Old Testament. Elijah of Tishbe was a lone figure from the remote part of Gilead east of the Jordan. One of the better known characters in the Old Testament, he also made an impact on later Judaism and on the New Testament writers. A contemporary of the Israelite kings Ahab and Ahaziah (874-852 b.c.), Elijah represented a class of prophets who were normally not associated with any sanctuary or prophetic guild (but see 2 Kings 2:3-7 ). He challenged Ahab, whose policies were designed to replace the Israelite idea of kingship with the ancient Near Eastern concept of monarchy and royal law. Elijah defended Yahweh's sovereignty over history and justice, as well as over false gods (1 Kings 17-18).
The stories of Elijah (known as the Elijah cycle) dominate much of the latter half of 1 Kings (17-19, 21) and the early chapters of 2 Kings (1-2). The chronological order of the cycle is uncertain, making the course of Elijah's life obscure. The cycle was incorporated into the theological history of Israel and Judah, without which our knowledge for the reign of Ahab would be almost unknown. It contained six separate narratives that included several anecdotal stories about Elijah's life that may have circulated independently among his disciples in the northern kingdom. All but the last were concerned with the clash of Baal and Yahweh. Elijah appeared to vindicate the distinctive character of the people of God when their identification was threatened by Ahab's liberal policies. He also answered Jehoshaphat's question ( 2 Kings 3:11 ) and sent a letter to Jehoram ( 2 Chron 21:12-15 ).
Elijah appeared on the scene without warning, introduction, or genealogy ( 1 Kings 17:1 ) to deliver an oracle to Ahab announcing a drought, presumably a punishment for defection to the Baal cult. Afterward, he returned to Zarephath where he was miraculously sustained ( 1 Kings 17:17-24 ). God then chose a Gentile believer (the Phoenician woman of Zarephath) to shame his people and to rebuke Jezebel, Ahab's Phoenician queen, showing that there was a Yahwistic believer in her own country. The unfailing water supply shows that God not the king was the dispenser of the water of life. Chrysostom said that Elijah learned compassion in the house of the widow so he could be sent to his own people. Yahweh did not just intervene at critical times in the affairs of people, but was now accessible to believers in the ordinary affairs of life ( 1 Kings 17:12 ).
Three years later there was a break in the drought and Elijah was successful in ending Baal worship at Carmel. The Baal priests were not completely destroyed; they actually continued on past the end of the Ahab dynasty, until the time of Athaliah of Judah (who was related to Ahab's royal house). Elijah helped Israel understand that Yahweh guided the fortunes of the nations; even the Baal cult was under his control. Yahweh, not Baal, had the power of life and death, and was the giver of rain and good things. The Carmel story showed a reminiscence of the change of political and religious sovereignty from Tyre to Israel. Israel was not truly synchretistic; Baal or Yahweh would be king, but not both ( 1 Kings 18:21 ). Ahab was not wholly Baalist; his family bore Yahwistic names, and he consulted with Yahweh after the encounter with Elijah ( 1 Kings 20:13-15 1 Kings 20:22 1 Kings 20:28 ). The Tyrian cult of Baal Melqart may have been a pseudo-monotheistic movement that precipitated this struggle. Israel now saw the mediation of God's will in history and the interpretation of his divine will.
Elijah's success was merely temporary; he fled to Mount Horeb (although this may not be in chronological order) to escape Jezebel's wrath ( 1 Kings 19 ). Here, the small voice of God was in direct opposition to the noisy and primitive sounds of the Canaanite deities, which pointed toward a more spiritual and transcendent concept of Yahweh. The theophany in 1 Kings 19 is similar to Exodus 33:19, and like the story of the widow, may show that God is to be found in the daily affairs of humans, rather than in supernatural phenomena.
Like Amos in a later period, Elijah showed an astute social concern, emerging as a leader with strong ethical ideals ( 1 Kings 21 ). The Naboth incident shows a social dimension in the clash between Israelite law and Canaanite kingship. By appropriating Naboth's land as crown property, Ahab was out of his jurisdiction. Inalienable land in Israel was in principle hereditary, although Yahweh was the true owner. In this position, God demanded the rule of law and justice, and watched over ethical and legal morals. Elijah, whom Ahab saw as a blood avenger (v. 20), is introduced with dramatic suddenness only at the end of this section, confronting Ahab for taking possession of the vineyard. The king was indicted for infringing on two of the ten commandments that were recognized as the basis for society: murder and forcible appropriation, both capital offenses. The curse concerning Ahab was not literally executed on him, however, but on his successor. This may have been because of his repentance, but probably was due to the Hebrew idea of the extended self, taking for granted the cohesion of life and liability between generations. Ahab's dynasty ended because of the Naboth incident, not because of the Baal struggle. Later, Elijah protested Ahaziah's appeal to Baal-Zebub, the local god of Ekron ( 2 Kings 1:9-15 ; Josephus called this god "the lord of the flies, " as did the Ras Shamra texts ). Elijah was here described as a hairy man with a shaggy cloak, evidently the insignia of a prophet ( 2 Kings 1:8 ).
The translation of Elijah into heaven occurs in an anecdotal section concerned mainly with Elisha ( 2 Kings 2:1-12 ). Elijah was associated with the prophetic guilds in Bethel, Gilgal, and Jericho. He did not bequeath his staff to Elisha, but his cloak, which had a spiritual not a magical power. Elisha desired a double portion of Elijah's spirit, a stipulation in Hebrew law whereby the eldest son received his share and was equipped as the true successor to his father. The whirlwind and sudden disappearance of Elijah, with the addition of a theophany, emphasize God's presence in the incident.
In later Old Testament prophetic tradition, Elijah was associated with the day of the Lord ( Mal 4:5-6 ), and was soon to be sent by God on the behalf of the people. He was described as similar to the messenger in Malachi 3:1 (which also may have been an allusion to Elijah, since both prepared the way for Yahweh). The purpose of Elijah's coming was either to pacify family quarrels ( Mal 2:10-16 ), culminating in a new social order, or to restore the covenant relationship.
Later Jewish Tradition. Elijah was prominently featured in popular legend and theological discussion of eschatological expectation during the intertestamental period. The reason for this may be his enigmatic rapture in 2ki 2:11 (the reward for his zeal for the law, according to 1 Macc 2:58, ; which fostered the idea of his sinlessness ), and the prophecy of his return in Malachi, which nurtured the idea of him becoming a messianic figure from the heavenly kingdom who came to purify the priesthood. He was said to be an intercessor for Israel in heaven, a heavenly scribe who recorded the Acts of men, and who had an eternal existence (Ecclus 48:1-14).
New Testament. The New Testament, which mentions the prophet nearly thirty times, shows the influence of the late Jewish tradition of Elijah being the forerunner of the Messiah. The expectation of Elijah's return occurs frequently in the Gospels ( Matt 17:10 ; Mark 9:11 ). Many were convinced that either Jesus ( Matt 16:14 ; Mark 6:15 ; 8:28 ; Luke 9:8 Luke 9:19 ) or John the Baptist ( John 1:21 John 1:25 ) were the expected prophet. Although John denied that he was Elijah, he wore the prophet's style of clothing (a mantle of camel's hair and a leather girdle Matt 3:4 ; Mark 1:6 ). Moreover, Jesus said that John went forth as Elijah in spirit; he was thus the symbolic fulfillment of the prophet's mission ( Matt 11:14 ; Mark 8:28 ; Luke 1:17 ).
Although the tradition that Moses and Elijah would appear together in the last days was not to be found in rabbinic Judaism, both of these Old Testament characters were present and spoke at the transfiguration of Jesus, testifying to the importance of the impending events as eschatological ( Matt 17:3-4 ; Mark 9:4-5 ; Luke 9:30 Luke 9:33 ). Some have seen the two as representing the Law and the Prophets, which were now both considered to be subservient to Christ.
Jesus' prayer on the cross with the opening words of Psalm 22:1, "Eli, Eli" (My God, My God) was either misunderstood or willfully misinterpreted as a petition for help to Elijah ( Matt 27:46-49 ; Mark 15:34-36 ). Jewish lore identified Elijah as a helper in time of need, and since Elijah did not come, Jesus' petition was considered a failure. The church, however, did not accept this figure of Elijah; only Christ himself would be called on in stressful times.
Various events of Elijah's life are alluded to in the New Testament. James uses Elijah as a powerful example of a supplicant ( 5:17 ), relying on Jewish tradition, which credited Elijah with a reputation for prayer (although this is not specifically mentioned in 1 Kings 17-18). He also describes the passage of time of the drought in 1 Kings 18:1 as three and a half years (cf. Luke 4:25 ; Rev 11:6 ). James attempts to refute the Jewish tradition of the sinlessness and eternal nature of the prophet by stating that Elijah was a man "just like us." His prayers were effective because he was righteous.
Jesus used the story of God sending Elijah to the widow of Zarephath to show that the Gentiles were not to be excluded from salvation ( Luke 4:25-26 ). Later church tradition takes the two witnesses of Revelation to be modeled after Moses and Elijah ( Rev 11:3-6 ). They were given the power to shut up the heavens and to bring the fire of judgment like Elijah in 1 Kings 17-18 (cf. Mal 4:5 ; Ecclus 48:1-14). In a similar vein, Jesus rebuked the sons of Zebedee for wondering whether they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village ( Luke 9:54 ).
Paul uses the rabbinic model of Elijah and the idea of the remnant of Israel in Romans 11:2-5 (see 1 Kings 19:10-18 ). Just as Elijah became aware that a remnant of true believers still existed in Israel, Paul understands that there was still a sacred remnant of Jews who were elected by grace.
Mark W. Chavalas
Bibliography. F. Anderson, JBL85 (1966): 46-57; H. Bietenhard, NIDNTT, 1:543-45; J. Gray, I-II Kings; J. Jeremias, TDNT, 2:928-41; H. H. Rowley, BJRL43 (1960): 190-219; R. W. Wallace, Elijah and Elisha.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Elijah'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".