Elijah Flies Away - Reflections on 2 Kings 2:1-12
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, February 5, 2024
Elijah Flies Away
2 Kings 2:1-12
I participate in a church in Los Angeles that has a stunningly beautiful sanctuary, built in 1951, that is crowned by a magnificent window at the front that changes colors depending on the time of day, primarily blue and red in the daytime, and a dusky gold at night. Right in the center of this huge piece of stained glass art, one sees the transfigured Jesus, glowing white at many times of the day. I never tire of gazing at this amazing window, and my eye, along with the eyes of any who care to look, is invariably drawn to that white figure in the middle. And of course that was the artist’s point. For those of us at Westwood United Methodist Church every Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday thanks to our wonderful window.
Mark’s Gospel is the one assigned for this year’s celebration of the spooky scene of Jesus becoming “whiter than any fuller’s soap,” in front of his gobsmacked disciples, Peter, James, and John. Peter, ever anxious to spout some nonsense that he apparently finds somehow enlightened, suggests that when Elijah and Moses are seen to be chatting with Jesus that three booths be constructed, one for each of them. Mark quickly adds, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” In other words, Peter is babbling here, crazy words falling from his astonished lips. The word “terrified” reminds us of the very end of Mark’s Gospel where the women who are the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are overcome with “terror and trembling,” and though they are commanded by the man dressed in white in the empty tomb to “tell the disciples, and (especially) Peter” that Jesus has been raised from the dead, they rush from the tomb “and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” It is a distinctly odd and brilliant way to end a “gospel,” the point of which is to share the good news of Jesus. The point appears to be since the women were mute in the face of this news, it is up to us, the readers, to start telling the news everywhere.
The startling scene of Elijah’s ascension into the sky by means of a fiery chariot, drawn by equally fiery horses, is often paired with the transfiguration tale of Jesus. This is the case in part, because Elijah plays a prominent role in both tales. In the Hebrew Bible account, Elijah leads his pupil in prophecy, Elisha, on a less than merry chase around ancient Palestine, telling him in good story fashion three times to stay where he is, while Elijah goes off on his own. Three times Elisha refuses and follows his mentor, Also three times, various groups of prophets warn Elisha that Elijah is about to be taken from him, and each time Elisha tells them quite directly to “shut up,” a sign of his obvious displeasure and sadness that his master is going to go away.
Sure enough, when the two prophets come to the river Jordan, Elijah takes his prophetic cloak, rolls it up, and strikes the waters of the Jordan. Immediately, the waters are divided “to one side and the other,” a clear reference to the actions of Moses at the Sea of Reeds long before. Hence, now both Moses and Elijah are prominent in the scene at the Jordan. Elijah then asks Elisha a probing question: “Tell me what I can do for, before I am taken from you?” (2 Kings 2:9). Elisha responds, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). This answer may be heard in two ways. It could be seen as an appropriate request to be enabled to do what the master has done. However, it might also be heard as a very cheeky request to be even better, more powerful, than the master himself; that could well be the meaning of the desire for a double portion. If it is the latter meaning, it may echo the claim of Peter to want to build three booths, a reference to the yearly harvest festival, an indication that Peter may want to control the scene of the three chatting figures on the mountain. Mark quickly tells the reader that Peter is being foolish with his desire to build; in 2 Kings Elisha may also wish to control a scene that is well beyond him.
The fact that Elisha is equally bumbling in his answer is very soon made plain when a flaming chariot and horses quickly “separate” the two prophets, and Elijah is carried up into the sky, leaving Elisha to shout “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kings 2:12). Elisha’s outburst carries little more meaning than Peter’s demand for booths, whatever it may imply. Both Peter and Elisha are left gasping and finally inarticulate in the face of an ascending Elijah and a transfigured Jesus.
Back in Mark, Elijah’s role in the tale increases as Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain after the disappearance both of Moses and Elijah. The disciples, ignorant as always of the meaning of much of Jesus’s words and actions, ask, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first,” that is before the coming of the Messiah. Jesus replies that Elijah is indeed coming first “to restore all things,” but goes on to claim that “Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased.” These confusing statements confound the disciples and have also confused many readers over the centuries. Is Mark referring to John the Baptizer as Elijah, preceding the coming of Jesus, the Messiah? Perhaps. But back in 2 Kings, Elisha grabs Elijah’s prophetic cloak, with which he also divides the waters of the river, thus claiming the mantel of Elijah’s prophecy. However, I have always found the record of Elisha’s prophetic acts to pale in relation to those of his mentor. In the remainder of 2 Kings 2 he performs two deeds of power, one in which he sweetens the water of a place (2 Kings 2:19-22) and the other—a most infamous act!—where he is humiliated by some boys who laugh at his bald pate, laughter that turns to cries of pain as Elisha calls two she bears out of the forest who proceed to maul 42 of the boys. Preach on that, I dare you!
I suggest that Elisha’s request to gain a double portion of Elijah’s spirit is an arrogant attempt to be better than his master; I say the texts suggest he fails in that attempt; instead of performing crucial acts of God like rebuking kings and demonstrating concern for justice (1 Kings 18-19), Elisha purifies water and gains personal revenge on some snotty boys. Like Peter at the transfiguration, he simply does not get what is happening to the greater figures in the story.
To be sure, Jesus’ transfiguration is among other things a prefiguring of his resurrection yet to come. Elisha is the beginning of the lessening of prophetic power in Israel, only to be revived by the great writing prophets of the next century, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. The stories from 2 Kings and Mark interpret one another in interesting ways and offer a preacher several routes toward a valuable and memorable sermon.