Melakhim: The Book
By Rav Alex
week's shiurim are dedicated
in memory of Mr. Harry Meisels, Elchanan ben R.
whose yahrzeit falls on the 26th of
#20: Chapter 17: Three Years of Drought;
fights the Ba'al with zeal, religious passion, and persistence.
Chapters 17-19 narrate a captivating and dramatic story that spans three years,
as Eliyahu holds out against Achav and his regime of the Ba'al. The epic
struggle begins with Eliyahu's fierce and bold announcement of a devastating
drought. The story is described in three chapters:
Three years of drought.
Eliyahu's confrontation with Achav and the contest on Mt. Carmel; the advent of
Eliyahu at Mt. Chorev; the appointment of Elisha.
other episodes in Sefer Melakhim
feature the character of Eliyahu, but this story is a continuous narrative,
relating a fascinating religious, national, and personal
INITIATE THE DROUGHT?
Ha-Tishbi, an inhabitant of Gilad, said to Achav: As the Lord lives, the God of
Israel whom I serve, these years will have no dew or rain except at my word.
words, Eliyahu proclaims a three year drought.
As we read these lines, we are disoriented by the suddenness of it all. Who is
this Eliyahu? Usually in Tanakh, a central figure is introduced with some
biographical information. Eliyahu's identity as "Ha-Tishbi" and his origin in
Gilad hardly explain to us the identity of this dominant
But a second
question plagues us. Is this mysterious prophet, Eliyahu, proclaiming this
famine independently, or is commanded to act by God? On the one hand, the phrase
"As the Lord lives
whom I serve" indicates a divine instruction. On the other
hand, the central role of Eliyahu, indicating that there will be no rain "except
at my word," seems to put Eliyahu in the key position.
commentaries are divided here:
Eliyahu did this without a Divine
command and without permission, but rather by his own will and choice, to pursue
his zealousness for God. (Abarbanel)
decreed concerning the rainfall in his zealousness for God because of the
worship of idolatry, as it is written in the Torah, "Lest
you turn aside and
worship other gods and bow down to them, then God's anger will burn against you
and he will shut up the heavens and there will be no rain"(Devarim
11:16-17). He was sure that God would fulfill his pronouncement. About this type
of action, it says: "You pronounced a decree, and [God] fulfilled it for you'
(Iyov 22:28). (Radak)
conclusion from these mefarshim is that Eliyahu, in his outrage over
Achav's violation of God's law, decided that God Himself was failing to fulfill
His own Torah. After all, God had decreed that when the nation turned to "other
gods," God would "shut up the heavens" and withhold rain. Since God was not
performing His role, Eliyahu instigated a religious pronouncement of a cessation
of rainfall. Rather curiously, God listened!
in his shiurim on Eliyahu, supports this view:
Significant is the fact that Eliyahu
himself makes no mention of the Divine source of his mission. He does not
introduce his declaration with the words, "So says God," nor does he formulate
his oath in such a way that we may understand that it is God's words that he is
More importantly, we reach this very conclusion from Eliyahu's
language. The very need to utter an oath, together with the personal formulation
of the oath, demonstrates that this withholding of the rainfall is an
independent initiative on the part of the prophet. A regular prophetic mission,
in which the prophet foretells, in God's name, the punishment that will come
upon Israel, requires no oath. But when the prophet decrees of his own will and
his listeners understand his words correctly, then his oath comes to strengthen
their faith in the fulfillment of his decree.
His view is
supported by the midrash, which states:
the keys of rainfall [that should belong to God] and went on his way (Eliyahu
Zuta chapter 8).
As we will
see in our upcoming shiurim, this view sees Eliyahu as engaged in a quest
to prove God's power beyond reasonable doubt, to obliterate support for Ba'al,
and to demonstrate and publicize God's truth and the falsity of Ba'al worship.
Eliyahu's decree aims to challenge the power of the rain god, Ba'al, and Eliyahu
expects God to support him in this endeavor!
But not all
the commentators agree. The Ralbag states simply:
by God's command, gave a most severe decree in withholding dew and rain
throughout those years, until Eliyahu would allow them to fall, as a
messenger of God.
R. Yosef Ibn
There is no
doubt that his [Eliyahu's] words were from God.
Simon adopts this view in his reading of this story:
uniqueness of the opening line becomes clearer in the light of the continuation
of the chapter, in which it is stated explicitly that Eliyahu went to Nachal
Krit (17:2) and from there to Tzarafat (17:8), and from Tzarafat to Shomron
(18:1) via the "word of God" that was upon him. Can we indeed conclude from this
contrast that the silence
regarding God's command
comes to say that Eliyahu
brought a drought of such severe proportions on Israel by his own initiative?
And that he was prepared to risk such an audacious oath independently?
So we have
two diametrically contrasting views. Is God commanding Eliyahu, or is Eliyahu
issuing a decree that God agrees to? Is Eliyahu the zealous prophet of God
more zealous than God himself - or is he simply His loyal and obedient
continue through ch.17 and see two ways of reading this
STRUCTURE OF CHAPTER 17: THREE YEARS - THREE STORIES
is critically placed between Eliyahu's decree of the drought (17:1) and God's
command that he bring the rain (18:1). The chapter contains three miraculous
stories, each connected in some way to the famine resulting from the lack of
Nachal Kerit ravens bring food to Eliyahu
Tzarafat miraculous production of food
Tzarafat the death and revival of the son
stories represent an ascending progression in Eliyahu's power and his use of
miracles. In the first story, food is miraculously procured by the ravens for
Eliyahu, but the food itself is natural and non-miraculous.
In the second story, with the overflowing flour and oil pot, food is produced
unnaturally. In the third story, after the death of the boy, it is not food that
Eliyahu produces but life itself, as Eliyahu enacts the miracle of restoring
But if we
pay attention, we can discern other modes of progression. Let us chart the
literary structure here:
YEARS will have no dew or rain except at my
Kerit: Eliyahu alone
(Va-yehi) the WORD OF GOD came to him: Go from here
and at the
end of A YEAR (yamim) the wadi dried up, for there was no
Eliyahu and the widow
(Va-yehi) the WORD OF GOD came to him: Get up and go
and he and her household ate for a YEAR (yamim)
as the WORD OF
Eliyahu, the widow, her son
(Va-yehi) it was after these things
WORD OF GOD in your mouth is true
(Va-yehi) after many YEARS (yamim), the WORD OF GOD
came to Eliyahu in the third YEAR saying "Go, appear before Achav and
I will give rain
is clearly divided into three scenes. An essential element of the story is the
passage of time, as each YEAR is carefully measured.
And as each year passes, each scene describes an intensification of the famine.
At the start, there is water in the wadi and food that birds can bring. But at
the end of the year, the wadi is dry, and Eliyahu has to move on. In the second
"scene," he meets a woman who is eating her last meal. She is foraging for two
simple pieces of wood, because she is eating her final provisions (v.12) "we
shall eat and then die." People are dying. The third story reveals the disease
and epidemic that regularly accompanies famine situations: the woman's child
falls sick and dies. Despite the fact that it is not explicitly recorded as a
result of the famine, Eliyahu's language - "EVEN to this woman with whom I live,
will you bring calamity and cause the death of her son?" - indicates that this
boy's death is reflective of the wider disaster that befalls the nation. And so,
the three scenes depict the growing severity of the
sense of progression may be traced by Eliyahu's location. In the first scene, he
is living in a wadi apparently out of the jurisdiction of Yisrael, and certainly
out of the reach of Achav. Later (18:10), we read of Achav's desperate efforts
to locate Eliyahu, and yet at this stage, Eliyahu eludes Achav, demonstrating
his control and superiority over the king. His second location at "Tzarafat,
which is by Sidon" is also outside the reach of Achav and beyond his borders -
Eliyahu is still in hiding. But this location near Sidon takes him to the
heartland of the territory of the Ba'al, to the locale of Etba'al and Izevel.
Eliyahu's ability to produce food and create life in the environment in which
the Ba'al was clearly helpless and unable to assist its population emphasizes
further the triumph of God's word over the Ba'al.
But what is
the message that this chapter wishes to communicate? How does it integrate into
the wider story of Eliyahu?
AND THE WIDOW
of the raven as the conveyor of food to Eliyahu needs some probing. On the one
hand, the raven is a large bird, which can transport food. There is a certain
parallel here with Noach, who also sends out a raven (unsuccessfully), and the
connection may point to the extreme disengagement from society and the wider
raven is an "unclean" bird, and widely viewed even in wider society - as
cruel. Tehillim (147:9) talks about the "children of the raven who call
out" and Iyov (38:41) explains that the raven does not feed its
offspring, and hence its children go hungry! Why should God choose the raven as
his messenger? The Malbim offers an explanation:
orchestrated his sustenance through ravens, which are cruel by nature so that he
[Eliyahu] should remember that he has similarly been cruel to the nation,
killing them by famine.
a similar approach regarding the drying of the water in the
dried up: So that he would understand the need for rain
for it was severe in
God's eyes that Israel were dying by famine.
commentators view Eliyahu as actively delaying the rainfall. God uses a variety
of media to send him a message that he should exercise compassion, but Eliyahu
is impervious to the message.
follow this line of thinking regarding the widow in Tzarafat as well. In that
scene, we are witness to a dreadful image, as the widow collects a few twigs in
order to cook her last meager rations of food a little flour and oil. Eliyahu
arrives and requests water, and then food. Eliyahu adds insult to injury by
insisting that she "make me a small cake FIRST, and bring it to me, and for you
and your son AFTERWARDS" (v.13). This churlish behavior makes us wonder how
Eliyahu can act with such insensitivity. Can he not see that the woman is
suffering? Of course, he knows that God was going to produce a miracle (v.14),
but what is the need for this indifference?
point of this so that he will see, in that place, the suffering of a widow and
orphan, upon whom God Himself has mercy, and concerning whom He warns against
causing them suffering (Shemot 21:22). For were it not for him, the two
of them would die, as she says to him: "That I may prepare it for myself and for
my son, that we may eat it and die." From them he will see that a great many
like them, among the masses of Israel, will die of hunger. And because he is
good, he will pray for mercy upon them, that there should be rain and dew by his
word. (R. Moshe Alshikh Marot Ha-Tzovot)
R. Elchanan Samet, the entire thrust of chapter 17 moves in this direction.
Eliyahu has decreed a famine in his zeal for God. It is God who wants Eliyahu to
express some compassion and to rescind the decree.
Eliyahu's first encounter with the
results of the drought takes place at Wadi Kerit
This demonstrated for him the
destructive results of the cessation of rain WITH REGARD TO THE LAND - its
streams and its plant and animal life. But the drying up of the wadi is also
significant FOR ELIYAHU HIMSELF, since he is dependent on its water.
Nevertheless, this does not cause him to retract his oath.
The second encounter takes place at
the gates of Tzarfat. Here, Eliyahu views the meaning of the drought on the
HUMAN LEVEL - and specifically what it means to the weakest sectors of society:
a widow and an orphan. But here again, the suffering of the woman and her child
because of drought and famine, ALTHOUGH AFFECTING ELIYAHU HIMSELF - since his
sustenance depends on them - does not cause him to retract his oath. In
order to overcome the problem that has presented itself, he invokes a miracle
that will allow him to continue living for a whole year in the widow's home in
Eliyahu's third encounter with the
results of the drought takes place at the end of the year of lodging with "the
woman who was mistress of the house," with the death of her son. Now Eliyahu is
forced to contemplate the most tragic consequences of the famine: the death of a
poor, orphaned child, illustrating the fate of many more like him. Once again,
the event has an effect on Eliyahu's personal fate: the child's mother accuses
him of responsibility for the death and asks him to leave. (Samet)
The story of
chapter 17 is aimed at dislodging Eliyahu from his stubborn intransigence. It
fails to work, and in the end (18:1), it is God who orders Eliyahu to end the
Simon's approach is diametrically opposed to that of Samet. As we have seen,
Prof. Simon suggests that the initial oath was issued by God, and hence, we must
understand the nature of this chapter differently. Simon sees it as charting
three stages in the growth and development of Eliyahu as a prophet. Eliyahu
begins the chapter as an unknown individual, possibly resembling the anonymous
"Ish Elokim" of chapter 13. How is an untried, novice prophet going to
have the wherewithal and the nerve to confront the king? Chapter 17 functions as
a lengthy introduction to Eliyahu, as we follow him in his divine apprenticeship
as God trains him for his forthcoming mission.
In the first
scene, Eliyahu does not escape to Nachal Kerit. He is sent there by God "to
hide." Note that throughout the entire chapter, it appears that Eliyahu
functions in RESPONSE to God. God has chosen to use Eliyahu's WORD as the
instrument of His WORD.
And it is by God's WORD that Eliyahu goes to Nachal Kerit. Eliyahu's
disconnection from Achav represents God's estrangement from the
scene represents Eliyahu in contact with other people. God instructs him that "I
have designated a widow to feed you," but Eliyahu has to locate the woman and
convince her, by power of his personality and persuasion, that she should put
the prophet's needs before her own. (Simon assumes that she identified him as a
man of God otherwise it would be strange for her to obey his orders; the proof
is that she swears by the name of "Hashem YOUR God" (v.12) despite the fact that
he has not yet mentioned God!)
Eliyahu is not confronting a king, but rather a lowly widow, and yet he subjects
her to a test of faith. The result of passing that test will be ongoing
sustenance. Here in Tzarafat, as in Nachal Kerit, God miraculously provides food
for Eliyahu, but here, God provides food through the prophet for others - the
widow and her son. Furthermore, Eliyahu is not merely receptive; he become
active, commanding, convincing, and creating the miracle. This miracle is
explicitly designated as "just as THE WORD OF GOD had spoken through Eliyahu"
stage represents a crisis. Things go wrong. Despite her hospitality towards the
man of God, the woman's son dies. The woman accuses Eliyahu, "What harm have I
done you that you come here to recall my sin and kill my son?" Eliyahu doesn't
debate the widow. Instead he takes her child and appeals to God. His prayer is
received, and God restores life to the boy. Note the words of the widow that
close this episode. In contrast to her fierce accusation, earlier, now she
Now I know
that you are a man of God and the WORD OF GOD in your mouth is true.
Simon, the theme is the development of Eliyahu as a prophet during the famine
hiding at Nachal Kerit in response to God's explicit command, he subjugates his
entire private life to the demands of his mission, the fate of prophets before
him and after him. In Tzarafat, he is called to become increasingly active and
independent. At the first stage, he functions as the vehicle for God's command,
such that the recipient of the order (the widow) should express faith in the
divine agent (Eliyahu) and trust him and obey his command. At the second stage,
he becomes an address for the scalding protest of the widow and as her
protagonist before his God. (Simon, p. 206)
rigorous training, Eliyahu is ready to meet Achav and the challenges that will
clearly demonstrated the threefold progression of this story. The question is
one of interpretation. Is this a story of Eliyahu's religious indignation and
his insistence that divine truth be upheld? Is chapter 17 a tale of how God
tries to break Eliyahu's principled stand? Or alternatively, is Eliyahu God's
ultimate representative and mouthpiece?
Perhaps this is a story of introduction to Eliyahu, wherein we begin to
understand the roots of this towering spiritual figure as we witness God guiding
and training the young prophet so that he may have the faith and confidence to
confront the most threatening of kings.
Eliyahu retains a presence in our current lives, visiting every brit
mila, having a fifth cup at the Pesach seder dedicated to him, and
holding the enigmatic and auspicious role of herald to the Messiah himself. In
the Talmud, Eliyahu is depicted as never having died, allowing him to mediate
between heaven and earth, facilitating a sort of prophecy in generations beyond
his time. We shall devote some time at the end of our study to these eternal
images of Eliyahu, but for now, we will remain firmly rooted in the text of the
Tanakh as we develop our impressions of Eliyahu as they emerge from this