the pyre to Yahweh be drenched with water from “four large jar” which were poured on the pyre three times. Then, a bolt a lightning came down from the sky, struck the pyre and it exploded into flames. As the pyre burned, Elijah ordered his faithful to kill the priests of Baal and they were so slaughtered. As the priests of Baal were being slaughtered, Elijah prayed for rain and it rained.
Actually, this is a highly stylized, Sunday school version of the event. According to the actual words in the Bible Elijah built the pyre of stones, 12 of them, and then put the sacrificed bullock on top and had four barrels of water poured onto the wood. The water from the barrels was poured four times where it “ran about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water,” (I Kings 18:33–4). After some prayers, “the fire of the Lord fell” and burned the offering to ashes.
But there could have been some trickery involved. There are certain elements, manganese in particular, which will react violently to water. The purer the form of manganese, the more violent the reaction. Elijah placed rocks about the pyre; so what were those rocks? Why the trench? Was that to keep the water pooled so the manganese in the rocks would eventually create fire?
Another source of fire from water, so common it is listed on the internet as recommended survival gear for campers is potassium permanganate, which “is readily available in most pharmacies.” This would imply that it was readily available in the time of Elijah as well. The instructions for the use of potassium permanganate are simple. You put the chemical under some kindling and then put a small amount of glycerin on top. It will take a while but you will get fire. And Elijah had time. The priests of Baal gave up at noon (I Kings 18:27) and Elijah did not get his fire going until that evening (I Kings 18:36). If there was some chemical like potassium permanganate under the wood. If the liquid in the pitchers was actually water. Finally, the Bible does not say that lightning specifically ignited the wood. All that is said is that “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.” The stones? The stones were burned up as well? This would make perfect sense if the chemical reaction between the “water” and the stones created the fire.
The rest of Elijah’s life was just as dramatic. He has a number of other adventures which have nothing whatsoever to do with lightning but it his departure from this world that is most theatrical. At the end of his days three groups of soldiers were sent to arrest him. Two of these groups Elijah destroyed by fire called down from Heaven, which sounds a lot like lightning. The leader of the third group begged for mercy which Elijah provided. It is now Elijah’s moment to leave earth. He and his heir apparent, Elisha, approach the Jordan River and Elijah struck the water with his mantle. Just like in the movie THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the waters parted and the two holy men crossed the river onto the dry land on the other side. Once on the far shore a chariot of fire appeared and Elijah was lifted aloft. As he rose into the sky, his mantle fell and it was picked up by Elisha, a clear indication that Elisha was to carry on Elijah’s work. The last mention of Elijah in the Bible, (Malachi 3:19) has Yahweh stating “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” In other words, when Elijah comes back the Day of Judgment is at hand.
What makes Elijah interesting to Biblical scholars is the parallel to his life and that of Jesus. Both men performed miracles with food, Elijah with flour and oil and Jesus with loaves and fishes. Both men raised someone from the dead. Both men went aloft after their deaths and both men are destined to return on the Day of Judgment. But there is a significant difference of note. Elijah is of Old Testament, the book of a wrathful god while Jesus is of the New Testament. The killing of hundreds of people who worshiped Baal was perfectly acceptable in the days of Elijah. Not so in the days of Jesus. By the time the New Testament was written, the prevailing spirit was to “turn the other cheek,” not slaughter your enemies.
In this modern era, the slaughter of innocents by religious fanatics is looked upon as reprehensible. It is considered senseless violence. When it is done in the name of god, any god, it leads many to wonder just how civilized we really are.
The story of Jesus was also tickled by lightning, but it is odd. In Luke 10:18 Jesus stated “I beheld Satan and lightning fell from heaven.” This is odd because there is only place in the Bible where Jesus actually meets with Satan, Matthew 4:1–10. Jesus is at the end of his 40 days and 40 nights in the desert when Satan, “the devil” actually, tempts him twice. Jesus refuses both times and commands the devil to “get thee hence” and “then the devil leaveth him.” There is no reference here to Satan falling or having anything do with lightning. There are a variety of scholarly interpretations to Luke 10:18 but it is very unlikely that Jesus actually saw the fall of Satan into the abyss. That was because there is no precise date as to when Satan became Satan and, using the Bible as a guide, the first time evil creeps into the picture is when Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden. There “the serpent” tricks Eve into eating “the fruit,” never listed as an apple, from the “tree which is in the midst of the garden,” never called the Tree of Life. Even then, Adam and Eve did not see evil, they only saw themselves as naked. There is no Biblical passage that explains when Jesus could have seen Satan at all or, for that matter, how he could have seen Satan “fall from heaven” with or like lightning.
Another instance where lightning not only tickled history in the Biblical era but changed it was in the conversion of Saul of Taursus. Saul, who will take the name Paul after his conversion, was initially a persecutor of the followers of the new faith. He was on the road to Damascus when he was struck by a bolt of lightning and experienced a vision of Jesus as resurrected. Saul was temporarily blinded and, three days later, when “the scales fell from his eyes,” he became a convert to the new religion. He took the name Paul and referred himself as the “Apostle of the Gentiles.” Today he is considered one of the principal founders of Christianity.
Jesus and the 12 original Apostles may have birthed the new religion but it was Paul who spearheaded the formation of communities of worship among the Gentiles. In other words, he made it popular. Today he is considered as significant to the Bible as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John even though he, Paul, never knew Jesus in the flesh.
Paul wrote extensively and traveled the known world. His missionary work was not well received by one and all. He was beaten several times and jailed more than once. He was almost stoned to death in Lystra for healing a crippled man and in Philippi he converted the slaves to Christianity which upset the masters to no end. This was probably the reason he and his traveling companion, Silas, were jailed. But while in prison there was an earthquake which caused the gates of the jail to fall down and the two men escaped. No one knows for sure when or how Paul died. The historical record has him under house arrest or prison in Rome for two of the last years of his life. It is generally believed that he was beheaded during the reign of Nero, probably about 68 C.E.
Most significant is his legacy. While Mathew, Mark, Luke and John wrote of the life of Jesus, Paul was far more cerebral and thus he had far more influence on the new religion and his impact is still being felt today. His expanded the religious chasm between Christians and Jews when he declared that faith in Christ was superior to the salvation as presented in the Torah, now called the Old Testament and strengthened — if not introduced — the concept of the Christian Church as being the body of Christ. Keep in mind that Jesus was considered a human until the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. when he was declared of divine birth. The Bible as we know it today was only sanctified in 331 — two and a half centuries after the death of Paul.
It is also important to keep in mind that the concept of church and/or temple was substantially different at that time. With the notable exception of the Jews, churches and temples were autonomous operations. That is, each one operated on its own with little uniformity with other churches and temples even if the same deity was represented. Three temples to Apollo in the same city were not part of one religious order; they were just three temples, each one raising its own money and paying its own priests. Paul’s concept that the Christian Church was a single entity meant uniformity of practice across the known world. That would not be codified in writing until Constantine commissioned the creation of 50 Bibles — a massive expense in those days — in 331. Paul did not have a book; he had to use word of mouth.
From Paul we get four principles which are as relevant today as they were in his era: compassion, personal courage because the road of life will bring everyone difficulties they will have a hard time facing, respect for your fellow man and confidence in the truth and power of the message of Jesus.
There is no question that lightning played a significant part in the history and formation of the Judeo-Christian heritage. It had a significant role in both the New and Old Testament and generated impacts that lasted far beyond the average .25 of a second life of a lightning strike.
[This chapter is from Steven Levi’s book WHEN LIGHTNING TICKLED HISTORY available on Kindle.]