Contesting the Identification of Elijah the Immortal as Pinchas the Zealot
Elijah the Tishbite from Gilead
Elijah the prophet is introduced quite abruptly in 1 Kings 17:1 as a prophet who commands the rain to stop:
מלכים א יז:א וַיֹּאמֶר֩ אֵלִיָּ֨הוּ הַתִּשְׁבִּ֜י מִתֹּשָׁבֵ֣י גִלְעָד֘ אֶל אַחְאָב֒ חַי־יְ-הֹוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָמַ֣דְתִּי לְפָנָ֔יו אִם יִהְיֶ֛ה הַשָּׁנִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה טַ֣ל וּמָטָ֑ר כִּ֖י אִם לְפִ֥י דְבָרִֽי:
1Kings 17:1 Elijah the Tishbite, an inhabitant of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As YHWH lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.”
The simple meaning of the verse is that Elijah hailed from the land of Gilead, which would make him a Gileadite or, more generally, from the tribe of Manasseh. Nevertheless, rabbinic texts are full of speculation about Elijah’s origins, and assume that this verse tells us where he lived, but not his tribal origins.
Elijah is Pinchas
An ancient, common post-biblical tradition identifies Pinchas (Phineas) with Elijah the prophet. The tradition goes all the way back at least to the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, a 1st cent. CE work that retells the biblical narrative from Adam to Saul. After telling its version of the Concubine of Gibeah story known from Judges 19-21, Biblical Antiquities has Pinchas deliver a long oration to the people (ch. 47), and then, in the style of a death notice, records the following (48.1):
At that time, Pinchas was verging toward death, and the LORD said to him, “Behold you have passed the 120 years that have been established for every man [see Gen 6:3]. Now rise up and go from here and dwell in the desert on the mountain and dwell there many years. I will command my eagle, and he will nourish you there, and you will not come down again to mankind until the appointed time arrives and you will be tested at the appropriate time; and then you will shut up the heaven [from rain], and by your mouth it will be opened up. Afterward you will be raised up to the place where those who were before you were raised up, and you will be there until I remember the world. Then I will bring you, and you will get a taste of death.
Without saying Elijah’s name explicitly, Biblical Antiquities ties the two characters together by saying that Pinchas will be nourished by an eagle in the desert (according to 1Kings 17:4, Elijah was nourished by ravens), he will shut the heavens and open them, as Elijah does in the story of the rain (1Kings 17:1), and that he will be raised up at the end, as Elijah is when he is taken up to heaven on the chariot of fire (2Kings 2:11). Two main points of contact encouraged these figures to be identified with one another: immortality and zealotry.
Pinchas and Elijah are Zealots
Pinchas and Elijah are the two biblical figures defined through the root ק-נ-א, “to be zealous.” This is key to understanding the identification of Pinchas with Elijah.
Pinchas (Num 25:11)
פִּֽינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי:
Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.
Elijah (1Kings 19:10)
וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַי-הֹוָ֣ה׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ:
He replied, “I am moved by zeal for YHWH, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.”
This overlapping trait, and especially the unusual doubling of the root in these verses, likely prompted the early interpreters, including the rabbis, to identify Pinchas and Elijah.
Pinchas’ Longevity and Elijah’s Immortality
The Bible explicitly states that instead of dying, Elijah, was taken up to the heavens in a fiery chariot (2Kings 2:1). This is never stated explicitly of Pinchas, though the careful reader of the Bible might note some hints in this direction.
Pinchas first appears in the book of Numbers 25:7-8, as a (young?) man who kills two people for fornicating before the Tent of Meeting. He then appears on Josh 22:13, 30-32, ostensibly almost 40 years later, to speak with the Transjordanian tribes about the sin of their building an altar. He then appears in Judges 20:28, as a priest with power to predict the future, during the battle with Benjamin after the rape and death of the concubine at Gibeah. Since this is the final story in Judges, and the book of Judges spans hundreds of years, this would suggest longevity worthy of primordial times. In addition, as James Kugel points out, Pinchas, unlike his fellow wilderness and conquest period heroes, has no burial notice. His father, Elazar, is buried in Pinchas’ land (Josh 24:33), but the Bible never describes Pinchas dying and being buried.
Ralbag: Two Immortal Men
The intuitive connection between Pinchas and Elijah based on their longevity is expressed clearly, if idiosyncratically, in the gloss of Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344), known as Ralbag or Gersonides, on 1Kings 17:2:
ולפי שמצאנו זה הארך הנפלא מן החיים לאליהו והנה מצאנוהו ג”כ לפנחס כמו שזכרנו ומצאנו בשניהם נשיאות רוח ה’ אותם כאילו הם מלאכי ה’ ומצאנו ברית החיים לפנחס כמו שזכרנו הנה מן הראוי שנא’ כי פנחס זה אליהו כי יותר ראוי שיונח זרות אחד משיונחו שני זריות
Since we see this amazing longevity for Elijah, and we see the same for Pinchas, as we discussed earlier,  and we find both of them were lifted by the spirit of God as if they were angels of God, and we find a covenant of life for Pinchas, as we discussed earlier, it is fitting to suggest that Pinchas is Elijah, since one peculiar postulate (i.e. an immortal person) is better than two peculiar postulates (i.e., two immortal people).
Summary – Combining the Factors
Combining the immortality factor with the zealotry factor, the idea developed in early post-biblical times that both characters are just different names for the same immortal being, who lived on earth among the Israelites for hundreds of years.
Elijah is from the Tribe of Gad or Benjamin
But this was not a unanimous tradition in rabbinic literature. Some sages suggested that Elijah was from the tribe of Gad or Benjamin, and thus could not possibly have been Pinchas, since Pinchas was a Levite from the priestly family of Aaron (Exod 6:25).
This possibility is first recorded in the third century Amoraic midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, which begins with a gloss on the verse in which Leah names her concubine’s son Gad. 
- Leah prophecies Elijah coming from Gad.
[ותאמר לאה בגד] אתא גדה דבייתה, אתא גדה דעלמא, בא מי שעתיד לגדד משתיתן שלאומות. [ו]מנו? אליהו.
Leah said: “Luck (גד) has come” – “The luck of the house has come, the luck of the world has come.” He who will level the foundations of the nations has come. Who is this? Elijah.
- Elijah is a Benjaminite (Chronicles references a man named Elijah son of Yeroham from the tribe of Benjamin; R. Leazer assumes this is the same Elijah.)
משלמי? ר’ לעזר אמר מבינימן ויערישיה ואליה וזכרי בני ירוחם (דברי הימים א’ ח כז) כל אלה בני בנימן
From what tribe does [he] descend? R. Leazer says: “From Benjamin: ‘Jaareshiah, Elijah, and Zichri were the sons of Yeroham’ (1Chron 8:27).” These are all descendants of Benjamin.
- Elijah is a Gadite. (Moses gave the Gilead region to the tribe of Gad; Elijah hails from this region, so he is a Gadite.)
ר’ נהוראי אמר מגד הה”ד ויען אליהו התשבי מתושבי גלעד וגו’ (מלכים א’ יז א), אמר ליה ר’ פליפי לר’ נהוריי מה חמית למימר כן, אמר ליה דכת’ [ויתן משה למטה גד לבני גד למשפחתם] ויהי להם גבול יעזר וכל ערי הגלעד… (יהושע יג כד-כה).
Rabbi Nehorai said: “He is from Gad, and this is what the verse means when it states (1Kings 17:1), ‘Elijah the Tishbite was a resident of Gilead, etc.’” Rabbi Philipi said to Rabbi Nehorai: “What makes you say this?” He said to him: “‘[To the tribe of Gad, for the various Gadite clans, Moses assigned], and it became their territory: Jazer, all the towns of Gilead…’ (Joshua 13:24-25).”
- Responding to the opposing verses.
מה מקיים ר’ אלעזר קרייה דר’ נהוריי מתושבי גלעד, מיושבי לשכת הגזית, ומה מקיים ר’ נהוריי קרייה דר’ אלעזר ויערישיה ואליה, אלא מדרשות הן, בשעה שמרעיש עולמו אליהו מזכיר זכות אבות בני ירוחם והקב”ה מתמלא רחמים על עולמו
How does R. Eleazer understand R. Nahorai’s verse? Dwellers of Gilead refers to one who sits in the room of hewn stone (a member of the Sanhedrin). How does R. Nehorai understand R. Elazar’s verse? “Jaareshiah and Elijah” – these are midrash: When Elijah shakes (רעש) the world, he remarks on the merit of the ancestors. “Sons of Yeruham” – The Holy One, blessed be He is filled with mercy for his world.
- Elijah comes down from heaven and tells the rabbis he is a Benjaminite.
פעם אחת נחלקו רבותינו עליו, אלו אמרו מגד ואילו אמרו מבינימן, בא ועמד לפניהם, אמר להם רבותיי למה אתם נחלקים עלי, אני מבני בניה שלרחל.
Once the rabbis debated about him (Elijah). Some said that he was from Gad, others said from Benjamin. [Elijah] came and stood before them. He said to them: “My fellows, why are you debating about me? I am a descendant of Rachel.”
Although not the dominant opinion, various piyyutim (liturgical poems) and authorities such as the Tosafot (Franco-German rabbis from the 12th to 13th cents.) and the Rosh (Asher ben Yehiel, 1250-1327) quote the tradition from Eliyahu Rabbah and Bereshit Rabbah that Elijah was descended from Rachel.
Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi (c.1160-1235), summarizes the various positions in his gloss on 1Kings 17:1:
ונחלקו רז”ל מאיזה שבט היה מהם אמרו משבט גד היה ומהם אמרו משבט בנימין ומהם אמרו פנחס זה אליהו וכל אחד מהם סומך דבריו אל הפסוקים בדברים רחוקים ואנחנו לא ידענו האמת.
Our rabbis of blessed memory were split as to which tribe he was from. Some say he was from the tribe of Gad, and other say from the tribe of Benjamin, and others say Pinchas is Elijah. Each of them base their opinion on stretched readings of biblical verses, and we do not know which is true.
A Heated Debate About Elijah’s Origins: The Genizah Account
At first glance, the question of what tribe Elijah was from and whether he and Pinchas were the identical person appears to be an academic or obscure issue. And yet, a genizah fragment (ENA 637.4-5) introduces us to a pair of incidents in which this debate came to a head. The fragment, originally written in Judeo-Arabic, testifies to an event that took place one Saturday evening in a synagogue in Egypt, probably in the early 13th century.
The text begins with a cantor reciting a Havdalah liturgical poem to mark the end of the Sabbath:
And the cantor stood for prayer and recited the liturgical poem איש אזור אזור עור במותניו, (“a man, girt with a girdle of leather around his loins”), and when he concluded his prayer, [someone] told him: this is all true, except for one strophe, which is “איש טען רומח בידו” (A man, who held a spear in his hand).
And he [the cantor] asked: “Why are you saying so?”
And he [the congregant] answered: “For years we were of the opinion that Elijah is Pinchas, until one day, a cantor came to our city, and stood up for prayer, reciting liturgical poetry, and said: ‘… Elijah the son of Yeroham.’
When he concluded his prayer I told him: “How dare you say that Elijah is the son of Yeroham? Behold, he is the son of Elazar!”
And he answered me: “No, O, Rabbi, Elijah is not Pinchas, he is the son of Yeroham of the tribe of Benjamin, as seen in Chronicles[…]”
I asked him: “But what is your evidence that this [identification] is true?” 
He told me: “You may find it explicitly in Bereshit Rabba: “[…] and he [=Elijah] came and stood in front of [them, and he said to them, My masters, why are yo]u debating about me. I [am from the descendants of Rachel].”
[And] when I considered this statement [ ] in Bereshit Rabba in Parashat Vayetze Ya’akov, I was convinced by this view, namely that Elijah is from the sons of Benjamin, and he is not Phineas, as people think.
Thinking about the story in chronological order (the fragment tells it in reverse chronological order), it begins with a man who believes that Elijah and Pinchas were identical and ends with the same person becoming a “zealous” missionary in opposition to this very tradition, after a visiting cantor shows him the text from Bereshit Rabbah.
A Clash of Cultures: The Origin of the Debate
These two accounts bear witness to a pivotal moment that encapsulate the tensions between the Babylonian and Palestinian tradition. When the first cantor came to the synagogue, it was a given in that community that Elijah should be identified with Pinchas, the tradition adopted by the Babylonian Talmud, the Bavli. The community was shaped by the Bavli to such an extent that the interlocutor was unaware of opposing traditions, even though, they appear in Bereshit Rabbah, a work that they were familiar with, which originated in the land of Israel. It took an outsider to call their attention to it.
Historical Context: From Israel to Franco-Germany to Egypt
The reintroduction of this tradition to the Judeo-Arabic speaking community may be seen in the context of immigration of French rabbis and scholars to Egypt and to the land of Israel during the 13th century, who brought along with them their traditions and their piyyutim.Although the tradition of Elijah as a Benjaminite began in Israel—as we said, its earliest attestation is in Bereishit Rabbah—from there it made it to Europe, especially France and Provence, through the work of anthologizers of midrash such as the Yalqut Shimoni(Parashat Pinchas 771). The visiting cantor whose recitation of Yah Chizki set off the first heated debate, was likely a French or Provencal immigrant.
Elijah in Rational Based Medieval Exegesis
This synagogue debate also likely reflects the growing power of rationalism among medieval exegetes, as seen in the following comments:
Abraham ibn Ezra: Pinchas Is Not Elijah
Numbers 25:13 states regarding Pinchas:
וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם…
There shall be for him and those who come after him a pact of priesthood for all time…
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) comments on this phrase:
ומלת לאחריו – לאחר שמת, ואינו אליהו כלל.
And the word “come after him” (implies) after he died, and (that) he is not Elijah at all.
One can hear the polemical tone implied in the sharp word כלל (at all). Faithful to this view, ibn Ezra also avoided this identification in the Havdalah poetry he wrote on the subject. It is reasonable that it was ibn Ezra’s rationalistic trends that made him reject this identification.
Ralbag: Shrinking Two Peculiar Postulates into One
As discussed above, Ralbag does accept the Pinchas=Elijah equation, but only because it allows him to shrink down the irrational and bizarre anomaly of two immortals to one:
הנה מן הראוי שנא’ כי פנחס זה אליהו כי יותר ראוי שיונח זרות אחד משיונחו שני זריות.
It is fitting to suggest that Pinchas is Elijah, since one peculiar postulate (i.e. an immortal person) is better than two peculiar postulates (i.e., two immortal people).
Even better, one would imagine, would be no immortals.
Rejection of Zealot as a Proper Image for Elijah
The character of Elijah in the Jewish collective memory swings between the poles of zealot and angry prophet to the kind, loving, and caring savior. The image of a spear-wielding zealot may have disturbed those who preferred the kind and caring prophet who comes to everyone’s brit (circumcision). The line that provoked the debate with the cantor who believed Pinchas to be Elijah was “A man who held the spear in his hand,” which attributes to Elijah the most prominent act of zealotry performed by Pinchas. Thus, jettisoning Elijah’s association with Pinchas would have been attractive.
The Tension about Elijah as Pinchas as Reflected in Havdalah Piyyutim
The performance of liturgical poetry in the synagogue was a popular method used to share views, traditions, and perspectives. Examining the variety of manuscripts of the liturgical Havdalah poem Ish Azur Eizor reveals tension concerning the portrayal of Elijah, in the line introduced by the letter ט:
איש טען רומח בידו.
A man, who held a spear in his hand.
This is the line that the visiting cantor recited, which describes Elijah as Pinchas, holding the spear in his hand.
איש טל ומטר עצר שלש שנים.
A man who held the rain and the dew for three years.
This version avoids the portrayal of Elijah as Phineas, and any reference to the offending spear, while maintaining an aspect of his zealous behavior; declaring drought can be understood as zealous behavior.
איש טל ומטר היה בדברו.
A man whose word brought rain and dew.
This variant builds on the end of the story, when Elijah finally brings rain three years later (1Kings 18:41-45). The phrasing favors the image of the loving, caring Elijah, with no hint of zealotry.
Which Elijah Do We Want at our Simchas?
We can see the tension between the two images of Elijah at play in the earliest midrash explaining the existence of Elijah’s chair at the brit, the 9th cent. Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 29), which reimagines the conversation between God and Elijah at Mount Sinai (1Kings 19):
נִגְלָה עָלָיו הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְאָמַר לוֹ מַה לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ [שם ט]. אָמַר לוֹ קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי [שם י]. אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְעוֹלָם אַתָּה מְקַנֵּא, קִנֵּאתָ בַּשִּׁטִּים עַל גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת,… וְכָאן אַתָּה מְקַנֵּא. חַיֶּיךָ, שֶׁאֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין בְּרִית מִילָה עַד שֶׁאַתָּה רוֹאֶה בְּעֵינֶיךָ. מִכָּאן הִתְקִינוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁיִּהְיוּ עוֹשִׂין מוֹשַׁב כָּבוֹד לְמַלְאַךְ הַבְּרִית…
The Holy One, blessed be He, appeared to him and said (v. 9): “What are you doing here, Elijah?” [Elijah] responded (v. 10): “I am exceedingly zealous.” The Holy One, blessed by He said to him: “You are always zealous! You were zealous in Shitim about sexual misconduct… and now you are zealous here. On your life, no Israelite will perform the brit ceremony unless you are there and see it with your own eyes!” This is the reason the sages made a rule that there should be a seat for the honor of the “angel of the brit”…
The tension expressed in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer and in the debate about the two Havdalah piyyutim is as relevant now as it was then. Which Elijah do we wish to invite to join our celebrations?? Do we want the spear-wielding zealot, the man who brought drought to all of Israel, or perhaps, the man whose voice can bring rain and dew?
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 20, 2016
July 28, 2020
Dr. Moshe Lavee is a lecturer in Talmud and Midrash and chair of the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Genizah Research in The University of Haifa. His research expertise is in Aggadic Midrash, especially in the communities of the Genizah. Moshe runs programs for young leadership and educators (“Mashavah Techila” and “Ruach Carmel”), working to foster relationships between the academic world and the larger community.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series