Exploring the ascension of Elijah: A critical analysis of Jewish literature

Michael LaPine, USA


Hazrat Ilyas, peace be upon him, is commonly referred to as “Elijah” in Western Jewish and Christian traditions. Both Jews and Christians believe that Elijah the Prophet serves as a precursor to the Messiah. However, there are differences in how these two religions interpret this belief. Christianity has traditionally understood the prophecy about Elijah metaphorically and disagreed about the identity of the Messiah.

The exalted status of Elijah in Jewish tradition

In Judaism, there has been a longstanding belief that Elijah did not die a physical death and would literally descend from heaven to announce the messianic era. The belief among Jews that Elijah never died has hindered Jews from understanding Malachi’s prophecy (Malachi 4:5) that speaks of Elijah’s coming. Furthermore, the belief that Elijah did not die has also influenced some Muslims to hold the false belief that Jesus is still alive in heaven. How did these extraordinary beliefs associated with Elijah come about?

Why is such an exalted status attributed to Eliyahu Ha Navi (Elijah the Prophet)? The Bible records Elijah conducting miracles more powerfully than any other prophet, with the exception of Prophet Moses (Exodus 19:19). According to the Bible, Elijah “the Tishbite” was able to prove the truth of Monotheism against the idol worshippers through a sacrificial contest. (1 Kings 18) He also proved, as stated in the Bible, his status by bringing down fire from heaven. (2 Kings 1:10) The Bible mentions that Elijah also revived someone from the dead (1 Kings 17), something, not even Prophet Moses did. The Bible states that Elijah also managed to part the Jordan River and walk across it. (2 Kings 2:8) It is not a miracle as great as parting the Red Sea, but certainly comparable!

Disagreement with the Jewish Principles of Faith

Orthodox Judaism holds that there are 13 Principles of Faith that define Jewish belief. These principles are based on the teachings of Maimonides, the great 12th-century theologian and philosopher. The 7th principle mandates the primacy of Moses over all other prophets: “I believe by complete faith that the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, may peace rest upon him, was true and that he was the father of all prophets that preceded him as well as all that came after him.” (“Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Jewish Faith”web.oru.edu) Yet it seems Elijah was able to upstage even Moses?

There is, however, a more powerful reason why the 7th Jewish Principle of Faith is jeopardised. Judaism holds that Elijah never died (see Talmud Bavli; Baba Batra 121b, and Mo’ed Katan 26a) but that Moses certainly met his demise (Deuteronomy 34:7). Jewish belief in the continual survival of Elijah is based on the teachings of the Talmudic sages. (“Elijah’s Ascent to Heaven”, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, www.aish.com) The consensus has been that Elijah continues to live and will return to announce the Messiah. (See, e.g., Aharon Wiener, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism, Routledge & K. Paul, 1978, p. 50) In fact, Elijah was the only prophet believed to have never died. (While there is some controversy about the fate of Enoch, Orthodox Judaism believed he died a natural death. See Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 5:24; www.chabad.org)

The basis for the belief in Elijah’s supposed physical ascension

What is the basis for the belief that Elijah is alive in heaven? According to the second book of Kings, Elijah was taken up to heaven “by a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2). This event occurs right before Elijah initiates Elisha, his successor, with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, the Holy Spirit. (2 Kings 2:9) Soon after, a fiery chariot came down from heaven and Elijah went up in the whirlwind. (2 Kings 2:11) An apparent reading of the text justifies traditional beliefs about Elijah’s alleged ascension. It could easily be assumed that this fiery chariot carried Elijah upwards and that the destination was a place called “heaven” which we could also assume is the spiritual realm of God and the righteous souls. But a closer analysis of the text does not lead us in this direction. In the first place, the text does not actually say the chariot carried Elijah up to heaven. The only role of the chariot was to separate (וַיַּפְרִ֖דוּ) Elijah from Elisha. The whirlwind was  the only thing that brought Elijah up. We also cannot assume that the text wants us to believe that the ‘heaven’ Elijah went to in 2 Kings was the afterlife. The Bible uses the word ‘heaven’ often to denote the sky or the place above the earth (Genesis 1:20; Deuteronomy 4:19) After the whirlwind came, the disciples speculated about what happened to Elijah. Second Kings records the disciples telling Elisha, “Lest peradventure the Spirit of the LORD hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley.” (2 Kings 2:16) If Elijah was taken miraculously into heaven, then why did the disciples speculate that Elijah was thrown onto a mountain? The fact that the disciples formed a search party (2 Kings 2:17) shows that they did not believe Elijah had ascended to another realm but was possibly alive on Earth. The spectacular departure of Elijah in 2 Kings has led many people to believe that Elijah left the planet Earth. The evidence appears justified because 2 Kings does not mention the Tashbite prophet again. But it is an unwarranted mistake to assume Elijah met his fate in 2 Kings! The Bible provides evidence that Elijah survived the ordeal of the tempest, not by ascending into heaven, but by going elsewhere. Furthermore, the idea that Elijah descended to heaven contradicts what Jesus taught in the New Testament. “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” (John 3:11)

A clear reading of the biblical chronology proves Elijah survived the ordeal in 2 Kings 2. At a later time, we see Elijah writing a letter to King Jehoram. (2 Chronicles 21:12) In the letter Jehoram is chastised for his unrighteous behaviour and warned of divine wrath. (2 Chronicles 21:12-15)  The timing of the letter had to be years after Elijah’s alleged ascension because Jehoram was not yet a king at the time of the tempest; his father Jehoshaphat was still the reigning monarch. Immediately after the ‘ascension’ Elisha pays a visit to King Jehosaphat, who was informed by his officers that Elisha was serving in Elijah’s prophetic occupancy. (2 Kings 3:11) Jehoram was not yet a king. 2 Kings 21:1 tells us that Jehoram did not become king until after his father passed away. (2 Chronicles 21:1; 2 Kings 8:16-17) So if Jehoram received a letter from Elijah while he was king, then Elijah could have only communicated with him after the ‘ascension’ which took place during the reign of his father Jehosaphat. On pain of cutting up biblical chronology, we can safely conclude Elijah survived the tempest.

The disappearance of Elijah from the Bible should be no more mysterious than the account of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Both prophets left the scene abruptly but were found to be alive after their departures.  Jesus Christ was alleged to have died on the cross, but he was found by his disciples to be intact later. Elijah was said to have ascended alive to heaven (as Jesus did later after his supposed resurrection), but there is no evidence of this in the Bible. In any case, the missing details of Elijah’s life after the tempest should not cause us to believe in  Elijah’s ascension any more than the missing details of Jesus’ life.

Belief that Elijah did not die and ascended to heaven contradicts Jewish theology

Although Elijah survived the tempest, we have no reason to conclude that he did not die a natural death at a future time.  It could be argued that the Bible nowhere mentions “death” in reference to Elijah; however, the mainstream understanding of Enoch’s fate would make that argument problematic. Genesis says that Enoch walked with God and was no more because God “took him”. (Genesis 5:24) The text never says that Enoch literally died but only that God “took him”. Indeed, certain groups during the Second Temple era believed Enoch never died and that he was taken up to heaven and transformed into an angel (The Enoch-Metatron Tradition, Andrei A. Orlov, p. 9; Text and Studies in Ancient Jewish Mysticism, Mohr Siebeck, 2005; www.catholic.com)

Elijah’s being alive is ironically a problem for Jewish law (Halacha) as well. It is obligatory, according to Halacha, for a Jew to tear their garments when a loved one passes away; the tear in the clothing must be worn for seven days. This law is based on the verse; “neither rend your clothes; lest ye die.” (Leviticus 10:6) Moses clearly stated here that we should not tear our garments for someone living, only the dead. The Talmud elaborates on which people we can mourn for by tearing garments. (Tractate Mo’ed Katan, 26A; www.sefaria.org) Rabbis derive the laws on who to mourn for from 2 Kings 2, the same chapter of Elisha’s fiery chariot vision. (2 Kings 2:11) The Gemora proclaims we mourn for our immediate family based on the fact Elisha cries out “My father, my father” (2 Kings 2:11) when he sees Elijah being taken up to heaven. However, Jewish law also says you must mourn the passing of a teacher and a Torah sage. (Mo’ed Katan 26A) Where do the rabbis derive this law from? Rav Yosef states that it is derived from the mention of “chariots of fire” and “horsemen’’ mentioned in the same verse. (Mo’ed Katan, 26a)

Jewish law derives the fact that we mourn for our parents and teachers based on Elijah’s ‘transition’ to heaven. If the rabbis believed Elijah died, this would make sense. But in the same paragraph in Mo’ed Katan 26A, the rabbis question this derivation of law based on the fact that Elijah is alive: “But isn’t Elijah alive?” (Mo’ed Katan, No. 26; www.sefaria.org/Moed_Katan.26a.5?lang=bi) In fact, the biblical text in question says that after Elijah left the planet, Elisha, “took hold of his garment and tore it in two.” (2 Kings 2:12) The Gemara answers itself with the vague words from the text: “And he saw him [Elijah] no more.” (2 Kings 2:12) However, if Elijah is alive in heaven, then why did the sages derive a law that we must mourn a dead teacher? Perhaps there is an exception made where we could cry for an alive person, such as a child going off to college. However, Jewish law contains no exceptions for this. So, how is Elijah made an exception here? Was not Elisha violating Jewish law by morning for someone still alive?

There are more problems for Jewish law with the supposed notion of Elijah’s survival. Elijah knew his time on earth was coming to a close, so he asked Elisha what he wanted. Elisha responded: “I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.” (2 Kings 2:9) Elisha asks Elijah to inherit spiritual authority. The “double portion” request was referenced from the Torah, where the oldest son inherits the double portion of wealth from the father. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) The metaphorical nature of the text is obvious, as Elisha was not the biological son of Elijah but only his spiritual son. Why would Elijah offer an inheritance if he was not going to die?

A bigger problem for Jewish law in our Elijah-Elisha discussion is that Halacha states that a prophet is not allowed to add legislation to the Torah law or abrogate any of the Mosaic legislation (Mishna Torah: Yesodei haTorah 9:1; www.chabad.org) (It is also the 9th Principle of Faith.) A prophet is not allowed to violate Torah law. Jewish law mandates that a prophet who violates Torah law must be put to death by means of strangulation. (Mishna Torah: Yesodei haTorah 9:1) If Elisha the prophet violated the Torah law by tearing his clothes for an alive person or Elijah the prophet violated the Torah law by giving inheritance while alive, then would that not mean that, in such a case, both these prophets would be subject to death at the hands of a Jewish court?

How does someone go to heaven in bodily form? On 2 Kings 2, Meir Leibush Wisser, a 19th-century bible commentator known as the Malbim, shares a popular view that Elijah was transformed into an angel and that the four elements of the prophet’s body were burned up in a fire. (Malbim on 2:11; www.sefaria.org) Is this not an admission that Elijah passed away like anyone else? If there is no one, there is no life.

The belief in Elijah’s heavenly ascent is vivid in tradition. At each circumcision, an empty seat is placed in the room designated for Elijah. The belief derives from a rabbinical commentary on the Bible found in the midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:6).  Elijah complains to God about Israel’s infidelity to Him. Elijah believed Israel broke the Covenant God made with Israel. (1 Kings 19:10) The Midrash states that God responded to Elijah’s statement that Israel violated God’s law, but Elijah himself did not. (For a further read, see: www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3819109/jewish/Why-Is-There-a-Chair-for-Elijah-at-a-Brit-Milah-Circumcision.htm). God then rebukes Elijah and orders him to witness the covenant ceremony – the circumcision – for every Jew born into the world. This is why an empty chair is placed in the room during the brit milah (circumcision ceremony). (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:6)

It is also believed that Elijah comes down to earth at other times too. Every year, at the end of the Passover meal, Jews set an extra cup of wine by the entrance to the home. It is believed that Elijah comes down from heaven to partake of the wine. Children learn about Elijah’s role in the Passover ceremony at a young age. There are many stories of famous rabbis meeting with the prophet (“Stories of Elijah the Prophet from the Talmud and Midrash”www.betheldurham.org).

Moses has a high status in Judaism because he alone is believed to have talked to God directly. But how could even Moses compete with a man who raised the dead to life (1 Kings, 17:21–22) and ascended to heaven? How could Moses keep his prestige against a prophet who is supposed to physically descend on earth to herald the Messianic era? (Malachi 4:6)

Muslims and the false belief in Jesus’ physical ascension

Unfortunately, today, certain Muslims copied these stories and made them their own, as it is clear that the belief in Elijah’s survival became mistakenly attributed to Jesus.

I end this piece with the powerful and profound words of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh, who said:

“When religion is interpreted without rationality, when faith is divorced of reason, all that they give birth to are myths without legitimacy and legends without substance.” (Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth, p. 699)

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