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The Politics of Elijah: Struggling with Elijah’s Legacy (2Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14)

For the past several weeks, the lectionary has been pondering the fiery character, prophetic ministry,  and legacy of Elijah. This is not out-of-order.  Along with his successor Elisha, Elijah occupies a central place in the stories of 1-2 Kings where he acts as an agitator extraordinaire in 9th century BCE Israel.  Not only that, Elijah begins a set of events that will erupt into a full-blown political and military coup d’etat after his life is over (2 Kings 9-10). Devoting five weeks to Elijah and Elisha, the lectionary enshrines the power of their prophetic words and deeds.

The story of Elijah’s final days in 2Kings 2 illuminates his ministry as the biblical writers understood it.  Here, as in earlier stories, Elijah demonstrates Moses-like abilities.  Having already chosen his successor, as Moses chose Joshua at end of Numbers, Elijah tests Elisha’s steadfastness and leads him across the Jordan.  Parting the waters on his way out of Israel, Elijah mimics Moses’ own actions at the Red/Reed Sea.  Elijah’s point of departure from his earthly life is roughly the same as Moses’ point of departure– somewhere in the general vicinity of Mount Nebo.   But the fiery chariot of YHWH that carries Elijah away is a new variation, meant as a parting shot in the Baal polemics that dominate the Elijah narratives.  After all, the Canaanite culture propagated by Ahab and Jezebel asserted that Baal was the one who rode the cloud chariot, who brought powerful winds, rains, and fiery lightning.[1]  Elijah’s final moments, then,  become a counter-claim to Canaanite theology and also a vindication of the prophet’s earlier zealousness for YHWH.  Elijah is, after all, one of only two people in the entire Old Testament who are transported to heaven at the end of their earthly life.

The story affirms Elijah’s role in national struggles about theology, politics, and culture.  It also asserts the transition of prophetic power from one powerful personality to another and validates the successor’s credentials by showing Elisha’s own ability to part the Jordan River (just as Joshua did in Josh 3!).  But it also echoes–subtly—with language that is more intimate, familial even.   When Elisha seeks a “double share” of Elijah’s power, he is asking about inheritance.  He is identifying himself as one who fills the role of the oldest son—the favored son entitled to family property.  When he calls him “father” as Elijah ascends on the chariot, one knows that Elisha’s relationship with Elijah is not merely a professional one.  Nor is it simply based on divine calling, as prophetic careers are usually depicted.   Elijah is bequeathing a family legacy, one with far-reaching consequences.  Indeed, Elisha’s own career is almost a duplicate of Elijah’s with almost identical miracles and a deepening entanglement in politics.

We are the heirs of Elijah’s legacy. His influence is evident within later writings of the Bible, the Bible’s earliest commentators, and within the Bible-shaped parts of our own culture.   But how might we assess our inheritance?  The later biblical tradition and church tradition has tended to emphasize and nurture a positive and heroic view of this mighty man of God.  This tradition lifts up Elijah’s courageous confrontation of an unjust and murderous powers (1Kings 21).  It highlights Elijah’s mercy—his life-giving miracles for a non-Israelite widow and her only son (1Kings 17).  His faithfulness in serving God despite the dangers it poses (1Kings 18-19).  His ability to discern God’s voice in the delicate sound of silent stillness, rather than in the pounding of thunder and quake (1Kings 19).  In short, Elijah is a hero of the covenant.  Moses redivivus.  A witness to God’s justice and mercy for those without power.  A harbinger of end-times restoration (Malachi 4:5-6). A model invoked in gospel stories about John (Lk 1:11–17) and Jesus (Lk 7:11-17). A hope for freedom from slavery, celebrated in an African-American spiritual.

And yet. . . Elijah’s legacy is also that of a “troubler” (1Kings 18:17-18).  Although the prophet denied the title, the Jewish rabbinic tradition has not been afraid to name troubling features of his ministry. [2]   He seems more pre-occupied with his own difficulties than those of the people. He does not advocate for his own people.  He uses violence.

This last point needs emphasizing, for the Christian tradition has often been reluctant to name the troublesome political and cultural dynamic that Elijah and his heirs often embody.  While Christian interpreters have been learning that some beloved biblical figures are not always as ideal as we would like to believe—I am reminded of King David on this point—it has been harder to embrace the shadow side of Elijah. How easy it is to read Elijah’s slaying of the 450 prophets of Baal as noble and good and justified! How easy it is to bless the bloody massacre of royals, children even, in the name of prophetic power (2Kings 10)!  But what makes these actions acceptable, even laudable, to casual readers, pastors, and commentators?  Such actions do not reflect the covenant traditions of justice and restoration.  Instead, they reflect particular fears and anxieties about the Other, voiced by writers during periods of cultural and political crisis.

If we are honest about our own family history, we might concede that in the hands of the writers of 1-2 Kings, Elijah and Elisha sometimes act and speak as culture warriors.   They are made the mouthpieces of a religious group that often placed ideological commitments above the covenant demands of justice or compassion, that took satisfaction in depicting Canaanite culture and religion as foreign, loathsome, death-dealing, and appalling when in fact it was the very culture that had given birth to and nurtured Israelite culture and theology, that took delight in literally besmirching the name of a powerful queen so that her name in biblical Hebrew would become a play on the word “dung.” A group that fostered a perverse enjoyment in the spectacle of a woman pushed out a window, trampled by horses, and eaten by dogs (2Kings 9).  A group that was sure God was on its side no matter that its actions often mirrored the actions of the hated other.

If Christian tradition and practice sometimes exercises amnesia about unpleasant family matters, it is good to point out that biblical tradition is strikingly honest and resistant when it comes to Elijah and Elisha’s ordination of violence in the name of God.  And in that reckoning with reality, biblical tradition is strikingly hopeful about what could be.  The prophet Hosea remembers as a bloody mess the events that Elijah and Elisha began, they are not the will of God (Hosea 1:4).  Jesus is compared to the prophet, but refuses his disciples’ request to pull an Elijah and call down fire on the descendents of Ahab and Jezebel (Lk 9:51-62; 2Kings 1:10-12).  Finally,  Malachi looks for a day when Elijah will return . . . and families will be put back together once again.

[1] See further the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, which makes for great beach reading, don’t let the title fool you!  See the highly accessible translation by Michael Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan.

[2] See Karla Suomala’s summary of rabbinic thinking on Elijah at workingpreacher.org.

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