Elijah Prophet of God

These articles reprinted with permission from the Washington OCDS publication the"Carmel Clarion"


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The Elijain Tradition              Statue of Elijah in St Peter's in Rome            Pondering Elijah           

Elijah And Mount Carmel

By Fr Roberto Fornara, O. C.D.

When the prophet Elijah lived on Mount Carmel - narrates a Hebrew legend - he was in the habit of leaving his grotto every so often to walk along the mountain and to pray to God. He never carried food with him, fully confiding in Divine providence. One day - continues the story - he found himself passing through a field of delicious melons. Having asked the proprietor permission to taste one, he received in reply only mockery: These aren't melons, said the owner making fun of him, but loose stones! In reply the prophet angrily pronounced a curse on the field and immediately the fruits were transformed into many tiny oval stones, scattered on the ground.

The legend, which explains in this fantastic way the origin of certain characteristic mineral forms still visible today on the slopes of Mount Carmel, is only one of the many examples of how the Hebrew tradition would have known to keep alive its relationship with the figure of the prophet Elijah, often viewed in strict relation to the geographical environment of Carmel. The New Testament is already a witness to the process that attributes to the prophet an increasingly greater importance in the history of the Hebrew people, but it is followed and then largely surpassed by the rabbinic traditions of the first centuries. The liturgy - as one can still see today - has definitively consecrated this link.

In the Old Testament the so-called Elijan cycle was incorporated into I and -2 Kings (I Kings 17-19; 21; 2 Kings 1-2). These chapters narrate the various events that saw the prophet as protagonist, from his sudden appearance almost from nowhere, to his equally mysterious rapture into heaven in a chariot of fire. In the whole of this literary production, the only episode explicitly set by the bible on Mount Carmel is the celebrated contest with the prophets of Baal, in which Elijah assumes the role of defender of the Yahwist religion against every possible contamination and every form of syncretism (the attempt or tendency to combine differing philosophical or religious beliefs).

The Historical Context

Elijah, originally from Tishbe in Transjordania, lived in the ninth century before Christ in the Northern kingdom. Already the memory of David - first king of Israel, who made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom and the center of unity for all the nation - is a distant one. Far away also is the memory of his son, the wise Solomon, under whose leadership the unity of the people had been reinforced, and Israel had known a period of great splendor and military strength. At his death, in fact, the kingdom divided itself in two: the North and the South took diverse roads.

The Northern kingdom thus begins to experience a rather turbulent and painful epoch: the reigns of Jeraboam I and his immediate successors cannot be described as examples of peace, transparency and political stability. With the ascension to the throne of Omri (a usurper, like his predecessors), the situation begins to change. Seizing power around the year 882, he constructs a new city, Samaria, in a strategic position close to the road to the sea, and there transfers the capital of his kingdom. From the military point of view, now begins for Israel a period of consolidation and of great power, which will endure for a long time (cf. I Kings 22,39 regarding the son of Ahab). Omri is able to fortify the frontiers, to hold the Arameans at bay and to reconquer Moab, as testifies the celebrated Stele of Mesah. Although the Bible does not furnish us with much documentation regarding this king, because it is not interested in transmitting a faithful and detailed chronicle of the history of Israel, we must suppose his figure to be important, if after some decades the Assyrian annals still speak of Israel as the land or house of Omri.

The politics of Omri provide a vast program of alliances that secure for the country an era of peace and stability. To this end, some marriages are celebrated between members of the diverse royal houses. The niece of the king, Atalia, will become the bride of Joram, king of Judah (the Southern kingdom), solely to ratify a pact of alliance. More important from our point of view is the marriage of Ahab, son of Omri, with Jezebel, the Phoenician princess, daughter of the priest of Tyre, ltbaal. In this way the kingdom of Israel assured for itself peace and help on the part of a neighbor that was particularly uncomfortable and insidious - but a high price was paid for all this from the religious point of view. In fact, in a sacralized society like that of the time, the various powers are not rigorously distinguished, and if the king is at the same time priest, it is clear that diplomatic and political interests will become inextricably interwoven with those of religion, until they seriously influence and dictate the religious behavior of the people.

This will show itself to be particularly true when the young Ahab ascends to the throne (around the year 874), and shows a certain weakness in comparison with his wife. The stubbornness and political influence of Jezebel permitted the religion of the Phoenicians to penetrate Israel in a fairly intimate fashion. We know that in Samaria, the new capital, a temple in the honor of Baal was erected (cf. I Kings 16,32), and that an altar dedicated to him existed on Carmel.

In such a situation of confusion and religious syncretism, Elijah is the prophet chosen by God to lead the people back to the truth of their relationship with Him and to restore fidelity to the Alliance, or Covenant. The famous episode of the confrontation with the prophets of Baal, narrated in chapter 18 of the First Book of Kings, is also the only Elijan account which is expressly set by the Bible on Mount Carmel. The choice of this locality can be easily explained by the historical context and by its geographical position. Placed exactly on the border between the kingdom of Israel and the territory of the Phoenicians, the sacred mountain summarized well the situation of the people, still faithful to the religion of their Fathers yet at the same time attracted to the new cults of Baal. The south-eastern part, which opens onto the plain of Jezreel, knew a more pure Yahwist cult while the north-west promontory, which descends into the Mediterranean, was orientated to the cult of Baal. Like the heart of the people in that particular historical moment, the mountain was also divided between Yahweh and Baal.

The excavations conducted in the city of Ugarit have yielded abundant material for the understanding of the deity. The constant element seems to be that in Baal is seen the god of the storm, of the rain, of the great meteorological phenomena, and above all of fruitfulness. It is he - for the peoples of Canaan - who gives the rain and the fruits of the earth; because of this, in Canaanite mythology, his name and his cult are associated with the world of nature and the cycles of life and death: when Baal dies the earth dies too; when he returns to life, with the autumn rains, he gives fertility back to the earth and the productive cycles can recover their vitality.

It is against this background that one should understand the episode of the struggle of Elijah against the prophets of Baal, certainly based on a story dating back to the end of the ninth century before Christ, but narrated with profound dramatic art by a redactor of the Deuteronomic school in the period of Babylonian exile (after 587 B.C.). The setting of the account in I Kings is also datable by the dramatic situation, provoked by a long famine and drought, of which we have information from the historian Flavius Josephus. It is precisely this urgent need of rain and of a good crop, and the dilemma about who might be their true dispenser, which raises the curtain on this confrontation - staged by Elijah - with his adversaries.

The Sacrifice on Carmel

The account in I Kings 18,20-40 begins with the convocation of the people on Carmel. How long will you go limping with two different opinions?, is the prophet's provocation to the people. If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him! (I Kings 18,21). The danger to be fought is syncretism. The practice of a determined religion is expressed in Hebrew by the following language: to go behind a god, to walk in his presence (cf. I Kings 18,18; Jer 2,23): here the invitation is to walk in the truth, avoiding having a foot in each camp. The proposal of the prophet, which finds itself in confrontation with 450 prophets of Baal (perhaps also to signify the unity of the God of Israel against the multiplicity and proliferation of idols), is to prepare two holocausts for the respective divinities, and to invoke them in turns; "and the God who answers by fire, he is God (v.24): the confrontation is not therefore between two gods, but between the true God and a nothing, between the God of Israel and an illusion! With this aim, the narrator is pleased to present - with a smile on his lips - the useless efforts that the prophets of Baal make, from morning until the afternoon, invoking their god, crying out in loud voices, jumping and dancing and even slashing their flesh with swords and spears, according to an established custom, as we know from various texts. Increasing their efforts produces nothing more than the impression of their futility: "but there was no voice, and no one answered" (v.26), until even Elijah begins to make fun of them (cf. v.27).

In opposition to this convulsive and frenetic agitation, the calm and serene description of the details of Elijah's preparation makes a striking contrast (vv. 30-37). First of all the prophet rebuilds the altar of the Lord that had been demolished, taking twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. In reality, he is acting in an age when the unity of the tribes which had given life to the nation had already been broken: to a shattered people he addresses a prophetic gesture of unity; to the roots of their own history he takes his bewildered people, lost among many new divinities, without sure points of reference anymore. The God of Elijah, in fact, is not a novelty, like the idols recently introduced into Israel, but is the God of the people, is the God of the Covenant with their Fathers.

After preparing the holocaust, Elijah sprinkles water abundantly until it surrounds the altar in a small channel. The prophet's certainty of obtaining the victory appears in all its radicality if we place his gesture in the context of the prolonged drought in which it is performed. The Elijan prayer of invocation, simple, bare and essential, contrasts with the long dance rituals and loud cries of the prophets of Baal; and then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench (v.38). The fire of the Lord is almost certainly lightning, announcing a storm nearby, and therefore the end of the drought, but it is also a symbol of the God Baal: not only has the Lord won, but he has openly mocked his nonexistent adversary by choosing as a victory display that god's own characteristic expression! There is, further, an assonance between the expression fire of the Lord (es ha'elohim in Hebrew) and Elijah's epithet, man of God (is ha'elohim): Elijah, the man always guided by the Word of God (cf. I Kings 17,2-5.8-10.24; 18,1-2), the prophet who burns with zeal (zealousy) for the Lord God of hosts (I Kings 19, 10.14), for the zealous God" (Ex 20,5), appears here like the true fire that illumines the people in the midst of the darkness of idolatry, consuming, purifying, and igniting the enthusiasm of the faithful. And as such the book of Ecclesiasticus will imagine him: Then the prophet Elijah rose like a fire (Ecc 48,1-11).

By now the truth has imposed itself, and those present are constrained to admit and to recognize their blindness of heart and the foolishness of their disposition: The Lord is God! The Lord is God! (v.39). The very name which the prophet bears is a description of his role (Elijah means my God is truly the Lord) and imposes itself in the facts and by force of evidence. The following massacre of the prophets of Baal, described with impressive and cold forthrightness in v.40, so repugnant to our sensibilities, must be understood in the light of the entire event. It is modeled on the mentality and the laws of the age and above all on the story of Moses. The prophets faithful to God had been massacred by the queen Jezebel; cf. I Kings 18,13 and the zeal of Moses was even more pitiless and bloody than that of Elijah (cf. Ex 32,25-29; Num 25,1- 5).

The reestablishment of the people in the truth of their relationship with God allows them also to see the happy ending of the problem of the drought. This, which had made the people suffer for so long, was nothing other than the external consequence of a more profound evil: the breakdown of their relationship with God in order to place their trust in vain and fruitless idols. The verses 41 46, which immediately follow the account of the sacrifice on Carmel, describe in fact the return of the rain. The small cloud which rises from out of the sea like the hand of a man (v.44) - interpreted by the Carmelite tradition as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary, as the liturgy seems to do as well, reserving the reading of this passage for the Solemnity on the 16th of July - is the same hand of the Lord that lifts and guides Elijah, almost in an ecstatic state, on his miraculous passage before the chariot of the king (v.46): under the certain guidance of this hand - the one hand that guides the destinies of history, the only one capable of giving a true benediction, that can render fruitful the efforts of man - the itinerary of the prophet continues.


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