Shiur #02: Chapter - In a Whirlwind

  • Rav Alex Israel

 

SEFER MELAKHIM BET: THE SECOND BOOK OF KINGS

By Rav Alex Israel

 

 

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This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Leonard Balanson
in memory of Rose Balanson z”l

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Shiur #02:

CHAPTER 2 – IN A WHIRLWIND

 

 

In this chapter, Eliyahu, the prophet of fire, ascends to heaven in fire. This is a scene which is as breathtaking as it is enigmatic:

 

A fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared … and Eliyahu went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (2:11)

 

This awesome image constitutes the dominant centerpiece of the chapter. Eliyahu has been surrounded by miracles in virtually every instance that we have encountered him. His dazzling departure from this world is no exception. And yet the narrative that precedes and follows this key moment will occupy most of our attention.

 

The chapter builds the anticipation to this event in a delicate weave of transparency and concealment, as glimpses of information are exposed but for a brief moment and then hidden. The opening verse announces Eliyahu's impending departure: "And it came to pass when the Lord took Eliyahu up to heaven in the whirlwind…" (2:1). At first glance, this information seems to diminish the sense of drama. However, this foreknowledge only intensifies our suspense as we tensely accompany Eliyahu on his meandering journey through Gilgal, Beit El and Yericho, which delays the designated moment. At each location, the same exchange ensues:

 

The disciples of the prophets at Beit-El came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” “Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “but do not speak of it.” (v.3)

 

The disciples of the prophets know that Eliyahu is to be "taken," yet they dare not speak of it to Eliyahu. Elisha knows it as well, and as we shall see, so does Eliyahu. Everyone is waiting for the auspicious moment, and yet no one is willing to mention the unthinkable – that Eliyahu is about to die.

 

Later, as Eliyahu and Elisha advance towards the Jordan River, and cross it by means of a miracle, they are observed by fifty of their followers "from a distance" (v.7). A momentous event is about to transpire, the anticipation is palpable, but it may be observed only from afar. They dare not approach the two great prophets who walk in the distance.

 

And at this point Eliyahu turns to Elisha and asks: "What can I do for you before I am taken from you?" (v.9). This is the first time that Eliyahu acknowledges what is about to come, but even then, it is an oblique, almost secondary reference. And when the "whirlwind" arrives, it also appears unannounced, unexpectedly, in mid-conversation: "And they kept on walking and talking, while a fiery chariot with fiery horses separated one from the other" (v.11).

 

The key event is cryptic. Did Eliyahu ascend in "a storm" or in fire? The fifty prophets see but they don't see everything, as they persist in a three-day search for Eliyahu. They don't comprehend that he is gone – permanently.

 

This is the mysterious tone, the sense of things known and anticipated but unacknowledged and, ultimately, incomprehensible.

 

STUDENTS

 

However, in order to dig deeper into the narrative, we need to take a deeper look at Eliyahu's travels on his way to the Jordan and raise a few questions.

 

Eliyahu's trek begins as he is accompanied by Elisha in Gilgal.[1] His route is divinely prescribed: "God has sent me to Beit-El … God has sent me to Yericho … God has sent me to the Jordan" (2:2, 4, 6). In each location, he is met by a revering group of benei ha-nevi'im, students of a prophet or possibly trainee or apprentice prophets.[2] What is the purpose of this expedition, with its periodic stopovers in the towns or villages on the way? Rav Elchanan Samet offers a speculative suggestion:

 

Eliyahu's passage through these cities, at God's command, is meant as a gesture of farewell to the apprentice prophets. As we know from the narratives about Shmuel (I Shmuel 19) and Elisha (II Melakhim 4), the prophet of the generation is regarded as the teacher of the apprentice prophets of his generation. While Eliyahu does not seem to have served as the head of a group of apprentice prophets, as Shmuel and Elisha did (perhaps because he was not based in one place), all the "sons of the prophets" of the generation are considered his disciples, and he must therefore take leave of them before he is taken from them.

 

This whole situation is intriguing, as we have become accustomed to seeing Eliyahu as a solitary figure.[3] Eliyahu knows of other prophets but insists on depicting himself as "alone,"[4] and is never found in the company of a prophetic community. Suddenly, Eliyahu is surrounded by followers who are deeply anxious at the thought of his imminent passing and who desperately search for him for three days. Why is this encounter critical for Eliyahu's final day on earth? Why do we need to hear about Eliyahu's supporters in this story? What does it add?

 

The same is true regarding Elisha. Since the day Eliyahu met Elisha, initiating him into the world of prophecy,[5] we lack any information regarding Elisha's apprenticeship. Our story assumes Elisha's status as Eliyahu's leading student and that Eliyahu is widely known as Elisha's "master."[6]  And yet our chapter narrates an awkward situation in which Eliyahu seeks to defer and distance Elisha time after time:

 

Eliyahu said to Elisha:

“Please stay here, for God has sent me to Beit-El.”

And Elisha said: “As God lives, and your soul lives, I will not leave you.”

So they went down to Beit-El.

 

Eliyahu said to him:

“Elisha! Please stay here, for God has sent me to Yericho.”

And he said: “As God lives, and your soul lives, I will not leave you.”

So they came to Yericho.

 

Eliyahu said:

“Please, stay here, for God has sent me to the Jordan River.”

And he said: “As God lives, and your soul lives, I will not leave you.”

So they went together. (2:2, 4, 6)

 

What is the nature of this recursive interaction? Does Eliyahu wish for Elisha to accompany him? If so, why does he try to avoid him? And if he wishes to remain alone, why does he repeatedly capitulate? 

 

Let us look at one more scene that is difficult to comprehend. It is the final conversation between Elisha and Eliyahu, as they cross the Jordan:

 

And it came to pass, when they crossed, that Eliyahu said to Elisha: “Ask what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said: “Let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” And he said: “You have asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so, but if not, it shall not be so." (2:9-10)

 

This is a strange dialogue. What is Elisha asking, and what is the reply? Some commentaries propose that Elisha is requesting to receive a double dose of Eliyahu's power. The Metzudat David comments:

 

Let the spirit of prophecy rest upon me at twice the level that it rested upon you.

 

Hence, Rashi explains Eliyahu's question:

 

You have asked a hard thing: How can I grant you more than I have myself?

 

Read this way, we wonder at the audacity of Elisha's request. How could he, the student, possibly exceed his master? Is Eliyahu's formidable miracle-making insufficient? Why does he need double Eliyahu's power?

 

 In contrast, the Radak and the Ralbag offer a different perspective:

 

It means to say … “I should be bestowed a double portion of that which you have bestowed upon each of the other prophets.” This is the same word usage as: "He must acknowledge the son … as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has" (Devarim 21:17).

 

The Ralbag uses the phrase "pi shenayim" to establish a link between Elisha's request and the inheritance law of the firstborn. The firstborn receives double the inheritance of his brothers, but not double his father's wealth! Similarly, what Elisha is requesting here is an elevated status, a clearly evident superiority over his fellow prophets. The issue concerning Elisha is that of leadership: Who will be the "firstborn" amongst the community of prophets? Who will be the successor to Eliyahu? Elisha is concerned that his prophecy be of sufficient quality and intensity, his miracles powerful enough to secure his status as the leading prophet. What does Eliyahu answer him? Obviously Eliyahu cannot grant the gift of prophecy;[7] God does that. But, Eliyahu gives him a sign. He says: “If you see me go up to heaven, then it will serve as proof that you have indeed achieved an exceptional standard of prophecy. If you possess the prophetic abilities to witness the moment at which I am taken to heaven to see God's ‘merkava’ – His chariot and horses – then indeed your prophecy is of the finest grade.”

 

It would seem evident that whatever Elisha sees, the fifty benei ha-nevi’im do not see. Elisha sees the horses and chariots. We can identify this from Elisha's response:

 

My father, my father! Israel's chariot and horsemen! (2:12)

 

Even though the chariots and horsemen in Elisha's exclamation seem to refer allegorically to Eliyahu, the choice of metaphor seems to have been inspired by the vision he saw.[8] In contrast, the fifty apprentice prophets simply see Eliyahu disappear. They suggest that "the spirit (literally, wind) of God has carried him off and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley." Possibly they saw Eliyahu soaring upwards, but without a fiery divine chariot.[9] They think that Eliyahu is still alive somewhere; Elisha, who saw it all, knows that he is gone for good.

 

But if we may return to our original point, Elisha's concern here is to be granted prime status amongst his fellow prophets.

 

STRUCTURE AND MEANING

 

Let us turn to the structure of the chapter as a whole. If we organize the narrative on a geographical basis, we unveil a striking symmetrical pattern with Eliyahu's fiery ascent at its epicenter:

 

Gilgal (v. 1-2)

            Beit El (v. 3-4)

                        Yericho (v. 5-6)        

                                    the Jordan (v. 7-8)   

                                                The east bank of the Jordan (v. 9-13)

                                    the Jordan (v. 14-17)          

                        Yericho (v. 18-22)

            Beit El            (v. 23-24)

Har Ha-Carmel (v. 25)

 

What message does this chiastic structure convey? The symmetry creates a mirror image of sorts, but note that there is a shift in the key personality; the first half tells Eliyahu's story, while the second half is focused upon Elisha. In fact, Elisha is retracing Eliyahu's steps. A further clue might lie with the final stop: Har Ha-Carmel. Obviously, this is the site of Eliyahu's piece de resistance, the "duel" against the prophets of Ba’al (I Melakhim 19). If Elisha returns, stage by stage, in the footsteps of Eliyahu, he is in some manner adopting Eliyahu's persona and status. In other words, as much as this chapter charts Eliyahu's final ascent, it also narrates the account of Elisha's inauguration, describing the process whereby Elisha assumes Eliyahu's position and becomes the national prophet. However, we should add that, as in the chiastic structure, Elisha's newfound status as leading prophet is achieved precisely because he reflects Eliyahu, because he acts in his image. Note how when Elisha crosses the Jordan, the benei ha-nevi’im exclaim:

 

“The spirit of Elijah rests upon Elisha!” And they came to meet him, and bowed down to the ground before him. (2:15)

 

It is Elisha's ability to reproduce Eliyahu's miracle of splitting the Jordan, as he wields Eliyahu's mysterious cloak, that conveys the unequivocal impression that "Eliyahu's spirit rests upon Elisha."[10] Interestingly, whereas Eliyahu's travels take him on a descent from the highlands of Efrayim to the Jordan Valley (until his final heavenward ascent), Elisha's journey is one of ascent as he climbs from the Jordan to the Carmel mountain.

 

REFUSAL AND PERSISTENCE

 

We have seen that Elisha replaces Eliyahu in the second half of this chapter, but in truth the entire chapter is concerned with the process of Elisha's rise to greatness and his transition from student to leader. It begins in the opening verse: "And it came to pass when the Lord took Eliyahu up to heaven in the whirlwind" (2:1). In other words, while "the Lord took Eliyahu up to heaven," something else important is happening, another narrative is being communicated. Elisha's initial status is reflected by the presence of the trainee prophets, the benei ha-nevi’im, who dare not approach Eliyahu, but nonetheless feel they can communicate with Elisha. This dichotomy reflects ambivalence, a lack of clarity regarding Elisha's status.

 

This is also reflected in their language. They say to Elisha: "Do you know that today God will remove your master from above your head?" (2:3). On the other hand, Eliyahu is taken from above Elisha's head, indicating elevated status, a stature which is above that of other prophets, and indeed, above Elisha’s stature as well. But on the other hand, Eliyahu is referred to as "your master," indicating Elisha’s preeminent place as a student of Eliyahu; he is above Elisha's head and not theirs!

 

As we progress through the chapter, Eliyahu repeatedly deflects Elisha, encouraging Elisha to leave him. Why did he act this way? Rashi suggests that Eliyahu wished to depart this world alone, "out of humility." However, Daat Mikra suggests:

 

He sought to test whether he would remain steadfast to him until the very last moment. Eliyahu tested him twice and three times, and Elisha passed the test.

 

Elisha's stubborn dedication to his master, his repeated refusal to abandon Eliyahu, articulated in an oath (“for God's sake, and for Eliyahu's sake”), convinces Eliyahu to acquiesce. Eliyahu rejects Elisha three times, but after Elisha’s third insistent response, they "walk together," reflecting a powerful togetherness.[11] In an exchange reminiscent of Naomi and Ruth,[12] in which a similar exchange transpires (on the same roads connecting Israel and Transjordan), Elisha's unbending persistence is a sign of devotion and commitment. At this point Eliyahu stops challenging Elisha and allows him to join him across the Jordan. The master has accepted the student's place alongside him.

 

"MY FATHER!"

 

This persistence on Elisha's part can be seen in two possible ways. The Talmud (Berakhot 7a) views Elisha as a paradigm of shimush talmidei chakhamim, of lending practical assistance to Eliyahu:

 

R. Yochanan further said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: “The service of the Torah is greater than the study thereof. For it is said: ’Here is Elisha the son of Shafat, who poured water on the hands of Eliyahu‘ (3:11). It states not ‘who learned,’ but ‘who poured water.’ This teaches that the service of the Torah is greater than the study thereof.”

 

In this teaching, the student imbibes the wisdom of his master more by personal dedication and service than by direct instruction. It is the personal example, the small moments, the everyday conversations, and the incidental observations that shape the student, rather than rousing speeches and public lectures. This devotion is the chief factor in Elisha's apprenticeship of Eliyahu.  

 

However, their relationship is expressed in higher terms than this. As Eliyahu ascends heavenwards, Elisha exclaims: "My father, my father!" (2:12). Elisha perceives Eliyahu as a parent. This brings to mind Elisha's original encounter with Eliyahu, when he said, "Let me kiss my mother and father and I will [then] follow you" (I Melakhim 19:20). As he began his association with Eliyahu, he bade an emotional farewell to his parents. But now after his formative apprenticeship, possibly years later, Eliyahu has become a spiritual parent to Elisha. Rabbinic literature is familiar with the notion of a Rabbi adopting a parental role: "For his father brought him into this world, but his Rabbi who taught him wisdom brings him to the world to come" (Mishna Bava Metzia 2:11). Nevertheless, when the Rabbis seek a source for the tradition that a student tears his clothes for his Rabbi just like a child does for a parent, they turn specifically to Elisha.[13]

 

An alternative understanding of the discussion between Eliyahu and Elisha is that it reflects their personal differences. Eliyahu, as we have said, is a solitary figure. We could reasonably have predicted that he would have preferred to ascend to heaven in a sublime state of solitude, in spiritual isolation. Yet Elisha is very different. In the scene mentioned above, when Elisha kisses his parents, he doesn't merely say goodbye to them as he had said he would.

 

He turned back from [Eliyahu] and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered [them]… and gave it to the people, and they ate; then he arose and followed Eliyahu and became his assistant. (19:20–22)

 

As he is becoming a prophet, Elisha makes a feast for his entire village.[14] He sees no contradiction between engagement with God and involvement with society. Elisha, as we shall see, is always surrounded by other people and is deeply sensitive to the needs of others. Eliyahu is a lone spiritual figure. Elisha, however, is highly uncomfortable with the thought of Eliyahu being alone. Elisha then is expressing his priorities and emphasis. However, at the end of the day, by accepting Elisha's company, Eliyahu also accepts that his successor will prophesy despite his difference in temperament.

 

NEXT WEEK

 

Next week, we shall complete our discussion of the chapter by addressing its last two scenes and also the question of Eliyahu's death and why he is frequently traditionally depicted as an ever-present figure who transcends death and can readily visit this world.



[1] It is probable that this is Elisha's hometown. See II Melakhim 4:38, where in Gilgal the "benei ha-nevi’im sit before him." The phrase "return to Gilgal" is reminiscent of Shmuel, about whom we read, "And when he would return to Ramah, for his home was there” (I Shmuel  7:17) (Elchanan Samet, Pirkei Eliyahu, pp. 495-7).

In the context of this chapter, the location of this town – Gilgal – presents certain problems. The Gilgal which features in the book of Yehoshua is in the Jordan valley, and thus Eliyahu’s route, "and they descended to Beit-El," would lack coherence. His route seems to be in a downward direction from the high hills to the valley. Daat Mikra suggests that this is a different town named Gilgal situated near Shekhem, as evidenced in Devarim 11:30. Prof. H. Gevaryahu suggests that it is a town near the Arab village known today as Jaljuliya, a short distance from Beit-El. This would fit Eliyahu's route nicely. See Encyclopedia Mikra’it, vol. 2, "Gilgal."

[2] Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:5.

[3] Even though he is described as having an assistant (see 18:43, 19:3), the assistant plays a negligible role.

[4] In I Melakhim 18:13 he is informed about the one hundred prophets, but later, in 19:10, 14, he talks about his status as the sole prophet.

[5] See I Melakhim 19:16 and 19-21. God had instructed Eliyahu to anoint Elisha ben Shafat as "a prophet instead of you." That meeting also features Eliyahu’s cloak, which is thrown over Elisha with transformative effect, as he immediately responds enthusiastically: "He ran after Eliyahu."

[6] Clearly Elisha was Eliyahu's attendant for some time, much like Yehoshua with Moshe – see I Melakhim 19:21: "[Elisha] arose and went after Eliyahu and became his attendant." Elisha is later identified by others as "Elisha ben Shafat, who poured water on the hands of Eliyahu" (II Melakhim 3:11), indicative of a protracted apprenticeship.

[7] Eliyahu cannot prescribe the degree of Elisha's prophecy, but does he assist Elisha in any way? Abarbanel suggests that Eliyahu deliberately left Elisha his "aderet," his cloak or mantle: "There is no doubt that the cloak did not fall accidentally, but it was deliberately thrown at Elisha, for it was a tool whereby to bestow the prophetic abundance upon Elisha, and that he would wear it. This is already indicated by the scene in which Eliyahu threw his cloak over Elisha when he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen (I Melakhim 19:19)."

[8] Elisha's outburst contains two clauses, the first indicating Eliyahu as "My father, my father!" The second phrase, "Israel's chariot and horseman," is read by most commentaries in some variation of the translation that appears in Moed Katan 26a: "Who is more effective for Israel through his prayer than chariots and horsemen."

[9] See II Melakhim 6:17, which indicates that one's eyes need to be specially opened in order to see chariots and horses of fire. It is not an image that is ordinarily visible.

[10] In a rather concrete expression of Elisha's assumption of Eliyahu's status, Abarbanel suggests that Elisha put on Eliyahu's clothing: "Elisha tore his original clothes and enrobed in other clothing – Eliyahu's cloak – for he had been detached from his previous level and now remained at the level of Eliyahu."

[11] The phrase "shneyhem – the two of them" features three times in as many verses and indicates unity of purpose and identity. See v. 7, 8, 9.

[12] Ruth 1:8-19. There, too, the story ends with the phrase, "vateilakhna sheteyhen – and the two of them walked together."

[13] Moed Katan 26a.