2 Kings 2:1-18
Every journey is marked by special moments or events that become mile markers along the way. While much of the journey will fade into the blur of daily events, periodically something very significant happens that punctuates the monotony and stands out as being significant. So far in our journey through the Old Testament we have stopped to see such mile markers as the fall of Adam and Eve, the calling of Abraham, the giving of the Law to Moses, and the promise made to David. Today we have come to another one of those events. The story of Elijah and Elisha deserves our attention.
The journey in this narrative took in places which were heavy with associations with Israel’s past. Gilgal (v. 1) was the first stopping-place after the Israelites had crossed the Jordan. Male Israelites born during the wilderness years were circumcised there, and a Passover was celebrated (Jos. 5). Bethel (v. 2), some 14 miles into the central hills, was the place of Jacob’s encounter with God (Gn. 28). Jericho (v. 4), in the Jordan valley not far from Gilgal, was the first town to fall to Joshua (Jos. 6), and the Jordan (v. 6) had miraculously stopped to let Israel enter the land (Jos. 3).
Apart from the detour to Bethel, the journey therefore focuses on places connected with Israel’s entry into the promised land. The purpose of this, or at least of the writer’s account of it, is to draw attention to the special roles of Elijah and Elisha in Israel’s history. Previous events in Elijah’s life recalled aspects of Moses’ ministry, e.g. like Moses, Elijah received a revelation of God on Mt Horeb, and his slaughter of the prophets of Baal had echoes of the aftermath of the golden calf incident (Ex. 32:25–29). Now he crossed to the eastern side of the Jordan (in a manner similar to the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses’ leadership), where Moses’ ministry also came to an end. Indeed, the end of Moses’ life was almost as mysterious as that of Elijah’s (Dt. 34:6). The parallels between the lives of the two men are underlined in the NT when they both appear speaking to Jesus at his transfiguration (Mt. 17:3).
There is a theological significance to the parallels between Elijah and Moses. Moses was the mediator of the covenant at Sinai/Horeb, the prophet (Dt. 18:15; 34:10) through whom Israel was brought into that covenant relationship and made the people of God. Elijah was the prophet through whom the people were turned back to the Sinai covenant and Israel’s special status was saved. In short, the parallels with Moses dramatically heighten Elijah’s importance in Israel’s history and in the books of Kings in particular. H. H. Rowley (‘Elijah on Mount Carmel’, BJRL, 43 , 190–219) neatly summed up the relationship between the ministries of Moses and Elijah: ‘Without Moses the religion of Yahweh as it figured in the Old Testament would never have been born. Without Elijah it would have died.’
If Elijah is identified as a second Moses, Elisha would appear to be in the mould of Joshua. As Joshua succeeded Moses as leader of the people, so Elisha succeeded Elijah, crossing the Jordan on dry land from east to west as Joshua did (v. 14) and following in Joshua’s footsteps by going on to Jericho (vv. 15–22). (Even Elisha’s name recalls that of Joshua. Elisha means ‘God is salvation’, while Joshua means ‘Yahweh is salvation’.)
Elijah’s departure demonstrated the power and mystery of God. It was foreknown by Elisha and the groups of prophets at Bethel and Jericho (vv. 3, 5) and finally occurred in a way which defies a clear description (v. 11). Elisha’s request for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (v. 9) reflects the inheritance-right of a firstborn son (Dt. 21:17), and we may see a connection between this and Elisha addressing Elijah as his father (v. 12). It amounts to a formal request that he might be heir to Elijah’s ministry. The condition which Elijah imposed (v. 10) probably involved Elisha understanding his departure rather than simply witnessing it. Elisha’s cry, ‘the chariots and horsemen of Israel’ (v. 12), showed that he perceived Elijah to be the true might and protection of God’s people. He tore his clothes as a sign of mourning at the people’s loss.
When Elisha approached the Jordan and it divided for him as it had done for Elijah, the event confirmed that the spirit active in Elijah now rested on him. The prophets from Jericho therefore acknowledged him as their new master (v. 15). However, they had not understood Elijah’s departure as well as Elisha, for they insisted on searching for him. Elisha knew this to be useless (vv. 16–18).
In the fifth century bc, the prophet Malachi predicted that the return of Elijah would precede the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’ (Mal. 4:5). In its context this indicates a prophet who would repeat Elijah’s ministry of calling the people back to God (Mal. 4:6), but it led to much speculation that Elijah would return in person (cf. Mt. 17:10; Mk. 8:28). Jesus indicated that the ministry of Elijah had been resumed by John the Baptist, fulfilling the words of Malachi (Mt. 11:14; 17:11–13).1