2 Kings 2 tells how Elijah was translated into heaven and how Elisha inherited his role as leader of the prophets. This story is odd in that it puts into the midst of a chronicle about historical kings and prophets an experience that shifts us out of historical time into another dimension.
Hillel Millgram, in The Elijah Enigma assigns myth as the primary narrative mode of paganism. He designates history as the primary narrative mode of Israelite monotheism. And yet in the story of Elijah’s translation, myth impinges on history. And it is not just a mythical story that exists as part of an old text. It is an ongoing myth as the idea of Elijah’s return continues on in Judaism and Christianity.
When Elijah and Elisha crossed the Jordan something like a fiery chariot separated them. Then a whirlwind carried Elijah up. In spite of our popular spiritual about the sweet chariot that swings low to give you a ride, the text says that the whirlwind, not the chariot, carried Elijah up.
Actually the text seems to say “the whirlwind”. Millgram thinks this is probably not because there was only one whirlwind of God, but because this story had become so famous in the three hundred years since Elijah that everybody knew about “the whirlwind”. However, God spoke to Job out of “the whirlwind” too. So I wonder.
In the text this seems like a private mystical experience of Elisha. The fifty prophets on the other side of the river did not see it. They assumed Elijah had run off again in an ecstasy. We remember how he had run ahead of Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel after the contest on Mount Carmel. So they went over to the other bank and spent some days looking for him.
Millgram believes that the story of Elijah’s translation had become such a well-known story by the time our scribe wrote 2 Kings that there was no way he could leave it out. What he did instead was somewhat demythologize it. The way 2 Kings tells the story the emphasis is on Elisha receiving the legacy of Elijah. Even though it is a myth, it is used to convey historical continuity within the prophetic movement.
But his attempt to demythologize it was not entirely successful as the continuing expectations about Elijah in messianic thinking shows.
In a footnote Millgram talks about the attempt of Jack Lundbom to find mundane history behind this event. Lundbom thought that a chariot squadron sent by King Jehoram had swept up Elijah. He had been killed and his body disposed of secretly. Millgram’s comment about this is:
As is usual with such “rationalizing” exercises, a text pregnant with transcendent meaning has been trivialized into a tabloid page 3 headline: PROPHET ABDUCTED: KING’S INVOLVEMENT SUSPECTED.
It seems that Millgram is not saying that the whole account in 2 Kings 2 is myth. He treats the places of Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho as historical centers for prophetic communities. But extra meaning gets piled on the story with the parallels to Moses and Joshua built into the river-crossing episodes. Also the narrative of Elisha refusing to be left behind contains the little phrase, “So the two of them went on” (2 Kings 2:6). The similarity of this to Genesis 22:8 where Abraham and Isaac are walking together toward Isaac’s soon-to-be sacrifice cannot be an accident.
There could be more to this than Millgram brings out. These events center around Jericho, where there has been a community of the “sons of the prophets” and where Elisha set up headquarters. Now Jericho seems to have become inhabited after a long time only during the reign of Ahab. He made it a military base. 1 Kings 16:34 condemns him for the actions of Hiel who offered human sacrifices there.
Could one of the versions of Elijah’s translation have contrasted the end of Elijah with the end of the sons of Hiel? Could Elijah’s end have been portrayed as a true and pure sacrifice, which God acted to receive as he had the sacrifice at Carmel?