Biography of Elijah, Old Testament Prophet

He preached the doctrine of monotheism

Elijah Runs Before the Chariot of Ahab, painting by James Tissot
SuperStock / Getty Images

Elijah (900 BCE–849 BCE) appears in the Judaic/Christian religious texts as well as in the Quran of Islam as a prophet and messenger of God. He also plays a role as a prophet for Mormons in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Elijah serves slightly different roles in these various religious traditions but is often depicted as an early savior, a precursor to more major figures such as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. His name translates literally as "my Lord is Jehovah."

Whether or not the legendary character of Elijah is based on a true person, as is true of Jesus and other biblical characters, is uncertain. The clearest biography of him, however, comes from the Old Testament Christian Bible.

Fast Facts: Elijah

  • Known For: Old Testament prophet
  • Also Known As: Elijah the Prophet, Eliyahu, Elias, The Prophet Elijah, Elias, Elia, Eliyyahu, Elijah the Tishbite
  • Born: 900 BCE in Tishbe in Gilead, ancient Palestine (now Jordan)
  • Father: Savah
  • Died: 849 BCE
  • Notable Quote: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 

First Appearance and Historical Setting

Elijah was born in 900 BCE in the village of Tishbe in Gilead in ancient Palestine. Little is known about his birthplace, other than it is likely the historical town of Listib, the ruins of which are in present-day Jordan. Elijah's father was Savah, but it is not known who his mother was. This is not unusual because important figures in the Old Testament were often introduced by their name followed by "ben" meaning "son of," followed by the name of the father, but not the mother.

Nothing is recorded about his background before Elijah appears suddenly to promote traditional orthodox Jewish beliefs. The name "Elijah" is spelled in several different ways, depending on how it is translated from Hebrew in the Old Testament. "Elijah" is the most common spelling in English.

Elijah is described as having lived during the reigns of Israelite Kings Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram, during the first half of the 9th century BCE. In biblical texts, his first appearance places him about halfway through the reign of King Ahab, son of Omri who founded the northern kingdom in Samaria. This would place Elijah somewhere around 864 BCE.

Elijah’s activities were confined to the northern kingdom of Israel. At times he is recorded as having to flee from Ahab’s wrath, taking refuge in a Phoenician city.

Important Actions

The Bible attributes the following actions to Elijah: 

In Kings 1, Elijah suddenly appears during the reign of Ahab to announce a drought that God will send in punishment for worshipping the cult of Baal. Later, Elijah meets prophets of Baal to determine which tribal god is supreme; as the story goes, Elijah "wins" when Jehovah answers his prayers. The Baal priests are slaughtered by the Israelites.

Elijah then flees a wrathful Jehovah by taking a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, where he is first discouraged, then renewed, in his faith and courage. Elijah later denounces King Ahab again for the misuse of laws, arguing that all men are equal under God, including kings, and that morality should be the basis for legal decisions. Elijah once again calls down the wrath of Jehovah on Ahab's son when he appeals to the pagan god Baal.

As related in Kings 2, after Elijah hands over his duties to his successor Elisha, Elijah is spirited to heaven on a flaming chariot. Tradition holds that Elijah never died and that he will return before the final judgment by God—a key belief of traditional Christians. In fact, 800 years later, some early Christians would even believe that Elijah had returned in the form of John the Baptist.

Importance of Religious Tradition

In the historical period represented by Elijah, each tribal religion of the area worshipped its own god, and the concept of an overall single God did not yet exist. The primary significance of Elijah lies in the fact that he was an early champion of the idea that there is one god and one god only.

This approach became key to the way in which Jehovah, the God of the Israelites, would become accepted as the single God of the entire Judaic/Christian tradition. Significantly, Elijah did not initially proclaim that the true God was Jehovah, only that there could be only one true God, and that He would make himself known to those who opened their hearts. Elijah is quoted as saying:

“If Yahweh is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” 

Later, he says:

“Hear me, Yahweh, that these people may know that you, Yahweh, are God.”

The story of Elijah is key to the historical development of monotheism itself and to the belief that mankind can and should have a personal relationship with that monotheistic God. This is a clear statement of monotheism that was historically revolutionary at the time, and one that would change history.

Legacy

Elijah's teachings established the idea that a higher moral law should be the basis for earthly law. In his conflicts with Ahab and the pagan leaders of the time, Elijah argued that the law of a higher God must be the basis for guiding mankind's conduct and that morality must be the basis for a practical legal system.

Religion then became a practice based on reason and principle rather than frenzy and mystical ecstasy. This idea of laws based on moral principle continues to this day.

Sources

  • Mandel, David, and David Mandel. “Elijah.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, 19 Feb. 2008.
  • Smyth, Kevin. “Elijah.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 2016.
  • Prophet Elias (Elijah) the Tishbite-(Life and Times).” Prophet Elias (Elijah) the Tishbite-(Life and Times) | The Website of the Carmelite Order | Welcome.