Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 2 Kings 2: 1-12.
We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, a season when we mark the ways God reveals Himself in the world. This season affords us a wonderful time to remember Elijah and his student Elisha. As this passage begins, Elijah is nearing the end of his days. At the Lord’s instruction, he has already placed his mantle (the symbol of his prophetic spirituality) on Elisha. 1 Kings 19: 19.
Elijah must travel to Bethel, and suggests that Elisha remain behind. Some scholars have suggested that Elijah is testing Elisha’s loyalty. I think something different is happening here. Perhaps Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of this moment. Perhaps he wants to spare himself the heartbreak of that last goodbye. It’s no secret that Elijah’s death is near; prophets along the way, at Bethel and Jericho remind Elisha of this. Elisha tells these voices to remain silent. While Elisha remains committed to accompanying his friend and teacher towards his death, the tremendous sense of loss and mystery defy language. Words simply fail at moments like these.
While on their journey, Elijah parts the river Jordan, revealing himself as the second Moses. The progress of their journey–from Gilgal to Jericho to the Jordan–reminds us of the people’s journey as they enter into the promised land.
In the central passage of the story, Elijah asks what he can do for his student, his friend, before he dies. Elisha asks for a “double share” of his spirit. Under Deuteronomic law, the eldest son would receive a double portion of his father’s estate. (Deut. 21:15-17). Elijah responds that he has asked “a hard thing.” Elijah knows that this spiritual inheritance is God’s to give, and not his own. More than just a student of the great prophet, it’s clear that Elisha considers himself the spiritual child of Elijah. This meaning becomes clear when Elijah is taken up into the whirlwind and Elisha cries out, “Father! Father!”
So, it seems to me that this passage, like today’s Gospel reading on the Transfiguration, centers on the notion of translation. Jesus’ divinity is translated into a language the disciples can understand. Elijah, the prophet who stood alone, is translated into a life with the Father. And Elisha is translated into his new role as the spiritual heir of his teacher. Coincidentally (and I really don’t believe in coincidences), these things all happen in the context of a journey. I think Holy Scripture is making a very important point: we cannot be transfigured into God’s new creation by remaining in the same place.
I hope to see you on the road.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis