In preparing for a study tour we have been asked to lead, on sites in the Galilee associated with Elijah, we have been researching the folklore connected with this colorful prophet. It turns out that the volume of material is large, and cuts across religious boundaries in remarkable ways.
The Elijah of the Bible has been seen as a precursor of the classical prophets, all of whom left us books of poetic prophecies. Elijah confronted kings and generals with the word of God, but it was all in your face: without poetry and sometimes with violence (I Kings 18). He left us no book. He comes on the scene in I Kings 17 and leaves it in II Kings 2. Born in what is now Jordan, somewhere east of modern Bet Shean, the various episodes in his life take place from Sidon (well up the Lebanese coast) all the way to Mt. Sinai. (Was he really a historical figure? Who knows? Does it matter?). Some of his most important experiences took place either in caves or on mountains or in a cave on a mountain. He was not a cheerful sort, and seems to have spent a lot of his life angry, not only at people, but at God as well.
It is the account of Elijahs exit from the world, somewhere near Jericho, that has given rise to much of the rich treasure of folklore and literature surrounding him:
As [Elijah and his disciple Elisha] kept on walking and talking, a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw it, and he cried out, Oh father, father! Israels chariots and horsemen!
-II Kings 2
Elijahs apparent translation to heaven alive has served as the basis of dozens of stories of sightings: he is believed to wander the earth, testing us, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked, often in entertainingly gotcha ways. Or alternatively, he sits at Gods right hand, helping keep records and direct traffic in Paradise.
The best known and most frequently visited Elijah sites in Israel are all on Mt. Carmel. At the foot of the mountain, a short walk (across the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway) from the Bat Galim beach, is the large, rectangular Cave of Elijah. On any given day one encounters individual families or whole busloads of Jews, Moslems, or Druze from around the country, praying, or celebrating a family simchah. Travelers in previous centuries reported that sleeping for three consecutive nights in the cave was a cure for mental illness. I dont know if there are people who still try this remedy, but there is no question that many believe that prayers uttered in the cave have enhanced efficacy.
The cave in its present form is obviously man-made, and its entrance is via a complex of buildings and cement ramps, encompassing picnic areas, enclosures for memorial candles, bathrooms, offices, and souvenir vendors. It is all somewhat grungy to the western eye. What exactly happened in this cave is not clear; the biblical accounts of Elijahs adventures do not refer to a cave here in Mt. Carmel, even though the Carmel was an important mountain in the prophets career. The folk tradition has the cave as the Bet Midrash where Elijah taught his students, the prophets. The cave is a case study in the sanctification of place: no one has a convincing or even an interesting story about this cave yet it has been a holy place to thousands of people for centuries which means, of course, that it has been a focus of conflict!