Life and Times of Elijah

After Jeroboam broke the Jewish Commonwealth into two, there occurred great military and diplomatic changes in the area.

The leading empire at that time was Aram, which is approximately the location of modern-day Syria. There were also two other empires waiting in the wings: Assyria (which is today the western part of Iraq) and Babylon (the eastern part of modern Iraq). The basic sequence of dominance was that Aram would fall to Assyria which would fall to Babylon which would fall to Persia which would fall to the Greeks which would fall to the Romans.

The Jewish State, even when united, was relatively small. It would have been a tall order even when united to retain their independence from Aram. If either Jewish kingdom had any hope to survive they had to forge alliances. Of course, the most natural alliance would have been between them. However, given their history of bitter animosity toward each other it would have been an unnatural alliance.

Instead, they went to war against each other.

Thy Brother’s Blood

Judea, led by Avijam, the son of and successor to Rehoboam (I Kings 14:31), captured the southern part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam’s successor and son Nadab was not able to rally his troops against either and a coup broke out against him and he was assassinated.

His successor Basha not only killed him but all relatives of Jeroboam’s house. This was common practice in the ancient world. In order to make sure there was no heir the new king eliminated the entire family of the previous king. Thus ended the tragic line of Jeroboam, as predicted by the prophet (I Kings 14:10).

In Judea, when Avijam died his son Asa became king. He reigned for 41 years and conquered the entire territory of the tribe of Naftali as well as the western part of the Galilee. The kingdom of Israel shrank into a very narrow enclave.

When Basha died Elah took over. He was king for only a few months before he was assassinated. This rebellion was led by Zimri, who was promptly assassinated by Omri. As we spoke previously, the entire history of the Northern Kingdom was one assassination after another, one dynasty after another.

Together Omri and then his son Ahab not only stabilized the Northern Kingdom and recaptured everything that was lost but transformed the ten northern tribes into the strongest military power in the Middle East.

However, their dynasty too would end like the others of the pagan-riddled north: Ahab’s son, Jehoram, would be assassinated and his entire house wiped out.

Ahab and Jezebel

The Omri-Ahab dynasty represented the epitome of evil in their time. Omri completely drove out all vestiges of Judaism and monotheism in his land. He made the Phoenician and Canaanites deities his state religion, especially worship of the idol Baal. He not only brought in pagan deities but built temples and imported priests of the idol Baal.

To further consolidate his power, Omri arranged a marriage between son, Ahab, and the daughter of the king of Phoenicia, Jezebel. She is the original Lady Macbeth: a controlling, scheming person without scruples who brought with her every vile element of pagan culture, including the practice and ideology of idolatry, along with all of its concomitant cruelty and immorality. Unfortunately, Ahab, who was otherwise a very strong person, was unable to stand up to her, as often happens even in the strongest of men. Her ideas and ideals governed after Ahab became king.

“There was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of God, which his wife Jezebel persuaded him” (I Kings 21:25).

Ahab and Jezebel embarked on a campaign of eradication of all Jewish ideas and implementation of the Phoenician way of life and value system. It reached the stage that the prophet Elijah stated that there were only 7,000 in Israel who did not bow to the idol Baal (I Kings 19:18). Put another way, more than ninety-nine percent of the Jewish people of the Northern Kingdom worshipped the Baal. As part of their campaign, they killed all the prophets and closed all their academies. Elijah was the only prophet in Israel who survived.

However, the world was not enough for Ahab and Jezebel. They became obsessed trying to find and eradicate Elijah. The only thing that mattered to them was getting that old man in the shepherd’s clothes.

Elijah

Elijah is one of the most fascinating personalities in all human history. He had many facets to his character. Perhaps foremost among them, he was not willing to compromise with evil under any circumstance. He had absolutely no fear of anyone or anything.

At the height of Ahab and Jezebel’s success, Elijah announced that there would be three years of hunger (I Kings 17:1). And it came true. Not a drop of rain fell. Crops withered on the vine. People were starving to death. The entire kingdom was buckling under and its enemies were preparing plans for invasion. Even the king himself was affected by the famine (I Kings 18:5).

Elijah knew it was the time to bring the situation to a head and called for a contest – a final showdown — between him and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He told Ahab to tell the people to come and see for themselves.

In truth, Elijah knew that performing miracles were not the way to settle the matter, because people are momentarily impressed with miracles but quickly return to their ways unless they have a deep, abiding faith. It is similar to the diet syndrome: despite sincere intention at the beginning it wears off. It is very difficult to overcome force of habit, which is life itself.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Mount Carmel, including Ahab. The first thing Elijah did was tell the people, “How long will you remain on the fence? If you are for Baal then worship him. If God then worship him” (I Kings 18:21). You cannot have both.

This was a question not just for his generation. Today, too, we like to have a little Baal and a little God. However, Elijah reminds us that we cannot have it both ways.

The priests of Baal danced and shouted all morning. According to an opinion in the Tradition, they had prepared a hidden fire beneath their altar, but God did not let it burn. Into the afternoon nothing happened. Elijah mocked them.

“Maybe your god is sleeping,” he taunted. “Talk louder. Maybe he went for a walk. Maybe he is busy. Don’t give up. Louder. Try it again.”

In their desperation they cut themselves and danced with even greater wild abandon. But still nothing happened.

Finally, it was Elijah’s turn. First, he soaked his sacrifice and altar with water to make the miracle greater. Then he said, “Answer me, God, answer me….” Suddenly, there shot forth a tremendous fire from heaven that consumed his sacrifice and altar despite the water. The people fell to their knees and shouted: “God is God. God is God” (I Kings 18:39).

Everyone repented, even Ahab.

Unfortunately, people had vested interests in keeping alive the social fabric built around the cult of foreign gods. Jezebel chastised Ahab when he returned and immediately declared that she would kill Elijah, who once more had to flee for his life and go into hiding.

In a very short time, the mass repentance fell apart.

Instant anything is difficult to maintain – especially instant repentance. It can only be extended if there is follow up, education and an intensive change of lifestyle. Otherwise, instant revolutions more often than not lead to instability, which can cause the individual or community to regress to a point even worse than before. That is what happened to Ahab and the Jewish people. They were able to hold their physical empire together a little longer, but the inner core was rotting away.

Ahab repented of his ways, but only enough to keep his disintegrating empire on Earth together before his death (I Kings 21:29). His son Jehoram took over, but, as the prophet predicted, he and the entire house of Ahab were killed, including his wife Jezebel.

Among the prophecies pronounced by Elijah, and repeated by his disciple Elisha,[1] was that dogs would tear Jezebel apart limb from limb and lick her blood from the street (I Kings 21:23; II Kings 9:10). That is, indeed, what happened (II Kings 9:33-37). The only parts of her that remained were the palms of her hands and her feet (ibid. 9:35). Tradition teaches that they alone remained because of the one merit she had: she came to the weddings of Jewish brides and danced and applauded. According to God’s justice, even the worst person in the world needs to be rewarded for the few good things they do.

Into the Abyss of History

Thus came about the destruction of the third dynasty of the Northern Kingdom, a destruction the north never recovered from. The Kingdom of Israel became again a small, backwater country.

At the same time, although it was never as bad in idolatry it never turned toward the path of true Judaism again. It remained on the fence, in limbo, as Elijah had described them.

Although at the height of the reign of Ahab the people of the north thought that their kingdom was going to last for a thousand years, within a little more than a century it would slip into oblivion and the abyss of history.


[1] Elijah had four disciples: Micah (teacher of the prophet Isaiah), Jonah, Obadiah and Elisha (his main disciple). As an aside, all the miracles mentioned in the Christian Gospels appear in the Book of Kings as miracles performed by Elisha. A prophet often established his credentials by performing wonders such as the few defeating the many, reviving the dead, curing leprosy, etc.

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Posted in:
Crash Course
by
Rabbi Berel Wein

One Response to “Life and Times of Elijah”

  1. J wolh says:

    The thing I question is why do we simplify things by saying kamtzah bat kamtzah, and lashon hara and etc brought down bais hamikdas when in reality it was Jews killing each other On a scale we can barely imagine. ????