The Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Elijah. A prophet in the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the ninth century B.C., during the reign of Ahab. He fought against the worship of Baal, and the unjust actions of the king. According to the later prophet Malachi. Elijah would return before the day of the Lord. 1 Kings, chs. 17 to 19; 21; 2 Kings 1:1 to 2:12; Mal. 4:5-6; Matt. 11:13-14; Mark 8:27-30.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Elijah, an Israelite prophet in the times of kings Ahab and Ahaziah, during the first half of the ninth century b.c. Elijah is the protagonist of four stories in the book of Kings.

The Four Stories: In the first story, 1 Kings 16:29-19:18, Elijah declared a drought to punish the nation for its idolatry. At this time, Elijah himself hid and miraculously survived the famine. The drought ended in a contest between Elijah and the Baal prophets: the god who would answer his prophet’s call with fire from heaven would be vindicated as the true god. Elijah won, Yahweh was vindicated, and Elijah’s Baalite antagonists were slaughtered. Pursued by Queen Jezebel who sought vengeance for her protegés, Elijah fled to Horeb, reported to the Lord, and was commanded to anoint Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha, three new protagonists in the fight against Baal. This story, which is often considered one of the masterpieces of biblical narrative, was probably written in Judah during the reign of Manasseh, some two hundred years after the events portrayed. Its late composition is indicated by the adoption of a legend from Elisha’s cycle (1 Kings 17:8-16, cf. 2 Kings 4:1-7), the adaptation of the royal annals of Samaria to the present plot (1 Kings 16:29-17:1, to which the end, 19:16-18, corresponds), the incorporation of Isaiah’s concept of ‘the remnant’ (1 Kings 19:18) and the anachronistic detail about the persecution of prophets (1 Kings 18:4, 13, 22; 19:10, 14).

The second story involving Elijah, in 1 Kings 21, tells about the judicial murder of Naboth. The royal consort, who coveted his vineyard, had him judged and executed for blasphemy. Ahab then went to inherit the vineyard and was confronted by Elijah with a terrible prophecy of doom. It may be suggested that the present story was composed in the postexilic age, on the basis of its late diction and its being acquainted with all the legal corpora found in the Torah (cf. Exod. 22:27; Lev. 24:13-16; Num. 36:7-9; Deut. 19:15). An older, certainly more original, version is hinted at in 2 Kings 9:25-26, 36-37. In spite of the many variations, the older version seems to confirm Elijah’s important role in the Naboth affair.

In the third story (2 Kings 1:2-2:17) Ahaziah fell ill and sent to inquire of Baal-zebub of Ekron if he would recover. Elijah intervened and sent the messengers back to the king with a prophecy of doom that he himself reiterated when summoned to the king’s presence. The derivative character of this prophetic legend, which twice let fire down from heaven in order to save Elijah, although he was in no danger at all, indicates late composition. This is confirmed by its late diction.

The fourth story dealing with Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21; 2 Kings 2:1-18) relates how Elisha became Elijah’s servant, followed him until his ascension to heaven, and then inherited two-thirds [see footnote 1] of his master’s spirit. This story belongs to the Elisha cycle and contains a spurious tradition aimed at binding together two great prophets of the past. Originally, however, the two were quite distinct: while Elijah was a zealot of the Lord fighting against idolatry and injustice, Elisha was a wonder worker who saved Israel during the Aramean crisis. This story should therefore not be taken into account in the assessment of the tradition about Elijah.

Interpretation: The three reliable stories of the Elijah cycle, being all late, contain many of the theological concepts, historical notions, and literary tastes of the latest biblical writers. Nevertheless the traditions preserved in these stories are not altogether spurious, as proved by the comparison of the two versions of the Naboth incident and by the coherent description of Elijah as a zealot of the Lord fighting against Baal in the other two accounts. At the root of the present stories stood older ones, now lost. Due to the popularity of Elijah, stories about him were retold by each new generation so that only the later accounts were incorporated in the book of Kings.

Elijah came from the town of Tosabe in Gilead. His leather attire and his nomadic habits make it plausible that he belonged to a family of shepherds in Transjordan. This may explain his zeal in fighting Baal in both manifestations—Baal as god of the Israelite peasants, who credited him with the land’s fertility, and Baal as god of the Phoenicians who was imported into Israel at that age.

The introduction of the Tyrian Baal into Israel during the Omride dynasty (882-842 b.c.) is a historical fact; it was brought about by the marriage of Ahab, son of Omri, to the Tyrian princess Jezebel. From its center in Samaria Baal worship spread out to the provincial towns, given impetus by the syncretistic concept of the Lord to whom the name of Baal and his attributes had been applied from old. In declaring a drought, Elijah challenged Baal in his very quality as a fertility god. A second challenge was contained in the contest with the Baal prophets, for here the real issue was who the true god of the storm was. The story in 2 Kings dwells on related matters: who is the right god to inquire oracles of? Who strikes and heals, gives death and life?

The outcome of the contest on Mt. Carmel is a monotheistic creed: the Lord is God! (1 Kings 18:39). This explicit belief of the seventh-century b.c. author was already intrinsic in the contest, because at first Israelite monotheism did not dwell on the otiose question of the mere existence of gods. The relevant questions were: who besides the Lord is judge (Ps. 82), savior (Deut. 32), bestower of rain and dew (1 Kings 17)? Who is able to answer invocation and prayer (1 Kings 18)? Thus Elijah’s zeal for the Lord was the genuine expression of a well-rooted ancient monotheism.

The older version of the Naboth story, reflected in 2 Kings 9:25-26, 36-37, presents some significant variations also regarding the role of the prophet in the story. Elijah is mentioned only in v. 36, which makes his participation plausible, but not beyond doubt. The prophet did not use the messenger formula ‘Thus says the Lord,’ but pronounced an oath in the Lord’s name, making the verdict irrevocable. Rebuke and doom were not independent of each other as in 1 Kings 21:19 but integrated together (2 Kings 9:26). The doom was expressed in more general terms—‘I will requite you in this field’—which were later adapted to history (1 Kings 21:19b, 21-24). However, the most essential part of the prophet’s message has been left unaltered: in both stories the prophet proclaims the verdict of the Lord, a supreme, omniscient judge who will requite in due time.

Elijah’s role as fighter against Baal and injustice is taken up in 2 Chron. 21:12-15. The historicity of the letter mentioned there is doubtful. It is more appropriate to the time of the Second Temple (ca. fifth century b.c.), when pseudepigraphic prophecies were circulated. The mention of Elijah at the conclusion of the Torah-Prophets canon in Mal. 3:22-24 identifies him with the Lord’s messenger (Heb. malÕakh) of Mal. 3:1, expected to purify the priesthood (vv. 2-3) and himself described as a priest and a teacher of Torah (Mal. 2:7). These relationships may thus help explain Elijah’s role in connection with the observation of the Torah (3:22-23). As supreme teacher, he is expected to ‘reconcile fathers and sons.’ In the light of Jubilees 23:16-31, this expression must be understood as referring to the various religious sects emerging in Judaism at the beginning of the Hellenistic age.

In the nt, Elijah is identified in the popular mind with Jesus (Mark 6:15; 8:28) but Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah who was to return and restore all things (Mark 9:12).

[This article was written by Alexander Rofe, Professor of Bible, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel] footnote/commentary on 2Ki 2:9

Footnote 1: inherited two-thirds of his master’s spirit: The Hebrew text and virtually all English translations describe Elisha asking for 'a double portion' of his master's spirit. The footnote in The HarperCollins Study Bible (edited by Wayne Meeks and the Society of Biblical Literature, NY: HarperCollins, 1993, page 561) explains:

2.9 Elisha's request for a double share of your spirit refers to the legal provision that a firstborn son must receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deut 21:15-17). Elisha thus asks to have the status of Elijah's firstborn and to inherit more of his spirit than any other prophetic heirs. Elisha is not requesting more of the spirit than Elijah had but only a fraction of it.

If a Jewish father had two sons, the older son would inherit twice as much property as the younger son, which would provide the older son with two-thirds of the father's property. Professor Rofe's statement that Elisha asked to inherit "two thirds of his master's spirit" would apparently assume that a second son or the other children would inherit the other third of his master's spirit; however, there is no biblical mention of Elijah having been married or having any children. So the assumption may be made that Elijah was making his request in the context of the prophets, meaning in a literal sense that Elisha was requesting two-thirds of Elijah's spirit and requesting the other prophets divide up the other third of Elijah's spirit.

Norman H. Snaith, in his exegesis of 2 Kings in The Interpreter's Bible (edited by George Arthus Buttrick, Nashville: Abingdon, 1954, Volume 3, page 194), writes:

9. The double share is the portion of the heir, the first-born. Elisha desires to succeed to the leadership of the prophetic guilds ("the sons of the prophets"), and so to have the authority and power which belonged to his master. The meaning is not that he should be two thirds as great as Elijah (so Ewald [H.G.A. von Ewald, Commentary on the Prophets of the Old Testament, 5 Volumes, Edinburgh: ET, 1875-1881]), nor on the other hand that he should be twice as great as Elijah (so Ecclus. 48:13, Vulg.), but that he should he should be his successor. The word ruah (spirit) is not used here of phophetic inspiration so much as in the sense of more-than-human power.


Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer