Elijah: Preface

Elijah astounds and confounds us. This fugitive, hounded to death during his entire ministry, is one of only two men who never had to die (Gen 5:24; He 11:5; 2 Kings 2:11). The man who dared openly to challenge four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal runs for his life when threatened by one woman (1 Kings 19:2-3). This same man, discouraged by Jezebel to the point of losing his will to live, is still able, by a few words, to bring fire down from heaven to destroy two groups of fifty soldiers who are sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:10, 12).

Elijah is the prophet of judgement. He criticises, slaughters, and commands fire to descend upon men who worship false gods. Yet he himself is so shocked by God’s judgement when a pagan child dies that he intercedes with all his heart and soul – and even his entire body – to bring about the first resurrection in the history of mankind.

His connections with food are just as astonishing. Elijah provokes a famine in Israel, and then he feeds two foreigners. His own nourishment is provided by God through multiple miracles: crows bring him bread and meat, morning and evening; the oil and flour keep increasing, meal after meal, at the home of a widow who houses him; the two cakes of bread, baked for him by an angel, give him strength to continue his journey for forty days and forty nights.

The mysteries surrounding Elijah do not stop with his life on earth. Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, announces a new ministry for him: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes….” (Mal 4:5-6). Thus at the time of the New Testament, the Jews are waiting for Elijah’s return (Mark 9:11). John the Baptist and Jesus are each assumed by certain persons to be Elijah (Matt 11:14; Luke 1:17; Matt 16:14), but both respond negatively to the possibility (John 1:21, 25; Matt 16:15-17). Finally, Elijah does appear on the mount of Transfiguration, in an unusual vision (Matt 17:3-4).

Elijah is a complex individual. Some have viewed him as a humble, courageous and obedient man, full of faith, while others have considered him to be proud, fearful, depressive and full of doubts. In presenting a proper picture of Elijah’s character, should one emphasise his victorious confrontation with the prophets of Baal or his flight from Jezebel? For Elijah is known as much for his strength of character as for his state of depression. Numerous psychology-oriented preachers have assiduously analysed the prophet’s apparent or actual ambivalence, but their explanations reflect more a concern to illustrate the modern phenomenon of depression and anxiety than an accurate exegesis.

Elijah seems to belong to another world, but at the same time, James reminds us in his epistle, he “was a man just like us” (James 5:17). Perhaps, it is this twofold aspect of Elijah’s disposition that has inspired so many preachers. Those with faith feel close to him because of his weakness, yet also recognise him as an exceptional person from whom they could learn a lot about the power of faith. Thus, Elijah has been the subject of more studies than most of the other figures in the Bible.

This commentary is, of course, based on former studies, but differs from them in its approach towards interpreting the texts. Throughout the analysis, the various episodes related are viewed in light of the whole. The diverse accounts of Elijah’s ministry form an ensemble (1 Kings 17—2 Kings 2). These texts are not put together in a haphazard manner, but constitute a literary unity in which each story is harmoniously integrated.

The stories about Elijah are also incorporated in the overall narrative of 1–2 Kings. The author of these two books (which were originally one single volume) develops certain themes, and it is also in the light of these themes that the texts about Elijah must be read. Finally, in interpreting Elijah’s ministry, an even wider context has to be taken into account, that of the entire Scripture. In particular, we profit from reading about Elijah in the light of Moses, of whom the Prophet reminds us, and in the light of John the Baptist and of Jesus, whom Elijah heralds.

If the global approach is indispensable towards understanding the text correctly and clarifying certain enigmas of Elijah’s ministry, serious consideration of the narrative side of the stories is also important. In other words, it is not sufficient merely to focus on what the text says, but also on the manner in which it is said. Obvious omissions, points emphasised, repetitions, questions raised by the author are all factors to which the reader must be attentive. For instance, before relating Elijah’s declaration of the forthcoming drought, why does the author refrain from reporting specific instructions from the Lord (1 Kings 17:1) but mention God’s words regarding the prophet’s flight in the following verse? Why does he dwell on the way Elijah meets Ahab at the end of the drought (1 Kings 18:2-15), but omit the circumstances surrounding his first encounter with the king (1 Kings 17:1)? Interpreting a text correctly means pondering these aspects of the narrative.

To help the reader grasp the “global” vision of Elijah’s ministry, the actual commentary is preceded by a lengthy, meaty introduction comprising the development of Elijah’s characteristics (chapter 1), the literary, historical and religious context of Elijah’s ministry (chapter 2), the message and structure of the book of Kings (chapter 3). In addition, the analysis of each chapter of Kings is preceded by a few remarks underlining the connections and contrasts with the former chapters.

Readers with little knowledge of the history of Elijah should first read the Bible chapters devoted to the prophet (1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2). They may also start reading this book by turning directly to page 79 of the commentary. Others may begin with any one of the three chapters of the introduction, according to their preference, plunging immediately into the prophet’s characteristic idiosyncrasies (chapter 1 p. 11), into the context of his ministry (chapter 2 p. 57) or into a short survey of 1 and 2 Kings (chapter 3 p. 67).