1 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. …
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.2 Kings 2:1–2, 6–14 NRSV
On the day that Elijah was taken up, he was thinking about Moses. We know he was thinking about Moses because when he got to the River Jordan, he rolled up his mantle and he hit the river so that he and Elisha could cross over on dry land. Just like the Red Sea; at the end of his life, one last drama and a show of power.
After Elijah’s ascension, Elisha picks up his mentor’s mantle, which had been laid on his shoulders over four years prior (1 Kings 19:16-19). It is now his. He claims it as his own, rolls it up, as his mentor had done, goes over to the River Jordan and cries out for God’s help. Then, he strikes and the dry ground appears again. He may be thinking of Joshua, who, after Moses’ death, crossed over to the other side this same way; thus, leading the people into the Promised Land (Joshua 3: 7-17). Joshua was Moses’ successor, as Elisha was Elijah’s: each chosen by God from the next generation.
We live in a multi-generational world, a world where we need each other. We don’t complete all the work we begin. We sometimes clean up the messes others leave behind. We need the wisdom of the generations, to know what has worked and what hasn’t, to not have to start all over again.
Before Moses mentors Joshua, he was mentored by his father-in-law, Jethro. Jethro teaches him how to be an effective administrator, how to delegate, to give some of the cases he has to judge to others, a lower court of sorts (Exodus 18). He listens and learns, and passes on what he knows to Joshua who has years with Moses to be mentored into leadership.
The same is true with Elijah and Elisha. They are together for years and Elisha sees the loneliness and resistance and rejection his mentor has to weather. He knows what it takes to be a prophet and still he embraces the call. On the journey toward Elijah’s ascension, the prophet gives his protégé three chances to turn back, but Elisha is intent on following him through to the end.
En route, the conversation turns to inheritance. Elisha asks for one thing—a double share of the spirit that is in Elijah. Here, Elisha is asking to be treated as Elijah’s eldest son and to inherit the double share, two-thirds of all that is his. Elijah responds saying that this is difficult because it is not his to give. It is God’s to give. But he also tells Elisha that “…if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you…” (2 Kings 2:10). The seeing is the confirmation. This is his test: is Elisha ready to witness the power and glory of God? Is he open to it? Can he bear it? This is an intimacy, a mystery. If he is ready for this, he will take up the mantle and carry on.
How difficult it must have been for Elisha to stand there and to watch as his mentor was taken up in a vision of power and might. He cries out in awe and anguish, an emotional play-by-play. Elisha sees it all. And all of his grief comes upon him at once and he rends his clothes and collapses. Then he gathers up the mantle, goes to the Jordan, and knows Elijah’s power as his own.
From generation to generation God provides the prophet. The prophet is not just the one who picks up the mantle of the past generation, but the one who knows how to use it. If Elisha opted out of this final journey, turned aside, hid his eyes, failed the test, even having the mantle wouldn’t matter. The power is in him for him to use for the people.
Being in my late 50s, I have to claim membership amongst the Baby Boomers. I am almost on the cusp of Generation X, but that is no better. These generations have given the world toxic individualism. Postmodern deconstruction of institutions, distrust (not all together unwarranted) of authority, have left the mantle of wisdom trampled underfoot. The oldest generations still alive tried to pass on something to us, but we turned away. Left with unmoored capitalism, no sense of connection to the common good, we are left wringing our hands: “What about me?”
And if my generation, as a generation, myopically self-absorbed, got the memo on mentoring, we didn’t read it. We have not mentored the younger generations. We have left them floundering—although they are doing fine, but they are done with us. They are not listening to the whining. They ask: “What about the world?!” They see the wreckage bequeathed to them by my generation. They are not looking away. They are not ignoring the science. They are looking at the causes and calling for solutions.
We left our children and grandchildren in front of screens and they found the internet and they found each other. They are seeing and naming and speaking out against the degradation of the environment, violence, prejudice, oppression, and inhumanity. They have picked up the mantle and are passing it around. They are not just tilting at windmills. They are creating communities of intersectionality. They are using social media to mobilize. They are amplifying voices that have been silenced and ignored. They are pushing for legislation. They are screaming so loud that sleepy old wannnbe activists are rousing from a malaise of materialism to lend a hand. Our daughters are dragging us to marches and pressing us on policy analysis.
Elisha was mentored by Elijah. Elijah found comfort, companionship, and support for his prophetic ministry. They both looked back to Moses and Joshua and their relationship as a model for their own. From the time the older generation acknowledges the reality that their legacy will only live on through the younger, the mantle is shared. There is reciprocity between the generations. The younger generations are not waiting for the mantle to drop, they have taken it, and at every river, border, barrier, and distinction they are pushing back the waters that would drown us. And they are inviting all of us to the new world that God has in store.
[This post comes from an intergenerational conversation/collaboration with my 20 year old daughter, Brooks Eisenbise.]