You Have Asked a Hard Thing

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.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

22 responses to “You Have Asked a Hard Thing

  1. I have always been intrigued by this story of Elijah and Elisha, because there is so much mystery in it, and always something new to be learned. I love what you said about the importance of the journey in the translation of our lives. I think the journey is often more important than the destination.

    By the way, the visuals for this teaching are also lovely. Thank you for your faithfulness on the path. Peace and Grace to you!

    Sister Olive

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Olive. I have always loved this story, too.

      I think you’re right. Not only is the journey often more important than the destination; sometimes, it’s determinitive of the destination. How you travel sometimes determines where you end up.

      God’s peace,

      Br. James

  2. This is a passage from a poem written by a dear Jewish friend of mine, and his words sound like yours:

    I met a brother on the path
    And he started to laugh.
    He said, “This path leads in Circles,
    Round and round.”

    I said I had to agree,
    But I asked him, “Can’t you see
    That it’s not the path
    But the way that you walk that counts?”

    The Lord bless you, Sister Olive

    • Olive,

      I love the poem. I’m reminded of something Edward Albee wrote once: “Sometimes, you have to go a long way out of your way in order to come back a short distance, correctly.”

      Have a wonderful Sabbath,

      Br. James

  3. I agree that we cannot be transfigured into God’s new creation when we remain in the same place in our faith. Standing still means we’re not growing in our faith. We are each on a journey of faith and our paths cross here and there. God is our guide on each of our journeys.

    • Teresa,

      You’re right. Most of us, at some point, become comfortable with our faith practices, our religious experiences and our encounter with the Holy. We are constantly challenged to become uncomfortable, so we can be a new creation.

      The Lord watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

  4. I love the potent imagery of this story and will add somewhat cheekily, my dearest brother, that Elijah was the ‘third Moses’ as Joshua also parted the river when bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land.
    Your upstart English ‘sister’!

    • My cheeky English friend,

      Of course, you are right about Joshua parting the river. I have not seen him referred to thus in anything I’ve read, but I’m not sure why. I’ll see what I can find. Obviously, in the Gospel, we see Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration and Joshua was again left out. I’m certain he filed a formal complaint.

      Fonldy, your brother,

      Br. James

  5. I have nothing of worth to add to the above comments, except to say thank you, once more, for your devotion to sharing the Gospel with us. I am always taken aback by both the insight of your meditation and that of your audience. I find myself in the enviable position of one who has the opportunity to consider my travelling road as I head off to bed this night. Blessings to you, my friend and brother. Barbara D

  6. Hello and Good Morning, Bro. James! Good words indeed. Thank you for a warm and human rendition of this passage – I have always found the relationship between these two to be formal and stilted. This sounds better and more appropriate for master and disciple. God bless you and keep you from all evil, seen and unseen!

    • Mi Padre,

      Yes, I’m inclined to think these two genuinely cared about each other, in the way that rabbi and student do at their best. And thank you so much for the blessing, and the blessing of your friendship.

      Pax Christi,

      Br. James

  7. Dear Brother James,

    I agree with Barbara. Although I come to this site because of the depth and warmth of your writing, it’s also wonderful to be part of the community you are building here.

    • Ron,

      I think it’s a pretty great community myself. I have found people offering very intimate prayers on the Prayer Request section, and learned of folks who’ve never met them offering their prayers. Our common life matters so very much.

      God’s peace on you and your house, my friend,

      Br. James

  8. Good point Brother James, we must move forward in tthe things of God and embrace God’s assignment for this generation and revelation that accompanies it too.

  9. Time to move, I feel it. Thanks for bringing this text to life and making it personal. So insightful, so good for the soul.

  10. Pingback: Labour of Love : A Meditation on Psalm 139 | The Knitting Theologian

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