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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?

  • Crows are extraordinarily intelligent and have been known to bring gifts to humans: youtube.com/watch?v=BBQf15c23-g youtube.com/watch?v=Y04ATmo-KFg – Ruminator Mar 24 '18 at 19:29
  • I suppose Noah also sent an Arab out of the window of the ark? – Luke Sawczak Jun 7 '18 at 18:35
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    @Luke Sawczak if we leave context aside, in Genesis it written הערב. If it was something like הערבי it was worth comment... So no. It can't be something else in this story. – A. Meshu Jun 9 '18 at 10:42
  • @A.Meshu Indeed - I'm just teasing, more regarding the role of animals than the Hebrew itself :) – Luke Sawczak Jun 9 '18 at 13:17
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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.

8

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 (Ezekiel) 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.

  • Dan I think you may be referring to 'Ezekiel' cooking on dung (Ezekiel 4), not Isaiah, see my edit. – Bach Jun 7 '18 at 13:35
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According to Strongs 06158 on the eight other occasions this word is used it definitely has a connection to bird life. cf Gen 8:7; Lev 11:15; Deut 14:14; Job 38:14; Ps 147:9; Pro 30:17; So 5:11; Is 34:11. That makes me believe it was ravens.

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    The problem is that the consonantal text allows for the reading of Strong's 6163 "Arab" instead of raven – b a Mar 24 '18 at 21:10
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Rabbi Joseph Kara makes a novel suggestion in his commentary to 1 Kings 17:4 (available at this link in Hebrew), that these were people from the nearby town of Oreb (he understands that it is situated near the Jordan river, based on Judges 7:25, see additional commentaries there for their takes on the location of the "Rock of Oreb"). Therefore, there would be merit to such a translation being that the city of Oreb was geographically close.

  • My emphasis is specifically that he proves that this town was close, not just a theoretical position that it could be that it was simply named after their town. – רבות מחשבות Mar 25 '18 at 17:54
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Although i upvoted the accepted answer i must say that without diacritial marks ( Nikud ) והערבים as "...and the Arabs..." can be proper read.

Even if few in the past mention this possibility - this kind of theological thinking welcomes peace and love and not hate to the other.

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Another possible and logical kind of messenger that G-D might have sent to aid Elijah could have been nomads. The phonetics and spelling are similar.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Thanks for your post and welcome to the forum, Yoseph. Answers need to be supported by evidence. In this case, you would need to give examples where nomads were clearly meant in the text or even in historical writings outside the Bible. However, your post would be gratefully accepted in the Comment area. Perhaps someone might be able to find the evidence needed to make the connection to the word, nomads. I also edited your thought to make your meaning clearer in English. Best wishes, – Dieter Jun 9 '18 at 0:44

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