The New International Encyclopædia/Elijah

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ELI'JAH (Heb. Eliyāhū, Yahweh is God; in the Greek form, occurring in the New Testament, Ἠλίας, Elias). A Hebrew prophet of an early type, who, however, helps to inaugurate the movement that leads to the triumph of ethical monotheism among the Hebrews. The story of Elijah is elaborately told, chiefly in connection with the reign of Ahab (I. Kings xvii.-xxi.), but also in connection with that of Ahab's successor, Ahaziah (II. Kings i.-ii.). This narrative is probably based, as is also the story of Elisha (Elijah's successor), on separate literary sources which lay before the compiler of Kings, and which contained a series of stories with legendary embellishments of the earlier prophets and seers that have been rather skillfully woven into the narrative of the kings of Israel and Judah. Elijah, whose home appears to have been in Gilead (though the reading I. Kings xvii. 1 is not certain), may be designated as a Yahweh purist, who resented the amalgamation of the Yahweh cult with the worship of the Canaanitish Baalim (see Baal), and whose fierce opposition was brought to a climax by Ahab's readiness, for political reasons, to introduce the cult of the Tyrian Baal into the domain of Israel. He represents the opposition to all Baal-worship brought to a focus through the step taken by Ahab in adding to the local Baal cults the worship of a Baal originally akin to the Canaanitish Baals, but who as the specific Baal of Tyre outside of Hebrew domain was introduced merely as a symbol of the alliance between Israel and the Tyrian kingdom that was brought about by the marriage of Ahab with the Tyrian princess Jezebel.

Elijah is rather abruptly introduced by the writer as the uncompromising opponent of Ahab, to whom he declares that no rain or dew is to fall save at the Prophet's declaration. A famine ensues, during which time Elijah is miraculously fed by ravens. The famine increases, and at last Ahab is forced to yield and give his consent to a contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The latter call upon Baal to send down the rain, but in vain. When Elijah, however, appeals to Yahweh, lightning comes to consume the bullock which the Prophet had placed on an altar soaked with water. By the order of Elijah, the prophets of Baal are slain at the brook Kishon, and rain is sent by Yahweh. Such is the general character of the Elijah stories, all intended to illustrate the superiority of Yahweh over other gods. Ahab is represented as again led astray by Jezebel, who continues the opposition to Elijah. At times the latter is portrayed nigh unto despair; but he is encouraged by Yahweh, who appears to him in the ‘rustling of the breezes,’ and while threatening destruction to Israel promises escape to those who do not bow the knee to Baal. Even though the story of his life as given in the Bible be considered as having legendary and mythical features, we see in Elijah one of the most striking figures in Hebrew history — one whose attitude foreshadows important changes in the religious life of the people. He shares, however, many of the characteristics of the old-time seer, whose chief function it was to give oracles and to control the moods of the deity in whose service he stood. He wears a primitive dress — a robe of goat's or camel's hair with a leathern girdle. He is accompanied often by a guild of prophets, though at times he mysteriously disappears and seeks the solitude of the wilderness. So, during the great famine, it is in the wilderness that ravens bring him bread and meat every morning and evening, and it is again in a solitary spot of the wilderness beyond Beersheba that his strength is miraculously restored to him through a cake and a cruse of water that suddenly appear and which sustain him for forty days. He is not connected with any sanctuary, and holds no position at the Court. His appearance is as sudden as his disappearance. His courage is unbounded, for those parts of the narrative which picture him denouncing King Ahab — as e.g. for the judicial murder of Naboth, I. Kings xxi. 17-20 (see Ahab) — rest upon historical ground that may be regarded as solid, even though details have been added to color the dramatic situation. The transfiguration of Elijah, which takes place in the presence of his disciple Elisha (II. Kings ii. 11), may be a strange touch illustrating the admixture of myth and legend. A fiery chariot with fiery steeds descends from above, and Elijah rides in the storm to heaven. An old storm myth, in which the rolling of the clouds is taken as portraying the storm-god himself riding in his chariot, may have been incorporated into the story of the old prophet. The mantle of Elijah falls from him as he ascends and it is picked up by Elisha. In this way the indication is given that Elisha is to continue the work of Elijah. See Elisha.