“Would you invite that man to your Seder?”
Shulie Mishkin’s question was moot. We do invite that man—Elijah the prophet—to our seder every year. And to every Brit Milah (circumcision ceremony). Elijah is beloved in our folklore as the helper of the desperate. But the statue of him on top of Mount Carmel, the site of his greatest triumph, does not depict him as beloved or even lovable.
This is Elijah at his most zealous for G-d, fire in his eyes, a sword raised over his head, his foot on the shoulder of a man lying under him. This is Elijah triumphant over the prophets of Baal. This is Elijah who brought on a three year famine. This is Elijah who orchestrated a dramatic confrontation with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah on this spot, and showed that G-d is more powerful than the most popular pagan god worshiped at the time. This is the Elijah who stood up against the warrior king Ahab and against the his wife Jezebel.
My class on Kings I had studied the stories about Elijah (chapters 17 – 21). Today we were visiting the sites where some of the major events of his life took place. We could not visit Gilad in Jordan, Mount Horeb in Egypt, or Sidon in Lebanon, although significant events in Elijah’s happened in these places. They were too distant to travel to, both geographically and politically.
If you’ve studied a topographical map of Israel, you probably noticed that Mount Carmel is not one mountain, but more like a small mountain range running north-south between the coast and the Jezreel Valley. So how can we be sure that this peak of the Carmel, where the Carmelite monks have built their monastery, is the site of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal?
We went up to the top, and looked around. This is the highest point in the Galil, and we could see much of the land spread out before us. Since it is early Spring, the green hillside was sprinkled with red anemones, yellow wild mustard, and purple lupines; pale pink blossoms cover the almond trees by the road sides. The Jezreel Valley below was dozens of shades of green, crossed by the gray lines of roads linking the towns and farms. Because of the height, the wind was brisk, which negated the warmth of the bright sun. I was glad for both my jacket and sunglasses.
The spot is called “Muhraqa” and Arabic word that means “burning.” Like many Arabic names of places in the north, it stems from an earlier Hebrew or Aramaic name for the place. “Burning” refers to Elijah’s sacrifice which was burned by fire from G-d.
From this spot on the mountain, it is possible to see north into Lebanon, the land Ba’al worship came from. Jezebel, daughter of the Etbaal, king of Sidon, had brought priests and prophets of Baal with her when she married Ahab, and sought to establish Baal worship in Israel. Baal was powerful because he was the god of rain, all important in lands which depend on winter rain for all their water. So when the people stood on Mount Carmel to witness the confrontation between the prophets and priest of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of G-d, they also could see the choice before them as the choice between their own tradition and the the tradition of the country to their north.
The Biblical text refers to the priests of Baal running down towards Kishon Brook and being killed there. This side of Mount Carmel is steep, and the Kishon Brook runs along at its foot. It was easy to imagine the priests running down the hill in panic as the fire from heaven burned even the water around the altar. They heard the people cry “The Lord is G-d,” and heard Elijah’s cry not to let them escape. And indeed, not one was allowed to escape.
In the book of Kings, after the prophets of Baal are destroyed, Elijah sits near the mountain ridge, and sends his servant up to see if the rain clouds are coming. Even today, in the winter, standing on this mountain peak, you can see rain clouds approaching from the Mediterranean. When the first cloud is sighted, Elijah tells King Ahab to go back to his palace, before the roads become too muddy and impassable. And so Ahab rides across the valley at the base of the Carmel to his city of Jezreel. We could see the Jezreel valley from there, but Ahab’s city and palace no longer exist.
It was very windy on top of the mountain, and despite the sun, it felt cold. So after taking dozens of pictures of the beautiful Galil, we walked back down to the bus. On our way we stopped in front of the statue of Elijah again. The inscription on it in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew is from the book of Ben Sirah, also called Ecclesiasticus: “And the prophet Elijah got up as fire, his words like a burning torch.”
This is not the first statue of the prophet that has stood in the monastery courtyard. The original statue was carved by a Carmelite monk in Bavaria and sent to the monastery in the late 19th century. The Turks did not believe it was just a statue. Before delivering it from the port where it arrived, they cut off one arm looking for contraband. When they found no weapons or ammunition in the statue, they allowed the monks to take possession of it.
The statue stood in the courtyard for many years. But in May 1948 the Syrian army attacked. The Syrian soldiers, however, were superstitious. They did not believe they could conquer the Galil if Elijah stood on the top of Mount Carmel, protecting the Jews. So they destroyed the statue of the prophet. It didn’t help them. The brand new Israeli army fought harder than any of the Arab leaders thought was possible and the Galil remained in Israel.
It’s a great story, a story of the prophet protecting his people thousands of
years after his death. Or perhaps, it’s the story of the power of myth, that even a statue of a charismatic leader has power over the enemy. There’s just one problem: it’s not true.
The old one-armed statue of Elijah stands today in Nazareth, in someone’s garden. And perhaps the statue protects the garden from invasion by Baal-worshiping beetles and snails.
How to find this place: