1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elijah

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ELIJAH (a Hebrew name meaning “Yah[weh] is God”), in the Bible, the greatest and sternest of the Hebrew prophets, makes his appearance in the narrative of the Old Testament with an abruptness not out of keeping with his character and work (1 Kings xvii. 1).[1] The first and most important part of his career lay in the reign of Ahab, i.e. during the first half of the 9th century B.C. He is introduced as predicting the drought[2] God was to send upon Israel as a punishment for the apostasy into which Ahab had been led by his heathen wife Jezebel. During the first portion of this period Elijah found a refuge by the brook Cherith, “before the Jordan.” This description leaves it uncertain whether the brook was to the east of Jordan in Elijah’s native Gilead, or—less probably—to the west in Samaria. Here he drank of the brook and was fed by ravens, who night and morning brought him bread and flesh.[3] When this had dried up, the prophet betook himself to Zarephath, a Phoenician town near Sidon. At the gate of the town he met the widow to whom he had been sent, gathering sticks for the preparation of what she believed was to be her last meal. She received the prophet with hospitality, sharing with him her all but exhausted store, in faith of his promise in the name of the God of Israel that the supply would not fail so long as the drought lasted. During this period her son died and was miraculously restored to life in answer to the prayers of the prophet (1 Kings xvii. 8-24).

Elijah emerged from his retirement in the third year, when, the famine having reached its worst, Ahab and his minister Obadiah had themselves to search the land for provender for the royal stables. To the latter Elijah suddenly appeared, and announced his intention of showing himself to Ahab. The king met Elijah with the reproach that he was “the troubler of Israel,” which the prophet boldly flung back upon him who had forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baalim.[4] The retort was accompanied by a challenge—or rather a command—to the king to assemble on Mount Carmel “all Israel” and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. (The four hundred prophets of Asherah have been added later.) From the allusion to an “altar of Jehovah that was broken down” (1 Kings xviii. 30) it has been inferred that Carmel was an ancient sacred place. (On Mount Carmel and Elijah’s connexion with it in history and tradition see Carmel.)

The scene on Carmel is perhaps the grandest in the life of Elijah, or indeed in the whole of the Old Testament. As a typical embodiment for all time of the conflict between superstition and true religion, it is lifted out of the range of mere individual biography into that of spiritual symbolism, and it has accordingly furnished at once a fruitful theme for the religious teacher and a lofty inspiration for the artist. The false prophets were allowed to invoke their god in whatever manner they pleased. The only interruption came in the mocking encouragement of Elijah (1 Kings xviii. 27), a rare instance of grim sarcastic humour occurring in the Bible. Its effect upon the false prophets was to increase their frenzy. The evening came,[5] and the god had made no sign. Elijah now stepped forward with the quiet confidence and dignity that became the prophet and representative of the true God. All Israel is represented symbolically in the twelve stones with which he built the altar; and the water which he poured upon the sacrifice and into the surrounding trench was apparently designed to prevent the suspicion of fraud! In striking contrast to the “vain repetitions” of the false prophets are the simple words with which Elijah makes his prayer to Yahweh. Once only, with the calm assurance of one who knew that his prayer would be answered, he invokes the God of his fathers. The answer comes at once: “The fire of the Lord (Gen. xix. 24, Lev. x. 2) fell and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” So convincing a sign was irresistible; all the people fell on their faces and acknowledged Yahweh as the true God. This was immediately followed by the destruction of the false prophets, slain by Elijah beside the brook Kishon (xviii. 40). The deed, though not without parallel in the Old Testament history, stamps the peculiarly vindictive character of Elijah’s prophetic mission.[6]

On the evening of the day that had witnessed the decisive contest, Elijah proceeded once more to the top of Carmel, and there, with “his face between his knees” (possibly engaged in the prayer referred to in James v. 17 sq.), waited for the long-looked-for blessing. His servant, sent repeatedly to search the sky for signs, returned the seventh time reporting a little cloud arising out of the sea “like a man’s hand.” The sky was speedily full of clouds and a great rain was falling when Ahab, to escape the storm, set out in his chariot for Jezreel. As a proof of Elijah’s supernatural power, it is stated that the prophet, for some unknown object, ran before the chariot to the entrance of Jezreel, a distance of at least 16 m. On being told what had taken place, Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with a vow that ere another day had passed his life would be even as the lives of the prophets of Baal, and the threat was enough to cause him to take to instant flight (xix. 1-3; cp. LXX. in v. 2). The first stage of the journey was to Beersheba, on the southern limits of Judah. Here he left his servant (according to old Jewish tradition, the widow’s son of Zarephath, afterwards the prophet Jonah), and proceeded a day’s journey into the wilderness. Resting under a solitary broom bush (a kind of genista), he gave vent to his disappointment in a prayer for death. By another of those many miraculous interpositions which occur in his history he was twice supplied with food and drink, in the strength of which he journeyed forty days and forty nights until he came to Horeb, where he lodged in a cave.[7] A hole “just large enough for a man’s body” (Stanley), immediately below the summit of Jebel Mūsa, is still pointed out by tradition as the cave of Elijah.

If the scene on Carmel is the grandest, that on Horeb is spiritually the most profound in the story of Elijah (xix. 9 sqq.). Not in the strong wind that brake the rocks in pieces, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice that followed the Lord made himself known. A threefold commission was laid upon him: he was to return to Damascus and anoint Hazael king of Syria; he was to anoint Jehu, the son of Nimshi, as king of Israel in place of Ahab; and as his own successor in the prophetic office he was to anoint Elisha (xix. 15-18).[8]

Leaving Horeb and proceeding northwards along the desert route to Damascus, Elijah met Elisha engaged at the plough probably near his native place, Abel-meholah, in the valley of the Jordan, and by the symbolical act of casting his mantle upon him, consecrated him to the prophetic office. This was the only command of the three which he fulfilled in person; the other two were carried out by his successor.[9] After the call of Elisha the narrative contains no notice of Elijah for several years, although the LXX., by placing 1 Kings xxi. before ch. xx., proceeds at once to the tragic story of Naboth's vineyard (see Jezebel). He is now the champion of freedom and purity of life, like Nathan when he confronted David for the murder of Uriah. Without any indication of whence or how he came, he again appeared, as usual with startling abruptness, in the vineyard when Ahab entered to take possession of it, and pronounced upon the king and his house that awful doom (1 Kings xxi. 17-24) which, though deferred for a time, was ultimately fulfilled to the letter (see Jehu).

With one more denunciation of the house of Ahab, Elijah's function as a messenger of wrath was fully discharged (2 Kings i.). When Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, having injured himself by falling through a lattice, sent to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether he should recover, the prophet was commanded to appear to the messengers and tell them that, for this resort to a false god, the king should die. The effect of his appearance was such that they turned back without attempting to fulfil their errand. Ahaziah despatched a captain with a band of fifty to arrest him. They came upon Elijah seated on "the mount,"—probably Carmel. The imperious terms in which he was summoned to come down were punished by fire from heaven, which descended at the bidding of Elijah and consumed the whole land. A second captain and fifty were despatched, behaved in a similar way, and met the same fate. The leader of a third troop took a humbler tone, sued for mercy, and obtained it. Elijah then went with them to the king, but only to repeat before his face the doom he had already made known to his messengers, which was almost immediately afterwards fulfilled. The spirit, even the style of this narrative, points unmistakably to its being of late origin. It shocks the moral sense with its sanguinary character more than, perhaps, any other Old Testament story.

The only mention of Elijah's name in the book of Chronicles (2 Chronicles xxi. 12-15) is where he is represented as sending a letter of rebuke and denunciation to Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. The chronological difficulties which are involved suggest that the floating traditions of this great personality were easily attached to well-known names whether strictly contemporary or not. It was before the death of Jehoshaphat that the last grand scene in Elijah's life occurred (2 Kings ii., see iii. 1). He had taken up his residence with Elisha at one of the prophetic guilds at Gilgal. His approaching end seems to have been known to the guilds at Bethel and Jericho, both of which they visited in their last journey. At the Jordan, Elijah, wrapping his prophet's mantle together, smote the water with it, and so by a last miracle passed over on dry ground. When they had crossed the master desired the disciple to ask some parting blessing. The request for a double portion (i.e. probably a first-born's portion, Deut. xxi. 17)[10] of the prophet's spirit Elijah characterized as a hard thing; but he promised to grant it if Elisha should see him when he was taken away. The end is told in words of simple sublimity: "And it came to pass, as they still went on and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings ii. 11). It is scarcely necessary to point out, however, that through the figure the narrative evidently means to convey as fact that Elijah passed from earth, not by the gates of death, but by miraculous translation. Such a supernatural close is in perfect harmony with a career into every stage of which the supernatural enters as an essential feature. For whatever explanation may be offered of the miraculous element in Elijah's life, it must obviously be one that accounts not for a few miraculous incidents only, which might be mere excrescences, but for a series of miraculous events so closely connected and so continuous as to form the main thread of the history.

Elijah occupied an altogether peculiar place in later Jewish history and tradition. For the general belief that he should return for the restoration of Israel cf. Mal. iv. 5-6; Matt. xi. 14, xvi. 14; Luke ix. 8; John i. 21, and on the development of the thought see Bousset, Antichrist, s.v., and the Jewish Encyc. vol. v. p. 126. In Mahommedan tradition Elijah is the everlasting youthful el-Khidr or el-Khadir.

Elijah is canonized both in the Greek and in the Latin Churches, his festival being kept in both on the 20th July—the date of his ascension in the nineteenth year of Jehoshaphat, according to Cornelius a Lapide. The natural and most reliable estimate of the career of Elijah is that which is based upon a critical examination of the narratives; see, in addition to Robertson Smith, Prophets of Israel(2), pp. 75 sqq., Cheyne, Hallowing of Criticism, the articles by Addis in Encyc. Bib., and J. Strachan, Hastings' Dict. Bib., H. Gunkel, Elias, Yahve u. Baal (Tübingen, 1906), the literature to Kings, Books of, and the histories referred to in Jews. There is difference of opinion as to the historical importance of both Elijah and Elisha; for a useful summary of views, as also for fuller bibliographical information, see W. R. Harper, Amos and Hosea (Internat. Crit. Comm.), pp. xxxiv.-xlix., and article Hebrew Religion.  (W. R. S.; S. A. C.) 

  1. The text is uncertain. According to the LXX., he was a native of Tishbeh in Gilead; a more natural reading. Klostermann’s conjecture that the original name of his home was Jabesh-Gilead is attractive but unnecessary. His appearance in the narrative, like Melchizedek, “without father, without mother” (Heb. vii. 3), gave rise to various rabbinical traditions, such as that he was Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, returned to earth, or that he was an angel in human form.
  2. Its duration is vaguely stated; from Luke iv. 25, James v. 17, we learn that it lasted three years and a half; but according to Phoenician tradition (Jos. Ant. viii. 13. 2) only one year.
  3. The rationalistic view that the word translated “ravens” should be “Arabians” is improbable. Cheyne’s suggestion that the unknown brook Cherith should be placed to the south of Judah agrees with Josephus (Ant. viii. 13. 2, “he departed into the southern parts”) and with 1 Kings xix. 3, 8; “Jordan” may refer to another river, if it be not a gloss; see Cheyne, Ency. Bib., s.v. “Cherith.”
  4. The sudden introduction of Elijah in xvii. 1 may be accounted for by the supposition that the commencement of the narrative had been omitted by the editor of xvi. 29 sqq. Hence we are not told the cause of Ahab’s hostility towards Elijah, nor is the allusion to Jezebel’s massacre of the prophets (xviii. 3, 13) explained. It would appear from Obadiah’s words in ver. 9 that he himself was in fear of his life. Later tradition supposed he was the captain of 2 Kings i. 13, or that the widow of 2 Kings iv. 1 had been his wife.
  5. The definition of time by the stated oblation (xviii. 29, 36) is very noteworthy (cp. 2 Kings iii. 20).
  6. It is obvious that a purely rationalistic interpretation of the great sign whereby Jahweh manifested himself would be out of place. But there is an interesting parallel in the legend of the kindling of the sacred fire and the igniting of the “thick water” in the time of Nehemiah (2 Macc. i. 18-36). Elsewhere, there were sacred fires kindled by the aid of magical invocations (e.g. Hypaepa, Pausanias v. 27. 3).
  7. Yahweh is here supposed to have his seat on the ancient mountain. “It was the God of the Exodus to whom he appealed, the ancient King of Israel in the journeyings through the wilderness.” For the cave, cp. Ex. xxxiii. 22.
  8. The theophany is clearly no rebuke to an impatient prophet, nor a lesson that the kingdom of heaven was to be built up by the slow and gentle operation of spiritual forces. It expresses the spirituality of Yahweh in a way that indicates a marked advance in the conception of his nature. See Skinner, Century Bible, "Kings," ad loc.
  9. The geographical indications imply that in one account the journey to Damascus and the anointing of Hazael and Jehu must have intervened, and were omitted because another account ascribed these acts to Elisha (2 Kings viii. ix.). In the latter we possess a more historical account of the anointing of Jehu, and Robertson Smith observes: "When the history in 1 Kings represents Elijah as personally commissioned to inaugurate [the revolution] by anointing Jehu and Hazael as well as Elisha, we see that the author's design is to gather up the whole contest between Yahweh and Baal in an ideal picture of Elijah and his work" (Ency. Brit. (9) art. Kings, vol. xiv. p. 85).
  10. Understood in Eccles. xlviii. 12 (Heb.) to mean that Elisha was twice as great as Elijah.