Saturday, February 21, 2015

II Chronicles 21: Elijah's Letter

In II Chronicles 21:12-15, King Jehoram of Judah, the son of righteous King Jehoshaphat, receives a letter from the prophet Elijah, rebuking Jehoram and predicting Jehoram’s downfall.  How could Jehoram have received a letter from Elijah?  Had not Elijah been taken up into heaven?  Here are some thoughts:

1.  I grew up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God (which was founded by Herbert Armstrong), and we did not believe that Enoch and Elijah went to heaven—-as in the third heaven, where God dwells.  John 3:13, after all, says, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (KJV).  We thought that Enoch and Elijah were removed to a safe place on earth.  According to this view, Elijah was taken to the first heaven, but not the third heaven, where God dwells.  And, after taking Elijah to the first heaven, God put Elijah in a safe place on earth.

I believe it was G.M. Bowers in Faith and Doctrines of the Early Church who appealed to II Chronicles 21:12-15 to argue that God took Elijah to a safe place on earth, not to the third heaven.  I have no idea if Bowers was affiliated with the Worldwide Church of God or its offshoots, but a lot of what Bowers said in that book overlapped with Armstrongite teaching.  My Dad once pointed this out to someone working at an evangelical Christian bookstore that was selling the book, and this evangelical rejected the book after hearing that because he saw Armstrongism as an unorthodox cult, even though this evangelical not long before was singing the book’s praises.  But I digress.  My point is that Bowers was arguing that Elijah did not go to the third heaven, and one of Bowers’ reasons was that Elijah was still around to send King Jehoram a letter.

Interestingly, in looking through ATLA, I found someone arguing along similar lines.  Roy E. Knuteson did so in an article that he wrote, “Elijah’s little-known letter in 2 Chronicles 21:12-15,” which appeared in Bibliotheca sacra (162 no 645, January-March 2005, pp. 23-32).   Bibliotheca sacra is published by Dallas Theological Seminary, a renowned conservative Christian institute, the type that would be rather critical of Armstrongism.  Maybe the Armstrongite view on Elijah is becoming a little more mainstream!  And that is not surprising, since a significant aspect of scholarship is critiquing previous ways of interpreting the text that may be inadequate, in favor of other ways.

2.  Okay, Armstrongites had their way of explaining Elijah’s letter.  How have other Christians or Jews sought to explain it?  Gleason Archer in his Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties essentially argues that Elijah had not yet been taken to heaven during that point in Jehoram’s reign, and so Elijah was still around on earth and could write and send that letter to Jehoram: his translation to heaven had not yet occurred.  Raymond Dillard says this is possible.

I have a question about that, though.  In II Kings 3, we see the prophet Elisha prophesying during the reign of Jehoshaphat, Jehoram’s predecessor.  Elisha was the prophet who replaced Elijah.  In II Kings 2, the chapter in which Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elisha receives Elijah’s mantle and a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and, after Elijah is taken to heaven, Elisha is able to do a miracle that Elijah did.  One may think that Elisha’s prophetic ministry began after Elijah was taken up to heaven.

If that is the case, then it’s difficult to accept Archer’s argument that Elijah’s translation into heaven had not yet occurred when Jehoram received the letter from Elijah.  In II Kings 3, Elisha, Elijah’s successor, was the one prophesying when Jehoram’s father Jehoshaphat was king.  If Elijah was still around during that time (and later, during Jehoram’s reign), why wasn’t Elijah the one prophesying to Jehoshaphat?  One could conclude that Elijah had been translated prior to the reign of Jehoram.  Dillard says that Elisha could have been a prophet even before Elijah’s translation.  That could be, but is that really plausible?

There are ways that people have sought to explain how Elijah could write a letter to Jehoram, after his translation into heaven.  One explanation is that Elijah’s letter was prophetic: Elijah wrote the letter before Jehoram became king, and Elijah was able to do so because, as a prophet, he knew the future.  Another explanation, which is in the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, is that Elijah appeared from the other world (heaven) and dictated to someone the letter for King Jehoram.

3.  All of this said, one could ask why Elijah was the one who wrote Jehoram the letter.  Elijah was a prophet to Northern Israel, whereas Jehoram ruled the south, Judah.  The Artscroll commentary offers two possibilities.  One is that Elijah was renowned as an opponent of the wicked King Ahab of Northern Israel, and Elijah was upset that Jehoram was forsaking the ways of his righteous father and was instead following the ways of Ahab.  Moreover, Jehoram was married to Athaliah, who was related to Ahab’s house.  Another view is that, as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, Elijah feared that Jehoram was putting the line of the Messiah in danger.  The Messiah would be descended from David, and Jehoram (and later his wife Athaliah) killed many Davidids.

Looking at the contents of Elijah’s letter to Jehoram, there is some merit to these views.  Elijah does criticize Jehoram for committing whoredoms similar to those of Ahab’s house, and also for killing other Davidids, who were better than Jehoram.  I would be very hesitant to read Messianism into II Chronicles 21, however, since II Chronicles 21 does not mention a Davidic Messiah or eschatology.  Still, the view that Elijah feared that Jehoram was threatening the Messianic line is interesting from a history-of-interpretation standpoint.

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