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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

Elijah III

Galilee Diary 279
April 2, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

The association of the caves in Haifa – both "Elijah's Cave" and the cave in the Carmelite monastery – with Elijah the prophet has no clear textual basis. The only cave Elijah visited according to the Bible was the one on Mt. Sinai, where he encountered God as a "still small voice" (I Kings 19). But there was one major event in Elijah's life that is supposed to have taken place on Mt. Carmel – his contest with the prophets of Baal. The major challenge of Elijah's career was the struggle against the pagan cults introduced by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in the kingdom of Israel. This struggle climaxed in a public competition held on top of Mt. Carmel, when the prophet challenged 450 prophets of Baal to see whose god would be able to create fire to consume a sacrifice. Needless to say, Elijah won – but uncomfortably, perhaps, for us, he was not a pluralist; once God had sent fire that consumed not only the sacrifice but even the stones of the altar, Elijah chased the pagan prophets down to the Jezreel valley and killed them all by the Kishon creek (I Kings 18).

According to Christian tradition, the site of this contest was a high point on the Carmel ridge a few miles southeast of Haifa, overlooking the Kishon (and all of the Galilee) to the north and east. We visited the Carmelite monastery there last week. It is a beautiful, tranquil spot, with a small garden, a statue of an angry-looking Elijah, sword raised high, a rooftop lookout, and a simple, graceful chapel. The spot, on the outskirts of the Druze village of Daliyat el Karmel (Elijah is one of the five prophets of the Druze religion), is called Muhraka in Arabic ("the burnt place"). We were met by Brother Giorgio, one of the three monks who live there. He is Italian; his colleagues are French and Indian. They pray together in English. He is an athletic 60, wears jeans under his Carmelite habit, has lived in Israel three years, and it is a dream come true for him, as he loves the land, and loves the Bible. He is hoping the order will let him stay here for the rest of his life. As he skipped ahead of us down the steep slope and through the woods, past green pastures and blazing clumps of spring wildflowers, to show us a hidden cave (still another Elijah cave…), he expounded on why this was such a perfect place for Elijah to have chosen for his showdown with the pagans. From the lookout at Muhraka one can see several of the major sites associated with the Judges – Deborah (Mt. Tabor and the Kishon creek), Gideon (the Jezreel Valley); as if to say, "You want proof of God's providence, of His covenant, of His care for you – look around! The landscape is permeated with living history – ‘how long can you remain ambivalent about your faith?!’" (See I Kings 18:21). There was something moving in Brother Giorgio's strong connection to the land and the text and the bond between them. His enthusiasm was infectious. He should have been a Jewish educator…

It is interesting that our folk image of the Elijah who visits every circumcision (many Orthodox synagogues have a special chair for him), and every Passover seder, the Elijah we sing to at havdalah every week, is of a kindly old man, a bearer of the good news of redemption. And there are many legends, ancient and medieval, describing him in this same vein. However, the Elijah of the Bible was a violent zealot, who spoke truth to power and had to flee to the desert. Even more interesting is the standard rabbinic interpretation of Elijah's conversation with God at Mt. Sinai: he says (twice: I Kings 19:10 and 19:14): "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant…" God responds by telling him to go appoint Elisha as his successor. There are several midrashim that understand this as God's firing Elijah for his zealotry. Instead of pleading for the people, or mourning their [deserved] punishment, he self-righteously complains about them. Clearly, a prophet must be concerned with truth, with justice (one of Elijah's most famous lines, a little further on, to King Ahab: "Have you killed, and also taken possession?"). But without mercy, without identification with and sympathy for the people, the prophet is incomplete – and ineffective. It seems that Elijah was a failure as a Jewish educator.

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