Every Jewish child who has ever sat through a Passover seder knows the excitement and expectation that accompanies the filling of the cup of Elijah. The annual drama at the close of the seder has the child going to the door to invite Elijah in. As a child, I remember how exciting it was to open the door and see if the “special guest” would appear. I even remember getting up early the next morning to see if the cup of Elijah (still on the table) had been touched. It was as if I expected Elijah to arrive during the night, have a drink of wine and then go on his way.
The tradition continues with the hope that one year Elijah will actually appear. The seder ends not with disappointment, but rather with a longing and yearning for the prophet to come soon, next year. The refrain of the simple but jubilant song, l’shanah ha ba’ah b’ Yerushalayim (“Next Year in Jerusalem”) echoes in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and wherever our people observe the Passover.
The modern Hebrew term for a tie or locked decision is teyku. In Midrashic Hebrew the word teyku is an acrostic: “The Tishbite will resolve difficulties and problems.” This is a reference to Elijah the Tishbite, who in Jewish teaching is thought to appear prior to the coming of the Messiah. It is said that when he returns, he will resolve all conflicts concerning Torah and Jewish practice. “In the majority of rabbinic texts which refer to Elijah’s return,” explains Rabbi Morris Faierstein, “his task is to resolve those questions and halachic problems which the rabbis could not agree upon or for which they had no answer.”1 In fact, in no fewer than eighteen passages of the Talmud, Elijah appears as the one who, in his capacity of precursor of the Messiah: “will settle all doubts on matters of ritual and judicial.”2
Where does the tradition of Elijah as the forerunner emerge in Jewish tradition? Why has the prophet been given such a place of honor at Passover? It would seem natural to want to recognize one of Israel’s most revered prophets at such an important event. Yet there is no special place of honor at Passover for Moses, Aaron or even King David. So why Elijah?
Over the centuries the status of Elijah changed and developed. He came to be associated with the Messiah in the late Talmudic and post-Talmudic ages. “Increasingly Elijah became not only a precursor, but an active partner of the Messiah,” according to the Encyclopedia Judaica. “Both Elijah and the Messiah are busy recording the good deeds of the righteous, no doubt with the view to hastening the day of Israel’s redemption.”3
As the status of Elijah was elevated throughout the centuries, so were the legends that surround him. They range from the plausible to the outrageous.4 Elijah has morphed into a type of Jewish mystical hero. We can find a more balanced view of Elijah in the biblical record. It helps as well to look back to the first century A.D. to see what the expectations regarding Elijah were in that pivotal era.
All of the traditions and legends surrounding Elijah ultimately stem from the biblical account of the life of the prophet and the latter prophecies concerning him. Elijah’s name means “YHWH is (my) God,” and his life was dedicated to honoring the name of the Lord. He confronted and put to shame the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel when God sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering on the altar (1 Kings 18:1-46). The mystique of Elijah is enhanced by the way he departed Israel, taken up to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11)!
The foundation of the hope for the return of the elevated Elijah is found in the writings of the prophet Malachi. It is written that Elijah will come before the great and final Day of Judgment.
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse (Malachi 4:5, 6; Hebrew text 3:23, 24).
It is intriguing that the prophet Malachi closes his book, the latest entry in the Hebrew Scriptures (about 430 B.C.), with this tribute to Elijah. The crucial task of calling the people to repentance would fall to Elijah.
For some, it is problematic to conclude from the final verses in Malachi that Elijah will be the forerunner of the Messiah. Rabbi Faierstein asserts, “There is no reference in these verses to the Messiah or any other non-divine being who may be identified with the Messiah.”5
But New Testament scholar Dale Allison, responding to Faierstein’s article, states:
[T]he logic of Jewish eschatology [end of times] demands a connection between the coming of Elijah and the coming of the Messiah. If one believed that the Messiah’s coming would be associated with the arrival of the Day of the Lord (as is witnessed within first-century Judaism), it would follow that Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah appearing first before the last days would be read as an event preceding the coming of Messiah.6
While the concluding verses in Malachi do not explicitly mention the Messiah, they do speak of times and events that will precede the Messiah’s coming. A previous verse in Malachi makes a connection between a forerunner and the Messiah:
“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty (Malachi 3:1).
The task of the messenger of God is to prepare the way, and the Lord will come to his temple. This verse has a rich tradition in referring to a forerunner who will go before the Messiah. Some have even mistaken this forerunner for the Messiah. Rav Saadia Gaon (b. 882 A.D.) says: “We have a tradition from our forefathers that this is the Messiah son of Joseph. He will appear first [before the messiah son of David] in the Land of Israel.”7
It is not in the scope of this article to take an exhaustive look into the different views of Messiah. But Malachi 3:1 makes a clear distinction between the first messenger and the one who comes after him, who is called the Lord. The distinction between the characters and speaker in this verse are crucial. The second messenger is associated with the covenants8 that the Lord has made with the people of Israel. The first messenger will be a herald who announces Messiah’s coming, just as a regal announcement precedes a king’s procession.
Understanding the presence of a herald preparing the way for the Lord from Malachi 3:1 is the first part of the challenge regarding Elijah. The next part is deciding whether the reference in Malachi 4:5 requires the prophet Elijah himself to be the herald of the King Messiah.
Some scholars do not believe that in Malachi 4:5-6 the prophet expected the Tishbite to personally appear. Rather, Elijah may represent a succession of prophetic forerunners:
We are to expect a literal return of Elijah no more than we expect a literal return of David as the future king over Israel. Surely passages like Jer.30:19; Hos.3:5; Ezek 34:23 promise a new David. But it is universally held that this new David is none other than the Messiah himself who comes in the office, line, and promise of David. Consequently, we argue that the new Elijah will be endowed with this same spirit and power without being the actual Elijah who was sent back long after his translation to heaven.9
The fact that the prophet is called Elijah in the verse and not the Tishbite opens the possibility of a range of interpretation. As we just saw with David, Elijah also can be a figure or example of something in the future. And it is within accepted biblical interpretation to allow for this kind of fulfillment.
The Jewish followers of Jesus in the first century were Israeli and Diaspora Jews who adhered to a Jewish perspective. They reflected the common understanding when they asked Jesus, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). In this simple question we are given a glimpse into the opinion of the day. As noted in The Jewish Encyclopedia, “The notion which prevailed at the time of the origin of Christianity, that Elijah’s mission as forerunner of the Messiah consisted mainly in changing the mind of the people and leading them to repentance, is not unknown to rabbinical literature.”10
It has been disputed whether Elijah (or one like him) had to come to signal the advent of the messianic age or the Messiah or both.11 But Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about Elijah attests to the need for a prophet and forerunner: “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things” (Mark 9:12). Jesus then makes a mysterious statement: “But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished” (Mark 9:13). Jesus unveils the mystery when he speaks to a crowd about the first-century prophet known as John the Baptist:
This is the one about whom it is written:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you” (Matthew 11:10; see Malachi 3:1)
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:13,14).
When Jesus says that “they have done everything to [Elijah] they wished,” he is referring to the fact that King Herod imprisoned John, and later beheaded him. In fact, Jesus compares Elijah’s (John’s) suffering to his own, “In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matthew 17:12).
Jesus clearly recognized John as an Elijah figure. Since this idea is found in both Matthew and Mark, narratives of the life of Jesus, it is quite likely to be authentic.12 When the disciples ask Jesus, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11), it shows that those teachers believed that Elijah would be the first in a sequence of messianic comings.13 The fact that the disciples attributed such an interpretation to the teachers of the Law is a provocative point that remains unanswered, unless the tradition was commonly accepted in Jesus’ time.
For Jesus it was a foregone conclusion that Elijah was to be the forerunner of the Messiah and that John came as a figure or symbol of Elijah. Jesus was not creating a new interpretation or midrash; he was dramatically stating the fulfillment of the biblical requirements according to the prophet Malachi. As the Messiah, Jesus understood these matters, and with authority made his declaration.
Passover is a special night. It is a time when family, friends and the community gather together to recall how the Lord with an outstretched arm delivered Israel thousands of years ago. While we were still slaves, he redeemed us from bondage and brought us into freedom.
The eight days of remembrance begin with the seder. We read from the hagaddah about the Exodus, the parting of the seas, and God’s provision for our ancestors. We sing songs of our liberation from bondage. We reenact a meal eaten by our ancestors on the eve of their departure from Egypt. And this culminates in a messianic hope—that the herald, the messenger, Elijah, will come and drink from his cup.
The invitation to Elijah at our Passover is not just to resolve conflicts. It is not merely to answer difficult questions. Elijah represents our hope that God will intervene in the affairs of humanity, that he will hear our cries, feel our burdens and redeem us from our personal bondage, which is ultimately the consequence of our sin.
For many, the cup of Elijah represents a hope that the prophet will take his place at the table and announce the coming of the Messiah, the redeemer of Israel, the hope of all humankind. And so we sing at every Passover seder the traditional song, “Eliyahu Hanavi”:
Eliyahu hanavi (Elijah the prophet)
Eliyahu hatishbi (Elijah the Tishbite)
Eliyahu hagil’adi (Elijah the Gileadite)
Bim’hera yavoh eleinu (May he soon come to us)
Im mashiach ben David (with the Messiah son of David)
We Jews who are followers of the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) believe that the prophet Elijah (in the person of John the Baptist) has come, and so has the Messiah. But we also see the cup of Elijah as a symbol of a final redemption to take place at the return of Yeshua—heralded, this writer believes, by the actual Elijah!
I also believe that if Israel had accepted the message of John to repent and believe in Yeshua, Yeshua would have set up his kingdom right then. That is why Yeshua said of John, “If you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (Matthew 11:14). But just as Israel as a whole did not accept John, nor the one he heralded (Yeshua), will Israel respond when the actual Elijah heralds Yeshua’s second coming?14 When Elijah comes he will break the tie (teyku), and the final revelation will spell salvation (yeshuah) to the world—if we are ready.
1. Morris M. Faierstein, “Why Do The Scribes Say That Elijah Must Come First?” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1981-03, 100:1, p. 82.
2. Walter C. Kaiser, “The Promise of the Arrival of Elijah in Malachi and the Gospels,” Grace Theological Journal, 3.2 (1982), p. 223.
3. Encyclopedia Judaica, volume 13, “Passover,” (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1972) p. 638.
4. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956) p. 597.
5. Faierstein, op. cit., p. 77.
6. Dale C Allison Jr., “Elijah Must Come First,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1984-06, 103:2, p. 257.
8. Exodus 23:20-23 and Jeremiah 31:3, cited in Kaiser, Malachi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984) p. 83.
9. Kaiser, “The Promise of the Arrival of Elijah in Malachi and the Gospels,” Grace Theological Journal, 3.2 (1982), pp. 226-27.
10. The Jewish Encyclopedia, volume 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906) p. 126.
11. cf. Faierstein, Allison, Fitzmeyer, Joseph A., “More About Elijah Coming First,”Journal of Biblical Literature, 1985-06, 104:2, p. 295.
12. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and The Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992) article on John the Baptist by Ben Witherington III, p. 385.
14. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah: A Study of the Sequence of Prophetic Events (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2002) pp. 130-134.