Jewish Traditions About the Historical Elijah
Byron R. Merrill
This appendix contains Jewish traditions that expound on the events surrounding the biblical or historical record of Elijah's life. These traditions span a broad range of subjects and explain everything from Elijah's appearance to his translation. The material presented here conveys the traditional context of Elijah's earthly ministry and provides us with some creative possibilities to fill in the textual gaps in the biblical narrative.
Jewish traditions about Elijah often speculate about his personal life and even his appearance. Many sources insist that Elijah never married and had no children. They give different reasons for this, but most agree that Elijah needed to be free from anything that might deviate or distract him from his prophetic responsibilities. 1 According to some tales, people scoffed at Elijah for his appearance, saying that he was an "ugly" man. 2 Supposedly both his odd hairstyle and his unusually large amount of body hair provoked the mockery of the people. 3
Despite the challenges that he might have faced, Elijah was a prophet who possessed divinely delegated authority, as evidenced by his sealing of the heavens. When famine covered the land, Elijah migrated to the brook Cherith, where there was an ample supply of fresh water and an abundance of food that ravens brought from the kitchen of the righteous King Jehoshaphat in Jerusalem. Another tradition states that the food given to Elijah by the ravens was his priestly portion brought from the temple in Jerusalem. 4 When God felt that the famine had adequately humbled the Israelites, he gently encouraged Elijah to revoke his curse by drying up the brook that had sustained Elijah's life. 5
Instead of succumbing to God's encouragement, Elijah is said to have simply moved his residencethis time to Zarephath in search of a new supply of food and water. Luckily, the prophet found a willing widow that was prepared to give all she had to this newcomer. Unexpectedly, the widow's son died, an event that devastated the widow and baffled Elijah. The widow, searching for an explanation for this tragic event, asked Elijah, "What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" (1 Kings 17:18.) Elijah pleaded with the Lord to restore life to the boy, but God reminded Elijah that resuscitation could be done only by using fresh morning dew, and as a result of the drought, there was no moisture at all, not even dew. 6 Elijah, realizing that he was cornered, knew that he would have to bargain with God. The Lord had given Elijah the "key of rain," but had kept for himself the "key of birth" and the "key of the quickening of the dead." So when Elijah asked for the "key of the quickening of the dead," God told him that it was not appropriate that Elijah, being the servant, have two of the three keys. Elijah thus agreed to trade the "key of rain" for the "key of the quickening of the dead," 7 and used this power to restore the boy's life. Some traditions indicate that this boy later became the prophet Jonah. 8
With the coming end of the drought, the Lord sent Elijah to confront the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 18:1-20). The contest that Elijah arranged required two young bulls to be sacrificedone upon the altar dedicated to Jehovah and the other upon the altar dedicated to Baal. When a pair of twin bulls was found to supply this need, Elijah easily led his bull up to the altar, but all the priests of Baal together could not make their bull budge. Elijah approached the bull to see what the problem was, and the bull opened his mouth, saying, "We two, yonder bullock and myself, came forth from the same womb, we took our food from the same manger, and now he has been destined for God, as an instrument for the glorification of the Divine Name, while I am to be used for Baal, as an instrument to enrage my Creator." Elijah assured the bull that his glory would be no less than that of his twin, and thus the bull allowed Elijah to lead him to the altar of the priests of Baal. 9
During the course of the contest, the idolatrous priests realized that their
cause was for naught, so rather than admit defeat they thought they could
deceive the people by digging a trench underneath their altar so that a man
could hide and ignite the sacrifice at the appointed time. The man assigned to
hide under the altar was Hiel, the same who rebuilt Jericho (see 1 Kings 16:34).
God ended this mischievousness by sending a poisonous serpent to kill Hiel as he
hid beneath the altar. 10
By the time the priests of Baal had made their vain attempt to call down heavenly fire to consume their sacrifice, it was late in the day and Elijah had little time to prepare and offer his sacrifice. This, however, was not a problem, as Elijah simply commanded the sun to stand still: "For Joshua thou didst stand still that Israel might conquer his enemies; now stand thou still, neither for my sake, nor for the sake of Israel, but that the name of God may be exalted." 11 With the setting of the sun halted, Elijah could now make the final preparations for his sacrifice to God.
Elisha, associated with the servant mentioned in 1 Kings 18:43, helped Elijah drench the sacrifice with water from barrels, but that was not enough to adequately wet the sacrificethey needed another source of water. Elijah instructed Elisha to pour a small amount of water over Elijah's hands, after which ten springs of water gushed forth from the prophet's fingers, which thoroughly soaked the sacrifice. 12
Following the fiery consumption of the sacrifice and the subsequent slaying of the priests of Baal (see 1 Kings 18:40), Elijah "cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees" (1 Kings 18:42). Traditions suggest that he did this as he besought God to remember the covenant that he had made with Israel, the sign or token of which was circumcision. By looking "between his knees," Elijah viewed the part of the body bearing the sign of the covenant. 13 As Elijah invoked God to remember the covenant, he also pleaded for the righteousness of past generations, known as the "merits of the fathers," to make up for the failings of the current generation. 14 The prayers of Elijah were answered with the rain that subsequently poured out upon the land. 15 Jewish legend reports that this rain symbolized God's remembrance of the covenant and his forgiveness of the people.
Elijah had hoped that the convincing demonstration on Mount Carmel would change the hearts of Ahab and Jezebel. To Elijah's dismay, the monarchy only became more hardened and even sought his life. Thus, he fled to Horeb. In his exhaustive work The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg remarks, "In the cleft of the rock in which God had once aforetimes appeared to Moses, and revealed Himself as compassionate and long-suffering, He now met with Elijah." 16 Some sources claim that this cave was also the one in which God buried Moses. 17 The reason that this cave was so special was that it was created at twilight on the sixth day of the Creation, just before the onset of the Sabbath. 18
While on Horeb, Elijah had a life-changing encounter with a great wind, earthquake, fire, and, ultimately, the still small voice. Many legends surround the interpretation of these fantastic events. One version says that this experience was a vision meant to instruct Elijah concerning the destiny of man. The wind represented the world, which is as fleeting as the wind. The earthquake symbolized the "day of death" that makes the human body tremble and quake. Fire was the judgement day in Gehenna (hell), and the stillness of the last day was portrayed by the still small voice. 19 Another tradition states that this was a revelation concerning the three classes of angels ("angels of wind," "angels of storm," and "angels of fire") and that God then revealed himself to Elijah as the still small voice. 20
At the end of his mortal ministry, Elijah was taken up by a "chariot of fire," according to the biblical account. Nevertheless there was apparently one previous attempt to retire Elijah from mortality. God sent an angel to invite Elijah to return to heaven, but when the angel arrived on the scene, he found Elijah and Elisha so intensely engaged in a scholarly conversation that he could not get their attention and had to return empty-handed.
Today, and Tomorrow
Byron R. Merrill
© 1997 Deseret Book Company
1. Frieda Clark Hyman, "Elijah: Accuser and Defender," Judaism 39 (Summer 1990): 288; see also Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909-38), 6:316.
2. Ginzberg, Legends, 6:317.
3. Ibid., 5:96; 6:317.
4. Ibid., 6:317.
5. Ibid., 4:196.
6. Ibid., 4:197.
7. Ibid., 6:318.
8. Ibid., 4:197. Tradition also states that the boy could have been the Messiah ben Joseph (ibid., 6:317).
9. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 12 vols. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1901-6), 5:122; see also Ginzberg, Legends, 4:198.
10. Ginzberg, Legends, 4:198.
11. Ibid., 4:199; see also The Jewish Encyclopedia, 5:123.
12. Ginzberg, Legends, 6:320; 4:199.
13. Ibid., 6:321; 4:199.
14. Ibid., 4:199.
16. Ibid., 4:200.
17. Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino Press, 1935-48), MEGILLAH 19b, p. 119; see also Hyman, "Elijah," 287.
18. Talmud, ABOTH, p. 64; see also Ginzberg, Legends, 1:83.
19. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 5:123; see also Ginzberg, Legends, 4:200.
20. Ginzberg, Legends, 6:322.
21. Ibid., 4:239.
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