In ancient times, what is now called the Cave of Elijah the Prophet was a place where believers practiced the cult of the pagan god Ba’al. The cave later became the site where Elijah was said to have rested before his bloody showdown with the prophets of Ba’al. From the Byzantine period on, the Cave of Elijah the Prophet was a stopping place and sanctuary for pilgrims and travelers who carved their inscriptions into its walls.
The Cave of Ba’al Carmel
The Cave of Elijah is a large natural cavern in a sloping rocky outcrop at the foot of Mount Carmel, 131 feet above the sea, on the west side of the modern Israeli city of Haifa. Its limestone walls were carved in ancient times to suit its cultic purposes and smoothed by countless hands in the centuries since then, enlarging it to its current size, so that its floor is about 28.5 by 47.5 feet, and the ceiling is about 15–16 feet high. Benches and other features were carved from the limestone in antiquity.
From remote antiquity through the centuries, the cave and Mount Carmel itself were places of veneration of Ba’al and other pagan gods. Asher Ovadiah of Tel Aviv University, the leading expert on Elijah’s cave, and Rosario Pierri, Professor of Greek Language and Literature at the Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem, note in a recent article that Mount Carmel and the cave—for centuries under the sway of the Phoenicians with their polytheistic traditions—were long a holy place for cultic practices by worshippers of Ba’al, Zeus and other pagan gods.1
According to Ha’aretz, Prof. Ovadiah says that he thinks a carving in the cave and the foot from a massive stone statue found in a monastery garden above the cave may be images of the Carmel Mountain Range deified as “Ba’al Carmel,” a form of the god worshipped in this area up to the reign of Ahab, King of Israel in the ninth century B.C. Ovadiah told Ha’aretz that later on, worship of Ba’al might have been replaced by worship of others deities.
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A Place Sacred to Elijah in the BibleAccording to tradition, Elijah stayed in the cave just before his confrontation with the priests of Ba’al during the reign of Ahab.
Scholars believe that it was in the Byzantine period (fourth–sixth century A.D.) that worship of Ba’al in the cave was replaced by veneration of Elijah, and the cave became a place sacred to Elijah and a stopping place for his followers.
Archaeologists and epigraphers have analyzed the cave’s inscriptions, and they believe that some of the inscriptions appeared as early as the Roman period, if not even earlier. Professor Ovadiah made an exhaustive study of the inscriptions in 1966 as a staff member of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums to identify and interpret them in a methodical way. There are about 227 religious inscriptions (almost all in Greek or Hebrew), which are a testament to the cave’s function as a pilgrimage site for the last 2,000 years. Two well-known inscriptions carved into the northern face show seven-branched menorahs.
The Cave of Elijah Inscriptions under Threat?
According to Prof. Ovadiah, the inscriptions, left by visitors over the centuries, are at risk of being lost to history—at the hands of today’s visitors. Prof. Ovadiah does not specify the precise nature of the threat to the inscriptions, which are covered by layers of grime, soot and candlewax, and many of which have been covered over with pictures of rabbis and are therefore hidden away. However, most of the inscriptions appear in the wall at a height most people can reach, and therefore they can be erased, written over or otherwise destroyed by any visitor at any time.
There have been calls for conservation measures to be taken, and local officials are hoping something can be done soon to help protect the inscriptions. However, this will require action by the Holy Sites Authority, which is directly responsible for the Cave of Elijah, and while the Authority does have plans for conservation measures, these will require funding and that will take time.
The Story of Elijah the Prophet
Who was Elijah the prophet? In the Biblical tradition, Elijah is said to have lived at the time of King Ahab in the ninth century B.C. and to have been a fierce opponent of the worship of the Canaanite god Ba’al introduced into Israel by Queen Jezebel.
In the Hebrew Bible story, Elijah the prophet tells the apparently fickle Israelites that they can choose to worship either Ba’al or Yahweh, but that they have to pick one. A slaughtered bull is placed on the altar for each of the two gods. Elijah then challenges Ba’al’s prophets to exhort their god to light their altar, which Ba’al fails to do. When Elijah makes the same request of Yahweh, Yahweh sends down a great flame from heaven which consumes his offering, thus showing the power of Yahweh. Elijah then slays all of Ba’al’s prophets (1 Kings 18:21–40).
Later on, Elijah uses these same powers twice to call down heavenly fire on soldiers of Ahaziah, son of Ahab (2 Kings 1:9–12). At the end of Elijah’s time on Earth, a flaming chariot descends, and Elijah is gathered up to heaven by Yahweh, a dramatic scene that recalls Yahweh’s fiery acceptance of Elijah’s offering in his confrontation with Ba’al’s prophets, as well as the battles with Ahaziah’s soldiers. At Elijah’s death, his powers are transferred to his successor, Elisha, who also devotes them to securing allegiance to Yahweh alone (2 Kings 2:11–15).
Queen Jezebel also encouraged the worship of Asherah. Learn about who or what Asherah is in “Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?”
Elijah the Prophet in Judaism and ChristianityAlong with his role in the Biblical tradition, Elijah holds a place of great respect in Judaism. He was considered a masterful arbiter in his time and was often called upon to settle disputes in areas of Jewish law. In fact, it was common practice that when rabbis could not agree on an issue, they would put it aside and say it would to be settled when Elijah comes.
In the practice of Judaism, Elijah’s most vital role after his death is to herald the coming of the Messiah. This is predicted to occur on Passover, and at the Passover Seder, a place and a dedicated cup of wine are left for Elijah at the table, and the door is left open to welcome both At the end of the Jewish Sabbath, a prayer is said expressing the wish that Elijah will return during the coming week.
Elijah’s importance in Christianity is shown when he appears with Moses in the three Synoptic Gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to witness the “Transfiguration” of Jesus, in which Jesus’ appearance is transformed to demonstrate to three of his apostles that he is divine.
The Cave of Elijah for Other Faiths and in Another Place
The Cave of Elijah is a holy place for several religions in addition to Judaism. For example, a Greek cross was carved in the wall, probably by Greek Christians, centuries ago, and there is evidence of visits to the cave over the centuries by Muslims and Druze (an Abrahamic group who claim descent from Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro).
In June 2014, another cave of Elijah, located in Jobar, Syria, and connected to the synagogue there, was in danger of destruction, according to The Jerusalem Post. The cave was all that remained after continuous government shelling, other than an antechamber and part of an adjoining synagogue wing.
Update, September 28, 2015: A previous version of this article included a photo that erroneously identified a statue of Elijah at a Christian shrine within the cave.
Henry Curtis Pelgrift received his M.A. in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London in 2014 and his B.A. in archaeology from The George Washington University in 2012. He has excavated at Tel Kabri and Tel Megiddo in alternate summers since 2009 and has also dug in Italy, Jordan and Cyprus. Henry’s picture appeared on the cover of the January/February 2014 “Dig” issue of BAR. He is currently a volunteer in the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
1. Asher Ovadiah and Rosario Pierri, “Elijah’s Cave on Mount Carmel and its Inscriptions,” in L. Daniel Chrupcala, ed., Christ is Here! Studies in Biblical and Christian Archaeology in Memory of Michele Piccirillo, ofm (Milan: Terra Santa, 2012), pp. 29–76.
Related reading in the BAS Library:
“The Second Coming of Elijah and Enoch,” Bible Review, April 2003.
Herbert W. Basser, “The Jewish Roots of the Transfiguration,” Bible Review, June 1998.
“The Transfiguration according to Matthew,” Bible Review, June 1998.
“Elijah Flees to Sinai (Horeb) and Yahweh Silently Appears (1 Kings 19:1–3, 8–12),” Bible Review, October 1992.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?” Bible Review, Fall 1987.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “The Three Parallel Accounts of the Transfiguration” Bible Review, Fall 1987.
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