A Brief Biography of Elijah, Old Testament Prophet

Prophet Elijah in desert, from engraving by Delangle, illustration from Il Giornale Illustrato, Year 3, No 9, March 3-10, 1866
Prophet Elijah in the desert.  De Agostini / Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images

The character of Elijah appears in the Judaic/Christian religious texts as well as in the Quran of Islam as a prophet and messenger of God. He also plays a role as a prophet for Mormons in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Elijah serves slightly different roles in these various religious traditions but is often depicted as an early savior, a precursor to more major figures, such as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. The name translates literally as "my Lord is Jehovah."

Whether or not the legendary character of Elijah is based in a true person, as is true of Jesus and other biblical characters, is uncertain, but the clearest biography we have of him comes from the Old Testament Christian Bible. The biography discussed in this article is taken from the books of the Old Testament, primarily Kings 1 and Kings 2.

Aside from coming from the village of Tishbe in Gilead (about which nothing is known), nothing is recorded about his background before Elijah appears suddenly to promote traditional, orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Historical Time

Elijah is described as having lived during the reigns of Israelite Kings Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram, during the first half of the 9th century BCE. In Biblical texts, his first appearance places him about halfway through the reign of King Ahab, son of Omri who founded the northern kingdom in Samaria. This would place Elijah somewhere around 864 BCE.

Geographic Location

Elijah’s activities were confined to the northern kingdom of Israel. At times he is recorded as having to flee from Ahab’s wrath, taking refuge in a Phoenician city, for example.

Elijah's Actions

The Bible attributes the following actions to Elijah: 

  • In Kings 1, Elijah suddenly appears during the reign of Ahab to announce a drought that God will send in punishment for worshipping the cult of Baal.
  • Later, Elijah meets prophets of Baal to determine which tribal god is supreme;  as the story goes, Elijah "wins" when Jehovah answers his prayers. The Baal priests are slaughtered by the Israelites. 
  • Elijah then flees a wrathful Jehovah by taking a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, where he is first discouraged, then renewed in his faith and courage. 
  • Elijah later denounces King Ahab again for the misuse of laws, arguing that all men are equal under God, including kings, and that morality should be the basis for legal decisions.
  • Elijah once against calls down the wrath of Jehovah on Ahab's son when he appeals to the pagan god, Baal. 
  • As related in Kings 2, After Elijah hands over his duties to Elisha, his successor, Elijah is spirited to heaven on a flaming chariot. Tradition holds that Elijah never died and that he will return before the final judgment by God—a key belief of traditional Christians. In fact, 800 years later, some early Christians would even believe that Elijah had returned in the form of John the Baptist. 


    Importance of Religious Tradition

    It is important to understand that in the historical period represented by Elijah, each tribal religion of the are worshipped its own god, and the concept of an overall single God did not yet exist. The primary significance of Elijah lies in the fact that he was an early champion of the idea that there is one god and one god only. This approach became key to the way in which Jehovah, the God of the Israelites, would become accepted as the single God of all the entire Judaic/Christian tradition. Significantly, Elijah did initially not proclaim that the true God was Jehovah, only that there could be only one true God, and that He would make himself known to those who opened their hearts. He is quoted as saying: “If Yahweh is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.”  Later, he says “Hear me, Yahweh, that these people may know that you, Yahweh, are God.” The story of Elijah, then, is key to the historical development of monotheism itself, and further, to the belief that mankind can and should have a personal relationship with that monotheistic God.

    This is a clear statement of monotheism that was historically revolutionary at the time, and one that would change history. 

    Elijah's example also established the idea that a higher moral law should be the basis for earthly law. In his conflicts with Ahab and the pagan leaders of the time, Elijah argued that the law of a higher God must be the basis for guiding mankind's conduct and that morality must be the basis for a practical legal system. Religion then became a practice based on reason and principle rather than frenzy and mystical ecstasy. This idea of laws based on moral principle continues to this day.