The biblical story of the prophet Elijah is interesting, but it is subject to radically different interpretations. A literal reading of scripture, without imagining acts that are not explicit in the verses, yield a negative interpretation of Elijah’s behavior with God being dissatisfied with him, criticizing him, and even killing him. In contrast, reading the events together with post-biblical Midrashim and the views of traditional famous Bible commentators produces a favorable interpretation of the famed prophet with God being enormously pleased by his work and giving him a seat in heaven while he is still alive. I took the first approach in my book “Who Really was the Biblical Prophet Elijah,” published by Gefen Publishing House. Rabbi Elchanan Samet took the second approach in his book “Elijah,” published by Maggid Books. While we differ, I think Rabbi Samet’s book is, as I hope mine is also, written in an easy to read and understand English, in an interesting fashion, with detailed explanation of his views. Rabbi Samet recognizes the same difficulties that I do, but his interpretations of them differ from mine.
The biblical story of Elijah is relatively short. There are only 139 verses dealing with Elijah. Was Elijah good as most Bible readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, imagine? Who was he? Scripture is unclear on this and other points. There is even a rabbinical view that he was Pinchas, the son of Moses’ brother Aaron who was still alive. He was zealous in the days of Moses and zealous now, but with a changed name. Was he satisfied with what he accomplished or did he become depressed and run to seclude himself on Mount Horeb? Was God pleased with what he did? If not, why does he tell Elijah that God speaks in a soft voice? Was Elijah in contrast bombastic, never subtle? Was he sensitive to the needs of the Israelite people, or was he only interested in stopping their worship of idols? The only incident of help mentioned in scripture is where he aids a woman by reviving her son. Did he do this only because he felt he owed her for her giving him lodging? What happened to him at the end? Was he literally taken to heaven in a in a whirlwind, or is this a nice way of saying he died? If he was taken to heaven, what does he do there?
There were fifteen events in which Elijah was involved. Did God order Elijah to perform the acts? The Bible itself does not say so. The only times that Elijah was ordered by an angel or God to do something was when he was told to go somewhere, and these instructions could be understood as Elijah having the idea since there is no mission involved. Are any of the events miraculous? Can they be interpreted as natural occurrences?
Elijah’s fifteen activities were: 1. He was fed food by ravens or Arabs according to another definition of the word. 2. A jar of meal, and a cruse of oil did not diminish. Does this simply mean that Elijah obtained enough food that would last a long time? 3. He restored life to a child. 4. Brought fire to consume a sacrifice on Mount Carmel. 5. Brought or predicted rain. 6. He was able to live despite not eating nor drinking for forty days and nights. 7. He killed or ordered to be killed hundreds of priests of Baal. Was this murder? There was no trial. 8. Heard the criticism of God. 9. Chose Elisha as his replacement/successor. 10. Split the Jordan to create a dry path. 11. Criticized Ahab for having Naboth killed. 12. Predicted horrible deaths for Ahab and Jezebel, with the former not occurring as foretold. 13. Angels advised Elijah how to act. 14. Elijah killed two units of fifty soldiers for unstated reasons, perhaps due to a feeling of having acted in self-defense, or because Elijah felt the captain of the force insulted God. Was this a misplaced chapter and it was not Elijah but Elisha who did the deed? 15. Ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot with fiery horses in a whirlwind. Was this a reward or a punishment, for God does not need an overzealous aid; God prefers people treating others as they want to be treated themselves?
I think that readers will find the discussions relating to these events interesting.
Hello Rabbi. Thank you for writing me. Does the appearance of Moses to Jesus and Elijah also show the importance of Jesus to early Christians?
Good question. The story of these three together is of course a legend. It may have been placed in a gospel to show that Jesus was accepted as an important person by Moses and Elijah. However, it is not an early legend. It was written long after Jesus death, long after the first Christians.
Hello Rabbi. I read your book about Elijah. I liked the book. I noticed in chapter 17 in “some samples of a resurrected Elijah” in, Elijah in legends part four, that you quote the New Testament but left out the episode of the transfiguration where Moses and Elijah appeared in a cloud filled with the glory of God to Jesus and Peter, and the rest of the disciples on Mount Tabor. What’s your take on Elijah in the transfiguration?
The early Jewish Christians were fascinated by the legendary Elijah who is very different from the biblical Elijah as I point out in my book “Who really was the biblical Elijah.” If I remember correctly there is a Christian book which states that many Jews (early Christians) thought that John the Baptist was Elijah. So it is not surprising that a legend, certainly not a fact, developed that Jesus had contact with Elijah. The legend helped to show how important Jesus was, so important that he met with Elijah.