Old Testament

Elijah: a Man of God or a Coward?

Picture of Elijah in the wilderness
Elijah in the wilderness, by Washington Allston
Based on 1 Kings 17

One of the most epic stories in the Bible is where Elijah squares off against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There are 450 prophets of Baal, and just 1 Elijah. Yet through a dramatic display, Yahweh shows himself to be the true God, and Elijah convinced the people to slaughter the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:40).

After the contest, Yahweh brings rain upon the land, relieving a 3 ½ year drought. Ahab, the king of Israel, sees all of this. Then, he returns to Jezreel and tells Jezebel, his Baal-worshipping wife, what Elijah had done. She sends Elijah a message, in which she promises to make him like the prophets of Baal (i.e., dead).

What is Elijah’s response?

Actually, this is where there are two diverging ideas. One idea follows the majority of English translations and claims that subsequent to Ahab telling Jezebel about the Mount Carmel experience, Elijah became afraid and fled Jezebel. This idea is backed up by the translation, “Elijah was afraid” (1 Kings 19:3). The assumption usually is that Elijah becomes depressed after his euphoric experience against the prophets of Baal.

The problem is that there is good evidence that the Hebrew reads “Elijah saw.” In fact, the consonantal spelling of “Elijah was afraid” and “Elijah saw” are actually the same. It is only the pronunciation that is different. Older English translations translated this phrase as “Elijah saw,” but most modern translations have gone to “Elijah was afraid,” citing non-Hebrew evidence and the context that Elijah’s fear was the motivation for fleeing from Jezebel.

In contrast to the majority opinion, I don’t think Elijah was a coward, nor was he afraid of Jezebel.

First, with regard to the Hebrew reading, it is much easier to change “he saw” to “he was afraid.” But it doesn’t make sense for a scribe to edit “he was afraid” to “he saw.” Hence, by that simple test, “Elijah saw” is much more likely to be the original reading.

Second, the overall context lends support to Elijah’s boldness. I mean, come on! He literally just stood on a mountain alone against king Ahab, the people of Israel, and 450 prophets of Baal! It is unlikely in the extreme that Elijah would buckle at the knees at the sound of a boisterous woman like Jezebel immediately following such an experience.

So, if Elijah was not afraid, why did he run? If we take the reading as “Elijah saw.” To answer this, we must ask what did Elijah see? The best explanation seems to be that Elijah saw that the repentance from Baal worship to Yahweh which he hoped to inspire was short-lived. Ahab did not depose Jezebel. Rather, he allowed (and possibly encouraged) the threats against Elijah’s life. Thus, the leadership of Israel did not return to Yahweh. The people were not showing signs of long-term revival. Thus, Elijah’s proclamation, “I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kgs 19:4). In other words, just like his predecessors, Elijah could not bring about the heart change that the nation needed.

But still, why did Elijah run south? Why did Elijah ask God to kill him? If our observations are correct so far, we can surmise that Elijah ran, not because of fear, but to escape Jezebel killing him. If Jezebel were to kill the prophet Elijah, it would be seen as a victory for Baal. Elijah could not stomach the thought of glorifying Baal, so he went far south where his death would not have a link to Jezebel or Baal worship. There, because of his brokenness, Elijah asked God to take his life. Elijah realized that he had failed to affect repentance in the nation, and it broke his heart. He was done.

This picture of Elijah is a bit different than the picture painted by the majority of commentators. Yet, I think it provides an accurate picture of Elijah. He was not an unfaithful prophet who stopped trusting in God and feared Jezebel. Rather, he served the Lord faithfully and had his heart broken by the stubborn, unrepentant spirit of his people.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

4 Comments

  • Reid

    He was clearly intimidated by Jezebel if you read all the context. You can try to cover Eli’s back on this but he was intimidated that’s why he fled, that’s why God asked him what he was doing there. Blessings

  • Adam Lambdin

    Another great post, Dr. Goeman… Really enjoyed it. I actually just read about this for my class in the History of the Covenant People BTS512 at TMU under Dr. Grisanti, and your view can be backed up by Dr. Eugene Merrill in “Kingdom of Priests.” Thanks again. Have a great one…

    • Peter Goeman

      Thanks, Adam. I didn’t remember that Merrill talks about it in his history of Israel. That is a good thing he agrees with me then ;) I will have to go back and read his section on that. Thanks!

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