Elijah was the major prophet of the ancient Hebrews in the 8th century B.C. In the biblical account, he vigorously combated the worship of the Canaanite god Baal and revitalized the Jewish belief in the one God, Yah-weh. The Hebrew name "Elijah" means "My God is Yahweh." His name is spelled Elias in the Douay Bible and in the King James Version of the New Testament. Elijah came from Tishbe of Gilead, and he prophesied in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reigns of Ahab and Ahaziah.
Struggle with Baal
The story of Elijah's fight against the Baalism introduced by Ahab's wife, Queen Jezebel, is recounted in I Kings 17 to 19, and 21; and II Kings 1 to 2. The prophet was moved to preach the word of God to an Israel whose faith in Yahweh had weakened. A steady and subtle contamination of the religion of Yahweh by the Canaanite religion of Baal occurred after the reign of David. This was intensified in the reign (about 875 to about 853 B.C.) of Ahab, by his marriage to Jezebel of Tyre. An ardent worshiper of Baal, Jezebel introduced large numbers of the priests and prophets of Baal to Israel. Elijah forced a confrontation with the prophets of Baal, a trial of the power of Baal and the power of Yahweh, to make the people decide who was to be God in Israel.
After a three-year drought, which had been predicted by Elijah, the prophet challenged Ahab to a contest with the prophets of Baal to see which deity would manifest himself as the God of Israel. A sacrifice was placed on an altar dedicated to Baal, and another on one dedicated to Yahweh. All agreed that fire to kindle the wood on an altar would be accepted as a sign of the true God. The prophets of Baal appealed to their god with ritual dances of ecstasy, but to no avail. Elijah's prayers were answered by fire on the altar of Yahweh. The people took this as decisive, and following their laws slew the priests and prophets of Baal under Elijah's direction. After these events, rain fell, ending the drought.
I Kings 19 relates Elijah's flight from the vengeful Jezebel. At Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai), God told Elijah to anoint Hazael as king of Syria and Jehu as king of Israel. He was also instructed to select Elisha the prophet as his successor, and it was Elisha who fulfilled Elijah's task of installing the two kings.
The prophet's social message is evident in the story of Naboth and the vineyard (I Kings 21). Ahab coveted Naboth's vineyard, but Naboth refused to sell. Jezebel had him condemned to death, and Ahab then took possession of the land. Denouncing Ahab as a robber and murderer, Elijah stressed that even a king is subject to the law of God, before whom all men are equal. In sharp contrast to the Canaanite practice of favoring royalty and wealth, in Israel a man's life and property were under the protection of God, and all men were equal in this regard.
Elijah's absolute monotheism is evidenced in his confrontation with Ahaziah, son of Ahab, who sought help in his illness from Baalzebub, the pagan god of healing. Elijah condemned this as a sin against the First Commandment. Always zealous in his belief in Yahweh. Elijah was chastened by God in a vision that disclosed that God is not always manifest in tempest, fire, and earthquake, but also as a "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:11-12).
After bestowing his mantle on his successor, Elisha, Elijah was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot. Writers of later books of the Old Testament interpreted this as a sign that Elijah was to be the forerunner of the Messiah. This belief persisted among the authors of the New Testament, and many early Christians believed that Elijah was the prefiguration of Jesus or John the Baptist.
The Eastern Church reveres Elijah as a saint and keeps his feast on July 20.