Sunday, July 06, 2008

Elijah Checks Out: 2 Kings 1-2

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Ahab dies and his son Ahaziah replaces him as the kingdom of Israel's chief pagan flunky. Flunky, indeed: Ahaziah promptly falls out of a window in his "upper room" and "injures himself." I'll bet he did. Most distressed, Ahaziah sends messengesr to Ekron to ascertain from the pagan god Baal-Zebub how long it will take him to recover from his injury.

And... it's Elijah! Again! Taking his marching orders from God as usual, Elijah intercepts the messengers on the road and gleefully informs them that because Ahaziah sought advice from the wrong god, now he's going to die.

Ahaziah doesn't take the news well. Once again, a king is upset at the fact that God's prophets are behaving more like political dissidents, so he sends a force of soldier to arrest Elijah. Fifty soldiers to one prophet, which aren't nearly as good odds as you might think. "If I'm a man of God," Elijah vows when the soldiers confront them, "then may fire come down from heaven and consume you." As soon as he's done speaking, that's exactly what happens, and Elijah goes on his merry way. Ahaziah sends another fifty men, and Elijah burns them to a crisp, too.

So Ahaziah, who like most of his lineage is dumber than paint, responds by sending still another group of fifty men, though you'd think he might have detected a pattern by now.

The third captain is clearly smarter than his king; he beggs Elijah to save his men's lives. Elijah says "take me to your leader," or some Hebrew equivalent, and the captain in question escapes with his life. Elijah sees Ahaziah right on schedule and says, with his usual caustic wit, "Did you go to Baal-Zebub because you couldn't find a god that was closer to home? Now it's time for you to die!"

Ahaziah dies before having children, and for that reason, his line dies. (He's succeeded by Joram, of uncertain lineage.) With Ahab's blood gone from the throne, Elijah's work is also done, so God prepares a fitting finish for his kickass prophet: a fiery chariot that flies in a whirlwind. Before going, Elijah works one last miracle - he splits the waters of the Jordan so that he and his apprentice Elisha can across on dry land - and then formally passes on the mantle of chief prophet to Elisha. Then the chariots come down and he "went up to heaven" in a way that hasn't happened since Enoch, way back in Genesis.

I'm going to miss Elijah.

Fortunately, in the meantime we can comfort ourselves with Elisha, who at once sets about establishing his authority as prophet in the manner to which the ancient Israelites were apparently accustomed: fancy miracles, in this case for little apparent purpose. Elijah strikes the waters of the Jordan so that he can walk across on dry land, just like his master. Then he walks over to a nearby city where the water supply has apparently gone bad. Elisha throws some salt in, which really shouldn't do all that much, and then declares that he has "healed the water" - and he has! Then he gets jeered by some "youths" along the road, so he calls two bears out of the woods, and they proceed to maul 42 of the youths. This one seems a bit unnecessary, since the most serious insult they could come up with was apparently "baldhead."

Interestingly, in the Elisha story we have an early echo of the sort of scene that happens in practically every modern book and movie when the hero falls and the apprentice picks up his mentor's sword, or gun, or tools, or books, or whatever the hell he needs to do his job - and then carries on in his master's name. In this case, Elijah drops his cloak while he's climbing into the chariot. So Elisha picks it up and starts flapping it around, and it's at this point that the miracles start happening, because, of course, Elijah's cloak is actually a magic cloak.