The following is a meditation by Bruce Colville on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, the Old Testament reading for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019.
The old prophet sets out in the morning but turns to Elisha and instructs him not to follow. This is a way of saying, “My life is almost over. I am going to die.” Elijah will say this to him three times.
Each time Elisha responds: “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” This is the young man’s way of saying, “I won’t let you die.” The two travelers continue in this way together.
Elijah and Elisha are leaving Gilgal. In the plains of Jericho, this was Joshua’s first encampment after the Exodus. On this plain, the manna stopped, the Israelites harvested produce from the earth and ate their first Passover in the Promised Land.
Elijah and Elisha come up out of Gilgal; they go down to Bethel, the House of God, a holy place in a foreign land for a faithful wanderer named Abram. At Bethel, God appeared to Abram. He built his first altar and called upon God’s name and God promised to make of Abram and his descendants a great nation that would one day return and possess this land. The Prophet and his disciple are walking a pathway in this hill country left by the nation of that promise.
Elijah turns his face toward Jericho, the site of the first great battle of Canaan. At Jericho it was made evident that it would be Israel’s warrior God who would conquer the land by might and strength and his outstretched arm. It was this God who parted the waters of the Jordan so the people crossed over on dry land, just as this God had parted the Red Sea, delivered his people from slavery and led them through the wilderness. Remembrance. Faithfulness. They continue on.
Into every place the Prophet goes, Elisha follows. He will not leave his master’s side. In each city the company of the prophets come out to greet them and privately counsel the young man. Does he understand that God is about to take Elijah from him? He says he understands but doesn’t want them to talk about it: “(Yes, I know) So be quiet!”
Prophet and disciple walk on together to the Jordan. They stop in silence. It was here that God told Joshua to instruct the tribes to take twelve stones from the midst of the river and to construct a memorial to God’s faithful promise. All Israel was commanded to tell this story of crossing over the Jordan to their children and all their descendents. Elijah has been telling this story.
They walk down to the waters alone. The company of the prophets has stayed far back at a distance. God has told Elijah this young man will be prophet in his stead. That does mean, by the way, Elijah is going to die. Elijah could be excused if he has been a little emotionally conflicted about the whole situation. Elijah seems to manage a stern and distant love.
The old man is reviewing his life as it draws to a close. He is coming to terms, running his race, trying to keep from leaving any unfinished business. He has obeyed God and at great cost. There has been victory, some peace and much bloodshed. War is never ending. An old man lives in his memories, with his ghosts and regrets. He has lost all of his friends.
At the edge of the water, Elijah removes his cloak. It is the mantel he once threw around Elisha’s shoulders as the young man plowed with oxen in the dancing meadow. He takes the cloak and rolls it and strikes the waters of the Jordan with a loud slap. The waters part, dividing to the right and to the left. Covenant and faithfulness, deliverance and remembrance, the sovereign power of God: they cross over on dry land.
In observant Judaism, mourning and grief are defined in specific relationships: the loss of parents, a spouse, a child and siblings. There is holy obligation and calling to those who are bereaved to formally mourn the deceased. Sons and daughters, widows, parents and siblings are given requirements and responsibilities to mourn and pray for the dead. Traditionally, at the moment of death, a small tear is made in the bodice of the mourner’s clothing. The garment is then torn with the hands. This is called the keriah.
In all of the human loss experienced in this life, Judaism makes very clear that the greatest and most important of these losses is the death of a parent. Jewish Law does not say that a father’s death is more painful or that the passing of a mother is a more grievous loss than a young child. It does not make a comparison with the death of your wife. It only states that the death of a parent is the greatest and most important loss and the one from which there is no true way to compensate.
There are a number of important reasons for this. They are not immediately apparent in contemporary experience. But, parents can potentially have more children, a widow may remarry, not everyone even has siblings. No matter what the human circumstances, every human being has a mother and a father. Every human being has only one mother and one father. More important still, in the very center of the Law, God makes this commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
The commandments of God are blessings. Far from onerous proscriptions, the psalmist exults: “They are sweeter than the honey from the honeycomb.” When a father dies a son can no longer fulfill this commandment. This does not equate as sin, rather in Judaism this is a great blessing that can no longer continue to accumulate in the life of a loving daughter or son, at least as far as this life and this world are concerned. To no longer be able to fulfill God’s command, to be separated from the only irreplaceable relationship, the parents who gave them life: this is the deepest loss a man or woman or child can suffer.
At the moment of death, the garment is torn. For a husband, wife, sibling or child, the keriah is made on the mourner’s right side, close to the neck or clavicle. Depending on the person and the timing, within thirty days the mourners may baste and eventually mend the fabric.
At the death of a parent, the keriah is made on the left side, purposely over the heart, for the heart has truly been torn. The keriah is made through the fabric, never on a seam. The sons and the daughters are forbidden to ever mend this tear. No needle or thread may ever touch the keriah to symbolize that this tear of the heart will always remain.
They are now standing on the far side of Jordan’s banks, Elijah and Elisha. They have been silent a long while. This is a death scene between a parent and a child, father and son. The old prophet knows he is dying and Elisha knows he will soon lose him. There is no clearer image of bereavement. One person is dying, “You can’t come with me.”
The other keeps pleading, “I will never leave you.”
If only the dying truly left — if only the griever ever let go. This is death and bereavement. It is considered non-negotiable. Yet, there is the human heart, with its entire legal staff, up at the negotiations table late into the night. The reality of the situation is the first to go. Then the leverage is lost. Finally, no time is left. The dying are fatalistic, accepting, then withdrawn. The child can only hang on. The final hope or bargain is to wrench some meaning or blessing from those final hours. Elijah sees this in the young man’s eyes. Elijah finally speaks.
Elijah tells his disciple that he is about to go. Elisha doesn’t utter a word. So he asks him to tell him what he can do for him. Elisha blurts out that he wants all of him, all of his spirit, even a double portion. One version even says, “I want your life repeated in my life.”
Elijah promises him if he will watch and is able to see him as he is taken up, then this will be granted to him. Elisha begins to watch and they commence to walk into the valley. They talk together again; it is as before. The conversation and their words are not important. It is become peaceful. Elisha is watching, but of course, he has let go. Just that swiftly, in a thundering descending horror, it ends. No amount of horses or any arrangement of fire and chariots can be anything but awe-full and fearful and frightening.
They sweep Elijah out in front of him. Elisha is thrown from him to the ground still looking up, still watching. There is his master in the chariot. There is the whirlwind. The desperate child leaps to his feet and cries the only words he knows: “My father! My father!” Then he is gone in the terrible quiet. Elisha’s mouth is a gaping hole through his throat, a sustained cry from the bottom of his being. No sound comes out. Slowly turning in a circle. His hands clutch his heart, he grasps his garment and it tears — a pitiable sound — the only sound on the wind.
He stands alone on a small hill over the river and turns from his absence. He faces Jordan’s other shore; it is storm-tossed and poisoned. He walks down the slope, toward the water’s edge and stops to pick up Elijah’s cloak, his mantle: one lone memento. He rolls it along its length. His feet touch the water.
A rasping lament rises to the clouds. “Where is the God of Elijah?” The rolled mantle crashes to the river with a horrendous clap. The waters stand still for the Prophet. Then they separate. Elisha crosses over, heart-torn and fatherless. It is a chilling wind on his face. There are some anointings that need to happen, an insurgent king for Israel, a revolt in Damascus. The end of the House of Ahab has come. There is the evil Queen Jezebel. Defenestration. This is a world where God will not be mocked by wicked and idolatrous murderers.
Elisha comes up from the waters toward Jericho. The stones of Joshua are on his flank. He carries blessings for the innocent, the penitent and keepers of the Covenant. By his hand, the Lord heals the waters of Jericho and lifts the curse within it, because it is always in God’s nature to show mercy. But for those rebels and youths of Bethel who disdain the Word of God, worship shameful idols, neglect the law and dare to mock the Prophet’s bald head… it will not end well for them.
This present day has been made holy—Hymn of St. Ambrose (338-397)
—whereby thou didst sanctify
those waters of the Jordan,
which of old were thrice turned back.