The Transfiguration of Christ is related in all three Synoptic Gospels. [1]  Jesus is transfigured before three of his apostles,[2] while Moses and Elijah[3] appeared and conversed with Jesus. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets, bodies of literature composing the most important part  of the Jewish scriptures.

It is Elijah I would like to dwell on in this article.  He bursts unto the scene in I Kings 17 with no introduction to begin his career as a prophet. In the Eastern Christian tradition,  Elijah is known as the Second Forerunner to Jesus, with John the Baptist being the Forerunner.  The Book of Malachi the prophet, the last book of Jewish scripture in the Christian Bible ends with a command to remember Moses and the Law (Malachi 4:4)[4]  and a promise by God to send Elijah to His people prior to the terrible day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5). Elijah was taken bodily into heaven by a whirlwind, [5] and pious Jews expected his return. In Matthew 17, Jesus even proclaims Elijah has returned in the form of John the Baptist.  

To be sure, Elijah accomplished many great miracles.  He causes a drought in 1 Kings 17. This action apparently earns the ire of King Ahab, so Elijah escapes into the desert where he is fed by ravens.  Moving on Zarephath, he miraculously feeds a widow and her son.  Elijah even raises the son from his deathbed.  There is of course the famous battle with the priests of Baal and Elijah’s escape in 1 Kings 18.  His theophany in 1 Kings 19 is a beautiful and oft repeated story about the manifestation of God.  

Yet, it is not so much the miracles that makes Elijah such a compelling character, but the miracles combined with his basic humanity.  He was a thoroughly human character we can all relate to.  He could be irascible. The drought has further reduced the meager means of the widow, who tells Elijah she has so little she is gathering sticks to make the last meal for her son and herself before they die.  Elijah miraculously multiplies the meal and oil, feeding the widow and her son for many days.  After the son falls ill the widow blames Elijah.[6]  Her reasoning is Elijah is a man of God, and has brought her sins in front of God.  The death of the son is God’s punishment for her sins.   It is here we see the humanity of Elijah. He has the audacity to castigate God: “Oh Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?”[7]  In modern parlance, Elijah is asking God, “Hey, You sent me here, now you are taking her son?  What gives?”  Elijah heals the son and the woman now truly believes Elijah is a man of God.

Elijah was glib. Ahab  has a famous reaction when first meeting Elijah: “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” [8] Elijah quickly retorts it is Ahab who is the troubler of Israel because Ahab has become a worshipper of Baal. If you close your eyes and think about this encounter, you can almost hear the witty repartee between the two.  Most importantly, Elijah is performing the essential function of a prophet—speaking truth to power.  He may have been afraid for his life but Elijah is set on his mission. 

He could be a trash-talker. The contest with the priest of Baal is a lopsided contest with Elijah poking fun at the priest of Baal and humiliating them in the process.  The priests attempt to call down fire upon a sacrificed bull.  Baal does not answer.  Elijah is sitting on the side, throwing snarky comments out to the priests.  “Cry aloud, for he is a god, either he is musing, or he has gone aside,[9] or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” [10]  Any modern sports fan would recognize this as “trash talk”.  When it was his turn to call down fire on the sacrifice, Elijah throws “gasoline on the fire”.[11]  He orders a trench to be dug around the sacrifice that is then doused several times with water.  The water runs into the trench.  The 1Lord sends down fire, consuming the sacrifice, the wood, and the water, and even stones.  Surely, this is a convincing demonstration of the power of the true God, but you can’t help but think Elijah was gloating and taking a great deal of satisfaction in this.  You almost get the sense Elijah was showing off.

Yet, there are tender moments to Elijah as well.  He could instill great loyalty and love in his followers. In 2 Kings 2:1-13 Elijah and Elisha are walking by the Jordan River, just prior to the arrival of the flaming chariot and the whirlwind.  Other prophets in the guild told Elisha God was going to take Elijah.  Elisha could not bear to even speak such things.  When he is rent from Elijah by the fiery chariot, Elisha cries out to lament his loss.  Elisha rips his garments in the traditional sign of mourning for a loved one.

In short, God worked great miracles through Elijah.  However, he was a thoroughly human figure we all could relate to on many levels.  Elijah reminds us God may choose to act through the most unlikely of people and not just saints.  The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6.[12]  The Holy Prophet Elijah is commemorated on July 20.

[1] Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 9.  The root story is of course Mark if you follow the “Q” hypothesis that Mark wrote first and parts of his Gospel were incorporated into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

[2] In Eastern Christian theology He is said to be surrounded by the Uncreated  or Tabor Light.

[3] Also known as Elias.

[4] All Biblical references in this article are from the Revised Standard Version

[5] Artwork has a fiery chariot taking Elijah to heaven.  However, if you read 2 Kings 13 says a fiery chariot with horses of fire separates Elijah and Elisha with a whirlwind taking Elijah up to heaven.

[6] I Kings 17: 17

[7] 1 Kings 17: 20

[8] 1 Kings 18:17

[9] This has been variously described as retiring or a polite way of saying Baal is “answering the call of nature”.

[10] 1 Kings 18: 27

[11] The words were deliberately chosen.  One television documentary suggests Elijah had concocted a primitive napalm where the fire floats on water.  I offer no comment on this.

[12] There is some thought the Transfiguration was originally a spring feast as First Fruits are blessed on this day.