Elijah & Elisha

Two popular and enigmatic prophets

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The stories of the prophet Elijah and his protégé Elisha are found at the end of First Kings and the beginning of Second Kings (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 13). Elijah's activity spanned the reigns of Ahab (reigned c. 871-854 BCE) and his two sons. Elisha then assumed the mantle and presided over the demise of the Omride dynasty and the accession of Jehu (c.842 BCE).

Elusive Prophet

Considering the wealth of tradition that now accompanies the figure of Elijah in Jewish tradition, he occupies comparatively little biblical text.  We have few personal details. He is introduced as the Tishbi from Gilead, a region to the east of the Jordan. He is neither a royal court nor sanctuary prophet and has gained a reputation for elusiveness, moving as the spirit of YHWH directs. (1 Kings 17:12). He is characterized as a hairy man wearing a girdle of leather around his loins (2 K. 1:8) 

The central theme of the Elijah narratives is his conflict with the monarch of the Northern Kingdom, Ahab, and his Phoenician born, Baal-worshipping wife Jezebel. It is Ahab's accommodation of his wife's religion  (erecting a temple and an altar to Baal in his capital Samaria, and making an asherah (a tree-like post symbolizing a fertility goddess), that places him at odds with YHWH and His prophet Elijah.

The Drought, and a Miracle

The prophet bursts onto the scene announcing to Ahab a drought.  YHWH instructs Elijah to hide in the wadi Kerit on the east side of the Jordan near Jericho. There he is fed by ravens. Elijah is then dispatched to the north to Zarfet in Phoenicia, where a widow looks him after.  On hearing his request for water and bread, the woman protests that she has only enough meal and oil to make a final meal for herself and her son before they die. Elijah's assurance that that the meal and oil will last until the end of the drought proves to be the case.

stained glass elijahHowever, with the death of her son, the woman lays the blame squarely on the "man of God" Elijah. Laying the boy on his own bed Elijah calls on YHWH to reverse the evil He has brought upon the widow. After stretching himself three times over the child's body YHWH heeds his call and the child is restored.  Faced with such a miracle the woman declares,

"Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth" (1 K. 17:24)

The Climactic Demonstration: Who is God?

In the third year of the drought, Elijah commands Ahab to gather the people on Mt. Carmel along with the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the ashera "who eat at Jezebel's table" (In fact the prophets of the ashera take no further part in the story, suggestion that they are a later addition here). Elijah sets up the contest before the people to answer the question "Who is God?"

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Anne-Marie Belinfante is a specialist in Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library.