The story of Elijah's ascent into heaven by way of fiery horses and chariot on a heavenly whirlwind is a text with many boundary-crossings: the geographic crossing of the River Jordan, the passage of the prophetic mantle from one generation to the next, and the seeming rip in the fabric between earth and heaven.
Elijah's story, beginning in 1 Kings 17, is set in the Northern Kingdom primarily during the 9th century BCE reign of Ahab, a king with a most toxic reputation. "Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him."1 A common thread that runs throughout Elijah's story is that he has been the Lord's agent against the unfaithful, apostate royalty of Israel.
Elijah's storied career comes to a dramatic conclusion in today's text.
It should be noted at the outset that the text itself begins with an expectation of its culmination. "Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind..." (2 Kings 2:1). The whirlwind (סערה) is a telltale sign of what is to come, as the whirlwind is more often than not a means by which the Lord intervenes in the world.2 The difference here is that the whirlwind is not bringing judgment, but lifting Elijah out of this world.
With his prophetic protégé in tow, Elijah repeatedly tells Elisha to stay behind. He does not. Knowing that Elijah will be assumed into heaven by the Lord, the company of the prophets (perhaps members of the prophetic guild) also tells Elisha to hang back. He tells them to shut-up, and he continues.
Elisha's determination to remain with his mentor leads him to walk with Elijah on the dry creek bed of the Jordan. This twice-crossing3 of the Jordan is an interesting border-crossing. Perhaps mimicking the significance of Joshua's crossing,4 Elijah's assumption into heaven occurs outside the initial boundary of the Promised Land.
Once upon the other side of the Jordan, the text brings us to the crossing of the boundary between generations. Upon Elijah asking Elisha what he could do for him before his departure, Elisha's enthusiasm leads him to ask for a double share of Elijah's prophetic spirit. (At this point it seems only appropriate to ask why anyone would want a double share of prophetic spirit given the heartache and danger that come with it.) Unable simply to grant Elisha's wish, Elijah encourages him to pay attention to his ascension.
The drama of Elijah's ascension is multiplied by its brevity and scarcity of detail. While walking along and talking, the chariot and horses of fire separate teacher and student.5 As Elijah ascends the whirlwind to heaven, Elisha shouts, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" With Elijah out of view through the tear in the fabric between heaven and earth, in the midst of deathless grief Elisha tears his clothes. And just like that, it is over. Elijah is gone. Elisha is left alone to carry on.
The story continues with Elisha's reentry across the Jordan, the frantic search for Elijah, and the continuation of the Lord's prophetic interventions in Israel by way of Elisha.
While Elijah's career as a prophet comes to a conclusion with the divine whirlwind, his ascension into heaven only begins his lasting influence. The dumbfounded disbelief of the company of prophets that assumes in Elijah's disappearance, a malfunction of the spirit of the Lord, gives way to the lasting influence of Elijah within the imaginations of Judaism and Christianity.
While the connections between Old and New Testaments are vast and deep, it is difficult to disentangle the story of Elijah from the imaginations and traditions of Church and Synagogue. For Christians, the textual horizon of Elijah's ascension necessarily includes the accounts of the comparisons of Elijah with John the Baptist and Elijah's appearance together with Moses at Jesus' Transfiguration.6 As this text also appears in the Revised Common Lectionary on Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, we will leave comment on that thread for another commentator.
Perhaps only surpassed in notoriety by the likes of Adam, Eve, Moses and Enoch, Elijah would become an eschatological herald7 of the Day of the Lord8 who could calm the Lord's wrath,9 heal the brokenness between generations,10 restore the tribes of Israel, intervene on behalf of the dying,11 and who had great zeal for the law of the Lord.12 Interesting about the canonical and extra-canonical traditions concerning Elijah is that his status as a prophet of the Lord -- a herald of God's judgment of unfaithfulness -- is not more prevalent.13
There are many imaginative directions that the preacher could take with this text. Elijah's persona within Scripture and Tradition is inseparable from his ascension into heaven. I suggest two simple things when considering this text for preaching.
First, avoid simple analogies between Elijah and today. It may be tempting to take this text the direction of comparing a "whirlwind" of our own experience with Elijah's. This story is ultimately about the Lord's intervention in Israel's history -- the prophetic spirit of the Lord, which confronts Israel's unfaithfulness by way of the prophet, further blowing the lids off of our imaginations with this disquieting, fiery display of power.
The second is simply a question: How might this story, with so many boundary-crossings, fuel the imagination of faith today? Evident in the long-lasting influence of Elijah's story is that it has the power to ignite the imagination of faith. How might it do so today?
11 Kings 16:30
2Job 38:1; Isaiah 40:24; Ezekiel 1:4; Zechariah 9:14, etc.
32 Kings 2:8, 14
5The chariots and horses of fire, symbols of the Lord's power, become associated with Elisha as well, cf. 2 Kings 6:17.
6Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36
7Matthew 11:14, 16:14, 17:10-12; Mark 6:15, 8:28, 9:11-13; Luke 1:17, 9:8, 19; John 1:21, 25
8Malachi 3:23 [English version 4:5]; Sibylline Oracle 2.187-189, also with others "taken up" in 4 Ezra 6.26.
10Malachi 3:23; Sirach 48:10; Luke 1:17. Quoting Malachi 3:23 [4.5], the Mishnah reports that in a halakhah given to Moses at Sinai it is said that Elijah will return to reunite those separated by injustice and to make peace in the world, cf. Mishnah Eduyoth 8:7.
11Matthew 27:47, 49; Mark 15:35-36; in a passage culminating in messianic expectations, the resurrection of the dead comes through Elijah, cf. Mishnah Sotah 9:15.
121 Maccabees 2:58
13Only in Romans 11:1-6, wherein Paul sees his own mission and speaking in relation to Elijah's, in particular the content of the theophany on Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19. Curious as well is James 5:17-18, in which the author feels a need to explicitly state that Elijah is of the same form (ὁμοιοπαθh,ς) as we humans.