Names, Dates, and Places

How could King Jehoram of Judah receive a letter from Elij ah if Elijah was taken to heaven before the death of Jehoshaphat,Jehoram’s father?

This question is not about history, but about the reliability of the Bible, caused by what some see as an apparent contradiction between 2 Kings 1–3 and 2 Chronicles 21:12-15. The possibility of finding discrepancies and even tensions in the Bible is very real. But each case should be carefully analyzed before a conclusion can be reached. I will describe this specific situation and suggest some possible solutions.

1. Nature of the Problem: To read 2 Kings 1–3, one could get the impression that the ascension of Elijah occurred before the death of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah (848 B.C.). The last king of Israel mentioned before God took the prophet was Joram, dated to the second year of Jehoram (852 B.C.), son of Jehoshaphat, in Judah (2 Kings 1:17). He was appointed as coregent before his father died (cf. 2 Kings 3:1). Elijah’s ascension to heaven is narrated in 2 Kings 2:11-18. Apparently, Elisha’s first prophetic  responsibility was to reveal God’s will to Jehoshaphat and Joram before they went to war against Moab (2 Kings 3:11-19). But this is far from certain. The sole rule of  Jehoram, after the death of his father Jehoshaphat in 848 B.C., is recorded in 2 Kings 8:16.  So, the question is how Elijah, who supposedly was taken to heaven before the death of Jehoshaphat, could have written a letter to his son, King Jehoram, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 21:12-15? (Do the names confuse you? In the Hebrew text Joram and Jehoram are spelled the same way!)

2. Was Elijah Taken to Heaven? In order to eliminate possible solutions to the problem, we should establish whether or not Elijah was taken to heaven. If he was simply translated to some other place on earth, then we would not have a problem at all. But the biblical text is clear: Elijah was taken to heaven. T he verb “to take” is used in the Bible only two times to refer to a person being removed from earth to the heavenly realm. The first was the experience of Enoch, whom “God took away” (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5). The other is the experience of Elijah. The description of that event could hardly leave any doubts concerning the fact that the text is describing God’s unique intervention in human history resulting in the rapture of the prophet: “Suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings. 2:11, NIV). To emphasize the permanent departure of the prophet to the heavens, the narrative describes the insistence of some of the sons of the prophets to be allowed to go look for him: “Perhaps”—they argued—“the Spirit of the lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley” (verse 16). Knowing the truth, Elisha discouraged them, but finally let them go to search for Elijah. They didn’t find him.

3. Chronology of Events: Since Elijah was indeed taken to heaven, the problem can be solved in several ways. The most unlikely one is that Elijah wrote the letter from heaven and it somehow reached the king. Another possibility is that he wrote the letter before he was taken by God and later someone else gave it to the king. This is possible, but the biblical text does not require that type of precision.

For a more likely answer, let me first point out the obvious fact that Elijah’s rapture is not dated. Those who argue that it happened before the death of Jehoshaphat are simply filling in the gaps of knowledge based on the place of the story within the narrative. Second, students of the Bible know (and if they do not know they should) that biblical narratives are not always in chronological order. Consequently, we need to take into consideration all biblical data before dating a particular event. Third, if, according to the biblical text, Elijah was permanently taken to heaven, then the letter he wrote to King Jehoram after the death of the king’s father was written before God took Elijah. This in no way distorts the biblical information, but it helps us to harmonize what appears to be a serious discrepancy.

Date: 
3/08