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Matters of Life and Death: The Story of Elijah and the Widow's Son in Comparative Perspective

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This paper examines the concept of death projected by 1 Kgs 17:17-24 and other accounts of miraculous resuscitation. Viewed as a medical case history, Elijah's reviving of the widow's son raises difficult questions. Was the boy really dead, "only mostly dead," or merely gravely ill? Scholars often answer such questions by claiming that ancient Israelites did not consider corpses "to be 'totally' dead for a couple of days," and regarded death as "an enfeebled form of life." This paper challenges these claims by comparing Elijah's actions to those of other biblical and ancient Greek healers, as well as to Mesopotamian and shamanic healing practices. Why do healers like Elijah end up getting into bed with their patients? Examples in modern stories by Flaubert and Kafka reveal the kinship between the healer and the scapegoat, and suggest that miraculous healers tend to display narcissistic personality traits. Analysis of Greek sources and the Mount Horeb episode (1 Kings 19) indicates that this may also be the case for ancient healers like Elijah, Empedocles, and Asclepius, and that narcissism is itself a defense against death.


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