Road from Jericho (to the left) to the Jordan, the whirlwind and Elijah’s chariot of fire.

2 Kings 2 (NRSV): When they had crossed [the Jordan River], 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.” 10 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.” 11 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. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” […].

Today’s gospel reading is St. Mark’s narrative of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, when Jesus of Nazareth appears on a mountaintop with Moses and the prophet Elijah. It’s a key inflection point in the gospel stories, and this Sunday is a turning point in the church year — leading into Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter. It may come at an inflection point in the history of this pandemic, too, as Debi and I got our second round of Covid vaccinations Friday.

But as important as the Transfiguration is (I’ve written about the run-up to it in this blog, including in my last email to my spiritual director before she died in October), I was struck by the Old Testament lectionary reading when I watched our online service at Peace Lutheran. It’s the passage in 2 Kings where the prophet Elijah confers his spirit on his disciple Elisha as he is lifted up to heaven in a fiery chariot. I hadn’t paid that much attention to it before. But this morning it was riveting.

For one thing, there’s more to it than I’d remembered. Elijah has been traveling in what is now the West Bank of the Jordan, accompanied by Elisha and a company of at least 50 prophets or disciples (the Hebrew is “sons of the prophets”), from Bethel, between modern-day Ramallah and Nablus, to Jericho and on to the river. In Jericho, which struck me as a nice little farm town when I visited, the company of prophets ask Elisha, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answers, ‘Yes, I know; be silent’.” While they’re still in Jericho, Elijah turns to Elisha.

“Stay here,” he says, “for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”

But Elisha replies, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

And off they go to the Jordan, where the waters part. Clearly we’re in the world of myth and legend here.

(Also, I think, we’re in the world of midrash, since the story of Elijah and Elisha can be read as a commentary on the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, and Elijah is lifted up to heaven at the same location that tradition holds the Israel crossed the Jordan. Jesus would be baptized, according to later tradition, at the same river crossing. More midrash, no doubt.)

From Jericho, Elijah and Elisha set out across the river. Elijah strikes it with his mantle, or cloak, and the waters part “until the two of them crossed on dry ground.” On the other side, Elisha asks to “inherit a double share of your spirit.”

“You have asked a hard thing,” replies Elijah, “yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” I don’t know what the next passage sounds like in Hebrew, but I think it’s a magnificent bit of narrative poetry, even in the utilitarian prose of the New Revised Standard Version:

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!”

And because Elisha sees Elijah, the whirlwind and the fiery chariot, he receives the spirit.

So Elisha goes back to Jericho and purifies the water in the oasis there. He feeds a hundred men with 20 loaves of barley. (No women? The bible doesn’t say, of course.) He demonstrates other limitations of his era, when Israelites were prone to smithing their enemies. “A less sympathetic picture of Elisha,” as the My Jewish Learning website puts it, “emerges from his dealings with the boys [in Bethel] who call him Baldy – in his anger he summons a she-bear to devour them.” But all in all, he will go on to perform twice as many miracles as Elijah.

There’s a lot going on in this story — I mean you don’t see prophets flying off in a flaming chariot every day — but what resonated with me most is Elisha.

I imagine myself in Jericho, and I’ll bet if Elijah told me to stay there, I’d figure, OK, that’s probably the most practical thing to do. It’s a nice farm town in an oasis surrounded by sandy fields. Reminded me of the little towns in eastern Carolina. When I was in Jericho, I even saw a John Deere tractor pulling a flat-bed wagon pulled up in front of what looked like a farmers’ coop. But Elisha is called to go with Elijah, and that he does.

When I try to engage with scripture, I follow a technique I learned in “dinner church” services at Peace Lutheran. It’s like a scaled-down version of lectio divina, where I ask three questions:

  • What in this text catches your attention?
  • Is this text Good News to you? Why or why not?
  • What might this text be asking of you?

Well, what catches my attention is Elisha’s dilemma. Do I stay in Jericho? It’s safer here in town, and we’ve got 50 sons of the prophets here. Plenty enough to carry on the movement. Besides, that’s what the old man says he wants me to do. Better not rock the boat.

But Elisha insists, and the two of them set out for the River Jordan.

Back into the desert. (This is where my analogy with eastern North Carolina breaks down — instead of sandy peanut farms, it’s real desert outside of Jericho.) Did Elisha have second thoughts when the sun was blasting down on them out there? Why didn’t I stay in town like the old man wanted me to? Did he remind himself that, no, this is what I’m called to do. I have to cross the river with Elijah.

I don’t claim to be a prophet, but there have been some times in my life when I felt a calling to do something. Quit a dead-end job and go back to school, Start a second career. Decide to see if I can write a book. The list goes on. So I can imagine Elisha arguing with himself as he and Elijah trudge out into the desert. Why didn’t I just stay in town, in my comfort zone?

I think we’ve all had those doubts, and I’ll bet Elisha had them too. Prophets aren’t immune to them. Look at Moses. Look at Jonah. Why not Elisha?

So, going back to the Dinner Church questions, is the story of Elisha following Elijah through the desert Good News? (I think there’s something very Lutheran going on here, by the way.) Luther saw the entire bible through a lens of law and gospel. Law is about obedience: If you tease the prophet, you’ll get eaten by a bear. But gospel, according to Timothy Wengert of Lutheran Theological Seminary Philadelphia, “reveals God’s mercy and comforts the terrified.” It’s all about faith, even in the Old Testament. Follow Elijah into the desert, and trust that you’ll see the whirlwind and the chariot of fire.

So what is the story of Elisha and Elijah in the desert asking of me? What is it calling me to do?

That third question is always the hard one, isn’t it? James Martin SJ likes to say contemplation leads to prayer and prayer leads to action. “What do I want to do, based on my prayer?” we should ask. “Finally, you act.” To that question, I don’t have a good answer.

Maybe what I take away from the story of Elisha and Elijah isn’t about what I do next. Maybe it’s about how I do it.

As I write this, I’m not about to follow Elijah out into any desert. Metaphorical or otherwise. It’s 10 degrees out today, and I’ve been in voluntary self-quarantine for 11 months. I’m not venturing out, period. Nor am I about to inherit a prophet’s mantle. If anything, I need to focus on my existing projects, not start new ones. Wasn’t I nattering on about writing a book a couple of minutes ago? If anything, I trust that I’m called to stay back in Jericho and finish my work, having faith it’s the right thing.

[Revised and published Tuesday, Feb. 16.]

One thought on “Of law, gospel, a hungry she-bear and vocation on Elisha and Elijah’s way across the desert to the Jordan River

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