It is only fitting that the character Elijah is brought into Herman Melville’s Moby Dick during the chapter entitled “The Prophet”. Traditionally Elijah in Hebrew is Elias, which means “Yahweh is my God”(A&E Television Network, Elijah Biography). Biblically, Elijah is not only a well-known prophet but a typology for John the Baptist. Elijah the Tishbite is first mentioned within the Bible by announcing “The Great Drought” to King Ahab in 1 Kings. “Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except my word.”(1 Kings 17:1). Following this terrible prophesy, Elijah stays with a woman whom the Lord supplies with food and water by keeping her flour from being empty and her oil from running dry. During this time Elijah also miraculously raises the woman’s son from the dead by crying out to the Lord.
After three years of the drought the Lord commands Elijah to present himself to Ahab. Though Obadiah, Ahab’s palace administrator, was a believer of Christ, Ahab’s wife Jezebel was not. She was killing the prophets of the Lord. “Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water”(1 Kings, 18:4b). Obadiah remains faithful to the Lord and hides his servants Jezebel’s cruelty. Now, Ahab, Jezebel, and their people were pagans. This is a major sin in the eyes of the Lord. Idolatry is not to be taken lightly. Elijah then challenged the pagans and their god Baal to see who’s was the true God.
“Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire – he is God.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.””(1 Kings 18: 22-24).
Though the pagans beat and cut themselves, Ball does not deliver fire. Elijah then instructs the pagans to pour water on his bull. He then prays to Yahweh, “Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”(Kings 18: 38). At this point, all of the pagan prophets abandoned their idolatry and returned to the ways of God. In a rage, Jezebel then ordered to Elijah to be killed, causing him to run to Beersheba. During his time there an Angel appeared to him to provide him with food and strength. After leaving Beersheba God Himself appeared to Elijah who says, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”(1 Kings 19: 10). The Lord then instructs Elijah to return, where his successor is appointed. Elijah is one of the only two humans in the Bible who never died. A whirlwind was created then, God took Elijah up to heaven with him leading most people to believe that he will return again to continue serving God.
The story of Elijah is mainly to impress upon Christians the importance of prayer, but also the challenge to challenge false prophets. The Lord always responds to Elijah’s prayers, and as Elijah is faithful to Yahweh; Yahweh too is faithful to Elijah and to his people, the Israelites. Elijah is more than just an example of faith but is representative of how we should face society. Though Elijah is surrounded by idolaters he stays strong in his faith. He is a hero. Though he runs in fear at the threat of death, he feels ashamed for his fear. He shows both strength and weakness as we all do at times. This shows us profoundly that we as a people can still carry God’s message though we at times may be weak. We can still bear witness. In this way, Elijah is the ideal human prophet. He is inconsistent and proud but a dedicated servant. Furthermore, the over arcing idea within this passage is obedience to the Lord. This is of such consequence that it is one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses at Sinai.
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I The Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My Commandments"(Exodus 20:4-6).
This sin is so grave that God will not only punish you, up to the fourth generation. Though not punishable by death explicitly the punishment within the family is actually more a threat here. In antiquity your aspiration was to literally “’Be fruitful and multiply’”(Genesis 1:28). The goal of antiquity was to produce until death, living extremely long, and dying surrounded by your large family. This is a theme repeated over and over again in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, this sin is so great Ahab should be extremely cautious in raising himself to God’s level.
I believe that the main connection between the Biblical Elijah and Melville’s Elijah is the warning against false prophets, and mainly against the leadership of Ahab. Previously it seems that Ahab and his crew view him to be as great as God. “He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man Captain Ahab…. Ahab’s above the common… he’s Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest was a crowned king!”(Melville, 88). Biblically this is a very blasphemous view point. What strikes me as odd though is that Queequeg is an actual pagan but a trustworthy gentle giant, and he is never presented in a negative light after his initial introduction. It seems that the intention here is that Ahab is aspiring to reach something equal to or greater than God but Queequeg is an innocent misled beast, perhaps even meant to be sympathized with.
Overall the character Elijah is certainly concerned with the state of their souls and is concerned that they signed them off to this other “god” figure. “Anything down there about your souls?... Oh, perhaps you hav’nt got any… what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be…”(Melville, 102). Rather than warning the people away from idolizing or false worship, this Elijah is warning Queequeg and Ishmael from signing their souls off to a more human form of the same; a man who aspires to elevate himself to the level of a true God.
However there is a distinct difference between Melville’s Elijah and that of the Bible. Where the Biblical Elijah provides signs from God to provide reason and proof to his prophesizing, Melville’s Elijah is far from that. Elijah seems to be a questionable figure, babbling and giving half-warnings as for what is to come. He does so much so that Ishmael writes him off as lunacy with no more than a shred of fear struck into him. I interpreted this to be more than just a veering off from the Biblical story. Elijah is so struck by fear toward the coming events that he is incapable of relaying just the trouble these men are bound for. When Biblical Elijah was fearful he ran. He did not make coherent arguments against paganism or prophesize along the way. This seems to be the most likely motive of creating Moby-Dick’s Elijah so unsound.
It is obvious that the meaning of this conjunction of Elijah and Ahab in Moby-Dick with that of 1 Kings in the Bible is to give us a distinct warning against the character Ahab within Moby-Dick. The reason is a little more hidden. The reader must be aware that holding oneself to the height of God is an extreme violation of Biblical code, and will only lead to misfortune. Furthermore, the true paganism here is overlooked because of the way Queequeg operates under it. He is not a threat, though obviously still sinful. The differences between the two stories only lead me to believe that Ahab’s fall from grace is so great that it is enough to send the ‘prophet’ into a panic so great he is ineffective. Now though, Ismael and Queequeg are bound to him through signature, and therefore equally as guilty.
The Harper Collins Study Bible. Harper San Francisco, 2006. Print.
"Elijah Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <http://www.biography.com/people/elijah-9285965>.