A place sacred to Elijah in the Bible
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of Ahab, King of Israel in the ninth century B.C. Ovadiah told Ha’aretz that later on, worship of Ba’al might have been replaced by worship of others deities.
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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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