Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bible Story: Chariot of Fire

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The Bible story for this week is the story of the prophet Elijah's departure from this world, riding a chariot of fire.

I was prompted to include this Bible story in the Bible Story widget because of the wonderful film Chariots of Fire. It's a good example of a Biblical allusion which people will miss unless they are familiar with this Bible story. In particular, the image of the "chariot of fire" was given a special life outside the Bible by its inclusion in the beautiful hymn "Jerusalem," based on the poem by William Blake:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of Desire;
Bring me my Spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.
Here, then, is the Bible story which inspired the image of the chariot of fire. The prophet Elijah, whom we met last week in the story of Jezebel and Elijah, is walking along with his disciple, Elisha. As we read in 2 Kings, chapter 2, along their way, Elijah uses his mantle to allow them to cross across the waters of Jordan as over dry ground:
And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground. And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.
The moment of Elijah's departure then arrives:
And it came to pass, 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 into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
Elisha's request is granted, and he takes up the mantle of Elijah, both literally and metaphorically:
He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan; And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the LORD God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over. And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha.
For an illustration of the celestial chariot of fire, I chose this image from the Nuremberg Chronicle (you can read more about this amazing book at wikipedia). The image shows both Elisha ascending in the chariot, and Elisha receiving his mantle:



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