Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 3:23-24)Interestingly, the Midrash (Gen. Rabba 99:10) cites this verse in order to explain the blessings that Jacob gives to two of his sons, as we read just a few days ago. Between the blessings of Dan and Gad, Jacob abruptly makes a desperate plea to God.
When Jacob saw [Samson], he exclaimed, "I wait for your salvation, O Lord" (Gen. 49:17)--not he will bring the redemption, but [one descended] from Gad, as it says, "Gad, a troop shall troop upon him, but he shall troop upon the heel," which alludes to him who will come at the end [lit. 'heel']: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord" (Mal. 3:23). He was of the Tribe of Gad, for that reason it says, "but he shall troop upon the heel."Samson, the most prominent descendant of Dan, is likened to a viper, and the Midrash offers two explanation: either this refers to his solitariness or his vengefulness, as expressed in his suicidal zealotry (Jud. 16:28): "O Lord God, remember me, I pray you, and strengthen me, I pray you, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes."
Thus, we see Jacob evaluate two potential saviors from among his offspring: Samson the Danite, the serpentine lone avenger, is rejected, his place to be taken by Elijah the Gaddite. However, this does not seem to match up with Elijah as we encounter him in the Book of Kings. He does indeed embrace both solitude and vengeance (I Kings 19:10):
With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant: they have thrown down your altars, they have slain your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away.Nor is this a simple declaration. Immediately before this, Elijah ventures into the desert for a Moses-like journey to Sinai--but without the people! And this comes immediately after he encourages them to slay hundreds of priests of Baal.
Perhaps we should consider God's response to Elijah. Elijah sees a tempest, an earthquake and an inferno, but none of these represent the word of God. Instead, it is "a still, small voice." Unmoved, Elijah restates his bona-fides of viperous vengeance and isolation. And then God immediately tells him that the time has come for him to appoint a successor. Elijah's tenure is at an end.
Traditionally, of course, this is not the end of Elijah's mission. He who claimed that Israel abandoned the covenant of God bears witness at every circumcision and every Passover that he was wrong. His role in life pales in comparison to his role beyond it.
This is what Malachi alludes to: the role of Elijah in restoring unity and teaching the people to forgive each other. Samson never redeems himself, but Elijah does, realizing as he trains his replacement Elisha that vengeance and isolation are not the path to redemption. Elijah of Melakhim (the Book of Kings) becomes Elijah of Malakhi (the Book of Malachi).
However, this is no softening or weakening of the divine imperative; the last words of Malachi, the final line of prophecy in Israel, is "or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction." The stakes are unimaginably high. Elijah's mission of renouncing vengefulness and isolation is a powerful calling, upon which the fate of the world hangs, and the commitment to it must be as serious as his former dedication to zealotry. His campaign of love and reconciliation must be bold, uncompromising and compelling.
This week my wife and I had the privilege of welcoming a new child, a ray of light for us in a world which seems so consumed by darkness. We named him Malachi Elijah with the hope that he will do his part, through compassion and comity, to bring that redemption closer. Indeed, it is the ultimate mission incumbent upon all of us.