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At the beginning of 2 Kings 2, Elijah travels from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan before being taken up in the whirlwind. Elisha then mostly reverses this course crossing back over the Jordan, going up to Jericho on to Bethel and from there returning to Samaria. One commentary I read mentioned that this is a rather indirect route for Elijah to leave the land, but didn't comment beyond that.

I've noted on Mike's answer below that there seems to be some relationship to Joshua. The progression of the armies in Joshua goes from crossing the Jordan to the destruction of Jericho, to a battle at Ai and Bethel, to encampment at Gilgal. So Elijah retraces the conquest, but in reverse.

My question, though, still is why? What is the author saying by showing Elijah take this path at the command of the LORD?

And also (and maybe this could be a different question), why does Elijah keep telling Elisha to stay at each of the cities rather than follow him?

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The location of Gilgal is crucial in this response - the Gilgal mentioned in the battles of Joshua is most likely not the same location as that mentioned in the travels of Elijah and Elisha. The maps below show the different proposed locations of each.

Map showing travels of Elijah and Elisha: Travels of Elijah and Elisha

Map showing battles of Jericho and Ai: Battles of Jericho and Ai

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,

The first camping-place of the Israelites in the land west of the Jordan (Josh. iv. 19); the place to which they could retreat during their struggles for conquest (Josh. x. 6 et seq.); it was also a sanctuary, the origin of which is explained in Josh. iv. 3 et seq. ; and it is mentioned as a place of sacrifice in I Sam. x. 8, xi. 15, xv. 12; comp. also II Sam. xix. 16 (A. V. 15). This Gilgal does not seem to be identical with the city visited by Samuel (I Sam. vii. 16), which should rather be identified with Jiljilya, southwest of Shiloh. Nor-even if the reading "they went down" should be accepted as uncertain—does it seem to be the Gilgal mentioned in II Kings ii. 1 et seq., from which Elijah journeyed to Beth-el and then to Jericho. The "Gilgal" of this passage, where according to II Kings iv. 38 a company of prophets lived, is usually identified with the Jiljilya mentioned above, or with a Julaijil southeast of Shechem. Deut. xi. 30, the passage supporting these identifications, is, however, rather doubtful from a critical standpoint, and hence the question can not be decided with absolute certainty. The Ephraitic sanctuary, so severely condemned by the Prophets (Amos iv. 4, v. 5; Hosea iv. 15), is probably to be identified with the "Gilgal" of the Joshua narrative. Its name could still be found not many years ago in that of a hill Jaljul, east of Jericho, but even that name seems now to be forgotten.

It is possible that there are as many as four different locations referred to as Gilgal in the bible. Most theories stick with two cities named Gilgal: one in Samaria and one near Jericho.

In light of the fact that separate Gilgal's are most likely in mind here, one perspective is that neither Elijah nor Elisha were retracing Joshua's conquest. 2 Kings 2:2 states that Elijah and Elisha "went down to Bethel" from Gilgal, suggesting that the place was in the vicinity of Bethel, and hence in a mountainous region (and at higher elevation than Bethel), which is somewhat different from the place associated with Joshua. It is clear that these cities contained communities of prophets, which seems to be the primary reason for visiting.

At the same time, there are scholars who would consider the Gilgal in the Joshua account to be the same as that of the Elijah/Elisha narrative, but even then the exact location is not agreed upon so it is difficult to speculate as to whether or not this route is actually "out of the way" or not.

Maps ©2007 Logos Bible Software.

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Thanks for the sleuthing, but I'm still thinking there's a connection to Joshua. Even if it's a different Gilgal, the miraculous parting of the Jordan alone (and together with Jericho all the more) is enough in my mind to connect the narrative to Joshua. And a direct route or not, the text's mention of the LORD's prompting suggests more than a simple travel log. – Soldarnal Jan 14 '13 at 18:12

I will try to answer with emphasis on spiritual significance.

Elijah is coming to the final stage of transference to Elisha, who had followed Elijah for the last 14 years.

Elisha shall received 3 dimensions of Elijah, namely :

A) his Mantle B) his spirit C) his God.

The background and context of 2king chapter 2 is Israel spiritual decline and decay.

Gilgal was the spiritual peak and from that spiritual position in God, Joshua led the 3 campaigns in the conquest of Canaan and it was their spiritual HQ.

Bethel is the House of God and Jericho means the first fruit.

Elijah brought Elisha on this specific route for the purpose to let Elisha 'catch' his heart cry on the spiritual state of decay in these 3 important and strategic spiritual places.

Elijah must ensured Elisha will continue his legacy to restore God's Kingdom in Isreal.

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This Bible Study I found on Elijah & Elisha's last journey is in my veiew excellent. I recommend having a look.

Bible Study - Elisha, Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho & the Jordan

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These cities are considered to be special locations where there were schools for groups of prophets. That is why in each place 'the sons of the prophets' are interacting with Elijah and Elisha. For some reason Elijah was called to give some last words of preparation for them before he left the earth. It seems his impending departure was in some sense enjoined with some sense of dangers and Elijah seems to wish Elisha saftey from the dangers, but whether he inteded to be testing Elisha's commitment or not, the situation does seem to draw out Eliasha as a faithful disciple. The whole account seems to have prepared Elisha and the sons of the prophets for Elijah's departure, in some ways similar to Christ preparing his disciples before being caught up in the clouds.

This is more or less a summary of observations made by Alfred Edersheim in his enjoyable read Bible History Old Testament.

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Elijah is on a journey to the eternal land of God’s rest.

He starts in Gilgal, which is a throwback to Egypt. At Gilgal “the shame of Egypt” was removed (Joshua 5:8-10), when the foreskins of the Israelites were taken away.

Bethel is a throwback to Sinai, when the dwelling of God came to earth. (The Shekinah was the dwelling place of God.) Bethel in Hebrew means the house of God.

Finally, after the Israelites left Sinai, they had circled the wilderness before arriving at the River Jordan. Jericho therefore was a throwback to the (circular) wilderness wanderings, where the desert was a place of death and unfruitfulness (2 Kings 2:22). Joshua had circled the city before destroying it.

Thus Elijah makes a trek to follow the pattern of the Israelites who left Egypt and finally entered the rest of the Promised Land. Elijah therefore followed this earthly pattern in a reverse imagery (if you will), so that when he crossed the Jordan he entered the rest of the heavenly Promised Land.

By asking Elijah to remain in each locale, Elijah was essentially testing Elisha, since Elisha was his protégé. (“Would Elisha remain in ‘the wilderness of Zin,’ or would he proceed forward to cross the Jordan as an obedient Israelite?”) Of course, Elisha wanted to follow Elijah wherever he went. Elisha passed the test, and therefore was qualified to replace Elijah.

After Elijah was taken into heaven, Elisha “returned to earth” by back-tracking the same steps. (Elisha made the “death and unfruitfulness” of Jericho’s “desert” into potable water in 2 Kings 2:22). He goes through Bethel, where (like at Sinai with Moses) insolence and insubordination was evident toward God’s prophet, Elisha (2 Kings 2:23). As his final destination, instead of returning to “Egypt” (Gilgal), he returned to Mount Carmel, which is where Elijah’s ministry had ended, and where of course Elisha’s ministry was going to begin.

Theologically, this whole episode of Elijah crossing the Jordan and entering heaven is of immense significance hermeneutically. First and foremost, this is the first instance within the Hebrew Bible that there is direct parallel between the visible "rest" of God and the invisible "rest" of God. In other words, the biblical concept of "the Promised Land" (God's place of rest) is not limited only to the visible geographical area of Palestine, which was promised to Abraham.

For example, the author of the Book of Hebrews enters his theological discourse by indicating that the "rest" of God follows death (see Hebrews Chap. 3 and Chap. 4, where the concept of the afterlife is developed from the Hebrew Bible). In other words, when we depart our terrestrial existence on earth, we "cross the River Jordan" and enter the rest of God. (Death is not a "dead end" for the elect of God.) Many 19th century church hymns talk of this crossing. For example, when he died on the battlefield during the Civil War in 1863, Stonewall Jackson is said to have remarked, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."

Last but not least, Elijah did not experience physical death. He went into heaven, and therefore heaven is a literal place. Later in the Hebrew Bible (in fact among the last verses of the English translation of the Old Testament), there is indication that Elijah will physically return to earth "before the great and terrible Day of the Lord," and so there is still an expectation (among Jewish and some Christian students of the Bible) that this Prophet will yet return to earth physically in the future. While Malachi 4:6 is attributed to John the Baptist in Luke 1:17, the verses in both Malachi 4:6 and Malachi 4:5 also seem to point to "Elijah the Prophet," who will return to earth "before the great and terrible Day of the Lord" and announce the [second] coming of the Messiah to earth.

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