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Part 3: Following the Prophet
The Young Prophets
For many days we followed the Prophet, who did not speak to us at all. We passed some of the time discussing the amazing things we had seen in the vision that apparently The God had given to us both. The highway that grew out of the deepest desert and was comprised of living, growing things had been experienced by each of us in dreams and visions, but neither of us had any notion of what it meant, other than the obvious symbol of life coming to a dead place. A sense of purpose and deep joy was always present but distinctly elusive. One time, Eli (the Prophet who we were now following diligently preferred to refer to him as Elisha, his full name) asked the Prophet if he could explain the meaning of the vision. The Prophet only turned his head momentarily to look at Eli and kept walking. I followed behind. The Prophet seemed to get irritated easily and gave the impression of being impatient with mysterious visions. In time, Eli stopped discussing this vision with me, and if he ever experienced it again, I’m fully unaware of it. This made me sad, because the vision was quite possibly the most momentous thing that had ever befallen me, other than being offered the opportunity to serve Elisha. My role during this time was to ensure that Eli and I could sustain ourselves. It was not glorious work, but it was honest. I learned quite quickly that the Prophet Elijah did not have any sort of system to provide for logistics during his journey. Indeed, he seemed fully unconcerned about these kinds of details that troubled me. His system was invisible and incomprehensible to me, for as we would approach a city or village, people we had never met would stream out to meet the Prophet and offer him assistance, lodging, or food. I have no idea how this worked, but I suppose that The God must have had a hand in it. Unfortunately, there was no provision of this nature for Eli and me, so my role was to ensure that we two were taken care of as well. Sometimes I would find sympathetic villagers who would help us out since we were in the company of the Prophet. Other times, we would make use of the limited funds that Eli had negotiated before we left for leasing his land to a neighbor. Often I preserved food for us whenever we stopped long enough. One of my favorite ways to do this was fishing. From time to time when we were in a village near the great sea to the north, I would find a friendly fisherman who would allow me to use his boat and gear for an afternoon. The first few times I tried this were very amusing to Eli, who tagged along to watch me. Nautical skills don’t come naturally to farm boys, as might be obvious, but the men who fished for a living gave me good guidance. At first it really bothered me when they would laugh at my furtive efforts to manage a boat and cast the nets, but afterwards, I realized – perhaps unwillingly – that learning to laugh at myself was signs of growth! They taught me to net the fish, clean them, and then dry and preserve them with salt. This allowed us to augment our normal dinners of fruit that we could find near the road, cracked barley, and occasionally cheese we could acquire from villagers. It was important that the fish we stored away were light and portable, because we only had one donkey to carry all of our provisions. For this same reason, whenever I could gather enough grapes or figs, I would dry them during those times whenever we stopped long enough. This made them much lighter and allowed me to carry more. Another of my tasks was valuable but challenging because it involved goats. As I soon learned, any activity involving goats is one that will truly develop a man’s patience! These goats arrived in my life because occasionally a villager would give the Prophet a goat or two. If he had more than he or his servant could manage, the extra one or two would be given to me. I had learned as a child from watching my mother that goat milk was very valuable, so whenever I had a female goat, I spent lots of time milking and making goat cheese. This was a favorite of Eli, so even though it was time consuming, I enjoyed being able to please him. During this time of following the Prophet with no real goal or objectives, I was often frustrated, but it was very valuable to me to be able to study Eli. He was processing the same uncertainties that I was, but appeared to be doing a much better job of it. I frequently asked him questions about his thought process and his answers were characteristically short and to the point. The God told the Prophet my name and my father’s name, he would say. He did this so he would be able to find me and ask me to follow him. The Prophet tells me that The God will make me his successor. Of course he often shakes his head in dismay when he mentions these things! Eli grinned at this. The Prophet wasn’t one to give compliments or be encouraging. This kind of exchange was enough to help me realize that in life patience with one’s circumstances is the critical factor in maintaining a good and peaceful attitude. I struggled, certainly, with the uncertainty of our mission, but I tried to practice contentment through performing my daily work as well as possible, no matter how menial it seemed to me. I suspect that this work was a gift from The God, because I’d like to think that the ability to practice being content helped me make real change to my overall impatient nature. I suppose that it’s possible that any changes were just temporary, though. Whatever I developed regarding patience through hard work, however, did not offset the anxiety and need for security that I often felt. I truly wished that I could feel confident that The God was directing my path like Eli did, but I admit that most often I despaired of this. Perhaps it was this inability to manage my destiny at this phase that caused me to have a new and powerful insight about my life, though. This unexpected idea struck during a part of my travels when I was at a low point and imagining that my efforts were meaningless. This depression cast me into a place of self-pity where I saw myself as alone and without value. This was not a good place to be dwelling, as I’m sure you recognize, but what pulled me out of this was a notion that came to me too suddenly and completely to have been of my own cognition, that even if all others failed to recognize who I really was, The God truly knew of my existence. This seems small, I know, but I thought in great depth about this over the next few days and it became a very powerful thing for me to trust in. Since the moment of that epiphany I have frequently neglected to discipline my mind and have often failed to remember this beautiful insight, but in time it always returned. I suspect that though this seems easy for a person to thoughtlessly take for granted, deep inside all of us is the knowledge that there is something significant beyond us Who knows our name. Perhaps it is even impossible to live without believing this, at least at some deep, unrecognized plane of one’s being. This realization has at times been uncomfortable for me, though, because I admit that I still often feel the urge to flee from anything that truly knows me with any depth at all. Eventually over much time I began to realize and even trust deep down that something or someone knew and cared that I was here. I understood this to be The God, and though my confidence in Him rose and fell – even throughout a single day sometimes – I could in no way ever imagine that this something didn’t exist. Looking back with whatever wisdom I have gathered in my many years, I continue to hold the belief that it is impossible at the core of our existence to truly see ourselves as unacknowledged in creation. I cling to this thought with confidence, though I often struggle with the details. One of the strangest parts of following the Prophet has to have been the constant arrivals and departures of the group of eccentric characters who called themselves the Sons of the Prophets. These were young men who had set off after the Prophet in villages all across the north who were now organized loosely into some sort of school of prophecy. They tended to possess wild hair, flashing eyes, and quick smiles. They also bathed a little less often than they probably should have. They were driven to learn from the Prophet and he often used them as his messengers. He paid them much more attention that he did to Elisha, who it was said was actually to be the Prophet’s successor. This was certainly an unusual situation, but as I have noted, Elisha was the type of man who could handle uncertainty with exceptional grace. Early in the morning, every single day, one of these young followers would sound the call and the entire group that was present would assemble. The great Prophet would come out of his tent and address the Sons of the Prophets on all sorts of different matters. Often the subject seemed dull and beneath one as great as Elijah, like local politics. If there was one subject that the Prophet took great enjoyment from, it was petty politics. He frequently regaled his scholars with stories of non-Levitical priests wrestling control of some routine tasking away from the rightful performers in futile attempts to increase their standing. This sort of ritual silliness clearly amused him, because it was a common refrain in his stories. Truly, though, the state of the priests was a real issue in our Northern Kingdom because when our nation was formed after the death of Solomon, the first king sent most of the rightful priests – the ones of the Tribe of Levi – away to Judah. He then replaced them with various types of men who saw the priesthood as being an easy, lucrative job and who had the wealth or power to negotiate themselves into the role. You might recall that the priests in my village were of this sort. I’m certain that this disobedience regarding proper worship angered Elijah, but he was very good at mocking and ridiculing things that we all knew annoyed him to the core. Other times that he taught, the Prophet spoke of great empires across history, past to future, their wars and kings, and their interactions with Israel and Judah. He had a great body of knowledge all the way from ancient Egypt all the way to our contemporary foes, the Syrians and the Assyrians. None of us had any idea where he originally learned any of this history. The Prophet was certainly a man surrounded by a great number of mysteries. Once or twice after discussing some obscure threat, the Prophet would call one of the Sons aside and have a short conversation that would be quickly followed by the rapid disappearance of the young follower. I found it somewhat disconcerting when this very thing happened right after Elisha began to follow the Prophet. One morning the Prophet arrived at the circle of fanatics with a lengthy and detailed discussion about the King of Syria, who led that hostile nation to the north. This King had been putting pressure on the Hebrew tribes to the far North and had taken a number of cities. The Prophet explained to the young prophets in detail how King Ben-Hadad had once been allies with Israel but acted treacherously towards Israel when Judah offered much of its treasury to the Syrian king to abandon his Israelite ally and attack them instead. I listened intently. The Prophet described how this Syrian king had persecuted Israel ever since and how The God had been displeased with the King of Judah for relying on the Syrians for protection. This incident where so much wealth was transferred from Judah to Syria would create problems for years to come. Then the Prophet paused and looked around at his growing audience. Brethren! the Prophet bellowed, pausing his discussion about the history of the dysfunctional relationship between Syria and Israel, You are about to see a work of the Lord! Ben-Hadad has decided that he’s ready to take Samaria and all of Israel into his kingdom and has already arrived with a great army outside Samaria. His arrogance is about to be repaid and our brazen King Ahab will see the hand of God working right in front of him! The Sons of the Prophets all murmured in unison. This was big news. Many in Israel were extremely nervous about the threat from Damascus and even more nervous about the Assyrian threat right behind it. Our lives were being lived every day under these thunderclouds from the north. The Prophet called the name of one of the fanatics and conferred with him for a short while before the young man headed out of camp in a hurry, followed shortly by two or three others. A subtle breeze blew through the nearby Acacia trees, dropping showers of yellow-gold pollen on us. The Prophet seemed very pleased at the whole situation and we overheard him recommending, Pay attention, lads. This will be very interesting! Elisha didn’t speak much to me about this, Indeed, he hadn’t been talking much at the time, so we had traveled many days in quiet. When the Prophet called on the Sons of the Prophets to pack up the camp and start moving, we followed along, curious about what was to happen. This incident turned out to be one of the first instances of pure amazement we experienced after Elisha was called to follow the Prophet. As we were traveling on the highway from the valleys up into the mountainous areas of north-central Israel, we were distracted and did not pay much regard to the Prophet’s discussion about the King of Syria from a handful of days previous. We did notice as the landscape changed, with scrub oak, terebinth, and hawthorn trees replacing the sprawling scrub brush of the lower regions. As we began to approach the capital city of Israel, though, we began to notice the sign of the passage of a large military force. This made me quite anxious, but it appeared to fill the Prophet with glee. He was almost giggling as we began to see Samaria for the first time. The fortified city situated on the flat part of the mountains was surrounded by the tents of an overwhelmingly large invading force. It felt like we were walking to our deaths. This must be the army of Syria! I whispered to Elisha nervously as we grew closer to the capital city. I don’t think you need to whisper, Elisha replied, because it seems like the battle ended quickly. I realized that Eli had seen what I had missed. The thousands of crude war-tents of the enemy stood unoccupied, gently rocking in the light breeze. All fires were put out and no weapons could be seen anywhere. It was clear that the enemy was missing, but we were unable to form any kind of notion as to just how the battle had ended. Did the Syrians overrun Samaria so quickly that they couldn’t put up resistance? Did Samaria surrender to the massive Syrian army? We all looked to the Prophet to see his response. He continued grinning and whistling under his breath and waved us on to Samaria. Onward boys! he cheered. We have an appointment with the king! One thing worth mentioning is that when we traveled as a group, all the villages and cities in Israel knew exactly who we were. As such, it was not surprising as we approached the entry to the capital city that the gate flew open right as we arrived and the King’s guards welcomed us in. The prophet mentioned under his breath something to the effect that he didn’t always get welcomed in such a pleasant way. Their joy and excitement related the obvious fact that the Syrians had not overrun Samaria at all. We were led to a room where the King’s advisors met with the Prophet. The particular member of the Sons of the Prophets who took the word of the Prophet to King Ahab about the Syrians was also present in this room. We gradually learned that Israel’s army had attacked the Syrians unexpectedly and had driven hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers miles to the north. Now the King was planning to run them all the way back to Syria and recover all the fortified cities in Israel that they had captured. Even wealthy Syrian merchants who had gained a sort of trading ascendancy in Samaria were to be evaluated and possibly sent back to Damascus. This was an amazing turnaround in the ongoing situation with Syria. As it eventually turned out, King Ahab was able to defeat Syria again the following year. The Prophet sent an emissary to instruct the King before this battle too, reinforcing to the King that the Lord enjoys showing grace to the undeserving. Of course, we all recognized that though The God might desire to give mercy to those who don’t merit it, that didn’t mean that Elijah would ever find it in his heart to approve. He had no time to graciously give ear to fools and evil people. King Ahab was a perfect example of the type of self-centered enemy of The God that the Prophet despised. He was a truly unworthy king who had offended the Lord repeatedly and as we would find out, soon would met his end. Interestingly, through some sort of miracle Ahab eventually repented of his evil deeds, but it was too late to preserve his throne. The Prophet had a hand in foretelling the end of the line of Ahab too, but that is another story. Towards the end of our time with the Prophet, we had a small skirmish with Azahiah, the son of Ahab, that is worthy of relating. While Ahab was still alive, the Prophet had flatly informed him that his family would be utterly eliminated from the line of kings. Knowing this, after the death of Ahab in battle, it was a bit surprising to those of us following Elijah that his son Azahiah was named king of Israel. But we were to rapidly learn that his days were numbered. One day, we woke up to hear the Prophet shouting among our tents, Everyone prepare to move immediately! The Lord’s Messenger has spoken with me and we have an important job. The King is about to die and the Lord’s work needs to be done! It was the time of year where the temperatures were moderate and the air was dry. Those kinds of early mornings tend to give a man energy, so we moved quickly and were soon on our way to Samaria. As we approached the city, the Prophet guided us to a location well outside of the city’s walls, where he abruptly called out, Here’s where we stop! He left me and some of the Sons of the Prophets to make camp and disappeared without a trace. I inspected the site before making decisions on how to set up our camp. The location was a flat ridge-top where an attentive lookout could keep watch on nearly all sides. The road to Samaria ran through the valley below the ledge below us, something that would render us invisible from the road but allow us to see everyone who was coming and going. As a note, the Sons of the Prophets always annoyingly derided my tendency to select camp sites based on how defendable they would be in case of an emergency. Over time, I grew to realize they did not concern themselves with security in the slightest. A few hours later the Prophet returned to our hilltop camp grinning. We should see something interesting soon. Don’t worry. We couldn’t get much out of him regarding where he had gone or what had happened when he had left camp other than that the King would be sending more people to talk with him. This amused him greatly and he kept chuckling at odd times for the next few days. This was particularly annoying to me, but it didn’t seem to affect Eli. A few mornings later as we were cooking our dinner over a low, glowing fire and discussing the strange events, a booming voice came from the road below our camp, Man of God, come down! We all looked at each other as the Prophet came out of his tent with a huge grin on his face. He strolled to a spot where a sheer cliff dropped a distance roughly equal to a good bow shot and responded, If I am truly a Man of God, watch out! Fire is going to come from heaven and you and your men will be gone. He turned to us with a big smirk on his face and winked. Watch this, he said. At this, we all jumped up to see who was on the road below and what was going to happen. I reached an area where we could see whoever was accosting us and realized that this was the King’s guard. Fifty trained soldiers with one of the King’s top warriors as captain. The Prophet raised his hands to heaven and the skies seemed fill with thick cottony-black smoke. I couldn’t say for sure, but the captain and the guard had the look of men losing battles with severe stomach ailments as they milled around in pained confusion trying to decide what to do. Suddenly, the Prophet slapped his hands down on his sides and the largest burst of lightning I had ever seen erupted in the middle of the soldiers. One second they were visible and the next there was nothing. To our chagrin, the Prophet laughed and said, It’s not over, just wait and see. He winked again. This was the happiest I think I had ever seen him. I was surprised to discover, however, that I actually felt some sense of sadness for the men who had just been incinerated and was perplexed by the Prophet’s attitude towards the whole thing. I asked Eli about this later and he shrugged. The God sometimes requires sacrifices, but these men were not guiltless of sin against The God, no more than you or I, he said, looking intently at me. If any of these men were innocent as lambs, then I would wonder about who they were. I thought about what Eli said for a while. The thought of how The God uses people for His objectives disturbed me deeply, but when I thought about it, I had to admit that after all He had done for my people, He had little need to explain His actions and decisions to me. Perhaps His objective was important enough where there would be no other way to achieve it without sacrifice. Eli also made me consider the picture of an innocent sacrifice. Many in my culture still remembered the purpose of the Passover lamb. Its spotlessness symbolized a life that was innocent yet it was sacrificed each year at Passover to cover the people from the ultimate consequences of their sin against The God. Though my tribe in the Northern Kingdom of Israel had not celebrated Passover since the time of King Solomon, I had learned quite a lot about the feast from the young prophets, some of whom had even travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate it. I remember thinking about this simple concept for days, wondering what Eli was trying to point out. After this happened, we waited at our camp for a few more days, unsure of what was to come. As I am sure that Elijah had fully expected, a second group of soldiers came and they met the same horrible end as the first group. We had never seen the power of the Lord displayed in such an overwhelming way. A few more days passed when we heard a voice with a different, far humbler tone coming from the road below, Man of God! the voice spoke evenly. My two predecessors have died passing this message. Please respect my life and the lives of my men. The soldier below paused his speech, looking up at us. The Prophet stood up, walked to the cliff, and called out calmly down to the Captain, Very well. Take me to the King. We picked up camp and without hesitation followed the Prophet and the soldiers to Samaria. As we walked, the Prophet spoke with us. The Angel of the Lord told me that the King was seeking a message from Baal-Zebub, he said. You know, the ridiculous fly god of the Philistines. Why would you worship a fly anyway? We nodded uncertainly as Elijah continued. He wanted the false god to heal him from the illness he found himself stricken with. I intercepted his messengers and told them that because the King reached out to a false god for healing instead of the true God, he would never rise again from his bed. That probably surprised him! Here the prophet broke up in laughter for a few moments. Then he resumed. The King sent out his special guard to try to get revenge on me, he told us with a slight nod. The Lord’s Angel just spoke with me and assured me that this captain of the guard was different from the first two and would see us safely to the King. True to this word, the Prophet had an audience with the King where he told Azahiah, the son of Ahab, directly that he would never again rise from his bed. After King Azahiah died, he was replaced as king by his brother Jehoram, who as it would turn out, would be the last king of the line of Ahab.
As we continued following the Prophet through the sun-bleached and dust-drenched landscapes he relished, he began to show signs that he expected to be transferring his work to Eli soon. This started extremely gradually, because it was rare from my estimation that he even spoke to Eli during the first year or so that we followed him. Despite this general lack of communication, I know that I certainly learned great amounts from simply observing the Prophet and his interactions with his Sons, the bizarre young men who made up his prophecy school. As I look back at these pleasantly odd fellows, it isn’t surprising that none of the Sons of the Prophets were chosen to succeed Elijah. These men were all in the mold of Elijah, misfits and cast-outs of society with a certain power of personality that was strangely alluring and repellant at the same time. The God knew exactly the message, temperament, and symbolism required of the Prophet’s replacement, and not one of the Sons was appropriate. When The God told Elijah to go to Shaphat’s farm and tell his oldest son, a devout farmer, that he would be the replacement, I’m sure Elijah had a few thoughts for The God on why that was a bad idea. However, he ultimately listened and obeyed, and as I can see, the right decision was made. Eli did not hesitate to follow the Prophet, but it was clear that he was puzzled by the Prophet’s request and by what The God may have had in mind. He certainly missed farming. Gehazi, he’d say, what are we doing way out here in this horrible, horrible place? Why is it that the Prophet loves poor soil so much? I’d nod, understandingly. I wondered the very same things but I was practicing keeping my thoughts to myself. I practiced, of course, but never got very good at this elusive art form, I’m ashamed to report. Behind these sorts of rarely expressed struggles living below the surface of Eli, I could see a questioning spirit that was grappling mightily against the obedience that formed so much of Elisha’s character. The Prophet did not make this battle inside Eli’s head any easier though, because he remained extremely unapproachable. As I stated earlier, much of what we learned from him about the future came from listening in on his patient instruction of the eccentric Sons of the Prophets. Perhaps this was intentional on Elijah’s part. I do not know, because once he was gone, he could not answer for his perplexing approach toward Elisha. One day, after months of subtle signals that a change was in the works, the Prophet came to Eli with a message. I’m going away, and my first stop will be Gilgal. You probably won’t want to follow, he flatly told Eli. Of course I’m going to follow, I remember Eli saying with added emphasis to the of course. Well, if you decide not to, I won’t think less of you, the Prophet called out while walking back to his assembled Sons of the Prophets group. So we followed Elijah to Gilgal. As Eli explained to me while we walked some two hundred steps behind Elijah and his young followers, Gilgal was a very interesting location in the history of our people. This was the place east of the walled city of Jericho where the people emerged from the deep desert, having spent forty years traveling a circuitous route through inhospitable terrain, facing thirst and starvation, listening to and struggling against The God from place to place, and forming as a nation. It was Joshua’s idea as the people crossed the flooding Jordan river on dry land to take twelve large stones from the miraculous dry path across the river that The God opened up and drag them up onto the bank. The men hauled them a small distance away to a place where the stones, representing each tribe of our people, were placed in a circle as a memorial. It was at Gilgal, later on, that kings were crowned and the people rallied against their enemies. This was likely due to the power of the memory of how The God had faithfully carried Israel into the land. The first King, a tall, good-looking man named Saul, effectively ended his reign at Gilgal when he disobeyed all of the rules The God had handed down and made his own, illegal sacrifice. I’m sure that Saul was hoping to use the deep gravity of the place to manipulate The God into helping him defeat the Philistines. Our history tells us, however, that Saul’s strategy, whatever it might have been, did not work out well for him. Gilgal, therefore, became a powerful place that also had a history of disappointment and disobedience. Eli and I were not sure why Elijah wanted to go to Gilgal, but this trek seemed to be more significant than his usual aimless excursions through the land. As it became a bit clearer later, perhaps this trip exposed some symbolism that The God was inclining Elijah to demonstrate. What do you think we’ll do when we get to Gilgal, I asked Eli one day, a bit too loudly. A number of the students traveling with us overheard and glanced my way. They did not yet approve of Elisha, and less so of me, someone they probably saw as a non-entity. No idea, Elisha replied tersely. Maybe it will become clearer as we continue to obey. I think he knew things in his heart that he wasn’t willing or able to communicate to me. The message I continued to hear, though, was be patient, Gehazi. Not a message that I enjoyed hearing. As it turns out, we never made it to Gilgal. I overheard the transaction as Elijah approached Eli during the middle of the day on a lightly traveled road that he had chosen to reach the site. Eli, he flatly stated, I need to go to Bethel. You ought to continue to Gilgal because you probably won’t want to follow me to Bethel. Of course I plan to continue following you, Eli told him. I will follow you to Bethel. And at that moment, we simply changed directions in the road we were on and headed back the way we had come from. So annoying, I thought. I felt that the sense of achievement of reaching our destination of Gilgal had been stolen from me. It was as if we had spent these three days on the road digging an important hole and all of a sudden we were required to fill it back in. Eli didn’t seem nearly as bothered as I about this. He didn’t speak to me about it and gave no indications that he was frustrated. He continued to follow Elijah, but now to Bethel. I knew Bethel as the place where the Ark of the Covenant had been stored before the Temple in Jerusalem had been built by the great King David. My education was not deep enough in religious studies, however, and as I was talking with one of the Sons of the Prophets during the hike to Bethel, I was fairly embarrassed to realize that I fell pretty short in this area. The subject had come up when the young apprentice prophet mentioned that obviously there was some symbolism going on with our journeys. The Prophet is teaching us through this trek, he casually mentioned to me. What? I didn’t have a lot of energy to listen to him. The sun was hot and there was no breeze, which made my patience fairly thin. The high-frequency tone of a small legion of biting gnats interrupted the few thoughts I could muster. You know, he continued, the old stories from the Torah about Gilgal and Bethel. I admitted that I actually didn’t know these stories very well. I knew the part about Gilgal regarding the standing stones from the Jordan River, and I knew that Bethel had been the most holy place in the land before the time of King David, but I wasn’t tracking his meaning. And I wasn’t trying very hard either. I think at this point he realized that I wasn’t equipped to keep up with him, and he took pity on me. Gilgal, he said, represents the failures of Saul. We had just made Saul the king and he almost immediately over-estimated his position and sacrificed when the priest, Samuel, should have been the only one allowed to do so. This effectively ended his kingship, but he lingered on. Though Gilgal represented the glory of the arrival in the promised land, Saul’s actions made it less glorious. Bethel has a similar story. Our father Abraham built an altar to The God there and then later on his grandson Jacob spent the night out in the desert in Bethel and saw angels ascending to heaven. Later, he too built an altar there. But after the time of King Solomon, the king of the north decided to put his own golden bull idol in Bethel so that people would forget The God and worship something more manageable. Both of these places were grateful responses to The God that were made unclean by the old kings due to their self-centered behaviors. Let’s see what else Elijah does and whether it follows this same pattern. Why do you think he’s following patterns? I asked. I don’t understand why he would even think to do this? The God told him to of course. He has His ways. Elijah knows that he is a symbol of The God’s power and judgement and he’s going to obey. This is part of the job of being a prophet. Walking on dusty roads in arid places in robes that are hot and itchy. Waiting on The God to tell you something you can understand enough to obey, in the hopes that He will do something amazing through you. For many prophets, this may happen only one time in their whole lives. They live an entire lifetime for the moment where The God decides to use them to make a point. This discussion certainly caught my attention, despite my earlier revulsion at having to listen to this young prophet. It definitely caused me to think hard about man’s response to The God and what it really might mean to truly obey. After a few days, we arrived at Bethel, most of us with hopes of resting for a short while, but The God did not let us stop, even momentarily. Just as before, Elijah paused in Bethel at the main crossroads, where the road heading to the East set off for the Jordan River. Elisha, he hollered, come up to me, son. So Elisha did as he was requested. Elisha, he continued, you can see the path to the North and the path to the East. Which should we take? Elisha shrugged, seemingly uncaring as to which route we would take. Elijah resumed, Yes, the East route seems right to me. The God has called me to travel to the ancient city of Jericho. I don’t expect that you’ll want to accompany me. I can tell that your man, Gehazi, is tired and needs rest. Of course I will follow you, Eli flatly stated. And Gehazi will follow me. As you might imagine, that caused my heart to sink. I was much too interested in my weariness and probably didn’t even once think about Elisha’s own exhaustion. I slowly stood up from the squatting position I had taken in the shade of a scrub acacia tree that I was resting under. I could taste the powdery dust of the road in my mouth. The dry wind hissed at me as it swirled through the acacia’s tiny leaves. We didn’t hesitate any longer, but rose to divert our extended, tiring journey to Jericho. The east-bound route to Jericho looked like the previous stretches of road we had traveled down. The land was very dry this year and the desert plants were struggling to make their way through the waves of scorching heat. Travelers headed to the populated regions in the west were common. I wasn’t sure where they were going, but I supposed it was just part of the patterns of their lives. A handful of the Sons of the Prophets joined us from Bethel, but for some puzzling reason they were unknown to me and none were from the group who had accompanied us from Gilgal. It seemed like they had some sort of unexpressed and unorganized strategy for escorting Elijah around the country. Frequently one of them would disappear on some unknown venture to be replaced in time by another. During this stretch of road, I found a young prophet named Athaliah to converse with. He was less unorthodox than most of his brethren and seemed to be happy to talk. I asked him the questions that I had been quietly considering. I also wondered out loud why he was part of the Sons of the Prophets brotherhood. You want to know why I follow the Prophet? Athaliah asked me after thinking about my question for a while. Yes, well, it seems like a strange life, I tossed out. I don’t understand what your objectives are in general. The young man nodded. Certainly I can imagine that we give off the impression of being a bunch of strange ducks, he smiled. And I can’t fault you for this. Most of us are truly very strange. Maybe it will help you understand me and possibly even some of my brethren better if I tell you a story. I nodded, pleased to hear anything that would make this journey go by faster. I come from a part of the country in the north where the tribe of Dan makes its home, he began. That is my people and I grew up probably the same as any boy of our people who lived outside the large walled cities. Is this your upbringing too? Yes, I affirmed. I grew up in a small village too. The young prophet nodded and took a drink of water from his water skin. He continued after a short while. You know, as a child, I never saw myself as someone who would fit in with the others in my community. My village was small, even provincial. The people were kind, reliable, and called to fit into the standard roles of the village and eventually replace the ones who got old and infirm. My family was very poor and did not own much. My father cleaned up things for people. If an ox died in a farmer’s field, he was the one who was called to remove it. The same thing happened if a person in the village died. My father was a master at following the rituals of purification because he was so often defiled by things that others were reluctant to do. He was able to raise his family by being paid to do unpleasant things, but it resulted in a much lower position in the community for my family. My closest friends were always very near to disowning me in the face of taunting from the wealthier boys in the village. I don’t fault them for this, for I recognize the difficulties in resisting that kind of social pressure. I understand how that might have been, I offered. It saddens me to hear about it though, I told him in all earnestness. I think I probably experienced similar things. The young man smiled and continued. The priests and their apprentices did not want to teach any of my siblings or me about the law so I was not part of any of the schools in the village. Most of the younger people I knew took part in these schools, at least until ten years of age or so. My family supported my father’s work instead. I think I had a better mind than most, but it was completely untested and I had a real desire to learn the things of the law. Because my family still held to the old worship, I had heard recitations of the holy scriptures during feasts and festivals and it seemed to me the opening of another hidden world. So I dreamed about a day when I might be able to learn these things too. One day a scruffy man in dirty linens arrived in my village holding a worn-down staff of what looked like hawthorn. He was probably still young, but he was dark and weathered from being out in the sun and his sandals looked completely worn out from overuse. His beard showed signs of beginning the process of migrating from deep black to grey. He exhibited all the signs of being a traveler and the road had clearly been rough on him. He approached my father as he was working in the village and my father invited him to our Shabbat meal. Though hospitality was part of the culture of our village, much as I suspect it was part of yours, it was pretty clear to us children that this Shabbat guest was not very welcome by the other families in our community. As was the tradition, my father offered the man the opportunity to speak and give the prayer before the meal and I still remember his words. I am grateful, the traveler began, for this family who has provided me a place at their table. For many years, The God has faithfully carried me around our land through the use of my own calloused feet, blessed beasts of burden who He has provided, and even His own divine breath. I can not explain or even recall how, but I find myself in the places where The God would have His voice heard without understanding how I arrived or even where I was. He smiled at us kids, don’t worry. I walked to your village using my own worn out feet. I laughed, but stopped as I saw my mother give me a cross look. The stranger continued and said I wish to give back to this family because The God tells me that I will stay for a while and teach this family and others in this village about the blessed Law and the Scriptures. I pray this offer would be accepted. I looked at my father’s face and he appeared near to weeping for joy. This was an opportunity that our family, certainly my siblings and I, had never had. This glance at my father reassured me that he would accept the traveler’s offer. Weeks passed and the young prophet was true to his word. He had received extensive training in the scriptures in his youth in Judah and amazingly had memorized the entire Torah. We learned to recite important passages and participated in sessions where the prophet would ask us challenging questions intended to inspire us to think about The God and His law. I relished this activity and developed very quickly. So quickly, indeed, that my father thought it wise to bring me to the priests in the tiny synagogue in our village for evaluation. This was an exciting prospect, because if the priests saw any promise, they would include me in their schooling and I would continue to learn. When the day arrived that I was to meet with the priests, I was excited. I was twelve years old, an age that was normally too old to begin schooling, but my abilities to quickly memorize and understand the holy scriptures seemed unusual and my hope was that would convince them that there was value in teaching me. When the time finally came, though, the priests were not interested in me at all. They were not a very ambitious lot and were focused on fulfilling only the most basic of their duties. Working with a promising but non-traditional older student was not what they were thinking about. The priests looked me over and asked my father where I had received my training. One of the young prophets from the traveling community of prophets has taken an interest in my son’s education, my father admitted. The priests rolled their eyes and made some sarcastic comments. Perhaps you should send him with the young prophet then, they said, smiling to each other and infuriating me with their condescension. We’re pretty sure you are not able to provide for this boy’s continuing education with your kind of work, they continued. I could see my father getting angry, for I recognized the beginnings of his anger quite well. Very well, he replied in a manner as curt but respectful as he could summon. That is something we will evaluate. We left the synagogue and my vision of studying with the priests and developing into an expert in the law evaporated. The prophet was waiting for us some distance from the synagogue, for he was staying out of the sight of the priests on purpose. Things didn’t go well, he observed as he saw our faces. Weeks later, as the prophet prepared to continue his journeys, he brought my family together and addressed us all at one time. I have some things to share with you, he offered simply. We all nodded in expectation, curious about what he was going to say. After looking around the room at each of our faces, he began. I have been blessed by this time of rest with your family. The God has called me to be His voice in all manners of things, some great, but mostly small. I rarely am able to see or understand His purpose in the things He calls me to do, but I am comforted by and content with obedience. Stopping with you these few months was in agreement with the pull of The God and I am very grateful that I was chosen for it. Your hospitality has been beyond wonderful to me. I am now being called to another purpose and I will soon set out to serve The God in this new way. But before this, I have a prophecy for your family from The God. We all listened intently, eaten up by curiosity. After a lengthy pause, he began with the prophecy. The God has spoken words to me about your family that carry a promise and a challenge, he began. It has been very clear to me while staying with you that your humility and hard work (here he indicated towards my father) are gifts provided to you by The God which you have abundantly accepted and cared for. You are a blessing to your entire village. The God has told me that He has another role for you in this community that will place you in greater regard and will allow you to provide more bountifully for your large and growing family. Here my father had a look of surprise on his face. Growing family? He inquired with the beginnings of a sly smile on his face. Yes, grinned the young prophet. I see the arrival of more of yours, some of whom will even be a larger blessing to your people that the ones who you already have. The name of your family will be great here for many generations because you are content to do the will of The God and you accept your place with gratitude. You will see this begin right away, for a surprising opportunity will fall into your hands quite soon. You will understand the goodness of this change as it arrives and you will all be blessed. Here his voice hesitated for a moment, grabbing my attention. But I mentioned there was a challenge and here it is. The God has chosen your son Athaliah to be his voice in things great and small, much as I am. He has selected me to train Athaliah and see that his education is complete. Then he will join the school of the prophets much as I have and The God will use him in whichever way He sees best. Hearing this my father’s face turned pale. He looked at the prophet and he looked at me. To him, this must have seemed like a death sentence for his oldest son, for the prophets did not often live long and fulfilling lives and the pace of their mission often saw them traveling from place to place where they were frequently were not welcome. Kings would often wipe out whole groups of prophets to get revenge for one negative prophecy against them. After thinking for a long time, my father responded. This is something The God has given you to say? The prophet nodded, Yes. Then, said my father, The God has given, He has taken away for His purpose. Blessed is His name and our family will continue to serve Him as we are called. There were tears in his voice, which was very stressful and sad to me. Though I despaired at the sight of his pain, I was overjoyed by this news. It was as if a light had turned on in my heart and now I could begin to see the hand of The God. I followed the young prophet when he left. Many tearful goodbyes were said and I have not seen my family since. One time on the road I met a man traveling who recognized me. Are you Athaliah, son of Jacob? He asked. I nodded to the affirmative and he continued. I know your story and thought you might want to know. Your father has become one of the wealthiest farmers in the whole region. He inherited much land from a distant relative who died and who no one had ever heard of before. Your family has developed new ways to farm the land which have increased yields two-fold. They have given much wealth to the synagogue which has brought your village new priests from Judah who have now developed a school. All of your younger siblings have been educated in this school. I was comforted to hear that the prophecy for my family had been a good one and that The God had been faithful to them as He had promised. Here Athaliah turned to me. The man who mentored me and introduced me into the brotherhood of the prophets is long gone, but he was one of the first who started serving and following Elijah. In time, every young person who he had taught banded together and combined with other straggling groups of prophets. Now we are an army of prophets. Our primary goal is to be the voice of The God when he calls us to that service. This task is not a small thing, as you might expect. Few people are willing to sacrifice enough of what they consider to be theirs to want to risk being the voice of The God. Perhaps this attracts a strange sort of person to our body of prophets, but that is as The God would have it, no doubt. Our second mission is to support Elijah, as it is very clear that he is the major prophet of our day and age. Thirdly we exist to take care of each other and the smaller communities in our land. Some of us are gifted at teaching and, like my mentor, provide training in the law both to younger men who are called to this work as well as to families and tribes who have little or no Levitical instruction. At this, Athaliah grew silent and I felt that I could sense a clouding of some nature come between us. Clearly he had an important thought that could not be neglected come suddenly into his head. I thanked him profusely for the story and the important background on the Sons of the Prophets. I could not sense any sort of call to their kind of mission but I felt that my leading to serve Eli was something different. I was not a prophet, I was a learner and a servant. This discussion made the travel to Jericho more tolerable and I’m confident that it provided Elisha with some relief from my constant presence. Later on I summarized what Athaliah had told me, which I believe he found interesting. He had begun to withdraw from me during this leg in the journey, though, so I couldn’t be sure. Looking back at this time, I realize now that this is when Elisha began to sense the immense weight of his impending transition.
Thoughts About Crossings
I was not surprised in the least when Elisha came to me a few days later with a message. We will not be going to Jericho, he stated flatly. I was fairly distraught by this news, for I had been looking forward to resting and taking in some creature comforts in Jericho. Even having different food than the road sustenance that we had been living on would be nice. Since this seemed to be a trend, it was not a major shock, though, to have Elijah once again change our direction. We’re now continuing past Jericho to the Jordan River, Eli tiredly related to me. Fortunately I realized that wouldn’t be too far of a detour as the ancient city of Jericho was very near to the river. We would probably arrive at the river later in the day. Then perhaps we could rest there in the shade of the leafy water-loving trees of the river bottom. As I puzzled over the strangeness of this journey, I began to notice that the Sons of the Prophets accompanying us kept growing in number. The increasing crowd followed Elijah with a strange sense of expectancy. I asked Athaliah about this and he entered into a lengthy and technical explanation. The Prophet has crossed the Jordan River before, he started, and once the word went out to my brothers that he was headed back to the Jordan River, no one wanted to miss this. Many of the Sons of the Prophets are whispering that Elijah’s time is up and that Elisha will be replacing him soon. I remembered hearing a group of these prophets as they spoke to Elisha earlier. He seemed to understand what they were talking about, but I didn’t pay much attention. Now, due to the prompting of Athaliah, I was on high alert. Athaliah continued, I’m sure you know that the Jordan River has been a holy boundary for our people. We crossed it and went from struggles and death in the wilderness to rest and life in the promised land. Most of the older generation who left Egypt were not allowed to cross, for they had chosen death and were required to remain outside the land. Even our great leader Moses was only allowed a glimpse of the land from the top of a mountain, due to his own errors. He never crossed the Jordan either. Once Moses died, Joshua was allowed to lead Israel across the river and The God allowed them all to cross on dry ground. Forgive me, he paused, looking over at me with a sheepish grin, but I bet you already know this. How I do go on when a subject interests me! I laughed, No continue. This is really helpful to me. Sometimes I feel like I’m coming from a real deficit of learning when I listen to you. I really like to learn. Super! the prophet gushed, continuing. I’ll go on then. Now where was I? Oh, yes, crossing the river. When our great king David suffered from rebellion he crossed backwards over the Jordan to the west side for protection. Elijah did the same thing a few years ago to remain safe from the evil king Ahab. Now that the Prophet is headed back to the Jordan and is not doing so in the midst of peril, some of us are prophesying that this can only mean that the Prophet will be crossing for the last time and will be leaving us for eternal rest and safety. But we will see what exactly The God does here. Sometimes His ways are hard for us to make sense of. This was very interesting to me, for my knowledge of the scriptures was limited. Athaliah, I asked, how would you explain the meaning of this symbol of the Jordan River to me? I really don’t understand these things but I think I want to. Athaliah nodded and looked pleased to be able to explain. First off, he started slowly, the Jordan is a boundary. As I mentioned, it separated the trials of the wilderness from the Land of the Promise, just as the wilderness separated slavery in Egypt from glory and rest. To our fathers, crossings of bodies of water symbolized the most powerful of transitions. Our people transitioned from hundreds of years of slavery into forty years of trial by crossing the sea. Then after the trial, they transitioned in a similar way to rest, but no longer as a horde of wanderers, but now as a powerful nation. So the waters of the Jordan symbolize justification and the putting on of glory at some level. But you can see that the nation did not cross into glory with their own power. This would have been impossible from their position as a people who failed to pass the tests of the wilderness. As I noted, the older generation failed the test miserably and never was able to make the crossing. The younger generation didn’t pass the test either (but at least they didn’t repeatedly show disloyalty to The God!), so they needed The God to part the waters to allow them to make the transition. I don’t know all the meaning of this powerful symbol – the parting so we could pass – but my heart tells me that it’s more important than we realize. I nodded. This was a connection that I had not made in my life and had never really thought about. Perhaps it was ignorance, but I suspect that there’s a reason that it felt strange to imagine why the stones in Gilgal were so full of meaning. Maybe it wasn’t very enjoyable to consider that the existence of my tribe and the nation were due solely to the benevolence of The God. This young prophet had been putting this puzzle of our history and scriptures together for most of his life. I wonder how he really feels about this? I thought. While I was wondering this, Athaliah added one more idea about the Jordan crossings that has remained in my thoughts to this day. Here’s one more thing, he noted suddenly. I’m not really sure about this but some of the others and I have been discussing it. There’s an old famous song that one of the old prophets from Judah knew and taught to a few of us. He claimed that the song was older than King David and believed that it spoke of our people’s crossing the Jordan into the promised land. However, he also told everyone that it spoke of things in the future, maybe even the distant future too. Hearing this song had a large impact on me when I first heard it, so much so that it was really important to me to commit it to memory. It spoke of suffering and the eternal goodness of The God and the opening of the Gates of Righteousness to allow the sufferer to pass through. I believe, along with others, that this refers to both the crossing of the Jordan as well as perhaps many other types of crossings from trial into rest to come. Would you like to sing this song to you? I nodded eagerly and Athaliah began.
The Song of Crossings
Athaliah began saying, I’ll summarize this a bit, but the song begins with repeated discussions of eternity. You’re aware that then the old prophets repeated things it was to emphasize how important they were. So the Song of Crossings begins as such, We give thanks to The God for His goodness, his love lasts for all times. Israel repeats, His love lasts for all times. The house of Aaron repeats, His love lasts for all times. Let those who revere The God repeat, His love lasts for all times. Now you might imagine, Athaliah broke in, that this was designed to catch the attention of the listener. I believe that this is pointing out that The God will be with his creation yesterday, today, and forever. The song continues with Out of my suffering and grief The God answered my call and set me free. It repeats these thoughts of suffering and salvation throughout the song. It reminds me of our people struggling in the wilderness, who had seen great sights and had experienced amazing signs that they were being guided through the painful disillusionment of the journey. When the singer of the song reached the point where they felt that their life was nearly over, the song shows their passage. I know now that I will not die, but will live so I can tell the story of The God. I am ready. Open for me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and thank The God. We see here an example of what we were talking about earlier. The crossing of the Jordan has been the sign of justification to our people. Though we were not deserving of entering the land of rest, our error and foolishness was covered and we were allowed to cross. The song ends with the following, I am deeply grateful that You have answered and have become my Salvation. The stone that was wrongly rejected as being unfit is now the chief stone in the house. It is the work of The God and is truly a marvel to us. This is the day that The God has prepared for all time. Gehazi, what I believe that this tells us is that The God is greater and more mysterious than we can imagine, but that the symbol of the crossing is far greater than we know.
The Crossing Takes Place
The Jordan River was not exactly flooding when we arrived. There were signs on the banks of previous floods that had deposited trees, rocks, and other detritus into piles. Even now, though, as the river appears to be just slightly out of its banks, the water raced past us on its long descent down to the Dead Sea. Rapids twisted around rocks in the river, bursting into white exclamation of foam. Elisha and Elijah stood talking together down by the river. Elijah was shaking his head and Elisha looked concerned. Clearly if they were thinking about crossing the Jordan River for some symbolic reason, they were going to need to wait or else get really wet. I laughed silently in my head at the thought of two soggy prophets crossing the wild river. Perhaps the Sons of the Prophets, who seemed to have all assembled here to see what was going to happen, felt the same amusement. Despite these visions in my head, I couldn’t shake the observation that the two prophets were the only island of peace and structure, standing as they were on the edge of the chaotic waters. My vision of the raging river flooding the desert came to mind. There was peace and structure in that vision too. Perhaps this is why this moment remains in my remembrance many, many years later. My memory proceeds as follows. Elijah slowly reached around his body and removed his cloak in a fashion as deliberate as anything I could imagine. He slowly rolled it up and I could see that he was talking with Elisha but the sounds were eclipsed by the roaring of the Jordan. Elisha made some furtive motions towards the water and Elijah turned and faced the river. Suddenly he struck the water with the rolled up cloak and the waters upstream started rolling back on themselves. The downstream waters continued on their journey downhill and before long the riverbed appeared. The Prophet waited a few minutes and once the path seemed dry enough, both of them headed across to the other side. The Sons of the Prophets, though they had expected a great work, made muffled noises of mixed surprise and joy. Athaliah came to me saying Remember what I said about the crossings, Gehazi? The God has made a way to cross over. It looks like this is how The God will make his transition from the works of Elijah to the different works of his replacement, Elisha. Lets watch for what comes next! I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, so I said nothing and watched. The prophets passed across the river safely with the waters piling upstream of them. As they stepped out of the river onto the far bank, the flow of the river resumed just as if nothing had happened. The Sons of the Prophets collectively resounded with guttural notes of surprise. I’m sure I was as astonished as they, even though they had seen the Prophet do many more miraculous things than I had. The two prophets passed from our view on the far bank of the Jordan as the Sons of the Prophets fidgeted restlessly behind me. For many days of our journey some of them had speculated that Elijah would be taken away. Now he had crossed to the far side of the Jordan much as King David had. Was this to be similar to when he had spent time on the far side of the Jordan after he had prophesied to King Ahab that there would be no rain in the land? I remembered this time of drought well, as I was a young boy when it happened. The stream in my village nearly dried up and many crops failed. I imagine that this was an awful time for my mother and father, but they managed to hide it from me fairly well. At the time, though, I had no knowledge of Elijah or his escape across the Jordan. But I digress. Time passed and not much happened. We all waited silently to see what the two prophets would do. Much of what I now know happened on the other side of the Jordan has come from conversations that I had afterwards with Elisha as we travelled across the land. The Sons of the Prophets and I were unable to see anything that occurred beyond the river. Our experience was one of eager anticipation or tedious waiting. These two emotional responses alternated for the hours that we spent hoping to learn what had happened. We knew that something monumental was happening. The reader may recall that some of the Sons had even predicted that Elijah would depart the world on this day. But as is often the case in life, we were left to watch and wait patiently for the hand of The God to reveal itself. As I have learned over the years from repeated hard lessons, I am much too fond of myself to take joy in waiting on anything, not even The God, who can sometimes be most frustrating. Thus said, the time spent on the west bank of the Jordan was unpleasant to me. At one point, Athaliah and a friend approached me, and upon sensing my irritation, reminded me in an almost pleasant way that at least we weren’t wandering in the wilderness for forty years hoping to see the land that had been promised long ago to Abraham. His point was well made, but it didn’t help me any. I think I remember finding it rather annoying, truth be told. I suspect now that part of my struggle during that time was uncertainty about myself and my role. Would Elijah not return? Would Elisha return carrying Elijah’s prophetic mantle? Would he prefer to select someone from the Sons of the Prophets to be his assistant if he returned this way? Would I have to return to the village to live out the rest of my life in embarrassed obscurity? It struck me that there was some degree of horror wrapped up in losing the little bit of intrigue that I derived from serving Elisha. As an old man remembering his story, I realize that The God is relishing giving me a reminder of my prideful weaknesses. I could continue, but it might make my story that much more dull. After a few hours that felt like days to me, one of the Sons of the Prophets, a man who apparently had very impressive eyesight, yelled out, I see the Prophet returning to the Jordan. But he is by himself! My blood ran cold. If Elijah returned without Elisha then my role as a servant of a prophet was over. The attention of over fifty men was instantly straining on the small figure wearing the prophetic robes of Elijah. He took off his cloak in exactly the same way as had been done when crossing over to the East bank and then he rolled it up. The person stood holding the rolled cloak in his hands and looked upstream at the river, raging with all its currents and eddies. He hesitated, then he struck the river with his cloak and once again, the waters piled upstream and ran away downstream. Dry land emerged and the figure stepped onto it. The Sons of the Prophets ran to the river bank to welcome the Prophet back. Suddenly a cry came out from one of the first to reach the river bank. It’s Elisha! He has returned with the Prophet’s robe and staff! I knew – along with the whole body of the Sons – what this meant. Elijah had died or been taken away and Elisha had assumed his role.