Elijah: Prophet or Propaganda?

In Jewish and Christian traditions a special status has existed for persons (almost always male) whose alleged prophetic talents were claimed to have come from their direct connection with a divine being. The utterances of these alleged specialists are, however, salvaged only in fragments such as in the prophetical divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in which the prophecies were concerned principally with the wrongdoings of the local people who cringed under the guidance of the priests and prophets of Yahweh. In that context the prophecies routinely pivoted upon threats of divine punishment for disobedience to Yahweh’s will–as God’s will was allegedly revealed to the priests. In this regard the holy Jewish prophets differed from the Pagan diviners, soothsayers and oracles only in that the Pagan equivalents more often employed females and more theatrical oracular devices to determine the will of the gods and thereby predict a course of events.

The 9th century BCE prophet Elijah (c. 850 BCE)–Elias in NT version–is one of the earliest examples of the Hebrew major “prophets” and known to us through the priest-written books of 1 and 2 Kings, and he is representative of a timeframe of turbulent social and religious change in that narrow Near East region. Elijah was an alleged prophet in the northern kingdom of the alleged divided monarchy Israel/Judah. (We must ignore the fact that Judah did not become a kingdom until after the kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Syrians.) Elijah is cast as the star of a local drama (so it is not a godly judgment of the world) in which the Yahweh priests were in opposition to the idolatrous religious practices performed to address the god Baal.

In considering this “prophet” from priest-written Hebrew scriptures we should bear in mind the phonetic part of the character’s name: the prefix Eli means “god,” and the suffix jah is sacred language reference to Yahweh (coded), the creative energies personified. Thus the character of Elijah is a metaphoric personification of the Life Principle’s creative activity which precedes formation as matter. Consider: Elijah, according to Hebrew Scripture, spent a lot of time in the “desert” and in sacred language “desert” and/or “wilderness” always alluded to the primordial energy phases out of which matter is made manifest. These primal stages are to be passed over as they involve toward and into a defined energy-matter form. For this reason the circumstances of Elijah’s birth and youth were never recorded, and even the name of his father is strangely absent–a true oddity in scriptural obsession for listing all fathers. Nonetheless, we are assured that he was a native of Tishbe in Gilead–only no one knows where that Transjordan site was supposedly located.

The alleged prophetic activity of Elijah is cast as having begun in the timeframe of King Ahab of northern Israel (king c. 875-853 BCE), who had the misfortune of inheriting from his father, Omri, a kingdom in extreme peril from the expanding Assyrian kingdom. Ahab made his kingdom of Judah an ally (perhaps a vassal) of the kingdom of Tyre by marrying princess Jezebel, thereby achieving a semblance of uneasy neutrality. Regrettably King Ahab’s young wife was psychologically conditioned to believe that the ruling power of Creation was the Baal (more accurately the tutelary god of Tyre) which was worshipped as Melkart. Ahab was guilty only in allowing his wife the freedom of having a place to worship the lone deity that she had ever known. (Her father, King Ethbaal of Sidon, had formerly served as a priest of the Tyrian religion, after all.) The extremist priests of Yahweh, of course, found this allowance of spiritual freedom to be an offense to their imagined god Yahweh even though an alliance among Semite people had traditionally meant a mutual honoring of gods. In fact even Yahweh had been worshipped earlier as a baal–a local deity. Nonetheless, the Yahweh priest authors cast Jezebel as the bitterest opponent of the prophet Elijah, and further libeled her as the instigator of the murder of Nathor for his vineyard!

By the priest-historians’ twisted version, however, King Ahab’s political dilemma was purposely intermingled with features drawn from the Babylonian storm-god Adad, the “rainmaker” whom the Babylonians regarded as the cosmological flood maker. Thus we read that Elijah supposedly said to King Ahab “…Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain” (1 Kings 18:41). The storm-god model in association with King Ahab is then reinforced in verses 44-45: “…Behold there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand. And he (god) said (to Elijah), Go up say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not. And it came to pass in the meanwhile, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel.”

The Elijah tale is, first and foremost, a one-sided priestly account of the struggle in the north for the survival of the Yahweh priests’ influence. By legitimate account, King Ahab (and his son-successor Ahaziah) acknowledged not only Yahweh but also Baal (and Baal’s consort Asherah) for providing the winter rains as well as for the summer dew which was necessary for crop growth (1 Kings 17-19). The ambitious Yahweh priests certainly did not appreciate any competition from the “prophets” (priests) of Baal, and thus in the Yahweh priests’ writings Elijah supposedly appeared to take center stage in Yahweh’s behalf. The north-south tensions, fanned by the vying priesthoods, were deeply rooted and thus we receive the priest-written story of the alleged antagonism between King Ahab and Elijah. As a consequence this slanted “history” has been passed down to spiritual seekers for many centuries as a highly contemptuous version of Ahab.

Even so, the scriptural narrative regarding King Ahab inadvertently carries evidence of two different points of view of Ahab: one which more honestly presented Ahab as a competent, brave and popular king; the other is the Yahweh priests’ fabrication which painted Ahab as a bad man and a faithless monarch. The religious fanaticism which the character of Elijah personifies is pointedly suggestive of priestly propaganda rather than any actual reporting of some genuine prophetic person with divine connections. Remember, the priests’ version recorded that 400 priests of the Yahweh cult had supposedly prophesied just before Ahab departed on his final campaign. Without question the character of Elijah represents the consolidation of all that vicious priestly fervor. The story goes that Elijah engaged in a contest of miracles with the prophets of Baal for the command of rain, and of course Elijah won. Elijah, in the name of the Life Principle, then had all the prophets of Baal killed—and the needed rains came. But underlying all that political propaganda of the priests the truth shines through that deep north/south tensions were fanned by the priests, and those authors deceptively pictured it as hard antagonism between King Ahab and the alleged prophet Elijah.

Elijah was not the only prophet of Yahweh in this timeframe, but it is averred that only Elijah had foretold a drought (1 Kings 17:1), and that he was shielded from its effects as well as protected from the king’s disfavor (1 Kings 17:2-24). Elijah comes across more as a conman than a prophet, for it was he who challenged the prophets of Baal (falsely cast as Ahab’s prophets) to a duel of deities, so to speak, to determine whose god could end the drought. There are two versions of this contest: one has it that Yahweh displayed his power by consuming a sacrified bull by fire, and the other says Elijah proposed that he and other prophets each build an altar (on Mt. Carmel) and whichever god could bring forth fire upon it without being lighted by them would show which deity was capable of ending the drought. To be brief, Elijah’s altar burst out in flames. The power of Yahweh-Jehovah was allegedly revealed by the miraculous automatic fire. This pivotal “miracle” by Elijah solidly established his political power. Remember: the contest was proposed by Elijah himself.

Note: Even in the timeframe of Elijah there were persons from certain parts of the Near East who were well aware of crude petroleum. Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, had once been centers where that tar-like substance was obtained to seal boats. There were actually some persons who had discovered how to make what is now known as naphtha, a colorless flammable liquid obtained from crude petroleum. It had been discovered that piles of combustible materials would suddenly ignite by chemical reaction in certain circumstances. It is known today that oxidation creates heat that will intesify if not dissipated and it will eventually ignite within piles of fibrous material–as in the “two measures of seed” mentioned in verse 32. The stacking of stones (as described) would certainly concentrate the build up of heat by slowing the heat from being released into the air and thus result in spontaneous combustion. And Elijah had instructed that “water” was to be poured upon the altar–not once but three times—and the aforementioned naphtha is colorless as water and highly flammable. Hence a “miracle” was provided (1 Kings 18:38). Tellingly the verse concludes that the fire “…licked up the water in the trench.”)

To make priestly animosity toward Ahab and Jezebel sound murderously greedy the plot line then avers that Ahab coveted his neighbor’s vineyard, and Jezebel is said to have instigated the murder of Naboth. This in turn provided reason for Elijah to arrange to have Jezebel killed–with Yahweh’s approval. In this timeframe such priest promoted viciousness was routine. Consider: in the bulk of priest-written scriptural accounts killing was a favorite indulgence of Yahweh followers. Characters such as Joshua were held up as spiritual models for having indulged in holocaustic killings to acquire the god-promised land of Canaan. (Archeological digs have shown conclusively the Canaan was never under violent invasion tactics as related in scripture. Suggested reading, The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.) Why god could not have provided his chosen ones with virgin territory as their “inheritance” is never explained.

The Elijah account is really a priest-written hindsight tale that masks the priestly rivalries which seethed in only one small region on planet Earth in the 9th century BCE. Unfortunately that hateful priestly propaganda recited by three sister faith systems has continued as example of spiritual “guidance” which has prevailed to this day.

7 Responses to “Elijah: Prophet or Propaganda?”

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