Ashkenazic minhag (custom) is to commence this haftarah with the previous narrative, in which we read that Eliyahu is dispatched by God to appear to the evil King Achav regarding a drought that was afflicting the region. Then, Achav decides that he and his servant Ovadiah should go through the land in dire search of water. Ovadiah encounters Eliyahu during his travel and tells Eliyahu that he has sought all over for him, whereupon Eliyahu instructs Ovadiah to let Achav know that he (Eliyahu) will appear to him. Ovadiah is initially reluctant to do so, fearful that Eliyahu will disappear and Ovadiah will then be punished by Achav for Eliyahu's failure to appear before the king. Eliyahu assures Ovadiah that he will come to Achav that very day, which Ovadiah reports to the king. When Eliyahu and Achav meet, the king accuses the prophet of being hateful of the Jewish People, whereupon Eliyahu retorts that Achav is the hateful one, for abandoning God and going after idolatry. Eliyahu then summons the masses to Mount Carmel where he demonstrates Hashem's control of all and the folly of idolatry by invoking a large-scale miracle in God's Name, and the people repent.
The question arises - why do Ashkenazim read the section before the events on Mount Carmel? What is that text's connection to the parshah?
The previous d'var Torah on Ki Sisa explained the reasoning of those who precipitated the manufacture of the Egel Ha-Zahav. These people had a subjective understanding of Torah and did not yield to its objective authority. It can be suggested that the motives for this approach can be found in the haftarah under present discussion.
Chazal (our sages) taught that - despite what one would expect - Achav gave great honor to the Torah. How is this to be understood in light of Achav's idolatrous practices?
Although Eliyahu bore a message from Hashem about the drought, we read that Achav decided to go about and search for water. Achav felt that 'real life' issues were to be handled on a practical, human level, while Torah and mitzvos were to be reserved for the beis medrash or shul, so to say. Rather than realize that God controls all, that there is no part of life that is outside the realm of Torah, and that heeding the prophet's message would stop the drought, Achav adhered to a philosophy of separation of Judaism and reality, feeling that the way to deal with the drought was to try harder to locate water.
People who seek to forge new, innovative paths in Judaism are more often than not driven by personal comfort and convenience or self-gratification than by a sincere spiritual mission to cling to the Torah and spread its message in a greater manner. Over the course of history, we find new groupings and forms of 'Judaism' that were purported to reflect a higher spiritual drive or loftier understanding of Torah, but - in the end - all realized that what was presented was an excuse to attain comfort or non-spiritual goals, and it was revealed that acceptance of the 'yoke of heaven' was really never part of the picture of this new 'Judaism' in the first place, despite all assurances.
Achav did not internalize the values and messages of the Torah, and he and his masses went astray after idolatrous worship and failed to follow and apply Torah values to real life, as they were driven deep down by other motives. So, too, did those who went after the Egel Ha-Zahav not have a real philosophy of Judaism; their subjective approach to Torah flowed from a need for personal satisfaction and gratification, not from a sincere desire to keep God's Word. The Medrash relates that those who worshiped the Egel determined that Moshe would not descend Har (Mt.) Sinai as he had promised, based on their flawed calculation of the 40-day period on the mount, and they thus logically inferred that a new figure must be made to lead them. We cannot accept that the people sincerely felt that Moshe was not coming back and that they thus innocently turned to following the image of the Egel in their quest for God and for the way of life they had known under Moshe's leadership. On the contrary, just like Achav's commitment to Torah was insincere and self-serving, so was that of those who served the Egel. Their ideology was not marked by a misplaced fidelity to Torah. Deep down, there was an infidelity and a desire to define Judaism as they felt most comfortable; Moshe's absence merely allowed for the formulation of a warped theology based on an excuse. This is to be contrasted with the case of Ovadiah, who trusted Eliyahu to come to the king when he committed to do so, and Ovadiah literally placed his life on this commitment. This is precisely why Eliyahu's arrival and the seemingly delayed arrival of Moshe from the mount are brought into perspective.
Those who are innocently misled are not held accountable for their ways, but those who formulate new paths that are not in consonance with accepted Torah norms usually do so for reasons of self-interest and out of a lack of sincerity. We need to keep this concept at the forefront of our thoughts in order to preserve Torah and remain faithful to God's ways. This is the lesson of Achav.
Why - of all things - was an egel, a calf - the image that was formed and subsequently worshiped?
One can suggest that a calf was chosen because of its symbolism, reflective of two things:
1. A cow provides nourishment to the human race like no other living species. The Jews who had departed from Mitzrayim realized how dependant they were on Hashem, and their dependence on someone other than themselves was best manifest, in their minds, in the form of an Egel.
2. The Calf was initially intended to be an intermediary to God. A suckling calf - while being a source of nourishment - is totally dependant on its mother cow. So, too, was the Golden Calf envisioned as being a connection to God, the parent of Bnei Yisroel and its ultimate Provider.
The Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) is burned to ashes prior to use for purification. Perhaps the message is that purification comes from God alone; the animal creature that seems to be man's provider is reduced to ashes, and the ashes, which symbolize rejection of intermediaries to God and idolatrous belief, constitute the method of purification and a true, legitimate approach toward God.