A man who caused a three year drought, raised dead people to life, brought fire from heaven, and was finally carried off by a chariot of fire and a whirlwind – Elijah is one of the most intriguing and unusual characters in the Hebrew Bible.

The stories about him can be found in 1 Kgs 17-19, 21 and 2 Kgs 1-2. They place him in northern Israel during the reigns of the Omride kings Ahab and Ahaziah, around the middle of the 9th century BCE.

The central feature of Elijah’s ministry is his strong opposition to the kings of Israel and to the worship of the Canaanite god Baal, promoted by them. In the course of that opposition Elijah slaughters pagan prophets (1 Kgs 18:40) and announces the end of Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs 21:21-22).

Plagued by a sense of failure he also attempts to quit his prophetic ministry and asks YHWH to take away his life (1 Kgs 19). Instead, later on in the narrative, he is sent to proclaim the death of another Israelite king, Ahab’s son Ahaziah (2 Kgs 1), and is eventually taken up to heaven in the most spectacular fashion (2 Kgs 2).

Some modern readers think that the narratives about Elijah present him as a selfish and stubborn prophet who cared only about promoting himself. However, this is not how ancient audiences understood these stories. Instead, Elijah comes to play an important role in later Jewish and Christian traditions (Mal 4:5; Mark 9:4; Jas 5:17-18).

Further reading

Dharamraj, H. A Prophet Like Moses? A Narrative-Theological Reading of the Elijah Stories. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2011.
Hauser, A. J., and Russell Gregory. From Carmel to Horeb: Elijah in Crisis. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 85. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990.
Walsh, J. T. 1 Kings. Berit Olam. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996.