There are occasions when one is struck by the extent to which a biblical motif to which one had previously not attended is present within the text. I recently had the experience when considering the significance of chariots within the biblical narratives. Perhaps one of the most memorable appearances of chariots is with the drowning of Pharaoh’s chariots at the Red Sea in Exodus 14-15. However, as one looks further afield there are hints of a more intense employment of this imagery from the Red Sea crossing in various places. For instance, a surprising number of the biblical references to chariots occur in the context of water deliverances, judgments, or washings, and closer inspection may reveal a more developed typology.
In keeping with the Exodus imagery that one finds in the Elijah and Elisha narrative, the alignment of Ahab with Pharaoh may be subtly suggested as Ahab is pursued on his chariot by the winds, black clouds, and heavy rain that ends the drought, while Elijah runs ahead of him by the power of YHWH to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:44-46), and also when, in 1 Kings 22:31-38, the dead Ahab’s chariot ends up being washed in a pool, his blood licked up by the dogs. In 2 Kings 5:9-10 the Syrian official, Naaman comes to Elisha on a chariot, and is immediately sent to wash himself in the Jordan.
Although the chariots of Pharaoh are those which are principally associated with the Red Sea crossing, later references suggest an underlying biblical juxtaposition between the throne chariot of God and the chariots of the nations in connection with water deliverance imagery. The chariot symbolism that becomes associated with water becomes more expansive, as divine chariots – and YHWH’s throne chariot – are included in the picture. In 1 Kings 7:23ff. we see ten ‘water chariots’ (cf. v.33) leading from the Bronze Sea in Solomon’s temple. In 2 Kings 2, directly after miraculously crossing the Jordan in a manner reminiscent of the Red Sea crossing, Elijah is caught up by a chariot of fire. Various psalms speak of the winds and cloud as the chariot of YHWH (2 Samuel 22:8-12; Psalm 104:3-4), from which he battles against the sea, in ways reminiscent of or alluding to the Exodus account (Habakkuk 3:8-15; 2 Samuel 22:14-17). The association of the cloud and wind with the chariot of YHWH would naturally have shaped the reading of the east wind and the cloud in the Exodus account (cf. Psalm 77:16-20; Habakkuk 3:15). The close association between YHWH’s glory presence and the ark of the covenant, and the description of the mercy seat as a ‘chariot’ (1 Chronicles 28:18), is also suggestive for our reading of the Jordan crossing in Joshua 3, where the ark of the covenant and its bearers play a central role. Such early descriptions would later acquire more explicit form in the merkabah vision of Ezekiel 1.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the possibility that such chariot imagery is employed within the New Testament. In Acts 8:26-40 a number of elements of the narrative recall events that we have already mentioned: the running prophet who overtakes the chariot, as Elijah outran Ahab’s chariot, the foreign official being instructed to wash, as Elisha instructed Naaman, and the prophet being taken up by the Spirit/throne chariot after coming out of the water (v.39-40; 2 Kings 2:9-11, 16; Ezekiel 3:12-14).
This multi-faceted imagery of chariots is also taken up in the Christian tradition. Jean Danielou studies the manner in which early Christian writers developed the relationship between the merkabah, the chariot of Elijah, and baptism. Highlighting Tertullian’s identification of the primordial waters as the ‘vehicle (vectaculum) of God’ and Cyril’s description of Christ as a ‘charioteer’ as he walks on the waters, he proceeds to demonstrate the relationship between this theme and that of Elijah’s chariot that ascends to heaven. For Cyril and other early Christian writers, Elijah’s ascent in the fiery chariot is an image of the grace of baptism, whereby the baptizand is washed and raised up to heaven with the gift of the Spirit. The figure of Elijah’s chariot is explicitly related to the Red Sea crossing by Gregory of Nyssa. Having identified the power of YHWH exercised at the Red Sea as ‘horsemen’, and associated it with the horses and chariot by which Elijah ascended, he writes: ‘It is not possible to be made like to the horsemen which submerged the chariots of the Egyptians in the deep if one has not been freed from slavery to the Enemy by the sacramental water.’
One of the things that this suggests to me is that baptismal ‘vehicles’ (Noah’s Ark, Moses’ ark, the belly of the great fish of Jonah, etc.) may be a lot more integral to the symbolism than often supposed.