This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.
This week’s Old Testament lesson for Transfiguration of the Lord is one which has captured the imagination of generations of readers and spawned more “flights of fancy” than virtually any other text.
The passage doesn’t start out looking as if it would have such potential. It is, in fact, a bit odd. Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, is quite apparently nearing retirement of a sort, but seems to be taking a victory lap around the country before getting his gold watch.
Interestingly, everybody in the text realizes Elijah is leaving soon, knows how he will be going–in a whirlwind, the characteristic form of a theophany–and seems to take special delight in telling all this to Elijah’s understudy Elisha, who seems to be deeply in denial about this and who gives each of the prophetic guilds in the various locales the same curt response when they tell him that Elijah is “outta here”: In a word, shut up.
After the twice-told experience of Elisha being reminded of what he doesn’t want to hear, the story moves quickly towards Elijah’s exit. The crossing of the Jordan is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates to the readers that, despite being at the end of his career, Elijah has not lost his mojo. The scene harks back to similar crossings by Moses and Joshua, and provides Elijah with the sine qua non of spiritual leadership in Israel. Only those specially marked out for leadership in Israel by Yahweh ever initiate the parting of the waters. No king ever did this.
Second, the scene’s depiction of what is done with the mantle is proleptic of what will soon occur with it when Elijah departs. Instead of using Aaron’s rod to part the waters, as Moses did, or the Ark of the Covenant which contained Aaron’s rod, as Joshua did, Elijah uses his wadded up mantle to part the waters. The significance of this act is then made apparent when the “chariot of fire” (cue music of same name) “swing[s] low” (cue more music) and takes up the prophet, who in the moment, lets fly his mantle down onto his acolyte, Elisha. Earlier in the narrative, after being stalked around the country by the younger man, Elijah turns to him and asks him what he wants. Elisha, proving not to be as clueless as he sounds earlier in the story, asks wisely for a “double portion” of the prophet’s spirit. The falling cloak is the sign, both to Elisha and the reader, that something like this has indeed happened. Even more important is what is significed in the vision described by Elisha in his first words as a prophet :”The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”
This is a bit of an oxymoron because Israel is a puny state with no real military power and with inferior technology. The chariots of antiquity were the tanks of the time which since the exodus from Egypt were symbolic in biblical faith of misplaced confidence in the wealth and power of this world (cf. Exodus 14). Chariots were what Israel did not have, but which it also did not need in the time of the judges, when the people looked to Yahweh and not the development of a military-industrial complex for salvation.
But those days are long past as the sorry history of the kings after David and Solomon manifests. Kings who have increasingly sought to maintain their grip on power, not by fidelity to Yahweh and his covenant as spelled out in Deuteronomy, but instead by the conventional means regularly pursued by the nations. And they weren’t very good at this. Rectification of the spiritual amnesia of the Chosen People and their kings had been the lifelong pursuit of Elijah, which makes the capacity of his successor to keep up the pressure on the monarchy key to his future credibility. The legitimation of his ability to lead the people spiritually is undoubtedly behind Elisha’s request for a double shot of what Elijah has been having.
All of this makes what Elisha sees in this vision so important. Only he crosses the Jordan with Elijah and only he is vouchsafed with the heavenly vision. He has been given the chance briefly to see behind the curtain, and his articulation of what he has seen signals the reader that he has his mentor’s understanding. Israel’s real strength will never be in growing it’s military or economy. It’s future prosperity is dependent not on the accourements of power amassed by every other country, but in the God who is it’s creator and sustainer. It will be to towards the embrace of the spirit of this vision that Elisha’s mission will now be directed.
There are two important homiletical themes that can be explored here. The first is that, living in the West has made us the very antithesis of the people who trust in God for our survival, which the text backhandedly hints that we should be. The chariots and horsemen of Israel are in the power of the God who comes in the whirlwind, not garrisoned at the local military barracks. Trusting the latter rather than the former is foolhardy, yet despite long experience with the call to covenant fidelity, God is still quite often the last place we turn, after all other means have been exhausted. And we have a LOT of means. Our reliance on technical reasoning to fix whatever the problem d’jour plots us in the narrative in a circumstance similar to faithless Israel, albeit on a much more powerful and grandiose scale.
The second theme is that of the faithful prophet who is expected to see and tell what is seen no matter the consequences. The “comfortably numb” posture of many a pastor in the West has become a commonplace, aided and abetted by congregations who want to have confirmed what they already believe and who want their “prophets” fit for the Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce and who either can’t see or can’t say what they see. The text suggests that the continuance of the community’s prosperity, if not its very existence is contingent upon such audacious speech which declares the true source of the community’s well-being despite the costs.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is parish associate at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.