Who was Elijah?
In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Elijah was the great prophet of the times of Ahab, king of Israel.
Elijah is identified at his first appearance (1 Kings 17:1 ) as "Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead." Thus his native place must have been called Tishbeh. A T ishbeh (Thisbe) in the territory of Naphtali is known from Tobit 1:2; but if (with most modern commentators) the reading of the Septuagint in 1 Ki is followed, the word translated "sojourners" is itself "Tishbeh," locating the place in Gilead and making the prophet a native of that mountain region and not merely a "sojourner" there.
I. The Works of Elijah
In 1 Kings 16:29-34 we read of the impieties of Ahab, culminating in his patronage of the worship of the Tyrian Baal, god of his Tyrian queen Jezebel ( 1 Kings 16:31 ). 1 Kings 16:34 mentions as another instance of the little weight attached in Ahab's time to ancient prophetic threatenings, the rebuilding by Hiel the Bethelite of the banned city of Jericho, "with the loss" of Hiel's eldest and youngest sons. This is the situation which calls for a judgment of Yahweh, announced beforehand, as is often the case, by a faithful prophet of Yahweh.
1. The Judgment of Drought
Whether Elijah was already a familiar figure at the court of Ahab, the narrative beginning with 1 Kings 17:1 does not state. His garb and manner identified him as a prophet, in any case ( 2 Kings 1:8 ; compare Zechariah 13:4 ). Elijah declared in few words that Yahweh, true and only rightful God of Israel, whose messenger he was, was even at the very time sending a drought which should continue until the prophet himself declared it at an end. The term is to be fixed, indeed, not by Elijah but by Yahweh; it is not to be short ("these years"), and it is to end only when the chastisement is seen to be sufficient. Guided, as true prophets were continually, by the "word of Yahweh," Elijah then hid himself in one of the ravines east of ("before") the Jordan, where the brook Cherith afforded him water, and ravens brought him abundant food ("bread and flesh" twice daily), 1 Kings 17:2-6 .
As the drought advanced the brook dried up. Elijah was then directed, by the "word of Yahweh," as constantly, to betake himself beyond the western limit of Ahab's kingdom to the Phoenician village of Zarephath, near Sidon. There the widow to whom Yahweh sent him was found gathering a few sticks from the ground at the city gate, to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. She yielded to the prophet's command that he himself should be first fed from her scanty store; and in return enjoyed the fulfillment of his promise, uttered in the name of Yahweh, that neither barrel of meal nor cruse of oil should be exhausted before the breaking of the drought. (Josephus, Ant , VIII, xiii, 2, states on the authority of Menander that the drought extended to Phoenicia and continued there for a full year.) But when the widow's son fell sick and died, the mother regarded it as a Divine judgment upon her sins, a judgment which had been drawn upon her by the presence of the man of God. At the prayer of Elijah, life returned to the child (1 Kings 17:17-24 ).
"In the third year," 1 Kings 18:1 ( Luke 4:25 ; James 5:17 give three years and six months as the length of the drought), Elijah was directed to show himself to Ahab as the herald of rain from Yahweh. How sorely both man and beast in Israel were pressed by drought and the resulting famine, is shown by the fact that King Ahab and his chief steward Obadiah were in person searching through the land for any patches of green grass that might serve to keep alive some of the king's own horses and mules ( 1 Kings 18:5 , 1 Kings 18:6 ).
The words of Obadiah upon meeting with Elijah show the impression which had been produced by the prophet's long absence. It was believed that the Spirit of God had carried Elijah away to some unknown, inaccessible, mysterious region (1 Kings 18:10 , 1 Kings 18:12 ). Obadiah feared that such would again be the case, and, while he entreated the prophet not to make him the bearer of a message to Ahab, appealed to his own well-known piety and zeal, as shown in his sheltering and feeding, during Jezebel's persecution, a hundred prophets of Yahweh. Elijah reassured the steward by a solemn oath that he would show himself to Ahab (1 Kings 18:15 ). The king greeted the prophet with the haughty words, "Is it thou, thou troubler of Israel?" Elijah's reply, answering scorn with scorn, is what we should expect from a prophet; the woes of Israel are not to be charged to the prophet who declared the doom, but to the kings who made the nation deserve it (1 Kings 18:17 , 1 Kings 18:18 ).
2. The Ordeal by Prayer
Elijah went on to challenge a test of the false god's power. Among the pensioners of Jezebel were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah - still fed by the royal bounty in spite of the famine. Accepting Elijah's proposal, Ahab called all these and all the people to Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:19 , 1 Kings 18:20 ). Elijah's first word to the assembly implied the folly of their thinking that the allegiance of a people could successfully be divided between two deities: "How long go ye limping between the two sides?" (possibly "leaping over two thresholds," in ironical allusion to the custom of leaping over the threshold of an idol temple, to avoid a stumble, which would be unpropitious; compare 1 Samuel 5:1-5 ).
Taking the people's silence as an indication that they admitted the force of his first words, Elijah went on to propose his conditions for the test: a bullock was to be offered to Baal, a bullock to Yahweh, but no fire put under; "The God that answereth by fire, let him be God." The voice of the people approved the proposal as fair (1 Kings 18:22-24 ). Throughout a day of blazing sunshine the prophets of Baal called in frenzy upon their god, while Elijah mocked them with merciless sarcasm (1 Kings 18:25-29 ). About the time for the regular offering of the evening sacrifice in the temple of Yahweh at Jerusalem, Elijah assumed control. Rebuilding an ancient altar thrown down perhaps in Jezebel's persecution; using in the rebuilding twelve stones, symbolizing an undivided Israel such as was promised to the patriarch Jacob of old; drenching sacrifice and wood with water from some perennial spring under the slopes of Carmel, until even a trench about the altar, deep and wide enough to have a two- ṣe'āh (half-bushel) measure set in it, was filled - the prophet called in few and earnest words upon the God of the fathers of the nation (1 Kings 18:30-37 ).
The answer of Yahweh by fire, consuming bullock, wood, altar and the very dust, struck the people with awe and fear. Convinced that Yahweh was God alone for them, they readily carried out the prophet's stern sentence of death for the prophets of the idol god (1 Kings 18:38-40 ). Next the prophet bade Ahab make haste with the meal, probably a sacrificial feast for the multitude, which had been made ready; because rain was at hand. On the mountain top Elijah bowed in prayer, sending his servant seven times to look out across the sea for the coming storm. At last the appearance of a rising cloud "as small as a man's hand" was reported; and before the hurrying chariot of the king could cross the plain to Jezreel it was overtaken by "a great rain" from heavens black with clouds and wind after three rainless years. With strength above nature, Elijah ran like a courier before Ahab to the very gate of Jezreel (1 Kings 18:41-46 ).
3. At Horeb
The same night a messenger from Jezebel found Elijah. The message ran, "As surely as thou art Elijah and I am Jezebel" (so the Septuagint), "so let the gods do to me, and more also" (i.e. may I be cut in pieces like a sacrificed animal if I break my vow; compare Genesis 15:8-11 , Genesis 15:17 , Genesis 15:18 ; Jeremiah 34:18 , Jeremiah 34:19 ), "if I make not thy life as the life of one of" the slain prophets of Baal "by to-morrow about this time." Explain Elijah's action how we may - and all the possible explanations of it have found defenders - he sought safety in instant flight. At Beersheba, the southernmost town of Judah, he left his "servant," whom the narrative does not elsewhere mention. Going onward into the southern wilderness, he sat down under the scanty shade of a desert broom-bush and prayed that he might share the common fate of mankind in death (1 Kings 19:1-4 ). After sleep he was refreshed with food brought by an angel.
Again he slept and was fed. In the strength of that food he then wandered on for forty days and nights, until he found himself at Horeb, the mountain sacred because there Yahweh had revealed Himself to Moses (1 Kings 19:5-8 ). The repetition of identical words by Elijah in 1 Kings 19:10 and 1 Kings 19:14 represents a difficulty. Unless we are to suppose an accidental repetition by a very early copyist (early, since it appears already in the Septuagint), we may see in it an indication that Elijah's despondency was not easily removed, or that he sought at Horeb an especial manifestation of Yahweh for his encouragement, or both. The prophet was bidden to take his stand upon the sacred mount; and Yahweh passed by, heralded by tempest, earthquake and thunderstorm ( 1 Kings 19:9-12 ). These were Yahweh's fore-runners only; Yahweh was not in them, but in the "still small voice," such as the prophets were accustomed to hear within their souls.
When Elijah heard the not unfamiliar inner voice, he recognized Yahweh present to hear and answer him. Elijah seems to be seeking to justify his own retreat to the wilderness by the plea that he had been "very jealous," had done in Yahweh's cause all that mortal prophet could do, before he fled, yet all in vain! The same people who had forsaken the law and "covenant" of Yahweh, thrown down His altars and slain His prophets, would have allowed the slaughter of Elijah himself at the command of Jezebel; and in him would have perished the last true servant of Yahweh in all the land of Israel (1 Kings 19:13 , 1 Kings 19:14 ).
Divine compassion passed by Elijah's complaint in order to give him directions for further work in Yahweh's cause. Elijah must anoint Hazael to seize the throne of Syria, Israel's worst enemy among the neighboring powers; Jehu, in like manner, he must anoint to put an end to the dynasty of Ahab and assume the throne of Israel; and Elisha, to be his own successor in the prophetic office. These three, Hazael and his Syrians, Jehu and his followers, even Elisha himself, are to execute further judgments upon the idolaters and the scorners in Israel. Yahweh will leave Himself 7,000 (a round number, a limited but not an excessively small one, conveying a doctrine, like the doctrine of later prophets, of the salvation of a righteous remnant) in Israel, men proof against the judgment because they did not share the sin. If Elijah was rebuked at all, it was only in the contrast between the 7,000 faithful and the one, himself, which he believed to number all the righteous left alive in Israel (1 Kings 19:15-18 ).
4. The Case of Naboth
The anointing of Hazael and of Jehu seems to have been left to Elijah's successor; indeed, we read of no anointing of Hazael, but only of a significant interview between that worthy and Elisha (2 Kings 8:7-15 ). Elijah next appears in the narrative as rebuker of Ahab for the judicial murder of Naboth. In the very piece of ground which the king had coveted and seized, the prophet appeared, unexpected and unwelcome, to declare upon Ahab, Jezebel and all their house the doom of a shameful death (1 Ki 21). There was present at this scene, in attendance upon the king, a captain named Jehu, the very man already chosen as the supplanter of Ahab, and he never forgot what he then saw and heard (2 Kings 9:25 , 2 Kings 9:26 ).
5. Elijah and Ahaziah
Ahab's penitence (1 Kings 21:28 , 1 Kings 21:29 ) averted from himself some measure of the doom. His son Ahaziah pulled it down upon his own head. Sick unto death from injuries received in a fall, Ahaziah sent to ask an oracle concerning his recovery at the shrine of Baal-zebub in Ekron. Elijah met the messengers and turned them back with a prediction, not from Baal-zebub but from Yahweh, of impending death. Ahaziah recognized by the messengers' description the ancient "enemy" of his house. A captain and fifty soldiers sent to arrest the prophet were consumed by fire from heaven at Elijah's word. A second captain with another fifty met the same fate. A third besought the prophet to spare his life, and Elijah went with him to the king, but only to repeat the words of doom (2 Ki 1).
6. Elijah Translated
A foreboding, shared by the "sons of the prophets" at Beth-el and Jericho, warned Elijah that the closing scene of his earthly life was at hand. He desired to meet the end, come in what form it might, alone. Elisha, however, bound himself by an oath not to leave his master. Elijah divided Jordan with the stroke of his mantle, that the two might pass over toward the wilderness on the east. Elisha asked that he might receive a firstborn's portion of the spirit which rested upon his master. "A chariot of fire, and horses of fire" appeared, and parted the two asunder; "and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings 2:1-11 ).
7. The Letter to Jehoram
In 2 Chronicles 21:12-15 we read of a "writing" from Elijah to Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. The statements of 2 Kings 3:11 , 2 Kings 3:12 admit of no other interpretation than that the succession of Elisha to independent prophetic work had already occurred in the lifetime of Jehoshaphat. It has been pointed out that the difficult verse, 2 Kings 8:16 , appears to mean that Jehoram began to reign at some time before the death of his father; it is also conceivable that Elijah left a message, reduced to writing either before or after his departure, for the future king of Judah who should depart from the true faith.
II. The Work of Elijah
One's estimate of the importance of the work of Elijah depends upon one's conception of the condition of things which the prophet confronted in Northern Israel. While it is true that the reign of Ahab was outwardly prosperous, and the king himself not without a measure of political sagacity together with personal courage, his religious policy at best involved such tolerance of false faiths as could lead only to disaster. Ever since the time of Joshua, the religion of Yahweh had been waging its combat with the old Canaanite worship of the powers of Nature, a worship rendered to local deities, the "Baalim" or "lords" of this and that neighborhood, whose ancient altars stood "upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree" (Deuteronomy 12:2 ).
The god imported from Phoenicia by Jezebel bore also the title Baal; but his character and his worship were worse and more debasing than anything that had before been known. Resistance offered by the servants of Yahweh to the claims of the queen's favored god led to persecution, rightly ascribed by the historian to Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4 ). In the face of this danger, the differences between the worship of Yahweh as carried on in the Northern Kingdom and the same worship as practiced at Jerusalem sank out of sight.
The one effort of Elijah was to recall the people from the Tyrian Baal to Yahweh, the God of their fathers. The vitality of the true religion in the crisis is shown by the fidelity of such a man as Obadiah (1 Kings 18:3 f), or by the perseverance of a righteous remnant of 7,000, in spite of all that had happened of persecution ( 1 Kings 19:18 ). The work begun by Elijah was finished, not without blood, by Jehu; we hear no more of the worship of the Tyrian Baal in Israel after that anointed usurper's time (2 Ki 9; 10).
To say that Elijah at Horeb "learns the gentleness of God" (Strachan in HDB ) is to contradict the immediate text of the narrative and the history of the times. The direction given Elijah was that he should anoint one man to seize the throne of Syria, another to seize that of Israel, and a prophet to continue his own work; with the promme and prediction that these three forces should unite in executing upon guilty Israel the judgment still due for its apostasy from Yahweh and its worship of a false god. Elijah was not a reformer of peace; the very vision of peace was hidden from his eyes, reserved for later prophets for whom he could but prepare the way. It was his mission to destroy at whatever cost the heathen worship which else would have destroyed Israel itself, with consequences whose evil we cannot estimate. Amos and Hosea would have had no standing-ground had it not been for the work of Elijah and the influences which at Divine direction he put in operation.
III. Character of the Prophet
It is obvious that the Scripture historian does not intend to furnish us with a character-study of the prophet Elijah. Does he furnish even the material upon which such a study may profitably be attempted? The characterization found in James 5:17 , "Elijah was a man of like passions (margin, "nature") with us," is brief indeed; but examination of the books which have been written upon the life of Elijah leads to the conclusion that it is possible to err by attaching to events meanings which those events were never intended to bear, as well as by introducing into one's study too much of sheer imagination.
It is easy, for example, to observe that Elijah is introduced to the reader with suddenness, and that his appearances and disappearances in the narrative seem abrupt; but is one warranted in arguing from this a like abruptness in the prophet's character? Is not the sufficient explanation to be reached by observing that the historian's purpose was not to give a complete biography of any individual, whether prophet or king, but to display the working of Yahweh upon and with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah through the prophets? Few personal details are therefore to be found recorded concerning even such a prophet as Elijah; and none at all, unless they have a direct bearing upon his message. The imagination of some has discerned a "training of Elijah" in the experiences of the prophet; but to admit that there must have been such a training does not oblige us to discover traces of it in the scenes and incidents which are recorded.
Distrusting, for the reasons above suggested, any attempt at a detailed representation of the prophet's inner life, one may seek, and prize, what seems to lie upon the surface of the narrative: faith in Yahweh as God of Nature and as covenant God of the patriarchs and their descendants; consuming "zeal" against the false religion which would displace Yahweh from the place which must be His alone; keen vision to perceive hypocrisy and falsehood, and sharp wit to lash them, with the same boldness and disregard of self that must needs mark the true prophet in any age.
IV. Miracles in the Elijah Narratives
The miraculous element must be admitted to be prominent in the experiences and works of Elijah. It cannot be estimated apart from the general position which the student finds it possible to hold concerning miracles recorded in the Old Testament. The effort to explain away one or another item in a rationalistic way is wholly unprofitable.
Elijah's "ravens" may indeed be converted by a change of vowel-points into "Arabians"; but, in spite of the fact that Orientals would bring offerings of food to a holy hermit, the whole tenor of the narrative favors no other supposition than that its writer meant "ravens," and saw in the event another such exercise of the power of Yahweh over all things as was to be seen in the supply of meal and oil for the prophet and the widow of Zarephath, the fire from heaven, the parting of the Jordan, or the ascension of the prophet by whirlwind into heaven. Some modern critics recognize a different and later source in the narrative of 2 Ki 1; but here again no real difficulty, if any difficulty there be, is removed. The stern prophet who would order the slaughter of the 450 Baal prophets might well call down fire to consume the soldiers of an apostate and a hostile king. The purpose and meaning of the Elijah chapters is to be grasped by those who accept their author's conception of Yahweh, of His power, and of His work in Nature and with men, rather than by those who seek to replace that conception by another.
V. Elijah in the New Testament
Malachi (Malachi 4:5 ) names Elijah as the forerunner of "the great and terrible day of Yahweh," and the expectation founded upon this passage is alluded to in Mark 6:15 parallel Luke 9:8 ; Matthew 16:14 parallel Mark 8:28 parallel Luke 9:19 ; Matthew 27:47-49 parallel Mark 15:35 , Mark 15:36 . The interpretation of Malachi's prophecy foreshadowed in the angelic annunciation to Zacharias Luke 1:17 ), that John the Baptist should do the work of another Elijah, is given on the authority of Jesus Himself (Matthew 11:14 ).
The appearance of Elijah, with Moses, on the Mount of Transfiguration, is recorded in Matthew 17:1-13 parallel Mark 9:2-13 parallel Luke 9:28-36 , and in Matthew 11:14 parallel Mark 9:13 Jesus again identifies the Elijah of Malachi with John the Baptist. The fate of the soldiers of Ahaziah (2 Ki 1) is in the mind of James and John on one occasion ( Luke 9:54 ). Jesus Himself alludes to Elijah and his sojourn in the land of Sidon (Luke 4:25 , Luke 4:26 ). Paul makes use of the prophet's experience at Horeb (Romans 11:2-4 ). In James 5:17 , James 5:18 the work of Elijah affords an instance of the powerful supplication of a righteous man.
IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.