The historical Elijah

The sermon I am preparing is about the prophet Elijah.  Our pastor uses something called the Narrative Lectionary.  So I am going to (sort of) use the scripture that comes up for November 8 in that.   I am going to present the contrast between the “then the fire of the Lord fell” (I Kings 18:38) and “the Lord was not in the fire” (19:12) as a riddle having to do with our desire to see God act dramatically and the reality that we usually have to pay attention to small and ambiguous events to see God working in the world.

But, as always, in my study I ask about the historical Elijah.  Israel Finkelstein has called the Elijah cycle a historical novel.  Neither history nor novel was really a category of literature in the Iron Age, so we are just making associations with literature we know when we talk about such categories.

Whoever wrote about Elijah in 1 Kings wrote about him in the southern kingdom decades or centuries later and from a perspective of hostility against the Baal worship that Ahaz and his Tyrian princess wife, Jezebel, mingled with Yahweh worship.

Nevertheless, the writer had old sources (1 Kings 14:19).  So what we have seems like a kind of narrative commentary upon old annals.  We would say this distorts history.  But remember, the author had no concept of pure history divorced from political and theological purposes.  Modern historians seldom or never carry out the pure history thing in practice either.  But modern historians have the ideal of history written from some neutral perspective.   The author or authors of Kings did not even have the ideal.

It is not possible to prove that Elijah existed.  He does not show up in any Phoenician or Assyrian accounts.  Other players in the story do show up in Assyrian inscriptions.  And in 1964 there was discovered a seal that may have the name Jezebel.


Seal of Jezebel with missing letters restored.

So Elijah likely existed.  Some of the stories about him seem to contain folklore–the ravens and the cake in 1 Kings 17.  I don’t think these stories were in the annals of the kings.  But that there was an important prophet who opposed Ahab and Jezebel, hid out in caves in the Carmel mountain range, and who passed on a legacy to Elisha and other “sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:3) is probable.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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