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).


Plagued recently with insomnia, I’ve been reading Sirach. I am struck by the similarities between Sirach’s teaching on prayer in the midst of trouble and James’ instruction in ch. 5. In particular, Sir 35:26 reads, “His mercy is as welcome in time of distress as clouds of rain in time of drought.” Unfortunately the Heb. is incomplete in Ms. B:

ן מצוקה כעת חזיזם בעת בצורת[…………]

The LXX reads:

ὡραῖον ἔλεος ἐν καιρῷ θλίψεως αὐτοῦ ὡς νεφέλαι ὑετοῦ ἐν καιρῷ ἀβροχίας (v. 24).

The Vulg. has

speciosa misericordia Dei in tempore tribulationis quasi nubes pluviae in tempore siccitatis.

I hope to explore the context of this passage in greater detail. For now, it is sufficient to note that Sirach provides an analogy between God’s mercy in distress and rain in drought. Elijah’s prayer for rain in James, when read against this backdrop fits well with the broader eschatological context of James 5.

Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near (vv. 7-8).

James admonishes his readers to remain patient–waiting for the Lord’s coming–waiting for rain–waiting for his intervention ἐν καιρῷ θλίψεως. Elijah’s prayer for rain in James mirrors our prayers for the mercy that attends the coming of the Lord.

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’.