Chariots of fire- Wednesday, 11th week in ordinary time – 2 Kings 2:1,6-14
The readings of the liturgy have moved from 1 Kings to 2 Kings. It may be helpful to remind ourselves that in the Hebrew Old Testament, these two books were one. 1 and 2 Kings are really a single book broken into two parts because it was too long for a single scroll. Thus, there is no real “break” between the two books. We simply move from the death of Ahab in 1 Kings 22 to the death of his son, Ahaziah, in 2 Kings 1.
The book of Kings ( 1 and 2) covers a period of approximately four centuries, beginning with David’s old age and Solomon’s accession to the throne (about 960 B.C.) and ending with the fall and exile of Judah (587-586 B.C.). It covers three major periods in the life of Israel and Judah. 1 Kings 1-11 covers the reign of Solomon. 1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 17 covers the divided kingdom (Israel and Judah). 2 Kings 18-25 covers Judah after the fall of Israel in 721 B.C. We are in the second part of this long book which totally comprises of 47 chapters.
The passage of today focuses on the departure of the prophet Elijah. 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 is the end of a remarkable ministry, one that was in many ways similar to the ministry of Moses. Yet often we see a marked difference between Moses and Elijah. Elijah often seemed more concerned with his own disappointments and frustrations than with the people he was to be involved with.
Even after a direct encounter with God in a cave at Mt. Horeb, reminiscent of Moses’ own encounter there, Elijah’s does not become an advocate for the Israelites like Moses did. Sadly, he chooses to remain their most determined judge. Finally, to the several appeals that Elijah make to God to let him die, God in I Kings 19:16 finally decided to replace Elijah with Elisha; this is when the transition of prophetic power first begins.
2 Kings 2:1 locates Elijah and Elisha at Gilgal. Verses 1-10 are preliminary and preparatory to Elijah’s exodus. There is no mystery that Elijah’s departure is immanent. The chapter itself begins with the announcement that the Lord is about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah’s life has been stormy, and his departure will be stormy as well.
However, the passage is more about Elisha, about a disciple’s faithfulness to his leader, and about the passing of a prophetic mantle. The narratives also confirms that Elisha had inherited the prophetic office and power of the great prophet. Transfer of leadership can produce tension and anxiety in any community. This was certainly the case with Elijah and Elisha and their prophetic community as we see in 2 Kings 2.
The previously unknown Elisha doesn’t take over immediately, but instead begins to serve as a “prophet-in-training” and Elijah’s loyal companion. Perhaps it is for this reason that 2 Kings 2 describes a strange journey that Elijah intended to travel alone without Elisha. On this journey from Gilgal to Bethel, on to Jericho, and then to the Jordan River, Elisha refuses to leave his master Elijah until the last possible moment, traveling with him. Each time Elijah sets out, he gives Elisha orders to stay behind. Each time, Elisha refuses to stay behind and leave his master alone. Each time they come to their destination, they are met by a school of the prophets. Each time they are met by these prophets, Elisha is told that this is the day the LORD will take his master from him. Elisha responds by telling these prophets that he knows that Elijah is to be taken from him and asks them to be silent.
Finally, Elijah departs in a spectacular fashion. “Elijah was taken up to heaven in the whirlwind, not in the chariot of fire and horses of fire which merely ‘came between the two of them’ and cut him off from human sight. Elijah is never to be seen again until the Transfiguration of Jesus nearly 1,000 years later. Elisha, who witnesses his master’s departure tears his clothing as a sign of mourning. He has lost his mentor and closest friend. Now the responsibility for prophecy will fall on his shoulders.
With his double portion of blessing that he has received from Elijah, he picks up Elijah’s fallen mantle before the watching prophets on the other side of the Jordan, and splits the water in two. This is reminiscent of Moses at the Red Sea. At Yahweh’s direction, Moses lifted up his staff and stretched it out over the water to divide the water so that the Israelites could cross through the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:16, 21-22). With this clear demonstration of his right as successor, Elisha crosses to take his place as the prophet among prophets in Elijah’s stead. Elisha’s ability to part the water confirms that he now possesses Elijah’s spiritual powers.
Elisha had been faithful to stay with Elijah and to faithfully watch for the transition. He would be the one to take on the responsibility of his mentor. How many times do believers miss God’s will because they become preoccupied with their problems, or people, or success, or, well, you name it. Elisha could have become occupied with himself and the new position of authority and responsibility that he was about to receive, but his response, as seen in the words he cried out as he saw Elijah pass from the scene, demonstrates a different heart, one that exposes the young prophet’s heart and perspective about life itself.
Elijah and Elisha also mark a transition in Israelite prophecy. Unlike those before them who fulfilled prophetic responsibilities as part of their larger callings as leaders (i.e., Moses, Deborah, Samuel), Elijah and Elisha were called to be prophets in a new way. They operated completely outside the system, with no official recognition or compensation. In 1 Kings 13–2 Kings 17, they marked out careers in which they performed miracles and healings and called Israel and its leaders to task, sometimes by violent means.