Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Muhraqa - Israel


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Elijah, Elisha And Mount Carmel

   By Fr. Roberto Fornara

   When the prophet Elijah lived on Mount Carmel – narrates a Hebrew legend – he was in the habit of leaving his grotto every so often to walk along the mountain and to pray to God. He never carried food with him, fully confiding in Divine providence. One day – continues the story- he found himself passing through a field of delicious melons. Having asked the proprietor permission to taste one, he received only mockery:" These aren't melons," said the owner making fun of him, "but loose stones!". In reply the prophet angrily pronounced a curse on the field and immediately the fruits were transformed into many tiny oval stones, scattered on the ground.
   The legend, which explains in this fantastic way the origin of certain characteristic mineral forms still visible today on the slopes of Mount Carmel, is only one of the many examples of how the Hebrew tradition would have known to keep alive its relationship with the figure of the prophet Elijah, often viewed in strict relation to the geographical environment of Carmel. The New Testament is already a witness to the process which attributes to the prophet an increasingly greater importance in the history of the Hebrew people, but it is followed and then largely surpassed by the rabbinic traditions of the first centuries. The liturgy – as one can still see to- day- has definitively consecrated this link. In the Old Testament the so-called Elijan cycle was incorporated into I and 2 Kings (1 Kings 17-19; 21; 2 Kings 1-2).
   These chapters narrate the various events that saw the prophet as protagonist, from his sudden appearance, almost from nowhere, to his equally mysterious rapture into heaven on a chariot of fire. In the whole of this literary production, the only episode explicitly set by the bible on Mount Carmel is the celebrated contest with the prophets of Baal, in which Elijah assumes the role of defender of the Yahwist religion against every possible contamination and against every form of syncretism.

The historical context

Elijah, originally from Tishbe in Transjordania, lived in the ninth century before Christ in the Northern kingdom. Already the memory of David – first king of Israel, who had made of Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom and the centre of unity for all the nation – is a distant one. Far away also in the memory of his son, the wise Solomon, under whose leadership the unity of the people had been reinforced, and Israel had thus been able to know a period of great splendour and military strength. At his death, in fact, the kingdom had divided itself in two: the North and the South had taken diverse roads.
   The Northern kingdom thus begins to experience a rather turbulent and painful epoch: the reigns of Jeraboam I and his immediate successors cannot define themselves as examples of peace, transparency and political stability. With the ascension to the throne of Omri (a usurper, like his predecessors), the situation begins however to change. Seizing power around the year 882, he constructs a new city, Samaria, in a strategic position close to the “road to the sea", and there transfers the capital of his kingdom.
   From the military point of View, now begins for Israel a period of consolidation and of great power, which will endure still for long (cf. 1 Kings 22,39 regarding the son of Ahab): Omri is able to fortify the frontiers, to hold the Arameans at bay and to reconquer Moab, as testifies the celebrated Stele of Mesah. Although the Bible does not furnish us with much documentation regarding this king, because it is not interested to transmit a faithful and detailed chronicle of the history of Israel, we must suppose his figure to be important, if after some decades the Assyrian annals still speak of Israel as the "land" or "house of Omri".
   The politics of Omri provides for a vast program of alliances that secures for the country an era of peace and stability. To this end, some marriages are celebrated between members of the diverse royal houses. The niece of the kink, Atalia, will become the bride of Joram, king of Judah (the southern kingdom), solely to ratify a pact of alliance. More important from our point of view is the marriage of Ahab, son of Omri, with Jezebel, the Phoenician princess, daughter of the priest of Tyre, Itbaal. In this way the kingdom of Israel assured for itself peace and help on the part of a neighbor particularly uncomfortable and insidious, like the Phoenicians can be, located more or less in the present day region of Lebanon- but a high price will have to be paid for all this from the religious point of view. In fact, in a sacralized society like that of the time, the various powers are not rigorously distinguished, and if the king is at the same time priest, it is clear that diplomatic and political interests will become inextricably interwoven with those of religion, until they influence seriously, and dictate to, the religious behavior of the people.
   This will show itself to be particularly true when the young Ahab ascends to the throne (around the year 874), and show - following at the biblical facts – a certain weakness in comparison with his wife. The stubbornness and political influence of Jezebel permitted the religion of the Phoenicians to penetrate Israel in a fairly intimate fashion. We know that in Samaria, the new capital, a temple in the honour of Baal was erected (cf. 1 kings 16,32), and that an altar dedicated to him existed on Carmel.
In such a situation of confusion and religious syncretism, Elijah is the prophet chosen by God to lead the people back to the truth of their relationship with Him and to restore fidelity to the Alliance, or Convenant. The famous episode of the episode of the confrontation with the prophets of Baal, narrated in chapter 18 of the First Book of Kings, is also the only Elijan account which is expressly set by the Bible on Mount Carmel. The choice of this locality can be easily explained by the historical context and by its geographical position: placed exactly on the border between the kingdom of Israel and the territory of the Phoenicians, the sacred mountain summarized well the situation of the people, faithful still to the religion of their Fathers yet at the same time attracted to the new cults of Baal: the south –eastern part, which opens onto the plain of Jezreel, knew a more pure Yahwist cult; the north-west promontory, which descends into the Mediterranean, was orientated instead to the cult of Baal. Like the heart of the people in that particular historical moment, also the mountain was divided between Yahweh and Baal.
   The divinity which the Bible describes with the name of Baal is not identifiable with an absolute certainty. The proposals of a hypothetical local divinity, Baal Karmel, or of Baal Hadad, the dispenser of rain for some tribes of Canaan, do not seem acceptable. With greater probability, one is dealing with Baal Melquart, god of Tyre; this ultimate solution would explain itself well by the geographical closeness and by the influence due to the origin of the queen Jezebel. The name Baal in Hebrew means simply “master, lord ", or also "husband", and in the ancient Orient served to indicate various divinities, or more probably diverse local manifestations of a single divinity.
   The execavations conducted in the city of Ugarit have yielded us abundant material for the understanding of this deity. The constant element seems to be that in Baal is seen the god of the storm, of the rain, of the great meteorological phenomena, and above all of fruitfulness. It is he – for the peoples of Canaan – who gives the rain and the fruits of the earth; because of this, in Canaanite mythology, his name and his cult are associated with the world of nature and the cycles of life and death: when Baal dies the earth dies too; when he returns to life, with the autumn rains, he gives fertility back to the earth and the productive cycles can recover their vitality.
   It is against this background that one should understand the episode of the struggle of Elijah against the prophets of Baal, certainly based on a story dating back to the end of the ninth century before Christ, but narrated with profound dramatic art by a redactor of the Deuteronomic school in the period of Babylonian exile (after 587 B.C.). The setting of the account in 1 Kings is also datable by the dramatic situation, provoked by a long famine and drought, of wich we have information from the historian Flavius Josephus. It is precisely urgent need of rain and of a good crop, and the dilemma about who might be their true dispenser, which raises the curtain on this confrontation – staged by Elijah – with his adversaries.

The sacrifice on Carmel

   The account in 1 Kings 18,20-40 begins with the convocation of the people on Carmel. The event can almost certainly be located in the area of el-Muhraqa, on the south-eastern slopes of the mountain chain, as E. Friedman has amply demonstrated and as tradition holds:" The characteristics of the place in all the details correspond with the biblical narrative (r. De Vaux)".
   “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?", is the prophet's provocation to the people. “If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him!" (1 Kings 18,21). The danger to be fought is syncretism. The practice of a determined religion is expressed in Hebrew by the language of following: "to go behind a god", "to walk in his presence” (cf. 1 Kings 18,18; Jer 2,23): here the invitation is to walk in the truth, avoiding having a foot in each camp. The proposal of the prophet, which finds itself in confrontation with (only) 450 prophets of Baal (perhaps also to signify the unity of the God of Israel against the multiplicity and proliferation of idols), is to prepare two holocausts for the respective divinities, and to invoke them in turns; "and the God who answers by fire, he is God (v. 24): the confrontation is not therefore between two gods, but between the true God and a nothing, between the God of Israel and an Illusion!
   With this aim, the narrator is pleased to present – with a smile on his lips- the useless efforts that the prophets ob Baal make, from morning until the afternoon, invoking their god, crying out in loud voices, jumping and dancing and even slashing their flesh with swords and spears, according to an established custom, as we know from various texts (cf. ANET; 25 ss). But the increasing of their efforts produces nothing more than the impression of their futility: “but there was no voice, and no one answered" (v. 26), until even Elijah begins to make fun of them (cf.v.27). In opposition to this convulsive and frenetic agitation, the calm and serene description of the details of Elijah's preparation makes a striking contest (vv. 30- 37). First of all the prophet rebuilds the alter of the Lord that had been demolished, taking twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. In reality he is acting in an age when the unity of the tribes which had given life to the nation had already been broken: to a shattered people he addresses a prophetic gesture of unity, to the roots of their own history he takes his bewildered people, lost among many new divinities, without sure points of reference anymore. The God of Elijah, in fact, is not a novelty, like the idols recently introduced into Israel, but is the God of the people, is the God of the Covenant with their Fathers.
   The reference is evidently to Joshua, the renewer of the Covenant (cf. Josh 4,24) and to Moses, the recipient of the primitive Covenant ( cf. Ex 20,25). The whole history of Elijah, moreover, is traced according to precise Mosaic typology, as is demonstrated by the journey to Horeb to renew the Covenant wich follows Ex 32,32 ss and by the 40 day's walk through the desert which reinvokes the 40 years' march by the people of Israel towards the promised land. Again, there is the element of bread and water, which recall the miraculous manna and water which had quenched the thirst and satisfied the hunger of Israel in the desert, or the mention of Jacob – Israel (v.31) which takes us back to the election and benediction of the patriarch ( cf. Gn 32, 29;35, 1-10).
   After having prepared the holocaust, Elijah sprinkles water abundantly until it surrounds the alter in a small channel. The prophet's certainty of obtaining the victory appears in all its radicality if we place his gesture in the context of the prolonged drought in which it is performed. The Elijan prayer of invocation, simple, bare and essential, contrasts with the long dance rituals and loud cries of the prophets of Baal; and " then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench " (v.38). The fire the Lord is almost certainly lightning, announcing a storm nearby, and therefore the end of the drought, but it is also a symbol of the God Baal: not only has the Lord won, but he has openly mocked his nonexistent adversary by choosing as a victory display that "god's" own characteristic expression! There is, further, an assonance between the expression fire of the Lord (es ha'elohim in Hebrew) and Elijah's epithet, man of God (is ha'elohim): Elijah, the man always guided by the Word of God (cf. 1 Kings 17, 2-5.8-10.24; 18,1-2), the prophet who "burns with zeal (jealousy) for the Lord God of hosts" ( 1 Kings 19, 10.14), for the "jealous God" (Ex 20,5), appears here like the true fire that illumines the people in the midst of the darkness of idolatry, consuming, purifying, and igniting the enthusiasm of the faithful. And as such the book of Ecclesiasticus will imagine him:" Then the prophet Elijah rose like a fire" (Ecc 48, 1-11).
   By now the truth has imposed itself, and those present are constrained to admit and to recognize their blindness of heart and the foolishness of their disposition: "The Lord is God! The Lord is God!" (v.39). The very name which the prophet bears almost as a description of his role (Elijah means "my God is truly the Lord") imposes itself in the facts and by force of evidence. The following massacre of the prophets ob Baal, described with impressive and cold forthrightness in v.40, so repugnant to our sensibilities (the fact that it has inspired above all Russian and Byzantine iconography while it has found little welcome in western art is symptomatic), must be understood in the light of the entire event – the prophets faithful to God had been previously massacred by the queen Jezabel; cf. 1 Kings 18,13 – of the mentality and the laws of the age, and above all the story of Moses on which it is modeled: the zeal of Moses had been still more pitiless and bloody than that of Elijah (cf. Ex 32,25-29; Num 25,1-5).
   The reestablishment of the people in the truth of their relationship with God allows them also to see the happy ending of the problem of the drought. This, which had made the people suffer for so long, was nothing other than the external consequence of a more profound evil: the breakdown of their relationship with God in order to place their trust in vain and fruitless idols. The vv.41-46, which follows immediately the account of the sacrifice on Carmel, describes in fact the return of the rain. The small cloud which rises from out of the sea " like the hand of a man" (v.44) – interpreted by the Carmelite tradition as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary, as the liturgy seems to do as well, reserving the reading of this passage for the Solemnity on the 16th of July – is the same "hand of the Lord" that lifts and guides Elijah, almost in an ecstatic state, on his miraculous passage before the chariot of the king (v.46): under the certain guidance of this hand – the one hand that guides the destinies of history, the only one capable of giving a true benediction, that can render fruitful the efforts of man –the itinerary of the prophet continues in the following chapters.

The prophet Elisha

The resounding victory on Carmel is not sufficient to scorch to the very roots the infiltration of idolatry in Israel. This is demonstrated by the successive experiences of Elijah who, constrained to flee for fear of the reaction of Jezebel, must experience that the follower of God does not know only moments of exaltation and victory, but is called to pass through uncertainty, humiliation, failure, persecution and interior conflict (cf . 1 Kings 19). It is demonstrated too by other Bible passages, from which one deduces that not only is the cult of Baal not finished, but even penetrates and flowers again in the territory of Judah, that is in the Southern kingdom, thanks to Atalia, the daughter of Ahab and wife of Joram (cf. 1 Kings 22,52-54; 2 Kings 3'1-3; 10,16-18).
   The prophetic element is nevertheless the constant voice that keeps alive in the midst of the people of God the need of faithfulness the Covenant and to the memory of God's faithful love, as a continual stimulus to conversion. Among these prophetic voices, the books 1 and 2 Kings make reference to another figure of noteworthy importance, even if with a smaller measure in respect to Elijah. One means the prophet Elisha, around whose name and acts there formed pretty quickly a cycle of accounts similar to those of Elijah, contained today in the chapters 2-13 of 2 Kings.
   Less dense from a theological point of view and more soaked with miraculous and hagiographical elements, the Elishan accounts consrrve nevertheless the style and prophetic character of the Elijan cycle. Elisha has already been mentioned in 1 Kings 19,19-21 to narrate his call to the work of Elijah: some few verses that recall the radical demands of availabllity and readiness typical of the follower of the Gospel (cf. Mt 4,18-22; Lk 9,57-62). But the true Elishan cycle consists of his presence at the rapture of Elijah into heaven, who designates him as his successor (2 Kings 2,1-18) and a series of miraculous interventions by the prophet who - like his master- has to deal with the royal house of the Northern kingdom.
   Also in the geography of Elisha's actions Mount Carmel appears. Even though a number of texts lead us to hold that he might have fixed his dwelling in Samaria (cf. 2 kings 5,3; 6,18-23), the episode narrated in 2 Kings 4,8-37 presents him to us as " the man of God on Mount Carmel" (v.25). A woman of Shunem who had lost her son decides to go to Elisha for help and leaves precisely in the direction of Carmel; the objection of her husband:" Why do you want to go today? It's neither the New Moon nor the Sabbath!", makes us think straightaway that on Carmel there might have existed a sanctuary, or that anyway it was normal to go there on occasions of particular feasts or anniversaries. All of this agrees fully with the information we have from tradition and archaeology regarding Carmel as a sacred mountain, sparsely populated and a cultic site. We read also in 2 Kings 2,25 that Elisha "went to Mount Carmel and then returned to Samaria".
F. Foresti goes further, arriving at the hypothesis that the Biblical location of Gilgat )2 Kings 2,1), from where Elijah departs together with Elisha for his final journey before being caught up into heaven in the chariot of fire, might even be located on Carmel, in the place where he had defeated the prophets of Baal. In Hebrew Gilgal is in fact a common name that designates a circle of stones, erected for the most part with a cultic aim, and the reference could therefore be to the alter erected by Elijah in 1 kings 18,31 (in this regard the hypothesis of E. Friedmann is very evocative, which identifies the circle of twelve stones with a megalithic monument, of which we possess, moreover, numerous testimonies in the chronicles of pilgrims up to 1846): here, on Mount Carmel, Elijah had obtained fire from heaven; from here he departs, together with his successor, on his last journey towards the steppes of Moab, where the fire from heaven will descend once again to enrapture him.
   Also the cycle of Elisha, a prophet connected – in distinction to his master- to a circle of disciples, has therefore to do with Mount Carmel. Only if we take into consideration these strict links between the two Old Testament prophets and the setting of their actions, can we easily understand how the Elijan ideal could have made its way so naturally into the hearts of the sons of Carmel, assuming dimensions so vast and so deep.