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).
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 after him. 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.
However, 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?”
Both sides are provided with a bullock. They are to prepare their sacrifice, lay it on wood on an altar but are not to set the fire. Both are to call on their respective deities–the sending of fire to consume the sacrifice will serve to indicate the real God. The prophets of Baal, having set up their sacrifice, call fruitlessly on their god. As Elijah taunts, they bound around their altar gashing their bodies, but all to no avail. As the time of the evening sacrifice nears, their sacrifice remains untouched by fire.
Symbolically Elijah builds his altar from 12 stones representing the twelve tribes. He surrounds the altar with a ditch, lays the sacrifice on the wood and pours water over it until even the ditch is full. He calls on YHWH to let the people know that He is the God of Israel and Elijah is his prophet. Fire not only consumes the waterlogged sacrifice but the wood, the stone, the dust and the water that was in the ditch. Faced with such a demonstration, the people declare YHWH to be God and Elijah slaughters the losing prophets.
A Still Small Voice, and the Mantle will Pass On
The rainstorm arrives, but Elijah’s triumph places him in danger from Jezebel. He flees to the wilderness where he wishes for death. Again he is sustained by miraculously provided food and drink. He travels 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of Horeb (Sinai) where, in a cave, he pours out his despair to YHWH.
It is here that Elijah encounters YHWH in a kol demamah dakah (usually translated as “a still small voice”). The significance of this is debated, but one possibility is that this encounter is meant to emphasize to Elijah that the noise and drama of zealotry is perhaps not the best way to do God’s will.
Elijah reiterates his despair (perhaps suggesting that he has not understood God’s message) and is sent on his way with three commissions, all of which allude to a future in which he himself will not participate; he is to anoint Hazael to be future king over Aram, Jehu to be king over Israel and Elisha to be prophet in his place.
Naboth’s Vineyard: A Case of Judicial Murder
Elijah’s second confrontation with Ahab concerns Naboth’s vineyard and is reminiscent of the David and Bathsheva story. Naboth’s vineyard lies near Ahab’s palace, and the king wants it for a vegetable garden. In exchange, he offers a better vineyard or money. Naboth refuses to give up his inheritance. Ahab descends into a serious sulk, so Jezebel devises a plan to obtain the vineyard for her husband. She has two witnesses falsely testify that Naboth cursed God. He is stoned to death and Ahab takes possession of the vineyard.
Elijah is sent by YHWH to confront Ahab and prophesy his doom–“where dogs licked Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick that of the king”. His entire line will come to an end. Jezebel too will become food for the dogs. Ahab’s reaction is immediate repentance for which he gains a stay of execution. The evil will be postponed until the time of his son.
Elijah’s Dramatic Exit: The Windstorm
The final episode of Elijah’s career includes the powerful image of the prophet conveyed heavenward in a windstorm, apparently accompanied by a fiery chariot. Before Elijah departs, Elisha, who had refused to leave his side, requests a double portion of his spirit. Elijah promises it will be so if Elisha sees him as he is taken up. Elisha watches him until he disappears, and then tears his clothes in two and takes up Elijah’s mantle.
Elisha’s activities characterize him as a holy man and wonderworker. “Bad” water is cured with salt, and poisoned food is made fit to eat by adding meal. An axehead lost in the Jordan River is made to float while twenty loaves of barley feed a hundred men with food left over.
A penniless widow desperate to satisfy her creditors without selling her sons into slavery has only one vessel with a little oil left. Following Elisha’s directions she is able to pour enough oil from this vessel to fill very vessel she possesses and pay her debts. A less sympathetic picture of Elisha emerges from his dealings with the boys who call him Baldy – in his anger he summons a she-bear to devour them.
Elisha follows through with both of the unfulfilled commissions that Elijah was given on Horeb. He travels to Damascus to tell Hazael that the ailing king of Aram will die and that he, Hazael, will become king of Aram and troubler of Israel. Elisha also sends his servant to anoint Jehu king over Israel, unleashing a killing spree in which Elijah’s prophecies concerning the end of the Omride dynasty are fulfilled.
Jehoram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah go out to battle Jehu, but Jehu shoots Jehoram with an arrow and throws him into the vineyard of Naboth. He has Jezebel thrown from her window and she is trampled by horses and eaten by dogs. He then wipes out Ahab’s remaining sons and associates and all the prophets, servants and priests of Baal.
Parallels: Elijah and Elisha
The relationship between the stories of Elijah and Elisha is quite complex. There are obvious duplications in some of the miracle stories, although more “small wonders” are performed by Elisha. The theme of confrontation with the monarchy is present in both, but is much more dominant in the case of Elijah. The Elijah stories are also dominated by his battle against the Baalim, which is not the case in the Elisha cycle.
Allusions to Moses and Joshua
The relationship between Elijah and Elisha also needs to be viewed in the context of the clear allusions to the figure of Moses and the wilderness wanderings. Elijah is miraculously sustained with bread and water just as the Israelites were. Like Moses, Elijah encounters God on Horeb.
Before being taken up to heaven Elijah crosses the Jordan, parting it by striking it with his mantle. On his way back across the Jordan, Elisha does the same thing–surely mirroring the actions of Joshua bin Nun. Joshua having been commissioned by Moses as his successor then goes on to complete the task of settling the tribes in Canaan–much as Elisha must complete the tasks that were set for Elijah.