YEAR B: TRANSFIGURATION
(Last Sunday after Epiphany)
2 Kings 2:1-12
During the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah the courts and local sanctuaries were frequented by groups of prophets (the Hebrew word used is nabi’, pronounced naa-vee). Not all of these were prophets of Yahweh. In the story of Elijah we are told that Jezebel, Queen of Israel, had about 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah at court. According to the story in 1 Kings many of the prophets of Yahweh had been murdered by Jezebel, although some had been saved (1 Kgs 18:3-4).
It was the task of prophets to advise kings and others what action or policy to adopt. Kings and other officials needed to be aware of what the gods planned or were up to. One could not afford to be at odds with divine plans. From the story of Elijah, and that of Micaiah in 1 Kings 22, we see that prophets had a very important religious and political role. The risks associated with bad advice to a king were high. As with political advisers today, the possibilities of overly strong influence on the king on the one hand or a weak ‘yes-man’ capitulation on the other were also high. It is little wonder that laws and traditions developed in Israel and Judah dealing with the notion of a true prophet (see Deut 13:1-5; 18:15-22; and 1 Kings 13).
Elisha seems to have gathered a group of disciples around him who had possibly belonged to cultic sites like Bethel or Gilgal. Early stories of such prophets note their sometimes ecstatic behaviour, believed to be caused by the ruach or ‘spirit of the Lord’ (e.g. 1 Samuel 10) coming upon them. On the other hand, Elijah was an independent figure. He is called ‘man of God’, as distinct from ‘nabi’’, and leads a wandering existence appearing when Yahweh directs him to confront one or other of the kings. Unlike Elisha, he does not seem to be attached to any sanctuary, court, or group, although he could have been the spiritual master of a guild of nabi’s (cf. 1 Sam 19:18).
As today’s passage begins Elijah is nearing the end of his life and is engaged in what appears to be a farewell tour of the sanctuaries of Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho. With him is his heir apparent, Elisha, who seems keen to inherit the prophetic mantle of Elijah, and his personal calling by Elijah seems to have been settled (see 1 Kgs 19:19-21). The nabi’s at each sanctuary come out and tell Elisha what he already knows: Elijah is soon to be taken away by Yahweh. Elisha silences them, a motif which reminds us of the ‘messianic secret’ in Mark (e.g. Mark 9:9 etc.). Perhaps Elisha is pictured as resisting the inevitable, or perhaps it is a literary device to maintain the mystery of the event. Nevertheless, fifty of the nabi’s accompany Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan River, where Elijah demonstrates his status as a ‘second Moses’ by parting the waters. Even the course of Elijah’s journey – Gilgal, Jericho, Jordan – echoes the journey of the people after entering the promised land and hence portrays Elijah as somehow following on from Moses.
Elisha’s request that he inherit a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic power (2 Kgs 2:9) echoes the double portion of the first-born. Elisha will succeed Elijah. The fact that his request would be granted only if he has a vision of Elijah’s translation signifies the mystery of the transmission of these spiritual gifts and that they are indeed divine gifts. Elisha receives the gifts, along with the prophetic mantle. He and Elijah are separated by a chariot and horses of fire representing the presence of Yahweh even as Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. The fire and the whirlwind and Elisha’s later visit to Mt Carmel recall Elijah’s earlier deeds, especially the calling down of divine fire on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-35), and the solitary mountain-top experience (1 Kgs 19:1-15a). Elisha inherits the authority of Elijah, but only at the behest of Yahweh. This is reinforced later in the chapter, beyond today’s reading, by Elisha’s following in Elijah’s footsteps and parting the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle (2 Kgs 2:13-14), by the testimony of the nabi’s that “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (v. 15), by the miracle Elisha now performs (vv. 19-22), and finally in the gruesome tale of the bears and the boys (vv. 23-24).
This passage has been chosen to accompany Mark’s account of the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9). The stories have many features in common, especially the recall of Moses and Elijah, the mysterious translation of the central character in the presence of his disciple(s), and the ‘passing’ of a ‘mantle’ to the disciple(s). Both stories speak of the divine authority vested in the central character. This is a turning point in the Gospel as we pass from a predominant focus on miracle stories, which in their own way point to who Jesus is, to his journey to the cross. In the transfiguration God clearly attests to Jesus’ true identity. This reinforces the great confession of Peter that Jesus is the messiah (Mark 8:29). Both stories also speak of the transmission of authority to (a) disciple(s). In 2 Kings 2 prophetic authority has clearly moved to Elisha. In Mark, Jesus has just begun to teach his disciples what their calling really means (Mark 8:34-9:1). It is news which by themselves they cannot bear, as Peter’s refusal (Mark 8:32) and the disciples’ later confession that they could not help the possessed boy (Mark 9:28) make clear.
Finally, while both stories have a sense of mystery about them and convey a sense of mystery in the matters of prophetic authority and Jesus’ mission, they are not stories concerned only with ‘other worldly’ things. In the stories of Elijah and Elisha there is a strong political theme where Yahweh’s prophet is embroiled in the political and religious issue of the day. Likewise with Jesus, he comes down from the mountain of mystery only to be run down (literally) by a crowd concerned about what to do (if they can) for a boy horribly ‘possessed’ of some malady. Divine authority, in prophet or disciple as in Jesus, is not something blissfully removed from the struggles and maladies of this world. Rather, it is both the thing that gives one strength and confidence in the face of such matters, and the thing which reveals their true nature.
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