Psychoanalysing Elijah

A host of commentators reading 1 Kings have attempted to diagnose Elijah as suffering from one or another mental disorder: “generalised depression”, “manic-depression”, paranoia”,  “burn-out” and “mid-life crisis”, “messianic complex”, the hopelessness and “selective abstraction” of a depressed introvert who is engaging in distorted and maladjusted thinking. And then there are those that make ethical judgements about Elijah’s behaviour: “plagued by his own ego and exaggerated importance” and displaying “hubris”. In Elijah at Horeb, 1 Kings 19: 1 -1 8: A Coherent Narrative?, Bernard P Robinson calls Elijah “a tetchy and arrogant prima donna of a prophet” . Most -if not all- these criticisms assume that Elijah is a literary figure alone, but the flaw undermines them is that, whether Elijah is deemed to be imaginary or real, they go through only if Elijah was not a prophet of G-d. If Elijah was a prophet of G-d, then a) he cannot be judged as having normal human motivations and b) he cannot be evaluated by normal human standards of behaviour. Since he is according to the bible account a prophet of G-d, it follows that, if Elijah is imaginary, then he is the beneficiary of these exemptions; and if Elijah is real then he is also the beneficiary of these exemptions; hence Elijah is in any case the beneficiary of these exemptions.

Let us consider firstly the notion of manic-depression (more commonly known known now as “bipolar disorder” and characterised by violent mood swings) as it is applied to Elijah. The basis of this diagnosis is that Elijah was on the one hand bold, excitable, and vibrant, prepared to take on the King of Israel, and able to call down fire from heaven, but on the other hand retiring, fearful that Jezebel would have him killed, and suicidally depressed by what he perceived to be his failure to turn things around.

But for a prophet of G-d this is, not a  mental illness, but a natural mental condition of someone who exists at one and the same time in the extreme states of being G-d’s messenger and a flesh and blood man who fears and must must flee for his life. It is impossible both to be prophet of G-d and a frail human being and not experience these extremes of emotion because of the psychological tension there is between the divine and the human, and Elijah’s extreme and divided personal traits are signs of his identity as a prophet of G-d.

This is the reason that this form of tension is common amongst artists and thinkers, some of whom who are like old testament prophets, mediating between G-d and man. It is a mistake to think of many of these people as mentally ill – where the “sane” live in denial, divided and tormented artists and thinker and prophets are reflecting the true nature the human condition, to be caught between the infinite and the finite.


It is isn’t clear that the psychiatric profession so much as have a coherent objective notion of “illness” in the sense in which appendicitis is a coherent objective illness. What these latter day witch-doctors tend to do is to latch onto a behaviour that is abnormal in the statistical sense (rare) and blindly and incorrectly infer that this means it is abnormal in the normative sense (undesirable). The profession in some sense owes its existence to the  logical fallacy known affirming the antecedent:

A implies B;


therefore A

If x has a brain-based mental disorder, then changing x’s brain-state would change the nature of the disorder;

by changing x’s brain state with medication, the nature of x’s disorder is changed;

therefore the disorder is brain-based

But one may as well argue that the fact that some forms of medication slow the heart rate shows that an accelerated heart-rate is due to organic rather than psychological or other causes. What evidence is there, the question arises, that mental disorders such as depression etc. have their basis in the mechanical actions of the brain? That these disorders respond to medication (supposing that they do so respond) is not evidence. Rather it assumed, without evidence, that the basis of certain mental disorders is the mechanical action of the brain. In the case of physical disorders there is a correlation between a disordered state of a physical organ and the symptoms of this disorder. In the case of appendicitis for example the appendix is inflamed. In the case of mental disorders other than brain tumours, or disorders involving measurable physical trauma to the brain, there is no such correlation. A brain state is inferred to be the cause of the disorder from the external behaviour of the patient or sufferer when there is no measurable internal state. Or if there is some measurable internal state, then there is nothing to warrant the conclusion that this is a cause rather than an effect…

The word messiah comes from the word “mashiyach”, meaning “anointed by G-d”, and like all prophets, Elijah was anointed by G-d. He was this is to say a messiah, and therefore was not in the grip of what psychologists and psychiatrists call a “complex”. It seems like a complex only to those who assume that the bible is not literally true and Elijah was not a messiah. Imagine a champion sportsman who believes themselves to be a champion tennis player, and conducts themselves according to this belief as a champion tennis player. This person does not have a “champion complex”. In the same way that a champion complex is the province of the non-champion, the messiah complex is the province of the non-messiah. That is the sacred counter-argument, but there is also a viable secular counter-argument. Psychiatrists are confused about the notion of “grandiosity”  (an unrealistic sense of importance) of which the messiah complex is a sub-category, taking it to be a symptom of a mental disorder. But they fail consider that grandiose thinking in the present is the precursor to future grand accomplishment as when Cinderella dreams of going to the ball (unrealistic)

and later goes on to fulfil her ambition to go to the ball (the unrealistic becomes real). Whether the thinking is grandiose in the present, this is to say, depends on the future, meaning that it is impossible to say without the benefit of prophetic insight or a time-machine when thinking is grandiose. Similarly the prophet of G-d may not be recognisable until the time in which his prophecies come true, and may be dismissed -like Noah when he was building the ark in preparation for the coming great flood- as insane at earlier times. The prophet of G-d justifiably has grandiose visions of the future, and no prophet’s vision of the future was grander than Yeshua’s. He was met was skepticism (“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”) and rejection (All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff) but the man after whom the messiah complex later offered irrefutable proof that he was anointed when he passed the ultimate test and reversed the action of death itself. But even if one was being unrealistic in possessing messianic ambitions -ambitions to “save the world”- the words of singer-songwriter Brooke Fraser emphasis the laudability of such ambitions, unrealistic or otherwise:

We could stay another day in this confusion
Let it permeate us ’till we can’t move on
And while we’re waiting we could try saving the world
Or are we storing that up for a rainy day? We could stay another day in this apathy
Let it permeate us ’till we’re numb through
And while we’re waiting we could try saving the world
Or are we storing that up for a rainy day?
What, the song provokes us to ask ourselves, are we doing if we’re not trying to save the world? Answer: nothing good – wasting our time on frivolities, and on things that are ultimately going to be burned up/washed away.


It is is easy to distinguish those -such as tele-evangelist and charlatan Benny Hinn and the actor Russell Brand -that have a messiah complexes from those that are truly anointed by G-d and therefore have a grand ambition for the world: the one with messiah complex is -like Benny Hinn, Brand, Donald Trump, and everyone in Hollywood- narcissistically full of themselves, and desires nothing more than to put on a show in which they are the star.

The one without the messiah complex desires nothing more than to put themselves aside and give all the prominence to G-d. Like Moses, they are unwilling to step into the limelight, and do so only because G-d commands it. Exodus 3: 11-12:

But Moses said to G-d, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And G-d said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain.”

On the subject of ethics, and what is, and what is not appropriate behaviour for a prophet, we can say simply that when the prophet is carrying out the will of G-d, then whatever they do is by definition the right thing to do, and there can be be no valid criticism of their behaviour. What may seem to critics to be ego, arrogance, and hubris isn’t such when the mind of the prophet has surrendered to the will of G-d and is carrying out G-d’s commands. But often times carrying out the will of G-d will appear as ego/arrogance/hubris because the prophet will be called upon to act with such extreme boldness, and to undertake tasks such that no one but a madman or someone divinely inspired would dare undertake, and which without G-d’s -spiritual- help would be impossibly hard. Zechariah 4: 6-7:

“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground.

But this bold behaviour is not coming from the human motivations of the prophet themselves who -like Moses- may be an innately humble and insecure person following divine commandments that force them into positions that from a superficial perspective appear to be those of someone assertive and self-confidant. Like Moses, Elijah boldly went head to head with the most powerful person around (King Ahab), not because he was arrogant in himself, but because G-d required it of him, and therefore gave him the strength.