Judaism and Christianity embrace very different expectations of Elijah the Prophet. In this article I will briefly explore some of the differences. In Judaism Elijah has become a legend. And over time the legend has grown disproportionately as legends invariably do. Reincarnated Elijah is yet to live again and yet to fulfil the myriad of roles assigned to him. In Christianity, Elijah is still a hero of the Old Testament and will remain that way. Although, the same ‘Spirit’ that possessed the Elijah of old has already come in the form of John the Baptist. John was the embodiment of Elijah, the forerunner who ‘Prepared the Way of the Lord’.
From the Scriptures we read that Elijah the Prophet was a great man of God. He was amongst a handful of people who avoided the effects of physical death. Instead he was ‘snatched away’ in a whirlwind which encompassed a chariot of fire and horses of fire (2 Kings Ch. 2). Elijah’s significance as a prophet and his somewhat super-natural exit is the stuff that legends are made of. Over time the legends grew and blossomed and even made their way into the Passover Seder. Where the cup of wine sits waiting, and little children look for Elijah at the open door.
The concept of Elijah in Messianic expectations was deeply entrenched in the Jewish psyche. The legend of Elijah grew around a passage in Malachi which states, “Behold, I send to you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the day of the Lord, the great and terrible one. And he will return the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land to destruction.” (Malachi 4:5). But did Malachi really proclaim the coming of Elijah or the coming of a Messenger in the ‘Spirit’ of Elijah?
Malachi begins in chapter three by introducing the coming one ─ The Messenger. No mention of Elijah there, just The Messenger to prepare the Way of The Lord! (Malachi Ch. 3:1). Which leads me to believe that the inserting of ‘Elijah’ at the end of Malachi could be a Midrashic expectation. And not necessarily an actual reincarnated Elijah. It’s also feasible that the author meant another person in the ‘Spirit’ of Elijah. Either way, the passage stands alone and is not confirmed by any other. “In the mouth of two or three witnesses let everything be established.” (Deuteronomy 17:6 & 2 Corinthians 13:1).
Despite there being only one reference in the Hebrew Scriptures about Elijah’s reincarnation. Aggadic literature is loaded with references about the return and role of Elijah in Jewish eschatology. In the Talmud, Elijah has remained active even in death. For example, he visited and communed with Rabbi Nathan. And, in Tractate Berakhot he teamed up with Moses and accused God of causing Israel to sin. With nowhere to hide, God admitted his error. Such is the power of Elijah. It stands to reason then that it would take Elijah and only Elijah to herald in the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
Elijah the great hero will announce the arrival of the Jewish Messiah; prepare the people’s hearts through repentance; and avenge the enemies of the Jews by destroying the chief of Edom (Rome). Military Elijah will play a vital role in the restoration of the Book of Yashar/Jashar (Joshua 10:13) to the people. And will stand in the gap ─ the forty-five days between the death of Messiah ben Josef and the arrival of Messiah ben David. Big shoes to fill, and a change of circumstances for someone who was once referred to as “The Troubler of Israel.”
But what of the real Elijah, ‘The Troubler of Israel’? The Tisbite, who lived on the earth in the 9th century BC and prophesied during the reign of one of Israel’s cruellest kings ─ King Ahab. For a moment here I will separate fact from fiction, reality from myth and truth from legend. The real Elijah lived in caves, was fed by ravens, was rejected, alone and feared for his life. In a heartfelt cry he says, “I have been very jealous for God and the children of Israel, but they have forsaken thy Covenant, thrown down your altars and slain the prophets.” (1 Kings Ch.19:10). The disparity between the Elijah that lived, and the legendry Elijah of Judaism raised many questions in my mind. Especially, a legendry Elijah that is redemptive and revengeful simultaneously.
That’s what legends do, they build an unrealistic story in the hearts and minds of people. And, I must admit that as I read through the real Elijah story in the Scriptures and book after book of the role of the Messianic Elijah ─ the gap between Judaism and Christianity had widened for me. In the words of Herman Gunkel, “Legend and history have this in common, they both are in narrative form and both deal with historical persons and events. They differ in this, that whereas history is scholarly and written in prose, the legend is popular and in poetry. History aims to narrate what has actually happened: the legend endeavours to charm, to inspire, to move.”
For me Malachi Ch. 4:5 minus the insertion of ‘Elijah’ echoed the two-theory approach to Messiah’s arrival. It’s no secret in Judaism that Messiah’s entry could be two ways. The Son of the Clouds (Deuteronomy Ch.33:26) could’ve arrived in the clouds (Daniel Ch.7:13) or He could’ve arrived on a humble donkey. The Talmud states that if the people are worthy, he will come in the clouds, if they are not, he will come on a donkey (Sanhedrin 98b). Well folks, they were not worthy, so he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew Ch.21:7).
The concept of a forerunner to Messiah for the Christian is done and dusted. The ‘Messenger’ came in the form of John the Baptist. Born of priestly Levite parents, John cried in the wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord and make His paths straight.” This was spoken by the great prophet Isaiah, aeons ago (Isaiah Ch.40:3) and confirmed by Malachi (Malachi Ch.3:1). John was like Elijah, a wild man, who ate locusts and wild honey and wore a girdle of camel’s hair (Matthew Ch.3:4 & 2 Kings Ch.1:8). But was he Elijah reborn? I don’t think so. Reincarnation is contrary to Christian theology. There is only one soul to every individual, including Elijah. “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgement.” (Hebrews Ch.9:27). Unlike Judaism, Christianity does not teach a reconstitution of souls.
Satisfied to only be the forerunner, John the Baptist, the Prophet of the Most-High God was heard through the villages of ancient Israel: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Luke Ch.1:76-79). “I indeed baptize you with water, but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, He will baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” It was at that moment, as miraculous as any epiphany, Jesus the Son of God, the prophesied, long awaited Messiah arrived to be baptized. The Heavens opened and the voice of the Father was heard. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” But not all the people believed John or Jesus or the heavenly voice.
Doubts plagued the people, due to millennia of hopes and aspirations. Stories told and retold about legendry Elijah. The curious amongst the people wondered if perhaps Jesus was the forerunner, or maybe even Messiah ben Josef. Jesus asked them directly, “Who do people say I am?” (Mark Ch.8:27-28). They replied, “Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah the Prophet, or some other prophet.” They asked him, “Why do the Scribes say Elias (Elijah) must come first?” (Matthew Ch. 17:11). The answer was that he came, they did to him whatever they wanted (meaning John’s beheading by Herod) and so likewise they will do to the Son of Man.
I can understand the people’s suspicions after reading about the high expectations for the forerunner. John the Baptist did not appear as avenger of Israel’s enemies. There was no miracles and no military conquests. Instead he was humble and lowly. Although he fulfilled the function of forerunner by calling people to repentance. Something that was prophesied by Isaiah and confirmed in Malachi chapter 3:1. The Gospels are the Christian witness that John the Baptist was indeed the embodiment: as in a visible form and type of the promised Elijah. Luke the Gospel writer confirmed it by referring to Malachi’s prophesy. And Jesus said, “If you can receive it, this is the Elias (Elijah) which was to come (Matthew 11:12-14).
In concluding the Jewish people are eagerly awaiting the coming of Elijah as the forerunner to the Jewish Messiah. I have not read anywhere that this will be anything other than a reincarnation of the great man himself. Despite there being just one mention of Elijah in the book of Malachi, Jewish literature is filled with many hopes and dreams of how he will come and what he will do. In Christianity, Elijah has already come in the form of John the Baptist. John came to be the forerunner of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He fulfilled his function, by calling people to repentance. This is just another one of those instances where the great divide between Judaism and Christianity grows ever wider. Two religions, one past, but there is no middle ground, nor will there ever be.
Cheryl Mason April 17, 2020.
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