By Moshe Reiss
Elijah left a brief record in Scripture, appearing in only six chapters (I Kings 17-19, 21; II Kings 1-2). Yet, he is one of the stars of Judaism, and especially of the kabalistic or mystical constellation. And through one passage in Malachi 3:23) he has become the prophet who ushers in the messianic era. (1) Maurice Samuel described him as: ". . . a flame and a fury, a portent and a fugitive, like a human comet . . . . knight errant righter of wrongs armored in prayer shawl and phylacteries . . . [traveling around the world] until he announces the Messiah himself." (2).
As he is shown in the text, he is an avenging destroyer. He performed miracles, and so did his disciple, Elisha; a sequence comparable to only one other pair, Moses and Joshua. He is a true legendary character, more in the nature of Greek legend than in that of a Hebrew prophet. He defied Ahab, described as the most evil King of Israel (I Kings 16:33) and his even more evil wife Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel introduce the pagan cults of Ba’al and Asherah
into the Northern Kingdom and killed many of the prophets of Israel. Elijah is suddenly introduced into the text, described only as "the Tishbite" and as "an inhabitant of Gilead." He confronts the King, to announce: 'By the life of the Lord God of Israel, whom I serve, there will be neither rain nor dew will come unless I give the word' (17:1). The word will come from Elijah, not from God. It is clear that Elijah, the zealous messenger of God is to counteract the evil king Ahab and his wife Jezebel.
Elijah and Obadiah
In the third year thereafter, God tells Elijah to confront Ahab again (18:1), but before the prophet finds the King he encounters Obadiah, a high-ranking royal minister. Obadiah held God in great reverence and, at the risk of his own life, he had saved 200 of God’s prophets from being murdered by Jezebel (18:4). (Despite knowing this, Elijah will soon state ‘I alone am left as a prophet of the Lord' [18:22]. Perhaps declaring this in a public assembly was a ruse to protect prophets still in hiding, but later on Elijah repeats the claim during the theophany in Sinai [19:10,14]).
When Obadiah meets Elijah he addresses him as my lord Elijah. Elijah responds ‘'Go and tell your lord Elijah is here’; "your lord" here meaning King Ahab. Obadiah fears the wrath of Ahab, but Elijah insists. Why is Elijah so derogatory towards Obadiah? We are being told that Elijah believes he is the only zealot prophet and no other prophets matter. ‘I am full of jealous zeal for the Lord’ (19:14). Zealots do things their own way.
ELIJAH, AHAB AND JEZEBEL
God has instructed Elijah to tell King Ahab that the drought shall end, and Elijah decides to make the announcement with dramatic flair. He tells Ahab to come to Mount Carmel, with 450 prophets of Ba’al and Jezebel’s 400 prophets of Asherah. (The prophets of Ba’al come, but the prophets of Asherah are not heard of again.)
Elijah gathered Israel to Mount Carmel (18:19) as Moses gathered all Israel to Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:17). He then sets up a contest between the Lord and Ba’al, to see which will consume an offering by fire. The pagan prophets accept the challenge, and call on their god repeatedly, hour after hour, with no response. Elijah sarcastically says ‘Call louder, for he is a god, perhaps he is talking or he has gone aside [to relieve himself] (3) or he has gone on a journey, perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened’ (18:27). After several more hours, Ba’al still did not respond.
Then Elijah built an altar with twelve stones, a comparison to Moses building an altar with twelve stone pillars (Ex. 24:4), arranged the sacrificial bull on wood, and dramatically poured three jars of water over the wood and over the carcass. Elijah then asked God to ignite to offering, so the people should know ‘You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant’ (18:36). The name Elijah [in Hebrew Eliyahu] means ‘My God is the Lord.' In his introductory words he says ‘The Lord lives, the God of Israel’ (17:1), a play on words with his own name. He now tells God to show the world that he himself is God’s servant.
God granted Elijah's request. He sent fire to consume the offering, as with Moses and Aaron (Lev. 9:22-24). The power of the Lord is seen in contrast to the dead silence of Ba’al. It is the victory of the living power of the Lord in contrast to the lifeless Ba’al. Elijah then slaughtered the false prophets as Moses killed 3,000 idolaters (Ex. 32:25-29). And then the great rains fell.
In some sense the contest is pathetic. Ba’al is implored all morning to send fire from heaven. His prophets did a hobbling dance around the altar, gashed themselves until they bled, and they failed. All the while, Elijah mocked them and their deity. When his own term came, he succeeded and the fire came. (Later he will use God’s fire to twice light up fifty messengers of the King.) God, who never requested this contest and may well have been embarrassed by it, had little choice but to respond to Elijah.
Moses had destroyed only what was necessary to destroy, and he continually sought repentance and forgiveness for the people. Elijah acted like a god-like representative of the God (of fire) to prove that His God is greater than Ba’al. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses gathered the Levites and the people and killed only the ringleaders (Ex. 32:26-28). Elijah gathered the 450 false prophets, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon and there he slaughtered them’ (I Kg 18:40). We have already seen that Elijah believed he was the only righteous prophet. Do we need his dramatic fireworks to prove the power of God? Was not the bringing of the drought and it’s ending, both announced in advance, sufficient? Elijah needs to prove not only God but also, by his own zealousness, that he is the only representative of God. Moses, with his awesome charisma, did not.
MOSES AND ELIJAH ON MT. SINAI
Jezebel suddenly reappears at the start of Chapter 19:1, as Ahab told his wife what had transpired. Jezebel’s name includes "ba'al" and her father’s name was Ethbaal; she worshipped Ba'al, and also the goddess Asherah. After the contest on Mount Carmel she sent a message to Elijah promising to kill him; the Septuagint text adds to the message the words: ‘If you are Elijah, then I am Jezebel’ -- a play on words with the theophoric elements of their own names: I Jezebel will oppose you Elijah. She has thrown the gauntlet at him. (4) This can be seen as similar to Pharaoh ‘hardening his own heart’ setting himself up against God.
Elijah, the triumphant victor over Ba’al, dramatically dropped his fearlessness, ran away and went into hiding. He was afraid. . . wishing he were dead (19:3-4). He was, to quote Hauser, a "whimpering defeatist." (5) Why was he consumed by self pity? He had just had a great victory over the prophets of Ba’al. He had recently been able to restore a dead child to life. His God represents life -- "The Lord lives" -- and had miraculously fed Elijah for years. Why does he now fear death? Jezebel had not sent her prophets of the Asherah cult to Mount Carmel. Does Elijah for some reason fear them? In fact, Elijah is never to meet or talk to Jezebel.
Numerous scholars have suggested that Elijah’s is psychologically depressed. with fear the result of the manic state he experienced at the mountain. (6) Let us recall that God never told Elijah to arrange the competition on Mount Carmel. When praying to God to bring down the fire, Elijah created a new form of prayer: ‘The Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel’ (18:36). Never before has God been referred to as the God of Israel, rather than of Jacob. (7) He then says: The Lord is God. This is understandable, but it is a new terminology, almost a new doxology. Elijah actually seems more zealous than God.
ELIJAH AND MOSES
After two encounters with an angel, Elijah travels on a journey of 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb (that is Mount Sinai). Elijah is in a cave, and God asks him: ‘What are you doing here?’ Elijah responds: ‘I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant . . . and I have remained alone, and they seek my life to take it’. God then tells Elijah to go up to the top of the mountain. God gives Elijah a theophany similar to that of Moses:
A strong wind splits the mountain and shatters boulders . . . but the Lord was not in the wind. And the after the wind an earthquake - but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came fire but God was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice . . . a voice came to him and said: What are you doing here Elijah? And he said I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant . . . and I have remained alone, and they seek my life to take it’ (I Kg 19:9-15).
Elijah is the only Hebrew prophet other than Moses to have a theophany. There is an obvious comparison to Moses, but what is the essence of the comparison? When Moses was on the mountain after the theophany the people sinned with the Golden Calf. God threatened to destroy the people and begin a new people with Moses. Moses pleaded with God to change His mind.
Elijah hears and experienced the same level of theophany. He complains to God, the people have broken Your covenant as with the Golden Calf. He does not plead for God to change, but instead implicitly expects the people to change. We are told that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake and not in the fire. God was in the ‘still small voice’. Elijah is a zealot and a fundamentalist. He does not hear ‘still small voices’. Moses is humble and a pleader for God to change. He knows God’s people are a ‘stiff necked’ people, just as they may need to change, so God must change for this people to survive. After Elijah hears that God is zealous but in the quiet still small voice he responds to God’s exactly same question in exactly the same words as he responded with before the theophany. ‘I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant . . . and I have remained alone, and they seek my life to take it’. He has heard nothing, has learned nothing and has not changed! Moses is transformed for the better; in fact his face is illuminated (Ex. 34:29).
There are some significant differences between Moses and Elijah. One is the contrast between Moses handling of the ‘Golden Calf’ and Elijah’s contest between the Lord and Ba’al. Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai to bring up the Ten Commandments and the law to the recently freed Hebrew slaves. While he is communing with God for forty days, the frightened people build a Moses substitute - the Golden Calf. When Moses comes down and sees the Golden Calf, he smashes it, burns it and kills the ringleaders. Moses acted out of concern for the people, God’s anger and for forgiveness of the people.
A second is how each reacts to his own theophany. Moses appeals to God to change, Elijah expects the people to change. Moses can appeal to the God of silence, when God speaks in silence to Elijah he does not hear. Elijah can be seen as a foil for Moses. (8)
A third is how they responded to training a successor. Moses gives Joshua several tasks in his training – lead the fighting with Amalek (Ex. 17:9), watch the people while he went up to Mount Sinai (24:13; 32:17), lead the spies, (Num.13:16) and appoints him in front all the people (Deut. 1:38). God told Elijah go and anoint Elisha as his disciple (I Kg 19:16). According to Rashi, God was saying "You shall anoint Elisha to be prophet in your in stead, I do not want your prophecy since your prophecy does not plead for the prosecution of My children.' Does Elijah accept that his prophecy is over, or does he believe he is re-commissioned and if so what is his new mission? This can be compared to Moses declining to be God’s spokesman and God after being angry at Moses, grants his request and Aaron becomes Moses’ spokesman (Ex. 4:13).
Elijah did not anoint Elisha, but threw his cloak to him -- a symbol of succession which he later took back -- and walked away. Elisha will become the disciple but request double the spirit of Elijah. Is this like Joshua and Moses, when Joshua learned the trade of being a prophet, or more like Samuel anointing the ill-fated Saul?
There are some obvious comparisons between Moses and Elijah, in the 40 days, in their miracles and in the specialness of their deaths. Moses was the first redeemer and had some messianic status. Elijah was the forerunner of the Messiah (Mal. 3:23).
But in terms of personality, as we have seen, they are very different. Moses is known for his humility, his refusal to allow God to destroy the people and his continual praying for the people. Elijah is not humble and prays for and uses the power of God, sometimes for his own aggrandizement. He is known as the Zealot.
ELIJAH, AHAB AND NABOTH
Ahab desires the vineyard next to his palace and attempts to purchase it from Naboth its owner. Naboth refuses as it is his ancestral land. When Jezebel sees how depressed Ahab is over Naboth’s refusal she conspires successfully to have him killed and tells her husband to simply take the land. God comes to Elijah telling him the story and tells him to go to Ahab and announce God’s punishment, his death. When Elijah tells Ahab of God’s punishment, his death, Ahab says ‘you have caught me, my enemy’. Elijah responds ‘I have found you’ (21:20). Of course we know that God found Ahab’s evil actions and Elijah is the messenger. Elijah continues with God’s punishment, the death of his descendants and the end of his dynasty. Ahab tears his clothing, puts on sackcloth and fasted and repents. God then spares his life and the punishment applies to his children. As for Jezebel who created the conspiracy to kill Naboth a narrator tells the reader that God says ‘the dogs shall eat Jezebel’ (21:23) and indeed that occurs. But once again Elijah does not meet Jezebel.
ELIJAH’S DEATH AND ELISHA’S SUCCESSION
Then, we have the end of Elijah’s life. Elijah goes to the Jordan River, and his disciple Elisha with him. But before Elijah crosses river he tells Elisha, his God-ordained successor, not to come with him, to stay away (II Kg 2:2,4,6). Is Elijah reluctant to accept a successor? He rolls his cloak and strikes the river; the river then splits and the two walk across. (This, of course, is another comparison to Moses splitting the Red Sea.) Elijah asks Elisha: What do you wish before I depart? Elisha asks for a "double share of your spirit." Elijah says it will be difficult, but if Elisha sees him depart, the wish will be granted. But God has already commissioned Elisha as a prophet, why is Elijah setting up a test? Elijah drops his cloak. Elisha sees a chariot of fire descent from heaven with horses of fire and Elijah goes up to heaven in a whirlwind. It is almost a Greek-like departure. When Elisha sees the chariot coming for Elijah he says ‘My father, My father’ with great respect. Elijah has not blessed Elisha nor laid on his hands. Elisha picks up Elijah's cloak strikes the water. He asks where is God, strikes the water again, and only then does it split for him.
And what does ‘double his spirit’ mean? Elisha did see the chariot, and went on to perform double the number of miracles that Elijah had accomplished. He healed the waters of Jericho, which were causing miscarriages (2:19). Some small boys call him ‘baldy’; he curses them and bears savaged all 42 of them (II Kg 2:23-25). Is he attempting to be like Elijah, who had called down death on hundreds of the King's soldiers, in order to prove that he also could use God’s power to kill? Elijah produced food for a widow (17:8-16); Elisha did it twice (4:2) and cured a poisoned stew in a pot (4:38-41). Elijah raised a young boy from death (17:17-23); Elisha blessed a woman who had no son and she bore one (4:14-17), and when he was struck down Elisha restored his life(32-37). After Elisha's death, a dead man was resurrected by the touch of his bones. He blinded soldiers (6:18-23). He made iron float (6:5-7). Does Elisha believe that the importance of his master Elijah is his performance of miracles? And if he can perform double the miracles is he is double as important? The Talmud tell us of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who performed miracles to prove a halakhic point. He was excommunicated for believing miracles are the proof of God’s Torah.
(1) A. Rabbis and Sages of old told tales of meeting with Elijah to learn mystical lore. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the reputed author of the 14th century Zohar learnt it from Elijah. There was a school during Talmudic times named after him - Tanna de Vei Elihayu.
B. At Passover, the most popular of the three major pilgrimage holidays, representing both liberation and redemption he is a key figure, the cup of Elijah is filled and we open the door to welcome him. He is in this sense a precursor Messiah.
C. In the circumcision, the covenantal sign of the Jews, the chair on which the child is held during the circumcision is called Elijah's chair.
D. At the close of the Shabbat Jews sings two songs about Elijah; ‘Elijah the Prophet’ and ‘I will bring you Elijah’ from the last sentence of Malachi.
E. The blessing for the Haftorah (the secondary reading of the scriptures on the Sabbath day) starts with give us happiness our Lord, in the name of Elijah your servant and the kingdom of the house of David's Messiahship. Only Abraham, Moses and David are called God’s servants; Elijah calls himself God’s servant.
F. Maimonides says that prophecy will be re-instituted before the Messiah by the arrival of Elijah.
G. Elijah is an important prophet in both Christianity where he was compared to John the Baptist and in Islam. In the latter he is mentioned in the Qur’an as a righteous one like Moses and Jesus.
(2) Samuels, M., Certain People of the Book, (Knopf, N.Y., 1967) pg. 241-243.
(3) Hauser, A.J. and Gregory, R., From Carmel to Horeb, (Almond Press, JSOT, 83, 1990) pg. 43.
(4) Phillis Trible, in Buchman, C., and Spiegel, C., eds. Out of the Garden, (Fawcett Columbine, N.Y., 1994) pg. 172.
(5) Hauser, pg. 60.
(6) John W. Olley, YHVH And His Zealous Prophet, (Sheffield University JSOT, 80, 1998) pg. 38.
(7) Later in Chronicles God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel (1 Chron. 29:18 and 2 Chron. 30:6).
(8) From Rachel Adelman in a conversation with the author on March 20, 2001.