Elijah – the Great Prophet who Failed

Elijah in the wilderness
Washington Allston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally going to be about Daniel (a GPer request) or Isaiah (for reasons which will become apparent when I prepare an article on him).  Daniel will need to be a two parter and is a figure whom one addresses with much trepidation given the Apocalyptic nature of his writings and their fusing with the Book of Revelations in Christian writings about the End Times.

So, why Elijah?  Well, he’s an interesting figure and I hope you will see the role he plays in what this series of articles will illustrate: how the figure of Jesus presented in the New Testament is in fact at least partly a summation of all the Hebrew Prophets, their characters and deeds (and much more besides of course), of the Old Testament.  The fact that the New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old is often overlooked and why one can’t appreciate the latter without understanding the former – something where modern touchy-feely Christianity has gone badly astray.  The real reason though is because, when doing my research for an article, on Daniel or Isaiah a scene from the New Testament popped into my mind:  the Transfiguration of Christ.  To quote Luke,

28 “About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.

So, at the moment that the real nature of Jesus is revealed to his disciples, why is he seen with these two Old Testament figures – Moses and Elijah – who seem to be taken as the most significant Old Testament figures for the purposes of Jesus?  That’s what nibbled at me and caused me to change my plan and write this article to find an answer.  Moses is easy – the founder of the state of Israel, the man who led them from slavery in Egypt, a political and religious leader (albeit he did establish a sort of separation of the two by making his brother Aaron High Priest).

So Moses I could understand, but why Elijah of all the Old Testament prophets?  Why does he seem to be the greatest of them, so much so that both John the Baptist and Jesus were mistaken for him by people in the New Testament?

Elijah, Life and Times *

Elijah appears in a number of the books of the Old Testament, but mainly in the narrative histories of the First and Second Books of Kings (arguably the Hebrews invented prose narrative history before the Greeks), which were certainly written down by the early sixth century BC, less than two and a half centuries after the events they record, and quite probably much earlier in some form (final editing may have happened in the first half of the sixth century).   We know little about his background (more from non-scriptural apocryphal literature of much less reliability) and not even his personal name is recorded – Elijah is rather a title or nickname meaning “My Name is Yahweh or Jehovah”.   This is perfectly common for ancient figures of some greatness before the Greeks – people were often remembered by official titles or even nicknames.

He emerged in the now divided Hebrew country in the northern state of Israel at the time of King Ahab in the 9th century BC, with its capital at Samaria.  Ahab is one of the baddies of the Old Testament, infamous for encouraging the worship of Baal and the goddess Ashteroth in the country, and marrying the wicked daughter of the King of Sidon, Jezebel, thereby alienating the Jehovah worshipping priests and their supporters (arguably a conservative, nationalist grouping).

Elijah’s career is one of confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel over the issue of paganism in Israel, in six main recorded episodes:

  1. Elijah initially goes to Ahab and tells him that his paganism will prompt Yahweh to cause a drought and famine in Israel (shades of Moses and Egypt) if he doesn’t repent because he is in breach of the Covenant. Ahab of course doesn’t.
  2. The drought and famine commence, and Elijah flees east of the Jordan initially, and then when the food runs out, to Phoenicia and takes refuge with a widow, but she has no food to feed him either until a miracle occurs and she is given a never-ending supply of food (manna from Heaven) while the famine persists (shades of the miracles of the Forty Years in the Wilderness, the Wedding at Cana and the Feeding of the Five Thousand). The widow’s son then dies, and Elijah asks God to raise him from death, which he does – the first instance of a resurrection in the Bible.
  3. After three years of famine, Elijah returns to Israel to confront Ahab once again. Again he gets nowhere, and so challenges the priests of Jezebel to a trial of power between Yahweh and Baal/Ashteroth on Mount Carmel – to rely on the respective gods alone to send fire to burn respective sacrifices.  This is one of the great set piece scenes of the Old Testament, with 850 pagan priests dancing, singing, praying and cutting themselves to spray blood (Baal worship employed child sacrifice regularly, but not here oddly) on the altar to ask their gods to send the fire they need.  Of course nothing happens.  Elijah in turn soaks his sacrifice with water, prays and God sends fire from heaven to burn his sacrifice.  Point made, the drought and famine are lifted, and Elijah has all the pagan priests executed.
  4. Elijah’s belief that he’s won is soon dispelled. Jezebel swears to have him killed so he flees to the southern kingdom of Judah. Hiding in the wilderness, he then moves on to a cave on Mount Horeb in the Sinai where Moses had received the Ten Commandments, the first Hebrew to do so since that time.  By now he’s at his wits’ end.  Asked by God why he’s there, he ducks the question, saying that the Jewish people have fallen into paganism, implies that it’s God’s fault and that he’s been wasting his time.  He’s told to go outside the cave to meet God in person.  Firstly a strong wind blows through, but no God.  Then an earthquake shakes the mountain, but again no God. Then a huge fire roars by, but still no God.  Finally, a quiet still voice in his ear asks, “Why are you here?”  Again Elijah evades answering truthfully, showing that he has missed the point of the revelation granted.  He’s failed the test and is sent to Damascus to anoint the king of Syria and a replacement king of Israel, and to appoint his own successor, Elisha.
  5. There’s then a very odd incident, almost a parable, about Ahab and Jezebel having a orchard owner murdered and stealing his land, even though the latter’s under Elijah’s protection. Elijah confronts Ahab again, telling him his kingdom will be taken away from him by the king of Damascus and Jehu, the rival king of Israel.  Ahab repents and is allowed to live, but on the contention that Jezebel and his son and heir, Ahaziah will die.  Ahaziah is then injured in an accident and he sends to a temple of Baal for divine help.  Elijah intercepts the messenger and tells him to return to Ahaziah to tell him he’s asking the wrong, foreign, god.  Ahaziah sends out three parties of soldiers to arrest Elijah, the first two are destroyed by fire from Heaven called down by Elijah, and the third surrenders to avoid the same fate.  Elijah goes back with them to Ahaziah, and the latter dies in accordance with Elijah’s earlier prophecy.  Jezebel of course ends up getting eaten by dogs.
  6. Finally, Elijah takes his successor Elisha to the Jordan river and, as with Moses before him, the waters part and they cross to the other bank on dry ground, when a whirlwind arrives, lifting Elijah up to horses and chariot of fire and then into the Heavens,

Making Sense of It All

The first thing, one notices is the parallels with Moses.  Similar miracles, famines and droughts inflicted by God and announced through his prophet, oppressive kings, escapes into the wilderness, holy fires, still small voices of calm, being fed by manna from Heaven, enemy soldiers destroyed, Israelite lapses into paganism…  The parallels are striking.  More than any other Hebrew prophet, Elijah is a miracle worker, the instigator of a conservatively minded resistance to a pagan king, even a breaker of such kings.  But, perhaps even more profoundly, is that both these great prophets and leaders for Yahweh fail him at the end and are punished by not seeing the fruition of their work – Moses by not being allowed to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land before his death, and Elijah for not understanding what God wants of him and then ducking his mission, and being forced to cross the Jordan out of the Holy Land before he’s taken from the Earth.

Secondly, one sees that, like later prophets, Elijah is really the leader of a conservative religious, even nationalist, faction which is opposed to alien practices and beliefs taking hold in Israel.  He’s highly confrontational with the King and Queen, and isn’t someone that they can just quietly ‘disappear’.  His entire career is one of opposition to the secular rulers of Israel, and even goes so far as to set up a rival monarch and to secure a neighbouring ruler’s military support to depose Ahab.

Thirdly, I can’t say I like him, unlike Jonah or Jeremiah who, while equally flawed, seem more human.  He’s hard, vindictive, even ruthless, while also prone to bouts of self-pity and doubt despite everything God has done for him.  He has no problem in using the divine power lent to him to kill many opponents, and rarely shows mercy to the defeated.

In the end, despite, his fanatical zeal for Yahweh, you get the sense that he missed the point of it all.  The pivotal moment is outside that cave on Mount Horeb when Elijah bitterly denounces the faithlessness of the people of Israel to God, unlike Moses earlier in the same place and situation, who had defended the Hebrews’ faithlessness to God and pleaded for mercy on them.  Elijah sees the wind, the earthquake, the fire, but does not comprehend the still small voice that Moses had encountered in the burning bush.  Elijah’s not only much more vindictive than Moses, but he doesn’t understand Yahweh’s nature.  He sees him as a High God, an elemental divinity, like Zeus, earth shaking, storm bringing, one of power, but that’s it.   He sees God as a reflection of his own personality to a degree, a terrible temptation to us all, including myself.  He misses entirely the other side of divine nature, the still small voice of calm, the voice of conscience and persuasion, of many second chances, forgiveness and mercy.  And this is why God replaces him with his student Elisha.

So how does he link with the Christ of the New Testament?  Jesus is frequently asked if he is Elijah returned – the one Old Testament prophet who didn’t die had, by Jesus’ time, acquired almost a ‘once-and-future prophet’ mystique as an apocalyptic figure.  Jesus stresses he isn’t and indeed rebukes those who ask him to bring down fire on opponents, an implied rebuke against Elijah for his violence and lack of mercy.

Elijah failed because of his one dimensionally harsh nature – Paul would say of him that he had faith that could move mountains, but lacked love, and was ultimately futile.  Jesus conspicuously stressed the opposite – forgiveness, mercy, redemption – against the legalistic harshness of the contemporary Jewish religion, a letter of the Law faith that reflected Elijah’s nature rather than a faith of the Spirit that reflected the still, small voice of mercy and compassion for fallen Mankind.

So what’s the point of it all?  For all his faith and power, Elijah failed.  He failed to adhere Israel to Yahweh because he threatened rather than won over by example and kindness, and didn’t understand what God was asking of him nor the nature of Yahweh, the God of Love exemplified by the mission of Christ.  So Elijah is an example of how not to implement great faith. A warning against strident fanaticism, against a lack of love for erring humanity, against a lack of wisdom and comprehension.  He pities himself but has little for others.  He was a great man, but not a truly good one, and one could almost say he’s the example against which God wanted to show how much greater and better Jesus was, and how his followers should be successful, not by aggression or force, but by kindness and example.

© 1642again 2018

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