“there will not be dew or rain these years except by my word.” Why would God call for a famine upon Israel? It caused a huge amount of hardship for the people. The answer is to be found in understanding how the people of Israel had turned away from Yahweh and were worshiping Baal. The word baal (pronounced baa-al) means “lord, master, owner, and husband,” and it is used many different ways in the Old Testament. As a god, “Baal” sometimes referred to a local god who was the lord of an area or people. However, here in 1 Kings, Baal refers to the great Canaanite storm god who controlled the rain, winds, and clouds, and thus fertility, and was known throughout the Middle East. A tablet found at Ras Shamra depicts Baal holding a lightning bolt.
Queen Jezebel obviously worshiped Baal, and supported 450 prophets of Baal with public funds (1 Kings 18:19). Also, apparently, many of the people of Israel worshiped Baal as well, and prayed to him for rain and abundant crops. So as long as the rain came and the crops grew, there would be no reason for the people to doubt Baal or turn away from him. The most effective way to get the people of Israel to turn away from Baal and turn back to Yahweh was to show that Baal did not have power over the rain and fertility, Yahweh did. Thus Elijah’s statement that unless he said so, there would be no rain or even dew. The reason for mentioning dew is that dew produced a lot of fertility in the dry months, from May until October. It was only when the people could clearly see that Baal was powerless to bring rain or fertility that their hearts were inclined to turn back to Yahweh and get rid of the prophets of Baal.
It is a sad commentary on humanity that often the only way God can get people to pay attention to Him is when the other things that people depend on for success or prosperity fail. However, that is the way life is, and because of that God’s prophets, like Elijah, sometimes had to pray for people’s idols to fail, so they would be humble and return to God. James 5:17 mentions the prayer of Elijah, and sin is mentioned both before it, in James 5:15, and after it, in James 5:19-20. Elijah’s prayer of faith caused a lot of temporary hardship, but it also caused many people to turn back from the error of their ways, and saved their souls from death. For more on God using problems to turn people from evil, cp. Deut. 4:25-30; Isa. 31:1-2, 6-7; Jer. 5:1-9 and 36:3.