Monday, January 13, 2014

Elijah’s Whirlwind Exit (II Kings 2:11)

Who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind? Elijah (II Kings 2:11)

At the end of his career, the prophet Elijah exits the earth in a blaze of glory, specifically in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:1-11). Knowing his mentor’s exit is imminent, Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, refuses to leave his side (II Kings 2:2). With Elisha in tow, the prophet embarks on a whirlwind farewell tour through Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho (II Kings 2:3-6) before crossing the Jordan River (II Kings 2:7-8).

Mid-conversation, the two prophets are separated when a “chariot of fire” famously appears and Elijah is taken “by a whirlwind to heaven” (II Kings 2:11 NASB).

As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. (II Kings 2:11 NASB)
Elijah goes out in style. Contrary to popular belief, however, it is the whirlwind, not the fiery chariot, which takes the prophet (II Kings 2:11). Richard D. Nelson (b. 1945) summarizes:
In the middle of their conversation, the climax strikes like a sudden wind storm. A fiery chariot and its team, suggesting the fire of theophany, comes between the two men. The whirlwind of God’s theophany catches Elijah up. (The common misunderstanding that Elijah rode to heaven in a chariot of fire is at least as old as Sirach 48:9). (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 160)
The verse’s Hebrew construction is decidedly awkward. Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) asserts:
The translation of Elijah is reported twice in II Kings 2:11, although the sentence “and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind to heaven” (II Kings 2:11b) is redactional. Originally, the ascent to heaven was only alluded to by the “chariot of fire and horses of fire” (II Kings 2:11a), to which Elisha’s cry in II Kings 2:12 makes reference. Elijah’s end is not death and burial but translation. (Fritz. 1 & 2 Kings (Continental Commentary), 235)
The whirlwind is referenced twice as the reader is told at the beginning of the pericope that Elijah will be seized by the whirlwind and it is mentioned again when it actually occurs (II Kings 2:1, 11). A. Graeme Auld (b. 1941) deduces:
Since notice of Elijah’ removal by whirlwind is signalled at the outset (II Kings 2:1) and not delayed until the dramatically appropriate moment, we may suppose that that fact—however remarkable—is not of greatest concern to the storyteller. (Auld, I & II Kings (Daily Study Bible), 153)
Robert L. Cohn (b. 1947) surmises:
The tale begins with the omniscient narrator’s revelation to the reader of its climax: the ascent of Elijah (II Kings 2:1). From this reader-elevated position, we are free to focus on Elisha’s gradual coming to terms with the departure of the master. Not suspense but curiosity drives the tale: how, we might wonder, will this miraculous event take place and how will Elisha react to it? From the outset YHWH is named as the subject of this marvelous occurrence and the sě‹ārāh (“storm, whirlwind,” a term often associated with theophany [e.g. Job 38:1]) as the agent of Elijah’s ascent to the sky. (Cohn, 2 Kings (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 11)
Though the whirlwind is predicted, the “chariot of fire” is not (II Kings 2:1, 11). Russell H. Dilday (b. 1930) lauds:
Elijah’s departure was even more spectacular than expected. The prophet knew there would be a whirlwind (II Kings 2:1), but the chariot and horses of fire were apparently a surprise. (Dilday, 1, 2 Kings (Mastering the Old Testament), 265-66)
There is some uncertainty regarding Elijah’s trajectory. J. Edward Wright (b. 1956) scrutinizes:
The account of Elijah’s disappearance...states that he actually went upward: “They (Elijah and Elisha) were walking and talking when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated them from one another. Then Elijah went up in a whirlwind into the sky” (II Kings 2:11). The Hebrew here is admittedly awkward. The phrase ם’השמ בסערה הו’אל על’ו is literally rendered “then Elijah went up in a (the) whirlwind in the sky.” The ambiguity in the meaning of the term ם’השמ (“sky” or “heaven”) here could have been avoided in a couple of ways. First, it could have been put into a genitival relationship with the term “whirlwind” (בסעה), thus “a whirlwind of the sky,” but no such phrase occurs in the Hebrew Bible, and the only close parallel would be “whirlwind of Yahweh” (ה’ה’ בסעה Jeremiah 23:19, 30:23). Second, ם’השמ could have been governed by a preposition indicating direction toward (i.e., ל or אל), as it is in the Aramaic Targum (הו’אל ק’סל א’שמ ח’לצ בעלעולא), “Elijah went up in a whirlwind towards the sky”). Finally the authors could have used the “locative he” (i.e., מה’השמ), a fairly common construction used for both “skyward” (Genesis 15:5; Exodus 9:8, 10; Deuteronomy 4:19; Joshua 8:20; Judges 13:20, 20:40; Job 2:12) and “heavenward,” that is, towards the realm of the gods (Genesis 28:12; Deuteronomy 30:12, II Chronicles 6:13). Any of these options would have removed the ambiguity of how to understand ם’השמ in II Kings 2:11. The modifications apparent in the Greek translation hint at some of the difficulty the ancients had with this verse: καὶ ἀνελήμφθη ’Ηλιοὺ ἐν συσσεισμω ὡς τὸν οὑρανόν (“Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind as it were into heaven”). (Esther G. Chazon [b. 1953], David Satran [b. 1952] and Ruth A. Clements [b. 1957], “Whither Elijah?: The Ascension in Biblical and Extrabiblical Traditions”, Things Revealed: Studies In Early Jewish And Christian Literature In Honor of Michael E. Stone [b. 1938], 124-25)
Jon Douglas Levenson (b. 1949) critiques:
There is no reason to think that Elijah is here assumed into heavenly glory, rewarded for his service, or brought into the company of other righteous servants of God. Rather, the God of Israel, whose throne is in the sky, whisks his servant Elijah away from the earth and toward his own mysterious and unapproachable abode. The storm or “whirlwind” (sě‘ārâ II Kings 2:11) through which he does this contributes a sense of awesome violence, intensifying our perception of the unpredictable, unnatural, indeed, otherworldly character of the event. (Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, 101)
The ambiguity and irregular construction may be intentional as the author faces the dilemma of describing a unique supernatural phenomenon within the constraints of natural language.

Some interpreters have attempted to mitigate the miraculous features of the incident. Nelson P. Estrada relays:

There are two possible explanations concerning the relationship of Elijah’s disappearance and the ‘whirlwind’ with the definite article after the chariot and horses. John Gray [1913-2000], for example, suggests that since the former was a natural phenomena, the latter (chariot and horse) may also have been. He adds that the whirlwind and the sudden disappearance of Elijah may be compared with the visible progress of an accompanying dust-storm by horses and chariots. Th other explanation is the historification of a native myth or cult legend. (Estrada, From Followers to Leaders: The Apostles in the Ritual Status Transformation in Acts 1-2, 96)
Most contemporary interpreters concede that the passage attempts to convey a supernatural anomaly. Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel (1926-2011) correct:
Elijah was taken up to heaven in the whirlwind, not in the chariot and horses of fire as is so often taught. Nor is the account of Elijah’s translation drawn from mythological sources (contra Gwilym H. Jones [b. 1930], 385-86), such as those depicting a god moving across the sky (e.g., the Egyptian god Re). (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], 1 Samuel ~ 2 Kings (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 813)
Elijah is taken by a “whirlwind” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “strong wind’ (CEV). Joseph Robinson (b. 1927) notes:
A whirlwind would be a fairly frequent and therefore relatively well-known occurrence in the deserts of Transjordan. Wind and spirit were closely related in the minds of the Hebrews. The Hebrew ruah means both. The link was probably the idea of energy, as in the New Testament where the double meaning of the word is used as a basis for teaching (cp. John 3:8 and Acts 2:1-4). (Robinson, The Second Book of Kings (Cambridge Bible Commentary, 24)
Despite the relative unanimity of translators, the Hebrew term se‘ârâh is broader than the English “whirlwind”. Paul R. House (b. 1958) clarifies:
Literally the phrase השמים בסערה says “in the storm of the heavens,” which does not designate whether or not a “whirlwind” is meant. Cf. Francis Brown [1849-1916], S.R. Driver [1846-1914] and Charles A. Briggs [1841-1913], 704. (House, 1, 2 Kings (New American Commentary), 257)
Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) informs:
The term sě‹ārâ, “whirlwind, storm, wind,” appears frequently in depictions of YHWH’s theophanies (e.g. Ezekiel 1:4, 13:11, 13; Zechariah 9:14; Job 38:1, 40:6; cf. Isaiah 29:6, 40:24, 41:16; Jeremiah 23:19, 30:23) to portray YHWH’s amorphous yet powerful presence. The imagery of the storm wind likely relates to YHWH’s role in creation as the source of rain, wind, storm, and thus fertility, much as the Phoenician, Syrian, and Mesopotamian storm gods, such as Baal or Hadad, fill similar roles in their respective cultural contexts. The weather deities are frequently portrayed as riding chariots through the heavens. Baal is designated rkb‘rpt, “the rider of the clouds,’ and Hadad and other weather gods are likewise portrayed either in the chariots (The Ancient Neat East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament 689) or in relation to winged sun disks that convey them through the heavens (The Ancient Neat East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament 501, 531, 532, 534-36). Other biblical texts portray YHWH riding through the heavens in a chariot (Psalm 68:5, 34; Psalms 18:11/II Samuel 22:11; Deuteronomy 33:26; Isaiah 19:1; cf. Habakkuk 3:8; Ezekiel 1:8-11). (Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 271-72)
The same term is used in Job 38:1. Jo Bailey Wells (b. 1965) discusses:
The term translated “whirlwind” is used in the context of divine appearance (see Ezekiel 1:4). The broader use of a storm as a sign of divine appearance occurs using other terms as well (see Psalms 18:7-15, 50:3, 68:8; Nahum 1:3; Zechariah 9:14). Elijah was taken off in the midst of a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11). The whirlwind strikes the reader as a place where the reader is not at home. (David L. Bartlett [b. 1941] and Barbara Brown Taylor [b. 1951], Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, 149)
The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary compares:
Elijah the prophet, at the end of his earthly career, was taken up alive into heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11). The Hebrew word there behind “whirlwind” (se’arah) also describes the atmospheric phenomenon of Ezekiel 1:4, “the windstorm”—the early impression the prophet had of the flying cherubim, above which God was enthroned. Thus, God communicates in a special way to these two prophets in the whirlwind/windstorm; in both cases, this encounter initiated a climactic event in their prophetic ministries: Elijah’s ended, and Ezekiel’s began. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1711)
Most have seen Elijah’s whirlwind removal as a theophany, a divine appearance. August H. Konkel (b. 1948) remarks:
The topic of the chapter is introduced by saying that Elijah is taken up to heaven in a storm [II Kings 2:1]...The force and power of the wind are symbolic of the majestic and holy presence of the divine. The storm is the means by which the immanence of God can be perceived, somewhat like the storm on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19). (Konkel, 1 & 2 Kings (NIV Application Commentary), 379)
Ironically, Elijah had once sought God’s voice on Mount Horeb through dramatic weather manifestations such as wind and earthquakes but instead heard a divine tone in “a gentle blowing” or silence (I Kings 19:11-14 NASB). Here, God finally speaks in the storm.

Jesse C. Long, Jr. (b. 1953) connects:

Once more, Elijah is associated with fire (cf. I Kings 18:38; II Kings 1:9-15). The prophet goes up (‘ālāh) to heaven in a whirlwind (סערה s‘ār āh, “storm,” often associated with Yahweh; cf. Job 38:1, 40:6; Isaiah 29:6; Jeremiah 30:23), even though Yahweh was not in the storm on Horeb (cf. I Kings 19:9-18). (Long, 1 & 2 Kings (College Press NIV Commentary), 290)
Elijah’s departure further validates him against his adversaries. Gary Inrig (b. 1943) contrasts:
Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, not in the chariot, another indication of the emptiness of the claims of Baal, the so-called storm god. It was the Lord who controlled the storm and God’s prophet who rode it into his presence. Ahab and Jezebel’s deaths would be associated with dogs [I Kings 21:19, 23, 24, 22:38]; Elijah’s departure happened through supernatural intervention. (Inrig, 1 & 2 Kings (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 205-06)
Just as being taken by God is more honorific than being devoured by dogs, so does the supernatural trump the natural.

This exit was especially befitting of Elijah. John H. Walton (b. 1952) and Kim E. Walton (b. 1954) opine:

Fire and whirlwind were generally associated in the ancient world with a storm god whose chariot is the storm cloud. In I Kings 17:1-18:46 Elijah contended on Yahweh’s behalf against Baal, a storm god. He demonstrated that Yahweh was the Storm God (he sent fire to consume the sacrifice and then sent rain), not Baal. Of course, Yahweh filled every divine function, but Elijah had been most involved with showing Yahweh to be the true Storm God. It is therefore appropriate that fire and whirlwind with chariots and horses was his vehicle. (Walton and Walton, The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible, 206)
The whirlwind serves as one final stamp of approval that God is with Elijah. He is a prophet indeed.

What messages are conveyed by Elijah’s whirlwind exit (II Kings 2:11)? How are we to picture this scene, as a twister enveloping the prophet as in The Wizard of Oz? Which image is more significant, the chariot of fire or the whirlwind? Why is this methodology employed? In what ways does the phenomenon reflect the situation? When have you left a job or city? How do you hope to depart the earth? When have you been validated? Have you ever felt God’s stamp of approval?

The whirlwind mirrors the myriad of emotions Elisha must feel as he says goodbye to the man he considers his “father” (II Kings 2:12) and faces the unenviable task of following a legend. As Elijah passes the great divide in a whirlwind, there is a clear line of demarcation between he and his successor.

Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) contends:

The portrayal in II Kings 2:11 of Elijah’s ascent into the heavens marks the transfer of prophetic power to Elisha. The verse emphasizes that the fiery chariot separates them as Elijah ascends to the heavens in a whirlwind to differentiate Elijah’s new place in the second realm of the heavens and Elisha’s continued presence in the profane realm of the earth. (Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 274)
The whirlwind provides a definitive before and after, a clear changing of the guard. Gina Hens-Piazza (b. 1948) considers:
Elisha must pass a test for which he cannot even prepare. Whether he sees Elijah parting is out of his control. He must transfer his dependence on Elijah to complete dependence upon God. But God’s whirlwind does not grant easy access, nor does the Lord’s manifestation in the wilderness afford spiritual comfort. Indeed, Elisha does see Elijah depart, but the whirlwind also blows asunder his safety and robs him of the one who gave him his identity. The whirling upheaval that whisks Elijah from him requires Elisha to surrender the safety of his position as servant to grapple with God as one of God’s prophets. He must become the Lord’s instrument, delivering the divine word before kings throughout Israel. (Hens-Piazza, 1-2 Kings (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries), 239)
Handling such difficult change and loss is typical of the human experience. Richard D. Nelson (b. 1945) preaches:
Literature has always helped the human race rehearse change and come to terms with it, perhaps even find value in it...Biblical literature goes even further, insisting that change is meaningful and bearable because God is the author of change. God’s whirlwind blows away every love, every security, every safety. The same changeless God pushes ceaseless change on the world. Yet God’s commission for ministry transcends change. (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 163)
Elijah’s absence leaves a gaping whole in both Elisha’s and the nation’s life. As the whirlwind envelops his mentor, Elisha is positioned literally and figuratively at the edge as he faces the challenge of filling the void. With God’s help, he will do so.

Who does the whirlwind most benefit, Elijah, Elisha or the nation as a whole? What does the whirlwind accomplish? Does it in any way give Elisha “closure”? How does the whirlwind assist in the leadership transition from Elijah to Elisha? When have you experienced a whirlwind of change? What is the smoothest succession of leadership with which you are familiar? Must the previous regime depart for its successor to thrive? Must the old pastor leave for her successor to succeed? Whose shoes do you need to fill?

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.” - Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)