In Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ishmael and Queequeg are set for sail aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab, a man with whom they are altogether unacquainted. Before they are set to sail, they are approached by a stranger, one who is at various times perceived as being “a little damaged in the head” (102) and also as perhaps legitimate. This is a touch frightening to Ismael, as the peculiar stranger seems to be “half-hinting, half-revealing” (103) some sort of danger regarding Captain Ahab and his ship. But after babbling a while, introducing himself as a man named Elijah, and ultimately failing to impart any useful knowledge, Ishmael and Queequeg part from him. Soon thereafter, however, they encounter him again. This time he seems more frantic, inquiring about the men Ishmael thought he had seen board the ship. But upon investigation, it seemed no men had done so. This also frightens Ishmael, and he does not know just what to make of this stranger Elijah.
Melville is giving us some clues, though, with the name Elijah, the chapter title “The Prophet,” his juxtaposition with a character named Ahab and concerns about false worship. Melville is all but outright begging us to turn to the Bible for clues. In 1 Kings 18-19, the Bible tells the story of Elijah, a prophet from Tishbite, who warns Ahab of an upcoming drought in Israel. The drought he alludes to indeed occurs, and for three years the Israelites suffer as punishment for their worship of Baal, the Canaanite storm god.
Elijah shows the Israelites that his Lord is God (and that Baal is not) when he challenges them to have Baal set fire to a sacrifice on wood. When the Israelites call upon Baal, loudly for hours, no results are yielded. But Elijah’s god is able to send down his fire, even upon water that Elijah has set about his sacrifice. The Israelites proclaim Elijah’s Lord as God, and Elijah orders them to have the hundreds of prophets of Baal killed. Ahab tells Jezebel of Elijah’s actions, and she threatens to have him murdered, at which time Elijah flees into the desert and begs his Lord to let him die.
However, Melville’s Elijah behaves a bit differently. Whereas he makes it perfectly clear that he has some warning that he wants to deliver, and that some danger will befall Ishmael and Queequeg if they sail with Captain Ahab, he does not explicitly tell them anything.
“I was gonna warn ye against – but never mind…” he says to them, leaving Ishmael guessing at the story that he alluded to. At the end of chapter 19, Ishmael confesses himself to be quite nervous about these vague apprehensions, as Elijah has not clearly stated any concrete danger for which to prepare. This is different than the Bible’s Elijah.
Given this difference, that at face value the only real similarity between the two characters is that they know of and at least want to warn of some danger, but that Melville intentionally makes clear that there is a connection between the two “prophets,” what can we make of the parallelism of these two literary characters? That is the stranger in Moby-Dick, and the lone prophet in the Bible.
For one, it is significant that the danger which Elijah promises to Ahab in 1 Kings 18 does indeed occur. Therefore, as a reader it seems safe to assume that the stranger who approaches Ishmael is not actually insane, but that his fears are legitimate and will most likely be realized. Had Melville named the stranger something else, that conclusion wouldn’t be as safe, so in some sense that is a purpose of the connection. However, to be truthful, Captain Ahab and Pequod and Ishmael’s impending adventure all seem a bit shady to begin with, and some supposition that danger was afoot may not have been entirely reliant upon Ishmael’s interaction with Elijah (although that was a great source of it). But there must be more to it.
Part of the issue here is that in the Bible, the drought Elijah warned of was inflicted upon the Israelites as punishment (for false worship). This is a recurring theme in Moby-Dick from the start, that God will punish his transgressors. Father Mapple’s sermon in chapter 9, for example, tells the story of Jonah being punished for his disobedience of God, and obedience to himself, of God preparing a great whale to swallow him up – all this just before Father Mapple begins to allude to his own transgressions and falls gravely on the pulpit, unmoving, his hands covering his face. For the reader, then, this should signify that some danger while aboard the ship will occur, perhaps (at least in Melville’s eyes), some form of punishment for transgression. It is, after all, Ahab and his followers who are being punished in the bible. So, in Moby-Dick, might it be Captain Ahab and his shipmates? This becomes the danger that Melville’s Elijah alludes to – that Ismael and Queequeg are sailing aboard a ship with a man with a mysterious past, a curious obsession with a whale, and perhaps a cursed future.