Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Garsiel, Moshe, From Earth to Heaven: A Literary Study of the Elijah Stories in the Book of Kings (Bethesda, MD: CDL, 2014). Pp. x + 222. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-93430-953-7.

Moshe Garsiel's numerous works on biblical punning and on the books of Samuel, among others, have long contributed to our appreciation of the literary sophistication of the ancient Israelites. In this accessible, but densely insightful monograph, he turns his attention to the stories of the prophet Elijah.

He opens his study with a brief outline of the Elijah cycle and a survey of previous approaches to the text, which he follows with a discussion of his own methodology. His methodology is essentially a close exegetical reading of the text with an eye open to advances produced by other methods and in other disciplines—what he calls a “close and open-minded reading” (p. 16). It is clear from the introduction that Garsiel distances himself from structuralism, reader-response criticism, and other methods one might associate with post-modern approaches to text, although he does find useful the term “implied author” (pp. 4–5), which has emerged in reaction to, and in dialogue with, such methods. The “implied author” is distinct from the actual author and the narrator in that it signifies the character of the author as perceived by the reader, a character that might be incongruent with that of the actual author.[1] Garsiel also sees value in those works that have looked to the Ugaritic materials to elucidate the cycle, though he avers that the battle between Yahweh and Baal, that many see as central to the cycle, only provides a context for the stories. Instead, he sees the stories as assessments of the character and leadership of both Elijah and the House of Omri.

In the first chapter, Garsiel offers a psychological evaluation of Elijah's personality. While noting the inherent difficulty that applying contemporary psychological models to ancient matrices poses, he insists:

…one should bear in mind that our ancestors—both writers and readers of the biblical time—had a grasp of human actions, motivations, and characters, even though, of course, they lack the enormous knowledge of modern psychology, with its methods, analyses, definitions, and nomenclature (p. 18).

Thus, building upon previous psychological evaluations, he contends that Elijah is a “‘perfectionist’ who demands ‘instant perfection’ for himself, as well as for kings and for others,” and that as a result, his “perspective and behavior expose his leadership to criticism from the plot's figures, from God and His angels, and from the implied author” (p. 21). Since he has raised the issue of the implied author, one wonders at this juncture, and throughout the work, whether the reader is to understand the depiction of Elijah's behavior as a psychological assessment or projection of the implied author. Might the ambivalent criticism of Elijah also tell us something about the psychology of the author, implied or otherwise?

The next six chapters offer close readings of the cycle in the order of their appearance in the Masoretic Text, each with a descriptive title: “A Famine in the Mountains of Samaria and Elijah's Hiding Places,” “Elijah's Comeback, Triumph, and Short-lived Reconciliation,” “Elijah Flees to the Sinai Desert and Receives a Revelation on Mount Horeb,” “A Rigged Trial in Jezreel and a Confrontation Between Prophet and King,” “Confrontation Between Elijah's and King Ahaziah's Delegations,” and “From Gilgal to Transjordan, Where Elijah Disappears into Heaven and Elisha Succeeds Him on Earth.” Garsiel then concludes the book with a discussion of “Elijah, Elisha, Moses, and Joshua in Comparative Structures,” and a summary.

In essence, this work is an interpretive retelling of the Elijah narratives that interspaces an ongoing literary commentary with portions of the biblical text in translation. Thus, Garsiel devotes much space to contextualizing the biblical text in accordance with what he sees to be a literary unity, whose inconsistencies one can explain by paying close attention to a text's key words and structure, which often parallel those in another pericope in the cycle or beyond the books of Kings (Garsiel prefers the term “comparative structure” over “allusion,” “analogy,” and/or “intertextuality,” see pp. 175–7). The author's deliberate use of key words and his creation of “comparative structures” force readers to compare and contrast “characters, situations, events, or themes” (p. 176). With regard to the Elijah cycle, these devices bring into contrast the characters' behaviors and leadership styles, most prominently between Elijah and Ahab, and between Elijah and Elisha, but also between other figures in and beyond the narratives.

Further, Garsiel sees the comparative structures as depicting the prophet's “educational process” by which he learns, does not learn, or refuses to heed divine lessons, comparing the cycle to an Entwicklungsroman. For example, he argues that the similarity between the oath spoken by the widow of Zarephath, in which she swears she has no bread (1 Kgs 17:12), and Elijah's own oath swearing that there will be no rain (1 Kgs 17:1), serve to contrast the two figures: “Unaware of the analogy, the woman's oath directs the attentive reader to combine both oaths as cause and effect in which Elijah becomes the cause of the starvation” (p. 38). In this, there also is a didactic message for the prophet.

Elijah is now undergoing a process of self-reevaluation and re-education. He faces a crucial choice: either remain unswerving as an extreme pious man who protects God's sovereignty regardless of consequences, or soften, show compassion, and do his best to relieve human suffering, no matter what the nationality or religion (p. 39).

With regard to the incident in the cave, in which Elijah experiences a meek voice (1 Kgs 19:12), Garsiel similarly observes:

God's recommendation is latent in the “small still voice.” Elijah should radically alter his style of leadership and speak in a “moderate voice.” He should be more compassionate, considerate, and share the life and anguish of his people as Elisha his disciple will do later (p. 99).

While Elijah appears to grasp and adjust his behavior slightly to some of the lessons, in the end, he remains a failed spiritual leader, a stubborn, uncompromising recluse, and a victim of his own perfectionist habits, whose principled devotion to Yahweh, nonetheless earns the implied author's ambivalent respect. As to why Yahweh should take Elijah to heaven in a fiery chariot if he preferred less combative devotees, Garsiel suggests:

…the Lord admired Elijah as an idealist who never compromised his core beliefs, even when reproached by God Himself. Therefore, Elijah deserved to join YHWH and His entourage of angels in heaven, albeit he was found wanting as a leader of human beings on earth (pp. 191–92).

As those familiar with Garsiel's previous works might expect, he also highlights cases of paronomasia that inform the “comparative structures.” Thus, with regard to the tale in which ravens feed Elijah at Wadi Cherith (1 Kgs 17:2–6), he points to paronomasia between the words עֹרְבִים (“ravens”) and עֶרֶב (“evening”) and suggests that together they also evoke רָעָב (“famine”): “The irony is now clear: while Elijah is fed, his people, in contrast, are suffering famine” (p. 34). In reference to the account of Elijah's experiences in the widow's household, he similarly opines:

It seems to me that God deliberately tries to purify and refine Elijah, as reflected in the place name צרפת (Zarephath), which contains the Hebrew verb צרף, which refers to the refining of metals by fire. It serves also as a metaphor for purifying people (p. 35).

In his discussion of numerous “comparative structures” between the narratives of Elijah and of Moses, Garsiel likewise suggests that the author of the Elijah story availed himself of the closeness in sound between the names צרפת (“Zarephath”) and צפרה (“Zipporah”):

In Moses' case, Zipporah initiated a circumcision and saved her firstborn son. But she subtly blames Moses for his negligence that risked her son's life (Ex 4:18–26). In Zarephath, after the widow has accused Elijah of being the cause of her son's severe illness, the prophet saves the boy's life (1 Kgs 17:17–24). The situations, somewhat similar, though not identical, call upon the reader to examine and compare Elijah with Moses (pp. 177–78).

Garsiel similarly finds meaningful the five-fold use of Elijah's appellative התשבי (“the Tishbite”; 1 Kgs 17:1, 21:17, 21:28; 2 Kgs 22:2, 22:8). In particular, he argues that it implies notions of תשובה (“repentance”) and שוב (“return”) in the texts in which they appear. Thus, when we first hear of “the Tishbite” it subtly indicates that the king and people must repent of idolatry and return to Yahweh to end the drought. In the account of the Naboth's vineyard, “the Tishbite” signals Ahab's repentance, which allows him to avert God's wrath. When “the Tishbite” appears in the report of Elijah's appearance before Ahaziah's delegation, it “communicates that the only way open to the king is to repent (לשוב בתשובה)” (pp. 147–48).

In his final chapter, Garsiel surveys the “comparative structures” that invite readers to compare and contrast the stories of Elijah and Elisha with those of Moses and Joshua. He begins by postulating:

…the wider the circle and the more remote the materials from each other in the texts, the more efforts the author must expend to subtly direct the reader to connect the materials and to link them in a comparative structure that intensifies the evaluation of the reading and deepens and strengthens its conclusions. (p. 176)

Of course, since the sages, scholars have observed many similarities between the stories of Elijah and Moses, even if they have interpreted them in different ways. Garsiel's approach diverges from past treatments in that he systematically gathers them in an effort to ascertain in what ways the “comparative structures” differ. He finds their difference in the ways the texts present their respective leadership styles.

Unlike Moses, the greatest defender of Israel, who took advantage of the revelation to achieve step by step the Lord's forgiveness for his people (Ex chap. 34), Elijah remains adamant, accusing Israel of destroying the altars, violating the covenant, killing the prophets, and even trying to kill him, the only survivor of the true prophets (p. 182).

So also is it with Elisha, whose comparisons reveal him to have forged a very different path from that of his master, especially after initially “taking up the mantle,” when he summoned a bear upon 42 boys. He is less concerned with the cults of Baal and Asherah, less hermitic, more socially engaged, and more involved in matters of the royal house. His behavior towards others also distinguishes him.

All of Elijah's attempts to help others were done only after those needing held underwent severe tests; only then did the prophet pray to God to help them. Elisha in similar situations was very helpful and offered his assistance unconditionally, in most instances, without any preliminary tests (p. 186).

Even their respective miraculous water crossings set Elijah apart from the others. While Moses, Joshua, and Elisha make their crossings near the start of their missions, Elijah's marks the end of his mission (p. 186). Moreover, for Moses, Joshua, and Elisha

[the] miracles were intended to help the leaders carry out their mission to lead Israel, specifically to enable the crossing of a watery obstacle on their way to the Land of Israel. The one exception is Elijah, who crossed the Jordan eastward, to go outside the main land in order to conclude his mission without achieving his main goal of renewing the covenant between God and His people (p. 183).

While not all readers will be convinced by every proposed “comparative structure” or case of paronomasia found in this monograph, Garsiel's ability to tease meaningful nuances from the narratives' peculiarities is impressive and intriguing throughout.[2] He deftly handles instances of narrative inconsistency by examining them as cases of repetition and variation and by paying careful attention to the texts' points of view. The result is a holistic understanding of the Elijah cycle that restores to its author (implied author) and to the text's figures a hitherto unappreciated refinement and complexity.

Scott B. Noegel, University of Washington

[1] Though Garsiel periodically employs the terms “implied author” and “narrator” interchangeably (e.g., pp. 57, 60). reference

[2] For example, the author argues that paronomasia obtains between חֹרֵב (“Horeb”) and חֶרֶב “sword” (p. 93), and between חֶמֶר (“wine”) and חֲמֹר (“ass”; p. 112). However, the cases cannot constitute paronomasia, because they derive from different Proto-Semitic roots, and thus, they were distinguished in speech: “Horeb” = PS rb, and “sword” = PS ḥrb; “wine” = PS mr and “ass” = PS mr. They could only have been effective visually. The Proto-Semitic phonemes generally remained distinct long after the biblical period, as is evinced by proper names in the LXX. Note also the reference to a Galilean, i.e., speaker of a northern dialect, who “foolishly” could not distinguish the words “wine” and “ass” in speech like everyone else (Bavli, Eruvin 53b). reference