I find myself sitting in a church when a woman up front reads the lectionary passages for the week from a lectern sculptured in the shape of a large, blackened eagle. The Old Testament reading is II Kings 2, when Elijah passes on the prophet’s mantle to Elisha. It is one of those Old Testament stories that shines not only for its devotional or theological virtues for the faithful, but also as a literary masterpiece on its own terms.
At the climax of the story, right as Elijah is “separated” from Elisha by “a chariot of fire,” Elisha cries out one of the saddest lines in the whole Bible: “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” It is a cry of profound loss and grief, but the grief is rendered even more poignant because the phrase is opaque to us. Why would Elisha specifically mention the chariots and horsemen, of all things, in this severing moment? Why not say “Don’t leave!” or “How am I to live without you?” or just “No!”
It occurs to me as I sit there that I could go digging for answers as to what this enigmatic phrase means. I could consult a Bible dictionary to learn what the Ancient Near East symbolism of divine chariots was, how Israel must surely keep up with the Canaanite Joneses, furnishing their god with his own slick ride and entourage. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll even find a theological explanation, that the chariots of fire reveal some aspect of the character of YHWH. Or what if “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” is simply an Israelite cuss? Something that a lesser man would yell when stubbing his toe, but here befits the awfulness of the moment?
My mind returns to its body, entombed in the skeletal pain of sitting on a pew and the thick, grey, dead air of a gaping sanctuary, to the moment at hand. Having brushed the commentaries off the table of my mind, I am left with a feeling, the feeling of realizing someone else might be in the room with you, the same feeling you would get from hearing a small mammal in the walls, or a ghost knocking around the sump pump. This is the thrill that the unknown may escape you, that there are supernatural insects that your prying hands have not killed and stuffed into the pocket of your toddler overalls.
I realize in that moment that I do not want to know what “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” means, that if someone were to sit down next to me and tell me exactly what it meant, it would kill it, like a triumphant dog with a squirrel in its mouth, and I would feel only disappointment and shame.
I want something like a National Park Act for the Bible, to say that there are certain words or sentences or even entire passages that would be better left alone in their pristine beauty, instead of bulldozed over into doctrinal or ethical subdivisions. Is this irrational or selfish or silly? Perhaps. But at bottom, my hunger for meaning also wants meaning itself to escape me and remain throbbingly alive, with the power to raise my hair against my will and raise the dead against theirs.