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The Mountain of Elijah    

The Bible and Carmelite Tradition
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The History of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns.
Your head is like Carmel" affirms the spouse of the Song of Songs, praising the beauty of his beloved. Effectively, in the Bible Mount Carmel is used as a symbol of beauty and fruitfulness: "to her is given glory of Lebanon, the splendor of Carmel".

Carmel is a sacred mountain. To the God of Israel, to Baal, to Zeus... A cultic tradition that existed throughout the course of the centuries gave to the mountain an evocative character. Carmel is the location of the acts of Elijah, greatest of the prophets, through whom is made manifest, on the very summit of the holy mountain, and in opposition to the impotence of the idols, the power of the true God.

Carmel is the mountain of Mary. The attribution of beauty and of sanctity typical of Carmel converge, through the comments of the Fathers of the Church and the Ecclesiastical writers, in the person of the Mother of God, exalted above all creatures because of her place in the history of salvation.

When, in the period of the Crusades, the group of Latin hermits established themselves on the slopes of Mount Carmel, they collected these elements and elaborated on them, meditating at length and integrating them into a project for their lives. 

Mount Carmel in the Bible
Mount Carmel. Typical mediterranean vegetation on the west side.

In the New Testament one can find no trace of Mount Carmel: not a single event from the Gospels is set there, although the setting for the actions of Jesus ranges over the whole of Judea, and it is never used as a symbol in either the numerous parables of Jesus or the Pauline epistles or in the New Testament writings (more or less recent studies, to tell the truth, have tried to show that Carmel could be a New Testament location, but they have still not produced valid or convincing demonstrations).  

In the vision of the Old Testament, on the contrary, Carmel occupies a place of considerable importance. There are two biblical locations known by this name: on one hand the famous mountain range in the north of Palestine, on the other a village situated in the territory of Judah, about ten kilometers from Hebron, which even now gives its name to the surrounding hills. It is only the first location which interests us: the mountain that was the setting for important events in Old Testament history, and had already become a symbol and metaphor in Biblical literature; the place of settlement for the first Carmelite hermits, that will have a great significance in the history of the

Order’s spiritual literature. It is undeniable that –in the whole of the Old Testament- the history of Carmel is identified almost exclusively with the events from the lives of the prophets Elijah and Elisha: the Christian tradition has always perceived the strict interconnection between the Palestinian mountain and the Elijan cycle, since Gregory of Nyssa was able to write: "Elijah lived on Mount Carmel, which is celebrated and illustrious above all because of the virtue and reputation of him who lived there" (PG, XLVI, 594). However we will leave aside this aspect for now, as it will be the object of a separate study. We will simply go back over the other occurrences f the term in the Old Testament, trying to gather their importance and significance, above all when it becomes –as often happens for many other locations and objects in Palestine- a vehicle for the expression and symbolizing of another reality.

Regarding mountains in general and their relevance for the religious of every period, in particular for those of antiquity, we can make a preliminary observation. In all cultures –particularly those which are archaic- the mountain has always been something sacred, something capable of establishing a more direct contact with the Divinity, perhaps because of its height or the inaccessibility of some of its parts. Archeology and other complementary sciences have demonstrated that Mount Carmel (it would not be futile to repeat that when we use this expression we are not referring to an isolated summit but to a mountain chain which extends for some twenty five kilometers in length and six in breadth) was always held in antiquity to be sacred area: the fact that –as far as it concerns the time of the events recounted in the Elijan cycle- no certain traces of human settlement have yet been found (such a study should preferably be directed to the flat, coastal zones, even though in the conquest the first areas to be populated were the mountains of Judea) could confirm precisely the sacred character of the site, while other documents testify to the permanence of the cult in successive epochs. An inscription from the end of the fourth century B.C. talks, for example, of Carmel as the sacred Mountain of Zeus; the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius attest to the presence of an altar dedicated to him and the discovery of a votive foot with the inscription which praises Zeus Carmelus Heliopolitanus (datable to the second and third centuries A.D.) which further testifies to the cult throughout the centuries. One could be dealing with (according to the above mentioned scholars) the Greek form of the ancient cult of Baal, shown by the Bible as existing alongside that of YHWH (see 1 Kings 18,20-40; 2 Kings 4,25).

Regarding the exact etymology of the name Carmel and its precise meaning, the philologist have never reached a unanimous decision. The overwhelming majority of scholars maintain that the Hebrew name Karmel derives from the root krm (with the single addition of the suffix "l", a common enough occurrence in Hebrew), establishing therefore a certain equivalence with the noun kerem, which means "vineyard" – or as translators often suggest- a garden, vegetable or otherwise, does not always appear so obvious to an attentive reading of the Biblical texts in which this term occurs. Throughout the centuries, especially in the spiritual tradition of the Order, the hypothesis that explains the origin of Karmel as a contraction of kerem and ‘el (the Divine name, indicating therefore "the vineyard or garden of God") has enjoyed a great fortune. 

As evocative as it might seem, it is absolutely lacking in grammatical foundation and without the support of texts that could in some way confirm it. Already Origen (followed in part by Jerome) had done much imaginative work, attributing a common origin to there two different root words because of their vague similarity, and giving to Carmel a meaning as obscure as it was fantastic, that of "knowledge of circumcision": It is the merit of P. Jouon, more rigorous in philological analysis, and above all of E. Friedman, more sensitive to the world of exegesis and to the Jewish term karmel might indicate then a particular type of vegetation, half way between midbar (the steppe, an area dry and almost desert) and ya’ar (a forest of high-trunked trees, as for example the mountains of Lebanon with their cedars). Biblical Hebrew signifies therefore by karmel a scrubby woodland, rich in vegetation but composed for the most part of shrubs and small trees. The findings of Friedman coincide moreover with the panorama offered by the vegetation of Mount Carmel: whoever has visited this region will recall the typical Mediterranean vegetation, composed above all of many shrubs and wild fruits. Even today habitations are very rare, and the Druse villagers are extremely scarce, since the terrain, though suitable for pasture, does not lend itself to agriculture (the few cultivated areas have been wrested from the land thanks to the tenacity of man), while the abundant rain has always favored the growth of a luxuriant vegetation.

The Bible itself gives witness to these diverse forms of vegetation; the use of the three terms becomes a recurrent motif, so much so that in certain texts it almost appears as a fixed literary term (for example in Is 32,15 where the three types of vegetation signify a constant progression of magnificence and fertility).

A text that found great favor in the Christian tradition –and above all in the Marian spirituality of Carmel (the celebrated caput tuum ut Carmelus of the Latin version) – is that of Song of Songs 7,5. In the description of the beloved, conducted according to a taste typically oriental, the bridegroom makes use of various geographical references to describe the various parts of the body; v.5 affirms "your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple." Some exegetes, pretending to restore a major parallelism to the two terms being compared, do not read karmel, but karmil (purple): it is difficult to understand the motive for such a repetition. The geographical reference on the other hand seems to be very natural, since up to that moment the comparison had been conducted using geographical symbols, and the description of the beloved had arrived at her nose: and for those who knew well the geography of Palestine it was easy to think of the characteristic form of the Carmel promontory which descends at Haifa, as the nose of a girl (the Arabs call it anf el-jefel, "the nose of the mountain!") and the dense vegetation of Carmel which descends towards the southeast as the hair (one needn’t worry at the strangeness of the description since Biblical poetry is light years away from our own aesthetic and lyric 

sensibilities; see for example, Song 4,1 "Your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead!"). Returning to our text this translation is testified to by the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, which translate literally. The Hebrew tradition has always interpreted and connected the verse in question with Carmel and the prophet Elijah, making use of alliterations and word-play to give an allegorical interpretation: "The Holy One –blessed be He- said to Israel: your head (ro’shek) is over you like Carmel: the poor (rashim) are dear like Elijah who went up on Mount Carmel" (Cant. Rabba VII, 6,1) On the other hand, similar comparisons are not totally alien to Biblical language, so that one can play –as in effect happen in our case- on the double sense of the term ro’sh (head , head of a person, but also a promontory): the expression ro’sh hakkarmel is used more times to indicate the promontory of Carmel (which descends into Haifa) or some other summit of the mountain chain.

The vivid poetic sense of the Biblical authors plays therefore with the image of Carmel to invoke the idea of beauty and fruitfulness. For its rich vegetation, for the green of its trees and bushes, for the great variety of flora and fauna, Carmel is in the Bible precisely a land of great and rare beauty. The prophets often make use of this perspective. The case of Isaiah 35, 1-2 is typical: wishing to describe with powerful imagery the glory of the triumph of Jerusalem and the joy of the return to Zion, the poet writes: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God." Apropos, L. Alonso Schokel notes: "The flower is the joy of plants, which express themselves in form and color. The magnificence of trees and plants is like a reflection of the glory and beauty of the Lord." If they history of man and the world of nature are for the Israelite in the first place a theophany , a manifestation of God, or better still an epiphany, a transparency of his beauty and his splendor, on e understands also this appeal to Carmel as the most natural image that the author had at his disposition to sing of the Divine glory. It is worth nothing that the splendor and beauty of Carmel and of its vegetation are used as a symbol to describe the beauty of Carmel and of its vegetation are used as a symbol to describe the beauty of the new Jerusalem, and are therefore greater than the beauty and splendor of this same city. Truly the poet did not know anything more splendid than Carmel in its full magnificence!

Land or rare beauty, Mount Carmel becomes also, thanks to its vegetation covered summits, its dense woodlands and its rich diversity of plant species, a symbol of fruitfulness, fertility, grace and prosperity. One is not dealing with an affirmation in an absolute sense, since – as has been said- the hills of Carmel do not lend themselves to agriculture, rather their character is adapted to pasturing (see Jer 50,19), but with the prevalence of spontaneous vegetation, wild, without the intervention of man, one is led to affirm with greater intensity this fact. Putting us on guard against purely human alliances, and inviting us to conversion and to put our trust solely in the alliance with God, the prophet Isaiah presents in a few verses (32,15-20) the rich fruits of conversion and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit "and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field (karmel), and the fruitful field (karmel9 is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteous abide in the fruitful field (karmel)" (vv. 15-16; see also 29,17). It is the power of God, the reestablishment of a just relationship with God, that can guarantee to man fruitfulness and prosperity. Even if the term Karmel is used as a common name to indicate just woodlands, the Greek Septuagint version preferred to use it in reference to Mount Carmel: "The desert will become Carmel and Carmel will become forest; the law will dwell in the desert and in Carmel will dwell justice". It is worth nothing that the Carmelite Rule was inspired by this text and expressly cites v.17 with regard to silence; even if the Legislator used the Latin version, which does not speak at all of Mount Carmel, it would be interesting to study if some contact would have been possible between the Hebrew and Greek texts: from the Bible the author fo the rule would have derived the image of a Carmel transfigured by the power of God, in which peace and security come from placing one’s trust solely in Him. But this would go beyond the limits of our research.


The same idea of fertility and richness is expressed, in contrast, by Isaiah 33,9: "The land mourns and languishes; Lebanon is confounded and withers away; Sharon is like a desert; and Basham and Carmel shake off their leaves" (see: Am 1,2; Na 1,4). Similarly, Jeremiah 4,26, which, announcing the danger of an invasion by the enemy, presents the danger of solitude and total desolation; also here the surrender and the rout are painted with images of woodlands (karmel) become a desert. But it is surely in the text of Jeremiah 2 where the prophet from Anatoth comes much closer to our theme. God is addressing an accusation to His people, and remembers in this regard the events of the past and the gestures of His love: He brought them out of the land of Egypt, He guided and sustained them through the deserts and inhospitable and uninhabited lands to lead them finally into the promised land. To describe this land (v.7) the prophet uses again the term Karmel; one could translate the verse in question, "but I have brought you into a land of delights (rather than the literal sense: "into the region of Carmel"; this is yet another occasion where the Greek translation prefers the concrete sense and give: "I have brought you to Carmel") so that you might eat of its fruits". In this excerpt the idealization and symbolism reach their peak: what is signified, in fact, is the land that God had promised His people after the trial of the desert: "a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper (Deut 8,7-9)": The book of Deuteronomy also invites, after having recalled the trial of the desert, the people not to become proud on account of the gifts they will receive, but to remember that the origin of all these goods is the powerful and merciful hand of God the Savior.

Already present in the texts on the conquest of the Promised Land (cf. Josh 12,22, where Jokneam of Carmel, ancient Canaanite city, appears in the list of territories gained by Joshua) and regarded as the southwest confine of the territory of the tribe of Asher in the division of land (cf. Judg 19,26), cited also in the account of the campaign of Holophernes (cf. Jdt 1,8), Mount Carmel returns therefore in all the Old Testament literature (cf.2 Chron 26,10), with the exception of the Wisdom writings. But if at times it is present as a theatre of historical events or a point of reference in biblical geography, it acquires its greatest importance in the Prophetic literature, where it becomes an image and symbol (besides the texts already cited, see for example Mic 7,14, where karmel is used to express –because of the thick vegetation- the isolation of the people; in Is 10,18 the tall trees of the forest (ya’ar) are used for an image of soldiers armed with arrows and spears of wood, while the woodlands (karmel) represent the remainder of the close-knit Assyrian infantry , all destined to be burnt by the fire of the Lord, which blazes up like a fire which catches on in the depths of the forest; and se further: Is 16,10; 37,24; Jer 46,18; 48,33). A holy place, that favors immediate contact with the Divinity, Carmel in the Bible certainly does not assume the importance given to other mountains like Sinai, but thanks to its characteristics it becomes an object capable of expressing, of symbolizing and of signifying many diverse things. Even though it might not always be easy to distinguish when the Biblical text is referring to Carmel itself or to a common name (the woodland), the various indications that we have allow us to gather the symbolic value of Carmel in the Bible: one is dealing with a true symbol and by nature predominantly eschatological; namely a thing that does not exhaust itself in its present existence, it refers always to something more, a something that exists beyond its concrete limits, helping to address the gaze beyond apparent horizons, recalling to whoever looks at it that transcendent world and that Divine initiative to which the various Carmels of every time and place are also called to indicate. It will continue.......http://www.karmel.at/berg/

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