< June 30, 2019 >

Commentary on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

 

Elijah is one of only two people in the Old Testament who does not die; the other is Enoch, who walks with God and then is taken by God (Genesis 5:24).

This chapter in 2 Kings is where Elijah is taken up into heaven by chariots of fire. Ultimately, however, the passage is more about Elisha, about a disciple’s faithfulness to his leader, and about the passing of a prophetic mantle.

There is no mystery that Elijah’s departure is immanent, as the chapter begins with the announcement that the Lord is about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. This is the same Hebrew word, s?r, out of which God speaks to Job (Job 38:1, 40:6).1

Throughout this chapter, Elijah and Elisha are travelling: from Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, across the Jordan River and back. The movement from Jericho to the Jordan happens in verses 3-5, not included in the lectionary. At each geographic juncture, Elijah tells Elisha, “Stay here, please, for the Lord has sent me” (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). Each time, Elisha refuses, responding with a vow that he will not leave Elijah.

Gina Hens-Piazza suggests that the lack of logic to the direction of the journeys means that “Elijah is testing the steadfastness of Elisha’s commitment to follow in his ways, no matter how mysterious the route.”2 In each of those four locations there are communities of prophets, so the specific geography may point to larger questions of prophetic leadership and succession than just that of Elijah and Elisha.

Twice in the chapter, those other prophets ask Elisha if he knows the information contained in the first verse, that “the Lord will take away your master from over you today?” (2 Kings 2:3, 5). Both times, Elisha answers, “Yes, I know, be still.” The text does not give any reason for Elisha’s last clause. It could be that he does not want to talk about Elijah’s departure; it could also be that Elisha is reluctant to face the reality known by the other prophets.

When Elijah and Elisha arrive at the Jordan river in 2 Kings 2:8, Elisha takes his mantle, rolls it up, and strikes the water, which parts for them. Elijah had used that same mantle to cover his face before coming out to encounter God (1 Kings 19:13), and threw the mantle over Elisha at his recruitment (1 Kings 19:19). Choon-Leong Seow notes the how the now-rolled-up mantle resembles a rod, similar to the one with which Moses struck the water in Exodus 14:16.3 The connection with Moses becomes even more obvious at the end of 2 Kings 2:8, which explains that the two prophets “crossed on dry land” (see also Exodus 14:21-22).

On the other side of the Jordan, Elijah invites Elisha to tell him what he might do for Elisha before he goes. Elisha asks to inherit “a double portion of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). This could relate to Numbers 11:25, when the spirit given to Moses is shared with others (see Joshua receiving the spirit of wisdom from Moses in Deuteronomy 34:9), but the language of “double-portion” also occurs in reference to the legal rights of inheritance for the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). In the context, Elisha may be asking that he be the legal heir of Elijah’s prophetic vocation.

Elijah’s response, however, suggests that this might not be as simple as a legal right, instead pointing out that Elisha has asked a hard thing. After the disclaimer, Elijah explains that if Elisha sees Elijah being taken, then he will receive his request (2 Kings 2:10).

The two continue walking and speaking, when suddenly a fiery chariot with fiery horses appears, separates them, and takes up Elijah in the whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). Fire has been a leitmotif in Elijah’s past ministry; he called down fire from heaven to consume the drenched offering in 1 Kings 18:38, and in chapter immediately preceding this one, he called down fire from heaven to kill two groups of a captain and fifty men (2 Kings 1:10, 12). 

As if in direct response to Elijah’s statement in 2 Kings 2:10 that Elisha will receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit if he sees Elijah being taken, 2 Kings 2:12 begins with the words, “And Elisha saw.” He not only sees, but cries out “Father, father; the chariots of Israel and its horses!” In 2 Kings 13:14, King Joash will speak the same words over Elisha. It could be that Elisha is trying to put words to his vision; it could also be that this language foreshadows the number of Israelite wars in which Elisha will play a significant role. Elisha’s repetition of “father” is striking, emphasizing the closeness he felt with his prophetic master.

Elisha tears his clothes in grief, but picks up Elijah’s mantle (2 Kings 2:12-13). As he goes back to the river alone, he -- like Elijah did in 2:8 -- strikes the water, and asks, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14). The water parts, which could be an answer to his question. The God of Elijah is also the God of Elisha, who will carry his predecessor’s mantle throughout his ministry for years to come.


Notes:

  1. It also occurs in Jonah 1:4, 12; Amos 1:14; Isaiah 29:6, 40:23, 41:6; and Jeremiah 23:19, 30:23.
  2. Gina Hens-Piazza, 1-2 Kings. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006, p. 234. In contrast, Choon-Leong Seow notes that there are a number of locations known as Gilgal, and since the two go down from there to Bethel, it is less likely that they started at the Gilgal adjacent to the Jordan (Josh 3-4). Instead, Seow proposes that the Gilgal in 2 Kings 2 is a site seven miles north of Bethel and on a higher elevation. “2 Kings.” New Interpreters Bible Volume III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 176.
  3. Seow, “2 Kings,” 176.