Transfiguration of Our Lord (Year B)

The book of Kings almost teases readers about the succession from Elijah to Elisha.

February 19, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 2:1-12

The book of Kings almost teases readers about the succession from Elijah to Elisha.

The issue of succession first appears in 1 Kings 19:16, and while 1 Kings 19:19-21 purports the start of an apprenticeship to Elijah, the text indicates that Elisha functions as Elijah’s “servant.” For much of the chapters following, Elijah appears alone with no reference to Elisha until the departure scene in 2 Kings 2:1-12.

In many ways transition seems difficult to materialize. The succession takes place after several delays in the narrative. Given that verses 1-7 consists largely of one scene in three takes, the dialogue and events of verses 8-12 seem to offer more to the preacher. Yet the emotional content of Elisha’s denial of Elijah’s departure, the three-stop itinerary, and Elijah’s detachment may offer new insights into a well-known passage.

The news of Elijah’s departure to heaven by a whirlwind seems common knowledge among the prophetic guilds. Spoken of as being taken “from above the head” of Elisha, Elijah’s departure looks like an event that the prophetic community anticipates and admires. Yet the prophetic community understands that more than the mode of separation but the fact of separation from the relationship between prophet and “sons” of his prophetic circle impacts the ones left behind.

In two locations the prophetic community enquires of Elisha about his master’s departure (verses 3, 5). That Elisha brusquely answers this question reflects not so much a surly disposition as an emotionally tense state. Clearly Elisha would prefer to have his master remain. His clinging onto Elijah as they travel may look pathetic but reveals the intimacy of their relationship, one that transcends the conventional father-son relationship of a prophet with his students (verse 12).

Elijah sets a curious path that delays his departure in the passage with a symbolically revealing itinerary. Should their starting point be Gilgal, then a journey to Bethel that returns to Jericho only to end at Jordan seems pointless, since Gilgal lies only a few meters away from Jordan. Elijah walks the path taken by Joshua on entry into the land. On crossing the Jordan, Joshua encamps at Gilgal establishing a monument there (Joshua 4:20-24), circumcising a group of men, and observing the Passover (Joshua 5:1-12).

The stop at Bethel not only recalls the historical role of Bethel in the religious imagination of northern Israelites but also the pivotal role it plays in the battles of Jericho and Ai (Joshua 6 and 8). Elijah’s itinerary mimics that of Joshua, only that rather than entering into the land Elijah prepares to leave. The parting of the Jordan confirms this connection. Whereas the Ark of the Covenant accomplishes this for Joshua (Joshua 4:8-13), Elijah’s mantle draws back the waters (verse 8).

In traveling this path, Elijah travels backwards to Egypt but rather than returning to Egypt with its memory of oppression, Elijah’s path leads him to heaven. And as the exodus happens with mighty signs and wonders, the whirlwind and fiery chariots and horses mark Elijah’s path to heaven.

In the midst of the drama of separation Elijah stays focused on his departure. Elisha seems at best to be a bother to Elijah. In managing Elisha’s neediness, Elijah maintains a balance between indulgence and support. He neither gives in to Elisha’s insistence never to leave him, nor leads him to think that he is invincible. While Elijah describes Elisha’s parting request as “a hard thing” (verse 10) he eventually makes it happen.

However, Elisha receives his request not simply because Elijah conjures it, Elisha participates in the mysterious passage of power from one prophet to another. Elijah convinces his apprentice of his ability to navigate the spirit world. Elisha seeing the unseeable and perceiving Elijah’s translation to heaven marks his full entry into the arts of the prophetic community (verse 12).

While interpretations tend to focus on Elijah and Elisha, the passage calls attention to the presence of the community of prophets. Elijah’s departure affects them as much as Elisha and they demonstrates solidarity, insider knowledge, and witness to the continuity of the prophetic community. At each stop on the itinerary the prophetic community varies its proximity in relation to Elijah and Elisha. From “came out” (verse 3), to “drew near” (verse 5), and then “stood at some distance” (verse 7).

Each location reflects the various positions that community occupies in times of transition and departure. While modern readers will struggle with the tensions between individual and community ministry, the passage hardly faces these. For as much as it displays Elisha’s emotion, the passage maintains Elisha’s membership in the prophetic community.

Additionally, it points to the partnership between Elijah and Elisha, a partnership not displayed in earlier parts of the book. From one place to the next, the text indicates that they travel together using the third masculine plural verb forms. When they travel to Jordan the text stresses their pairing (“two of them” verse 6). This emphasis continues as they stand on the banks of the river and as they cross the river (verses 7-8). The narration of their separation hardly seems like a rent in their relationship since that which separates this pair is the thing that unites them as prophets. The horses and chariots of fire separate them but at the same time enable the transfer of Elijah’s spirit to Elisha.

Rather than a disjunction in the prophetic community this separation reflects continuity. Ironically when Elisha tears his garment in two, instead of several pieces, this action may represent a recognition of the unity of individuality in the prophetic community.  As the story continues Elisha manifests the spirit of Elisha as authenticated in his ability to separate the waters and the assent of the prophetic guild (verses 13-15).

While the passage’s fluctuating interest between Elijah and Elisha may be of interest to preachers, the prophetic community stands as a major character in the passage and offers possibilities for reflections on the communal nature of ministry. The transitions, stability, and continuity of the prophetic office provide contrast with much of the go-it-alone image of what makes for “successful ministry.” Elisha’s anxieties and Elijah’s sturdiness present space to talk about mentorship and transitions from one generation to another.