People

Elijah by Beth Glazier-McDonald

It is hard to imagine a more dramatic biblical figure than the prophet Elijah (1Kgs 17-19, 1Kgs 21, 2Kgs 1-2). He appears abruptly without genealogy or credentials. He speaks and things happen. He is regarded as a healer, miracle maker, king breaker, and, especially, as an ardent opponent of Baal worship. Elijah was active in the first half of the ninth century B.C.E. and is one of the lenses through which we encounter the reign of Israel’s King Ahab and his (in)famous queen, Jezebel. It is noteworthy that while there is agreement on the existence of Elijah as a religious figure, given the composite nature of the Elijah narratives, the legendary and fanciful character of some of the Elijah stories, and Elijah’s paradigmatic portrayal as ‘a prophet like Moses,’ (Deut 18:18), there is very little agreement on the historical reliability of the narratives about him.

What does the ‘sound of sheer silence’ say about social change?

Elijah is portrayed as a kind of lone ranger, a hero who saves Israelite religion by staging a fiery contest on Mount Carmel and proving decisively that Baal does not hold a candle to the biblical deity, Yahweh. In the flush of victory, Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal, rouses Queen Jezebel’s ire, and flees for his life to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There, hidden in a cleft that once sheltered Moses, Elijah complains, rather ironically given the outcome of the contest, that he and he alone of all Israel serves Yahweh zealously. Then, after being buffeted by wind, fire, and earthquake, Elijah hears a soft murmuring sound, the “sound of sheer silence” (often translated as a “still, small voice” of God; (1Kgs 19:12)), that assures him that he is not alone. After all, there are 7,000 Israelites who have not accepted Baal, and there is Obadiah, a prophet who has worked from within King Ahab’s very court to subvert royal policy (1Kgs 18:3-15). That voice demands recognition from Elijah that real political and religious reform requires the blending of one-time displays of power and might with the more frequent acts of passive resistance from the inside, that being an effective prophet requires interaction with people, not isolation from them. Not surprisingly, the voice sends Elijah back into the world to anoint the figures who will change it (1Kgs 19:15-17).

Why isn’t there a mentor handbook for prophets?

Prophets were active in actual communities, and one of the ways in which their social connectedness was made visible was through mentoring those communities. Indeed, Elijah becomes the quintessential mentor whose task it is to reconcile parents and children (Mal 4:5-6). But Elijah certainly did not start out that way. He bursts on the scene with no mention of family (1Kgs 17:1), and when he flees from Jezebel’s wrath, he laments that he is no better than his ancestors (1Kgs 19:4). The impression we get is that because Elijah did not have effective mentors to shape him for his prophetic role, he is totally unprepared to mentor Elisha, his successor. In fact, right after he calls Elisha to join him, he pushes Elisha away, saying, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” (1Kgs 19:20) and “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me [on]” (2Kgs 2:2). Yet Elisha, a man with strong family ties (“Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you,” 1Kgs 19:20), refuses to leave (2Kgs 2:2). His insistence on staying with Elijah stems from his recognition that the best way to learn what his new job entails is by shadowing a master at work. And eventually, Elijah picks up on that. As their time together draws to a close, Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha. The younger man responds, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2Kgs 2:9). Of course, he has “asked a hard thing” (2Kgs 2:10), but then Elisha does have a very hard road in front of him. Elijah agrees to Elisha’s request, provided that Elisha witnesses his departure in a whirlwind (2Kgs 2:10-11).

Since there was no definitive line of prophetic succession in this early period of Israel’s history, it is not surprising that there was no mentor handbook that one prophet passed on to the next. What there was, however, was time together, an apprenticeship period, perhaps, as was common in other professions at the time. It may be that this apprenticeship took place within the small prophetic communities known as “sons of the prophets.” There, mentor and protégé could share successes and failures, important information could be imparted and passed on, and the spirit that those in power sought to silence could be nurtured and fanned into flame.

Beth Glazier-McDonald, "Elijah", n.p. [cited 30 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/elijah

Contributors

Beth Glazier-McDonald

Beth Glazier-McDonald
Professor, Centre College

Beth Glazier-McDonald is professor of religion at Centre College. She was a contributing author to Eerdmans’ Dictionary of the Bible, Women in Scripture, and The Women’s Bible Commentary. She has also written widely on the prophet Malachi.

Elijah, a northern Israelite prophet of the ninth century B.C.E., offers a loud protest against royal policy that promoted the worship of Baal rather than Yahweh.

Did you know…?

  • Elijah’s name, Eliyahu, means “My God is Yahweh.”
  • The Elijah narrative took shape in the northern kingdom of Israel.
  • Elijah is clearly portrayed as “a prophet like Moses.”
  • Elijah is the only prophet in the Hebrew Bible who appoints his own successor.
  • At Mount Horeb, Elijah is charged with anointing three individuals: Elisha, as his successor; Hazael, as king of Aram; and Jehu, as king of Israel. Elijah anoints only Elisha; it is Elisha who anoints the other two individuals.
  • Elijah and his successor Elisha worked in connection with “the sons of the prophets,” most likely a prophetic guild.
  • Because Elijah does not die—he is carried to heaven in a whirlwind by a “chariot of fire and horses of fire” (2Kgs 2:11)—he is available to return to usher in “the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal 4:5).

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

1Kgs 17-19

Elijah Predicts a Drought
1Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be ... View more

1Kgs 21

Naboth's Vineyard
1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.2And Ahab s ... View more

2Kgs 1-2

Elijah Denounces Ahaziah
1After the death of Ahab, Moab rebelled against Israel.2Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay ... View more

Deut 18:18

18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything t ... View more

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The mountain on which God (Yahweh) is said to dwell or reveal himself, often synonymous with Mount Sinai.

1Kgs 19:12

12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

1Kgs 18:3-15

3Ahab summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Now Obadiah revered the Lord greatly;4when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah t ... View more

1Kgs 19:15-17

15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.16Also you shall ... View more

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

Mal 4:5-6

5Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts ... View more

1Kgs 17:1

Elijah Predicts a Drought
1Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be ... View more

1Kgs 19:4

4But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O L ... View more

1Kgs 19:20

20He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for ... View more

2Kgs 2:2

2Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave ... View more

1Kgs 19:20

20He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for ... View more

2Kgs 2:2

2Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave ... View more

2Kgs 2:9

9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share o ... View more

2Kgs 2:10

10He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

2Kgs 2:10-11

10He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”11As they continued ... View more

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

2Kgs 2:11

11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

Mal 4:5

5Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.