Eliyahu's Death


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Eliyahu's Disappearance

Chapter 2 of Melakhim II describes how Eliyahu is carried to the heavens in a whirlwind amidst fiery horses and chariots:

(א) וַיְהִי בְּהַעֲלוֹת י"י אֶת אֵלִיָּהוּ בַּסְעָרָה הַשָּׁמָיִם...
(יא) וַיְהִי הֵמָּה הֹלְכִים הָלוֹךְ וְדַבֵּר וְהִנֵּה רֶכֶב אֵשׁ וְסוּסֵי אֵשׁ וַיַּפְרִדוּ בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיַּעַל אֵלִיָּהוּ בַּסְעָרָה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The depiction is both wondrous and mysterious, clearly indicating that Eliyahu did not die a natural death.  In fact, it makes one wonder whether Eliyahu died at all. 

Throughout the chapter, there is discussion of the prophet's imminent departure:

...כִּי הַיּוֹם י"י לֹקֵחַ אֶת אֲדֹנֶיךָ מֵעַל רֹאשֶׁךָ...בְּטֶרֶם אֶלָּקַח מֵעִמָּךְ...אִם תִּרְאֶה אֹתִי לֻקָּח מֵאִתָּךְ...

In all of these verses, the speakers state that Eliyahu is to be taken, but not that he is about to die.1  Is the word "לֹקֵחַ" simply euphemistic language for death, or are the characters suggesting that Eliyahu was meant to be taken by Hashem while still alive?  The fact that the prophets (בני הנביאים) search for Eliyahu after the incident further implies that they, too, were unsure of his fate.  Thus, the reader is left to wonder: did Eliyahu die or is he still living?  If the former, how is the supernatural scene of his death to be understood?  If the latter, where does Eliyahu dwell?  Why, of all prophets, was he chosen to defy mortality?

A Posthumous Letter?

Eliyahu is mentioned twice in Tanakh after his disappearance in the storm. In Divrei HaYamaim, we read of a letter sent by him to king Yehoram:


וַיָּבֹא אֵלָיו מִכְתָּב מֵאֵלִיָּהוּ הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר י"י אֱלֹהֵי דָּוִיד אָבִיךָ תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַכְתָּ בְּדַרְכֵי יְהוֹשָׁפָט אָבִיךָ וּבְדַרְכֵי אָסָא מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה. 

As Elisha appears to succeed Eliyahu as prophet already during the reign of Yehoshafat,2 Yehoram's father, it seems that this letter was received after Eliyahu was taken by Hashem. If he had died, though, how could he write such a letter? Is this, then, evidence that he is still alive?3  

Harbinger of the Day of God

At the end of Malakhi, Eliyahu makes a second appearance.  Hashem announces that He is going to send Eliyahu to the people before the coming of the "Great Day of Hashem", so that he can help them repent:

(כג) הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם י"י הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא. (כד) וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם פֶּן אָבוֹא וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.
(23) Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming Of the great and terrible day of the Lord. (24) And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, And the heart of the children to their fathers; Lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction. Behold, I will send you  Elijah the prophet  Before the coming  Of the great and terrible day of the Lord.

Is Eliyahu being resurrected in order to fulfill his duties or does this verse also imply that Eliyahu never died?

Eliyahu in Aggadah

While the Biblical text is ambiguous regarding Eliyahu's fate, legend and lore come out emphatically on the side of a living Eliyahu who has a continuous presence on earth.  In countless aggadot he speaks and learns with the sages,4 helps the needy, and visits the unfortunate.5  Sometimes he chastises,6 while at other times he counts the merits of the nation.7  He is said to come to every circumcision,8 and is eagerly awaited on the night of the Seder. Interestingly, though the idea of Eliyahu's longevity might be rooted in the text, the aggadic depiction of Eliyahu as a kindly, savior figure intent on protecting Israel, would appear to be at odds with the Biblical portrait of a zealous, vengeful prosecutor.  How did the transformation of Eliyahu's character in legend come about?  Is it a natural outgrowth of portraying him as still living, or are the two motifs unconnected?