Elijah the Prophet has several different personalities, depending on where you’re looking. In the Bible, he’s a forbidding and wrathful prophet, more serious than God. In Jewish folklore, he’s a kind of Father Christmas, sipping cups of wine at every Seder and Bris. Kristen Lindbeck considers the sum total of stories involving Elijah in the Babylonian Talmud as a cohesive narrative web. There are almost 40 such stories, and she divides them into several smaller groups with different characteristics. The image of Elijah that emerges from these stories is that of a super-rabbi, a character with some special abilities who lives in the same world as the rabbis who created the Talmud. The stories are really about Elijah’s encounters with those rabbis — how he helps them, teaches them, reprimands them and saves them from sticky situations. Lindbeck uses tools from oral-formulaic studies and from the study of folklore in order to break the stories into sub-sets and to isolate the themes and messages that can be found within them. Perhaps her most interesting suggestion is that some of the stories about Elijah are based upon Greek myths about Hermes, and are intended as a humorous Jewish perspective on the relationship between God and man.
Pinchas Roth (PR) is a post-doctoral fellow at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.