Melakhim II 2 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.
(1) And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven...
(11) And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both assunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
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.
Other references to Eliyahu's departure throughout the chapter reinforce this question. Both Eliyahu and the prophets (בני הנביאים) consistently state that Eliyahu is to be taken, but not that he is to die:
(ג) וַיֵּצְאוּ בְנֵי הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר בֵּית אֵל אֶל אֱלִישָׁע וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו הֲיָדַעְתָּ כִּי הַיּוֹם י״י לֹקֵחַ אֶת אֲדֹנֶיךָ מֵעַל רֹאשֶׁךָ וַיֹּאמֶר גַּם אֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי הֶחֱשׁוּ.
(ה) וַיִּגְּשׁוּ בְנֵי הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר בִּירִיחוֹ אֶל אֱלִישָׁע וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו הֲיָדַעְתָּ כִּי הַיּוֹם י״י לֹקֵחַ אֶת אֲדֹנֶיךָ מֵעַל רֹאשֶׁךָ וַיֹּאמֶר גַּם אֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי הֶחֱשׁוּ.
(י) וַיֹּאמֶר הִקְשִׁיתָ לִשְׁאוֹל אִם תִּרְאֶה אֹתִי לֻקָּח מֵאִתָּךְ יְהִי לְךָ כֵן וְאִם אַיִן לֹא יִהְיֶה.
(3) And the sons of the prophets that were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha, and said unto him: 'Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head today?' And he said: 'Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.'—
(5) And the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho came near to Elisha, and said unto him: 'Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to-day?' And he answered: 'Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.'—
(10) And he said: 'Thou hast asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.'
Is the root "לקח" simply euphemistic language for death, or are the people suggesting that Eliyahu was meant to be taken by Hashem while still alive?1 The fact that the prophets 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 currently reside? 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 HaYamim II 21, we read of a letter he sent to King Yehoram:
וַיָּבֹא אֵלָיו מִכְתָּב מֵאֵלִיָּהוּ הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר י"י אֱ-לֹהֵי 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 Yehoram's father, Yehoshafat,2 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 also this verse imply that Eliyahu never died?
A Living Legend
While the Biblical text is ambiguous regarding Eliyahu's fate, Rabbinic lore comes out emphatically on the side of a living Eliyahu who has a continuous presence on earth. In countless aggadot, Eliyahu speaks and learns with the sages,4 aids the unfortunate, and brings miracles to help those in need.5 Sometimes he chastises,6 while at other times he tallies the merits of the nation.7 He is said to come to every circumcision,8 and is eagerly awaited on the night of the Pesach 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. What facilitated this Rabbinic transformation of Eliyahu's character? Is it a natural outgrowth of portraying him as still living, or are the two motifs unconnected?