I’ve written about the prophet Elijah a few times, but I’ve only just become aware of a rabbinical tradition that identifies him as the same person as Phinehas. So who was Phinehas? He was the son of Eleazar, who in turn was the son of Moses’ brother Aaron. As such, he was third in line to serve as High Priest of Israel. His time of glory comes in the book of Numbers, when the Israelites, despite having just recently heard Yahweh speaking from Mount Sinai, decided to worship Baal-peor instead. In their defense, gods are famous for taking other forms, so how were they to know these two weren’t the same god? The Hebrew Bible, having been finalized in an era when monotheism had become the norm for the Jews, presents a continuing story of Yahweh being right there and the people ignoring Him, but I have to suspect the reality was quite different. As in several other cases, worship of a foreign god is associated with foreign women, because the prospect of exotic sex will presumably make anyone worship any god. I guess I can see that, but again, I have to suspect it wasn’t that simple. Anyway, at a place called Shittim (possibly adjacent to the land of Phukit), Phinehas used a spear to kill an Israelite named Zimri and a Midianite woman named Cozbi while they were having sex.
For this, God assured Phinehas that his priestly line would last forever. Certainly, as long as the Jews had high priests, they all at least claimed to be descendants of Phinehas. Zadok, considered to be the ancestor of the Sadducees, is said in Chronicles to be the eighth-generation descendant of Phinehas. The son of Eleazar later went on to lead the Israelites in battle against the Midianites, and then settled down in the promised land. He’s still around in Joshua, attempting to mediate between the tribes.
So why would this guy be the same as Elijah? Well, part of it is probably that they both were distinguished by their zeal for Yahweh in an age when the people had turned toward Baal. Phinehas led the battle against foreigners who were trying to entice the Israelites to sin, while Elijah challenged and then slaughtered the priests of Baal in his own time. So maybe someone drew a connection between the two figures, and this eventually developed into the idea that they were the same. In addition to this, Phinehas appears to live a very long life. When he appears in Joshua, he must be upwards of 200 years old. While the Bible does include a lot of characters who lived to quite unrealistic ages, these ages gradually decreased throughout Genesis, and Moses himself is said to have died at the age of 120. Still pretty old, but a far cry from 200. In fact, while we’re told about the death and burial of Eleazar, I don’t believe we’re ever given such information about Phinehas. As for Elijah, he basically just appears, with no mention of back story. We’re told that he’s a Tishbite, presumably indicating that he’s from Tishbe in Galilee, but the word is apparently also sometimes translated as simply “stranger.” And Elijah is said to have never really died, but to have been taken to Heaven alongside a flaming chariot. As such, some creative rabbi must have put these together and come up with the idea of Phinehas/Elijah being an immortal who helped out Israel in times of need. For anyone who thinks fan-fiction is a particular phenomenon of the Internet age, here’s proof otherwise. Some legends say that Elijah became the angel Sandalphon, much as Enoch became Metatron.
In fact, Metatron and Sandalphon are said to be brothers, whatever that might mean among angels. Whether the name “Sandalphon” has anything to do with how angels are often depicted wearing sandals isn’t clear. It’s unlikely, but Wikipedia does mention it as a possibility, pointing out that the word “sandal” comes from Greek. Other sources suggest that Enoch might always have been an angel, but one who took human form. Wasn’t that also Gandalf’s back story?
Another story about Elijah involves his confrontation with Lilith, Adam’s first wife who went on to become a baby-killing demon. The prophet curses her, but she is able to abate the curse by telling Elijah her names. With this knowledge, pregnant women can keep Lilith away from their homes.