Melachim Bet

We just can't stop learning! ...The Bekiut Nach class of 5766 in a quest to complete Nevi'im Rishonim

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Chapter 2 - ויהי בהעלות ה' את אליהו בסערה השמים
"Eliyahu's Death" - part 1

This chapter raises serious questions. Probably the most striking difficulty is the manner in which Eliyahu dies. Did he die? Is he still alive somewhere? We talk about Eliyahu as visiting every Brit Mila, and walking through our opened doors on Seder night, in the Talmud Eliyahu visits a variety of characters; Is Eliyahu still alive?

This is actually a debate amongst the Rishonim. Radak in his opening comments to the Perek says that Eliyahu died… or at least lost his human form:

"The storm raised Eliyahu from Earth into the air … above the "ball of fire." There his clothes burned except his cloak, his flesh and his physical form were consumed, and his spirit returned to God."

Whereas Ralbag suggests something very different:

"One cannot understand that he (Eliyahu) was taken to Heaven because a human body cannot be taken there. But rather (when it refers to Eliyahu's ascent in a storm to שמים) it means high in the air as (the spies said) "cities, large and fortified "to the heavens;" or (with the Tower of Babel) "a tower with its peak in the heavens." An angelic force of God raised Eliyahu to an unknown location and he lives there."

Indeed there is an opinion in the Gemara that Eliahu never dies (Reish Lakish Moed Katan 26a)

There is much to say about the persona of Eliyahu in Midrash and subsequent literature, and about the Aggadic traditions regarding his frequent earthly visits. If we can put that question on hold, then we shall try to understand the Perek on its own value, despite the sense of curiosity we may have about Eliyahu and where he might reside!

Having said all this by way of introduction, it would certainly be true that this manner of "death" is unique in Tanach, and there is a palpable sense of mystery that surrounds the Perek. We, the readers, know what is to happen by the very opening passuk:

"1 And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven"

but even though Eliyahu knows, as does Elisha, as do the Bnei Neviim, no one is willing to mention the unthinkable – that Eliyahu will die. And so when I say that there is a veiled feel to this Perek, as sense of a secret, something shrouded in mystery, it is not simply a subjective feeling but ever-present in the text itself.


But let us get our teeth into the Perek and begin to work through its structure.

You will notice a clear symmetry to the Perek. This can be delineated by means of the places visited:

Beit El
the Jordan
The East bank of the Jordan
the Jordan
Beit El
Har Hacarmel

Obviously the crucial centre of this chiastic structure is the pesukim in which Eliyahu is taken heavenwards by the fiery chariot. What does this structure mean? I think that the key might lie with the final stop, Har Hacarmel. Obviously this is the site of Eliyahu's Piece de Resistance, the "duel" against the prophets of Baal.

If Elisha returns, stage by stage, in the footsteps of Eliyahu, he is in some manner taking upon himself, Eliyahu's persona. I do believe that this is a major dimension of this Perek, the process whereby Elisha becomes the National Prophet taking Eliyahu's place. Note how when Elisha crosses the Jordan, the Bnei HaNeviim exclaim:

"And when the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho some way off saw him, they said: 'The spirit of Elijah rests upon Elisha!' And they came to meet him, and bowed down to the ground before him" (2:15)

Hence we have Elisha walking, place by place in Eliyahu's footsteps.

...more tomorrow...