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2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

This account of Elijah’s final day on earth is dripping with symbolism. The passage is structured around a 3x repetition of Elijah telling Elisha to stay behind, and Elisha refusing, paired with the 3x repetition of these ‘sons of the prophets’ knowing something’s happening, but not really getting the significance of it (the third instance actually comes just after the lectionary reading).

The pattern is interrupted between the final challenge to stay, and the final interaction with the sons of the prophets by this intimate moment between Elisha and this father-figure he’s about to lose. This climactic scene is bookended by the two partings of the Jordan, first by Elijah, then by Elisha. In Hebrew imagery and symbolism large bodies of water, even flowing water like the Jordan, symbolize chaos and the place of the dead: Sheol. Core to any faithful interpretation of the creation poem in Genesis 1 is a recognition that God’s chief creative acts are 1) to bring order out of the stuff of Chaos (time and seasons, boundaries for bodies of water, springs of fresh water), and 2) to bring life out of the stuff of death (the primordial chaotic deep comes to be characterized by the swarming life within it, and dust, the archetypal ‘food’ of the underworld, is molded and made to live in the image of God Himself). We Christians sometimes get too comfortable with these moments when waters part in the bible, as though they’re just any old, run-of-the-mill miracle; ya’ know, the kind you can pick up at your local grocery store.

In truth, the parting of waters in the scriptures is always meant to draw our minds back to Eden, to creation as it should be, to new life emerging from death and chaos, to a place where heaven and earth are no more distant than the air is from our lungs. Elijah and Elisha go across the tamed waters, into the heaven/earth space, and in that space Elijah asks what Elisha wants from him. And Elisha’s request is ‘a double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit; a term coming from inheritance customs. Elisha’s not asking Elijah to double the amount of spirit juice he has, and hand it over; he’s asking to be Elijah’s primary heir. The firstborn son of a family in the Ancient Near East (ANE) would inherit double what their younger brothers would receive (usually), and from that ‘double portion’, they were meant to take up the responsibilities of the family patriarch. Chief among those responsibilities being the duty to care for the widows, orphans, and homeless among the broader clan.

Elisha’s asking for Elijah’s role as prophet over Israel and Judah, to become the new ‘family head’ responsible for the wellbeing of the disadvantaged, the reproval of the corrupt, and the restoration of the lost among Israel. In times when the kings of Israel and Judah become corrupt, God sends prophets to lead the people in the right direction, and to be a glaring indictment against the evils of the kings. That’s what Elijah has been, especially for the dynasty of Omri in the north, but also for the Davidic kings in the south. And that’s what Elisha wants to become.

Elijah says ‘you’re asking for a difficult thing’, and he’s probably talking more about what that role will do to Elisha, than the difficulty involved in passing the role on. In other words, he’s not so much saying “that’s going to be a hard wish to grant,” as he’s saying, “are you sure this is what you want?” Remember, Elijah hit some pretty low points serving this calling, even becoming suicidal at one point (1 Kings 19:1-4). But Elisha persists to the end, sees his father-figure taken by wind and fire (a scene which is in and of itself steeped in a whole bunch more symbolism that’d take far more room than I can dedicate to it here), and as Elijah goes, his cloak falls to the ground, and Elisha literally picks up the mantle of his mentor (this is actually the origin of the English idiom).

Elisha goes back down the heaven/earth mountain, returns to the Jordan river flowing as it usually does, and that striking scene (pun intended) of the waters parting repeats itself, but this time Elisha is returning alone in place of his master. And when he slaps the water with the cloak, Elisha says: “Where is YHWH, the God of Eli (‘my god') jah (‘is Yah/YHWH’)”. The implication being that YHWH, God of Elijah, is right there with Elisha. He has inherited the role of Elijah’s firstborn, and all the responsibilities that come with playing Elijah’s role in the divided kingdoms of Israel. More importantly, by crossing over death into the heaven/earth space, and returning across death back into the mundane, Elisha functions like Elijah resurrected for a new generation.

Now consider the Ascension of Christ. In John’s account of the night Jesus was betrayed, after Judas Iscariot leaves the table, Jesus instructs His remaining followers concerning the ministry they will have after He’s taken from them (chs. 14-17). In those instructions are the foundations of what it means to be the church, and central to them is the promise of the Spirit coming to guide the Church. The very Spirit of God in whom Christ communed even while incarnate now resides in the church. We are inheritors of Christ’s Spirit even as Elisha was an inheritor of Elijah’s. And in like manner, we inherit the responsibilities of bearing that Spirit into the world. In His prayer in John 17, when praying for His disciples, and those who would come to follow him through their testimony (i.e. us), Jesus says that we are not of the world as He is not, but even so we are sent to the world even as He was.

So if Jesus was sent to heal the hurting, then His church is sent to heal the hurting. If Jesus was sent to bind up the brokenhearted, His church is sent to bind up the brokenhearted. If Jesus was sent to set the captive free, His church is sent to set the captive free. If by His life, death, resurrection, and ascension Jesus declared the inauguration of a year of Jubilee without end, a year in which the balance held against us is forgiven, a year in which the poor and forgotten are restored and honored as part of the community, a year when the wicked are called to account for the harm caused to the vulnerable; If Christ was sent to declare and inaugurate the Jubilee, then so is His church. We bear together the Spirit of Christ, and together we carry on His mission: John 14:12 (NASB95) 12“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.”