ELIJAH'S AERIAL FLIGHTS
Was there more than one such event?
By R. Cedric Leonard
Most pious people, as well as UFO researchers, think that Elijah's trip heavenward was the last time he was ever seen by mortals. Yet, the biblical record seems to imply that Elijah often disappeared for long periods of time, only to reappear in various places throughout his entire career as a chosen prophet.
This can be confirmed by simply following up on Elijah's activities, which also involve the problems his associates had on occasion trying to find him. According to the book of Chronicles, a number of years after his famous ascent into the skies Elijah sends a letter from a nearby country to the still reigning king of Judah. (After all, the Bible never states unequivocally that Elijah was taken into the heaven where God is.)
The prophet Elijah being taken away in a Chariot of Fire
The Bible often uses the term "heaven" to indicate the sky overhead where rain and snow originate: also the realm of the sun, moon and stars. King Jehoram was in the second year of his reign (2 Kings 1:17) when the Fiery Chariot appeared overhead to take Elijah heavenwards. It is surprising that the sons of the prophets knew ahead of time when Elijah was to be taken (2:3). In fact, a group of them stood only a short distance away viewing the entire episode (2:7). Here is the biblical account of the celebrated event:
And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind [se'arah], that Elijah went with Elisha . . . as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; And Elijah went up by a whirlwind [se'arah] into heaven. (2 Kings 2:1,11; KJV)
Throughout his adult life no one knew for sure when Elijah might go missing: he seemed to be sporadically "carried by the spirit" to various locations throughout the East, which sometimes made him impossible to find (1 Kings 18:7-12). In the following episode Obadiah (not to be confused with the prophet of that name) was out on an errand for the king, and came upon Elijah, recognizing him immediately (vs. 7).
When Elijah tells him to inform the king of his presence, Obadiah becomes fearful that he might tell the king that Elijah "is here"; but that before the king got the message the spirit would again "carry him away" (as had happened before) and the king would kill him for misinforming him (vs. 9). Obadiah protests to Elijah that many times the king had sent to other kingdoms for him, and when they said "He is not here," in a mild rage the king would demand an oath from them (vs. 10). No wonder, then, that Obadiah feared for his life should Elijah suddenly be "carried away" (vs. 12) to some undisclosed location.*
Notice also that only a few verses after the Chariot of Fire incident, the sons of the prophets send fifty volunteers to go search for him, "lest peradventure the spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley" (II Kings 2:16). So it seems this was a recurring problem.
Once again, as in most of the other occasions, they could not find him; but that doesn't necessarily mean that he had left the earth permanently to be in a spiritual heaven with God. Elijah was in no wise finished with his mission here, for the Bible records subsequent activities long after that most famous incident.
The Chariot of Fire incident occurred in the 2nd year of Jehoram, king of Judah (2 Kings 1:17-18). But 6 years later, in the 8th year of his reign (2 Chron. 21:5), Elijah sends him a letter warning him of his sinful practices (vss. 12-15).** Neglecting to mend his ways, King Jehoram falls ill and dies shortly afterward (vss. 16-19). As a result he reigned for only 8 years (vs. 20).
So, roughly 6 years after Elijah's so-called "translation" the king of Judah did indeed receive the dire letter from the prophet. Did some cohort of Elijah delay the letter for that period of time before sending it? I don't think so. Such a possibility exists, of course; but such an action would make no sense, and there is not a word anywhere in Holy Writ which even hints at such a thing. But we haven't finished with the story of Elijah.
Within the writings commonly called the Old Testament, there weren't many individuals who were able to work the sort of miracles that appeared to deny, or "conflict" with, our known laws of physics: Moses, Elijahand possibly Elisha (who raised a young boy from the dead; 2 Kings 4:34). So, is it merely coincidence that two of these men appear back on earth nearly nine hundred years later?
According to the biblical record Elijah appeared (along with Moses) "in glory" to Jesus and three of his disciples on a mountaintop (Matt. 17:1-8). During this event a "bright cloud" hovered overhead. The two visitors discussed plans concerning Jesus own exit (RSV reads "departure") from this world (Luke 9:31). Once the discussion was consummated, the two visitors "entered the cloud" and were seen no more (vss. 34-36). Then, when Jesus' departure eventually took place on another mountaintop just outside Jerusalem, a similar "cloud" received him out of their sight (Acts 1:9). Lots of aerial phenomena here. Coincidence? Possibly, but not likely.
CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF CHRONOLOGY
In Elijah's case, one must look at the background and context of the story very carefully before beginning any chronological calculations (it helps to know a little ancient Hebrew and Greek also). When one reads "Now Jehoram . . . reigned twelve years", one cannot simply take it at face value. There was more than one king at that time named Jehorama king over Israel and a king over Judahand sometimes it can be a little obscure which king is being referred to. Failing to distinguish between these two can lead to error.
Many have conflated the two Jehorams (not realizing there were two), confusing the lengths of their reigns, and have come up with a 10-year lapse between the so-called "translation" of Elijah and the latter's "warning letter" to Jehoram, the "wicked" king of Judah. Even though Elijah was associated with the sons of the prophets centered at Mount Carmel in northern Israel, King Jehoram of Israel, who indeed reigned twelve years (2Kings 3:1), was in no way involved in any of the incidents under discussion.
One of a large number of Dead Sea Scrolls (among which is the story of Elijah)
Both kings are mentioned in a single verse (2 Kings 1:17): first, Jehoram, king of Israel who ruled from Samaria; then king Jehoram, who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah from its capital city Jerusalemotherwise the verse makes little sense. However, surrounding allusions clarify any confusion. But, failure to take notice of these can cause calculations to go awry.
Since the so-called "translation" of Elijah is described as occurring in the 2nd year of the reign of Jehoramand, according to 2 Kings 3:1 Jehoram (king of Israel, not of Judah) reigned a total of 12 yearssome have simply subtracted 2 years from the 12-year reign and (erroneously) come up with a 10-year lapse between the two events. If the two Jehorams mentioned in 2 Kings 1:17 are conflated into one person, I can see how one might be led into such a conclusion. The record in question reads as follows:
So he [Ahaziah, king of Israel] died according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken. And Jehoram [the king of Israel] reigned in his stead in the second year of Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat king of Judah because he [Ahaziah] had no son. Now the rest of the acts of Ahaziah which he did, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel. (2 Kings 1:17-18, KJV) (Words inside brackets have been added for clarification; R.C.L.)
That Ahaziah is the unspoken antecedent in verse 17 above is confirmed by the verses relevant to the quote (viz., vss 2 & 18). Verse 2 reads as follows: "And Ahaziah fell down through a lattice in his upper chamber . . . and was sick" which is continued at the beginning of verse 17, thus: "So he died." The intervening verses are concerned only with Elijah and his dealings with the Philistine men from Ekron.
Verse 17 makes it clear that the second "Jehoram" mentioned in the verse is the son of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah; so being of the Judean dynasty, he would naturally inherit the throne of Judah. It is also stated that Jehoram, king of Israel, began his reign (i.e., following Ahaziah's untimely death) in the 2nd year of the Judean king. These two verses (17-18) conclude chapter 1, and Elijah's "translation" episode begins with the very next verse (verse 1 of chapter 2). This indicates that Elijah's famous flight took place at that time.
So, it was in the 2nd year of Jehoram, king of Judahnot the king of Israelthat Elijah was translated; and that king reigned for only 8 years (2 Kings 8:17; 2 Chron. 21:18-20), allegedly because of the sins listed in Elijah's letter (2 Chron. 21:12-15). Subtract 2 years from the 8-year reign of the accused (i.e., Jehoram, king of Judah), and the result is a total of 6 years between the two events in question.
SE'ARAH, THE SO-CALLED STORM-WIND
Another interesting element to the story, not having anything to do with chronology, is the fact that a very rare Hebrew word is utilized as the force which carried Elijah upward. That rare word is se'arah, and is usually translated "whirlwind"more recently as "storm-wind". But it is actually a very special word.
The word is used alone in only about seven places in the entire Bible: all of them will be touched on here. The first two cases are accounted for in the Chariot of Fire episode given above. Thus, in some cases it is associated with celestial vehiclessky-borne chariots, etc.while in others with the awesome "power" of God. Most likely an observed effect, it is always attributed to God (the ancient observer being unable to contemplate any other source) and looked upon as miraculous and extremely powerful. Thus, it is subject to becoming an element in metaphors expressing extraordinary power. Below are two such examples:
He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers . . . That bringeth the princes [rulers] to nothing . . . he shall also blow [breathe] upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind [se'arah] shall take them away as stubble. (Isa. 40:22-24; KJV)
Behold, I will make thee [into] a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth; thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff . . . and the whirlwind (se'arah) shall scatter them: and thou shalt rejoice in the Lord, and shall glory in the Holy One of Israel. (Isa. 41:15-16; KJV)
The Revised Version has: "Behold, I will make of you a threshing" instrument, etc. Thus, it appears to be a metaphorical description of God "armoring" Israel to overcome expected enemies. The phenomenon of se'arah, in itself, likely denotes dust being swept up into a violent, whirling vortex, which in certain cases could be the result of what we today would call a force field (the presumed "divine" cause being invisible).
There are three other cases where this peculiar word is used by the ancient Hebrew writers: two places in the book of Job (38:1 and 40:6) where God speaks to him "out of the whirlwind"; and finally in the more familiar case of Ezekiel's "vision" (i.e., Ezekiel's Wheels, 1:4). It is not without significance that celestial vehicles and/or voices out of the heavens often occur in conjunction with se'arah.
Therefore, I conclude that se'arah does not evince a mere "storm" or "storm-wind" as delineated in most Hebrew dictionaries. In the New Testament these same sorts of phenomena are occasioned by the presence of "bright clouds" hovering overhead. Ascending individuals; sky-borne "fiery chariots"; flashing "flying wheels"; and "voices" from the heavens: all associated with se'arah! Need I say more?
* One can't help but wonder if these verses ever gave the King James scholars pause. The Jewish Heritage Online Magazine tells us that "Folk tradition abounds with tales of Elijah's mysterious appearances and disappearances". Evidently the ancient Hebrews were more aware of this than we are today. One modern biblical reference work observes that Elijah's movements "defy human anticipation" (New Bible Dictionary, p.321). [back]
** This appeared so strange to the King James translators that they interjected the following marginal note: "Which was writ before his death." Elijah's death? I thought Elijah was believed to be one of two men in the Bible (Enoch was the other) who exited this world without dying! The New Standard Encyclopedia ("Elijah" article, p. E-73.) states: "After calling Elisha as his successor, Elijah disappeared for some time. Some six years later he again appeared . . . the final work of the prophet is told in II Chronicles, that of his letter to Jehoram of Judah." [back]
Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version of 1611, Regency Publishing House, New York, 1976.
Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1952.
Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, "Elijah's mysterious appearances and disappearances," JHOM, Havdala, 2012.
New Bible Dictionary (2nd edition), J.D. Douglas (organizing editor), Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1982.
New Standard Encyclopedia, (vol. iv) Standard Education Society Inc., Chicago, 1958 edition.
Strong's Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, (ce-arah, entry 5591), MacDonald Publishing Company, McLean, Virginia.
The Interlinear Bible (Hebrew - English), J.P. Green, Sr. (editor), Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983.
The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (Greek - English), Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1970.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Pfeiffer & Harrison (editors), Moody Press, Chicago, 1990.