“Choose for yourselves a bull!” Eliyahu called out to the crowd. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal had arrived in response to the challenge of the lone prophet of the One God.
“Prepare yours first, for you are many,” Eliyahu instructed them, hardly concealing the tone of false deference, as though the Torah’s appeal to give preference to a majority extended to these adversaries of the Torah.
“Call out in the name of your gods,” Eliyahu continued, “but set no fire.” Nearby, a crowd of thousands of Israelites had gathered upon the mount, the precipice of which held Eliyahu and his opponents in this contest to determine to whom the hearts of Israel should pledge their allegiance — to the One God, or to Baal and his pantheon.
A rustle of voices emanated from the crowd of idolatrous prophets as a huddle of the leadership determined which of two similar cows to choose for their offering. After a brief murmur and shuffling of feet, a representative cadre of the prophets of Baal emerged from the mob and approached Eliyahu. Eliyahu stood back, gesturing toward the two bulls that stood dutifully and nobly together, awaiting their fate.
The Baalite group circled the pair of bulls, performing a careful perusal of the beasts with their eyes, assessing each creature’s worthiness. One of the men put his hand out toward one bull, looking up as he did so to catch the gaze of his cohorts. They looked back toward him, understanding his gesture, and nodded their assent.
The man took hold of the rope dangling from the bull’s halter and turned his back to Elijah, ready to proceed toward the waiting crowd of his fellows, and the men with him did likewise. He stepped forward, but as the rope grew taut, the bull, rather than follow, planted its hooves and resisted the prophet’s pull. The prophet stopped, confused, and turned back to face the bull. He tugged again at the rope, more forcefully this time, but with the same result. The bull did not budge. A third, more forceful attempt, the prophet’s face contorting in a reddish mix of frustration, indignation, and embarassment, could not overcome the bull’s tenacity.
The Baalite prophet’s companions, noticing the struggle, stopped to return to their friend’s side. As the one pulled the rope, the others pushed at the animal’s hind quarters, but to no avail.
Ashamed to look up at their opponent Eliyahu, they could nevertheless hear him stifle a chuckle. From his distant post, he stretched his arm forward warmly toward the second bull. As calmly and obediently as a faithful dog to its master of many years, the bull turned and trotted toward Eliyahu, allowing the prophet of God to caress its head and stroke its body as the animal drew itself up alongside the holy man.
A murmur came over the Israelite crowd as it witnessed the remarkable preference showed by the animals for the lone combatant.
But the matter was no wonder to Eliyahu. Given the choice of fates, to become an offering on the altar to the One True God, Creator, Sustainer and Master of the Universe, or to become the object of sacrifice to a false deity, and a disgrace to its Creator, what creature would choose the latter, or even go willingly if forced to do so?
The Baalites and their chosen beast remained locked in their contest of muscle and will. A second group of Baalite prophets dispatched themselves from the larger gathering to join their struggling cohorts. Taking up positions at all sides of the beast, they set upon it again, heaving with full force.
An audible crunch of gravel pierced the air as the bull, its breath heavy with resistance, began to slide forward, propelled by the combined force of its Baalite antagonists.
Desperate, the beast, letting out a mighty bellow, swung its horned head, throwing off those men restraining its front quarters. Upon seeing the ferocity of the beast aroused, those Baalites pushing at the animal’s back acted instinctively, some swiftly retreating to avoid becoming victim to the animal’s horns, others bracing the animal with even greater firmness. The latter group shortly regretted their bravery as the animal’s hind hooves, propelled by the leverage granted the beast by its liberated front quarters, transformed them into projectiles.
The now ferocious beast spun around and began a charge toward Eliyahu. A gasp engulfed the crowd of spectators. Any Baalite prophet who lay on the ground in the aftermath of the bull’s assault quickly scrambled before being trampled by the raging beast.
Eliyahu stood his ground calmly as the speeding animal swiftly closed the distance between them. Within just several bounds of Eliyahu’s post, the beast slowed its charge, and with a placid stride, approached the prophet with its head bowed.
Carefully avoiding injuring Eliyahu with its horns, the bull pressed its head against the Man of God, and, with tearful eyes, buried its face in his cloak. As though to comfort it, the second bull slid itself alongside the first, leaning its head upon its beastly brother in compassionate empathy.
Eliyahu squatted down, placing his hands on the cheeks of either animal. Looking into the eyes of the bull chosen by the prophets of Baal, Eliyahu whispered, “Go. You will both sanctify the name of God today.”
The beast returned the prophet’s gaze. With a deep breath and an understanding look that seemed to belie its animal nature, the bull raised itself on its haunches, and, holding its head high, began the march toward the Baalite camp with a regal stride. The prophets of Baal accompanied it alongside, unsure now who was leading whom.
(Based on Kings 18 v. 25-26 and Rashi’s comments there.)