No doubt many preachers will eschew this enigmatic text and choose texts that give easier access. I hope, to the contrary, that preachers will linger over this text, because it teems with interpretive thickness. The narrative specificity of this text includes a number of components that defy our every explanation:
...In verse 8, Elijah takes his mantle and strikes the water. The waters part, and they crossed on dry land. The narrative offers no explanation for this act. It is easy enough, however, to see in this event an allusion to the Exodus narrative wherein the waters parted and dry land appeared:
The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into *dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on **dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.* (Exodus 14:21-22)
Elijah reiterates the liberating wonder of the Exodus. With Moses, the wonder required a strong east wind. For Elijah, all that was needed was his mantle, a sure sign that his mantle was permeated with transformative power.
...In verse 9, Elisha asks for “a double share of your spirit.” He does not ask for God’s spirit, but for the spirit (=power, authority) of Elijah. In our verses, there is no such gift of that spirit to Elisha. If, however, we peak over into verses 13-15 and back to I Kings 20:19-21, we can see that Elijah’s mantle is a sign and embodiment of extraordinary power. Indeed, in 2:13-15, Elisha strikes the water with the mantle of Elijah, an act that echoes Elijah’s own act in the preceding verses. Again the waters parted, and again they passed over on dry land. It is evident that power has been transferred (peaceably). Elisha is infused with the capacity of Elijah. He too can perform an Exodus!
...In verse 11, Elijah “ascended” accompanied by chariots of fire and horses of fire, inscrutable tools of divine capacity. They are tools to which Elisha will have access in his unequal struggle with the Syrian king (see 6:17). More important, however, is the disclosure that Elijah did not die. Instead, he is wondrously “taken up” in the power of God. Along with Enoch (Genesis 5:24), Elijah is the only character in the Old Testament who does not die. As a result, Elijah is kept alive by God and kept “in reserve” for a return in power to continue the emancipatory work of YHWH. On “Transfiguration Sunday” we have this text in the lectionary of Elijah being “transfigured” before Elisha into a larger-than-history character who has a continuing role to play in the imagined future of Israel.
...In verse 12, the response of Elisha in verse 12 is often taken as a lament, that is, because he is disconcerted to have Elijah go away. And that may be the case; but it need not be so. It could perhaps be Elisha’s full and final recognition of who Elijah is. He calls him “father” in an acknowledgement of his own “inheritance of power” as his “son” and successor. He also identifies Elijah as a powerful instrument for YHWH. This must have been an awesome moment for Elisha, for he recognizes both Elijah’s inscrutable power and the fact that he is now the bearer of that power. This is a moment when Elisha becomes “woke” to his own vocation. In this utterance we see that Elisha is also “transfigured” into a role of prophetic power and responsibility.
The final action of this paragraph in verse 12 is peculiarly odd and inexplicable. Perhaps Elisha’s tearing of his clothes is an act of grief work over the departure of Elijah. Or perhaps it is an act of desperation as he takes up his new role. Or perhaps the act is the dramatic rending of his “old self” to be dressed and equipped for his “new self” in his new role just bequeathed to him. This possibility could perhaps be an anticipation of the new “self” of which Paul writes that is marked by “true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23-24).
These four actions are stated tersely and without elaboration. The interpreter does not need to “explain.” I suggest that these several elements in the story are signs that articulate and assure that what is happening in this narrative is not “ordinary.” These are not ordinary characters and their lives are not ordinary lives. Rather, their lives are permeated with thick specificities that attest that God’s transformative power is at work in and through them. Thus, the interpretive point may be that human lives, some human lives, are laden with transformative power that is not amenable to our usual categories of explanation. This narrative invites us to wonder and anticipate concerning human persons laden with God’s power. The narrative makes the claim that these particular human persons, Elijah and Elisha, are a continuation of the Exodus tradition and are authorized to liberate and to permit the emergence of new life beyond all old bondages.
Once we have seen this pervasive interest in the narrative, I suggest we may identify three lines of interpretation.
First, Elijah, taken up “into heaven” is held in abeyance by God for future deployment into the world. This means that wherever Elijah may yet emerge, history is open to new possibility. He did not die, but has kept his awesome generative power for future enactment. This remarkable claim shows up variously in the ongoing tradition. In the Christian Old Testament (as distinct from the Hebrew Bible), the very last verses of the very last book in the Old Testament anticipate the return of Elijah who will perform reconciliation:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
Where Elijah is expected, history is not closed off in despair because he will bring newness. Thus, the Christian Old Testament voices an openness to the newness that follows in the New Testament.
The New Testament makes a claim on this tradition of Elijah. At the outset, the gospel of Luke, through an angelic declaration, anticipates one with “the spirit and power of Elijah,” a reference to John the Baptizer:
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
This one will perform reconciliation. In Luke 9:18-20, some identify Jesus with Elijah; this mention of him is just preceding the narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus in which Elijah also appears (9:30). This claim concerning Elijah exhibits the way in which the New Testament gospel is filled with expectation funded by the memory of Elijah. That expectation will not be contained in the categories of the ordinary. Something quite different is anticipated that is linked to the memory of Elijah.
Jews at Passover host a seat for the presence of Elijah, in anticipation that he will participate in the great meal of emancipation. For Jews and for Christians, Elijah is a cipher to declare that God’s work in history through transformative human agents is not yet finished. We may expect yet more transformations to occur that are authorized by the Lord of all history, performed by human agents.
Second, Elisha by this narrative is unloosed into the narratives that follow (See Walter Brueggemann, Testimony to Otherwise). Once Elisha is authorized and empowered, he occupies a series of narratives in which he overrides the circumstances of death (II Kings 4:32-37), leprosy (5:1-27), war (6:8-23), and famine (6:24-7:20). It is important to notice, moreover, that Elisha, an uncredentialed outsider, is able to transform (transfigure?) social reality. He does this, moreover, in the face of royal opposition while the various unnamed kings in the narrative are themselves unable to do any transformative work. In sum, the narratives of Elisha portray a human character capable of transformative action who lives outside the power structure of the monarchs. It surely cannot be accidental or incidental that in many ways the wonder stories of Jesus appear to replicate those of the Elisha narratives. Not unlike Elisha, Jesus is also an outsider who does the transformative work that established power cannot do.
Both Elijah and Elisha are carriers of historical possibility that refuses the shut-down of despair or the status quo of human hubris. Both of them keep the historical process open to possibility that runs well beyond the domesticated imagination of their contemporaries. In particular, they oppose and resist the royal power structure that has an ideological stake in closing off new historical possibility.
Third, Elijah and Elisha constitute not only a pair of wonder workers. They are linked as initiator and successor. Or we might say that our text witnesses to “prophetic succession” that is not unlike “apostolic succession.” This dimension of their relationship is important because it alludes to the fact that wonder workers for justice in every generation are not isolated self-starters or individualized agents. Rather, they are heirs to a long tradition that continues to be lively and generative. Thus Elisha, as noted above, receives “the spirit of Elijah,” a force that equips him for his great risky transformative action.
Interpretation of this text may offer the good news that history is kept open by and for human actors who live in a “succession” of bold expectation that runs well beyond the status quo of despair and injustice.
Our interpretation and articulation of good news in our present historical circumstance is exactly that, history is kept open, open for new possibility by empowered human agents. This is particularly good news now, for it is easy enough, in the face of Covid, economic shut-down, and the climate crisis, to settle for despair or, at best, for the most compelling status quo we can imagine. This narrative refuses that conventional settlement and insists on new possibility of a radical difference.
That future is kept open to new possibility, moreover, only when and where and if there are human agents who carry the power to enact newness. These particular human agents will, every time, stand in a succession of those who refuse the closure of history to which ideology summons us. Imagine that it is the readers of this text who may be inundated with the future willed by God that may happen among us. The parting of the waters after the fashion of Moses, first by Elijah (II Kings 2:8) and then by Elisha (II Kings 2:14) attests that no Pharonic force can stop the life-giving newness of God when there are human agents infused with courage, freedom, and imagination, all gifts of the spirit. The narrative attests that power has been transferred from Elijah to Elisha. This is indeed real power, the kind that moves relentlessly beyond every status quo.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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