The prophet Eliyahu managed to gather all the worshipers of the Baal idol together and challenged them to ‘A sacrifice duel.’ They were to offer a sacrifice to their Hashem, and Eliyahu was to do the same to his G-d and whoever’s G-d would demonstrate that the sacrifice has been accepted, wins. With the entire nation looking on, this was the chance to prove Hashem as the One, valid G-d once and for all. Just before this ‘sacrifice contest’ Eliyahu turned to the people and shouted ‘How long are you going to continue to hedge your bets; if Hashem is the true G-d then follow Him, and if the Baal is correct then follow him.’ This seems strange: why did Eliyahu offer the people the chance to respond ‘Ok, I’ll go for Baal’; why did he not just tell them to follow Hashem outright?
The answer is an important one. The people at the time were serving both Hashem and Baal. First, a person who serves both Hashem and idols cannot be serving Hashem: one cannot profess loyalty to two antithetical powers (no less than professing absolute loyalty to two wives nowadays). Moreover, apart from the mixed messages he is feeding his children, such a person will never feel he has made any error in judgment. In a sense, this is worse than serving Baal alone, for one who serves Baal alone has made a decision, and can be shown the error of his ways. But one who hedges his bets is much harder to persuade, for he feels like he is following all opinions.
Thus, Eliyahu pushed the people to make some form of decision. As long as one thinks that one is on both sides of the fence, he cannot be persuaded. But once one has made a clear decision, he has recognized the quality of absolute loyalty, and he can be taught to follow in the way of Hashem.
In order to teach the people this idea of loyalty to one source, Eliyahu challenged the Baal worshippers to a duel to prove that ultimately, Hashem is the only true G-d. Each side would offer sacrifices to their G-d, and whoever’s prayer was answered would win. Team Baal went first, slaughtering animals and beseeching their god to answer them. They tore their clothes, danced around the altar, beat their chests, and fell on their faces, but nothing happened. When Eliyahu placed his sacrifice on the altar, a pillar of fire descended instantaneously.
There is a second interesting idea in this episode. A man was discovered hiding underneath the Baal altar, attempting to ignite the offering of the Baal. He had been bitten by a snake while trying to set fire to the Baal offering to try and “prove” that Hashem was false (Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim aleph, Perek 18, Remez 214). Who was he?
Yehoshua had cursed Yericho’s ruins, saying that whoever would rebuild the city would do so at the cost of his children’s lives. Yet, we were told that Chiel from Beis El rebuilt Yericho. All of Chiel’s sons died; one would think that the fulfillment of Yehoshua’s curse would have persuaded Chiel of Hashem’s existence. Nevertheless, sources say that Chiel was the man who attempted to ignite the Baal offering. How can this be?
The Gemara in Sanhedrin informs us that Chiel was a part of King Achav’s inner circle. Chiel, tortured by the memory of his children’s deaths, sought comfort from Eliyahu HaNavi and King Achav. He inquired whether the rebuilding of Yericho was the cause for his family’s ruin, and Eliyahu confirmed that it was.
But Achav scorned this, reminding Chiel that the curse of drought Moshe placed on those who served idols never materialized, and that likewise, Yehoshua’s curse was no better. Therefore, Eliyahu related that Hashem had decided that there would be a drought for three years (Radak 17:1). Achav’s scorn was worthy of causing the entire Bnei Yisrael to suffer from drought.
The Mesilas Yesharim reiterates the danger of scorn. In Perek 5 it is written that “Like a shield smeared with oil, which repels arrows and causes them to fall to the ground, so is scorn in the face of reproof and regret.” Scorn is so powerful that logic can disappear in a flash of laughter. You only have to look at the tragic tale of Chiel the Bethelite to see how true this is. Chiel himself came to the conclusion that it must have been Yehoshua’s curse that killed his children, and he would have repented if not for Achav’s scorn. This scorn, however, made Chiel so desperate to refute Hashem’s existence that he tried to forge another god’s existence, for which Hashem killed him.