In Becoming Elijah, Daniel C. Matt starkly contrasts Elijah, the zealous prophet described in the Bible, with the version of him that frequently appears on earth in rabbinic and Jewish mystical and folk literature. One could claim that there is a profound disconnect between the biblical Elijah, who showed no kindness to peoples and kings when he felt that they were acting improperly and unjustly, and the rabbinic and legendary figure who appears unexpectedly in order to participate in circumcisions, announce the coming of the Messiah, and participate in the weekly Havdalah service. Matt successfully demonstrates that the two characters are actually of the same cloth.
Among the key associations that he points out between the biblical and rabbinic projections of Elijah is the biblical description of the prophet’s unique recall to heaven on a fiery chariot, fueling speculation that Elijah never died and thereby allowing him to continue to participate in Jewish history by means of “shape-shifting” into the personae of “a horseman, an Arab, a Persian, a slave, a royal minister of a gentile ruler,” or even as the source of an idea that suddenly pops into someone’s head. A second such source are the last two verses in the biblical book of Malachi, when Elijah is associated with the end of days. Matt’s discussion of Elijah’s similarities and differences when compared to Moses, Jonah, and Phineas, as well as the references to the role Elijah plays in Judaism’s sister religions, Chistianity and Islam, are deeply enlightening, particularly when read in tandem with the copious endnotes that serve as the literary anchor of the book’s discussions.
Daniel Matt is the translator of the prize-winning The Zohar: The Pritzker Edition, and the chapter entitled “Inspiring the Mystics: Elijah in the Kabbalah” is encyclopedic and informative. Matt discusses at length both “Gilui Eliyahu” (the revelation of Elijah) as well as “Bechinat Eliyahu” (an aspect of Elijah,) from the perspective of mystical and Chassidic thought. The author also presents pros and cons regarding whether Elijah not only became an angel following his sojourn on earth but actually already may have been one, prior to his descent and interactions with the widow of Zarephath, King Ahab, and Queen Jezebel.
Matt writes at the conclusion of his book, “Over the centuries, he (Elijah) has tamed his fanaticism but never lost his passion, which he channels into mending himself, his people and the world.” This is a highly recommended read.