"Going Down" to Bethel: Elijah and Elisha in the Theological Geography of the Deuteronomistic History

By Burnett, Joel S. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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"Going Down" to Bethel: Elijah and Elisha in the Theological Geography of the Deuteronomistic History


Burnett, Joel S., Journal of Biblical Literature


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

The statement in 2 Kgs 2:2 that Elijah and Elisha "went down" (...) from Gilgal to Bethel has long puzzled interpreters. Some have assumed the passage must refer to a Gilgal in the central hills.1 Others, recognizing the larger passage's connections with the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua 3-5, accordingly understand this to be the Gilgal in the Jordan Valley and are left simply to ignore the directional difficulty.2

While it might be tempting to write off the directional oddity as being the result of an editorial or traditional "rough seam," the passage's extensive interest in geography as signaled by its attention to a number of specific locations-Gilgal (2 Kgs 2:1), Bethel (vv. 2-3, 23), Jericho (vv. 4-5, 15, 18), the Jordan River (vv. 6- 8, 13), Carmel (v. 25), and Samaria (v. 25)-suggests anything but a random loose end. The enumeration of these points on Elijah and Elisha's itinerary indicates, at the very least, a decisive concern for geography in this passage.

Not only do the place-names mentioned in this text correspond to known historical geography, but they also all play significant roles elsewhere in the passage's larger literary context of Deuteronomy-2 Kings.3 The theological geography of these books-known collectively in scholarship as the Deuteronomistic History (henceforth, DH)-reserves a special place of scorn for Bethel, which stands in opposition to Jerusalem's unique status upon its founding as the one "place where Yahweh will cause his name to dwell" (Deut 12:5-7, 11-14; 1 Kgs 8:1-66; 12:26-33; 13:1-3; 2 Kgs 17:21-22; 23:15-20). 4 The reference to Bethel in 2 Kings 2 thus invites consideration of any allusive dimensions of this text and the possibility that here as elsewhere in the DH geographic and theological interests are joined.

These relevant literary and theological factors call for a reexamination of this apparent dilemma of historical and biblical geography. In view of the strong aversion to Bethel in the larger context of this passage in the DH, one might consider whether the reference to "going down" to Bethel might be understood not as topographically correct but as theological and polemical in nature.

As the following discussion will show, a complexity of narrative features in 2 Kings 2 works primarily to validate Elisha as Elijah's successor but also serves the DH's anti-Bethel polemic. Accordingly, the reference to "going down to Bethel" in 2 Kgs 2:2 is theological in nature. The recognition of the literary pattern operative in 2 Kings 2 not only clarifies this ostensible topographical oddity but also resolves other difficulties of interpretation in this passage, such as Elisha's cursing of the "little boys" (vv. 23-24).

I. The Failed Search: Lexical and Geographic Solutions

The need for a Gilgal of higher elevation would be obviated by either of two proposed lexical solutions by G. R. Driver, each based on supposed alternative meanings for ... ("go up") and ... ("go down"). The first was that these verbs sometimes occur in Biblical Hebrew with the opposite of their expected meanings, a view that is not actually borne out by the passages Driver invokes.5 Alternatively, Driver suggested that the two verbs had the specialized meaning "to go north" and "to go south," respectively.6 The problem with this suggestion is that the use of these verbs in describing travel between Egypt and Palestine or places in between is based on the topography and elevation in question and thus involves the basic and expected meanings of the verbs.7

Thus, the search for a Gilgal from which one might "go down" to Bethel has led scholars to look to the central hills (see n. 1 above). The most promising candidate from historical geography would be Jiljulieh, some twelve kilometers north of Bethel, a suggestion made early on by Otto Thenius and George Adam Smith and invoked by many others since.8 Unfortunately, this site still lies at an appreciably lower elevation than Bethel (Beitin),9 leaving the textual difficulty unresolved.

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