People - Ancient Near East: Elijah
Ancient Near East
Elijah (pronounced /ɨˈlaɪdʒə/) or Elias (mispronounced /ɨˈlaɪ.əs/, Hebrew: אליהו, Eliyahu; Arabic:إلياس, Ilyās), whose name (El-i Yahu) means "Yahweh is God," according to the Books of Kings was a prophet in the Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab (9th century BCE).
According to the Books of Kings, Elijah defended the worship of Yahweh over that of the more popular Baal, he raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and ascended into heaven in a whirlwind (either accompanied by a chariot and horses of flame or riding in it). In the Book of Malachi, Elijah's return is prophesied "before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord," making him a harbinger of the Messiah and the eschaton in various faiths that revere the Hebrew Bible. Derivative references to Elijah appear in the Talmud, Mishnah, the New Testament, and the Qur'an.
In Judaism, Elijah's name is invoked at the weekly Havdalah ritual that marks the end of Shabbat, and Elijah is invoked in other Jewish customs, among them the Passover seder and the Brit milah (ritual circumcision). He appears in numerous stories and references in the Haggadah and rabbinic literature, including the Babylonian Talmud.
In Christianity, the New Testament describes how both Jesus and John the Baptist are compared with Elijah, and on some occasions, thought by some to be manifestations of Elijah, and Elijah appears with Moses during the Transfiguration of Jesus.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes Elijah returned in 1836 to visit Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, and the Bahá'í Faith believes Elijah returned in 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, as the Báb.
Elijah is also a figure in various folkloric traditions. In Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania, he is known as "Elijah the Thunderer" and in folklore is held responsible for summer storms, hail, rain, thunder, and dew.
* 1 Biblical narratives and historical background
o 1.1 1st and 2nd Kings
+ 1.1.1 Widow of Zarephath
+ 1.1.2 Challenge to Baal
+ 1.1.3 Mt. Horeb
+ 1.1.4 Vineyard of Naboth
+ 1.1.5 Ahaziah
+ 1.1.6 Departure
o 1.2 2nd Chronicles
o 1.3 Malachi
o 1.4 Textual analysis
* 2 Christian references
o 2.1 John the Baptist
o 2.2 Jesus
o 2.3 Transfiguration
o 2.4 Other references
* 3 In the Aggadah and Talmud
o 3.1 Origin
o 3.2 Elijah's Zeal for God
* 4 Elijah in Jewish observance
o 4.1 Elijah's chair
o 4.2 Elijah's cup
o 4.3 Havdalah
* 5 Elijah in folklore
o 5.1 Apocrypha
o 5.2 Folklore
+ 5.2.1 Rabbi Joshua ben Levi
+ 5.2.2 Rabbi Eliezer
+ 5.2.3 Lilith
* 6 Other traditions
o 6.1 Prophet saint
+ 6.1.1 Carmelite tradition
* 7 In Islam
o 7.1 Elijah in the Qur'an
* 8 Elijah in other faiths
o 8.1 Latter-day Saint perspective
o 8.2 Bahá'í
o 8.3 Eastern European
o 8.4 Holy Piby
* 9 Controversies
o 9.1 Miracle of the ravens
o 9.2 Ascension into the heavens
o 9.3 Return
* 10 Elijah in arts and literature
* 11 See also
* 12 References
* 13 Bibliography
o 13.1 History
o 13.2 Folklore and tradition
o 13.3 Children's literature
* 14 External links
Biblical narratives and historical background
Map of Israel in the 9th Century BC. Blue is the Kingdom of Israel. Golden yellow is the Kingdom of Judah.
By the 9th century BC, the Kingdom of Israel, once united under King Solomon, was divided into the northern Kingdom of Israel and southern Kingdom of Judah, which retained the historic seat of government and focus of the Israelite religion at the Temple in Jerusalem. Omri, King of Israel, continued policies dating from the reign of Jeroboam, contrary to the laws of Moses, that were intended to reorient religious focus away from Jerusalem: encouraging the building of local temple altars for sacrifices, appointing priests from outside the family of the Levites, and allowing or encouraging temples dedicated to the Canaanite god, Baal. Omri achieved domestic security with a marriage alliance between his son Ahab and princess Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia. These solutions brought security and economic prosperity to Israel for a time, but did not bring peace with the Israelite prophets, who were interested in a strict deuteronomic interpretation of Mosaic law.
As King, Ahab exacerbated these tensions. Ahab allowed the worship of a foreign god within the palace, building a temple for Baal and allowing Jezebel to bring a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country. It is in this context that Elijah is introduced in 1 Kings 17:1 as Elijah "The Tishbite". He warns Ahab that there will be years of catastrophic drought so severe that not even dew will fall, because Ahab and his queen stand at the end of a line of kings of Israel who are said to have "done evil in the sight of the Lord."
1st and 2nd Kings
Elijah in the wilderness, by Washington Allston
Elijah appears on the scene with no fanfare. Nothing is known of his origins or background. His name, Elijah, "Yahweh is God," may be a name applied to him because of his challenge to Baal worship.
Elijah's challenge, characteristic of his behavior in other episodes of his story as told in the Bible, is bold and direct. Baal was the Canaanite god responsible for rain, thunder, lightning, and dew. Elijah not only challenges Baal on behalf of Yahweh, the God of Israel, he challenges Jezebel, her priests, Ahab, and the people of Israel
Widow of Zarephath
After Elijah's confrontation with Ahab, God tells him to flee out of Israel, to a hiding place by the brook Cherith, east of the Jordan, where he will be fed by ravens. When the brook dries up, God sends him to a widow living in the town of Zarephatho in Phoenicia. When Elijah finds her and asks to be fed, she says that she does not have sufficient food to keep her and her own son alive. Elijah tells her that God will not allow her supply of flour or oil to run out, saying, "Don't be afraid..this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land," illustrating that the demand of the covenant is not given without the promise of the covenant. She feeds him the last of their food, and Elijah's promise miraculously comes true; thus, by an act of faith the woman received the promised blessing. God gave her "manna" from heaven even while he was withholding food from his unfaithful people in the promised land. Some time later, the widow's son dies, and the widow cried, "Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?" Moved by a faith like that of Abraham (Romans 4:17, Hebrews 11:19), Elijah prays that God might restore her son so that the veracity and trustworthiness of God's word might be demonstrated. 1 Kings 17:22 relates how God "heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived." This is the first instance of raising the dead recorded in Scripture. This non-Israelite widow was granted the best covenant blessing in the person of her son, the only hope for a widow in ancient society. The widow cried, "...the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth." She made a confession that the Israelites had failed to make.
After more than three years of drought and famine, God tells Elijah to return to Ahab and announce the end of the drought: not occasioned by repentance in Israel but by the command of the Lord, who had determined to reveal himself again to his people. While on his way, Elijah meets Obadiah, the head of Ahab's household, who had hidden a hundred prophets of the God of Israel when Ahab and Jezebel had been killing them. Elijah sends Obadiah back to Ahab to announce his return to Israel.
Challenge to Baal
A statue of Elijah in the Cave of Elijah, Mount Carmel, Israel.
When Ahab confronts Elijah, he refers to him as the "troubler of Israel." Elijah responds by throwing the charge back at Ahab, saying that it is Ahab who has troubled Israel by allowing the worship of false gods. Elijah then berates both the people of Israel and Ahab for their acquiescence in Baal worship. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). And the people were silent. The Hebrew for this word, "go limping" or "waver", is the same as that used for "danced" in verse 26, where the prophets of Baal frantically dance. Elijah speaks with sharp irony: in the religious ambivalence of Israel, she is engaging in a wild and futile religious "dance".
At this point Elijah proposes a direct test of the powers of Baal and Yahweh. The people of Israel, 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of Asherah are summoned to Mount Carmel. Two altars are built, one for Baal and one for Yahweh. Wood is laid on the altars. Two oxen are slaughtered and cut into pieces; the pieces are laid on the wood. Elijah then invites the priests of Baal to pray for fire to light the sacrifice. They pray from morning to noon without success. Elijah ridicules their efforts. They respond by cutting themselves and adding their own blood to the sacrifice (such mutilation of the body was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic law). They continue praying until evening without success.
Elijah now orders that the altar of the Yahweh be drenched with water from "four large jars" poured three times (1 Kings 18:33-34). He asks God to accept the sacrifice. Fire falls from the sky, igniting the sacrifice. Elijah seizes the moment and orders the death of the prophets of Baal. Elijah prays earnestly for rain to fall again on the land. Then the rains begin, signaling the end of the famine.
Jezebel, enraged that Elijah had ordered the deaths of her priests, threatens to kill Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-13). This was Elijah's first encounter with Jezebel, and not the last. Later Elijah would prophesy about Jezebel's death, because of her sin. Later, Elijah flees to Beersheba in Judah, continues alone into the wilderness, and finally sits down under a juniper tree, praying for death. He falls asleep under the tree; an angel touches him and tells him to wake and eat. When he wakes he finds bread and a jar of water. He eats, drinks, and goes back to sleep. The angel comes a second time and tells him to eat and drink because he has a long journey ahead of him.
Elijah travels, for forty days and forty nights, to Mount Horeb and seeks shelter in a cave. God again speaks to Elijah (1 Kings 19:9): "What doest thou here, Elijah?". Elijah did not give a direct answer to the Lord's question but evades and equivocates, implying that the work the Lord had begun centuries earlier had now come to nothing, and that his own work was fruitless. Unlike Moses, who tried to defend Israel when they sinned with the golden calf, Elijah bitterly complains over the Israelites' unfaithfulness and says he is the "only one left". Up until this time Elijah has only the word of God to guide him, but now he is told to go outside the cave and "stand before the Lord." A terrible wind passes, but God is not in the wind. A great earthquake shakes the mountain, but God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire passes the mountain, but God is not in the fire. Then a "still small voice" comes to Elijah and asks again, "What doest thou here, Elijah?" Elijah again evades the question and his lament is unrevised, showing that he did not understand the importance of the divine revelation he had just witnessed. God then sends him out again, this time to Damascus to anoint Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his replacement.
Vineyard of Naboth
Elijah encounters Ahab again in 1 Kings 21, after Ahab has acquired possession of a vineyard by murder. Ahab desires to have the vineyard of Naboth of Jezreel. He offers a better vineyard or a fair price for the land. But Naboth tells Ahab that God has told him not to part with the land. Ahab accepts this answer with sullen bad grace. Jezebel, however, plots a method for acquiring the land. She sends letters, in Ahab's name, to the elders and nobles who lived near Naboth. They are to arrange a feast and invite Naboth. At the feast, false charges of cursing God and Ahab are to be made against him. The plot is carried out and Naboth is stoned to death. When word comes that Naboth is dead, Jezebel tells Ahab to take possession of the vineyard.
God again speaks to Elijah and sends him to confront Ahab with a question and a prophecy: "Have you killed and also taken possession?" and, "In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick up your own blood" (1 Kings 21:19). Ahab begins the confrontation by calling Elijah his enemy. Elijah responds by throwing the charge back at him, telling him that he has made himself the enemy of God by his own actions. Elijah then goes beyond the prophecy he was given and tells Ahab that his entire kingdom will reject his authority; that Jezebel will be eaten by dogs within Jezreel; and that his family will be consumed by dogs as well (if they die in a city) or by birds (if they die in the country). When Ahab hears this he repents to such a degree that God relents in punishing Ahab but will punish Jezebel and their son--Ahaziah.
Russian icon of the Prophet Elijah, 18th century (Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia).
Elijah continues now from Ahab to an encounter with Ahaziah. The scene opens with Ahaziah seriously injured in a fall. He sends to the priests of Baalzebub in Ekron, outside the kingdom of Israel, to know if he will recover. Elijah intercepts his messengers and sends them back to Ahaziah with a message. In typical Elijah fashion, the message begins with a blunt, impertinent question: "Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron?"(2 Kings 1:6). Ahaziah asks the messengers to describe the person who gave them this message. They tell him he wore a hairy coat with a leather belt and he instantly recognizes the description as Elijah the Tishbite.
Ahaziah sends out three groups of soldiers to arrest Elijah. The first two are destroyed by fire which Elijah calls down from heaven. The leader of the third group asks for mercy for himself and his men. Elijah agrees to accompany this third group to Ahaziah, where he gives his prophecy in person.
The biblical story of Elijah's departure is unique. Elijah, in company with Elisha (Eliseus), approaches the Jordan. He rolls up his mantle and strikes the water (2 Kings 2:8). The water immediately divides and Elijah and Elisha cross on dry land. Suddenly, a chariot of fire and horses of fire appear and Elijah is lifted up to heaven in a whirlwind. As Elijah is lifted up, his mantle falls to the ground and Elisha picks it up.
Saint Elias in the cave (below) and on a chariot of fire. A fresco from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria, medieval Orthodox tradition, renovated 20th century
Elijah is mentioned once more in 2 Chronicles 21. A letter is sent under the prophet's name to Jehoram. It tells him that he has led the people of Judah astray in the same way that Israel was led astray. The prophet ends the letter with a prediction of a painful death. This letter is a puzzle to readers for several reasons. First, it concerns a king of the southern kingdom, while Elijah concerned himself with the kingdom of Israel. Second, the message begins with "Thus says YHVH, God of your father David..." rather than the more usual "...in the name of YHVH the God of Israel." Also, this letter seems to come after Elijah's ascension into the whirlwind. But this is not surprising, as the books of 1 and 2 Kings are told largely out of order, to depict one individual or event at a time. Jacob Myers suggests a number of possible reasons for this letter, among them that it may be an example of a better known prophet's name being substituted for that of a lesser known prophet. John Van Seters, however, rejects the letter as having any connection with the Elijah tradition. However Michael Wilcock, formally of Trinity College, Bristol, argues that Elijah`s letter: 'does address a very 'northern' situation in the southern kingdom', and thus is authentic.
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse."
— Malachi 3:23-24
The final mention of Elijah in the Hebrew Bible is in the Book of Malachi, where it is written, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." That day is described as the burning of a great furnace, "... so that it will leave them neither root nor branch." (Malachi 3:19) Traditionally, in Judaism, this is taken to mean the return of Elijah will precede the Messiah. In Christianity it is traditionally believed that the return of Elijah will precede the final tribulation and judgment.
According to one recent researcher, the Elijah stories were added to the Deuteronomistic History in four stages. The first stage dates from the final edition of the History, about 560 BCE, when the three stories of Naboth’s vineyard, the death of Ahaziah, and the story of Jehu’s coup were included to embody the themes of the reliability of God's word and the cycle of Baal worship and religious reform in the history of the Northern Kingdom. The narratives about the Omride wars were added shortly afterwards to illustrate a newly introduced theme, that the attitude of the king towards the word of the prophets determines the fate of Israel. 1 Kings 17-18 was added in early post-Exilic times (after 538 BCE) to demonstrate the possibility of a new life in community with God after the time of judgment. In the fifth century BCE, 1 Kings 19:1-18 and the remaining Elisha stories were inserted to give prophecy a legitimate foundation in the history of Israel.[1
Eastern Orthodox icon of the prophet Elijah, depicted with a disciple
In the New Testament, Jesus would say for those who believed, John the Baptist was Elijah, who would come before the "great and terrible day" as predicted by Malachi.
John the Baptist
John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and baptism. He predicted the day of judgment using imagery similar to that of Malachi. He also preached that the Messiah was coming. All of this was done in a style that immediately recalled the image of Elijah to his audience. He wore a coat of animal hair secured with a leather belt (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6). He also frequently preached in wilderness areas: near the Jordan river.
In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist was asked by a delegation of priests if he was Elijah. To which, he replied "I am not (John 1:21)." The author of Matthew 11:14 and Matthew 17:10-13 however, makes it clear that John was Elijah but was not recognized as such. In the annunciation narrative in Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah, John's father, and tells him that John "will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God," and that he will go forth "in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:16-17)."
In the Gospel of Luke, Herod Antipas hears some of the stories surrounding Jesus. Some tell Herod that John the Baptist, whom he had executed, has come back to life. Others tell him that it is Elijah. Later in the same gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is. The apostles' answer includes Elijah among others.
However, Jesus' ministry had little in common with that of Elijah; in particular, he preached the forgiveness of one's enemies, while Elijah killed his. Miracle stories similar to those of Elijah were associated with Jesus (e. g. raising of the dead, miraculous feeding). Jesus implicitly separates himself from Elijah when he rebukes James and John for desiring to call down fire upon an unwelcoming Samaritan village in a similar manner to Elijah. Likewise, Jesus rebukes a potential follower who wanted first to return home to say farewell to his family, whereas Elijah permitted this of his replacement Elisha.
During Jesus' crucifixion, some of the onlookers wonder if Elijah will come to rescue him, as by the time of Jesus, Elijah had entered folklore as a rescuer of Jews in distress.
The upper part of the Transfiguration (1520) by Raphael, depicting Elijah, Jesus, and Moses (holding the Tablets of the Law).
Elijah makes an appearance in the New Testament during an incident known as the Transfiguration.
At the summit of an unnamed mount, Jesus' face begins to shine. The disciples who are with Him hear the voice of God announce that Jesus is "My beloved Son." The disciples also see Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. Peter is so struck by the experience that he asks Jesus if they should not build three "tabernacles": one for Elijah, one for Jesus and one for Moses.
In this appearance, Elijah is generally seen as a witness of the prophets and Moses as a witness of the law for the divinely announced "Son of God."
Elijah is mentioned three more times in the New Testament: in Luke, Romans, and James. In Luke 4:24-27, Jesus uses Elijah as an example of rejected prophets. Jesus says, "No prophet is accepted in his own country," and then mentions Elijah, saying that there were many widows in Israel, but Elijah was sent to one in Phoenicia. In Romans 11:1-6, Paul cites Elijah as an example of God's never forsaking his people (the Israelites). In James 5:16-18, James says, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much," and then cites Elijah's prayers which started and ended the famine in Israel as examples.
In the Aggadah and Talmud
Jewish legends about Elijah abound in the aggadah, which is found throughout various collections of rabbinic literature, including the Babylonian Talmud. This varied literature does not merely discuss his life, but has created a new history of him, which, beginning with his death - or "translation" - ends only with the close of the history of the human race. The volume of references to Elijah in Jewish Tradition stands in marked contrast to that in the Canon. As in the case of most figures of Jewish legend, so in the case of Elijah, the Biblical account became the basis of later legend. Elijah the precursor of the Messiah, Elijah zealous in the cause of God, Elijah the helper in distress: these are the three leading notes struck by the Aggadah, endeavoring to complete the Biblical picture with the Elijah legends.His career is extensive, colorful, and varied. He has appeared the world over in the guise of a beggar and scholar.
From the time of Malachi, who says of Elijah that God will send him before "the great and dreadful day" (Mal. 3:23), down to the later stories of the Chasidic rabbis, reverence and love, expectation and hope, were always connected in the Jewish consciousness with Elijah.
Since, according to the Bible, Elijah lived a mysterious life, the Aggadah naturally did not fail to supply the Biblical gaps in its own way. In the first place, it was its aim to describe more precisely Elijah's origin, since the Biblical (I Kings xvii. 1) "Elijah, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead," was too vague
Three different theories regarding Elijah's origin are presented in the Aggadah literature: (1) he belonged to the tribe of Gad (Midrash Genensis Rabbah lxxi.) (2) he was a Benjamite from Jerusalem, identical with the Elijah mentioned in I Chron. viii:27 (3) he was a priest.
That Elijah was a priest is a statement which is made by many Church fathers also (Aphraates, "Homilies," ed. Wright, p. 314; Epiphanius, "Hæres." lv. 3, passim), and which was afterward generally accepted. In some later works some rabbis speculate that he is to be identified with Phinehas (Pirḳe R. El. xlvii.; Targ. Yer. on Num. xxv. 12)
Mention must also be made of a statement which, though found only in the later Kabbalistic literature (Yalḳuṭ Reubeni, Bereshit, 9a, ed. Amsterdam), seems nevertheless to be very old (see Epiphanius, l.c.). According to this legend Elijah was really an angel in human form, so that he had neither parents nor offspring. See Melchizedek.
Elijah's Zeal for God
In spite of Elijah's many miracles, the mass of the Jewish people remained as godless as before. A midrash tells that they even abolished the sign of the covenant, and the prophet had to appear as Israel's accuser before God (Pirḳe R. El. xxix.).
In the same cave where God once appeared to Moses and revealed Himself as gracious and merciful, Elijah was summoned to appear before God. By this summons he perceived that he should have appealed to God's mercy, instead of becoming Israel's accuser. The prophet, however, remained relentless in his zeal and severity, so that God commanded him to appoint his successor (Tanna debe Eliyahu Zuṭa viii.).
The vision in which God revealed Himself to Elijah gave him at the same time a picture of the destinies of man, who has to pass through "four worlds." This world was shown to the prophet in the form of the wind, since it disappears as the wind; storm () is the day of death, before which man trembles (); fire is the judgment in Gehenna, and the stillness is the last day (Tan., Peḳude, p. 128, Vienna ed.).
Three years after this vision (Seder 'Olam R. xvii.) Elijah was "translated." Concerning the place to which Elijah was transferred, opinions differ among Jews and Christians, but the old view was that Elijah was received among the heavenly inhabitants, where he records the deeds of men (Ḳid. 70; Ber. R. xxxiv. 8), a task which according to the apocalyptic literature is entrusted to Enoch.
But as early as the middle of the second century, when the notion of translation to heaven was very much changed by Christian theologians, the assertion was made that Elijah never entered into heaven proper (Suk. 5a). In later literature paradise is generally designated as the abode of Elijah (compare Pirḳe R. El. xvi.), but since the location of paradise is itself uncertain, the last two statements may be identical.
Elijah in Jewish observance
See also: Brit milah
"Chair of Elijah" used during the brit milah (circumcision) ceremony. The Hebrew inscription reads "This is the chair of Elijah, remembered for Good."
At Jewish circumcision ceremonies, a chair is set aside for the use of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is said to be a witness at all circumcisions when the sign of the covenant is placed upon the body of the child. This custom stems from the incident at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19): Elijah had arrived at Mount Horeb after the demonstration of Jehovah’s presence and power on Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 18) God asks Elijah to explain his arrival, and Elijah replies: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). According to Rabbinic tradition, Elijah's words were patently untrue (1 Kings 18:4 and 1 Kings 19:18), and since Elijah accused Israel of failing to uphold the covenant, God would require Elijah to be present at every covenant of circumcision.
See also: Passover Seder
In the Talmudic literature, Elijah would visit rabbis to help solve particularly difficult legal problems. Malachi had cited Elijah as the harbinger of the eschaton. Thus, when confronted with reconciling impossibly conflicting laws or rituals, the rabbis would set aside any decision “until Elijah comes.”
One such decision was whether the Passover seder required four or five cups of wine. Each serving of wine corresponds to one of the "four expressions of redemption" in the Book of Exodus:
"I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an out-stretched arm and with great acts of judgment, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians" (Exodus 6:6-7).
The next verse, "And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord." (Exodus 6:8) was not fulfilled until the generation following the Passover story, and the rabbis could not decide whether this verse counted as part of the Passover celebration (thus deserving of another serving of wine). Thus, a cup was left for the arrival of Elijah.
In practice, the fifth cup has come to be seen as a celebration of future redemption. Today, a place is reserved at the seder table and a cup of wine is placed there for Elijah. During the seder, the door of the house is opened and Elijah is invited in. Traditionally, the cup is viewed as Elijah’s and is used for no other purpose.
See also: Havdalah
Havdalah is the ceremony that concludes the Sabbath Day (Saturday evening in Jewish tradition). As part of the concluding hymn, an appeal is made to God that Elijah will come during the following week. “Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite. Let him come quickly, in our day with the messiah, the son of David.”
Elijah in folklore
The volume of references to Elijah in folklore stands in marked contrast to that in the canon.
"At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob."
— A line in the Apocrypha describing Elijah's mission (Sirach 48:10).
In the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira (Sirach 48:10) his tasks are altered to: 1) herald the eschaton, 2) calm God’s fury, 3) restore familial peace, and 4) restore the 12 tribes.
Elijah's miraculous transferral to heaven lead to speculation as to his true identity. Louis Ginzberg equates him with Phinehas the grandson of Aaron (Exodus 6:25). Because of Phinehas zealousness for God, he and his descendants were promised, “a covenant of lasting priesthood” (Numbers 25:13). Therefore, Elijah is a priest as well as a prophet. Elijah is also equated with the Archangel Sandalphon, whose four wing beats will carry him to any part of the earth. When forced to choose between death and dishonor, Rabbi Kahana chose to leap to his death. Before he could strike the ground, Elijah/Sandalphon had appeared to catch him. Yet another name for Elijah is "Angel of the Covenant"
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi
References to Elijah in Jewish folklore range from short observations (e. g. It is said that when dogs are happy for no reason, it is because Elijah is in the neighborhood) to lengthy parables on the nature of God’s justice.
One such story is that of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. The rabbi, a friend of Elijah’s, was asked what favor he might wish. The rabbi answered only that he be able to join Elijah in his wanderings. Elijah granted his wish only if he refrained from asking any questions about any of the prophet’s actions. He agreed and they began their journey. The first place they came to was the house of an elderly couple who were so poor they had only one old cow. The old couple gave of their hospitality as best they could. The next morning, as the travelers left, Elijah prayed that the old cow would die and it did. The second place they came to was the home of a wealthy man. He had no patience for his visitors and chased them away with the admonition that they should get jobs and not beg from honest people. As they were leaving, they passed the man’s wall and saw that it was crumbling. Elijah prayed that the wall be repaired and it was so. Next, they came to a wealthy synagogue. They were allowed to spend the night with only the smallest of provisions. When they left, Elijah prayed that every member of the synagogue might become a leader.
Finally, they came to a very poor synagogue. Here they were treated with great courtesy and hospitality. When they left, Elijah prayed that God might give them a single wise leader. At this Rabbi Joshua could no longer hold back. He demanded of Elijah an explanation of his actions. At the house of the old couple, Elijah knew that the Angel of Death was coming for the old woman. So he prayed that God might have the angel take the cow instead. At the house of the wealthy man, there was a great treasure hidden in the crumbling wall. Elijah prayed that the wall be restored thus keeping the treasure away from the miser. The story ends with a moral: A synagogue with many leaders will be ruined by many arguments. A town with a single wise leader will be guided to success and prosperity. “Know then, that if thou seest an evil-doer prosper, it is not always unto his advantage, and if a righteous man suffers need and distress, think not God is unjust.”
The Elijah of legend did not lose any of his ability to afflict the comfortable. The case of Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Simon ben Yohai is illustrative. Once, when walking a beach, he came upon a hideously ugly man–the prophet in disguise. The man greeted him courteously, “Peace be with thee, Rabbi.” Instead of returning the greeting, the rabbi could not resist an insult, “How ugly you are! Is there anyone as ugly as you in your town?” Elijah responded with, “I don’t know. Perhaps you should tell the Master Architect how ugly is this, His construction.” The rabbi realized his wrong and asked for pardon. But Elijah would not give it until the entire city had asked for forgiveness for the rabbi and the rabbi had promised to mend his ways.
Elijah was always seen as deeply pious, it seems only natural that he would be pitted against an equally evil individual. This was found in the person of Lilith. Lilith in legend was the first wife of Adam. She rebelled against Adam, the angels, and even God. She came to be seen as a demon and a witch.
Elijah encountered Lilith and instantly recognized and challenged her, "Unclean one, where are you going?" Unable to avoid or lie to the prophet, she admitted she was on her way to the house of a pregnant woman. Her intention was to kill the woman and eat the child.
Elijah pronounced his malediction, "I curse you in the Name of the Lord. Be silent as a stone!" But, Lilith was able to make a bargain with Elijah. She promises to "forsake my evil ways" if Elijah will remove his curse. To seal the bargain she gives Elijah her names so that they can be posted in the houses of pregnant women or new born children or used as amulets. Lilith promises, "where I see those names, I shall run away at once. Neither the child nor the mother will ever be injured by me."
Russian Icon of the Prophet Elias (12th century, Pskov school. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).
In Western Christianity, the Prophet Elijah is commemorated as a saint with a feast day on 20 July by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Catholics believe that he was unmarried, celibate.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, he is commemorated on the same date (in the twenty-first century, Julian Calendar 20 July corresponds to Gregorian Calendar 2 August). He is greatly revered among the Orthodox as a model of the contemplative life. He is also commemorated on the Orthodox liturgical calendar on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers (the Sunday before the Nativity of the Lord).
In 1 Kings 18, Elijah returns from his stay with the widow of Zarephath to confront Ahab and announce the end of the drought. He encounters Obadiah and orders him back to Ahab to announce his return. Obadiah is reluctant to comply for Elijah has just spent several years in hiding from a determined search by the king. Obadiah is afraid that Elijah will disappear again leaving him to face the king’s wrath. After the confrontation on Mt. Carmel, Elijah will again avoid a determined search by Jezebel by going to the Sinai wilderness. After the confrontation over Naboth’s vineyard, Elijah will disappear from the record completely and not reappear until the confrontation with Ahaziah in 2nd Kings.
Elijah is revered as the spiritual Father and traditional founder of the Catholic religious Order of Carmelites. In addition to taking their name from Mt. Carmel where the first hermits of the order established themselves, the Calced Carmelite and Discalced Carmelite traditions pertaining to Elijah focus upon the prophet’s withdrawal from public life. The medieval Carmelite Book of the First Monks offers some insight into the heart of the Orders' contemplative vocation and reverence for the prophet.
The prophet Elijah's feastday is celebrated on July 20 of the Carmelite Liturgical Calendar
In the Qur'an, Elijah is one of the Prophets of Islam. Known as Ilyas (إلياس) in Arabic, Elijah's Qur'anic story is similar to his story in the Hebrew Bible. Muslims believe that Elijah was one in a long line of prophets and apostles sent by God to ancient Israel to prophesy the message of God.
In the Qur'an, there is special mention of Elijah preaching in opposition to the worship of Baal, pleading with the people not to forsake Allah. While some Muslims do believe that Elijah mysteriously disappeared after preaching, there is no mention in the Qur'an of him being lifted to heaven on a chariot.
Elijah in the Qur'an
* Qur'an 37:123–132
“ Elijah too was one of the Envoys;
When he said to his people, 'Will you not be Godfearing?
Do you call on Baal, and abandon the Best of creators?
God, your Lord, and the Lord of your fathers, the ancients?'
But they cried him lies;
so they will be among the arraigned, except for God's sincere servants.
And We left for him among the later folk.
'Peace be upon Elijah!'
Even so we recompense the good-doers;
he was among Our believing servants.
* Qur'an 6:85
“ And Zechariah and John and Jesus and Elijah, all in the ranks of the righteous ”
Elijah is often compared by scholars to Zechariah (priest), John the Baptist and Jesus and is listed in the ranks of the most righteous men. Muslims believe that Elijah, before leaving this earth, handed down his prophetic mantle to his cousin Elisha, who too is an Islamic Prophet.
Elijah in other faiths
Latter-day Saint perspective
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also acknowledges Elijah as a prophet. Latter-day Saints believe that the Malachi prophecy of the return of Elijah was fulfilled on April 3, 1836 when Elijah visited the prophet and founder of the church, Joseph Smith, Jr., along with Oliver Cowdery, in the Kirtland Temple as a resurrected being. This event is chronicled in The Doctrine and Covenants Section 110 (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) verses 13-16:
After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.
This experience forms the basis for the church's focus on genealogy and family history and belief in the eternal nature of marriage and families.
Latter-day saints make a difference between the personal name Elijah and the title Elias however, and thus also accept John the Baptist as having been an "Elias."
In the Bahá'í Faith, the Báb, founder of The Bábí Faith, is believed to be the return of Elijah and John the Baptist. Both Elijah and John the Baptist are considered to be Lesser Prophets, whose stations are below that of a Manifestation of God such as Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, the Báb or Bahá'u'lláh. The Báb is buried on Mount Carmel, where Elijah had his confrontation with the prophets of Baal.
This common depiction of the prophet Elijah riding a flaming chariot across the sky resulted in syncretistic folklore among the Slavs incorporating pre-Christian motifs in the beliefs and rites regarding him in Slavic culture.
As Elijah was described as ascending into heaven in a fiery chariot, the Christian missionaries who converted Slavic tribes likely found him an ideal analogy for Perun, the supreme Slavic god of storms, thunder and lightning bolts. In many Slavic countries Elijah is known as Elijah the Thunderer (Ilija Gromovnik), who drives the heavens in a chariot and administers rain and snow, thus actually taking the place of Perun in popular beliefs.
In one Eastern-European folklore tale, Elijah is portrayed in his "Thunderer" persona:
Once Jesus, the prophet Elijah, and St. George were going through Georgia. When they became tired and hungry they stopped to dine. They saw a Georgian shepherd and decided to ask him to feed them. First, Elijah went up to the shepherd and asked him for a sheep. After the shepherd asked his identity Elijah said that, he was the one who sent him rain to get him a good profit from farming. The shepherd became angry at him and told him that he was the one who also sent thunderstorms, which destroyed the farms of poor widows. (After Elijah, Jesus and St. George attempt to get help and eventually succeed).
In Greece, churches dedicated to the Prophet Elijah are often built on mountain tops; this is believed to have resulted from a conflation of Elijah (Greek Helias) with the Sun-God Helios. See Elias for further discussion.
In the Holy Piby, God enters into a dead man and becomes alive, then calls himself Elijah.
Miracle of the ravens
The ravens that fed Elijah by the brook Cherith have been queried. The Hebrew text at 1 Kings 17:4-6 uses the word עֹרְבִים, which means ravens, but with a different vocalization might equally mean Arabs. The Septuagint has κορακες, ravens, and other traditional translations followed. When, centuries later, vowel points were added to the Hebrew text, they also were those for the ravens interpretation.
Alternatives have been proposed for many years; for example Adam Clarke treats it as a discussion already of long standing. Objections to the traditional translation are that ravens are ritually unclean (see Leviticus 11:13-17) as well as physically dirty; it is difficult to imagine any method of delivery of the food which is not disgusting. The parallelism with the incident that follows, where Elijah is fed by the widow, also suggests a human, if mildly improbable, agent.
Prof. John Gray chooses Arabs, saying "We adopt this reading solely because of its congruity with the sequel, where Elijah is fed by an alien Phoenician woman." His translation of the verses in question is:
And the word of Jehovah came to Elijah saying, Go hence and turn eastward and hide thyself in the Wadi Kerith east of the Jordan, and it shall be that thou shalt drink of the wadi, and I have commanded the Arabs to feed thee there. And he went and did according to the word of Jehovah and went and dwelt in the Wadi Kerith east of the Jordan. And the Arabs brought him bread in the morning and flesh in the evening and he would drink of the wadi.
Ascension into the heavens
In some Christian interpretations, the Gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying that none have gone to heaven other than the Son of Man (Jesus Himself) (John 3:13). Accordingly, some Christians believe that Elijah was not assumed into heaven but simply transferred to another assignment either in Heaven or with King Jehoram of Judah. Indeed, the prophets reacted in such a way that makes sense if he was carried away, and not simply straight up (2Kings 2:16).
The question of whether Elijah was in heaven or elsewhere on earth depends partly on the view of the letter Jehoram received from Elijah in 2 Chron 21 after Elijah had ascended. Some have suggested that the letter was written before Elijah ascended, but only delivered later. The rabbinical Seder Olam explains that the letter was delivered seven years after his assumption. This is also a possible explanation for some variation in manuscripts of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews when dealing with the contradiction between the assumption and the letter to Jehoram. Others have argued that Elijah was only "caught away" such as Philip in Acts 8:39 John Lightfoot reasoned that it must have been a different Elijah.
Centuries after his departure, the Jewish nation awaits the coming of Elijah to precede the coming of the Messiah. For many Christians, this belief is referenced in Matthew's gospel, where Jesus Christ is interpreted as teaching that the Elijah who was to come was John the Baptist (Matthew 17:9-13). Further argument for John the Baptist as Elijah hinges on two critical scriptures in Matthew 11:10, 14. Verse 10 is said to correlate with Malachi 3:1 and verse 14 to correlate with Malachi 4:5-6.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Elijah returned on April 3, 1836 in an appearance to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, fulfilling the prophecy in Malachi.
The Bahá'í Faith believes Elijah returned as the Biblical Prophet John the Baptist and as the Báb who founded the Bábí Faith in 1844.
Elijah in arts and literature
* Perhaps the best-known representation of the story of Elijah is Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah". The oratorio chronicles many episodes of Elijah's life, including his challenge to Ahab and the contest of the gods, the miracle of raising the dead, and his ascension into heaven. Composed and premiered in 1846, the oratorio was criticized by members of the New German School but nonetheless remains one of the most popular Romantic choral-orchestral works in the repertoire.
* In Orlando Furioso, the English knight Astolfo flies up to the moon in Elijah's flaming chariot.
* In Melville's Moby-Dick, Elijah appears as a vagrant to admonish Ishmael and Queequeg about sailing with Ahab; he prophesizes that all shall perish (on the Pequod) but one.
* Elijah Rock is a traditional Christian spiritual about Elijah, also sometimes used by Jewish youth groups.
* "Go Like Elijah" is a song by the American rock-pop-jazz songwriter Chi Coltrane.
* Lorenzetto created a statue of Elijah with assistance of the young sculptor Raffaello da Montelupo, using designs by Raphael.
* The Fifth Mountain by Paulo Coelho is based on the story of Elijah
* Christian metal band Disciple released the song "God of Elijah" on their 2001 album By God. The theme of the song is the challenge Elijah placed against Ahab between Baal and the God of Israel.
* The roots-fusion band Seatrain records, on the albums of the same name (1970), bandmember Peter Rowans song Waiting for Elijah, alluding to Elijahs second coming, see Old Testament references above.
* From 1974 to 1976 Philip K. Dick believed himself to be possessed by the spirit of Elijah. He later included Elijah(as Elias Tate) in his novel "The Divine Invasion."
* On Ryan Adams' 2005 album 29 (album) the song "Voices" speaks of Elijah, alluding to Elijah being the prophet of destruction.
* In 1996, Robin Mark created a praise song entitled Days of Elijah.
* Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006) features an old man who ambiguously refers to himself as Ely.
* The popular movie Chariots of Fire is a reference to Elijah's death.
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