In 2 Kings 2.1-12, an account is given where the prophet of Israel named Elijah (meaning “My God is Yahweh”) ascends to heaven on a fiery chariot pulled by celestial horses. Elijah does not taste of death, but is translated into heaven.
Only one other figure in the Old Testament ascends to heaven without tasting death–Enoch. Enoch’s name means “The Initiated One,” and the only reference to this figure in the text is an obscure passage which states, “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5.24). In non-canonical texts associated with Enoch this prophet also ascends to heaven. In fact, the heavenly ascent appears to be the prerequisite of entering heaven without tasting of death.
In all the available Enoch lore thus found two things stand in common: 1) Enoch ascends to the heavens, learns their secrets, and enters the heavenly Holy of Holies or Throne Room. In some passages, Enoch is given the title “Son of Man,” a euphemism for divine heritage, and in the words of Margaret Barker, divine theosis or divinization. 2) All the imagery of the Enoch texts compare the heavenly ascent to a heavenly temple, and the ascent through the heavens can often be assimilated with the chambers in the earthly temple as they were modeled from a heavenly design.
It is this temple and cosmological context that frames the action of celestial ascent. The ascent of Elijah probably follows suit, as this portion of the Old Testament text probably follows a liturgical mise en scene associated with the old Hebrew temple cult. While Enoch and Elijah are the only Old Testament prophets to ascend to heaven without tasting death, other key prophetic figures also find themselves on a heavenly journey. Ezekiel is the most prominent figure, as he makes a tour of heaven. Ezekiel’s tour is also associated with the temple complex. The founder of Israel is Jacob who begins his journey towards kingship by seeing a ladder set in heaven. On top of the ladder was Yahweh, who gives Jacob the great covenant of the fathers during this heavenly vision. This hales back to a prior scene where God shows up to Abraham and gives him the original covenant, and does so while comparing his future offspring to the stars. In non-canonical sources, Abraham also journeys through the stars as part of this covenant.
The heavenly journey as part of the prophetic calling is not a creation of Israel or of Biblical tradition. The Israelite people inherited this tradition, they did not create it. In Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mediterranean traditions, kings, shamans, priests, and prophets all made this heavenly tour. Such a tour was essential to oral cosmology, which saw the source of all true being as emanating from the sky. In order to obtain the right to rule, such royal and august figures analogically journeyed to the stars through ritual to obtain their divine mandate. It is quite surprising to find that all the early Greek masters did the same thing. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclides, Plato, and Cicero all relate some form of the heavenly journey associated with their right to teach, obtain true reason, rule the city, or obtain the right to immortality.
The celestial ascent of Elijah is not biblical fantasy, it is oral cosmology rooted at the foundations of civilization.