The Legends of the Jews— Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther

Author: Louis Ginzberg

Elijah Before His Translation

The Biblical account of the prophet Elijah, (1) of his life and work during the reigns of Ahab and his son Joram, gives but a faint idea of a personage whose history begins with Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, and will end only when Israel, under the leadership of the Messiah, shall have taken up his abode again in Palestine.

The Scripture tells us only the name of Elijah’s home, (2) but it must be added that he was a priest, identical with Phinehas, (3) the priest zealous for the honor of God, who distinguished himself on the journey through the desert, and played a prominent role again in the time of the Judges. (4)

Elijah’s first appearance in the period of the Kings was his meeting with Ahab in the house of Hiel, the Beth-elite, the commander-in-chief of the Israelitish army, whom he was visiting to condole with him for the loss of his sons. God Himself had charged the prophet to offer sympathy to Hiel, whose position demanded that honor be paid him. Elijah at first refused to seek out the sinner who had violated the Divine injunction against rebuilding Jericho, for he said that the blasphemous talk of such evil-doers always called forth his rage. Thereupon God promised Elijah that fulfilment should attend whatever imprecation might in his wrath escape him against the godless for their unholy speech. As the prophet entered the general’s house, he heard Hiel utter these words: "Blessed be the Lord God of the pious, who grants fulfilment to the words of the pious." Hiel thus acknowledged that he had been justly afflicted with Joshua’s curse against him who should rebuild Jericho.

Ahab mockingly asked him: "Was not Moses greater than Joshua, and did he not say that God would let no rain descend upon the earth, if Israel served and worshipped idols? There is not an idol known to which I do not pay homage, yet we enjoy all that is goodly and desirable. Dost thou believe that if the words of Moses remain unfulfilled, the words of Joshua will come true?" Elijah rejoined: "Be it as thou sayest: ’As the Lord, the God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.’" In pursuance of His promise, God could not but execute the words of Elijah, and neither dew nor rain watered the land. (5)

A famine ensued, and Ahab sought to wreak his vengeance upon the prophet. To escape the king’s persecutions, Elijah hid himself. He was sustained with food brought from the larder of the pious king Jehoshaphat by ravens, (6) which at the same time would not approach near to the house of the iniquitous Ahab. (7)

God, who has compassion even upon the impious, tried to induce the prophet to release Him from His promise. To influence him He made the brook run dry (8) whence Elijah drew water for his thirst. As this failed to soften the inflexible prophet, God resorted to the expedient of causing him pain through the death of the son of the widow with whom Elijah was abiding, and by whom he had been received with great honor. When her son, who was later to be known as the prophet Jonah, (9) died, she thought God had formerly been gracious to her on account of her great worthiness as compared with the merits of her neighbors and of the inhabitants of the city, and now He had abandoned her, because her virtues had become as naught in the presence of the great prophet. (10) In his distress Elijah supplicated God to revive the child. (11) Now God had the prophet in His power. He could give heed unto Elijah’s prayer only provided the prophet released Him from the promise about a drought, for resuscitation from death is brought about by means of dew, and this remedy was precluded so long as Elijah kept God to His word withholding dew and rain from the earth. (12) Elijah saw there was nothing for it but to yield. However, he first betook himself to Ahab with the purpose of overcoming the obduracy of the people, upon whom the famine had made no impression. Manifest wonders displayed before their eyes were to teach them wisdom. The combat between God and Baal took place on Carmel. The mount that had esteemed itself the proper place for the greatest event in Israelitish history, the revelation of the law, was compensated, by the many miracles now performed upon it, for its disappointment at Sinai’s having been preferred to it. (13)

The first wonder occurred in connection with the choice of the bullocks. According to Elijah’s arrangement with Ahab, one was to be sacrificed to God, and then one to Baal. A pair to twins, raised together, were brought before the contestants, and it was decided by lot which belonged to God and which to Baal. Elijah had no difficulty with his offering; quickly he led it to his altar. But all the priests of Baal, eight hundred and fifty in number, could not make their victim stir a foot. When Elijah began to speak persuasively to the bullock of Baal, urging it to follow the idolatrous priests, it opened its mouth and said: "We two, yonder bullock and myself, came forth from the same womb, we took our food from the same manger, and now he has been destined for God, as an instrument for the glorification of the Divine Name, while I am to be used for Baal, as an instrument to enrage my Creator." Elijah urged: "Do thou but follow the priests of Baal that they may have no excuse, and then thou wilt have a share in that glorification of God for which my bullock will be used." The bullock: "So dost thou advise, but I swear I will not move from the spot, unless thou with thine own hands wilt deliver me up." Elijah thereupon led the bullock to the priests of Baal. (14)

In spite of this miracle, the priests sought to deceive the people. They undermined the altar, and Hiel hid himself under it with the purpose of igniting a fire at the mention of the word Baal. But God sent a serpent to kill him. (15) In vain the false priests cried and called, Baal! Baal! the expected flame did not shoot up. To add to the confusion of the idolaters, God had imposed silence upon the whole world. The powers of the upper and of the nether regions were dumb, the universe seemed deserted and desolate, as if without a living creature. If a single sound had made itself heard, the priests would have said, "It is the voice of Baal." (16)

That all preparations might be completed in one day, the erection of the altar, the digging of the trench, and whatever else was necessary, Elijah commanded the sun to stand still. "For Joshua," he said, "thou didst stand still that Israel might conquer his enemies; now stand thou still, neither for my sake, nor for the sake of Israel, but that the Name of God may be exalted." And the sun obeyed his words. (17)

Toward evening Elijah summoned his disciple Elisha, and bade him pour water over his hands. A miracle happened. Water flowed out from Elijah’s fingers until the whole trench was filled. (18) Then the prophet prayed to God to let fire descend, but in such wise that the people would know it to be a wonder from heaven, and not think it a magician’s trick. (19) He spoke: "Lord of the world, Thou wilt send me as a messenger ’at the end of time,’ but if my words do not meet with fulfilment now, the Jews cannot be expected to believe me in the latter days." (20) His pleading was heard on high, and fire fell from heaven upon the altar, a fire that not only consumed what it touched, but also licked up the water. (21) Nor was that all; his prayer for rain was also granted. Scarcely had these words dropped from his lips, "Though we have no other merits, yet remember the sign of the covenant which the Israelites bear upon their bodies," when the rain fell to earth. (22)

In spite of all these miracles, the people persisted in their idolatrous ways and thoughts. Even the seven thousand who had not bowed down unto Baal were unworthy sons of Israel, for they paid homage to the golden calves of Jeroboam. (23)

The misdeeds of the people had swelled to such number that they could no longer reckon upon "the merits of the fathers" to intercede for them; they had overdrawn their account. (24) When they sank to the point of degradation at which they gave up the sign of the covenant, Elijah could control his wrath no longer, and he accused Israel before God. (25) In the cleft of the rock in which God had once aforetimes appeared to Moses, and revealed Himself as compassionate and long-suffering, He now met with Elijah, (26) and conveyed to him, by various signs, that it had been better to defend Israel than accuse him. But Elijah in his zeal for God was inexorable. Then God commanded him to appoint Elisha as his successor, for He said: "I cannot do as thou wouldst have me." (27) Furthermore God charged him: "Instead of accusing My children, journey to Damascus, where the Gentiles have an idol for each day of the year. Though Israel hath thrown down My altars and slain My prophets, what concern is it of thine?" (28)

The four phenomena that God sent before His appearance wind, (29) earthquake, fire, and a still small voice were to instruct Elijah about the destiny of man. God told Elijah that these four represent the worlds through which man must pass: the first stands for this world, fleeting as the wind; the earthquake is the day of death, which makes the human body to tremble and quake; fire is the tribunal in Gehenna, and the still small voice is the Last Judgment, when there will be none but God alone. (30)

About three years (31) later, Elijah was taken up into heaven, (32) but not without first undergoing a struggle with the Angel of Death. He refused to let Elijah enter heaven at his translation, on the ground that he exercised jurisdiction over all mankind, Elijah not excepted. God maintained that at the creation of heaven and earth He had explicitly ordered the Angel of Death to grant entrance to the living prophet, but the Angel of Death insisted that by Elijah’s translation God had given just cause for complaint to all other men, who could not escape the doom of death. Thereupon God: "Elijah is not like other men. He is able to banish thee from the world, only thou dost not recognize his strength." With the consent of God, a combat took place between Elijah and the Angel of Death. The prophet was victorious, and, if God had not restrained him, he would have annihilated his opponent. Holding his defeated enemy under his feet, Elijah ascended heavenward. (33)

In heaven he goes on living for all time. (34) There he sits recording the deeds of men (35) and the chronicles of the world. (36) He has another office besides. He is the Psychopomp, whose duty is to stand at the cross-ways in Paradise and guide the pious to their appointed places; (37) who brings the souls of sinners up from Gehenna at the approach of the Sabbath, and leads them back again to their merited punishment when the day of rest is about to depart; and who conducts these same souls, after they have atoned for their sins, to the place of everlasting bliss. (38)

Elijah’s miraculous deeds will be better understood if we remember that he had been an angel from the very first, even before the end of his earthly career. When God was about to create man, Elijah said to Him: "Master of the world! If it be pleasing in Thine eyes, I will descend to earth, and make myself serviceable to the sons of men." Then God changed his angel name, and later, under Ahab, He permitted him to abide among men on earth, that he might convert the world to the belief that "the Lord is God." His mission fulfilled, God took him again into heaven, and said to him: "Be thou the guardian spirit of My children forever, and spread the belief in Me abroad in the whole world." (39)

His angel name is Sandalphon, (40) one of the greatest and mightiest of the fiery angel host. As such it is his duty to wreathe garlands for God out of the prayers sent aloft by Israel. (41) Besides, he must offer up sacrifices in the invisible sanctuary, for the Temple was destroyed only apparently; in reality, it went on existing, hidden from the sight of ordinary mortals. (42)


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Chicago: Louis Ginzberg, "Elijah Before His Translation," The Legends of the Jews— Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther, trans. Rodwell, J. M. in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther Original Sources, accessed July 1, 2022,

MLA: Ginzberg, Louis. "Elijah Before His Translation." The Legends of the Jews— Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther, translted by Rodwell, J. M., in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther, Original Sources. 1 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Ginzberg, L, 'Elijah Before His Translation' in The Legends of the Jews— Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther, trans. . cited in , The Legends of the Jews—Volume 4: From Joshua to Esther. Original Sources, retrieved 1 July 2022, from