The opening verse of this pericope hints at the focus of the following narrative, reminding the reader that everything that follows must be read in light of the end of the story.
This story ends by suggesting that Israel is at a moment of great transition. The great prophet Elijah will be taken up into the heavens, perhaps suggesting to the reader an end. But the text is quick to point out that power of the prophetic office does not disappear with the chariot and horses that stampede out of sight. To the contrary, the text affirms that the power of this prophetic office remains firmly in place in the life of Elisha.
Important also to this narrative is the subtext. The narrator has gone to great lengths in portraying Elijah and Elisha as a type of Moses and Joshua. The events associated with Moses and Joshua are replicated in the events rehearsed in this text. Joshua was clearly the chosen one of God meant to succeed to Moses, the greatest prophet, and so too is Elisha depicted as the chosen one of God meant to succeed Elijah, the great prophet of Israel.
As Elijah makes his rounds to Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho, he requests that Elisha remain behind. Yet each time, Elisha demonstrates a tenacious commitment to remain with his "father" until the end. Even the bands of prophets at each site appear to understand the events that are to follow. In the Hebrew text, their statement to Elisha has a double edge. Literally they say to him, "Do you know that today the Lord is taking your master from over your head?" Clearly by the end of the story, Elijah will no longer the be the "head" over his disciple Elisha, but such a phrase is more than metaphorical in that Elijah will in fact be taken "over the head" of Elisha in the whirlwind.
On the way to crossing the Jordan river, Elijah parts the Jordan, bringing to mind vividly the activities of Moses at the Red Sea and Joshua at the Jordan. Elijah rolls up his mantle, perhaps suggesting to the reader the image of a rod (Moses' rod, no doubt). When Elijah struck the water, the waters parted and they walked through on dry land (cf. Exodus 14). Having departed from Jericho and having crossed the Jordan River, they now stand literally in the region where Moses had died (Deuteronomy 34). Just as Moses died opposite Jericho with Joshua prepared to enter into the land, so too is Elijah taken up, with Elisha prepared to return to the land.
Before Elijah is taken up, Elisha asks for a "hard thing": to receive a double portion of Elijah's spirit. Clearly Elisha is using inheritance language, which states that the rightful heir receives a double portion of the inheritance. At this point, Elisha has given up in his efforts to hold on to Elijah, as he had earlier as they trekked around Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho. As they stand on the "other side," perhaps things look differently from there. Perhaps Elisha now sees that his task is not one of holding on, but of carrying on.
The separation was no doubt a grievous moment for Elisha; he rips his garments in two. Worth noting is verse 11 in which the narrator explains the Elisha is taken up in a whirlwind. Ironically in most art work depicting this scene, Elisha is depicted as riding or standing in a chariot (see Elijah Taken up in a Chariot of Fire, Giuseppe Angeli, [c. 1740-55]). Yet the image depicted is much more complex; it is a whirlwind coupled with raiding chariots and horses. The former suggests the presence of God, while the latter borrows from Holy War imagery. The former suggests that Elijah's future is secure with God, and the latter perhaps suggests Elisha's future is secure with that same God. Much of Elisha's career will revolve around stories of Israel's war.1
Although outside the bounds of the lectionary reading this week, the subsequent verses suggest that Elisha does in fact carry on. He picks up the mantle that had first been thrown upon him in 1 Kings 19, struck the water of the Jordan, and parted it. He reentered the land, as Joshua had done in a much earlier time.
The reader may be enamored with the trappings of this story, and for good reason. Yet, the thrust of this story is not about what happened to Elijah but what happens to the prophetic voice of God carried on by figures like Elijah. The story suggests that the prophetic office does not end with the death or even ascension of one particular figure, but it is available for all who choose to carry on that tradition. In some sense, every community of faith stands opposite Jericho with a mantle before it. Occasionally, in rare moments, those who have glimpsed upward and seen the whirlwind of God are compelled to bend down and pick up that mantle, believing that now is the moment for them to strike the waters. The voice of the prophet is rare indeed these days, not because all of the prophets have ascended into the heavens, but because few choose to see the whirlwind, and fewer still choose to live as though it has changed us.
1Choon-Leong Seow, "1 and 2 Kings," (NIB III: Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 177.