by Alfred Edersheim
Philologos Religious Online Books
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
RABBINIC TRADITIONS ABOUT ELIJAH THE FORERUNNER OF THE MESSIAH
To complete the evidence, presented in the text, as to the essential difference between the teaching of the ancient Synagogue about 'the Forerunner of the Messiah' and the history and mission of John the Baptist, as described in the New Testaments, we subjoin a full, though condensed, account of the earlier Rabbinic traditions about Elijah.
Opinions differ as to the descent and birthplace of Elijah. According to some, he was from the land of Gilead (Bemid. R. 14), and of the tribe of Gad (Tanch. on Gen. xlix. 19). Others describe him as a Benjamite, from Jerusalem, one of those 'who sat in the Hall of Hewn Stones' (Tanch. on Ex. xxxi. 2), or else as paternally descended from Gad and maternally from Benjamin.1 Yet a third opinion, and to which apparently most weight attaches, represents him as a Levite, and a Priest - nay, as the great High-Priest of Messianic days. This is expressly stated in the Targum Pseudo-Jon. on Ex. xl. 10, where it also seems implied that he was to anoint the Messiah with the sacred oil, the composition of which was among the things unknown in the second Temple, but to be restored by Elijah (Tanch. on Ex. xxiii. 20, ed. Warsh. p. 91 a, lines 4 and 5 from the top). Another curious tradition identifies Elijah with Phinehas (Targum Pseudo-Jon. on Ex. vi.18). The same expression as in the Targum ('Phinehas - that is Elijah') occurs in that great storehouse of Rabbinic tradition, Yalkut (vol. i. p. 245 b, last two lines, and col. c). From the pointed manner in which reference is made to the parallelism between the zeal of Phinehas and that of Elijah, and between their work in reconciling God and Israel, and bringing the latter to repentance, we may gather alike the origin of this tradition and its deeper meaning.2
1. This question is fully discussed in Ber. R. 71 towards the close. Comp. also Shem. R. 40. For fuller details we refer to our remarks on Gen. xlix. 19 in Appendix IX.
2. I cannot agree with either of the explanations of this passage offered by Castelli (Il Messia, p. 199), whose citation is scarcely as accurate as usually. The passage quoted is in the Par. Pinchas, opening lines.
For (as fully explained in Book II. ch. v.) it is one of the principles frequently expressed by the ancient Synagogue, in its deeper perception of the unity and import of the Old Testament, that the miraculous events and Divine interpositions of Israel's earlier history would be re-enacted, only with wider application, in Messianic days. If this idea underlay the parallelism between Phinehas and Elijah, it is still more fully carried out in that between Elijah and Moses. On comparing the Scriptural account of these two messengers of God we are struck with the close correspondence between the details of their history. The Synagogue is careful to trace this analogy step by step (Yalkut, vol. ii. p. 32 d) the final deliverance of Israel of Egypt, so would the final deliverance by Elijah for ever break the yoke of all foreign rule. The allusion here is to the part which Elijah was expected to take in the future 'wars of Gog and Magog' (Seder Olam R. c. xvii.) Indeed, this parallelism is carried so far, that tradition has it, that, when Moses was commissioned by God to go to Pharoah, he pleaded that God should rather send by him whom He designed to send for the far greater deliverance in the latter days. On this it was told him that Elijah's mission would be to Israel, while he (Moses) was sent to Pharaoh (Pirqé de R. Eliez. 40).3 Similarly, it is asserted that the cave from which Moses beheld the Divine Presence passing before him (Ex. xxxiii. 22) was the same as that in which Elijah stood under similar circumstances - that cave having been created with the rest of the world, but specially on the eve of the world's first Sabbath (Siphré on Deut. ed. Friedmann, p. 147 a, last line). Considering this parallelism between them, the occurrence of the somewhat difficult expression will scarcely surprise us, that in the days of the Messiah Moses and Elijah would come together - 'as one' (Debar. R. 3, at the end).4
3. Castelli writes: Lo Prega a mandare in luogo suo Elic, già esistente almeno in insipirito; e Dio risponde, che è predestinato non a quella, ma alla finale redenzione. But there are three inaccuracies here, for (1) Moses does not name Elijah; (2) there is not a hint that Elijah was pre-existing in spirit; while (3) God's reply to Moses is as in our text.
4. The question has been raised whether Jeremiah (or even Isaiah) was also to appear in Messianic days. In favour of this view 2 Macc. ii. 1-8 and xv. 14-16 afford, to say the least, presumptive evidence. We do not refer to 4 Esdras ii. 18, because the two first and the two last chapters of that book in our Apocrypha (2 Esdras) are spurious, being for much later, probably Christian authorship. Gfr thinks that 4 Esdras v. (2 Esdras vii. 28) refers to Jeremiah and Isaiah (Urchrist vol. ii. p. 230). But I cannot draw the same inference from it. On the other hand, there is a remarkable passage in Mechilta on Ex. xvi. 33 (ed. Weiss, p. 59 b), which not only seems to conjoin Jeremiah with the Messiah (though the inaccurate rendering of Wetstein, Nov. Test. vol. i. p. 430 conveys an exaggerated and wrong impression of this), but reminds us of 2 Mac. ii. 1-18.
It has been noted in the text that the activity of Elijah, from the time of his appearance in the days of Ahab to that of his return as the forerunner of the Messiah, is represented in Jewish tradition as continuous, and that he is almost constantly introduced on the scene, either as in converse with some Rabbi, or else as busy about Israel's welfare, and connected with it. Thus Elijah chronicles in heaven the deeds of man (Seder Olam R. xvii.), or else writes down the observances of the commandments by men, and then the Messiah and God seal it (Midrash on Ruth ii. 14, last line, ed. Warsh. p. 43 b). In general, he is ever interested in all that concerns Israel's present state or their future deliverance (Sanh. 98 a). Indeed, he is connected with the initiatory rite of the covenant, in acknowledgement of his zeal5 in the restoration of circumcision, when, according to tradition, it had been abrogated by the ten tribes after their separation from Judah. God accordingly had declared: 'Israel shall not make the covenant of circumcision, but thou shalt see it,' and the sages decreed that (at circumcision) a seat of honour shall be placed for the Angel of the Covenant (Mal. iii. 2; Pirqé de R. Eliez. 29, end). Tradition goes even further. Not only was he the only ambassador to whom God had delegated His three special 'keys:' of birth, of the rainfall, and of waking the dead (Yalkut, vol. ii. 32 c), but his working was almost Divine (Tanch. Bereshith 7; ed. Warsh. p. 6 b, last line, and 7 a).
5. In this passage also reference is made to the zeal of Phinehas as corresponding to that of Elijah.
We purposely pass over the activity of Elijah in connection with Israel, and especially its Rabbis and saints, during the interval between the Prophet's death and his return as the Forerunner of the Messiah, such as Jewish legend describes it. No good purpose could be served by repeating what so frequently sounds not only utterly foolish and superstitious, but profane. In Jewish legend Elijah is always introduced as the guardian of the interests of Israel, whether theologically or personally - as it were the constant living medium between God and his people, the link that binds the Israel of the present - with its pursuits, wants, difficulties and interests - to the bright Messianic future of which he is the harbinger. This probably is the idea underlying the many, often grotesque, legends about his sayings and doings. Sometimes he is represented as, in his well-meant zeal, going so far as to bear false witness in order to free Rabbis from danger and difficulty (Berach. 58 a). In general, he is always ready to instruct, to comfort, or to heal, condescending even to so slight a malady as the toothache (Ber. R. 96, end). But most frequently is he the adviser an friend of the Rabbis, in whose meetings and studies he delighteth. Thus he was a frequent attendant in Rabh's Academy - and his indiscretion in divulging to his friends the secrets of heaven had once procured for him in heaven the punishment of fiery stripes (Babha Mets. 85 b). But it is useless to do more than indicate all this. Our object is to describe the activity of Elijah in connection with the coming of the Messiah.
When, at length, the time of Israel's redemption arrived - then would Elijah return. Of two things only are we sure in connection with it. Elijah will not 'come yesterday' - that is, he will be revealed the same day that he comes - and he will not come on the eve of either a Sabbath or feast-day, in order not to interrupt the festive rest, nor to break the festive laws (Erub. 43 b, Shabb. 33 a). Whether he came one day (Er. 43 b) or three days before the Messiah (Yalkut, vol. ii. p. 53 c, about the middle) his advent would be close to that of that Messiah (Yalkut, vol. i. p. 310 a, line 21 from bottom).6 The account given of the three days between the advent of Elijah and of the Messiah is peculiar (Yalkut, vol. ii. p.53 c). Commenting on Is. lii. 7, it is explained, that on the first of those three days Elijah would stand on the mountains of Israel, lamenting the desolateness of the land, his voice being heard from one end of the world to the other, after which he would proclaim: 'Peace' cometh to the world; 'peace' cometh to the world! Similarly on the second day he would proclaim, 'Good' cometh to the world; 'good' cometh to the world! Lastly, on the third day, he would, in the same manner as the two previous days, make proclamation: 'Jeshuah7 (salvation) cometh to the world; Jeshuah (salvation) cometh to the world,' which, in order to mark the difference between Israel and the Gentiles, would be further explained by this addition: 'Saying unto Zion - Thy King cometh!'
6. Schen (Horæ Hebr. tomus ii. p. 534) has not correctly apprehended the meaning of this passage. It is not 'statim cum ipso Messiæ adventu,' but prope or proxime (h)ybl Kwms.) Schen writes inaccurately t)ybh.
7. Of course this is the Hebrew word used in Is. lii. 7 ('that published salvation'). None the less significant, however, in this connection, is the fact that the word is pronounced like the Name of Jesus.
The period of Elijah's advent would, according to one opinion (Pirqé de R. Eliez. 43), be a time of genuine repentance by Israel, although it is not stated that this change would be brought about by his ministry. On the other hand, his peculiar activity would consist in settling ceremonial and ritual questions, doubts, and difficulties, in making peace, in restoring those who by violence had been wrongfully excluded from the congregation and excluding those who by violence had been wrongfully introduced (Bab. Mets. i. 8; ii. 8; iii. 4, 5; Eduy. vii. 7). He would also restore to Israel these three things which had been lost: the golden pot of Manna (Ex. xvi. 33), the vessel containing the anointing oil, and that with the waters of purification - according to some, also Aaron's rod that budded and bore fruit.8 Again, his activity is likened to that of the Angel whom God had sent before Israel to drive out and to vanquish the hostile nations (Tanch. on Ex. xxiii. 20, § 18 at the close; ed. Warsh. p. 106 b). For. Elijah was to appear, then to disappear, and to appear again in the wars of Gog and Magog9 (Seder Olam R. xvii.). But after that time general peace and happiness would prevail, when Elijah would discharge his peculiar functions. Finally, to the ministry of Elijah some also ascribed the office of raising the dead (Sotah ix. 15, closing words).10
8. The reader will find, in our remarks on Ps. ex. 2 in Append. IX. the curious traditions about this rod of Aaron, as given in Bemid. R. 18 and Yalkut on Ps. cx. 2. The story of the wonder-working rod is told somewhat differently in the Targum Pseudo-Jon. on Ex. ii. 20, 21 and iv. 20; and again, with other variations, in Pirké de R. Eliez. 40. In the latter passage we are told, that this rod had passed from the possession of Joseph (after his death) into the palace of Pharaoh. Thence Jethro, who was one of the magicians of Egypt, had removed it to his own home. The ability of Moses to read the writing on the rod - according to other traditions, to uproot it out of the garden - indicated him to Jethro as the future deliverer of Israel, and determined him to give to Moses Zipporah for his wife (in preference to all other suitors). According to other traditions, Noses had been for many years imprisoned, and ministered to by Zipporah, who loved him. It may be added, that, according to very ancient tradition, the rod of Aaron was one of the things created on the eve of the world's first Sabbath (Siphré, ed. Friedmann, p. 147 a, last line).
9. We have purposely omitted all reference to the connection between Elijah and the 'second' Messiah, the son of Ephraim, because that line of tradition belongs to a later period than that of Christ.
10. The view of the Apocrypha on the Mission of Elijah may be gathered from Ecclus. xlviii. 1-12. Some additional Talmudic notices about Elijah will be found at the close of Append. IX. The Sepher Eliyahu (Apocalypse of Elijah), published in Jellinek's Beth haMidr. part ii. pp. 65-68, adds nothing to our knowledge. It professes to be a revelation by the Angel Michael to Elijah of the end and the last days, at the close of the fourth monarchy. As it is simply an Apocalyptic account of the events of those days, it cannot here find a place, however interesting the Tractate. I have purposely not referred to the abominable story about Elijah told in Yoma 19 b, last lines.
Such is a summary of ancient Jewish tradition concerning Elijah as the forerunner of the Messiah. Comparing it with the New Testament description of John the Baptist, it will at least be admitted that, from whatever source the sketch of the activity and mission of the Baptist be derived, it cannot have been from the ideal of the ancient Synagogue, nor yet from popularly current Jewish views. And, indeed - could there be a greater contrast than between the Jewish forerunner of the Messiah and him of the New Testament?