Elijah or Elias was a prophet in Israel in the 9th century BC. He appears in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Mishnah, Christian Bible, and the Qur'an. According to the Books of Kings, Elijah raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and ascended into heaven by a whirlwind. In the New Testament, both Jesus and John the Baptist are on some occasions thought to be Elijah. He is also one of two Old Testament figures (along with Moses) who appears and converses with Jesus during the Transfiguration.
Elijah is invoked weekly at the Havdalah ritual that marks the end of Shabbat, and in other Jewish rituals, among them the Passover seder. Based on a prophecy in Malachi, many Jews await his return as precursor to the coming of the Messiah. In Eastern Europe, he is known as "Elijah the Thunderer" and is blamed in folklore for poor weather.
Elijah appears on the scene with no fanfare. Nothing is known of his origins or background. His name, Elijah, "My god is Jehovah (Yahweh)," may be a name applied to him because of his challenge to Baal worship. Even the title of "the Tishbite" is problematic, as there is no reference from the period to a town or village of Tishbe.
Elijah's challenge, characteristic of his behaviour in other episodes of his story as told in the Bible, is bold and direct. Baal was the local nature deity responsible for rain, thunder, lightning, and dew. Elijah not only challenges Baal on behalf of the God of Israel, he challenges Jezebel, her priests, Ahab, and the people of Israel.
By the 9th century BC, the united kingdom of David and Solomon had broken up into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms. With the Temple in Jerusalem, Judah had both the seat of government and the focus of religion within its borders. It was in this situation that Omri became king of Israel.
As a purely practical matter, Omri had to take steps to contain both government and religion within the borders of Israel, lest the loyalties of his subjects be divided between Israel and Judah. The task of centralising the government had a relatively straightforward solution: Omri built a new capital at Samaria on a hill 300 feet above the countryside. The religious problem posed more of a challenge, as the requirements of Temple worship were firmly focused on Solomon’s Temple.
To break Israel's religion away from the control of the priests of the Temple in Judah, three solutions were pursued. The first was to encourage the building of temples (altars where sacrifices could be offered) at local sites within the borders of Israel. Secondly, priests were appointed from outside the family of the Levites. And finally, temples dedicated to the Canaanite god, Baal, were alternately allowed and encouraged. All three solutions were contrary to the laws of Moses, and were guaranteed to bring the wrath of the prophets of Israel.
None of these solutions was new to Omri. They had all been begun with the reign of Jeroboam. Omri added a new dimension. In order to bring security with the outside world, Omri sought a marriage alliance. There was precedent for this solution in Solomon’s reign. Omri was able to arrange the marriage of his son Ahab to princess Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia. Jezebel came to Israel not only as a princess, but she was also a priestess of Baal.
The resulting problems may be alluded to in Psalm 45, sometimes viewed as a wedding song for Ahab and Jezebel:
Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts. ()
All of these solutions brought security and economic prosperity to Israel for a time. However, it did not bring peace with the prophets of Yahweh, who were interested in a strict deuteronomic interpretation of Mosaic law. As bad as Omri's problems with the prophets were, Ahab managed to add to them. He not only allowed the worship of a foreign god within the palace (Solomon also did this), he also built a temple for Baal, and allowed Jezebel to bring a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country.
After more than two years of drought and famine, God tells Elijah to return to Ahab and announce the end of the drought. While on his way, Elijah meets Obadiah, the head of Ahab's household, who had hidden a hundred prophets of Yahweh the God of Israel when Ahab and Jezebel had been killing them. Elijah sends Obadiah back to Ahab to announce his return to Israel.
When Ahab confronts Elijah, he refers to him as the "troubler of Israel." Elijah responds by throwing the charge back at Ahab, saying that it is Ahab who has troubled Israel by allowing the worship of false gods. Elijah then berates both the people of Israel and Ahab for their acquiescence in Baal worship. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal then follow him” (). And the people were silent.
At this point Elijah proposes a test of the powers of Baal and the God of Israel. The people of Israel, 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of Asherah are summoned to Mount Carmel. Two altars are built, one for Baal and one for the God of Israel. Wood is laid on the altars. Two oxen are slaughtered and cut into pieces; the pieces are laid on the wood. Elijah then invites the priests of Baal to pray for fire to light the sacrifice. They pray from morning to noon without success. Elijah ridicules their efforts. They respond by cutting themselves and adding their own blood to the sacrifice. They continue praying until evening without success.
Elijah now orders that the altar of the God of Israel be drenched with water (twelve barrels of water). He asks God to accept the sacrifice. Fire falls from the sky, igniting the sacrifice. Elijah seizes the moment and orders the death of the prophets of Baal. The rains begin, signaling the end of the famine.
Elijah travels, for forty days and forty nights, to Mount Horeb and seeks shelter in a cave. God again speaks to Elijah (): "What doest thou here, Elijah?" Elijah lays out all his complaints and his despair. Up until this time Elijah has only the word of God to guide him, but now he is told to go outside the cave and "stand before the Lord." A terrible wind passes, but God is not in the wind. A great earthquake shakes the mountain, but God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire passes the mountain, but God is not in the fire. Then a "still small voice" comes to Elijah and asks again, "What doest thou here, Elijah?" Elijah responds again with his complaints and his sense of hopelessness. God responds by sending him out again, this time to Damascus to anoint Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his replacement.
Elijah continues now from Ahab to an encounter with Ahaziah. The scene opens with Ahaziah seriously injured in a fall. He sends to the priests of Baalzebub in Ekron, outside the kingdom of Israel, to know if he will recover. Elijah intercepts his messengers and sends them back to Ahaziah with a message. In typical Elijah fashion, the message begins with a blunt, impertinent question: "Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron?"(). Ahaziah asks the messengers to describe the person who gave them this message. They tell him he wore a hairy coat with a leather belt and he instantly recognizes the description as Elijah the Tishbite.
Ahaziah sends out three groups of soldiers to arrest Elijah. The first two are destroyed by fire which Elijah calls down from heaven. The leader of the third group asks for mercy for himself and his men. Elijah agrees to accompany this third group to Ahaziah, where he gives his prophecy in person.
Elijah is mentioned once more in . A letter is sent under the prophet's name to Jehoram. It tells him that he has led the people of Judah astray in the same way that Israel was led astray. The prophet ends the letter with a prediction of a painful death. This letter is a puzzle to readers for several reasons. First, it concerns a king of the southern kingdom, while Elijah concerned himself with the kingdom of Israel. Second, the message begins with "Thus says Yahweh, God of your father David..." rather than the more usual "...in the name of Yahweh the God of Israel." Also, this letter comes after Elijah's ascension into the whirlwind. Jacob Myers suggests a number of possible reasons for this letter, among them that it may be an example of a better known prophet's name being substituted for that of a lesser known prophet. VanSeters, however, rejects the letter as having any connection with the Elijah tradition.
|"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse."|
|— Malachi 4:5-6|
Elijah's final mention in the Hebrew Bible is in Malachi, where it is said that Elijah will come again before "the great and terrible day of the Lord." That day is described as the burning of a great furnace, "... so that it will leave them neither root nor branch ()". Traditionally, in both Judaism and Christianity, this is taken to mean the return of Elijah will precede the Messiah.
In the Gospel of John, the Baptist was asked by a delegation of priests if he was Elijah. To which, he replied "I am not ()." The author of and however, makes it clear that John was Elijah but was not recognized as such. In the annunciation narrative in Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah, John's father, and tells him that John "will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God," and that he will go forth "in the spirit and power of Elijah ()."
By this time, Elijah had entered folklore as a rescuer of Jews in distress. During Jesus' crucifixion, some of the onlookers wonder if Elijah will come to rescue him.
At the summit of an unnamed mount, Jesus' face begins to shine. The disciples who are with him hear the voice of God announce that Jesus is the "Son of God." The disciples also see Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. Peter is so struck by the experience that he asks Jesus if they should not build a "tabernacle" for Elijah.
In this appearance, Elijah is generally seen as a witness of the prophets and Moses as a witness of the law for the divinely announced "Son of God.
"At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined|
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob."
|— A line in the Apocrypha describing Elijah's mission (Sirach 48:10).|
One such story is that of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. The rabbi, a friend of Elijah’s, was asked what favor he might wish. The rabbi answered only that he be able to join Elijah in his wanderings. Elijah granted his wish only if he refrained from asking any questions about any of the prophet’s actions. He agreed and they began their journey. The first place they came to was the house of an elderly couple who were so poor they had only one old cow. The old couple gave of their hospitality as best they could. The next morning, as the travelers left, Elijah prayed that the old cow would die and it did. The second place they came to was the home of a wealthy man. He had no patience for his visitors and chased them away with the admonition that they should get jobs and not beg from honest people. As they were leaving, they passed the man’s wall and saw that it was crumbling. Elijah prayed that the wall be repaired and it was so. Next, they came to a wealthy synagogue. They were allowed to spend the night with only the smallest of provisions. When they left, Elijah prayed that every member of the synagogue might become a leader.
Finally, they came to a very poor synagogue. Here they were treated with great courtesy and hospitality. When they left, Elijah prayed that God might give them a single wise leader. At this Rabbi Joshua could no longer hold back. He demanded of Elijah an explanation of his actions. At the house of the old couple, Elijah knew that the Angel of Death was coming for the old woman. So he prayed that God might have the angel take the cow instead. At the house of the wealthy man, there was a great treasure hidden in the crumbling wall. Elijah prayed that the wall be restored thus keeping the treasure away from the miser. The story ends with a moral: A synagogue with many leaders will be ruined by many arguments. A town with a single wise leader will be guided to success and prosperity. “Know then, that if thou seest an evil-doer prosper, it is not always unto his advantage, and if a righteous man suffers need and distress, think not God is unjust.”
Elijah encountered Lilith and instantly recognized and challenged her, "Unclean one, where are you going?" Unable to avoid or lie to the prophet, she admitted she was on her way to the house of a pregnant woman. Her intention was to kill the woman and eat the child.
Elijah pronounced his malediction, "I curse you in the Name of the Lord. Be silent as a stone!" But, Lilith was able to make a bargain with Elijah. She promises to "forsake my evil ways" if Elijah will remove his curse. To seal the bargain she gives Elijah her names so that they can be posted in the houses of pregnant women or new born children or used as amulets. Lilith promises, "where I see those names, I shall run away at once. Neither the child nor the mother will ever be injured by me.
At Jewish circumcision ceremonies, a chair is set aside for the use of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is said to be a witness at all circumcisions when the “sign of the covenant” is placed upon the body of the child. This custom stems from the incident at Mount Horeb ().
Elijah had arrived at Mt. Horeb after the demonstration of Yahweh’s presence and power on Mt. Carmel (). Elijah is asked by God for an explanation of his presence on Mt. Horeb. He replies: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (). This was patently untrue (and ), but since Elijah had made the charge that Israel had failed to uphold the covenant (brit), God would require Elijah to be present at every covenant of circumcision (brit milah).
During the ceremony, Elijah is specifically invited to be present and to witness that the covenant is still observed. A chair, usually highly carved and decorated, is set aside specifically for Elijah. In some traditions, the chair has two seats: one for the prophet and one for the sandek (the person who holds the child). Any chair, however, may be designated as Elijah’s chair by the father saying: “This is the chair of Elijah, the Angel of the Covenant, who is remembered for good.”
Each serving of wine corresponds to "four expressions of redemption" in Exodus:
"I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an out-stretched arm and with great acts of judgment, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians" ().
The next verse, "And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord" was not fulfilled until the generation after that of the passover story. Since the rabbis could not resolve the question of whether or not this verse was a part of the Passover celebration (thus deserving of another serving of wine), a cup was left for the arrival of Elijah. In practice, the fifth cup has come to be seen as a celebration of future redemption. Today, a place is reserved at the seder table and a cup of wine is placed there for Elijah. During the seder, the door of the house is opened and Elijah is invited in. Traditionally, the cup is viewed as Elijah’s and is used for no other purpose.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, he is commemorated on the same date (in the twenty-first century, Julian Calendar 20 July corresponds to Gregorian Calendar 2 August). He is greatly revered among the Orthodox as a model of the contemplative life. He is also commemorated on the Orthodox liturgical calendar on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers (the Sunday before the Nativity of the Lord).
Elijah is revered as the spiritual Father and traditional founder of the Catholic religious Order of Carmelites. In addition to taking their name from Mt. Carmel where the first hermits of the order established themselves, the Calced Carmelite and Discalced Carmelite traditions pertaining to Elijah focus upon the prophet’s withdrawal from public life. The medieval Carmelite Book of the First Monks offers some insight into the heart of the Orders' contemplative vocation and reverence for the prophet.
The prophet Elijah's feastday is celebrated on July 20 of the Carmelite Liturgical Calendar
After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.This experience forms the basis for the church's focus on genealogy and family history and belief in the eternal nature of marriage and families.
Latter-day saints make a difference between the personal name Elijah and the title Elias.
In one Eastern-European folklore tale, Elijah is portrayed in his "Thunderer" persona:
Once Jesus, the prophet Elijah, and St. George were going through Georgia. When they became tired and hungry they stopped to dine. They saw a Georgian shepherd and decided to ask him to feed them. First, Elijah went up to the shepherd and asked him for a sheep. After the shepherd asked his identity Elijah said that, he was the one who sent him rain to get him a good profit from farming. The shepherd became angry at him and told him that he was the one who also sent thunderstorms, which destroyed the farms of poor widows. (After Elijah, Jesus and St. George attempt to get help and eventually succeed).
Alternatives have been proposed for many years; for example Adam Clarke treats it as a discussion already of long standing. Objections to the traditional translation are that ravens are ritually unclean (see ) as well as physically dirty; it is difficult to imagine any method of delivery of the food which is not disgusting. The parallelism with the incident that follows, where Elijah is fed by the widow, also suggests a human, if mildly improbable, agent.
Prof. John Gray chooses Arabs, saying "We adopt this reading solely because of its congruity with the sequel, where Elijah is fed by an alien Phoenician woman. His translation of the verses in question is:
And the word of Yahweh came to Elijah saying, Go hence and turn eastward and hide thyself in the Wadi Kerith east of the Jordan, and it shall be that thou shalt drink of the wadi, and I have commanded the Arabs to feed thee there. And he went and did according to the word of Yahweh and went and dwelt in the Wadi Kerith east of the Jordan. And the Arabs brought him bread in the morning and flesh in the evening and he would drink of the wadi.
For Christians, this belief is referenced in Matthew's gospel, where Jesus Christ taught that the Elijah who was to come was John the Baptist ().
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as mentioned previously in the 'Latter-day Saint' section, believes that Elijah returned on April 3, 1836 in an appearance to Joseph Smith, fulfilling a prophecy in Malachi.
The Bahá'í Faith, as mentioned above in the 'Bahá'í' section, believes Elijah to have returned as the Biblical Prophet John the Baptist, and as the founder of the Bábí Faith; the Báb, in 1844 in Shiraz, Iran.