The loftiest and most wonderful prophet of the Old Testament. What we know of his public life is sketched in a few popular narratives enshrined, for the most part, in the First (Third) Book of Kings. These narratives, which bear the stamp of an almost contemporary age, very likely took shape in Northern Israel, and are full of the most graphic and interesting details. Every part of the prophet’s life therein narrated bears out the description of the writer of Ecclesiasticus: He was “as a fire, and his word burnt like a torch” (48:1). The times called for such a prophet. Under the baneful influence of his Tyrian wife Jezabel, Achab, though perhaps not intending to forsake altogether Yahveh’s worship, had nevertheless erected in Samaria a temple to the Tyrian Baal (1 Kings 16:32) and introduced a multitude of foreign priests (xviii 19); doubtless he had occasionally offered sacrifices to the pagan deity, and, most of all, hallowed a bloody persecution of the prophets of Yahveh.
Of Elias’s origin nothing is known, except that he was a Thesbite; whether from Thisbe of Nephtali (Tobit 1:2) or from Thesbon of Galaad, as our texts have it, is not absolutely certain, although most scholars, on the authority of the Septuagint and of Josephus, prefer the latter opinion. Some Jewish legends, echoed in a few Christian writings, assert moreover that Elias was of priestly descent; but there is no other warrant for the statement than the fact that he offered sacrifices. His whole manner of life resembles somewhat that of the Nazarites and is a loud protest against his corrupt age. His skin garment and leather girdle (2 Kings, 1, 8), his swift foot (1 Kings 18:46), his habit of dwelling in the clefts of the torrents (xvii,3) or in the caves of the mountains (xix, 9), of sleeping under a scanty shelter (xix, 5), betray the true son of the desert. He appears abruptly on the scene of history to announce to Achab that Yahveh had determined to avenge the apostasy of Israel and her king by bringing a long drought on the land. His message delivered, the prophet vanished as suddenly as he had appeared, and, guided by the spirit of Yahveh, betook himself by the brook Carith, to the east of the Jordan, and the ravens (some critics would translate, however improbable the rendering, “Arabs” or “merchants”) “brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening, and he drank of the torrent” (xvii, 6).
After the brook had dried up, Elias, under Divine direction, crossed over to Sarepta, within the Tyrian dominion. There he was hospitably received by a poor widow whom the famine had reduced to her last meal (12); her charity he rewarded by increasing her store of meal and oil all the while the drought and famine prevailed, and later on by restoring her child to life (14-24). For three years there fell no rain or dew in Israel, and the land was utterly barren. Meanwhile Achab had made fruitless efforts and scoured the country in search of Elias. At length the latter resolved to confront the king once more, and, suddenly appearing before Abdias, bade him summon his master (xviii, 7, sq.). When they met, Achab bitterly upbraided the prophet as the cause of the misfortune of Israel. But the prophet flung back the charge: “I have not troubled Israel, but thou and thy father’s house, who have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and have followed Baalim” (xviii, 18). Taking advantage of the discountenanced spirits of the silenced king, Elias bids him to summon the prophets of Baal to Mount Carmel, for a decisive contest between their god and Yahveh. The ordeal took place before a great concourse of people (see MOUNT CARMEL) whom Elias, in the most forcible terms, presses to choose: “How long do you halt between two sides? If Yahveh be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (xviii, 21). He then commanded the heathen prophets to invoke their deity; he himself would “call on the name of his Lord”; and the God who would answer by fire, “let him be God” (24). An altar had been erected by the Baal-worshippers and the victim laid upon it; but their cries, their wild dances and mad self-mutilations all the day long availed nothing: “There was no voice heard, nor did any one answer, nor regard them as they prayed” (29). Elias, having repaired the ruined altar of Yahveh which stood there, prepared thereon his sacrifice; then, when it was time to offer the evening oblation, as he was praying earnestly, “the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the holocaust, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (38). The issue was fought and won. The people, maddened by the success, fell at Elias’s command on the pagan prophets and slew them at the brook Cison. That same evening the drought ceased with a heavy downpour of rain, in the midst of which the strange prophet ran before Achab to the entrance of Jezrael.
Elias’s triumph was short. The anger of Jezabel, who had sworn to take his life (xix, 2), compelled him to flee without delay, and take his refuge beyond the desert of Juda, in the sanctuary of Mount Horeb. There, in the wilds of the sacred mountain, broken spirited, he poured out his complaint before the Lord, who strengthened him by a revelation and restored his faith. Three commands are laid upon him: to anoint Hazael to be King of Syria, Jehu to be King of Israel, and Eliseus to be his own successor. At once Elias sets out to accomplish this new burden. On his way to Damascus he meets Eliseus at the plough, and throwing his mantle over him, makes him his faithful disciple and inseparable companion, to whom the completion of his task will be entrusted. The treacherous murder of Naboth was the occasion for a new reappearance of Elias at Jezrael, as a champion of the people’s rights and of social order, and to announce to Achab his impending doom. Achab’s house shall fall. In the place where the dogs licked the blood of Naboth will the dogs lick the king’s blood; they shall eat Jezabel in Jezrael; their whole posterity shall perish and their bodies be given to the fowls of the air (xxi, 20-26). Conscience-stricken, Achab quailed before the man of God, and in view of his penance the threatened ruin of his house was delayed. The next time we hear of Elias, it is in connexion with Ochozias, Achab’s son and successor. Having received severe injuries in a fall, this prince sent messengers to the shrine of Beelzebub, god of Accaron, to inquire whether he should recover. They were intercepted by the prophet, who sent them back to their master with the intimation that his injuries would prove fatal. Several bands of men sent by the king to capture Elias were stricken by fire from heaven; finally the man of God appeared in person before Ochozias to confirm his threatening message. Another episode recorded by the chronicler (2 Chronicles 21:12) relates how Joram, King of Juda, who had indulged in Baal-worship, received from Elias a letter warning him that all his house would be smitten by a plague, and that he himself was doomed to an early death.
According to 2 Kings 3, Elias’s career ended before the death of Josaphat. This statement is difficult — but not impossible — to harmonize with the preceeding narrative. However this may be, Elias vanished still more mysteriously than he had appeared. Like Enoch, he was “translated”, so that he should not taste death. As he was conversing with his spiritual son Eliseus on the hills of Moab, “a fiery chariot, and fiery horses parted them both asunder, and Elias went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11), and all the efforts to find him made by the sceptic sons of the prophets disbelieving Eliseus’s recital, availed nothing. The memory of Elias has ever remained living in the minds both of Jews and Christians. According to Malachias, God preserved the prophet alive to entrust him, at the end of time, with a glorious mission (iv, 5-6): at the New Testament period, this mission was believed to precede immediately the Messianic Advent (Matthew 17:10, 12; Mark 9:11); according to some Christian commentators, it would consist in converting the Jews (St. Jer., in Mal., iv, 5-6); the rabbis, finally, affirm that its object will be to give the explanations and answers hitherto kept back by them. I Mach., ii, 58, extols Elias’s zeal for the Law, and Ben Sira entwines in a beautiful page the narration of his actions and the description of his future mission (Sirach 48:1-12). Elias is still in the N.T. the personification of the servant of God (Matthew 16:14; Luke 1:17; 9:8; John 1:21). No wonder, therefore, that with Moses he appeared at Jesus’ side on the day of the Transfiguration.
Nor do we find only in the sacred literature and the commentaries thereof evidences of the conspicuous place Elias won for himself in the minds of after-ages. To this day the name of Jebel Mâr Elyas, usually given by modern Arabs to Mount Carmel, perpetuates the memory of the man of God. Various places on the mountain: Elias’s grotto; El-Khadr, the supposed school of the prophets; El-Muhraka, the traditional spot of Elias’s sacrifice; Tell el-Kassis, or Mound of the priests — where he is said to have slain the priests of Baal — are still in great veneration both among the Christians of all denominations and among the Moslems. Every year the Druses assemble at El-Muhraka to hold a festival and offer a sacrifice in honour of Elias. All Moslems have the prophet in great reverence; no Druse, in particular, would dare break an oath made in the name of Elias. Not only among them, but to some extent also among the Jews and Christians, many legendary tales are associated with the prophet’s memory. The Carmelite monks long cherished the belief that their order could be traced back in unbroken succession to Elias whom they hailed as their founder. Vigorously opposed by the Bollandists, especially by Papenbroeck, their claim was no less vigorously upheld by the Carmelites of Flanders, until Pope Innocent XII, in 1698, deemed it advisable to silence both contending parties. Elias is honoured by both the Greek and Latin Churches on 20 July.
The old stichometrical lists and ancient ecclesiastical writings (Const. Apost., VI, 16; Origen, Comm. in Matthew 27:9; Euthalius; Epiphan., Haer., 43) mention an apocryphal “Apocalypse of Elias”, citations from which are said to be found in 1 Corinthians 2:9, and Ephesians 5:14. Lost to view since the early Christian centuries, this work was partly recovered in a Coptic translation found (1893) by Maspéro in a monastery of Upper Egypt. Other scraps, likewise in Coptic, have since been also discovered. What we possess now of this Apocalypse — and it seems that we have by far the greater part of it — was published in 1899 by G. Steindorff; the passages cited in 1 Corinthians 2:9, and Ephesians 5:14, do not appear there; the Apocalypse on the other hand, has a striking analogy with the Jewish “Sepher Elia”.
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APA citation. Souvay, C. (1909). Elias. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
MLA citation. Souvay, Charles. “Elias.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.