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.”
2 Kings 2:1-3; from the lectionary text for Sunday June 30, 2019
full passage linked at: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+2%3A1-15&version=NRSV
Elijah and Elisha. Gilgal to Bethel. Bethel to Jericho. Jericho to the Jordan. And across the Jordan — miraculously parted — a whirlwind of chariots and fire catching Elijah up into heaven.
I know how the story ends. We all do. The end is told right at the start, in v. 1: the LORD is about to ‘take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind.’
Even those within the story know the event towards which it is aiming. Gilgal to Bethel. Bethel to Jericho. Jericho to the Jordan. At each point, the imminence of the LORD’s ‘taking’ is told. ‘Today’ say the prophets at Bethel (v.3). ‘Today’ say the prophets at Jericho (v. 5). Each time, Elisha replies that he, too, knows what will come. ‘Be silent,’ he says to them.
The pattern shifts slightly only at the Jordan. Now it is Elijah who alludes to himself being ‘taken,’ and his command to Elisha suggests the urgency of the time: ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you’ (v.9). The taking will be soon. It is coming. It is nearly here. Neither of them knows the time. Neither of them can control the time. Only step by step respond to the sending sign. Gilgal to Bethel. Bethel to Jericho. Jericho to the Jordan. The points don’t map in a straight line; they reverse course; their route slants sideways. ‘The LORD has sent me,’ Elijah had said at the start, and commanded his companion to stay. Elisha refused. Elisha is intent … upon what? Upon clinging to his master? Upon walking the way? Upon watching and watching to see what he knows is coming unfold?
The story tells its end right at the start: Elijah is about to be taken up by the LORD. Those within the story know this taking is near. They tell of it; they look towards it; they wonder what it will bring: ‘If you see me as I am being taken…’ Elijah tells Elisha (2:10). Elijah cannot grant Elisha’s request nor foretell whether the LORD will grant it. Which itself is odd, since the LORD had commanded Elijah back chapters before to anoint Elisha prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:16). Could it be that Elijah has learned humility — to wait on instead of anticipate the LORD? (His tone has changed since 1 Kings 18:36-37). Or is the story not about Elijah but about Elisha? Elisha so focused on walking closely in step, putting aside those distracting other-prophets with their superfluous words — I know, I know, already I know; keep silent about what will be, so that I can see what is even as it unfolds. Elisha cleaving close to Elijah until he is able to articulate his hope for when they have been cleaved apart.
It’s a strange story. Not only for the whirlwind of chariots with its crackle of flames and thunder of hoofbeats, nor for the odd route along which Elijah says he is sent, nor for the words Elisha cried after his departing ‘father’: ‘The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ (v.12) — I hear his voice grow high-pitched and crack as Elijah is carried off.
The strangeness, too, comes in the mismatch of the verbs which narrate the event’s anticipation and realization and the verbs used by the characters within the story. How many times have I read this text and never noticed this? The companies of prophets say Elijah will be ‘taken’; Elijah himself says he will be ‘taken’; the verb in both places is the same. But the Hebrew of the bracketing narrative says something slightly different: v.1 explains that Elijah will be led up, brought up, caused-to-ascend; and so in v.11 it is: Elijah ‘ascends’ into heaven.
Is this why Elisha has to follow and watch so closely? Is this why Elijah cannot speak with certainty of what will be? Because they both know that what they know is partial, not the whole. They know enough to watch, to walk from Gilgal to Bethel, from Bethel to Jericho, from Jericho to and across the Jordan. They know enough to see that the LORD is about to act; they try to ready themselves to recognize the act. But they don’t really know. They can’t. All they can do is read and walk the signs step by step, place to place, word and word, continuing ’walking and talking’ (2:11). They know what is coming and still there is the shock of its in-breaking.
Some deaths come like that. And every birth. You know, and you know, and still you are stunned when you see that it is not, after all, a ‘taking.’ It is ascent. It is one being caught up by glory, into glory. And the other walking back, and further on. Still in the story, but having been given a glimpse of its larger frame. Your voice rises and cracks.
The knowing you’d had — that ‘taking’ is coming, even near — partial, insufficient, the knowing matters. The work to see and to hear and to talk and to walk — that matters too. By it you are brought across the river, to the encounter with crackling flame and pounding force. By it you are enabled to take the next step. To pick up the mantle and cross the river back and walk on into the portion of work that is yours.
I am still in my story. DOJ to seminary. Seminary to local church. Local church to doctoral work, and then across. An odd process, sometimes sideways. And if right here, right now I cannot even see to name the journey’s end, yet through this text, I am reminded of how partial my story is and given a glimpse of its larger frame. Gilgal to Bethel. Bethel to Jericho. Jericho to the Jordan, and then across. An end that is like but also unlike; expected yet impossible to anticipate; an end that is not an end but merely one more turn. Until the next. I do not know, nor fully can, the story’s frame. It will come as surprise; it cannot be else. But here within the tale, I can watch and listen and talk and walk on to the next thing, the next glimpse of heaven breaking in and catching a little bit of this world up into itself, until the kingdom comes.
Fire crackles and chariot wheels rumble and hoofbeats pound against the air.