I Kings 17:1 introduces Elijah as:
Now Elijah the Tishbite (Hebrew tishbi), who was of the settlers (Hebrew toshab) of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall certainly be neither dew nor rain during these years, except by my word.” (NASB)
The Hebrew “Tishbi” תִּשְׁבִּי would naturally mean an inhabitant of a town called Tishbeh, and has no known relationship to תּוֹשָׁב toshab the Hebrew word for sojourner or settler. This Hebrew word “sojourner” is not surprisingly almost exclusively in contexts in Israel, for foreigners dwelling in Israel, but it is also used by Abraham for himself as a “foreigner and sojourner” when purchasing the grave of Sarah in Hebron (Genesis 23:4), and for the Psalmist in Psalm 39:12. God calls the Israelites sojourners in Canaan, the promised land:
“The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners (toshab) with me.” (Leviticus 25:23)
This shows that “sojourner” is relative to being displaced. Just because a group were displaced in Gilead doesn’t mean that they were non-Jews. The most powerful objection against it obviously is that Christ seems to have been unaware that Elijah was a Gentile. The Lord Jesus having made such a big thing of the fact that Gentiles – the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba – would be resurrected into his kingdom (Matthew 12:41-42) would surely have made Elijah his first example to the confident Pharisees if there was any chance of the first and greatest of the prophets was a Gentile.
Having realised from Matthew 12:41-42 that Jesus evidently did not consider Elijah a Gentile, then a counter-comment might come back that “maybe Elijah had Gentile blood”. But all Jews have some Gentile blood, not least King David and then the Lord Jesus himself who from David has two Gentile women noted in his ancestry in Matthew 1. The Old Testament contains both a process for Gentiles to become Jews and various examples of the process by which various Canaanite groups did join Israel. So it might be that this town of Tishbeh had been a Canaanite settlement that converted, but equally it might just be a place where displaced Jews were “sojourning” west of Jordan. Neither of these things would make Elijah a Gentile.
The proposal that Elijah was a Gentile is at least as old Sebastian Schmidt’s Collegium Biblicum ( 1671 ). The first piece of evidence is that a sojourner of Gilead would be people sojourning west of the Jordan in the territory of the eastern half of Manasseh, or possibly Gad.The problem with this proposal today is that it is so obscure that standard commentaries do not mention it. From 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2 when Elijah ascends into the sky in a chariot Elijah is the major actor through 8 chapters of Kings, acting in all contexts like a Jew and a prophet of Israel, with no hint of speech or behaviour that is any way non-Jewish. The fact that God used ravens – unclean birds – to bring food to Elijah would not mean that the food brought was unclean, or that God should have used a dove.
19th Century rejection of the idea
The following rejection of the idea by Carl Friedrich Keil is from 1872
(Note: The supposition of Seb. Schmidt, with which I formerly agreed, namely, that Elijah was a foreigner, a Gentile by birth, after further examination I can no longer uphold, though not from the priori objection raised against it by Kurtz (in Herzog’s Cycl.), namely, that it would show a complete misapprehension of the significance of Israel in relation to sacred history and the history of the world, and that neither at this nor any other time in the Old Testament history could a prophet for Israel be called from among the Gentiles, – an assertion of which it would be difficult to find any proof, – but because we are not forced to this conclusion by either התּשׁבּי or גלעד מתּשׁבי. For even if the Thisbeh in Tob. 1:2 should not be Elijah’s birthplace, it would not follow that there was no other place named Thisbeh in existence. How many places in Canaan are there that are never mentioned in the Old Testament! And such cases as that described in Judges 7:7, where the Levite is said to have left his birthplace and to have lived in another tribe as a foreigner or settler, may not have been of rare occurrence, since the Mosaic law itself refers to it in Leviticus 25:41. – Again, the lxx were unable to explain גלעד מתּשׁבי, and have paraphrased these words in an arbitrary manner by ὁ ἐκ Θεσβῶν τῆς Γαλαάδ, from which Thenius and Ewald conjecture that there was a Thisbeh in Gilead, and that it was probably the Tisieh (tsh) mentioned by Robinson (Pal. iii. 153) to the south of Busra equals Bostra. The five arguments by which Kurtz has attempted to establish the probability of this conjecture are very weak. For (1) the defective writing מתּשׁבי by no means proves that the word which is written plene (תּושׁב) in every other case must necessarily have been so written in the stat. constr. plur.; and this is the only passage in the whole of the Old Testament in which it occurs in the stat. constr. plur.; – (2) the precise description of the place given in Tobit 1:2 does not at all lead “to the assumption that the Galilean Thisbeh was not the only place of that name,” but may be fully explained from the fact that Thisbeh was a small and insignificant place, the situation of which is defined by a reference to a larger town and one better known; – (3) there is no doubt that “Gilead very frequently denotes the whole of the country to the east of the Jordan,” but this does not in the least degree prove that there was a Thisbeh in the country to the east of the Jordan; – (4) “that the distinction and difference between a birthplace and a place of abode are improbable in themselves, and not to be expected in this connection,” is a perfectly unfounded assumption, and has first of all to be proved; – (5) the Tisieh mentioned by Robinson cannot be taken into consideration, for the simple reason that the assumption of a copyist’s error, the confusion of (Arabic) b with y (Tsieh instead of Thisbeh), founders on the long i of the first syllable in Tsieh; moreover the Arabic t corresponds to the Hebrew E and not to t.) .( Carl Friedrich Keil Commentary on Kings, English translation 1872)
The following reasons were proposed by Dr. Joseph Longking, in The Methodist Review, November, 1888 and followed by a rejoinder by the editor.
Elijah the Tishbite a Gentile, — Six reasons are suggested to show that Elijah was a Gentile. 1. The Hebrew word toshab is used to signify “foreigner,” « stranger,” or “ sojourner,” and the two latter terms were never applied to Jews by their countrymen. 2. Elijah was fed by the unclean ravens; even if the raven had been clean, yet it would have here been unclean to a Jew, since its talons were polluted by contact with carrion. 3. The widow of Zarephath is to be regarded as a heathen. Elijah was sent to her, because 1) Elijah and his hostess were non-Israelites ; 2) this foreign place afforded security. 4. The brook Cherith is east of the Jordan, and Elijah goes home when he goes to dwell by that brook. 5. Luke 4:26-27 establishes the fact of the Gentile origin of both the widow and Naaman, and strongly suggests Elijah to be of the same race. 6. In the transfiguration scene Elijah stands as a representative of the Gentiles.
Rejoinder by the Editor .—The language used implies not that he was a foreigner in Israel, but a foreigner in Gilead. Toshab , though usually employed to indicate a stranger dwelling in the midst of Israel, yet in Ps. 39:12 and 1 Chron. 29:16 is used of a pilgrim. 2. Because Elijah was fed by unclean ravens it does not follow that all they touch is unclean. Lev. 11:16,24,26,31,32 shows that the law applied to carcasses. 3. As to the location of Cherith, 1) natives tell us it is west of the Jordan; 2) if east, it proves no more than that Gilead is east of the Jordan. 4. In Luke 4:26-27 the Saviour places the emphasis more upon the woman than upon the prophet, and does not imply that Elijah was a Gentile. 6. At the transfiguration the living represented the living, and the departed represented the departed. 6. Again it is, 1) not likely that the Almighty would send a Gentile to the Hebrews; 2) no record of the non-Hebraic descent of Elijah is found; 3) in the character of Elijah we discover nothing incompatible with his Hebraic nationality. F.
Since the idea is not current today, it is difficult to find rejections of it in modern scholarship.