Elijah (Elias) the Thisbite lived in the ninth century BC, in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Five hundred years had passed since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Several generations had come and gone since David and Solomon ruled in God’s name. Their kingdom had been divided in two and thereby weakened by rivalries among its leaders. The Israelites had grown lax in their conviction that there was but one God. Proximity to and intermarriage with neighboring Canaanites had made them more accepting of these other gods, such as Baal, favorite of the king’s wife, Jezebel. The dramatic story of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal is recorded in 1 Kings 17-19.
Elijah – whose name means “Jahweh is my God” – personifies the most important characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. He is described repeatedly as consumed by zeal for the Lord, devoted to observing and restoring the worship of the one true God in a spiritually feeble age. The commitment of the Israelites to their God would wax and wane over succeeding generations and other prophets would rise up to do as Elijah had done in his day to exalt the name of the one true God.
The Scriptures recount several marvels in the life of Elijah for which he is especially revered. The most dramatic involves the drought brought about by the prophet who warned the king, “There will be no dew or rain except at my bidding” (1 Kings 17:1). The three-year long drought was ended at Elijah’s prayer, after the prophets of Baal had failed to do so, bringing about the conversion of the people to the Lord. “When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: ‘The Lord alone is God! The Lord alone is God!’” (1 Kings 18:39). A series of wonders took place in Zarephath, a village near Sidon. There Elijah multiplied flour and oil for a poor widow so that “she and her household had food for a long time” (1 Kings 17:15). Elijah also restored the widow’s son to life after a fatal illness had claimed him by prostrating himself three times over the child and praying, “O Lord, let this child’s life return to his body” (1 Kings 17:21). St Ephrem the Syrian would see this triple prostration as an image of Christ’s triple descent (to becoming man, to death and to Hades) to bring life to the human race.
Monastics in the Christian East have long revered Elijah as a kind of proto-monk, a desert-dweller for the Lord. During the drought God sent Elijah east of the Jordan to Wadi Cherith, a secluded ravine out of Ahab’s reach where “ravens brought him bread and meat morning and evening, and he drank from the river” (1 Kgs 17:6). Modern commentators have noted that the original Hebrew text has no vowels and that the same consonants in the word ravens can also be read as Arabs. Perhaps Bedouin tribesmen brought food to Elijah in his wilderness retreat as their descendants would assist hermits in later centuries. Monastics also identified with Elijah’s forty-day fast on his journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). At the conclusion of this fast the Lord revealed His presence to Elijah in “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). This they saw as an icon of the monastic life. The monk distances himself from the world through fasting and other ascetic practices to pursue communion with God (theosis).
Several events in the life of the prophet Elijah are connected with Mount Carmel, a promontory on the Mediterranean near the city of Haifa. Christians, Druze, Jews and Muslims all revere this place for its connection with Elijah. Early in the spread of monasticism ascetics settled in the area, often living in caves on the outcropping.
When Western monks came to the Holy Land during the Crusades, they found Eastern hermits settled on Carmel and stayed among them. The Western monks adopted the Easterners’ way of life in the spirit of Elijah. When they returned to Europe, however, these “Carmelites” were obliged to adopt a communal way of life. While living as a hermit was considered the summit of monastic life in the East, it was seen as eccentric in the West.
The last Old Testament prophetic book, Malachi, ends with these words of the Lord: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:23-24). Believing Jews saw Elijah’s return as a herald of the Messiah’s coming. To this day Jews pray every Sabbath: “Elijah the prophet, Elijah the Thisbite – let him come quickly in our day with the Messiah, the son of David.” Christians, of course, believe that the Messiah has come – it is Jesus. Jesus Himself identified John the Baptist as Elijah come again: “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). But Christians also believe that Elijah is “the herald of the Second Coming of Christ”: the coming in power at the end of the age.
In 2 Kings 2:11 we read “And it came to pass while they [Elijah and Elisha] were walking, speaking together as they walked, behold, a chariot of fire came between the two of them and Elijah was swept up in a whirlwind…” The current Hebrew text, on which most modern translations are based, says that Elijah was swept up “into heaven.” The oldest existing text, however, the Greek Septuagint says that he was swept up “as if into heaven.” This accords with the statement in the Gospel of John, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).
Jewish commentaries describe heaven as the dwelling place of the angels. Christians, however, see heaven as the state of intimate communion with God: something made possible only after Christ. Thus St Athanasius would write, “Elijah did not ascend into heaven… Heaven was reserved for the Creator, the Author of mankind. Thus, with Enoch and Elijah, God gladdened the people with a promising hope by spreading before them an ‘airborne highway’ as though for horse-drawn vehicles”. As St. Gregory mused concerning Enoch and Elijah, “…even he [Elijah] did not go beyond the boundaries of the earth, but who knows what kind of transportation each of these ascensions was, which lifted them off the face of the earth, yet did not remove them from earth altogether.”