From kindergarten to high school, I attended a private Christian school where Bible was a mandatory class every semester and chapel a mandatory activity every day. Though I've since become a heretic, I still enjoy furthering my knowledge of the Good Book in order to keep my religious friends on their toes and to increase my literacy. It is for both these reasons that I recently began How to Read the Bible by James Kugel, a former professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard. In it, Kugel seeks, inter alia, to educate readers on the great gap separating ancient and modern scholarship and the crucial role of ancient interpreters in shaping the Bible’s message. Indeed, one of the first points in the book is how assumptions about the nature of Bible, rather than anything explicit in the text itself, have shaped religious beliefs for millennia.
I was thus surprised to catch Kugel repeating a common mistake concerning Elijah in the very first chapter. Here's what Kugel writes:
But what exactly did Scripture mean? Was it always to be taken at face value...? What about when it seemed to conflict with modern science or common sense--saying, for example, that...Elijah had ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire?
Here is what God (as approved by the good King James) said happened:
And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11)
It wasn't a chariot of fire that carried Elijah into heaven--it was a whirlwind! I mean, come on--a chariot of fire? That'd be preposterous!