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No. 51: Elijah and Moses

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 51
July, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

Several months ago, my brief article entitled "Elijah’s Exodus" was published in Biblical Horizons . Since that time, further study has made it evident that Elijah’s exodus in 1 Kings 17 is part of a larger pattern in which Elijah’s ministry closely parallels Moses’. The following parallels are evident:

1. Elijah first appeared bearing a message of covenant curse for Ahab: a drought would aflict the land (1 Ki 17:1). This message apparently met with opposition, for the Lord told him to "hide" east of the Jordan (17:3). In my earlier article, I saw Elijah’s flight as parallel to the wilderness wanderings of Israel, and there are certainly analogies between the events (miraculous provision of bread and water, e.g.). In context, however, it seems to have more direct reference to Moses’ flight from Egypt to Midian (Ex 2:11-15).

2. In the course of flight, both Elijah and Moses encountered women (1 Ki 17:8-16; Ex 2:16-22). Significantly, in both cases, the women are associated with water. Moses met the daughters of Reuel at a well, and Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath for water.

3. Moses married Zipporah, who bore his son in a strange land (Ex 2:23). Elijah restored the widow’s son to life (1 Ki 17:17-24).

4. After 40 years in Midian, Moses was called to return to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and lead Israel out of bondage (Ex 3:1-4:17). Similarly, "after many days" the Lord sent Elijah to confront the Pharaoh-like king of Israel (1 Ki 18:1).

5. Before his first meeting with Pharaoh, Moses spoke to Aaron and the assembled elders of Israel (Ex 4:27-31). So also, Elijah did not immediately meet with Ahab, but with Obadiah, an ally of Elijah’s (1 Ki 18:7-16).

6. Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel conflates a number of events from the life of Moses, and the chronologically parallel sequence evident in the earlier events breaks down somewhat.

On the one hand, the events at Carmel reflect the plagues and Passover of Exodus. At Carmel, the gods of Ahab were mocked and humiliated, which recalls the Lord’s defeat of the gods of Egypt (1 Ki 18:27; cf. Ex 12:12). As James Jordan suggested in Through New Eyes, the destruction of the 12-stone altar of Elijah substituted for the destruction of the 12 tribes of Israel (p. 236). This parallels the substitution of the Passover lamb for the firstborn of Israel.

On the other hand, Carmel is a mountain like Sinai. The whole event at Carmel takes the form of a renewal of the covenant. After the Lord’s display of power, the people acknowledged Him as the sole God, renewing their pledge of exclusive allegiance to the Lord that had been sealed at Sinai. The slaughter of the prophets of Baal may have a twofold referent. It may recall the destruction of the firstborn of Egypt, and it certainly parallels the destruction of the worshipers of the golden calf (1 Ki 18:40; Ex 32:27).

7. After Israel’s fall into idolatry, Moses asked the Lord to remove his name from the book of life (Ex 32:31-32). After Carmel, Elijah fled again into the wilderness, and asked that the Lord take his life (1 Ki 19:4).

8. Refreshed with food from an angel, Elijah travelled for 40 days and nights to Horeb, where he stayed in "the cave" (1 Ki 19:8-9). There, the Lord’s glory appeared to Him (vv. 11-14). This was precisely the place where Moses was allowed to see the passing glory of the Lord (Ex 33:17-34:9). The number "40" provides further confirmation of the similarity of the two theophanies.

9. Skipping past a good deal of material, the ascension of Elijah resembled the death of Moses. Both Elijah and Moses were outside the land to the east when their lives ended. No one knew where Moses was buried (Dt 34:6), and a party looking for Elijah searched unsuccessfully for three days (2 Ki 2:15-18).

In both cases, moreover, continuity of leadership was an important consideration. Before Moses died, Joshua was designated as his successor (Nu 27:15-23). By laying hands on Joshua, Moses conferred some of his "glory" (v. 20; Heb., hod). In Deuteronomy 34:9, Joshua is said to have received the "spirit of wisdom" through the laying on of Moses’ hands. Joshua was thereby equipped to continue and complete the ministry of Moses. Similarly, Elisha was anointed as Elijah’s successor, receiving a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, performing the same miracles that Elijah performed, and literally following the path of Elijah back to Samaria (2 Ki 2:9-14, 23-25; cf. vv. 1-6).

(It is worth noting the adoption theme in the story of Elijah’s succession. Elisha’s request for a "double portion" of Elijah’s spirit was a request for the inheritance of a firstborn [2 Ki 2:9; cf. Dt 21:15-17]. As Elijah was carried away in the whirlwind, Elisha fittingly cried out to his departing "father" [2 Ki 2:12]. This passage has evident typological connotations: Those who witnessed the ascension of Jesus received the inheritance of the Spirit, were clothed in the mantle of Christ’s authority, and continued His ministry as His sons, co-heirs, and successors. Calvin said that the ascension of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit were "antithetical," two sides of one event; likewise, Elijah’s ascension was Elisha’s Pentecost.)

The parallels of Elijah and Moses are significant because they reinforce the fact that their ministries were similar. Moses was the prototypical prophet, who established, under the Lord’s instructions, the tabernacle and sacrificial system. Elijah was a new Moses, whose mission it was to call Israel to covenant renewal, to purity of worship and life. The ministry of the prophet was to build or rebuild the spiritual, liturgical, and moral foundations of Israel.