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19

CHAPTER II

THE ASCENSION OF ELIJAH

2 Kings ii. 1-18

Ἠλίας ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἠφανίσθη, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἔγνω μεχρὶς τῆς σήμερον αὐτοῦ τὴν τελεύτην.—Jos., Antt., IX. ii. 2.

Γεγόνασιν ἀφανεῖς, θάνατον δὲ αὐτῶν οὐδεὶς οἶδεν.—St. Ephræm Syrus.

The date of the assumption of Elijah is wholly uncertain, and it becomes still more so because of the confusion of chronological order which results from the composite character of the records here collected. It appears from various scattered notices that Elijah lived on till the reign of Jehoram of Judah, whereas the narrative in this chapter is placed before the death of Jehoshaphat.

When the time came that "Jehovah would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven," the prophet had a prevision of his approaching end, and determined for the last time to visit the hills of his native Gilead. The story of his end, though not written in rhythm, is told in a style of the loftiest poetry, resembling other ancient poems in its simple and solemn repetitions. On his way to Gilead, Elijah desires to visit ancient sanctuaries where schools of the prophets were now established, and accompanied by Elisha, whose faithful ministrations he had enjoyed for ten almost silent years, he went to Gilgal. This was not the Gilgal in20 the Jordan valley so famous in the days of Joshua,2323   Josh. iv. 19; v. 9, 10. but Jiljilia in the hills of Ephraim,2424   Deut. xi. 30. It is on a hill south-west of Shiloh (Seilun), near the road to Jericho (Hos. iv. 15; Amos iv. 4). The name means "a circle," and there may have been an ancient circle of sacred stones there. where many young prophets were in course of training.2525   2 Kings iv. 38.

Knowing that he was on his way to death, Elijah felt the imperious instinct which leads the soul to seek solitude at the supreme crises of life. He would have preferred that even Elisha should leave him, and he bade him stop at Gilgal, because the Lord had sent him as far as Bethel. But Elisha was determined to see the end, and exclaimed with strong asseveration, "As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee."

So they went on to Bethel, where there was another school of prophets, under the immediate shadow of Jeroboam's golden calf, though we are not told whether they continued the protest of the old nameless seer from Judah, or not.2626   1 Kings xiii. Here the youths of the college came respectfully to Elisha—for they were prevented by a sense of awe from addressing Elijah—and asked him "whether he knew that that day God would take away his master." "Yes, I know it," he answers; but—for this is no subject for idle talk—"hold ye your peace."

Once more Elijah tries to shake off the attendance of his friend and disciple. He bids him stay at Bethel, since Jehovah has sent him on to Jericho. Once more Elisha repeats his oath that he will not leave him,21 and once more the sons of the prophets at Jericho, who warn him of what is coming, are told to say no more.

But little of the journey now remains. In vain Elijah urges Elisha to stay at Jericho; they proceed to Jordan. Conscious that some great event is impending, and that Elijah is leaving these scenes for ever, fifty of the sons of the prophets watch the two as they descend the valley to the river. Here they saw Elijah take off his mantle of hair, roll it up, and smite the waters with it. The waters part asunder, and the prophets pass over dry-shod.2727   As there are fords at Jericho, the object of this miracle, as of the one subsequently ascribed to Elisha, is not self-evident. Nothing is more certain than that there is a Divine economy in the exercise of supernatural powers. The pomp and prodigality of superfluous portents belong, not to Scripture, but to the Acta sanctorum, and the saint-stories of Arabia and India. As they crossed over Elijah asks Elisha what he should do for him, and Elisha entreats that a double portion of Elijah's spirit may rest upon him. By this he does not mean to ask for twice Elijah's power and inspiration, but only for an elder son's portion, which was twice what was inherited by the younger sons.2828   Deut. xxi. 17. The Hebrew is פִּי־שְׁנַיִם, "a mouthful, or ration of two." Comp. Gen. xliii. 34. Even Ewald's "Nur Zweidrittel und auch diese kaum" is too strong (Gesch., iii. 517). In no sense was Elisha greater than Elijah: he wrought more wonders, but he left little of his teaching, and produced on the mind of his nation a far less strong impression. "Thou hast asked a hard thing," said Elijah; "but if thou seest me when I am taken hence, it shall be so."

The sequel can be only told in the words of the text: "And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire,22 and horses of fire,2929   In 2 Kings vi. 17 the stormblast (sā'ārāh) and chariots and horses of fire are part of a vision of the Divine protection. Comp. Isa. lxvi. 15; Job xxxviii, 1; Nah. i. 3; Psalms xviii. 6-15, civ. 3. and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried, 'My father, my father, the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!'3030   That is, the protection and defence of Israel by thy prayers. And he saw him no more."

Respecting the manner in which Elijah ended his earthly career, we know nothing beyond what is conveyed by this splendid narrative. His death, like that of Moses, was surrounded by mystery and miracles, and we can say nothing further about it. The question must still remain unanswered for many minds whether it was intended by the prophetic annalists for literal history, for spiritual allegory, or for actual events bathed in the colourings of an imagination to which the providential assumed the aspect of the supernatural.3131   Even the Church-father St. Ephræm Syrus evidently felt some misgivings. He says: "Suddenly there came from the height a storm of fire, and in the midst of the flame the form of a chariot and horses, and parted them both asunder; the one of them it left on the earth, the other it carried to the height; but whether the wind carried him, or in what place it left him, the Scripture has not informed us, but it says that after some years, a terrifying letter from him full of menaces, was delivered to King Jehoram of Judah" (quoted by Keil ad loc.). See 2 Chron. xxi. 12. The letter is called "a writing" (miktâb). We are twice told that "Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven,"3232   2 Kings ii. 11; Ecclus. xlviii. 12. The LXX. curiously says ἐν συσσεισμῷ ὡς εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν. So too the Rabbis, Sucah, f. 5. and in that storm—which would have seemed a fit scene for the close of a career of storm—God, in the high poetry of the Psalmist, may have made the winds His angels, and the flames of fire His ministers. For us it must suffice to say of Elijah,23 as the Book of Genesis says of Enoch, that "he was not, for God took him."

Elisha signalised the removal of his master by a burst of natural grief. He seized his garments and rent them in twain. Elijah had dropped his mantle of skin, and his grieving disciple took it with him as a priceless relic.3333   The circumstance has left its trace in the proverbs of nations, and in the German word Mantelkind for a spiritual successor. The legendary St. Antony bequeathed to St. Athanasius the only thing which he had, his sheepskin mantle; and in the mantle of Elijah his successor inherited his most characteristic and almost his sole possession. He returned to Jordan, and with this mantle he smote the waters as Elijah had done. At first they did not divide;3434   2 Kings ii. 14. LXX., καὶ οὐ διῃρέθη; Vulg., Percussit aquas, et non sunt divisæ. but when he exclaimed, "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah, even He?" they parted hither and thither. Seeing the portent, the sons of the prophets came with humble prostrations, and acknowledged him as their new leader.

They were not, however, satisfied with what they had seen, or had heard from Elisha, of the departure of the great prophet, and begged leave to send fifty strong men to search whether the wind of the Lord had not swept him away to some mountain or valley. Elisha at first refused, but afterwards yielded to their persistent importunity. They searched for three days among the hills of Gilead, but found him not, either living or dead, as Elisha had warned them would be the case.

From that time forward Elijah has taken his place in all Jewish and Mohammedan legends as the mysterious and deathless wanderer. Malachi spoke of him as24 destined to appear again to herald the coming of the Messiah,3535   Mal. iv. 4-6. and Christ taught His disciples that John the Baptist had come in the spirit and power of Elijah. In Jewish legend he often appears and disappears. A chair is set for him at the circumcision of every Jewish child. At the Paschal feast the door is set open for him to enter. All doubtful questions are left for decision until he comes again. To the Mohammedans he is known as the wonder-working and awful El Khudr.3636   Bava-Metzia, f. 37, 2, etc. His name is used for incantations in the Kabbala. Kitsur Sh'lh, f. 71, 1 (Hershon, Talmudic Miscellany, p. 340). The chair set for him is called "the throne of Elijah." For many Rabbinic legends see Hershon, Treasures of the Talmud, pp. 172-178. The Persians regard him as the teacher of Zoroaster.

Elisha is mentioned but once in all the later books of Scripture; but Elijah is mentioned many times, and the son of Sirach sums up his greatness when he says: "Then stood up Elias as fire, and his word burned like a torch. O Elias, how wast thou honoured in thy wondrous deeds! and who may glory like unto thee—who anointed kings to take revenge, and prophets to succeed after him—who wast ordained for reproof in their times, to pacify the wrath of the Lord's judgment before it broke forth into fury, and to turn the heart of the father unto the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob! Blessed are they that saw thee and slept in love; for we shall surely live!"


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