views updated May 21 2018


ELIJAH (mid-ninth century bce), or, in Hebrew, Eliyyahu, was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel during the reigns of Ahab and Ahaziah and a leader in the opposition to the worship of Baal in Israel.

Historicity of Elijah

While few scholars doubt the existence of Elijah as a religious figure of great personal dynamism and conservative zeal and as the leader of resistance to the rise of Baal worship in Israel in the ninth century bce, the biblical presentation of the prophet cannot be taken as historical documentation of his activity. His career is presented through the eyes of popular legend and subsequent theological reflection, which consider him a personality of heroic proportions. In this process his actions and relations to the people and the king became stereotyped, and the presentation of his behavior, paradigmatic. The politics of the reign of Ahab (c. 869850 bce) provided an appropriate occasion for cultural and religious conflict between conservative elements in Israel and the foreign Phoenician influence at the court in Samaria. But how closely the portrayal of that controversy in the biblical story of Elijah corresponds to the actual situation is an issue that cannot be easily resolved.

Literary Sources

The reason for the difficulty in assessing the biblical figure of Elijah lies in the nature of the literary sources that are contained in 1 Kings 1719 and 21 and 2 Kings 12. (An additional story in 2 Chronicles 21:1215 about a letter from Elijah to Jehoram, king of Judah, is the Chronicler's invention and cannot be taken seriously as part of the Elijah tradition.) The stories about Elijah in Kings do not represent a unified tradition or the work of one author. Episodes narrated in 1 Kings 20 and 22, involving two other prophets, interrupt the account of Elijah's career and give a somewhat different view of Ahab and the court. But even when these are bracketed, the resulting presentation can hardly be derived from one literary source or author. In fact, at least three separate sources may be identified: (1) 1 Kings 1719, usually regarded as the oldest story and the nucleus of the Elijah tradition; (2) 1 Kings 21 and 2 Kings 1, stories composed by the historian of Kings or extensively edited by him; and (3) 2 Kings 2, an account of the transition of the prophetic office to Elisha, which is regarded as belonging to the collection of Elisha stories.

Biblical Tradition

The historian's view of Elijah in 1 Kings 21 and 2 Kings 1 is stereotyped. It represents the prophet as a spokesperson for the deity in issuing a reprimand and a word of judgment upon the king; Elijah's role here is similar to the role of other prophets in this source. The remarks in 2 Kings 1:916 about Elijah calling down fire from heaven upon the king's soldiers present the prophet in a somewhat different role, that is, as a wonder-worker. But these verses seem superfluous; because nothing is altered by this activity, the unit has often been viewed as a later addition. Only the description of Elijah as an ascetic who wore haircloth and a leather girdle (2 Kgs. 1:8) suggests a distinctive tradition about an unusual personality. What is noteworthy, however, is that the historian's treatment of Elijah in 1 Kings 21 and 2 Kings 1 does not reflect any knowledge of the stories contained in 1 Kings 1719 or any suggestion of Elijah's miraculous powers.

The impression of Elijah as a major personality in Israelite history is based upon the stories in 1 Kings 1719. Here Elijah is a recluse and a solitary figure fed by ravens in a remote region, as well as a wonder-worker who can withhold or bring rain "by my word," who can feed a starving widow's family, and who can raise the widow's son from the dead. These stories are based upon the prophetic legend, some of them paralleling similar legends about Elisha. But all the scenes and episodes in 1 Kings 1719, whatever their origin, have been subordinated to the purpose of portraying the theological theme "Yahveh is God," which is also the meaning of Elijah's name.

The affirmation that Yahveh is God is demonstrated first of all by the announcement of the drought and the final coming of the rain, the events that frame and provide the background for all the scenes within chapters 17 and 18. Each episode represents a contest between Yahveh, the God of Israel, and Baal, god of the Phoenicians, whose worshipers regard him as god of the storm and the giver of rain and fertility. The contest comes to a head on Mount Carmel when the 450 prophets of Baal are unable to produce fire from heaven for their altar, while Elijah, the single prophet of Yahveh, produces fire for his altar and wins the people over. The prophets of Baal are slain, and then comes the rain. This struggle between Yahveh and Baal is not just for territory but is meant to convince Israel that Yahveh alone is God. The issue in the story is monotheism.

The flight of the prophet to Mount Horeb (1 Kgs. 19) takes up the theme of the faithful remnant who remains true to Yahveh as the only God in the face of great adversity. For this purpose the fear-inspiring prophet now becomes the fearful fugitive who must learn that God is not present to his people primarily in the theophany of a storm (as with Baal) but in the quiet voice of inner conviction. The faithful remnant are ultimately vindicated by the subsequent events of history.

Many scholars regard the stories in 1 Kings 1719 as early, even of the ninth century, and as an independent composition prior to its incorporation into the history of Kings. This, however, seems unlikely, because these chapters reflect nothing of the historian's editing and seem to be unknown to him. It is more plausible to suggest that 1 Kings 1719 is a later addition to the history of Kings. In it the author has portrayed the life of the prophet in such a way as to make him the medium for a theological message, one that expresses the major concerns of the exilic period. Whatever traditions lie behind these stories, they are now so thoroughly reshaped by the writer's theological interests that they cannot be recovered by a tradition history.

The story of Elijah's ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire while Elisha looks on and receives a portion of his spirit (2 Kgs. 2) presupposes both the reputation of Elijah as an exceptional "man of God" and the subsequent career of Elisha as wonder-worker. It was probably composed to bridge the two bodies of tradition but belongs more closely to the Elisha stories.

The manner of Elijah's ascension is so remarkable within the biblical tradition that it calls for some comment. Scholars have been quick to note that the chariot and horses of fire are strongly reminiscent of the fiery chariot of the sun so widely attested in antiquity and even in the Hebrew scriptures (2 Kgs. 23:11). Does this account suggest that Elijah was transported by the deity himself to a realm beyond death? Or is this an attempt to assimilate a foreign religious symbol by association with a great figure in Israel's own tradition? Whatever the explanation, the story is so exceptional in the Bible that it sets Elijah, along with Moses and Enoch, quite apart from all other mortals as one who did not die.

Finally, in Malachi 3:2324 (Eng. version 4:56) Elijah is viewed as returning to Israel to bring the Israelites to repentance before the day of judgment. Perhaps this return is based upon the notion that Elijah never actually experienced death.

Elijah in the New Testament

The New Testament places special emphasis upon Elijah as the forerunner of the messianic age. It seems to have regarded John the Baptist and his ministry of repentance as performing in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk. 1:17; cf. Mt. 11:14, 17:1013) and as an appropriate preparation for the ministry of Jesus as the Messiah. Yet the writer of John's gospel has John the Baptist reject his identification with Elijah (Jn. 1:21) so as not to detract from the importance of Jesus' ministry.

Elijah also appears in a vision together with Moses at the scene of Jesus' transfiguration to speak about Jesus' own "departure" (Mt. 17:34, Mk. 9:45, Lk. 9:3031). The fact that the scene is associated with prayer and a trancelike experience suggests a connection with a mystical tradition.

Elijah in Postbiblical Judaism

The biblical tradition of Elijah received a great deal of attention in Judaism: in the apocalyptic tradition, in rabbinic aggadah, in Jewish mysticism, and in folklore (see Ginzberg, 19091938). It is remarkable how the figure of Elijah could become all things to all people.

As in Christianity, Elijah was the forerunner of the messianic age, the herald of Israel's redemption (Ginzberg, 19091938, pp. 233235). He would cooperate with the Messiah as a conqueror of the world powers, he would solve all the halakhic problems that still remained to be dealt with (B.T., Meg. 15b; Sheq. 2.5; B.M. 3.45), and as the one to blow the last trumpet, he would be responsible for the resurrection of the dead. He would also restore the lost furnishings of the Temple and provide for the anointing of the Messiah (Mekhiltaʾ de-Rabbi Shimʿon bar Yoʾai 51b).

Not only is Elijah thought of in connection with the future, but he also continues to play an active role in this present age by virtue of the fact that he never actually died. Because he ascended to heaven in a miraculous way and was translated into a realm of existence akin to that of a divine being or angel, he seems to have been regarded as a special heavenly emissary who could appear in human form to righteous persons either to instruct them or to aid them in time of trouble (see Ginzberg, 19091938, pp. 201203). The mystical tradition went so far as to suggest that Elijah was not human but an angel who appeared on earth for a time in human form. Perhaps as a counter to excessive veneration of the prophet, some rabbis argued that Elijah had died (B. T., Suk. 5a) in spite of the biblical tradition about his ascension. They were also critical of some aspects of his ministry (B.T., B.M. 85b; Sg. Rab. 1.6.1). But any efforts to downplay the prophet's reputation seem to have had little effect.

Elijah's mediation between the heavenly realm and the mundane world expressed itself in a variety of ways. To those engrossed in the study of the law Elijah might appear in a vision or dream as their counselor or teacher because he was known for his zeal for the law and the covenant (Ginzberg, 19091938, pp. 217223). He was often compared with Moses, especially as one who had also received a revelation of God at Mount Horeb. A number of sayings in the Talmud are attributed to a "school of Elijah," perhaps a school founded in his honor. But in later times this notion developed into a large collection of midrashim, Tanna de-vei Eliyyahu (also known as Seder Eliyyahu Rabbah and Zuaʾ ), which was believed to stem in some way from Elijah himself.

To the mystics of the Qabbalah Elijah was also a mystagogue who had access to the heavenly realm and could reveal its secrets (Ginzberg, 19091938, pp. 229233). To others Elijah was a psychopomp who transported the souls of the righteous to paradise and the wicked to perdition (Pirqei de-Rabbi Eliʿezer 15). In Jewish folklore Elijah was regarded as one who still roamed the earth in the guise of a beggar or a peasant performing wondrous deeds to help the poor and the needy (Ginzberg, 19091938, pp. 202211). On this level too Elijah became associated with the veneration of a number of places, either because they were identified with events in the biblical tradition or because they were places where Elijah had appeared to later generations and performed his miracles.

A number of customs are also connected with the figure of Elijah. At the ceremony of circumcision a chair is set for him in order to invoke his presence as "angel of the covenant" of Abraham to oversee and, by proxy, to carry out the requirements of the law. Elijah was also regarded as healer and guardian of the newborn because of his care for the widow's son. In this respect amulets containing the name of the prophet were good luck charms. At the Passover Seder a cup of wine is placed on the table as the cup of Elijah and is not drunk. This was interpreted eschatologically as an anticipation of the final deliverance from bondage.


There are few detailed monographs in English on the Elijah tradition. In German the standard treatments are Georg Fohrer's Elia, 2d ed. (Zurich, 1968); and Odil H. Steck's Überlieferung und Zeitgeschichte in den Elia-Erzählungen (Neukirchen, 1968). Two shorter essays worthy of mention are Harold H. Rowley's "Elijah on Mount Carmel," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library (Manchester) 43 (1960): 190219, reprinted in his Men of God (New York, 1963); and Ernst Würthwein's "Elijah at Horeb: Reflections on 1 Kings 19.918," in Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies, edited by John I. Durham and J. Roy Porter (London, 1970), pp. 152166.

For a sociological approach to the tradition, see Robert R. Wilson's Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, 1980), pp. 192200. For a psychological perspective, see Aaron Wiener's The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism: A Depth-Psychological Study (East Brunswick, N.J., 1978).

An older but very useful commentary is the one by James A. Montgomery, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Kings, edited by Henry S. Gehman (New York, 1951). Materials on the biblical tradition of Elijah are collected in Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, 1913), pp. 189235, with notes in vol. 6, pp. 316342. Especially helpful for materials on the later Jewish and Christian traditions are the articles under "Elijah" in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971) and those under "Elia" in Theologische Realenzyklopädie (New York, 1982). This last work has a very full and up-to-date bibliography.

New Sources

Coote, Robert B., ed. Elijah and Elisha in Socioliterary Perspective. Atlanta, 1992.

Keinänen, Jyrki. Traditions in Collision: A Literary and Redaction-Critical Study on the Elijah Narratives 1 Kings 1719. Publications of the Finnish Exegetical Society, no. 80. Helsinki, 2001.

Merchant, William Moelwyn. Fire from the Heights. Princeton Theological Monograph Series, no. 27. Allison Park, Penn., 1991.

Otto, Susanne. "The Composition of the Elijah-Elisha Stories and the Deuteronomistic History." JSOT 27 (2003): 487508.

Speyr, Adrienne von. Elijah. Translated by Brian McNeil. San Francisco, 1990.

John Van Seters (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 27 2018


ELIJAH (Heb. אֵלִיָּהוּ, also אֵלִיָּה), Israelite prophet active in Israel in the reigns of *Ahab and Ahaziah (ninth century b.c.e.). In the opinion of some scholars, the designation "the Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead" (i Kings 17:1) supports the hypothesis that Elijah did not live in one specific place in Gilead but was a member of either the *Kenites or the *Rechabites, sects which led a nomadic existence. These scholars detect even in his resolute war against *Baal and in his zeal for Yahweh a line of conduct which they believe was characteristic of the Kenites and Rechabites but not of the nation at large. (For the role of Jehonadab son of Rechab in Jehu's purge of Baal, see ii Kings 10:15–17.) But the accounts of Elijah's wanderings (i Kings 17) describe his withdrawal from society as a matter not of principle but of necessity (persecution, famine). In addition, the reading "of the inhabitants of Gilead" is suspect. It is impossible to decide whether "Elijah" was a cognomen symbolizing the prophet's mission: Eli-Jahu ("yhwh is God"), or whether he had been given that name by parents zealous for Yahweh. Elijah brought matters to a head by stressing the idea of zeal for yhwh, which unconditionally opposed the toleration of any cult (especially any official cult) other than that of yhwh in Israel. This extremist position, summed up in the sentence "I have been moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts" (i Kings 19:10, 14), was a minority opinion among Israelites, who evidently could comfortably serve Yahweh and Baal (i Kings 18:21), let alone intrinsically different from the polytheistic outlook, which never opposed in principle the blending of different religious cults, or their separate existence side by side. Even *Jezebel, who fought against zealots like Elijah and is accused of killing the Yahweh prophets (i Kings 18:13), was probably not opposed to the worship of Yahweh per se, but to the demand that he be worshipped exclusively at the expense of Baal. Ahab, in fact, gave his sons the names Ahaz-iah and Jeho-ram, which are compounded with the name of the national god yhwh. For the "Yahweh-alone" zealots, it was insufficient to worship Yahweh as the national god while tolerating others. The attitude of Elijah and those of like mind was liable to impair relations between Israel and her neighbors. Because of this, Elijah's activity encountered opposition from the royal court whose policy was to cultivate economic ties with Israel's neighbors and specifically with Tyre. Ahab saw no more harm in showing tolerance toward the religion of the people of Tyre and establishing a place of worship in Samaria than did Solomon who had acted similarly in behalf of his foreign wives (i Kings 11:7–8). But Elijah, whose attitude to the Sidonians themselves was not hostile (cf. the incident at Zarephath, which belonged to Sidon, i Kings 17:8–16), believed that it was his people's obligation to preserve within its own borders a "pure" religious cult that did not recognize any other gods but Yahweh. Hence, his vehement opposition to the cults of Baal and *Asherah of Sidonx, supported by the royal court.

The most dramatic point of Elijah's activity was the confrontation on Mount Carmel. In response to Elijah's demands, Ahab assembled "all Israel unto Mount Carmel" together with 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah (i Kings 18:19). In their presence and that of the king, Elijah turned to the people: "How long will you keep limping between the two boughs? [Thus Joseph Caspi] If Yahweh is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him" (18:21). While the priests of Baal were offering up their sacrifices and calling "O Baal hear us," cutting themselves with knives and lances until the blood gushed out, Elijah mockingly suggested that they cry more loudly, since their god might be asleep or his attention otherwise engaged. Only after their prolonged pleas and cries proved of no avail did Elijah step forward to repair the demolished altar of Yahweh, make all the necessary preparations for the sacrifice, and offer up a short prayer. According to the biblical narrative, fire immediately descended from heaven, consuming the burnt sacrifice, and all the people of Israel present fell on their faces chanting, "Yahweh, He is the God; Yahweh, He is the God." At Elijah's command those present attacked and killed the prophets of Baal. The king showed no sign of opposition to Elijah's actions. This story is interwoven with another occurrence, which has a historical foundation, connected with the drought, the beginning and end of which were prophesied by Elijah. A short while after the events on Mount Carmel, the sky became black with clouds and heavy rain began to fall (i Kings 18:45). This was seen by Elijah and his followers as a sign that God had forgiven the repentant people their sin of Baal-worship which had been the cause of the drought (cf. i Kings 17:1). The Tyrian chronicle of Menander, which is generally reliable (Ant., 8:323–4), confirms that a drought occurred at that time, though it ascribes the rains to the prayers of Ethbaal (Ithobal) of Tyre, Ahab's father-in-law.

Elijah triumphed over the adversaries of Yahweh on the border of Tyre and Israel, and the altar on Mount Carmel remained in existence for some time (ii Kings 2:25; 4:25). However, Jezebel was furious over the massacre of the prophets of Baal and launched a bloody war against Elijah and his followers, According to i Kings 19, Elijah was forced to flee to the desert south of Beersheba, where, tired and disheartened, he longed to die. However, while he was lying in a mood of despair under a broom bush, an angel appeared, strengthened Elijah with food and drink, and urged him to continue his journey. Elijah traveled 40 days until he reached Mount Horeb. There, in the place where the Lord had revealed Himself to Moses, He appeared to Elijah. The description of the revelation to Elijah differs from similar revelations which the Bible recounts as taking place on Mount Sinai. Fearful phenomena such as tempests, fire, and a general cacophony accompanied the revelation there also, but the Bible stresses specifically that these mighty forces appeared before the revelation of the Lord; that the Lord did not reveal Himself within them but rather in a still, small voice.

It is the task of the prophet to listen to the voice of God and pass on its message to the people. Since Elijah had fulfilled his prophetic task and the people had failed to stand by him in his war against Jezebel, retribution was merely a matter of time. The instruments of God's retribution were to be *Hazael, who was to assume power in Syria; *Jehu, the future king of Israel; and *Elisha, Elijah's successor. Elijah was commanded to anoint all three (i Kings 19:15–16), but the narrative makes it clear that he only appointed Elisha as a prophet and passed on to him the task of anointing Hazael and Jehu. Elisha, in turn, anointed only Hazael, and Jehu was anointed by one of the "sons of the prophets" at the behest of Elisha. All these actions, however, were carried out in the spirit of Elijah's ideals, with the aim of uprooting the worship of Baal in Israel. Despite the sharp conflict between Elijah and the royal palace over Baal-worship, there is no conclusive evidence that because of this Elijah prophesied the destruction of Ahab's house; in fact, the accusation of Baal-worship was leveled equally against the masses and the royal household. What finally caused Elijah to prophesy the complete destruction of the House of Ahab was the crime committed against *Naboth.

Elijah's last deed in the days of Ahaziah son of Ahab also reflects his zeal for the Lord. When Ahaziah fell ill and sent to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether or not he would recover, his messengers were intercepted by Elijah who asked, "Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub the god of Ekron? Now therefore, thus says the Lord, you shall not come down from the bed which you have mounted, but shall surely die" (ii Kings 1:3–4). In contrast to his relations with Ahab, on this occasion Elijah had no dealings with the king; he passed his judgment on to the king and after a short while his words were fulfilled. It seems that the difference lay in the nature of the king's fault – open consultation of a foreign god, a sin which Ahab never committed. The account in ii Kings 1–2 makes it difficult to establish whether Elijah's activity ceased during the reign of Ahaziah or in that of his brother and successor Jehoram. According to ii Chronicles 21:12, Elijah sent a letter to Jehoram son of *Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. It is likely however that the letter was sent while Jehoram was acting as regent for Jehoshaphat (according to Thiele, 853–848 b.c.e.), and it is therefore possible that the event occurred in the lifetime of Ahab. By the time Jehoram of Judah was king in his own right, Elisha had succeeded Elijah. Elijah's standing was bolstered by wonder-tales. He was fed bread and meat by ravens (i Kings 17:6) at the divine command. As an ish-elohim ("Man of God," i.e, divine messenger, he miraculously caused a jar of flour and a jug of oil to keep on producing for the benefit of a poor woman whose son he subsequently raised from the dead (i Kings 17:7–24). It was believed that a divine wind could take him from one place to another (i Kings 18:11). He could bring rain and then, seized by the hand of yhwh, outrun the royal chariot from Mount Carmel to Jezreel (i Kings 18:46). That being the case, we should not be surprised that Elijah did not die but was carried to heaven in a chariot and horses of fire (ii Kings 2:1–11). Elijah was well-known by his gait and manner of dress. Ahaziah's envoys described him as wearing "a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins" (ii Kings 1:8). Miraculous powers were attributed to Elijah's cloak. As Elijah ascended to heaven, his cloak dropped to the ground and with its help Elisha too performed miracles (ibid. 2:8, 13). ii Chr. 21:12–15 expands on Elijah's activity by attributing to the prophet a letter to King Jehoram of Judah prophesying dire punishment for worshipping foreign gods and for fratricide. The prophecy at the end of Malachi (3:23) that the prophet Elijah would be sent to the people before the coming of "the great and fearful day of yhwh" came within Judaism to mean that Elijah would herald the coming of the *Messiah. Some early Christians, accordingly, identified *John the Baptist with Elijah (Matt. 11:14; 17:10–13).

[Joshua Gutmann /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Aggadah

The deep impression left by Elijah's revolutionary ministry and his miraculous translation to heaven in a "chariot of fire" drawn by "horses of fire" (ii Kings 2:11) had already made Elijah a legendary figure in biblical times. Malachi's final prophecy that Elijah would be sent by God "before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord," so that he may "turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers" (Mal. 3:23ff.), became the point of departure for the subsequent association of Elijah with the Messianic age.

Ben Sira (c. 200 b.c.e.), in his eulogy of Elijah, attributed the future restoration of "the tribes of Jacob" to him (Ecclus. 48:10). By the first century c.e., it was taken for granted that Elijah was to be the precursor and herald of the Messiah. Jesus himself was at first believed to be Elijah, but when he revealed his own messianic claim, he proclaimed John the Baptist as having been the reincarnated Elijah (Matt. 11:10ff.; 17:10ff.; Mark 9:11ff.).

It was perhaps against this Christian and sectarian tendency to associate Elijah with religiously dubious and politically dangerous movements that attempts were made to counter the excessive veneration accorded to Elijah among apocalyptic-sectarian and Christian circles. It was, accordingly, denied that Elijah had ever gone up to heaven (Suk. 5a), biblical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Elijah's habit of revealing divine secrets to pious mortals (cf. bm 59b) once earned him a severe punishment of 60 lashes of fire (bm 85b). Elijah's denunciation of Israel for having forsaken the divine covenant (cf. i Kings 19:10, 14) had so angered God that He dismissed Elijah from His service and appointed Elisha in his place (Song R. 1:6, no. 1; cf. i Kings 19:16). Above all, the scope of Elijah's future tasks was limited to the solution of certain halakhic problems (Eduy. 8:7; Tosef., Eduy. 3:4). Subsequently, too, it was believed that "when Elijah comes, he will tell us" (Ber. 35b; cf. Men. 45a; Bek. 24a). He was indeed supposed to have his own court (Av. Zar. 36a), and legal problems which defied solution were to be referred to him (Shek. 2:5; bm 1:8; 2:8; 3:4–5; Men. 63a). Nevertheless, the predominant tannaitic view was that Elijah was not only to solve halakhic disputes, but also to be the great peacemaker in the world (Eduy. 8:7).

Rabbis and pious men endowed with a mystical frame of mind established a spiritual communion with Elijah and were reputed to have been guided by him in their studies (cf. Tannade-Vei Eliyahu, ed. M. Friedmann, 27ff.; Ginzberg, Legends, 4 (1913), 217–23). Nine aggadic beraitot in the Talmud are introduced by the words "It was taught at Elijah's school" (cf. Friedmann op. cit. 44ff. for a complete list). Although these beraitot may have originated from a compilation by a tanna called Elijah (Ginzberg, Legends, 6 (1928), 330, n. 70) or from a school called after Elijah (Friedmann, op. cit., 60–61), they were soon attributed to the prophet. In post-talmudic times, the Midrash Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu ("It was taught at Elijah's school") was likewise believed to have emanated from the prophet's own "school."

Despite such relatively restricted rules assigned to Elijah by the rabbis, his primary task of heralding the redemption of Israel was never forgotten (cf. also the third benediction after the reading of the haftarah), and in the post-talmudic era it assumed primary importance in Jewish eschatology (cf. pr 35:161). Even earlier, Elijah appears almost invariably in the role of one who is deeply concerned about Israel's suffering and exile, and who does what he can to speed the day of deliverance. In a beautiful tannaitic aggadah, R. Yose relates how Elijah once told him that "whenever Israelites enter synagogues and houses of study… the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it were shakes His head and says: Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house! Woe to the father who exiled his children, and woe to the children who are banished from their father's table" (Ber. 3a).

R. Simeon b. Yoḥai, a relentless opponent of Roman rule who had to flee from Roman persecution, was freed from his hiding place in a cave by Elijah's announcement that the emperor had died (Shab. 33b). As the carrier of good tidings for Israel (cf. the Grace after Meals, in which Elijah is assigned the function of bringing good news to the Jewish people), Elijah inevitably became the antithesis of Rome and all it stood for. Thus, he sharply rebuked R. Ishmael b. Yose who had undertaken police work on behalf of the Romans: "How long will you deliver the people of our God for execution?" (bm 83b–84a). Similarly, when the pious R. Joshua b. Levi, who was said to have been in constant communication with Elijah (cf. Sanh. 98a; Mak. 11a; Gen. R. 35:2), persuaded a Jew sought by the Roman authorities to give himself up, thereby saving the entire Jewish community of Lydda from destruction, Elijah shunned R. Joshua for about 30 days. Later he explained that he could not be "a companion to informers": and although R. Joshua had acted according to mishnaic law, Elijah maintained that "this should have been done by others, not by you" (tj, Ter. 8:10, 46b; Gen. R. 94:9, end).

On another occasion, Elijah told R. Joshua b. Levi that the Messiah was to be found among the beggars of Rome ready and willing to redeem Israel, although, as he subsequently explained, only if they repented and obeyed God (Sanh. 98a). A late Midrash, however, maintained that Israel would repent only when Elijah made his public appearance (pdre 43, end).

Elijah's association with the Messiah became more pronounced in the late talmudic and post-talmudic ages. Increasingly, Elijah becomes not only a precursor, but an active partner of the Messiah. Both Elijah and the Messiah are busy recording the good deeds of the righteous, no doubt with a view to hastening the day of Israel's redemption (Lev. R. 34:8; Ruth R. 5:6). Ultimately, Elijah and the Messiah are to be among four world conquerors (Song R. 2:13, no. 4); though, according to one Midrash, Elijah himself is destined to overthrow the foundations of the heathen (Gen. R. 71:9). Elijah is, indeed, accorded the exclusive privilege of bringing about the resurrection of the dead (Sot. 9:15 end; cf. Song R. 1:1, no. 9) – no doubt because of his achievement in reviving the son of the widow of Zarephath (i Kings 17:17ff.).

Elijah's solicitude for Israel's safety was also demonstrated in the past. Thus, when Haman was threatening to exterminate the Jews, Elijah was said to have intervened with the Patriarchs and with Moses to secure their intercession with the Almighty. At the decisive moment he appeared in the guise of Harbonah to denounce Haman (Esth. R. 7:13; 10:9). Likewise, at the time of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Elijah was searching among those who were languishing with hunger in the hope of saving those who might renounce idolatry (Sanh. 63b).

Of equal concern to Elijah were individual pious Jews who happened to be in trouble. Among those whose lives were saved or whose health was restored by Elijah's timely appearance in various guises were Nahum of Gimzo (Ta'an. 21a; Sanh. 109a), R. Meir (Av. Zar. 18b), R. Eleazar b. Perata (Av. Zar. 17b), Judah ha-Nasi (tj, Kil. 9:4, 32b; Gen. R. 33:3; 96:5), R. Shila (Ber. 58a), R. Kahana (Kid. 40a), and many others (cf. also Matt. 27:47ff., and see Mark 15:35–36 for similar expectations in connection with Jesus' crucifixion). Innumerable legends and stories are still told of the poor and hopeless being aided by Elijah.

It was because of Elijah's great love for Israel that he had boldly assumed an attitude of insolence toward God, Whom he blamed for turning their hearts away from Him (cf. i Kings 18:37). God, however, eventually agreed with him (Ber. 31b–32a). The furious zeal displayed by Elijah on that occasion (cf. i Kings 18:40; 19:10, 14) was so similar to that shown by Aaron's grandson Phinehas (cf. Num. 25:7ff.; Ps. 106:30) that in rabbinic literature the two are often identified, either expressly or by implication (pdre 47; cf. bm 114a–b; Kid. 70a; Num. R. 21:3; Targ. Yer., Num. 25:12), and both are, accordingly, regarded as immortal (bb 121b; Gen. R. 21:5; 25:1; Num. R. 21:3).

Elijah is often associated with Moses in both rabbinic and Christian literature – first because Elijah was to inaugurate Israel's future redemption just as Moses had liberated the Israelites from Egyptian bondage; second, because his career resembled that of Moses' inasmuch as both were granted revelations at Mount Sinai in somewhat similar circumstances (Ex. 3:2; 19:16ff.; 20:18; Deut. 4:11ff., 33ff.; i Kings 19:11–12); and since, moreover, Malachi's admonition to "remember the law of Moses" and his prediction of the future mission of Elijah are in close juxtaposition (Mal. 3:22–24). Elijah appears as a disciple and follower of Moses and also as a fellow prophet active in the same cause of delivering Israel, in which both are to participate on the advent of the messianic age (Tosef., Sot. 4:7; Tosef., Eduy. 3:4; Sot. 13a; tj, Sanh. 10:1, 28a; Ex. R. 44:1; Num. R. 18:12; Lam. R. 1:2, no. 23; Matt. 17:3ff.; Mark 9:4ff.; Luke 9:30ff. et al. For a detailed comparison of the careers of Moses and Elijah, see pr 4:13).

[Moses Aberbach]

In Mysticism

According to *Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon, Elijah belongs to the angels who advocated the creation of man (Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim, 24:14); accordingly, Elijah is an angel who dwelt only temporarily on earth as a human being, before again ascending to heaven. Moses *Cordovero compares Elijah's life with the fate of Enoch (ibid., 24:13), as the two are the only biblical personages who were carried off from earthly life in an extraordinary manner. The further fate of Elijah and Enoch in heaven is imaginatively described by Jewish mystics. While Enoch's body is consumed by fire and he himself is changed into *Metatron, the highest angel, Elijah remains after his ascension in possession of his earthly shape, which is why he can maintain his association with the human world and, when necessary, reappear on earth. Though his body is not made from dust like that of human beings but came from the tree of life, it enables him to carry out God's commands and miracles (ibid.; Zohar, 1:29a; 2:197a; Yalk. R. 27). Therefore, unlike Enoch who is known only as the archangel Metatron, Elijah keeps his name under which he intervenes in the fate of the Jewish people. The *Zohar, like the Talmud, tells of devout men to whom Elijah is supposed to have revealed himself. In the later mystic literature, Elijah's comments on the secrets of the Torah are extremely frequent. Elijah prophesied the births of Isaac *Luria and *Israel b. Eliezer Baal Shem Tov to their parents. He appeared frequently to Israel Baal Shem Tov, and also played an important part in the legends of the ẓaddikim.

[Samuel Abba Horodezky]

In Jewish Folklore

Many of the legends and stories in written and oral Jewish folk literature are spun around biblical and post-biblical (historical) figures and legendary characters. Among these Elijah is a favorite hero and overshadows other popular folklore protagonists: e.g., Moses, King David, King Solomon, Maimonides, and such local sages as R. Shalom *Shabbazi of Yemen, R. Ḥayyim b. Moses *Attar of Morocco, R. Israel b. Eliezer Baal Shem Tov of the ḥasidic legend, and others. The redemptive motif associated with Elijah in rabbinic literature as the herald of the future redemption of Israel and of the messianic era is not stressed in folklore; he is rather portrayed as the heavenly emissary sent on earth to combat social injustice. He rewards the poor who are hospitable and punishes the greedy rich. In his attempts to right wrongs, he seeks to bridge the gap of social inequality and does not hesitate to punish the unjust, regardless of their status even if they be rabbis or respected communal leaders. In Joseph Shabbethai Farḥi's collection of folktales, Oseh Pele (vol. 2 (1954), 114), Elijah strangles the local rabbi while the latter rests after the * seder. The prophet admonishes the rabbi: "You collected all the money as charity, but you distributed it according to your own will. The cries [of the needy] reached heaven and came before God, the Almighty…" Many of the stories about Elijah are outcries of the wretched and unfortunate against the proud and oppressive elements in the Jewish community and were used by the authors as a vehicle for social protest. At the same time, these legends are a type of comfort and solace to the poor. Elijah appears especially on the eve of *Passover when he punishes the misers and provides the despairing poor with the necessaries to prepare the seder. His activities continue late into the seder night; the Cup of Elijah is placed in the center of the festive table and the prophet is expected to announce the redeemer. Elijah also alleviates the burdens of Jewish communities suffering from religious and national persecution, and exposes *blood libels – mainly occurring on Passover – as absurd and perfidious calumnies.

Elijah's benign acts and the miracles he performs extend beyond the specifically Jewish sphere and have their parallel in other folklore. A recurrent theme in the Elijah legends is the prophet's ability to ward off the *Angel of Death from the young fated to die (a motif rooted in the biblical revival story); this he usually does by advising them to study the Torah. A healing agent, he also blesses the barren with fertility and is able to interpret occult events and visions described in cryptic passages in the Torah and in the Talmud. Another prevalent Elijah motif is the prophet's task to act as provider, based on his biblical endowment to make rain. He confers an inexhaustible barrel of oil on Mayer Amschel Rothschild, distributes magic money-making boxes to the poor but deprives them of this heavenly gift when they become uncharitable and stop giving alms. In the Yiddish song "God of Abraham," chanted by East European Jewish women at the termination of the Sabbath, Elijah is heralded as Israel's redeemer, but since the song is chanted at the beginning of the new week, it also stresses his role as provider. Since Elijah did not die, and is thought to wander the earth, usually disguised as a poor man, a beggar, or a gentile peasant, there are those who are eager to meet him, or at least to see him in a dream (Gillui Eliyahu, "Elijah's revelation"). The practical Kabbalah and Jewish folk beliefs describe ways to bring this about. His name is, therefore, also inscribed on many amulets, especially in the areas influenced by Islamic culture.

The stories and beliefs revolving around Elijah were the subject of many *chapbooks composed in Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic dialects. All these legends testify not only to the popularity of the prophet among all Jewish communities, but also reveal the close affinity in Jewish folklore between written and oral literature and customs (see *Elijah, Chair of; *Elijah, Cup of). Many of the customs associated with Elijah can be explained by etiological tales. Their setting is usually an Elijah cave or shrine found on Mount Sinai, at Haifa, Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, etc. The miracles in these tales, which are mainly of a healing nature, often give the name and describe the origin of the cave. Elijah's role in the circumcision ceremony is not only associated with the "Chair of Elijah," but he heals and is the guardian angel of the newborn Jewish child during the "critical birth" period (lasting at least 30 days from the date of birth). Numerous religious and secular folk songs and dances testify to this fact. Many proverbial sayings and aphorisms grew around Elijah's name. The most popular among them "until Elijah arrives," used when referring to a doubtful and unsolved matter, is similar to the folk explanation of the word תיקוּ (teiku), which is actually a form of תיקום "let it stand," "stalemate," as a * notarikon consisting of the initial letters of Tishbi yetareẓ kushyot u-ve'ayot "the Tishbite (Elijah) will resolve difficulties and problems." Though the main stream of the Elijah folklore is associated with his socionational and religious roles, the prophet – as is usual with popular folk heroes – is also a protagonist in witty tales, folk jokes, and humoristic stories. In these Elijah is identified with, or is the guardian angel of, the simpleminded Jew who at the end of the story is victorious; a factor which testifies to a type of wishful thinking at the root of Jewish folklore.

[Dov Noy]

In Islam

According to the Koran (Sura 37:123–130), Ilyās (Elijah) was one of the apostles sent to his people to admonish them to fear God and not worship Baal. They, however, regarded him as a liar. In Sura 6:85 he is mentioned among the righteous ones, together with figures from the New Testament who included ʿĪsā (Jesus). The commentators of the Koran and the authors of Muslim legend enlarge upon this limited information and explain that Ilyās lived during the days of Ahab and Jezebel. They also add that he was the fourth generation (!) after Aaron the Priest. In light of the Bible and the Midrashim they shaped the figure of the prophet who wages war against the worshipers of Baal and its priests, even though they occasionally change the names of the characters: Ahab becomes Lājab, Jezebel becomes Arbil (this difference is due to omission of the diacritical mark on the letter R).

[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg]

In the Arts

Elijah has inspired a wealth of literary material, mainly in the form of drama and verse. However, apart from an early appearance in the 17th-century medieval English Stonyhurst Pageants, he only began to receive serious attention in the late 18th century, when the Countess de Genlis included La Veuve de Sarepta in her sacred plays and T.S. Dupuis wrote his English dramatic poem Elijah (1789). These were followed in the 19th century by the U.S. writer R. Davidson's Elijah, a sacred drama… (1860), and by two Hebrew poems: Tiferet ha-Tishbi (1839) by Max E. Stern (1811–1873) and Ru'aḥ Eliyahu ha-Tishbi (1879) by Samuel Loeb Silbermann. The subject acquired greater popularity in the 20th century, when writers invested Elijah with fresh social or political significance. The pioneer Yiddish dramatist Peretz *Hirschbein contributed Eliyohu der Novi (1916), a comedy portraying the sudden arrival of Elijah at the home of a poor Jew; and Ben Jair (Moritz Golde) wrote a three-part dramatic poem entitled Elijahu (1914). Between the world wars the English author Clemence Dane wrote her play Naboth's Vineyard (1925) and John Kinmont Hart a poem entitled Prophet of a Nameless God (1927). During the period of World War ii and immediately following it, there were further works, such as The Vineyard (1943), a drama about Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel by the Earl of Longford; Norman Nicholson's verse play The Old Man of the Mountains (1946); and Helmut Huber's German drama Elias (1947). Nicholson's play set the Elijah-Ahab conflict in the North of England, the prophet here appearing as the champion of the working classes. Mid-20th century treatments of the subject include Jean Bothwell's Flame in the Sky… (1954); Heinrich Bela Zador's Die Erfuellung (1958; Hear the Word!, 1962), a novel about Elijah and Elisha; and a late work by Martin *Buber, Elija; ein Mysterienspiel (1963).

The prophet Elijah is also a prominent figure in Christian art of both East and West. From Greece, where the name was assimilated to Helios (god of the sun), his cult spread to Byzantium and Russia. In the West, the cult was propagated to some extent by the foundation of the Carmelite Order, so named because Elijah, its patron and "founder," is associated with Mount Carmel. Through this patronage Elijah acquired the attribute of a white mantle, the dress of the Order. In Christian typology, Elijah figures as the precursor of John the Baptist; like him he is an ascetic, living in the desert, and like him he is shown as emaciated and wearing a hair-tunic. Elijah, however, also prefigures Jesus: his despair in the desert parallels the Agony in the Garden; the resurrection of the son of the widow of Zarephath (i Kings 17:8–24) is seen as a prefiguration of the resuscitation of Lazarus; and his ascension in a chariot of fire is equated with the Ascension of Jesus. Even the fire of heaven which ignites his sacrificial offering is likened to the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Elijah cycles exist in several Carmelite environments. Examples include a 12th-century storiated capital from the Carmelite cloister of Trie (now in Tarbes); paintings of the school of Jörg Ratgeb in the refectory of the Carmelite convent at Hirschhorn am Neckar (1507); 17th-century windows in the Carmelite church of Antwerp; and 18th-century paintings by Jean-Baptiste Despax in the chapel of the Carmelites in Toulouse. The beautiful Russian church dedicated to Elijah at Yaroslavl on the Volga (17th century) is painted with scenes from his life.

The important scenes in Elijah's life are Elijah fed by ravens, Elijah fed by the widow of Zarephath (Sarepta), the resurrection of the widow's son, Elijah comforted by an angel in the wilderness, the sacrifices on Mount Carmel, the massacre of the prophets of Baal, Naboth's vineyard, the smiting of the Jordan, and the ascension in a chariot of fire. These have received varying emphasis in iconographic treatment, those most favored being the ravens, the widow, the angel, and the ascension. The feeding of the ravens appears in a 14th-century fresco in a monastery on Mount Athos; in a 15th-century fresco in a church at Lublin, Poland; in a privately owned painting by Guercino (1620); and in a work by Washington Allston (1779–1843). The widow of Zarephath and her sticks and the resurrection of her son appear in the synagogue of *Dura-Europos; the widow is also depicted in a window at Chartres (12th century) and another at Bourges (13th century); in the 16th-century tapestry of La Chaise-Dieu; and in a painting by Jean Massys (1565). The resurrection of the widow's son also occurs at Bourges; in an icon of Pskov (Tretiakovskaya Gallery, Moscow; 16th century); and in a curious late 19th-century watercolor by Ford Madox Brown (Tate Gallery, London). The angel in the desert appears in a fresco in Orvieto Cathedral (14th century); in 16th-century paintings by Luini (Brera, Milan) and Tintoretto (Scuola di San Rocco, Venice); and in a Tiepolo ceiling in the archbishop's palace at Udine and a Rubens tapestry cartoon (17th century). The holocaust on Mount Carmel is represented at Athos and in a 16th-century fresco in Siena Cathedral by Beccafumi. The ascension of Elijah is, iconographically, in the strong classical tradition including Helios, Apollo, and Pluto. Some early examples are third- and fourth-century catacomb paintings and Christian sarcophagi. The Chapel of Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, had an early mosaic representation of the scene and the subject also appears on the sixth-century wooden doors of Santa Sabina, Rome; in a ninth-century miniature of the Kosmas Indikopleustes manuscript (St. Catherine, Sinai); on the bronze door of Saint Sophia, Novgorod (1155); in Athos and Prague (14th century); in the 14th-century Weltchronik manuscript of Rudolf von Ems; and in paintings by Tintoretto (Scuola di San Rocco), Rubens, and Simon Vouet.

A rich and variegated selection of Elijah songs forms part of the folk and paraliturgical repertory of almost every Jewish community. In Christian music, the "History of Elijah and Ahab" occurs among Hungarian Protestant Bible songs of the 16th century (Hofgreff manuscript). Oratorio composers, from the 17th century onward, made use of the subject when the political climate was favorable, although no oratorios or cantatas about Elijah were composed for the French court. Some early examples are M. Cazzati's Il Zelante Difeso (Bologna, 1665), on Elijah and the priests of Baal; and the oratorios written for the Viennese court by composers such as Georg Reutter (1728) and Antonio Caldara (1729; libretto by Zeno). A comic opera after Kotzebue by Conradin Kreutzer, Die Schlafmuetze des Propheten Elias (1814), was by the whim of the censor retitled Die Nachtmuetze…, varying the term for nightcap. Felix *Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, first performed at the Birmingham Festival in 1846, has remained the outstanding musical interpretation of the prophet's character and deeds; it is also practically the only 19th-century oratorio that survives in the repertory and is most often performed in England, Germany (except during the Nazi era), and Israel. Abraham Zvi *Idelsohn's opera Elijah has yet to be published.

[Bathja Bayer]


in the bible: H. Gunkel, Elias Jahwe und Baal (1906); R. Kittel, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, 2 (1917), 312ff.; A.S. Peake, in: bjrl, 11 (1927), 296–321; R. de Vaux, in: Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth, 5 (1941), 7–20; J. Morgenstern, Amos-Studies, 1 (1941), 291ff.; Alt, k1 Schr, 2 (1953), 135–41; H. Galling, in: Alt-Festschrift (1953), 105–25; G. Fohrer, Elia (1957); R.S. Wallace, Elijah and Elisha (1957); Kaufmann Y., Toledot, index; D.R. ap-Thomas, in: peq, 92 (1960), 146–55; H.H. Rowley, Men of God (1963), 37–65. add. bibliography: R. Hallevy, in: jnes, 17 (1958), 237–44; K. Roberts, in: cbq, 62 (2000), 632–44; S. Otto, in: jsot, 27 (2003), 487–508; M. Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (1971); M.A. Cohen, in: ErIsr, 12 (fs Glueck; 1975), 87–94; M. Cogan, i Kings (ab; 2000), 424–86. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index; Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu, ed. by M. Friedmann (Ish-Shalom) (1904), 1–62; V. Aptowitzer, Parteipolitik der Hasmonaeerzeit… (1927), 95–104; M.W. Levinsohn, Der Prophet Elia nach den Talmudim- und Midraschimquellen (1929); D. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (1956), 20–26; E. Margoliot, Eliyahu ha-Navi be-Sifrut Yisrael… (1960). in folklore: D. Noy, in: Maḥanayim, 44 (1960), 110–6; B. Silverman Weinreich, in: Field of Yiddish, 2 (1965), 202–31; Yeda Am, 25 (1961); H. Schwarzbaum, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (1968), 522 (index); Sartori, in: Handwoerterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, 2 (1929/30), 781–5; S. Thompson, Motif Index of Folk-Literature, 5 (1957), V 200–V 299; C.G. Loomis, White Magic (1948), index; J. Bergmann, Die Legenden der Juden (1919), 73–83. in islam: Kisāʾī, Qiṣaṣ, ed. by I. Eisenberg (1922), 244–50; A.J. Wensinck and J.H. Kramers (eds.), Handwoerterbuch des Islam (1941), s.v.Ilyās; H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers (eds.), Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (1953), s.v.Ilyās; Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 ah), 212–9; H. Speyer, Die biblischen Erzaehlungen im Qoran (1961), 406. add. bibliography: "Ilyās," in: eis2, 3:1156 (incl. bibl.). in art: E. Werner, Mendelssohn, A New Image of the Composer and his Age (1963), 457–73, includes bibliography; A. Schering, Geschichte des Oratoriums (1911), 440ff.; J.Y. Rivlin, Shirat Yehudei ha-Targum (1959), 272–4; Yeda Am, 7 (1960); L. Réau, in: Etudes Carmélitaines (1956).


views updated May 29 2018


A Prophet from Thisbe (Tishbe) in Galaad, the great champion of the religion of Yahweh during the reign of King Ahab (c. 869c. 850) of Israel and his wife Jezebel and that of their son (Ahaziah c. 850c. 849). The whole career of Elijah is summed up in his Hebrew name 'ēlîyāh (û ), "my God is Yahweh." The actual historical career of Elijah is difficult to reconstruct, because his story (1 Kgs 17.119.21; 21.129; 2 Kgs 1.22.12), which probably came from a once independent cycle of stories about the prophets that the editor of Kings excerpted and incorporated into his book, is overlaid with much legendary material, and since it is apparently drawn from various strands of tradition, it is not always consistent with itself or with other data that can be derived from Biblical and other ancient sources.

Well-known are the stories of the long drought that the prophet brought on the land (to show that Yahweh was superior to Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility); his being fed miraculously by ravens in Wadi Cherith of Transjordan and by the widow in Zarephthah of Phoenicia, whose son he raised from the dead; his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mt. carmel; and his flight to Mt. horeb, where he witnessed the theophany in which Yahweh was not in the hurricane or the earthquake but in the "still small voice" (to show that Yahweh achieves his purposes quietly and patiently).

The spectacular account of his departure (2 Kgs2.11) from this world did much to encourage later speculation concerning his role in salvation history. After his return was predicted by Malachi (Mal 3.1, 2324; see also Sir 48.112) as a herald of the day of the lord, understood as the precursor of the Messiah, he became a very prominent figure in later Jewish writings. No less than three "apocalypses" are known to have been attributed to him. Like Enoch (Gn 5.2124), who, unlike the other antediluvian Patriarchs, is not said to have died but to have been "taken by God," Elijah was widely believed not to have died but to be "waiting" somewhere until God should send him to discharge his role in connection with the establishment of the messianic kingdom. Actually, the NT clearly regards the prediction of Malachi to have been fulfilled in the person of St. john the baptist (Mt 11.10, 14; 17.1013; Mk 1.2; 9.1012; Lk1.1617, 76; 7.27), but speculation concerning Elijah continued to flourish, even to the present day, at times taking on a very far-fetched character.

In Christian iconography the figure of Elijah appears frequently both in the Byzantine East and the Latin West. His common attributes are a raven (referring to the birds that fed him during the famine), a flaming sword (alluding to the fire he brought down from heaven on the Mt. Carmel sacrifice), and a fiery chariot (in which he ascended into heaven). The various events of his life, particularly his miracles and his marvelous departure from the earth, have often been portrayed.

Bibliography: v. hamp et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Frieburg 195765) 3:806810. g. fohrer, Die Religion in Geischichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:424427. Encylopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman, (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 646647. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) 2.1:347359.

[b. mcgrath]


views updated Jun 11 2018






Alternate Names

Eliyahu, Elias, llyas (Arabic)

Appears In

Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Qur'an



Character Overview

In Semitic mythology, Elijah was one of the most important figures in the tales of early Christianity and Judaism. According to legend, he was a priest and a prophet, or a person who could communicate the word of Yahweh (God) to humankind. He is mentioned in the Bible as one of two figures—along with Moses—who appeared and spoke to Jesus during an event called the Transfiguration, where God is said to have confirmed that Jesus was his son.

Nothing is known of Elijah's early life, but he is referred to as “the Tishbite,” suggesting he came from the city of Tishbe in Gilead. According to some sources, he lived sometime during the ninth century bce. Elijah appeared at the court of King Ahab of Israel and warned the king that his worship of the god Baal (pronounced BAY-uhl) would lead to a disastrous drought in his land. Elijah was then directed by Yahweh to leave Israel for two years; during that time, a drought devastated the region. Elijah then returned to Ahab and challenged him and his people to a test of the gods. An altar was built upon a mountaintop in honor of Baal, with wood and animal sacrifices placed upon it, and the followers of Baal prayed for their god to light a fire there. After several hours, no fire had been lit. Elijah then built a similar altar for Yahweh and doused it with water. When he offered the sacrifice to Yahweh, a bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens and lit the sacrifice on fire. The audience was convinced of Yahweh's power, and the drought ended.

After uniting much of Israel in its worship of Yahweh and fiercely punishing those who worshipped other gods, Elijah left the world in a most unique way. He approached the Jordan River and struck it with his cloak, which caused the waters to separate, allowing him and his companion to cross. Then a fiery chariot appeared in the sky and lifted Elijah in a whirlwind, leaving behind no trace of the man except his cloak.

Elijah in Context

Although Elijah was a key figure in early tales of Judaism, he enjoys less popularity among Christian followers, which reflects some of the differences in belief between the two groups. One reason for this may be due to the controversy surrounding his ascension into heaven aboard a fiery chariot. According to some versions of the New Testament, Jesus states that no one else has ascended to heaven before him. If this statement is accepted as true, then the story of Elijah's departure from earth must be false—unless he was simply transported to a location other than heaven. It is also believed that Elijah is supposed to return to earth before the coming of the Messiah (pronounced muh-SYE-uh), or the savior of humankind usually believed to be the son of God. According to Jewish tradition, this has not yet happened. According to Christian tradition, which contends that Jesus was the Messiah, John the Baptist was Elijah in his returned form.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the main themes of the stories of Elijah is the wrath of God—the punishment that is administered by God to those who disobey established religious practices and teachings. Elijah warns Ahab of God's wrath over the continued worship of Baal. This leads to a devastating drought throughout his kingdom. The power of God's wrath is also seen in the punishment of King Ahab, his wife, and their son, and in the death of soldiers that attempt to arrest Elijah after he predicts awful ends for Ahab and his family.

Ascension Myths Around the World

Ascension myths are popular around the world. Many ancient cultures described death as climbing a mountain or a tree; the act of going upward, or ascending, has always been associated with death and spiritual renewal. Ancient Egyptians believed their kings would ascend into heaven after death and become reunited with the supreme deity. Korean legends and epics tell of the hero's ascension into heaven, after which he becomes divine. Christian and Jewish ascension myths adopted this worldwide motif.

Probably the earliest ascension myths revolved around the shaman's journey to other worlds through the Axis Mundi, or World Axis. This was a mythological pole running through the centers of the earth, sky, and underworld. In trance, the shaman would ascend the pole and enter the spirit world. Symbolically, ascension signifies going beyond the human condition and acquiring spiritual power.

Elijah in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Although he is featured in the major religious books for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Elijah has been the subject of relatively little attention from later artists and writers. Elijah was depicted in a well-known sculpture by the Italian artist Lorenzetto, and his life was the basis for a grand musical work by composer Felix Mendelssohn. In some Jewish sects, Elijah is still an important presence in traditional activities. During the feast of Passover, for example, a table setting is left empty for Elijah, just in case the prophet should decide to appear. Similarly, an empty chair is provided at Jewish circumcision ceremonies so that Elijah can serve as a witness to the proceedings.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

As stated above, Elijah is also mentioned in the most important Islamic religious text, the Qur'an. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research Elijah's appearance in the Qur'an. What role does he play? How is it different from his role in the Hebrew and Christian bibles?

SEE ALSO Baal; Semitic Mythology


views updated May 14 2018

Elijah (9th cent. BCE). Israelite prophet. After choosing Elisha as his successor, he was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2. 1–18). According to the book of Malachi, he will return to earth ‘before the great and terrible day of the Lord’ (4. 5). In aggadic literature, Elijah was recognized as the forerunner of the messiah. Consequently, the gospels record speculation that John the Baptist, who wore the same clothes as Elijah (Mark 1. 6; 2 Kings 1. 8) was a reincarnation of the prophet. Subsequently Elijah was believed to be a partner of the messiah who will overthrow the foundations of the heathen (Gen.R 71. 9) and bring about the resurrection of the dead. He most frequently was said to appear on the eve of Passover to help the poor prepare for the seder. It is customary to place a cup for Elijah in the middle of the table, and the door is opened during the seder for the prophet to come in and herald the days of the messiah. At circumcision ceremonies, an unoccupied chair is placed for Elijah.


views updated May 21 2018

Elijah (active 9th century bc) Old Testament prophet. He rebuked King Ahab for his attitude to the Phoenician cult of Baal, promoted by Ahab's wife, Jezebel (1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 2) at the expense of the cult of Yahweh. Elijah, aided by his disciple Elisha, contested that there was no God but Yahweh.


views updated May 17 2018

Elijah (9th century bc), a Hebrew prophet in the time of Ahab and Jezebel who maintained the worship of Jehovah against that of Baal and other pagan gods. He is said to have been miraculously fed by ravens, to have raised a widow's son from the dead, and to have been carried to heaven in a chariot of fire (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 2).

His successor as the prophet of Israel was Elisha, something signalled in 2 Kings 2:13, when after Elisha had seen the fiery chariot go up to heaven, ‘He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him.’


views updated May 17 2018

Elijah (Elias). Oratorio, Op.70, by Mendelssohn to text selected from the Bible by Julius Schrubring. For sop., cont., ten., bass, and treble soloists, boys’ ch., ch., and orch. Comp. 1846, f.p. Birmingham 1846, Hamburg 1847, NY 1851.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic