Commentary on 2 Kgs 2:1, 6-14
Today we move on to the Second Book of Kings and we continue where we left off with the First Book. The division into two books is artificial and no such division is found in the earliest Hebrew bibles. The passage we are reading today acts as an introduction to the story of the prophet Elisha. Today we bring the story of Elijah to a conclusion and see Elisha taking over as his successor.
As Elijah is about to leave to go to the Jordan in obedience to the Lord’s call, he tells Elisha to remain behind. Whether this was said to test Elisha is not clear but Elisha renewed his commitment as a disciple of Elijah and insisted on following him.
They are followed by another fifty fellow-prophets who will be witnesses to what is about to happen by the banks of the Jordan which the two prophets have now reached. Elijah then takes his cloak, rolls it up and strikes the waters of the river. As with Moses long ago crossing the Red Sea, the water of the river divides to right and left and the two prophets walk across on dry ground.
It is then that Elijah, about to go away, invites Elisha to make a final request. The younger prophet boldly asks to be given a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha was not expressing a desire for a ministry twice as great as Elijah’s, but he was using terms derived from inheritance law to express his desire for a full sharing in Elijah’s ministry. In Jewish society it was normal for the elder son to inherit a double share of his father’s property. So, in making his request, Elisha is asking to be regarded as the genuine heir to Elijah’s prophetic powers and spirit.
Elijah replies that it is a difficult request to honour, for ultimately the giving of such a gift lies with God and not with Elijah. But he promises that there will be a sign given by which Elisha will know whether his request has been granted. And that will be the Lord’s doing and not Elijah’s. God indicates that the request is granted by allowing Elisha to see what is hidden from other human eyes, namely, Elijah being taken up to heaven.
All of a sudden, a chariot of fire with two fiery horses came between the two men and Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. Elisha alone could see this; a sure sign that his request had been granted. By riding the chariot, a symbol of Israel’s strength, it is clear that Elijah and not the king is the Lord’s true representative among his people. And Elijah, like Enoch before him (Gen 5:24), was taken up to heaven bodily without experiencing death; like Moses (Dt 34:4-6), he was taken away outside the promised land.
It was generally believed by later generations that Elijah would return to die the natural death that is the fate of all. And his return was expected to herald the imminent coming of the Messiah. In the Gospel, John the Baptist is seen to fill that role.
Elisha then tore his own clothes in half, perhaps in grief at the loss of his master and perhaps as signifying the end of his former life. He picked up the cloak of Elijah which had fallen off as Elijah was carried away in the chariot, thereby symbolically taking on Elijah’s ministry and mission.
Once again Elisha went back to the River Jordan’s bank. As he had seen Elijah do earlier, he struck the water with Elijah’s cloak while he prayed: “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he struck the water, it divided to right and left and Elisha crossed over. The power was not in Elisha or in the cloak but only in the Lord God, of whom the prophet is an agent, but it was also a clear indication that the prophet’s role and powers had been passed on to Elisha.
In crossing the Jordan as Joshua had before him, Elisha is shown to be Elijah’s “Joshua” (Elisha and Joshua are very similar names, Elisha meaning “God saves” and Joshua “The Lord saves”). Elisha would play the role of Joshua (who led the Israelites into the promised land) as Elijah played the role of Moses (who did not get to cross the Jordan).
In this story we can see:
- the loyalty of Elisha’s discipleship
- his being called by God to carry on the mission of Elijah
- his becoming, like Elijah, the instrument of God for his people.
In some way, this applies to each one of us in our relationship with Jesus.