I have been doubtful about the historicity of the events in the Elijah cycle. The feats and wonder-working remind me of the Samson cycle in Judges. It is not that Samson never existed. One likely theory is that his stories are based on Shamgar ben Anath, whose fight with the Philistines gets brief notice in Judges 3:31. But the stories about Samson run with a lot of folk-lore and myth. They show borrowings from the Herucules stories of the Greeks.
Reading Hillel Millgram’s The Elijah Enigma is helping me see how Elijah’s stories are different from Sampson’s. There is more historical connection through Ahab and the Omride dynasty. The portrayal of Elijah as a wonder-worker mirrors the Pentateuch and its portrayal of Moses.
After Elijah’s encounter with the Baal prophets on one mountain, he flees to another mountain. There is very little historical information in this. Elijah is near Jezreel. Then he is a hundred miles away in Beer-Sheba without any mention of the days of travel this would have taken him. Then he treks through the desert to Horeb. Supposedly he did not eat or drink for 40 days. Millgram is quite correct that the 40 days represent a lesser period of time. The fast, the 40 days, and the journey to the mountain are all supposed to recall Moses.
Elijah’s journey is a theological and human drama, not a report based on a calendar somebody kept.
These chapters from Millgram contain much speculation about what Abab, Jezebel and Elijah were thinking. This is what Millgram imagines Elijah was thinking:
. . .I acted in the best way I knew how; I did what I thought had to be done. And You backed me to the hilt, by sending fire from heaven as well as rain. But all this proved insufficient. Repentance was temporary at best. As soon as the rains came—as soon as the pressure was off—the Israelites replapsed into their old ways. Here I am alone—a fugitive (Sorry, no page numbers in this Kindle book).
He looks closely at Elijah’s reflective thoughts in 1 Kings 19:10.
Millgram points out three elements of Elijah’s thinking that may surprise us. The first is just how self-absorbed he has become. For someone with a mission from God, he has become very focused on how unfair and hard his own circumstances are.
Second, Ahab and Jezebel drop out of the picture. Elijah doesn’t blame them for his troubles. Instead, he says that Israel has abandoned God and left his prophet all alone.
The third surprise is the way Elijah totalizes Israel, as though every single individual except Elijah has turned away from God. According to the narrative, Elijah should know that Obadiah had enabled many prophets of YWWH to survive. But, perhaps their loyalty is not good enough for Elijah. Their going into hiding instead of standing for their faith in the open disqualifies them as faithful servants of God.
Elijah keeps saying that he is “very zealous”. We should probably interpret this to mean fanatical. And, according to 1 Kings, he is more fanatical than God.
Elijah tries to resign from his mission. But God does not accept his resignation.
In his experience at Horeb, Elijah has a religious experience that is almost completely negative. It is about what does not convey God’s presence-wind, earthquake and fire. He finally heard a sound of silence. Again, this is negative. The text does not say whether God was in the silence.
But, somehow, Elijah figures out that God wants him to go back the way he came and then on to Damascus. Perhaps the mission to Damascus reflects Elijah’s judgment that his mission to Israel has failed.
I have concentrated on Millgram’s exploration of Elijah’s thought processes because the text gives us some basis for that. I found his attempts to discern the thoughts of Ahab and Jezebel to have less foundation.
However, there may be something to his idea that Ahab saw the situation in Israel after the downfall of the Baal prophets as a big win. Of course, the end of the drought was a win for him. But also the growing power of the Phoenician religious officials and the alienation of loyal Israelites may have become a negative for him. So the elimination of the Baal prophets would have left a more balanced situation. And this would have curbed Jezebel’s power without Ahab needing to upset anyone in the court at Tyre.