After the miracle, depression.
After the most spectacular miracle in his career, the prophet Elijah asks God for death in this week’s haftarah reading (1 Kings 18:46-19:21, which accompanies the Torah reading Pinchas).
In the first book of Kings, Ahab (Achav, אַחְסָב) king of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria, marries a Phoenician princess named Jezebel (Izevel, אִיזֶבֶל). As soon as she moves in she tries to change the religion of her new country. She imports prophets serving Baal and Asheirah, and orders the murder of all the prophets of Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel. But 101 of God’s prophets escape: 100 acolytes who are hidden by one of King Ahab’s officials, and one elusive traveling prophet named Elijah (Eliyahu, אֵלִיָּהוּ).
Elijah prophesies that God will punish Samaria by withholding rain until he returns and gives the word. Then he leaves Ahab’s kingdom for three years of drought. When he returns, the prophet orders the king to arrange a contest between Y-H-V-H and the foreign gods Baal and Asheirah.
And the winner is …
The prophets of the goddess Asheirah are absent from the contest on Mount Karmel. The prophets of Baal spend all morning hopping around their sacrifice and calling on their god, but they fail to make anything happen. Elijah pours water over his sacrifice, and Y-H-V-H responds to his call by sending a roaring fire that devours the slaughtered bull, the wood, the dirt, and the water in the trench around the altar.1
The Israelites who are watching enthusiastically follow Elijah’s order to seize the 450 prophets of Baal and kill them all.2
This week’s haftarah opens as it begins to rain. When Ahab gets home and tells his Phoenician wife what happened, she sends a death threat to Elijah.
And he was afraid, and he got up and went off to save his life. And he came to Beir-sheva, which is in Judah. And he left behind his servant there. Then he himself walked a day’s journey into the wilderness, and he came and sat down under a certain broom-tree. And he asked for death. He said: “Enough! Now, God, take my life, because I am no better than my forefathers.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)
Elijah travels to Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, in order to save his life. He would be safe in Jerusalem, the God-fearing King Yehoshafat of Judah. But instead of going there, he heads for the Negev desert. He probably leaves his servant behind in Beir-sheva because he is planning to die of dehydration in the desert and he does not want his servant to die as well.
Why is Elijah suicidal right after arranging a divine miracle, getting the Israelites to slay the prophets of Baal, and making it safely across the border into Judah? Another man might be heady with success.
One possibility is that Elijah expected the kingdom of Israel to completely return to the exclusive worship of their own God, after three years of drought and a spectacular miracle. Instead, King Ahab’s wife Jezebel retains power, and the 400 prophets of her goddess Asherah are still alive. Elijah has not achieved his goal.
Two other prophets in the Hebrew Bible beg God for death when they despair of achieving their goals. Moses asks God to kill him when the Israelites complain yet again about the food on their journey through the wilderness.3 His mission is to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan, but they keep rebelling and whining that they want to go back to Egypt.
Jonah, who prophesied after Elijah, asks God to kill him when God decides not to punish the Assyrians of Nineveh, who are enemies of Israel.4 Jonah’s mission is to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the city will be overthrown, but when he finally does, the people of Nineveh take the prophecy seriously and repent. Jonah wanted them to die, not to repent and be spared.
Like Moses and Jonah, Elijah is fed up with the prophet business. Serving as God’s mouthpiece consumes all of a person’s life, but a human being lacks God’s long-term view. No wonder both Moses and Jonah try to get out of being chosen as prophets in the first place.5
Perhaps these are the men Elijah is referring to when he says he is “no better than his forefathers”.
In the desert an angel of God comes twice to Elijah and saves his life with cakes and jugs of water. The second time, the angel says:
“Get up, eat, or the journey will be too much for you!” (1 Kings 19:7)
Perhaps because of this hint, or perhaps because he realizes he needs a deeper consultation with God,6 the prophet gets up and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai).
There he came into the cave, and there he spent the night. And hey! The word of God, his God! And it said to him: “What are you here for, Elijah?” And he said: “I was absolutely zealous for God, the God of Hosts, because the Israelites abandoned your covenant! Your altars they demolished, and your prophets they slayed by the sword! And I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)
Elijah the zealot cannot appreciate a partial victory. He cannot accept that his fellow Israelites cooperated with Queen Jezebel, demolished God’s altars, and executed some of God’s prophets. Elijah is so outraged he forgets about (or discounts) the 100 lesser prophets that King Ahab’s court official saved. And he discounts the progress he made with the contest on the Mount Karmel, even though it inspired his people to slay the 450 prophets of Baal.
And hey! God was passing by, and a big and mighty wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. (I Kings 19:11-12)
The first three phenomena are similar to the dramatic divine manifestations at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus.7 But this time God is not present in them. We can tell that Elijah recognizes God when he hears the faint, quiet sound (or still small voice), because he covers his face. He would know that when Moses stood on that same mountain, God said: “No man can see my face and live.”8
And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his adaret, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And hey!—a voice [came] to him, and it said: “What are you here for, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
adaret (אַדֶרֶת) = cloak, mantle. (From the same root as eder, אֶדֶר = magnificence, splendor.)
When Gods asks the question a second time, Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He does not pick up on God’s hint that his true service to the divine now lies in quietness. A calm spirit is not Elijah’s forte.
Tossing the mantle
So God arranges for Elijah to be replaced by a new prophet.
Then God said to him: “Go, return the way you came, [then go on] to the wilderness [near] Damascus. You must come and anoint Chazeil as king over Aram. And you must anoint Yeihu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And you must anoint Elisha son of Shafat from Aveil Mecholah as a prophet instead of yourself.” (1 Kings 19:15-16)
Elijah is so eager to stop being a prophet that he skips anointing new kings of Aram and Israel, and goes straight to Aveil Mecholah in the Jordan valley.
And he went from there, and he found Elisha son of Shafat, who was plowing with twelve yokes in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. And Elijah crossed over to him and he threw his adaret to him. He [Elisha] left his oxen and he ran after Elijah … (1 Kings 19:19-20)
This is the source of the English idiom “passing on the mantle”. The word adaret is used only once in the Hebrew Bible for the garment of a king.9 Otherwise it appears as either a prophet’s outer garment or a metaphor. In this week’s haftarah Elijah’s mantle is his protection as prophet; he uses it to hide his face when God is too close even for him.
Elijah’s improvised substitute for anointment proves to be only the beginning of the transfer of his prophetic authority. Elisha becomes Elijah’s attendant or acolyte for several years, perhaps replacing the servant whom Elijah left in Beir-sheva.
After this week’s haftarah God orders Elijah to deliver two more prophesies. He obeys, adding his own elaborations as usual. First he predicts doom (involving blood-licking dogs) for Ahab and his Phoenician wife because Jezebel arranged the murder of Nabot, who refused to sell his vineyard to the king.10
Then, three years later, Elijah tells King Achazyah, Ahab’s son and heir, that he will die of his wounds from a fall out the window.11 In this story, Elijah is described as a very hairy man with a leather belt around his waist; no adaret is evident.
The adaret reappears in the second book of Kings on the day when God is finally ready to take Elijah’s life. Elijah rolls it up and uses it to slap the Jordan River, and the waters part so he and Elisha can cross on dry land. Then the adaret falls to the ground when Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha picks it up—this time for good.12
When is it time to pass on the mantle of authority?
When you are fed up with one of your roles in life, it is fine to keep an eye out for your successor. But you may have to humble yourself and continue serving until you can step down without doing harm. Perhaps, like Elijah, you must serve as a model for your future replacement for a while. Or perhaps, like a parent with a difficult child, you must accept your responsibility graciously until you are no longer needed.
The prophet business is not the only hard duty a person might face.
- 1 Kings 18:17-38
- 1 Kings 18:39-40.
- Numbers 11:11-15.
- Jonah 4:1-3.
- Moses in Exodus 4:1-16 when he keeps trying to talk God out of it, and Jonah in Jonah 1:1-3 when he gets on a ship to Tarshish.
- Commentators who proposed that Elijah went to Mount Horev in order to commune with God and elevate his soul include the Malbim (19th-century rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Wisser) and Leo L. Honor, Book of Kings 1, The Jewish Commentary for Bible Readers, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1955, p. 271.
- When God comes down on top of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:16-20, the effects include an earthquake, the blare of a horn, thunder and lightning, and fire and smoke.
- Exodus 33:20.
- The king of Nineveh takes off his adaret and puts on sackcloth in Jonah 3:6.
- 1 Kings 21:1-24.
- 2 Kings 1:2-8.
- 2 Kings 2:8-14.