Sirach’s Elijah in James

Tim Brookins at Scripta de Divinis is posting a great series on Jewish intertestamental literature. His last post highlights the Wisdom of Sirach (hat tip M. Goodacre). In his post, Brookins highlights a few parallels between Sirach and the NT, including one parallel in James:

Eccl. 15:11-13, James 1:17

  1. Ecc. 15:11-13 – “Do not say, ‘It was the Lord’s doing that I fell;’ for he does not do what he hates. Do not say, ‘It was he who led me astray;’ for he has no need of the sinful.”
  2. James 1 – “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”

The NA27 has no less than 110 references to Sirach in its margins, 11 of which are in James. I’ve not seen a full length treatment on the influence of Sirach on the New Testament, and the only work that I know of that is completely focused on Sirach’s influence on James was written by Antonius Boon and published in 1860. (PDF available**). Are there any Latin scholars out there with time and the desire to translate it? (Don’t all email me at once!)

One slice of my thesis looks at Sirach 48:1-11, Sirach’s “praise” of Elijah and its relationship to James 1:1 and 5:17-18:

1 Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,
     and his word burned like a torch.
2 He brought a famine upon them,
     and by his zeal he made them few in number.
3 By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
     and also three times brought down fire.
4 How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
     Whose glory is equal to yours?
5 You raised a corpse from death
     and from Hades, by the word of the Most High.
6 You sent kings down to destruction,
     and famous men, from their sickbeds.
7 You heard rebuke at Sinai
     and judgements of vengeance at Horeb.
8 You anointed kings to inflict retribution,
     and prophets to succeed you.
9 You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
     in a chariot with horses of fire.
10 At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
     to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
     and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
11 Happy are those who saw you
     and were adorned with your love!
     For we also shall surely live. (NRSV)

This passage is fascinating for several reasons, but for the purposes of my thesis, I am particularly interested in v. 10, where Sirach references the concluding words of Malachi:

5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (4:5-6 NRSV)

The second half of Sirach’s quote broadens the mission of the eschatological Elijah by dropping Malachi’s “[to return] the hearts of the children to their parents” and adding “to restore the tribes of Jacob.” Sirach blends Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah’s return with Isaiah’s description of the Servant’s mission:

6 It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
     to raise up the tribes of Jacob
     and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
     that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6 NRSV)

This blending of the Servant’s and Elijah’s mission is striking. Sirach is known for having little emphasis on eschatology, but here in his praise of Elijah he not only mentions Malachi’s prophecy but develops it further. Elijah is to restore the exiled tribes of Jacob. In a vivid prayer for national vindication, this hope of restoration was voiced earlier in Sirach:

10 Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time,
     and let people recount your mighty deeds.
11 Let survivors be consumed in the fiery wrath,
     and may those who harm your people meet destruction.
12 Crush the heads of hostile rulers
     who say, ‘There is no one but ourselves.’
13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob,
16   and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning. (36:10-16; see Sirach 36:1-22.)

Scholars have questioned the originality of this eschatologically minded prayer, as Sirach wrote during the reign of Antiochus III – during a time of relative peace for the Jews. J. J. Collins suggests that it was added during the Maccabean crisis. Either way, the prayer was most likely a part of Sirach before the first century A.D.

This hope for the restoration of Israel is bound to be important for our understanding of a letter addressed to “the twelve tribes of the dispersion.” James writes to a people who while still “dispersed” are the firstfruits of the reconstituted twelve tribes. Given Sirach’s description of Elijah’s eschatological mission, I do not think it coincidental that James ends his letter citing the prophet as an example for his readers. That James may have in mind the eschatological expectations of Elijah is made plausible given the following:

First, the last chapter of James is dripping with eschatological anticipation. James instructs his readers to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord as a farmer waits for the former and latter rains. The community is to “strengthen their hearts” as the Lord’s coming is near, and they are not to grumble or swear, lest they face the condemnation of the Judge “standing at the doors.” James concludes this chapter in a no-less eschatological manner. The community is called to pray regardless of circumstances. Their prayer, confession of sins and anointing in the name of the Lord brings healing and salvation – marks of the Kingdom inaugurated by James’ brother. Finally, James explains that those who return a sinner from their wandering ways saves them from death.

Second, James seems to cite Elijah as an example in a way that would perk up the eschatological anticipation of his audience. Note how James does not cite Elijah’s healing of the widow’s son. This would seem to be the most obvious and logical example from the prophet’s resume given that James is teaching about prayer and healing. Instead, James cites Elijah’s prayer for drought and rain. This makes sense if one notices that James’ account of Elijah is sandwiched between two teachings concerning sin and repentance. In vv. 13-16 healing (both physical and spiritual) occurs in the community in the context of righteous prayer, repentance and confession. In vv. 19-20 the community is exhorted to actively pursue those who wander, calling them to repentance and saving them from death. Elijah’s drought fits this theme beautifully, as it was the result of Israel’s sin. The drought was lifted only after Israel’s repentance. That James puts this historical episode in eschatological terms is seen by his description of the drought’s length – 3.5 years (a number ripe with eschatological symbolism). Also, the drought and rain imagery evokes the rain imagery that James used to describe the coming of the Lord in vv. 7-8.

As my Bible college professor, Dr. Dippold would say, “So what?”

James places his Epistle between eschatological bookends. The community to which he writes is evidence of God’s restorative power – bringing together the twelve tribes of Jacob. These tribes are still dispersed. There is still a final consummate restoration to come, but the restoration envisioned by the prophets (and by Sirach) has already begun. The mission of Elijah, according to Sirach, was both to restore the community (turning the hearts of the fathers towards their children) and to restore these twelve tribes. This newly restored community is given an Elijah-like charge in vv. 13-20, calling the rest of the twelve tribes and the world to repentance. James reminds his readers that Elijah was simply a man, lest the community fears this to be too lofty a mission. After all, Sirach could ask of Elijah “Whose glory is equal to yours?” But while reminding his readers that Elijah is human, he also hints that they have the potential to be a community of eschatological Elijahs, calling the world to repentance. This community of prophets is evidence of the reign/rain of the soon coming Lord, as bodies and relationships receive healing as a result of a prophetic community’s prayer.

**Many thanks to Gordon-Conwell graduate – Jonathan Moo for obtaining a copy of this rare work from one of the Cambridge libraries. (Jonathan’s the son of Douglas Moo. The apple did not fall far from the tree.)

Elijah in the Seder Olam Rabbah

Regarding the eschatological return of Elijah, it is interesting to note Seder Olam 17. Milikowski dates the Seder Olam to the 2nd cent. (attributed to R. Yose ben Halaphta). Here there is not just one return of Elijah, but two – during the days of the messiah, and later when “Gog will arrive.” This is significant for Christian eschatology and beliefs on the return of Elijah, given that the Gospels’ equation of John the Baptist with Elijah (or one who came in the “spirit and power of Elijah”) and Rev. 11’s two witnesses, who are patterned for a large part after Elijah, and who are said to be martyred by the Antichrist. Here is the text of the Seder Olam Rabbah:

In the second year of Ahaziah (King of Israel) Elijah was hidden away and is not seen until the messiah comes. In the days of the messiah he will be seen and hidden away a second time and will not be seen until Gog will arrive. At present he records the deeds of all generations.

אחזיהו בנ אחאב מלך שנתים ובשנה השנית לאחזיהו גיגנז אליהו ואינו נראה עד שיבוא משיח ובימות המשיח נראה וניגנז שינית ואינו נראה עד שיבא גוג ועכשו הוא כותב מעשה כל הדורות כולן

Translation by Chayim Milikowski, “Trajectories of Return, Restoration and Redemption in Rabbinic Judaism: Elijah, the Messiah, the War of Gog and the World to Come.” Pages 265-280 in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (ed. James M. Scott.; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 72; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 267. Hebrew text of Seder Olam 17 from Joseph Milikowski, “Seder Olam: A Rabbinic Chronography” (Ph.D. diss. Yale University, 1981), 323-324.

The text is as follows in Heinrich W. Guggenheimer’s edition:

אֲחַזְיָה בֶן־אַחְב מָלַךְ שְׁנָתָיַם. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְאֲחַזְיָה נִגְנָז אֵלִיָּהוּ וְלֹא נִרְאֶיה עַד שֶׁיָּבֹא מֶלֶךְ הַמָּשִׁיחַ וְנִרְאֶה ונִגְנָז שְׁנִיָּה עַד שֶׁיָּבֹא גוֹג וּמָגוג. וְעַכְשָׁיו הוּא כוֹתֵב מַעשֵׂה כָל־הַדּוֹרוֹת כֻּלָּם וָיָּמָת כִּדְבַר־ייי אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֵּר אֵלִיָּהוּ וגו׳.

Aḥaziah ben Aḥab ruled for two years. In Aḥaziah’s second year, Elijah was hidden and will not be seen again until King Messiah will come, then he will be seen, then hidden a second time until Gog and Magog come. But now he writes down the deeds of all generations. (2Kings 1:17) “He (Aḥaziah) died, following the Eternal’s word that Elijah had spoken.”

Seder Olam: The Rabbinic View of Biblical Chronology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 153-155.

Note also that according to Seder Olam, “In the year 13 of Aḥab there was a great famine in Samaria for three years, followed by war with Ben Hadad for 2 1/2 years” (Guggenheimer, 154).

Elijah in the Lives of the Prophets

Note a few things regarding the story of Elijah in the Lives of the Prophets 21:1-15:

  • (v. 2) At his birth, Elijah is given by an angel “flames of fire” to eat (cf. Rev 11:5; 2 Kgs 1:10-14).
  • (v. 5) He is said to pray for the drought and for the rain (cf. Jas 5:17-18).
  • (v. 4) Elijah’s prayer for drought and rain are referred to as “signs.”

Below is the Greek text from T. Schermann, Prophetarum vitae fabulosae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1907), 93-94 and the English trans. by D.R.A.Hare, “The Lives of the Prophets” (OTP 2:396-97).

καʹ. Ἠλίας Θεσβίτης ἐκ γῆς Ἀράβων, φυλῆς Ἀαρών, οἰκῶν ἐν Γαλαάδ, ὅτι ἡ Θέσβις δόμα ἦν τοῖς ἱερεῦσιν. Ὅτε εἶχε τεχθῆναι, εἶδε Σοβαχὰ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἄνδρες λευκοφανεῖς αὐτὸν προσηγόρευον, καὶ ὅτι ἐν πυρὶ αὐτὸν ἐσπαργάνουν, καὶ φλόγα πυρὸς ἐδίδουν αὐτῷ φαγεῖν καὶ ἐλθὼν ἀνήγγειλεν ἐν Ἱερουσαλὴμ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὁ χρησμός· μὴ δειλιάσῃς· ἔσται γὰρ ἡ οἴκησις αὐτοῦ φῶς καὶ ὁ λόγος αὐτοῦ ἀπόφασις καὶ κρινεῖ τὸν Ἰσραήλ.
(94.) Τὰ δὲ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίησεν, εἰσὶ ταῦτα· ηὔξατο Ἠλίας καὶ οὐκ ἔβρεξεν ἐπὶ ἔτη τρία καὶ πάλιν ηὔξατο μετὰ τρία ἔτη καὶ γέγονε πολὺς ὑετός· ἐν Σαρεφθοῖς τῆς Σιδωνίας
ἐποίησε διὰ ῥήματος κυρίου τὴν ὑδρίαν τῆς χήρας μὴ ἐκλεῖψαι καὶ τὴν καψάκην τοῦ ἐλαίου μὴ ἐλαττωθῆναι· τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς ἀποθανόντα ἤγειρεν ὁ θεὸς ἐκ νεκρῶν εὐξαμένου αὐτοῦ. Προβλήματος γενομένου παρ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ τῶν προφητῶν τοῦ Βάαλ, τίς ἂν εἴη ὁ ἀληθινὸς καὶ ὄντως θεός, ᾕρησε γενέσθαι θυσίαν παρά τε αὐτοῦ κἀκείνων καὶ μὴ ὑποθεῖναι πῦρ, ἀλλ’ ἕκαστον εὔξασθαι καὶ τὸν ἐπακούοντα αὐτὸν εἶναι θεόν. Οἱ μὲν οὖν τοῦ Βάαλ ηὔχοντο καὶ κατετέμνοντο ἕως ὥρας ἐνάτης καὶ οὐδεὶς αὐτοῖς ἐπήκουεν· ὁ δὲ Ἠλίας καὶ ὕδατος πολλοῦ πληρώσας τὸν τόπον, ἔνθα ἦν ἡ θυσία, ηὔξατο· καὶ εὐθὺς ἐπέπεσε πῦρ καὶ ἀνήλωσε τὴν θυσίαν, καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ ἐξέλειπεν· καὶ πάντες τὸν μὲν θεὸν εὐλόγησαν, τοὺς δὲ τοῦ Βάαλ ἀνεῖλον ὄντας τετρακοσίους πεντήκοντα. Τῷ βασιλεῖ Ὀζίᾳ ἀποστείλαντι μαντεύσασθαι παρὰ εἰδώλων προεφήτευσε θάνατον καὶ ἀπέθανεν.
Δύο πεντηκοντάρχων ἀποσταλέντων ἐπ’ αὐτὸν παρὰ Ὀχοζίου τοῦ βασιλέως Ἰσραὴλ ἐπεκαλέσατο τὸν κύριον καὶ πῦρ ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ κατέβη κἀκείνους ἀνήλωσε τὸ πῦρ ἐκ προστάγματος κυρίου.
Κόρακες ἔφερον αὐτῷ ἄρτους τὸ πρωΐ, δείλης δὲ κρέα· τῇ μηλωτῇ ἐπάταξε τὸν Ἰορδάνην καὶ διῃρέθη καὶ διέβησαν ξηρῷ τῷ ποδὶ, αὐτός τε καὶ Ἐλισαῖος· τὸ τελευταῖον ἀνελήφθη ἅρματι πυρός.
1 Elijah, a Thesbite from the land of the Arabs of Aaron’s tribe, was living in Gilead, for Thesbe was given to the priests. 2 When he was to be born, his father Sobacha saw that men of shining white appearance were greeting him and wrapping him in fire, and they gave him flames of fire to eat. 3 And he went and reported (this) in Jerusalem, and the oracle told him, Do not be afraid, for his dwelling will be light and his word judgment, and he will judge Israel.
4 The signs which he did are these. 5 Elijah prayed, and it did not rain for three years, and after three years he prayed again and abundant rain came. 6 In Zerephath of Sidon through the word of the Lord he made the jar of the widow not to fail and the flask of oil not to diminish. 7 Her son who had died God raised from the dead after (Elijah) prayed. 8 When the question was posed by him and the prophets of Baal concerning who is the true and real God, he proposed that a sacrifice be offered both by him and by them, and that fire not be placed under (it), but that each should pray, and the one answering him would be God. 9 Accordingly, the (prophets) of Baal prayed and cut themselves until the ninth hour, and no one answered them; and Elijah, when he had filled the place where the sacrifice was with much water, also prayed, and immediately fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, and the water was gone. 10 And all blessed God, and killed the four hundred and fifty (prophets) of Baal. 11 When King Ahaziah sent to obtain an oracle from idols, (Elijah) prophesied death, and he died.
12 When two captains of fifty were sent to him from Ahaziah, the king of Israel, he invoked the Lord and fire came down from heaven, and the fire consumed them at the Lord’s command.
13 Ravens brought him bread in the morning and meat in the afternoon. 14 With a sheepskin he struck the Jordan and it was divided, and they crossed over with dry feet, both he and Elisha. 15 Finally he was taken up in a chariot of fire.

Elijah prays for fire according to Josephus…

As Elijah “prays” for drought in James 5:17, so he prays for fire to consume his enemies in Josephus, Ant. 9.2 §23:

And when the captain that was sent found Elijah sitting upon the top of a hill, he commanded him to come down, and to come to the king, for so had he enjoined: but that in case he refused, they would carry him by force. Elijah said to him, “That you may have a trial whether I be a true prophet, I will pray that fire may fall from heaven, and kill both the soldiers and yourself.” So he prayed, and a whirlwind of fire fell [from heaven], and killed the captain, and those who were with him (Whiston’s translation). εὑρὼν δὲ τὸν ᾽Ηλίαν ὁ πεμφθεὶς ταξίαρχος ἐπὶ τῆς κορυφῆς τοῦ ὄρους καθεζόμενον καταβάντα ἥκειν ἐκέλευε πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα κελεύειν γὰρ τοῦτο ἐκεῖνον εἰ δὲ μὴ θελήσειεν ἄκοντα βιάσεσθαι ὁ δὲ εἰπὼν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐπὶ πείρᾳ τοῦ προφήτης ἀληθὴς ὑπάρχειν εὔξεσθαι πῦρ ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ πεσὸν ἀπολέσαι τούς τε στρατιώτας καὶ αὐτὸν εὔχεται καὶ πρηστὴρ κατενεχθεὶς διαφθείρει τόν τε ταξίαρχον καὶ τοὺς σὺν αὐτῷ

Elijah’s prayer for rain (TgJ 1 Kgs 18:37)

Targum Jonathan on 1 Kgs 18:37 explicitly states that Elijah prayed for rain.

Receive my prayer, Lord, with the fire;
receive my prayer, Lord, with rain;
and may this people know by your doing for them the sign,
that you, Lord, are God,
and by your loving them you are asking for them by your Memra
to bring them back to fear of you.
And they gave their divided heart.

קביל צלותי [בעותי] יוי באישׁתא
קביל צלותי [בעותי] יוי במטר
וידעון עמא הדין ארי במעבדך להון נסא
ארי את יוי הוא אלהים
ואת ברחמתך [ברחמותך] יתהון משׁתאיל להון במימרך
לאתבותהון לדחלתך
ואנון יהבו [יהבין] ית לבהון פליג

The Masoretic Text makes no mention of Elijah praying for rain, but James explicitly gives Elijah’s prayer for rain as a second example of the prophet’s effective prayer (5:18). Given James’ emphasis on “double mindedness” (δίψυχος) in the context of prayer (1:5-8, cf. v. 8), Targum Jonathan’s use of “divided heart” (לבהון פליג) is particularly interesting. Elijah’s prayer for drought and rain is not simply a hyperbolic example of effective prayer, but is instead an example of intercessory prayer for judgment and mercy for the sake of effecting repentance. Thus this example is wholly appropriate in the greater context of vv. 13-20, where prayer for the sick takes place in a context of repentance and confession.

Translation by D. J. Harrington & A. J. Saldarini, Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets (Aramaic Bible 10; Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987), 248-49. Aramaic text from the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon; brackets (e.g., [בעותי]) indicate variants given in Sperber’s Aramaic Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1959-73).

Elijah’s drought in the Yalkut Simeoni

I recently came across a small, relatively unknown article by De Lacy O’Leary that gives a few rabbinic parallels to material found in James. The last two parallels are particularly interesting for James 5:17-18. The first contains the only extra-biblical reference that I know of to Elijah’s drought lasting specifically three years and six months. Yalk. Sim. on 1 Kgs 18:1 reads, “R. Berachia and R. Kalbo in the name of R. Jochanan said, Three months before and three months after, and twelve in the middle made eighteen months, and because thery were days of suffering he called them many days” (רב ברכיה ור״ הלבו בשם רבי יוחנן ג׳ חדשים בראשונה וג׳ חדשים באחרתה וי״ב באפצע הרי י״ה חדשים וכי ימים רבים חיו אצא ימים של צער לפינך הוא קורא אותן רבים). O’Leary explains that this means that the “third year” of the biblical narrative lasted eighteen months, hence the drought would have lasted a total of three and a half years if this period is added to the preceding two years.

The second illustration is from Yalk. Sim. on 1 Kgs 17, “‘And Elijah the Tishbite said there should not be dew or rain.’ R. Berachiah said R. Josa and the Rabbonin dispute about this; one said that God accepted his prayer concerning the rain but not concerning the dew, and the other that he was heard both concerning the rain and the dew” (ויאמר אליהו התסבי אם יהיה טל ימסר רבי ברכיה אמר רבי ייסא ורבנין חד אמר על המטר נשמע לן על הטל לא נשמע לו וח אמר על הטל ועל המטר ושמע לו). This passage confirms James’ account of Elijah’s prayer invoking the drought and the rain–a tradition present elsewhere in early Jewish literature.

Of course, it should be noted that the Yalkut is a very late document, but at the very least it shows that medieval Jewish exegetes did view the narrative in a similar way to James.

See De Lacey O’Leary, “Rabbinical Illustrations of the Epistle of James,” Expository Times 15 (1903-1904): 334-335.

The text above concerning the Yalk. Sim. on 1 Kgs 18:1 is taken from Lev. Rab. 19:5. The following text is from the Soncino edition (pages 244):

For many days Israel was without the God of truth,’ etc. Were they then really many days?1 – [No], but because those were days of distress,2 Scripture calls them ‘many’,3 Similar thereto is: And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year,4 etc. (I Kings XVIII, 1). R. Berekiah and R. Helbo said in the name of R. Johanan: Three months at the beginning, three months at the end, and twelve in between make eighteen months; are these then ‘many days’?– [No], but those were days of distress, and Scripture therefore designates them as ‘many’. Similar, again, is: And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died, etc. (Ex. II, 23). Were they really ‘many days’?5 – [No], but because those were days of distress, they are called ‘many’. Similar, again, is: Many days, even a hundred and fourscore days (Est. I, 4). Were they really ‘many days’? – [No], but because those were days of distress,6 they are called ‘many’.

(1) ‘Many days’ in many Biblical verses obviously means ‘many years’ or ‘long periods’.
(2) V. Chron. XV, 4.
(3) Pain and suffering make time seem longer.
(4) Sc. of drought and consequent famine.
(5) In Ex. R. I,34 (q.v.) the verse is interpreted to mean that he became leprous, not that he actually died. His leprosy did not last long, hence this question.
(6) For the Jews, who saw the vessels of the Temple used at Ahasuerus’ feast. v. Est. R. II, 11. Mah. says that the Haggadist must have had in mind that since Scripture, in addition to stating a definite number of days, says first—apparently redundantly—‘many days,’ this expression must have some special meaning.

The parallel to this passage is found in Esther Rabbah 2:2

2. MANY DAYS (I, 4). They were days of tribulation; and similarly we find, And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died (Ex. II, 23). Now were they really many days? No, only because they were days of tribulation, Scripture reckoned them as many days. Similarly we find: And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah (I Kings XVIII, 1). Now were they really many days? No, only because they were days of tribulation, Scripture calls them many days. How many were they? R. Berekiah said in the name of R. Helbo reporting R. Johanan: One month in one year, and one month in another and twelve months in the middle, making altogether fourteen months. Similarly, And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days (Lev. XV, 25), on which R. Hiyya taught: ‘Days’ signifies two, ‘many’ signifies three. Are these then many? No, only because they are days of pain they are called ‘many’.