30. Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31. And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.” 32. Then with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD; and he made a trench around the altar large enough to hold two seahs of seed.
Elijah is said to have built this altar “in the name of the LORD,” which we would take to mean that he did it by the LORD’s command and with His permission. Yet the building of such altars would seem to be forbidden by Deuteronomy 12:1-6.
1. “These are the statutes and judgments which you shall be careful to observe in the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. 2. You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3. And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place. 4. You shall not worship the LORD your God with such things.
5. “But you shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. 6. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.”
It is clear from these verses that the LORD wanted “burnt offerings, sacrifices,” and so forth to be offered at the place He would choose, which we know at the time of Elijah had become Jerusalem. “On the high mountains and hills” is listed especially as a place where the LORD did not want them to sacrifice, because these were “the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods.” Yet Mount Carmel is a high mountain or hill. This is exactly the sort of place the LORD seems to have been careful to forbid them to commit sacrifices on. Deuteronomy 12:26-27 makes this even clearer.
26. Only the holy things which you have, and your vowed offerings, you shall take and go to the place which the LORD chooses. 27. And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the LORD your God, and you shall eat the meat.
This specifically tells them to bring their offerings to “the altar of the LORD your God,” and that at “the place which the LORD chooses.” Elijah did not do this. Yet Elijah was the LORD’s prophet, and seems to have been acting by the LORD’s direction throughout the incident on Mount Carmel. So was this, indeed, a case of “sin by command”?
First of all, we need to realize that there seem to be conflicting commands regarding this issue. For in Exodus 20:24-25, we see the LORD giving instructions to the people how to make an altar of earth or an altar of stone for Him.
24. An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you. 25. And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.
Moses himself obeyed this command, making an altar in Exodus 24:4. Of course, at that point, the tabernacle had not yet been built. Yet we know that it was not until the beginning of I Kings, when Solomon made the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, that the place where the LORD chose to place His name was actually chosen as Jerusalem. For a time, He seems to have chosen the place Shiloh during the time of the judges, yet at the time of Eli the priest, Shiloh was destroyed, and there was no place the LORD had chosen to set His name once again.
Therefore, we can understand that men might have built altars according to Exodus 20:24-25, knowing that the LORD had not yet chosen a place. They were especially excused in doing this if the place where they were building an altar was not a place where the nations the LORD had driven out before them had done their worship, as that is specifically what Deuteronomy 12 forbid. So we can well see that Gideon in Judges 6, Manoah in Judges 13, the representatives of the people of Israel in Judges 21, Samuel in I Samuel 7, Saul in I Samuel 14, and David in II Samuel 24 were not sinning when they built the LORD an altar, as the LORD had not yet chosen a place, and they did it according to Exodus 20:24-25.
Yet the same cannot be said of Elijah in I Kings 18. The LORD had already chosen Jerusalem as the place for His altar, and the temple had been erected there long since. Therefore, it would seem that the command of Deuteronomy 12 should have been wholly in effect. Only the altar at Jerusalem should have been allowed, and no other place for offering burnt offerings should have been permitted. Why, then, did Elijah build an altar elsewhere and burn offerings on it? Was this not a case of him sinning by command?
To understand this case, we should consider the situation that Israel was in at the time when Elijah did this. The nation of Israel had been split in two by civil war, as might have happened in the United States if the north had not won the Civil War here and forced the south back into the union. The temple God had built was in the southern kingdom of Judah. Moreover, the kings of the northern nation had long been in the practice of forbidding their people to go to Jerusalem to worship, fearing that this would cause them to return their loyalty to the house of David, putting the northern kings off their throne. Whether this fear was well-founded or not cannot be said, as no king ever tried reversing this policy. Instead, they encouraged the inhabitants of the northern kingdom to worship golden calves that were built at Dan and Beth-el. For a northerner to cross the border and worship at Jerusalem could have been considered a treasonous act, and if he did this, he might as well remain in the southern kingdom, figuring a return home was now closed to him. This put all the northerners in a bad position. They must either abandon their homes, or else neglect the temple in Jerusalem. In this situation, it is understandable that many of them might have given up on the temple, and instead have returned to the command of Exodus 20:24-25, building for themselves altars to the LORD. In fact, Elijah refers to the fact that there had been multiple altars of this type, recently destroyed by the wicked queen Jezebel, in I Kings 19:10.
10. So he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Notice that Elijah refers to the LORD’s altars, plural. Since he was a prophet to the northern kingdom, and since the southern kingdom still worshipped the LORD and had not torn down His altar at Jerusalem, it seems clear that he is referring to altars that the inhabitants of the northern kingdom had built to the LORD within their borders.
So it would seem that Elijah was acting in this case typically to the way anyone who desired to remain faithful to the LORD yet who wished to remain in his home in the northern kingdom of Israel had acted since the time the two nations split apart. This might not have been strictly according to the commandment about Jerusalem, yet at least it could be in accord with Exodus 20:24-25. Though technically Jerusalem should have been the place from the time of Solomon on, that altar was in many ways inaccessible to the inhabitants of the northern kingdom, and this seems to have been the best compromise they could come up with. The LORD seems to have accepted it, at least enough that He had His prophet Elijah rebuild such an altar when it had been torn down, and offer burnt offerings to Him upon it.
Finally, we would note the same thing as above, that this was doubtless not a place where the Canaanites had worshipped, but a place the LORD’s followers had chosen to worship Him. The command was not necessarily against high places per se, but against those previously used by the Canaanites.
So we have examined multiple cases of what at first glance would seem to be “sin by command.” Yet, as we have pointed out, it is more important to obey the LORD than to keep rules and laws. Ultimately, what God says defines what is sin and what is not, and to disobey the LORD is in many ways the worst sin one can commit anyway. If the LORD says a thing should be done, then it is right, and cannot be “sin.” Therefore there really is no such thing as a “sin by command.”