Becoming Elijah: Prophet of transformation by Daniel C. Matt – Church Times

Posted By on September 18, 2022

WHILE Christians will be well aware of the exploits of the zealous Elijah, not least in his confrontation with Queen Jezebel and his dramatic ascension into heaven, they probably know little of Judaisms reverence for him as a post-biblical benevolent Saviour. It is this development from the Bible which forms the main section of Matts study.

The author begins by exploring the biblical narrative, arguing that Elijah is portrayed as a sort of Moses redivivus. While in the introduction he raises questions about the storys reliability and the authors motives in its composition, these issues are not tackled in the book itself.

It is the elusiveness of Elijah which Matt seeks to explore, as he uncovers the various portrayals of the immortal prophet; for, whoever Elijah was in real life, he is still active.

Turning to Elijah in the Talmud and Midrash, a very different picture of the prophet is presented, which concentrates on his compassion. Far from remaining in heaven, he constantly returns to earth to help those in need. Indeed, he becomes a supernatural mediator able to reveal even Gods intimate feelings. In contrast to Enoch, who never leaves heaven, Elijah, like Enoch, identified as an angel, is constantly in transit. Yet he remains more human than angelic, a super-rabbi who knows everything from celestial secrets to mundane reality and is able to assume a variety of identities and identifications. Matt concludes this section by discussing Elijah as herald of Messiah, and compares him with Moses, Jonah, and Phineas.

Next, Matt considers the ways in which Elijah inspired the mystics, and examines many aspects of the Zohar, the canonical text of the Kabbalah. The prominence of Elijah enhanced his authority. Sometimes, the prophet appeared to the kabbalists; at others, his words were put into their minds, so that they thought that they were their own. Because of the lack of any biblical reference to Elijahs parents, the view emerged, though it was not universally accepted, that he was always an angel, who came to earth in human form in Ahabs time.

Beyond Judaism, Elijahs influence extended to both Christianity and Islam. Matt examines both John the Baptists and Jesuss links with Elijah in the Gospels. The bond between Jesus and Elijah testifies to the inherent Jewishness of Jesus. Later, Elijah was reimagined as a hermit and founder of monastic life, his cave on Mount Carmel becoming the home of the contemplative community known as Carmelites.

Along with Jews and Christians, Muslims also came to Elijahs cave to venerate the prophet. For Muslims, it became the cave of al-Khidr (the Green One), a figure similar to and at times identical with Elijah.

Next, Matt discusses the place of Elijah in Jewish ritual life all threshold moments: the Passover, a boys circumcision and as part of Havdalah, the service separating the sabbath from the new week. Elijah is also recalled several times a day in the grace after meals.

Finally, meditating on Malachi 3.13, Matt notes that this sending of Elijah means that his quality is present in everyone. He can and does transform us. His story is not just about the past: it is still unfolding, endless.

Clearly, this is a specialised study; but for those who want to get inside the Jewish mindset of the ever evolving use of scripture, it is both enjoyable and invaluable.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The Kings School, Canterbury.

Becoming Elijah: Prophet of transformationDaniel C. MattYale 16.99(978-0-300-24270-6)Church Times Bookshop 15.29

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Becoming Elijah: Prophet of transformation by Daniel C. Matt - Church Times

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