The Parting of the Waters:
The Case from Scripture for the Reincarnation of Jesus
By Mark Gaffney
The Parting of the Waters Theme
Whatever its basis in fact, the parting of the waters by Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt is one of the defining episodes in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is a pity that the tale of Joshua's subsequent crossing of the Jordan is less well known. According to scripture, this second crossing occurred near Jericho, probably not far south of Adamah, which lies at the confluence of the Jabbock River with the Jordan, where a mound, today known as Tell Damiela, marks the site of some ancient city. The Book of Joshua (3: 1-17) recounts the event in considerable detail. Normally, the Jordan is a pacific stream, and easily fordable. However, we are told that on this occasion, which was at harvest time, the river was in a state of flood, and almost impassable. According to the scriptural account, Joshua, following Yahweh's instructions, bid his men carry the ark of the covenant down to the river, at a point a half-mile above where the tribes had gathered. No sooner did the selected men step into the swollen river with the ark than the waters--we are told--backed up in a solid mass, as if behind a dam. The remaining waters continued flowing downstream, with the result that the tribes simply strolled across the dry river bed into the promised land.
The repetition of the parting of the waters idea in the Book of Joshua is noteworthy. At very least, it ought to get our attention. What is amazing, however, is that the motif reappears yet a third time in II Kings (2:8), a book which scholars attribute to the Deuteronomist, the same scribe responsible for the Book of Joshua. Scholars believe that the Books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are the composition of a single individual, who probably lived in the seventh century BC. And this single authorship makes the third repetition of the pattern even more remarkable.
The story of the third crossing recounted in II Kings occurs in the context of the final return of the prophet Elijah to his home town of Gilead in TransJordan. The Deuteronomist tells us that on the occasion the great prophet was accompanied by his chief disciple, Elisha, and an entourage of some fifty members of the "brotherhood of the prophets" ("sons of the prophets" in the King James Bible). There is no mention of a flood, nothing about a swollen river. The scribe takes pains, however, to mention the others in attendance, probably because they are the key witnesses to the events which ensue. Indeed, we are left to ponder whether the story would ever have found its way into scripture, if corroborating observers had not been present. By explicitly mentioning them the scribe is telling us that real history, not simply legend, is being recounted. Of course, because Elijah and Elisha lived in the ninth century, two hundred years before the Deuteronomist, the scribe himself must needs have relied on a previous oral tradition, and perhaps written records. Even if we assume his integrity as a historian, we still must judge for ourselves the extent to which real events had already been embellished by others, before the Deuteronomist compiled the various accounts and set them down for all time in II Kings. Yet the story has the feel of history--though precisely what remains the question.
The Deuteronomist describes in graphic detail the circumstances of the third crossing of the Jordan, and how Elijah was subsequently translated, in other words, taken up bodily into heaven. The text reads:
"And they went on together. Fifty of the brotherhood of prophets followed them, halting some distance away as the two of them stood beside the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water; and the water divided to left and right, and the two of them crossed over dry-shod. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha "Make your request. What can I do for you before I am taken from you?" Elisha answered "Let me inherit a double-share of your spirit." "Your request is a difficult one," Elijah said. "If you see me while I am being taken from you, it shall be as you ask; if not, it will not be so." Now, as they walked on, talking as they went, a chariot of fire appeared and horses of fire, coming between the two of them; and Elijah went up to heaven in the whirlwind."
It is one of the most extraordinary episodes in the Bible. Indeed, it is peculiar almost beyond words. For example, what is the meaning of the phrase "a double-portion of your spirit"? The passage is so strange that one feels compelled to wonder out loud: for heaven's sake, what in the world is going on here? Nor have we come to the end of surprises. As if this third crossing were not enough, the pattern is repeated yet again, a fourth time! Except that now it is the disciple Elisha who commands the waters. The text continues:
"Elisha saw it and shouted "My father! My father! Chariot of Israel and its chargers!" Then he lost sight of him, and taking hold of his clothes he tore them in half. He picked up the cloak of Elijah which had fallen, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the cloak of Elijah and struck the water. "Where is Yahweh the God of Elijah?" he cried. He struck the water, and it divided to right and left, and Elisha crossed over."
Apparently the cloak drops into Elisha's hands at the very moment when Elijah disappears into the whirlwind. The Deuteronomist informs us further that "The spirit of Elijah came down upon Elisha." What can this mean? We are reminded of the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, when--we are told--the spirit similarly descended upon the Messiah. It is not, however, the first appearance of "spirit" in the Bible. The first reported instance occurs in the Book of Numbers (11: 24-30) account of the wanderings in the desert. In that episode Moses had gathered seventy elders of the people to the tent of Yahweh; whereupon "Yahweh came down in the Cloud. He spoke with him [Moses], but took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the spirit came on them they prophesied..."
The parting of great waters is astounding enough, whether due to divine intervention, or to some natural catastrophe on which legend--we can suppose--was later based. Not surprisingly, in this age of science a number of scholars have taken up the case for a naturalistic explanation. One of these, Johns Hopkins scholar Hans Goedicke, pointed out that the famous description in Exodus of a sudden receding of the waters followed by a flood resembles the behavior of a tsunami. This, Goedicke believed was, indeed, the basis of the Exodus story, and was probably caused by the eruption of the volcano Thera in the Aegean. Immanuel Velikovsky had a different naturalistic explanation. Velikovsky opted for a near miss by a comet, the effects of which would have been no less catastrophic. Naturalistic theories have even been advanced to account for Joshua's second parting of the waters at the Jordan. Ian Wilson, a writer better known for his research into the Shroud of Turin, proposed in 1985 that the second event was caused by an earthquake, which he thinks temporarily dammed the Jordan river, conveniently allowing the Hebrews to cross over and sack Jericho, whose walls were destroyed by the same tremor.
But even if we assume, for a moment, that some reasonable explanation or other based on a natural event accounts for the first instance (Moses at the Red Sea, or bitter lakes), and even the second (Joshua at the Jordan), I doubt if even the most richly endowed imagination could conjure up a suitable naturalistic explanation for the third, and fourth cases. If someone does, I would like to hear about it. The third and fourth repetitions in this strange sequence seem perversely designed to frustrate every effort in this direction. Indeed, one senses the futility of Nature-based explanations. The reader intuitively senses that here we are in the presence of something "other." And by "other" I do not mean "alien." I am not talking about extraterrestrials. I am referring to what the writer Rudolph Otto called the "numinous," in other words, "the holy."
It becomes impossible to ignore the likelihood that what began as one sort of thing has evolved into something very different. What started as a straightforward demonstration of power mechanics, mastery over Nature, vast power to be sure, but power, nonetheless, has been transformed into something that is...the only word which captures the thing-in-itself is: sublime. A parting of the waters of Nature, however impressive, shows, after all, a rough hand. But an ascension!? That is a fundamentally different proposition. And so, those of us who are interested in deciphering the purpose of the Deuteronomist are confronted by a true conundrum, a very different sort of challenge. One senses an evolution of meaning. The key question is whether this also indicates a maturation of the Judaic tradition over the several centuries between Joshua and II Kings. According to professor W.F. Albright, written versions of Exodus and Joshua date to as early as the tenth century, though both books were based on a much older oral tradition. As mentioned, II Kings may similarly be based on an oral tradition, though one of a much shorter duration, since II Kings was written in "the purest classical Hebrew, of a type that can hardly be later than the eight century [BC]." This was the opinion of W.F. Albright. It is of interest that Albright's star pupil, Frank Moore Cross, disagreed, and settled on a seventh century composition date.
There seems no way to ignore the conclusion that in the story of Elijah and Elisha we are presented with a spiritual lesson imbued with deep, but as yet unexplained, meaning. Certainly the events here recounted have no parallels anywhere in the Old Testament, the sole exception being the ascension of Enoch; which is only briefly mentioned in Genesis (5:21-24). That the third and fourth repetitions concern an ascension into heaven is shocking enough. That this ascension involves both Elijah and Elisha, master and disciple, is more extraordinary still, because both of these inspired prophets were great Yahwist reformers; and, even more importantly, because of their links to the New Testament.