The Prophet of Judgement
Elijah’s ministry is marked, from the beginning to the end, by verbal castigations and physical annihilations. Elijah announces the drought (1 Kings 17:1), the destruction of Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kings 21:19-26) and Ahaziah’s death (2 Kings 1:4); he has Baal’s prophets slaughtered (1 Kings 18:40) and commands fire to come down from heaven to consume Ahaziah’s soldiers (2 Kings l:10, 12). Elijah is the perfect prophet of judgement.
The author of Kings highlights this quality of judgement in many ways. Skimming through the eight chapters covering Elijah, one is quickly aware of the constant connection between Elijah and judgement.
At the beginning, the first words from Elijah’s mouth are a judgement: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). The declaration is sudden and final. The author does not even take the time to introduce Elijah properly, as his father’s name is not even mentioned (a rare omission in Semitic literature) and information regarding his origin is skimpy: “Elijah, the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead”. This absence of facts about the prophet’s background allows the reader to concentrate on Elijah’s fundamental characteristic: his ministry of judgement.
The prophet’s intervention is not preceded either by a divine mandate. This fact merits being pointed out especially since the word of the Lord appears in the following verse when Elijah receives the order to flee from the king’s wrath. Thus, the word of judgement is tied directly to Elijah and not to God. Admittedly, the rest of the story shows that the prophet’s intervention is approved by God, since the prophecy is fulfilled. Nevertheless, the temporary doubt the reader could have had regarding the legitimacy of Elijah’s intervention does not bother the narrator who, by his manner of relating the facts, links the message of judgement more to Elijah that to God. The inspired author wants to show that Elijah is preoccupied with judgement, whereas God cares about salvation, in this case the prophet’s survival. This way of recounting the events is in accordance with all the occurrences in the cycle of Elijah: God is revealed as the God of grace and Elijah as the prophet of judgement.
Certain accounts indicate that Elijah had a reputation as a prophet of judgement among his contemporaries. Thus, confronted with a difficult situation while in the presence of the prophet, they immediately think of divine judgement. The widow of Zarephath recalls her sin when her son dies. “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (1 Kings 17:18). Likewise, Obadiah, the king’s servant, is nervous about his own sin when Elijah asks him to go tell Ahab that Elijah is there. “What have I done wrong that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death?” (1 Kings 18:9). The servant thinks that Elijah will slip away before Ahab arrives and that the king will punish him for not having arrested Elijah; hence, Obadiah launches into a lengthy apology to justify his behaviour at court. Has he not saved prophets at the risk of his own life? “I your servant have worshipped the Lord since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water.” 1 Kings 18:12-13).
Elijah’s attitude towards the return of rain is significant. Charged with announcing the end of the judgement, Elijah seems to delay the awaited moment. Between the divine promise of rain (1 Kings 18:1) and its actual appearance (1 Kings 18:45), the narrator includes forty-four verses describing Elijah’s preparations for arranging a public encounter with Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 18:3-19) and the confrontation on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40). However there is no mention of God’s having ordered such a meeting. Why is Elijah so set on challenging the prophets of Baal? Elijah seems not to want the return of the rain (a sign of God’s grace) before having given a lesson on God’s sovereignty and having punished the chief culprits. The sudden descent of the fire convinces the people that God is the one and only God and that Baal is merely an impotent idol. As for the death of Baal’s four hundred and fifty prophets, justice is thereby re-established. The narrator says that Elijah had the prophets seized and taken down to the Kishon Valley “and slaughtered them there” (1 Kings 18:40). In view of the large number of prophets, it is possible that Elijah did not kill all of them himself, but was assisted by others. Nevertheless, the narrator leaves the verb slaughtered in the singular to better emphasise Elijah’s responsibility.
The coming of the rain necessitates a prayer from Elijah (1 Kings 18:42-44). What is astonishing is how difficult it is for him to bring down the rain, since the prophet has to pray for it for such a long time (he sends his servant seven times seeking a sign of rain). The contrast with the foregoing situations is obvious. Whereas the rain’s ceasing (a sign of divine judgement) seems to have happened without prayer, and the celestial fire (another sign of judgement) came immediately upon Elijah’s first request, the arrival of the rain (sign of divine grace) requires prolonged prayer. It is even more surprising that the rain had been promised by God (1 Kings 18:1) but a divine decree is neither mentioned regarding the rain’s stopping nor regarding Elijah’s Mount Carmel challenge. Thus, Elijah seems to struggle in the domain of grace, whereas he excels in the domain of judgement.
For Elijah, the return of the rain is not a sign of God’s having pardoned Ahab. The prophet refuses to ride in the royal chariot to Jezreel because he does not have any close association to the king. Elijah does accompany Ahab to Jezreel. He does so, however, not in order to establish his residency there and take up his place again among the people, but in order to encourage the king to follow through on the religious reformation begun at Carmel. Rather than running beside the king’s chariot, Elijah races ahead of him all the way to Jezreel (some thirty kilometres) to avoid showing any close association with him. No closer association is conceivable as long as religious compromise and injustice prevail. Elijah is so eager to see justice realized in Jezreel that he arrives there even before Ahab. He wants to be on the spot to assist and encourage the king in his reforms.
Elijah’s hope is short-lived as Ahab takes no action whatsoever but simply informs the queen of the recent events. She immediately resolves to seek justice and to have Elijah killed (1 Kings 19:1-2). Completely discouraged to the point of no longer wanting to live, Elijah flees. The judgement prophet realises that all hope for justice and reform has vanished. With Jezebel in power the nation will fall right back into the idolatry from which it has just escaped. Faced with the uselessness of his ministry, Elijah sees no reason to go on living. “I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4) he says, lamenting his inability to reform Israel.
At Horeb Elijah expresses his helplessness. What future can there be for the judgement prophet, all alone and abandoned by everyone? Elijah seems to reproach God for His passivity in the field of justice. Why doesn’t God intervene more severely to judge evil despots? The Lord replies in vague language: He is not in the great wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in a soft and subtle sound (1 Kings 19:11-12). God’s essential undertaking is not by compulsion (as in judgement), but by gentleness (as in grace). Elijah seems to have difficulty understanding the message as he literally repeats the same words before and after the revelation (1 Kings 19:10, 14). Grace is obviously a problem for the prophet of judgement.
From this point on, Elijah seems to be put aside, since he has to anoint three men who will complete his ministry: Hazael, future king of Syria; Jehu, future king over Israel; and Elisha, future prophet of Jehovah (1 Kings 19:15-18). However, it would be wrong to see these unctions as God’s criticism of Elijah, or towards his ministry of judgement, for the ministry of these three men will consist precisely of punishing sinners in Israel.
By the beginning of 1 Kings 20, Elijah tumbles into oblivion for a time, the time needed for God to manifest His grace one again towards Israel and Ahab. In front of Syria’s military aggression, God has compassion for his people and promises them deliverance two times (1 Kings 20:13, 28). He leads Israel to victory by communicating to them precise instructions on the strategy to follow (1 Kings 20:14, 22). In order to announce this grace and conduct the king to victory, an unknown prophet is chosen. Indeed, Elijah is scarcely suitable for such a task, not only because his ministry is tied to judgement, but also because Ahab would not believe a message of hope coming from Elijah’s mouth.
After the second military victory, and following Ahab’s new sin, another unknown prophet is chosen to pronounce judgement upon Ahab. (1 Kings 20:35-43). Once again Elijah is kept on the sidelines, perhaps because the unknown prophet was going to have to deceive the king by a partial disguise. Elijah could scarcely have carried out the scheme, being too well known by the king.
After the flagrant affair involving Naboth, Elijah reappears briefly to condemn the king for participating in the murder of his good neighbour. God asks Elijah to announce the king’s humiliating death: “In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood – yes, yours!” (1 Kings 21:19). Elijah executes the command, but in words surpassing in harshness those of the Lord:
“I have found you because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendant and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel – slave or free. I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’ Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country. There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel” (1 Kings 21:20-26).
According to Elijah, disaster will not only strike Ahab, but his entire house. Once again the narrator gives the impression that Elijah is more severe in his condemnation than the Lord’s, since Elijah’s words seem to go further than those of the Lord. Nevertheless, it would not be wise to be too critical of Elijah, since his prophecy is fulfilled to the letter (2 Kings 9:23-10:27). It would be better to understand the prophet’s words as an inspired development of the divine will, or at least to see the Lord’s words expressed in verse 19 as a resume of what the Lord really said to him. Be that as it may, the narrator is again using the literary technique of omission (partial in this case) to bring out the contrast between Elijah and God, and to highlight the prophet’s ministry of judgement.
Contrary to every expectation, “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted” (1 Kings 21:27). For the first time, Ahab repents. The Lord, touched by this gesture, partially mitigates the sentence and informs Elijah accordingly: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son” (1 Kings 21:29). With these words of the Lord, the narrator ends his account, not indicating the least intention on Elijah’s part to transmit the good news of Ahab! Once again, by his manner of relating the events, the author suggests that Elijah is not very sensitive to grace, or, in any case, less sensitive than the Lord.
Chapter 22 reports Ahab’s death. Elijah is absent from the story for a practical reason (among all the Lord’s prophets, only Micaiah could be found), but also because once again the prophetic ministry is tinged with grace. The grace is definitely discreet, as, first and foremost, Micaiah prophesies Ahab’s death. But in informing the king of the actual outcome of the battle, Micaiah offers Ahab a last chance to repent. Instead of that, the king listens to the prophecy only in order to find a way to turn it around and exploit it to his own advantage.
The first chapter of 2 Kings presents Elijah’s judgement ministry in its greatest intensity. The Lord commands Elijah one last time to make known an approaching judgement (2 Kings 1:3-4). The narrator tells the story so as to highlight the literal transmission of the message, as the king’s messengers and then Elijah repeat the Lord’s message word for word. (2 Kings 1:6, 16). This triple repetition of the divine proclamation, which is unnecessary (the author could simply have stated that Elijah and the emissaries had passed on the given message precisely in every respect), gives the impression that Elijah is really in tune with God. The repetition also shows that God’s judgement is irrevocable. In fact, in Semitic thought, repetition denotes certitude.
The surprise, in this episode, comes from Elijah’s sending fire from heaven upon two groups of soldiers arriving to arrest him. This judgement appears excessive, especially in comparison with previous situations, where more serious offences were punished with lenience. Once again it seems difficult to criticize Elijah, since the dual condemnation involves a miracle from God. Nevertheless, as with the other incidents, the narrator intimates a gap between Elijah’s justice and that demanded by God (but this time, the judgements attributed to God and to the prophet are more severe).
The theme of judgement is absent from Elijah’s ascension (2 Kings 2:1-14), for this event already belongs to the cycle of Elisha, prophet of grace. Indeed, the author’s main attention focuses on passing on the prophetic ministry rather than on Elijah’s going up to heaven.
Elisha is the only man who does not dread being in contact with the judgement prophet. In fact, Elisha goes out of his way to be near Elijah. He knows that it is not Elijah who is synonymous with death but that it is sin. Elisha finds the presence of Elijah to be synonymous with life. For having insisted upon following Elijah just until his being whisked away, the latter offers to satisfy his heart’s desire. When Elisha expresses his wish, Elijah tells him it will be granted providing he sees his departure, thereby obliging Elisha to stay with him to the very end.
Let us also notice, as mentioned in the book of Chronicles, the written condemnation sent by Elijah to Jehoram, king of Judah, son and successor of Jehoshaphat.
“Jehoram received a letter from Elijah the prophet, which said:
‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: ‘You have not walked in the ways of your father Jehoshaphat or of Asa king of Judah. But you have walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and you have led Judah and the people of Jerusalem to prostitute themselves, just as the house of Ahab did. You have also murdered your own brothers, members of your father’s house, men who were better than you. So now the Lord is about to strike your people, your sons, your wives and everything that is yours, with a heavy blow. You yourself will be very ill with a lingering disease of the bowels, until the disease causes your bowels to come out.’ ” (2 Chron 21:12-15).
The Solitary Prophet
Elijah’s second characteristic stems partially from the first. Every judgement ministry leads to a certain solitude, but Elijah’s case is extreme, because Ahab’s reign is one of the most perverse. It is said of Ahab that he “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30) and Jezebel systematically kills all the prophets. In this kind of environment, a judgement ministry is extremely dangerous and can only be lived on the outskirts of society.
Elijah’s solitude is understandable by the context of his ministry, but it does not stop there. Elijah is the typical loner. From the beginning to the end of his ministry, he is “isolated” even when he is in good company. The narrator pushes himself to make this point every time he can.
Elijah’s first appearance is sudden (1 Kings 17:1). As we have already noticed, there is no mention of a mandate from the Lord, thus reducing the presentation of the prophet to its simplest form. Like a comet, Elijah bursts into view for an instant, without any warning, then disappears before anyone realizes the full import of his words.
As soon as the message is proclaimed, God counsels Elijah to leave and to go hide himself in a barren region (the Cherith ravine), where Elijah’s only companions are ravens who feed him twice daily (1 Kings 17:2-6).
When the brook in the ravine dries up, God directs him to go abroad to the north of Israel (1 Kings 17:9). For the only time in his ministry, Elijah is able to stay with human beings, but his host family is limited to two persons: a widow and her son. The woman herself seems isolated from society since, lacking sufficient food, she has no one she can count on to help her. After the prophet’s arrival, the miracle of the oil and flour enables the three of them to subsist independently.
Again we note that Elijah seems isolated even in the midst of this family. He has his meals alone (at least the first one), as he says to the widow: “Make a small cake of bread for me from what you have an bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kings 17:13). He lives in an annexe of the house, an upper room located on the roof and accessible by an outside stairway. When Elijah intercedes in behalf of the dead child, he begins by isolating him, taking him off to his room in order to be alone with him (1 Kings 17:19).
After living as a fugitive for three years, when Elijah meets Obadiah, Ahab’s servant recognizes the prophet’s elusive character: “I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you” (1 Kings 18:12). The contact with Obadiah is brief. Ahab’s servant thinks that Elijah misjudges him and is not aware of all he has done to help the faithful.
On Mount Carmel, when Elijah finally manifests himself in front of the crowd, he hastens to spotlight his seclusion: “Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets” (1 Kings 18:22). As soon as the confrontation is over, Elijah withdraws and seeks the Lord for rain. Only one man, his servant, is permitted to accompany him, not to help him intercede, but to serve as observer. Seven times Elijah sends him back to his post. The dialogue is restricted to a minimum of words: in order to inform Elijah that there is no change in the sky, the servant says merely, “no, nothing.” Seven times Elijah responds with a single word: “Return” (1 Kings 18:41-44).
When he has to accompany Ahab to Jezreel, rather than positioning himself alongside of Ahab, Elijah chooses to run in front of the king’s chariot all the way from Carmel to Jezreel, under a torrential rain. Since the king has not shown any sign of repentance, the prophet avoids any sign of reconciliation (1 Kings 18:44-46).
His sojourn in Ahab’s city is cut short (less than twenty-four hours). Faced with Jezebel’s threats, once again, Elijah has to run for his life (1 Kings 19:1-3). He goes away to the extreme south of the country with his servant, whom he then leaves, and continues into the desert by himself, where Elijah is depressed and more alone than ever.
An angel of the Lord makes two brief appearances in order to feed the prophet (1 Kings 19:5-8). The nourishment recalls the widow’s flour and oil, not by an inexhaustible characteristic but by the unlimited strength imparted to the prophet, rendering him again self-sufficient and independent of all human assistance. Thus, Elijah receives the energy to travel forty days and forty nights!
Alone on Horeb (also called Mount Sinai) Elijah meets God, like Moses seven centuries earlier. The great law-giver had also met the Lord face to face (the people having remained at the base of the mountain, not daring to come closer for fear of death: Exod 19:12). On two occasions, Elijah expresses his despair and loneliness: “The Israelites have put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). God encourages the prophet, informing him that three men will continue his ministry, but they will not be companions. Two of them will be kings, one even a foreigner and an enemy of Israel. As for Elisha, he is presented as Elijah’s successor rather than companion (1 Kings 19:16). Besides, as soon as he is anointed, Elisha asks permission to go to be with his family one last time, leaving Elijah alone once again (1 Kings 19:20). Elisha is not mentioned any more in the four following chapters, to the point of being forgotten by the reader, and he does not reappear until Elijah’s departure.
Elijah is absent from the two chapters devoted to the military conflicts with the Syrians (1 Kings 20; 22), the solitary prophet not being able to get involved with the people and the army. Anonymous prophets intercede instead (1 Kings 20) and Micaiah, the son of Imlah (1 Kings 22:8). These prophets do not seem to have any connection whatsoever with Elijah. When Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, wants to inquire of the Lord before going to war against Ramoth, Ahab seems to have forgotten Elijah’s very existence, because he responds that the only prophet available is Micaiah (1 Kings 22:8).
Elijah puts in two more brief appearances, one during Ahab’s reign (1 Kings 21:17-29) and the other during Ahaziah’s (2 Kings 1), in order to proclaim the Lord’s judgement to the kings. In each case, his contact with the king is kept to the minimum. He encounters Ahab in private, without any warning, in Naboth’s vineyard. Ahaziah does not even see the prophet, but receives word of his condemnation through his own servants. Elijah meets them outside the city – as they are on their way to consult the god of Ekron – without even bothering to identify himself. It is only thanks to the way he is dressed (perhaps also by the nature of his message) that the king is able to recognise the author of the proclamation (2 Kings 1:7-8).
When Ahaziah wants to arrest Elijah, the latter, for once, is easily found, even on three occasions (2 Kings 1:9-15). Nevertheless, the prophet remains more inaccessible than ever. The two first groups of soldiers can only approach within earshot, when, confronted with their murderous intentions (the only way to understand the curse is by the prophet’s likely acting in self-defence), they are killed. The third group escapes death thanks to their leader’s respectful attitude towards Elijah. Encouraged by the Lord then, Elijah agrees to accompany the officer in charge, but their journey together is told in a few words, by way of underlining the brevity of the contact (“So Elijah got up and went down with him to the king”). Immediately upon arrival, Elijah merely repeats his message of condemnation.
In the last account (the ascension), Elijah expresses his desire to be alone. On three occasions he sends Elisha away from him, but each time Elisha remains attached to his master. The sons of the prophets of Bethel and Jericho, although informed of Elijah’s imminent departure, do not speak a word to him. On the other hand, they talk with Elisha about Elijah. After the latter’s ascension, these same men search in vain for his body. Thus, Elijah, whose origins are not known, who was elusive during his ministry, disappears without leaving the slightest trace.
An unusual life
To the prophet’s solitary life, one must add the unusual character of his life. Elijah is not only isolated from his contemporaries, but totally unlike other men. Resurrecting someone (1 Kings 17:21-22) is repeated only once in the Old Testament (the resurrection of the Shunammite’s son by Elisha: 2 Kings 4:34-35). The divine fire which falls down upon the prophet’s enemies is exceptional, indeed unique (2 Kings 1:10, 12); only the earth swallowing Moses’ enemies or the bears mauling the adolescents taunting Elisha are at all comparable (Num 16:28-32; 2 Kings 2:24). The public demonstration on Mount Carmel possibly brings to mind the confrontation between Moses and the Egyptian magicians. Finally, the ascension experience is shared only by Enoch (Gen 5:24).
It is worthwhile also to point out the inconspicuous aspect of the miracles realized during the prophet’s life. The Mount Carmel exhibition is the only exception.
The lack of rain is an inconspicuous sign. The beginning of a drought always passes unnoticed, as the absence of rain for a few weeks or a few months is a seasonal phenomenon. When the drought continues and lasts abnormally long, no one is able to attribute the cause to a specific occurrence.
The miracle of the ravens is far more “spectacular”: on the one hand ravens never act like this (they steal food rather than bringing it) and on the other hand, the miracle is repeated morning and evening for a long period. Let us note, however, that Elijah is the only witness of the miracle. As for the wonder concerning the oil and flour, there are two other witnesses, but they are foreigners who live in a remote spot. The son’s resurrection takes place out of view. The son is dead and does not know what is happening, and the mother has to stay outside the room.
Regarding the advent of the rain, there is a lapse of time between the moment Elijah announces its onset and the first drops; in fact, Ahab has time to eat and drink, and Elijah has to pray with perseverance (1 Kings 18:41-45). A sceptical person would have questioned the connection between the arrival of the rain and Elijah’s word (v. 41). Moreover, only Elijah’s servant knows that his master is praying for the coming rain.
In chapter 19, the marvels are numerous, but seen only by Elijah: the angel’s appearance, miraculous meals, the material manifestations on Mount Horeb. Later, when the fire comes down from heaven on the men, the witnesses are killed (2 Kings 1). Finally, Elijah’s ascension is seen only by Elisha, the prophets’ sons having no proof other than the disappearance of his body.
Let us note also that often the divine revelations shared with Elijah are not communicated to anyone else. Of the three men called to be anointed in order to continue Elijah’s ministry (and then to be partially informed of the future), only Elisha is contacted. When God informs Elijah of the postponement of Ahab’s judgement (1 Kings 21:27-29), the prophet does not tell the person most directly concerned (Ahab).
The only really public sign of Elijah is tied in with the Mount Carmel confrontation. We ought to specify, however, that this sign is as brief as lightning. As to the crossing of the Jordan, it is, indeed, seen by the prophets’ sons, but the main object of this miracle is to authenticate Elisha, who will be able to fulfil his master’s work (2 Kings 2:8, 14). This miracle, then, is closely linked to Elisha, whose miracles are performed openly, contrary to those of Elijah.
The inconspicuous aspect of these miracles surrounding Elijah is certainly food for thought. Why does God implement them, and for whom? A possible explanation will be offered further on.
The Time that Elapses
Time is a fundamental concept of Elijah’s cycle. The events are stretched out within a certain framework of time. In particular, God’s purposes are linked with time, a time that passes, that is lengthened, that seems endless.
Elijah begins his ministry by proclaiming a drought, a lingering and progressive judgement. He predicts the drought, but does not specify the duration: “As the Lord God of Israel live, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Is it a question of a short, average or long drought? No hint is given as to how long it will last. The prophet will determine the end of it by his word.
As soon as the announcement is given, God sends Elijah away to a deserted area. The Lord promises to provide for his needs and informs him of the means of his nourishment (ravens will feed him), but he does not give him any idea as to how long the miracle will last. The food is brought sparingly: the birds come every morning and evening. Each time the amount is sufficient for a meal, but never enough for any leftovers. As for the water, Elijah sees the supply diminishing gradually. He does not know how long it will continue to flow and quench his thirst. It is only when the brook runs dry that God informs Elijah about the next stage: he must visit an unknown widow at Zarephath, north of Israel.
By the miracle of the oil and the flour, God meets the needs of the prophet and his host family. Once again, the miracle is daily. Each time a meal is required, the oil and flour “are increased”. There is no possibility of building up a reserve supply. The only real comfort is that the next meal is assured (slightly better compared to the previous situation). The future rests in fact upon a promise from the Lord: “The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth” (1 Kings 17:14). The last miracle of chapter 17 also takes time. Elijah has to stretch himself out three times on top of the dead child to bring life back into his body (1 Kings 17:21-22).
In the following chapter, God orders Elijah to meet the king: “Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth” (1 Kings 18:1). The reader finally finds out the length of the drought (about three years), and in order to stress the interminable aspect of the phenomenon, the narrator specifies that “it came to pass after many days”. Rain is announced (1 Kings 18:1), but it will only appear forty-four verses later (1 Kings 18:45)! Things are not so simple, because Elijah feels obliged to bring about a public confrontation on Mount Carmel. To begin with, he must meet Ahab and that takes time. He has to contact Obadiah, the king’s servant, who recites to him his good deeds point by point. The author furnishes myriad details, sometimes repeating the same information (v. 7 & v. 13). The technique of delay is fully exploited (i.e. an expected event is not immediately described). By this indirect method, the narrator prolongs the suspense, while simultaneously accentuating the notion that time is passing. Bringing on the rain itself calls for a long prayer. Six times nothing happens, and it is only during the seventh intervention that a minuscule change takes place: the servant observes a cloud “as small as a man’s hand” (1 Kings 18:44).
The people’s sudden change of mind, the death of all Baal’s prophets and the onset of the rain arouse everyone’s hopes. The return to God seems imminent. Elijah accompanies Ahab to Jezreel, in order to see the king reform the country. Instead of that, Ahab does nothing but inform the queen of the death of Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 19:1). Jezebel musters all her power and directly threatens Elijah. All hope of reform vanishes. The work at Carmel is reduced to nothing. He will have to begin all over again. Elijah is crushed, utterly depleted.
An angel feeds Elijah and announces a long journey to him. The nourishment gives him exceptional energy, but Elijah needs two portions, “because the journey is too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7). The trip actually takes ages, since the prophet has to walk for forty days and forty nights. This length of time seems exaggerated, as the stretch between Beersheba and Horeb can be done in a dozen days (cf. Deut 1:2; see p. 121). The journey, then, lasts longer than necessary; Elijah appears to move ahead slowly.
At Horeb, the conversation with God takes time and does not seem to get anywhere. Different signs are given, but without revealing anything, as God is not in the great and strong wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. When God finally manifests himself, he does so via a still, small voice. Elijah does not seem to understand, since he gives the same response as before (v. 14; v. 10).
Then God lets Elijah know that the long awaited judgement is finally going to happen. But not one of the three persons designated to implement the plan is yet properly prepared. Elijah must first anoint them. The one through whom the judgements must begin (Hazael, future king of Syria) lives in the far north, whereas Elijah is in the far south of the country. The journey will be long and dangerous, in addition, because Elijah will have to cross Ahab and Jezebel’s kingdom, where there is a price on his head.
In a surprising way, Elijah does not go to anoint either of the two kings, but calls upon Elisha. The judgement, then, is blocked because the two persons through whom it must begin cannot fulfil their functions. Elijah probably thinks that Elisha, his successor, will anoint the two kings, but he is apparently not in a hurry to see Elisha follow him, since he allows him first to return to his family (1 Kings 19:20-21).
In chapter 20, Elijah and Elisha disappear from circulation even though God needs prophets to carry out his word. Two unknown prophets lend a hand. Instead of judgement, God extends his grace, a first time, then a second, a year later (1 Kings 20:13, 22, 28). In the end, when an unknown prophet must proclaim Ahab’s judgement to him, Ahab learns that the king of Syria will take his life: “Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people” (1 Kings 20:42). This judgement, however, must not worry Ahab, because the Syrian army has just been annihilated (1 Kings 20:29-30). Obviously the judgement will not be realized for the time being.
At the time of the Naboth matter, everything seems to be going well for Ahab. The royal power is consolidated to the point of permitting the queen to do whatever seems good to her. In front of the worst wickedness, there is no sign of ministerial or judicial opposition. Only Elijah’s message disturbs the tranquillity. He predicts the disappearance of Ahab’s dynasty, but in view of the king’s repentance, God postpones the sentence until the next generation (1 Kings 21:29).
With Ahaziah’s reign, the reader expects to find God’s judgement on Ahab’s family, since God had announced that “in the days of his son I will bring the calamity on his house” (1 Kings 21:29). Nothing like that happens. Of course, Ahaziah dies quickly, after reigning only two years, but he is the only one who dies. The house of Ahab remains in power. Ahaziah’s having no son, another son of Ahab (Joram) comes to the throne. The judgement, then, is put off once again. It will come to pass, however, as Ahab’s entire house is killed at the end of the reign of one of Ahab’s sons (2 Kings 9-10).
The slow pace by which the events proceed is due to divine grace. This grace is expressed during Elijah’s cycle by a mitigated judgement. Instead of being immediate and complete, the judgement is moderate, gradual, often put off till a later date, generally preceded by warnings. Also, signs indicating God’s sovereignty accompany the prophets’ words. In Elijah’s cycle, divine grace is not expressed by redemption, that is by restoring justice, but by the absence of judgement. In other words, God is patient and grants sinners time for repentance.
The first divine intervention consists of withholding the rain. This is a slow, gradual judgement. At the beginning, nothing is seen; then, week after week, the situation worsens. The first months, the problems are easily bearable, but after three years, the suffering is widespread. Let us notice that this judgement is astonishingly moderate compared to the evil committed, Ahab having done “evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30). He had married the perverse Jezebel, worshipped Baal and erected a temple to this false god in the capital. Thus, “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Drought is a moderate and progressive judgement, but as soon as it becomes too severe, God puts an end to it. The people and the king have not, however, repented. Does God have compassion for the faithful who are suffering alongside of the wicked? Whatever the reason, the judgement is suspended.
Divine grace is manifested also by other delayed judgements:
Ahab’s judgement for his laxity towards Ben-Hadad seems far off, since the punishment must be executed by the Syrian army (1 Kings 20:42), who have just been beaten. Their army will have to be reconstituted before the prophecy can be accomplished.
At the time of the Naboth affair, the judgement on Ahab’s house is put off for a generation, following the king’s repentance.
This judgement does not come during the reign of Ahab’s first son (Ahaziah), but of his second (Joram).
This second reign is action-packed with events, since the author consecrates seven chapters to it (2 Kings 2-8). We find Elisha’s ministry there, during which God gives an exceptional demonstration of his grace.
As for Ahaziah’s personal judgement for his having consulted idols (2 Kings 1:2), it follows the “natural” order. Elijah announces to the king that he will not be healed from his accident. God simply lets the injury run its course.
Divine mercy is expressed, then, by moderate judgements, but also by the announcement of these judgements. Those announced: the coming drought (1 Kings 17:1), Israel’s defeat before the Syrian troops (1 Kings 20:42), the miserable end of the house of Ahab (1 Kings 21:19-26), the king’s death during the siege of Ramoth (1 Kings 22:17-23), the fatal outcome of Ahaziah’s injury (2 Kings 1:4, 6, 16). God does not immediately strike the kings with afflictions, but informs them beforehand of troubles to come. In this way, God grants to Ahab and to Ahaziah a time for repentance. On only one occasion, Ahab profits from it, and God immediately postpones the deadline (1 Kings 21:27-28). Within this framework of grace, where the guilty person is warned each time before being punished, one is almost astonished to see a judgement strike men without warning. This is the case with the two groups of fifty soldiers coming to arrest Elijah (2 Kings 1:10, 12).
God announces his judgement, but he also gives signs of his sovereignty in order to rekindle Israel’s faith. The stopping of the rain, then its return to order by Elijah’s prayer, witness to the Lord’s superiority over Baal, considered by the idolaters as the god of the rain. The Carmel confrontation, where the celestial fire consumes Elijah’s offering and not that of Baal‘s prophets, demonstrates the same superiority. Israel’s salvation in front of the Syrian offensives brings further proof of the reality of the Lord (“You shall know that I am the Lord” 1 Kings 20:13) and of his omnipotence (“Thus says the Lord: ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys,” therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord’” 1 Kings 20:28).
God’s patience is stretched, but it is not unlimited. When God sets a time limit, nothing can impede his judgement from being realized. Ahab’s death is the perfect illustration of this. In spite of his disguise, in spite of the top quality of his armour, an arrow drawn at random hits the king between the joint of his breastplate and mortally wounds him (1 Kings 22:34). Later, when Hazael and Jehu, the dispensers of justice to the two kings, are finally anointed (2 Kings 8:7-15; 9:1-10), the judgement of the house of Ahab follows rapidly, and the entire dynasty is exterminated (2 Kings 9:11-10:27).
Elijah and the Lord
Elijah is sometimes criticized for his behaviour. The prophet will have disobeyed God on various occasions:
He proclaims a drought without having been ordered by God (1 Kings 17:1).
He slaughters his adversaries on Mount Camel (1 Kings 18:40).
He runs away from Jezebel instead of standing up to her and trusting God for his safety (1 Kings 19:3).
He lives alone, sends those around him away, then forgets all his loyal supporters (1 Kings 19:3, 10).
He shuts himself up in his own ideas and refuses to be open to a new revelation 1 Kings 19:14).
He refuses to go to anoint two of the three persons designated by God (1 Kings 19:19-21).
He refuses to announce the divine pardon to Ahab (1 Kings 21:27-29).
He hastily sends fire on two groups of soldiers (2 Kings 1:10, 12).
This list is not exhaustive, but it reflects the opinion of a reader with a very negative attitude towards the prophet.
Too severe a criticism, however, seems inappropriate, for Elijah receives an outstanding support from the Lord throughout his ministry. Whereas many faithful are slaughtered or stoned, and some escape death thanks to the help of courageous men like Obadiah, Elijah receives his aid directly from God, by means of miracles, some more extraordinary than others, certain ones being repeated daily over a long period: first the raven caterers, then inexhaustible oil and flour, the “magic potion” cakes and the destructive celestial fire. Elijah is not only protected while living, although his life is the most threatened in the kingdom, but he is one of two men not having to die.
All his prayers are granted and all his words are accomplished, whether it is a question of the stopping, then the return of the rain, the child’s resurrection, the coming of the lightning to burn the offering or to kill two groups of soldiers, the multiplication of the food or the judgement on the king and his family.
Elijah is instructed in private by the Lord. He is often the only one to see God’s spectacular interventions. He is guided step by step for his safety and in the orientation of his ministry. He receives a revelation in the same place where Moses received all the ordinances of the Mosaic law.
Let us note also the “post-mortem” ministry (if one can speak thus of a man who is never dead), announced by Malachi, then realised, in part or entirely, in the person of John the Baptist. Let us point out as well the presence of Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration.
Is it wise to criticise Elijah in light of these numerous signs of divine blessing? To ask the question is to answer it. Elijah is manifestly a man of God of an exceptional calibre, a model for our faith, beginning with his honesty and his perseverance, as James reminds us in his epistle (James 5:16-18).
Having paved the way for a sound evaluation of the personage, there remain a few pertinent questions to be answered. Why does the narrator bend over backwards to attribute judgements to Elijah and grace to the Lord (pp. 11-19 & 28-31)? He certainly doesn’t want to underline a fundamental difference between Elijah and the Lord (such a position is untenable because Elijah is incapable of performing the slightest miracle without God’s backing). The narrator is simply pointing out a difference of emphasis. Elijah is first and foremost the prophet of judgement, whereas God, at this period of the history of revelation, manifests himself more by grace. Elijah bears witness to law and justice, while the Lord unveils another facet of his Person: grace. It would be a mistake to pit justice and mercy against each other, for they are both divine attributes. Of course, they are apparently contradictory, indeed are reconcilable with difficulty, and in the last analysis are reconciled only in Jesus Christ. It is nevertheless the case that God is, throughout all eternity, entirely just while being merciful.
Elijah is a faithful witness to God’s justice, but he also needs to discover divine grace and the full extent of that grace. The death of Baal’s prophets is in accord with the Mosaic law given at Mount Sinai (Deut 13:2-6); the judgement extended to the entire house of Ahab is in harmony with God’s will (1 Kings 21:21-26; 2 Kings 9-10). Nevertheless, Elijah must also learn about divine grace.
The Tishbite is presented to us as a man who knows and yet who must learn. Elijah knows that the drought is going to come; he knows that God will make the fire come down on the altar at Carmel (if not, he would never have launched this challenge). His confidence is such that he issues orders to water the offering abundantly. Elijah knows that fire will also come down from heaven to kill the two groups of fifty soldiers sent to arrest him (he does not even need to pray to be heard by God).
Elijah knows many things, but he does not know everything. He remains very dependent upon God. The latter must instruct him step by step. He guides Elijah to lead him first to the brook Cherith, then when the water is in short supply, he guides him to Zarephath. Later at Beersheba, the angel persuades Elijah to eat a second time, for the road is long. At Horeb, the Lord orders him to come out of the cave in order to receive a revelation. At the time of his being taken away, Elijah does not know whether Elisha will receive the double portion asked for, while knowing under what condition he will receive it (“Elijah replied: You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so” 2 Kings 2:10).
Elijah’s questions are primarily concerned with the matter of judgement and grace. When the widow’s son dies, the prophet is uncertain, for a brief instant, about God’s justice: “O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” (1 Kings 17:20). At Horeb, at the time of his personal encounter with God, Elijah is astonished by the divine indulgence in view of Jezebel’s sin and Ahab’s laxity.
Elijah has to be instructed in the field of grace. Thus, God informs him of Ahab’s repentance and of the postponement of the punishment (1 Kings 21:19). At Horeb, he lets him know about the priority of grace: God is not in the storm, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the gentle murmur.
Elijah is a model of faith, obedience, courage and perseverance. The New Testament brings out two of the prophet’s qualities: persevering faith and justice. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced crops” (James 5:16-18). Elijah is seen as such a remarkable man that James has to specify that the prophet was a man just like us. The Lord’s brother is not emphasizing Elijah’s sins, but his human limitations. Elijah was not a superman who was never tempted, but a man of faith who knew how to conquer temptation and discouragement. Moreover, James is highlighting Elijah’s uprightness, not his imperfection. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
From his standpoint, the author of Kings is not trying first and foremost to emphasize lessons in ethics in his work, (see “The Themes of 1-2 Kings” pp. 68-73). Nevertheless, Elijah’s qualities come out clearly from the accounts, and numerous commentators and preachers have elaborated upon them.
Elijah obeys all the Lord’s orders. He goes to the Cherith ravine (1 Kings 17:3-5), then to Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-10); he presents himself to Ahab for the return of the rain (1 Kings 18:1-2); he eats the food prepared by the angel two times (1 Kings 19:5-8), then undertakes a long journey (1 Kings 19:7-8); he comes out of the cave at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:11, 13), then goes to anoint Elisha to succeed him as prophet (1 Kings 19:16, 19); he meets Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard and announces God’s judgement to him (1 Kings 21:17-24); he informs Ahaziah’s messengers (2 Kings 1:3-4), and then the king in person of the consequences of his evil ways (2 Kings 1:15-16).
The only orders which do not seem to have been carried out have to do with anointing the two kings chosen to undertake the judgement against Israel (1 Kings 19:15-16). However, far from opposing the divine will, Elijah fully accomplishes it within the limits of anointing Elisha, as this anointing made the other two possible (see p. 128).
Many of the actions undertaken and orders received from the Lord by Elijah were dangerous. Nevertheless, the prophet faithfully accomplished his ministry at the risk of his life. He announced the Lord’s judgements to the kings of Israel: twice to Ahab and twice to Ahaziah. To Ahab, he first gave notice of the drought (1 Kings 17:1), then the extinction of his dynasty following Naboth’s murder (1 Kings 21:17-24). To Ahaziah, he declared the Lord’s displeasure, first through the king’s servants, then directly to the king (2 Kings 1). Elijah also organised the exhibition on Mount Carmel, where all alone he had to confront four hundred fifty prophets of Baal (and he was even ready to challenge Asherah’s four hundred prophets at the same time).
The unpopular message he was charged to convey was never softened in order to be less offensive. On the contrary, some people even accused him of having accentuated the judgement (see the commentary on 1 Kings 21:21-24, pp. 161-163).
The actions undertaken and the orders received were not only dangerous, but demanded an extraordinary faith. Elijah leaves for the Cherith ravine because he believes that the ravens will feed him as promised (1 Kings 17:4-5). At Zarephath, he believes that the oil and flour will last till the end of the drought and assures the widow accordingly (1 Kings 17:14). When the widow’s son dies, Elijah insists upon obtaining his resurrection (he stretches himself out on the boy three times), even though this kind of miracle had never been realised in the history of mankind (1 Kings 17:21). At Carmel, Elijah is so sure that his prayer will be answered regarding the fire that he makes fun of the failure of Baal’s prophets and asks to have his own offering watered abundantly (1 Kings 18:27, 34). The same day, he prays insistently for the rain to return (1 Kings 18:43). Under the reign of Ahaziah, he calmly waits for the soldiers on the mountain, confident that fire would come down from heaven and consume them (2 Kings 1:10, 12).
Elijah also demonstrates perseverance, as the expected results often take time to be realised (see “The Time that Elapses” pp. 25-28). The epistle of James brings out the earnestness of Elijah’s prayer for rain (James 5:17-18). Moreover, Elijah never yielded to compromise, but remained faithful to his principles.
Elijah had to acquire a better knowledge of divine grace, but that does not imply that he lacked discernment. Several times the author does not precede a justified action by Elijah with a word from the Lord, as if to highlight the symbiosis between Elijah and the Lord: the announcement of the drought, the fire descending to destroy two groups of soldiers. Why would the Lord speak to Elijah, since the latter already knows what He is going to do?
Let us note also that his approach to Ahab after three years of drought shows great wisdom (see commentary 1 Kings 18:2-15, pp. 98-98). It is the same with the proposed demonstration at Carmel (pp. 103-105).
The most obvious “failure”: the flight from Jezebel
Elijah does not reap only praises from the commentators, but usually he is wrongly criticized. The action most often repudiated is his running away from Jezebel, following threats of death uttered by the queen (1 Kings 19:1-3). On this occasion, Elijah would have disobeyed God and lacked courage, faith, perseverance and discernment.
A study of the text, context and vocabulary render this interpretation extremely debatable. One can very well show that Elijah behaved with wisdom and discernment. This is not the moment to develop a chain of reasoning that the reader will find in the commentary (p. 117), but to pose just one question: is a man who stays in a house on fire, when he has the possibility of leaving it, showing courage and faith or foolishness and stupidity?
Elijah, the New Moses
The evaluation of an important person is often made in relation to someone else. A president is compared to his predecessors, for better or for worse. In order to evaluate the kings of Israel and Judah, the author of 1-2 Kings situates the monarchs in relation to the founder of the kingdom (David for Judah and Jeroboam for Israel) and sometimes in relation to their fathers. The personage of Elijah is easily compared to Moses, as numerous points draw them close to each other.
Moses and Elijah both openly challenged political and spiritual authorities, and demonstrated the superiority of the Lord over idols. Moses confronted Pharaoh and his magicians, whereas Elijah defied Ahab and the prophets of Baal. Through the ten plagues, Moses showed the superiority of the Lord over the Egyptian gods, in particular the gods of the Nile and the sun, while Elijah ridiculed the power of Baal and his prophets, incapable of bringing fire or rain (Baal was the storm god).
The enemies of the two men were miraculously killed. Pharaoh’s armies, in the act of pursuing Israel, were drowned in the Red Sea, and later, Korah and his colleagues were swallowed by the earth or killed by fire for having refused to recognize Moses’ authority to carry out the reforms (Num 16:28-35). As for Elijah, he sent fire from heaven to consume two groups of fifty soldiers coming to arrest him (2 Kings 1).
On other occasions, both men fled when threatened by political power. Moses sought refuge abroad in Midian, after having tried to establish justice by killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew (Exod 2:11-15). Elijah ran away to the southernmost part of the kingdom of Judah, after having tried to bring the kingdom of Israel back to the Lord, and for that reason having killed all of Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 19:1-3). Moses thought that his contemporaries would recognize him as their liberator (Acts 7:25). Elijah was hoping to bring the people back to the Lord through the demonstration at Carmel. Instead of that, Moses and Elijah were challenged and accused of murder (Exod 2:14; 1 Kings 19:1). God reinstated the two men in the ministry at Mount Horeb, which means desert (Exod 3:1; 1 Kings 19:15).
Faced with troubles and opposition, both men lost their will to live and asked God to let them die (Num 11:10-15; 1 Kings 19:4).
The two men were often guided by the Lord, step by step. The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire directed Israel from the moment they left Egypt, and Elijah was instructed to leave Israel in order to go first to the Cherith ravine and then to Zarephath, in the territory of Sidon.
Both men crossed a large body of water using an object to signal their will. Moses stretched out his staff to divide the water at the Red Sea (Exod 14:16) and Elijah struck the Jordan with his cloak in order to cross over on dry land (2 Kings 2:8).
As for food, both men saw God meet their needs daily in a miraculous manner. Moses and his people ate manna for forty years, whereas Elijah first received his sustenance two times a day via the ravens, then ate meals prepared by a widow, thanks to the inexhaustible oil and flour.
The two men also fasted during forty days and forty nights, Moses during the revelation on Mount Sinai and Elijah just before his encounter with the Lord on the same mountain, also known as Mount Horeb (Deut 9:9, 18; cf. Exod 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8).
The revelation on God’s mountain (Sinai/Horeb) profoundly marked the ministry of both men. Thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, and a trembling of the whole mountain surrounded Sinai in Moses’ time (Exod 19:16, 18; 20:18; Deut 4:11), a powerful wind, earthquake and fire during the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12). Moses had to be in a cleft in the rock when the glory of the Lord passed by (Exod 33:22), but the Lord spoke to Elijah in the cave, then asked him to come outside for a special revelation, which he did only after having received this revelation (1 Kings 19:11, 13).
Moses and Elijah each had a successor who continued their work, but in a different way: Moses left Egypt and Joshua entered the Promised Land; Elijah emphasized divine judgement and Elisha, divine grace. Both successors commenced their ministry by crossing the Jordan miraculously (Jos 3:7; 4:14; 2 Kings 2:14).
The bodies of Moses and Elijah disappeared mysteriously at the end of their lives. Nobody has ever seen the tomb of Moses (Deut 34:6) and Elijah’s body was searched for in vain by the sons of the prophets (2 Kings 2:16-18). The disappearance of Moses’ body has given rise to various speculations concerning an ascension of the great lawgiver, whereas Elijah really was taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11-13).
Moses and Elijah reappear together on the mountain of Transfiguration (Matt 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30). Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets.
Although the two men have many points in common, Elijah is not Moses. The contrasts between the two men are immense.
Moses exercised a public ministry in the midst of his people during forty years. Granted that he also lived forty years in exile, but this time of solitude preceded his call to the ministry. On the other hand, Elijah’s ministry is characterised by solitude from the beginning to the end. According to the accounts, his longest stay among his followers is limited to a few hours (1 Kings 19:1-3).
Moses’ parents are known (Amram and Jochebed: Exod 6:20), his adoptive mother (Pharaoh’s daughter), his brother (Aaron), sister (Miriam), wife (Zipporah), father-in-law (Jethro), children (Gershom and Eliezer: Exod 18:3-4), whereas Elijah has no family connections (orphan, bachelor, refugee).
Moses laid the foundations of the Jewish faith, while Elijah tried to re-establish them. Moses is the legislator, Elijah the champion of the Prophets. Moses is the leader, Elijah the protester. At the time of the Transfiguration, Moses represents the first part of the Jewish canon (the Pentateuch) and Elijah, the second (the Prophets).
In his relationship with God, Moses sometimes seems to have more compassion than God. When the people made a gold calf just after the revelation of Sinai, God expressed his desire to destroy Israel, while Moses implored him not to do it (Deut 9:13-20). Elijah, by comparison, seems more severe than God, who has to teach him about grace (see “The Judgement Prophet” pp. 11-19).
Moses is known as the man of the first great liberation. He led Israel out of the slavery of Egypt. Elijah seems not to have accomplished anything, since he never brought Israel back to the Lord.
Elijah reminds us of Moses, but he differs from him also. Elijah is a new Moses. He defends the old order (the Mosaic law), but he also announces a new order. Elijah is the first to effect a resurrection; he is the second to go up to heaven (the first after the flood).
Whereas the miracles have a collective dimension with Moses (they were done to enlighten and save the people), with Elijah the private domain is favoured. God gives his prophet the priority of his concern. Elijah is miraculously looked after while the faithful suffer from the famine and die under Jezebel’s persecution. God saves Elijah from the famine by feeding him miraculously, and protects him from the persecution by helping him flee (1 Kings 17:3; 18:12) or by permitting him to send celestial fire on the soldiers sent to arrest him. God instructs Elijah in private, on Mount Horeb or elsewhere.
Elijah is not the liberator like Moses, but the forerunner of the liberator. He is the one who prepares the terrain. The first time, Elijah paves the way for Elisha, then a second time, he paves the way for the Messiah. Thus, Elijah announces John the Baptist, who, in turn, precedes and announces the Messiah.
Elijah and Elisha
Elijah must also be compared with Elisha, his successor. The similarities and contrasts between the two men are numerous. Let us look, first, at the strong bonds between the two prophets.
The bond between the two men is present from the outset. God announces to Elijah that Elisha will continue his ministry (1 Kings 19:16-17). Elijah anoints Elisha and the latter quickly follows him (1 Kings 19:19-21). The only information on the relationship between the two men is positive: Elisha serves Elijah (“Elisha, son of Shaphat used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.” 2 Kings 3:11). As Elijah is about to be taken up to heaven, Elisha expresses a deep attachment to his master: he wants to follow him to the very end and be his worthy heir (2 Kings 2:1-14). Elisha inherits Elijah’s cloak and is able to perform the same miracle (divide the waters of the Jordan: 2 Kings 2:8, 14).
The ministry of the two men is characterized by numerous miracles, some of which are very similar. The most noticeable, of course, is separating the Jordan, but there are others. Both men bring back to life a woman’s only son by stretching themselves out on top of the corpse repeatedly, in an upper room graciously put at their disposal by the mother (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-37). By their word, the two men “multiply” the basic food supplies of a penniless widow. The oil and flour of the Zarephath widow last the length of the entire famine, while the widow of a son of the prophets sees her oil flow to fill every available jar (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 4:1-7). The end of each prophet’s life is marked by life: Elijah goes up to heaven and never dies, whereas Elisha’s bones bring a dead man back to life (2 Kings 2:11; 13:20-21).
Jesus associates the two men when he mentions their ministry among the pagans, Elijah with the Zarephath widow and Elisha with Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27).
Yet Elisha is very different from Elijah:
1. To begin with, Elisha is the people’s prophet, while Elijah is the solitary prophet. Elisha is the social person par excellence. He is called to the ministry by another prophet – a unique case among the prophets – whereas Elijah appears suddenly from nowhere. At the time of his call, Elisha is part of a team of twelve ploughmen and his attachment to his family is noted. He even invites the people to share a community meal, following the slaughter of his oxen (1 Kings 19:19-21). Later, when Elijah is going to be taken up to heaven, Elisha refuses to leave his master, even though the latter asks him on three occasions to stay behind (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). The contrast between the social and antisocial character of the two men is particularly evident in this account. As much as Elijah insists upon being alone, even more Elisha refuses to leave him.
After Elijah’s ascension, Elisha crosses the Jordan and goes back to live with the men again. He stays at Jericho (2 Kings 2:15-22), at Shunem (2 Kings 4:8-10), at Gilgal (2 Kings 4:38), at Dothan (2 Kings 6:19), and at Samaria on several occasions (2 Kings 2:25; 5:3, 9; 6:32). Whereas Elijah continually escaped from all the attempts to locate him, Elisha is accessible. When he is needed, he can always be found. The widow who risks losing her two children apparently has no difficulty speaking to him (2 Kings 4:1, 7). The Shunammite, who has a room built on the roof in order to accommodate the prophet, knows where he stays when he is not at her place (2 Kings 4:22-25). Even the young Jewish girl prisoner of the Syrians knows where the itinerant prophet is staying (2 Kings 5:3).
Elisha can be found not only by individual people, but also by the kings of Israel. At the time of the siege of Samaria, the king knows where to look for Elisha in order to arrest him (2 Kings 6:31-32). Shortly before Elisha’s death, the king is able to pay him a respectful visit (2 Kings 13:14). Even more astonishing is the ease with which the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom, wandering in the midst of the desert with their armies during their campaign against Moab, find Elisha (2 Kings 3:9-11). Finally, even the foreign enemies of Israel quickly discover his place of residence when they want to arrest him (siege of Dothan: 2 Kings 6:13-14). From the beginning till the very end of his ministry, Elisha lives amongst the people and whoever looks for him can find him quickly.
Let us note further that Elijah’s servant is mentioned only in passing (1 Kings 18:43; 19:3), while Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, is well known.
2. Elisha diverges also from Elijah by his ministry. Whereas Elijah essentially pronounces words of judgement regarding the kings of Israel, Elisha brings to the people release upon release. Elisha is present with the people, not only physically, but also with his heart. He purifies the waters of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:19-22), saves three armies from death by giving them water (2 Kings 3), helps a widow pay her debtors, thereby avoiding the enslavement of her children (2 Kings 4:1-7), gives a son to a woman without children, then brings him back to life (2 Kings 4:8-37), purifies a poisoned meal during a time of famine (2 Kings 4:38-41), multiplies an insufficient amount of bread to more than enough (2 Kings 4:42-44), heals a foreigner of his leprosy (2 Kings 5), enables a poor man to retrieve his borrowed axe-head (2 Kings 6:1-7), regularly warns the king of Israel about Syrian ambushes (2 Kings 6:8-10), liberates an Israelite city – Dothan – from enemy siege (2 Kings 6:14-19), saves Syrian soldiers trapped at Samaria, then feeds them (2 Kings 6:21-23), encourages the starving inhabitants of Samaria by announcing the speedy end of the enemy siege (2 Kings 7:1), then, just before dying, he informs the king of Israel that he will achieve several victories over his enemies (2 Kings 13:14-19).
Even the memory of Elisha brings relief, since the recollection of the resurrection of the Shunammite’s son permits her to retrieve her property plus the income from her land (2 Kings 8:1-6). Even better: a year after his death, Elisha’s bones give life to a man who has just died (2 Kings 13:20-21).
As for Elijah, the only persons blessed by contact with the prophet are the widow of Zarephath and her son. They are fed during Elijah’s stay, and the son is brought back from death. In both cases, their redemption is secondary. The primary aim of the miracle of the food is not to help the family but to help the prophet who is finding shelter in her home. Besides, Elijah has to be fed first (1 Kings 17:13). As for the resurrection, it is less a question of redemption than of judgement, if one refers to the widow’s question (“Did you come to remind me of my sin?” 1 Kings 17:18) and to Elijah’s question (“O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” 1 Kings 17:20). Elijah considers the judgement upon the child to be inappropriate or, in any case, premature, since the widow has housed him. Thus grace, for Elijah, is either centred around the prophet, or else it corresponds to a postponement of judgement.
3. Elisha differs from Elijah also by the rapidity and perfection of his interventions. Whereas with Elijah every action is marked by time, Elisha seems to be above it. In Elijah’s case, one notices an evolution of the ministry and behaviour of the prophet. The judgement, very moderate at the beginning (a simple absence of rain), subsequently becomes more intense to the point of lightning striking the guards coming to arrest the prophet during the reign of Ahaziah. On the other hand, with Elisha, perfection seems to be present at the start. There is no perceptible evolution of his ministry. The water of the spring at Jericho is permanently purified (2 Kings 2:21-22). The widow frightened by a debtor receives enough money, not only to pay her debt, but also to live on what is left (2 Kings 4:7). The multiplication of the loaves of bread surpasses the needs (“They ate and had some left over” 2 Kings 4:44). Naaman’s leprosy leaves him permanently, to cling afterwards to Gehazi and his descendants forever (2 Kings 5). The departure of the Syrian army leaves Israel with superabundance (2 Kings 7:15-16).
4. Elisha is set apart from Elijah also by the length of his ministry. Elijah’s ministry was cut short. As early as the announcement of the drought, he has to retire from public view (1 Kings 17:1-2). After being put aside for three years, he is able to bring about a glorious return on Mount Carmel, but only for twenty-four hours, as he has to leave the area hastily in order to save his life. At Mount Horeb, God announces that three other men will complete his ministry. In chapters 20 and 22, other prophets intervene and are God’s spokesmen. Elijah’s appearances following Naboth’s murder (1 Kings 21) and at the time of Ahaziah’s illness (2 Kings 1) are brief, and in 2 Kings 2, the prophet appears only to disappear permanently. The entire emphasis of the account otherwise is upon his successor.
The ministry of Elisha, by contrast, is characterised by its lasting quality. During his earthly life, no other prophet diverts the attention from his eminence. Elisha also exercises a ministry during a long period: from the reign of Jehoram (852-841) to the reign of Joash (798-792), that is to say between 43 and 70 years. Moreover, his ministry continues even after his death (2 Kings 13:20-21).
Other differences are secondary:
5. Elijah comes from Transjordan (from Tishbe in Gilead, 1 Kings 17:1) and Elisha from the West Bank (from Abel Meholah, 1 Kings 19:16). Elijah’s city of origin is unknown, but Elisha’s is known (Jug 7:22; 1 Kings 4:12) and even mentioned in the Book of Kings. The name of Elijah’s father is omitted, but Elisha’s father is mentioned by name (Shaphat, 1 Kings 19:19).
6. The names of the two prophets are close and are often confused, but their meaning is different: Elijah means “my God is the Lord” and Elisha means “God is saviour”. The two names are characteristic of the two ministries. Elijah displays a great zeal for the Lord and Elisha shows a great compassion for his contemporaries.
7. The narrator gives a piece of information on the physical appearance of each prophet. Elijah is identified by his clothing (“He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” 2 Kings 1:8) and Elisha is mocked because of his baldness (“Go on up, you bald-head; go on up, you bald-head” 2 Kings 2:23). The one is hairy and the other bald. Let us note again Elijah’s athletic prowess when he runs ahead of Ahab’s chariot (1 Kings 18:46), whereas Elisha prefers to send Gehazi full speed ahead of him to lay his staff on the dead child (2 Kings 4:29, 31).
Elijah therefore introduces Elisha, but the latter will do far more, because he receives a double portion of the Spirit (2 Kings 2:9). Elijah announces John the Baptist, but Elisha announces Jesus Christ. Elijah, then, is at the crossroads. He recalls Moses (and, perhaps, even surpasses him), but he is surpassed afterwards by Elisha.
In short, Elijah is representative of the canonical prophets of the Old Testament. The Mosaic law is recalled, while at the same time being surpassed by the announcement of a new covenant based upon divine grace rather than human works. Elijah clearly recalls the law, but his ministry also initiates an opening towards grace, an opening which will be considerably enlarged through Elisha, Christ’s veritable forerunner.
The Impact of Elijah’s Ministry
Elijah seems to have had a limited impact, since neither Ahab, nor Jezebel, nor Ahaziah basically change their attitude during Elijah’s ministry. Elijah complains about his ineffectiveness moreover, before the Lord at Horeb (1 Kings 19:4, 10, 14). Yet, with hindsight, one can realize the scope of his ministry.
“With each confrontation Elijah had more of an impact on the king. The drought seems to have had no effect on Ahab (cf. 1 Kings 18:17), but the contest on Mt. Carmel silenced him, and the encounter in Naboth’s vineyard actually evoked contrition. Furthermore, between Mt. Carmel and Naboth’s vineyard the writer portrays Ahab in a very different light. In chapter 20 he actually takes on a more or less heroic posture as he leads Israel in battles against Syria. Three times prophets of the Lord aided him by giving him the winning battle plan (20:13-15, 22, 28). It is probable that Ahab had showed a measure of repentance during this period and so gained the aid of the prophets, especially as he acts in the interests of the nation. These prophets were not the type to condone sin, however. Notice that as soon as he sinned by sparing Ben-Hadad he was immediately condemned (20:40-43).”
Contrary to what Elijah thought just after Carmel, the confrontation with Baal’s prophets was a turning point. In fact, since the demonstration of Yahweh’s sovereignty (“When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘ The Lord – He is God! The Lord –He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39) and the putting to death of Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 18:40), the Lord’s prophets no longer hide in caves, but exercise a public ministry and do not hesitate to follow the example of their mentor in reprimanding Ahab (1 Kings 20:40-43).
“In the final chapter of 1 Kings it is interesting that the prophets of Ahab’s court, though false, claimed to testify in the name of the Lord (22:11, 24), not Baal or some other deity. If not in truth at least in name the Lord was once more the God of Israel.”
Elijah also had an impact during Ahaziah’s reign, but like his other interventions, a certain lapse of time was necessary for hearts to be changed. Elijah’s word begins by irritating the king (2 Kings 1:9) and the destruction of the first group of soldiers leaves the king and the other soldiers unmoved (2 Kings 1:11). It is only the third captain of fifty who begs for mercy. Then, the Lord tells Elijah to follow that leader, for King Ahaziah is in a better mood, “The angel of the Lord said to Elijah, ‘Go down with him; do not be afraid of him’ ” 2 Kings 1:15).
Elijah also made a deep impression on the following generation. His ascension follows shortly after a change of reign in Israel. Joram succeeds to his brother Ahaziah, whose death had been prophesied by Elijah (2 Kings 1:17). The new monarch rapidly distances himself from the policy of his brother and father. He purifies the land from Baal worship (“He got rid of the sacred stone of Baal that his father had made” 2 Kings 3:2) and, without returning totally to the Lord, nevertheless he noticeably reforms the country. Thus, during his reign, Elisha comes and goes freely throughout the land. He is even able to offer to intercede before the king in behalf of the woman of Shunem (2 Kings 4:13). Joram’s favourable attitude towards Elisha and the sons of the prophets can certainly be attributed to Elijah’s ministry of exhortation and judgement. Quite belatedly, Elijah finished by being listened to.
In the final analysis, Elijah’s ministry rendered the kings less arrogant and the faithful more courageous. His was a ministry of preparation. He stood in the breach; he paved the way for the other prophets, especially for Elisha. Elijah’s preparatory role is underlined elsewhere in the Bible, particularly in relation to the Messiah (Mal 4:5-6).
The history of Elijah does not end with his ascension. How could it, since his life continues? For the reader of Kings, Elijah’s “sequel” can only be seen through the ministry of Elisha, his “heir”, who carries on a similar and, at the same time, different ministry. Later, however, about one hundred and fifty years after the publication of the book of Kings, or more than four centuries after Elijah’s ascension, Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, announces in the final verses of his book that Elijah will come back to the earth:
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5-6).
In the first century AD, the Jewish population was awaiting this return. All sorts of ideas about it were circulating. When Jesus cried out from the Cross: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), some people nearby thought he was calling Elijah to help him (Matt 27:46-49; Mark 15:34-36). A few months beforehand, certain persons were mistaken also in taking Jesus for Elijah:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you? he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.’ ” (Matt 16:13-17).
More than anyone else, John the Baptist was identified with Elijah. Yet he himself denied being Elijah to those who questioned him on this subject: “They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ ” (John 1:21). This denial of John the Baptist’s poses a problem, because Jesus identified John the Baptist twice with Elijah. Speaking to the crowd regarding John the Baptist, the Lord proclaimed that “he is the Elijah who was to come” (Matt 11:14). Later, on the mount of Transfiguration after John the Baptist’s death, Jesus tells his three disciples:
“To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matt 17:11-12; Mark 9:11-12).
The angel Gabriel had also declared to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, concerning his son:
“He will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
Yet, in spite of the affirmations of Jesus and the Angel Gabriel, it is impossible to identify John the Baptist with Elijah.
To begin with, John the Baptist denied this identification (John 1:21).
Next, on the mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John recognised Elijah and not John the Baptist – whom they knew very well (James and John were cousins of John the Baptist, and John had even been a disciple of John the Baptist: John 1:35-40).
Lastly, the Bible rules out every idea of reincarnation. John the Baptist, then, could not be Elijah, since, on the one hand Elijah was an adult at the time of his ascension, and on the other hand, John the Baptist had to be born and grow up before carrying out his ministry.
Following the above remarks, three suppositions emerge:
John the Baptist is a type of Elijah. The Baptist prepared the ground for the Messiah just as Elijah prepared the ground for Elisha. Elijah announced John the Baptist as Elisha announced Jesus Christ. Elijah is not John the Baptist and Elisha is not Jesus Christ, but both announce their ministry. Jesus says that John the Baptist is Elijah, if one wants to understand it this way. The words are qualified (“If you are willing to accept it” Matt 11:14).
The apparition of Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration would correspond to the literal return of Elijah. However, Elijah’s ministry on the mount of Transfiguration is much too limited to correspond to the ministry of reconciliation foretold by Malachi (“he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers”).
3. A third possibility consists of placing Elijah’s return at the time of Christ’s second coming. “It seems then that there may well be two successive accomplishments of Malachi’s prophecy: one partial, at Christ’s first coming, the other total, at the second coming.” Several scholars identify Elijah with one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3-12, for the two men make us think of Moses and Elijah.
“These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the God of the earth. If anyone wants to harm them, fire proceeds from their mouth and devours their enemies. And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this manner. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues as often as they desire.” (Rev 11:4-6).
These two men of faith oppose iniquity victoriously, then at the end of their tribulation, “they ascended to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies saw them.” (Rev 11:12), an experience that partially recalls that of Elijah. The duration of the ordeal is three and a half years (42 months, 1260 days; Rev 11:2-3), as at the time of the drought (“three years and six months” James 5:17). Will one of the two witnesses be Elijah? If so, will Moses be the second? The difficulty with this assumption is that the patriarch is dead (even if his tomb has never been discovered: Deut 34:6), whereas the prophet went up to the sky alive. A return is foretold for Elijah, but not for Moses. Some commentators think about Enoch, since God took him away alive (Gen 5:24).
The first possibility is appealing, but does it take into account the entire word of Malachi? Prophecies are often fulfilled literally. But is this always the case? Must all the prophecies about David’s reign necessarily be fulfilled literally or can they be accomplished in Christ (Jer 30:9; Ezek 34:23; 37:24; Hos 3:5)? The fulfilment of prophecies in the cycle of Elijah is often carried out to the letter, but also in the spirit of the letter. Often the fulfilment is amazing (cf. pp. 183-186).
The third possibility is also attractive. The double coming of Elijah would correspond in this way with Jesus’ coming twice, a first coming marked by humility, weakness, renouncement, and a second (just before Christ’s return) marked by strength and judgement. Elijah was taken away at the time of the kings of Israel without having succeeded at reforming the country, but Malachi proclaims a victorious return: “he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”
With Elijah, things take time to change. That is true also of his post mortem ministry, Elijah’s ministry extends in time, not only throughout his life on earth, but also after his ascension. Elisha continues his ministry, then Malachi foretells his return. The coming of John the Baptist partially accomplishes this prophecy, but perhaps it will be necessary to continue waiting for the full accomplishment until the days preceding Christ’s return.
An absolute conclusion proves to be difficult. Caution is counselled, because Elijah is a mysterious prophet, with an elusive body and a pattern of behaving difficult to understand. Elijah is the man of contrasts. His first arrival on the scene surprised everyone. By contrast, his return is announced far in advance. Was Malachi’s prophecy fulfilled in John the Baptist, or must we continue to wait for something else? In any case, the mystery of Elijah continues.