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A couple of commentaries mention that scholars dispute that Elijah was fed by ravens and instead think the word in 1 Kings 17:4-6 ought to be translated black arabs or perhaps "Orbites, i.e., inhabitants of Orbo." I'm also told though:

In support of the received rendering is the very powerful consideration, that it is the interpretation of all the versions (except the Arabic) and of Josephus, who, beyond all question, represented the belief current in his own time (Ant. viii. 13. 2).

1 Kings. 1909 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.). The Pulpit Commentary (382). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.

Is there any merit to translating this as something other than ravens? Or is it simply an attempt to accommodate the story to something consider more historically plausible (i.e. non-miraculous)? Or perhaps an incredulity that someone so zealous as Elijah would eat what unclean birds brought him?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is an ancient question... The rabbis of the Talmud [BT Hullin 5a] discuss both opinions:

What is meant by ‘the ravens’ ['orevim]? Ravina said: It means actual ravens. R. Ada ben Manyomi said to him: "Could it not mean two men whose names were Orev?" He replied, "How could it have happened that both were named Orev?" "But perhaps they were so named after the town in which they lived?"... "If so, the verse should read Orebites ['orevi'im]."

A similar back-and-forth is found in Genesis Rabba 33:5 [a compilation of rabbinic commentary, probably 5th-6th century CE].

There is no philological basis for translating it as anything but "ravens". The hesitation is, as you noted, that ravens are unclean scavengers and thus perhaps unfit (not, in my opinion, a particularly strong argument), and also that having humans feed Elijah here makes a nice parallel to the widow of Sarephath who feeds him a few verses later. But in my opinion it's a stretch.

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I quoted Gen Rabbah 33:5 in this answer to another question. The rabbis there were talking about Noach sending out the raven; he thought it was expendable, and God told him that no, He had another purpose for the raven later -- to feed Eliyahu. –  Gone Quiet Apr 18 '13 at 2:50
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It is not uncommon for God to use animals to perform tasks in the Tanakh/Old Testament, so this would not be an anomaly. At the same time, ancient Near East (ANE) hospitality makes 'Arabs' a possibility (it is plausible).

Concerning the issue of ritual impurity, Elijah was out in the wilderness, nowhere near the temple nor other Jews. Who cares if he became ritually impure? Other prophets cooked food on dung (Isaiah) and married hookers (Hosea). This is still a weak argument.

But modern scholars generally agree with 'ravens' as the best translation. "It is now generally admitted that הָעֹרְבִים does not mean either Arabs or Orebites (the inhabitants of an imaginary city named Oreb), but ravens."1 "The word orev likely refers to the short-tailed black species corvus rhipidurus that nests around the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley."2 Not to mention, the LXX also translates this as 'ravens.'

So while it's possible that it was Arabs who fed Elijah, it is unlikely.

Footnotes

1 Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 1 Ki 17:2–9.

2 John D. Barry, Michael R. Grigoni, Michael S. Heiser et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), 1 Ki 17:4.

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The Covenant curses included being eaten by the birds and the beasts. The fact that the prophet, out in the world, away from the Covenant people, was being fed during a famine by unclean birds is a deliberate irony. While the grain of the old order was starving away, the "oil and wine" of the new would not be harmed. We see the same process during the first century, with Gentile churches supporting Jews during the famine resulting from the slaughter of Stephen (innocent blood brings famine, going back to Cain).

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