Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

A Prophet like Jesus

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Have you ever wondered why in the Gospels Jesus is often confused for Elijah? Who was Elijah? And why would people think of Jesus as Elijah? July 20th is the feast day of Elijah the Prophet, so I’d like to reflect on his life and relationship to Jesus. He is one of the most popular saints in the Orthodox Church: Prophet Elias (Προφήτης Ηλίας). Wherever there is a mountain or hill in Greece it’s almost a certainty that at the peak is a church or chapel dedicated to the Prophet Elias.

Elijah lived about 850 years before Jesus, so it seems that some people thought Jesus was Elijah come back from the dead. Not a totally unreasonable thing since no one ever saw Elijah die. But more on that later. My question is why would anyone confuse Jesus for Elijah? Was there any similarity between Elijah and Jesus? Between the ministry and activity of Jesus and the ministry and activity of Elijah?

Here are some obvious similarities:

Neither wrote anything. Well, Jesus did write some words in the sand (John 8:6), but you know how it is with words in the sand; the wind quickly sweeps them away. Elijah was not one of those prophets who left writings .

Both spoke truth to power and preached against idolatry and economic injustice. As a result, both were persecuted by those in power.

Both performed remarkable miracles.

Both ascended to heaven.

Elijah burst upon the scene soon after Ahab became king of Israel, around the year 870 BC. Ahab’s reign became notorious for injustice, idolatry, and for the worship of Baal, which Ahab and his wife Jezebel actively promoted. The name Jezebel has become almost a synonym for an evil woman.

Bronze statuette of Baal from the 14th century BC

Bronze statuette of Baal from the 14th century BC

The name Baal was the generic name for a number of spirit-deities in Canaanite regions (mostly what is today Syria). Baal became the catch-name for the prophets’ attacks on the worship of idols and false gods during the centuries of the Israelite monarchy. Ahab and Jezebel were aggressive promoters of Baal worship. The First Book of Kings tells us that Ahab did more evil than all the previous kings of Israel. Elijah comes to Ahab (1 Kings 17:1-7) and declares to him that there will be no rain in the land until he says so! From this point on, he is an enemy of Ahab and the state! So he flees to the desert, where he is fed by ravens.

Elijah fed by a raven

Elijah fed by a raven (click to enlarge)

Chapter 18 of 1 Kings is the dramatic confrontation between Elijah and Ahab. God sends rain after three years of drought and commands Elijah to go and appear before Ahab. I love the way Ahab greets Elijah: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” This is the prophet’s first job: to cause trouble to those in power. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern Christianity is that there are no troublers. There are no Christian voices against the political and economic powers that promote the idolatry of money, violence and war. Christians have surrendered the fight against the Baal spirits of our time to secular activists. Where are the Elijahs of today? Elijah answered Ahab, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

Now that’s a challenge! Elijah will confront 850 representatives of Baal and the goddess Asherah – one prophet of God against 850 “prophets” of idols. The confrontation is spectacular, and it’s best to read it in 1 Kings 18:20-40.

Elijah faces the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel

Elijah faces the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (click to enlarge)

It is important to know that there are false prophets in the Bible. The prophets of Baal and Asherah were false because they were in the service of idols. But there were also false prophets in Israel who claimed to speak for God – but God did not speak through them, so they were false. False prophets were never troublers; they usually preached messages of false comfort and peace when there was no peace. In other words, false prophets were the servants of false gods and of earthly powers. Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal and Asherah was followed by their extermination. This doesn’t sit well with us in the 21st century, it smells too much like the acts of terror that plague the world. It didn’t sit well with Elijah either. Though the biblical text (1 Kings 19:1-10) tells us that Elijah fled in fear of Jezebel, it is easy to read between the lines and discern the deep psychological trauma that he experienced after the showdown and massacre of the Baal prophets.

Elijah in the Desert, Michael D. O’Brien Elijah the Prophet is exhausted and in flight from the queen, who seeks to take his life. He is discouraged, convinced that his mission from God has come to an end. He wishes to die in the desert. The greater part of his work is about to begin.

“Elijah in the Desert” by Michael D. O’Brien
Elijah the Prophet is exhausted and in flight from the queen, who seeks to take his life. He is discouraged, convinced that his mission from God has come to an end.

Elijah sinks into depression and sees himself as a failure. He wishes to die right there in the desert, but God has more in store for Elijah. Much greater encounters await Elijah, encounters with God across a thousand years. We will continue the story of Elijah in a second blog post this weekend. Thank you for reading this far.

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