Once or Twice?

Read: 2 Kings 2:1-18

When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other. (v. 14 NRSV)

The Hebrew language is as different from English as any two languages can be. The structure of its grammar, the ways that words connect to make meaning (syntax), and even the range of meaning of individual words make reading the Hebrew Bible a profoundly cross-cultural experience. Not to mention a perennial challenge for translators! One passage that has confounded translators for centuries has to do with how many times Elisha strikes the waters of the Jordan River.

The confusion is created by a peculiar grammatical construction in the Hebrew. The act of striking the water is narrated twice, once before and once after Elisha’s cry: “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” (v. 14). The second narration can read either: “When he had struck the waters, they were parted,” or “And again, he struck the waters.” So, did he strike once or twice? Does it matter?

It does! If Elisha had to strike twice, this means his first attempt at dividing the waters failed, and he had to call on the name of the Lord and try again. I think Elisha’s first act as a prophet was a failure—the waters did not part for him immediately. But he reoriented himself toward God and tried again, this time with success! Maybe this is a reminder that if we ask for the “double portion” (v. 9), we should be prepared to work twice as hard! —Travis West

As you pray, ask God to strengthen you for the work he has called you to do.

About the Author

Travis West

Travis West is the Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary.