THE MIRACLES OF ELIJAH AND ELISHA
VI. The Ascending of Elijah (2 Kings 2)
If the ministry of Elijah was spectacular in the eyes of the people, his departure from this life was even moreso. Elijah would ascend to heaven in an amazing display of God’s power. The story is famous, whether people believe it or not. It is an account like this that leads the skeptics to claim the stories are all fiction, for this particular incident goes to far for them. But the believer knows that with God nothing is impossible--and through Elijah God has done impossible things. But the choice of the way that Elijah was to depart this life fits his ministry perfectly, for everything he did defied the false claims of Baalism and demonstrated that only Yahweh could do these things.
The drama builds quickly as the story unfolds. We are told at the beginning of chapter two that Yahweh was planning to take Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind, and all the school of the prophets knew it. Elijah journeyed from place to place, and Elisha stayed close by him. And everywhere they went the young prophets asked if he knew that Yahweh was planning to take Elijah. It was an event that was fully revealed to many, so that when it happened it would be well known and attested. Finally, they came to the Jordan, where Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up, struck the waters, and they parted for the two of them. Before he left he asked Elisha what he could do for him, and Elisha asked for a double portion of his spirit. This was difficult, but the prophet said that if Elisha saw him go up it would be granted. This was a test of Elisha’s determination; it was also going to be such a powerful event that it would leave a lasting impression on the next prophet.
Suddenly, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated between the two men, and Elijah went up in a whirlwind. The chariot and horses probably were angelic powers, such as we see elsewhere (as in the book of Zechariah). Elisha witnessed this, and cried out, "My father, my father, The chariots and horsemen of Israel." He was describing the true source of power and protection for Israel, a supernatural power. But Elijah, his mentor, with the power of heaven working through him, was the chariot and horses of Israel--equal to an army.
When Elisha made his way back across the river, he took his garment as Elijah had done and struck the water. But it did not separate--not until he cried out to the God of Israel. He had to learn that the power was not his, but God’s. So both prophets demonstrated power over the river, something Baal was supposed to have.
The young prophet insisted on searching for Elijah, for three days, but to no avail. The LORD had taken him.
The Ascending Motif
In the Ugaritic texts the god Baal has a number of titles: the Exalted One, the Lovely One, the Prince, Lord of the Earth, the Mighty One, Son of Dagan, Son of HD, and "Rider of the Clouds" (rkb ‘rpt). It may be worth mentioning in passing that Baal had multiple names, some used in the same sentences. The old Literary Criticism of the Bible (JEDP theory) was based on a number of assumptions, one that where there were two names for God (Elohim and Yahweh), they had to be different authors, J and E. Ugaritic shows that to be far too rigid and unnatural.
The title "Rider of the Clouds," or "the One who Mounts the Clouds," has a parallel in the Psalter (68:5) where it is used for Yahweh. There are some who want to re-interpret the verb rokeb to mean "gather" ("he who gathers the clouds"), but the evidence for that view is forced, and in the text unnatural since "clouds" has the preposition be prefixed to it. The meaning is "ascend on the clouds" (which does not mean "rider of the clouds" exactly).
The Ugaritic tablets claimed this epithet for Baal; the Bible claimed it for Yahweh. And so to prove it was in the Yahwistic faith a reality, Elijah ascended to the heavens in the whirlwind and the chariot of fire. The text explained several times that Elijah was going to be taken (the same verb used for Enoch in Gen. 5:24; see also the same idea in Pss. 49:16 and 73:24). The message was clear, one way or another, pious people were expecting to be taken to heaven to continue their communion with the living God.
There is also evidence that God may have lifted up the prophets a few times and transported them to another place. 1 Kings 18:12 and following record such a word from God. The verbs "take" (laqakh) and "take up" (nasa’) are used together in all these passages. The first is a more permanent action, and so Enoch and Elijah were taken away, permanently. So Elijah mounted the skies, and apparently remained there with God, for his body was nowhere to be found. He lives forever. But not so with Baal--he might claim to mount up to heaven, but he dies, is buried and mourned. Baal is prostrate on the earth; Elijah rides to glory.
There is a short report after this that has bearing on the case. In 2 Kings 2:23-25 Elisha was walking to Bethel, a center of false worship, and some rough youths (probably late teens or twenties) jeered him: "Go up, you bald head." These were not little children poking fun at a bald man. They were mocking his faith--and the claims of the ascension of Elijah (like the enemies of Jesus demanding a sign). They taunt Elisha to ascend as Elijah did--they want to see it if it is true. Elisha simply calls down a curse on them, without knowing how God would do it. God brought two bears out to maul the 42 young men. So they were allowed to live, but not to mock God’s power and God’s prophet.
Our passage also introduces the river motif. Baal’s most serious rivals included "Prince Sea" or "Judge River." This Judge River commanded a great deal of respect among the gods. He sent to the high god El and demanded that Baal be turned over to him. El complied, saying that Baal was to be his slave. This confrontation led to a huge battle between Baal and Judge River. It was no ordinary struggle, though, for Baal needed assistance from the Master Craftsman Kothar wa-Khassis, who later builds the house for Baal and fashions Aqht’s bow. But this master craftsman (could have been two gods) made a magical weapon for Baal to annihilate his adversary. Baal proceeded to strike Judge River with the special clubs until he finally defeated the river and became head of the pantheon.
But that was all myth, with little moral value. However, both Elijah and Elisha can call on the power of heaven to split the Jordan River in two so that it could be easily crossed. Baal, the texts claimed, ruled over the waters after defeating the River--but he had no power against Elisha and Elijah. But the story of Elisha shows that the river was not split by magic, not even Elijah’s robe, but through prayer to the God of heaven.
There is another little story that belongs here as well, that is the story of the axhead that floated. There are few stories in the Bible that are less spiritualized that this one. In 2 Kings 6 the prophets were making a house for the prophets dwelling--not a house for Baal. As they were cutting down trees, the axhead of one of the cutters flew off and into the water. He cried out to Elisha because the ax had been borrowed. The prophet cut a stick and threw it in at the place, and the axhead floated so it could be retrieved. Again, the prophet has power over the river. And, far from being a special implement crafted by a god, this was an ordinary ax. But in the miracle it developed a significance that was polemical. Elisha could make the axhead float supernaturally, in the waters of the river. So the story is polemical against the river god motif and the special implement motif. The prophets saw that the power of Yahweh was real, and no myth.