Elijah (“Yahweh is my God”) was a prophet in the northern kingdom of the divided monarchy during the reigns of Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram (873–843 BCE). The circumstances of his birth and early life are not recorded, nor, somewhat unusually, is the name of his father. He was a native of Tishbe in Gilead, an unknown Transjordanian site.
The stories about Elijah, which once circulated separately, have been incorporated into the Deuteronomic history as part of its extensive account of the reign of Ahab of Israel (1 Kings 16.29–22.40) and of its briefer account of the reign of his short‐lived son Ahaziah (1 Kings 22.51—2 Kings 1.18). Elijah's translation to heaven and his sucession by Elisha in 2 Kings 2.1–18 are outside the regnal frame and are part of the Elisha cycle; they take place sometime in Jehoram's reign.
The Elijah cycle records the battle in the north for the survival of authentic Yahwism. Both Ahab and his successor Ahaziah looked not only to Yahweh but also to Baal and to his consort Asherah for the winter rains and summer dew that fertilized the land (1 Kings 17–19), and for healing (2 Kings 1). Elijah had to contend not only with the many prophets of Baal and Asherah but with other prophets of Yahweh; 1 Kings 20 and 22 (though not mentioning Elijah) show disagreements among prophets speaking in Yahweh's name. To Elijah, Yahwism involved more than proper worship; the king was accountable to Yahweh's word delivered through prophets such as Elijah, and was bound by Mosaic laws protecting the poor (chap. 21). The royal house, influenced by the Phoenician Queen Jezebel, looked to non‐Israelite models of kingship, in which the patron gods supported the dynasty.
The section 1 Kings 17–19 is artfully arranged from short stories into a coherent demonstration of Yahweh's control of fertility and protection of his prophet. Elijah announces a drought in 17.1, then in 17.2–24 is protected from its effects and from the king. In 18.1–40 Elijah challenged Ahab and his prophets to a contest to determine which deity could end the drought. Yahweh's consumption of the bull offered to him proves that he alone is God; the rain of vv. 40–46 is therefore from Yahweh and not from Baal.
The prophetic word ending the drought, like the word that began it (17.1), puts Elijah in danger from the king. Chap. 19 tells how Yahweh protected Elijah at Horeb, the source of authentic Yahwism. Like Moses, he encounters God. The theophany, however, is not in the traditional storm but in “a still small voice” (19.12; NRSV: “a sound of sheer silence”), commissioning him to anoint new kings in Syria and Israel (Hazael in place of Ben‐Hadad and Jehu in place of Ahab), and a prophetic successor, Elisha. The sole divinity of Yahweh, proved in the drought‐ending storm at Carmel, is asserted in a different way at Horeb; the God of Israel has authority to reject and appoint kings and to provide for a continuing prophetic word.
Chap. 21 is another confrontation of king and prophet, this time about the judicial murder of Naboth, who, in accord with the Israelite conception of land tenure, had refused to sell his family plot to Ahab. Elijah's curse upon Ahab takes effect only in the next generation, occasioning Elijah's last recorded confrontation, with Ahaziah in 2 Kings 1. The king in his illness had sent to Baal of Ekron for healing, and so he must die.
Outside the books of Kings, the Chronicler reports a letter from Elijah condemning Jeroboam (2 Chron. 21.12–15). Malachi (4.5 [Heb. 3.23], commenting on 3.1) identifies the messenger of the last days with Elijah; taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2.11), the prophet shall return to prepare the nation for the day of the Lord in judgment. Elijah's role as precursor continues in Jewish tradition, with the development of messianic expectations; at the Passover table a place is set for Elijah in case he returns to inaugurate the messianic age. This belief is also present in the New Testament; Mark (6.15; 8.28; 9.11–13; pars.) and John (1.21, 25) speak of Elijah as the precursor of the last days. The Elijah of the book of Kings appears in Luke 4.25–27; Rom. 11.2; James 5.17; and is dramatically presented in Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah.
Richard J. Clifford