Elisha – Picking up the Baton

The bears savaging the youths at Elisha’s command, while Elijah is borne in the flying chariot (1453 French manuscript).
By UnknownTony Harrison ; Medieval French Manuscript, Public Domain, Link

We have finally got to the subject of the Elisha in my series of the prophets of the Old Testament, who I had meant to cover after addressing Elijah, but then got distracted by Isaiah, Job etc.  Elisha is the last of the great prophets to tackle other than Daniel.  You might remember that I had some unkind things to say about Elijah, who despite his great gifts and courage, was effectively sacked by God and recalled.  Elisha was Elijah’s anointed successor and disciple for a number of years before the latter’s ‘recall’.

Elisha, Life and Times *

Elisha appears in the two Books of Kings, which are believed to have been drawn from Temple or Court records stored in Jerusalem before its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC, and taken with the Jewish captives into exile in Babylon where they were drafted into the Books of Chronicles and Kings, and arguably Samuel.  They should be seen as the first true narrative history books ever written, predating Herodotus by a century, albeit they were composed by exiled priests trying to understand what had happened to their country, hence the metaphysical/religious gloss.  Those who say that the latter gloss disqualifies them from being proper narrative history seem unaware that such criteria would also disqualify Herodotus and that every historian interprets events through an ideological filter, being human beings who see things through a value system.  What is important is that the events related are based on factual records, supplemented most probably by oral tradition.

Like his mentor Elijah, he emerged in the now divided country of the Hebrews in the northern state of Israel at the time of King Ahab in the 9th century BC, with its capital at Samaria, albeit at the very end of Ahab’s long reign.  Ahab was a strong king who was instrumental in a coalition of other kingdoms in resisting Assyrian encroachments.  Other states in the alliance included Aram (capital Damascus), Tyre, Judah and Edom among others, although Ahab also engaged in conflict with Aram at times.  Ahab was however infamous for encouraging the worship of Baal and the goddess Ashteroth in the country, and, at the behest of his notorious pagan wife Jezebel, for launching a great persecution against the monotheist Jehovah worshippers among his own people.  These latter were led by Elijah and were arguably a conservative, nationalist grouping.

Elisha first appears in a dream had by Elijah while taking refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb, in which God instructs Elijah where to find Elisha and to anoint him as his successor.  By this stage, Elijah is a wanted man on the run from the authorities and has pretty much given up his resistance to Ahab.  Elisha is the son of a wealthy farmer and Elijah finds him ploughing and tells him the news.  Elisha accepts what he is told, burns his plough and oxen, and is adopted by Elijah as his son. This is a symbolic rejection of the conventional life for which he was destined, in the way that Christ’s Disciples left all they had behind to follow Him.  Interestingly, the parallel with the Disciples of the New Testament is reinforced when over the years of Elisha attending Elijah, possibly seven or eight, he was offered three chances to walk away from the arduous life ahead, but refused, saying that he had abandoned the farming plough to plough a ‘much greater line of work’, again recalling Christ’s summoning of the fishermen Disciples to say that He would make them ‘fishers of men’.

Eventually, Elijah crossed the river Jordan along with Elisha (the waters parted for them, something that does happen when the course of the river is temporarily blocked upstream by seismic activity) and Elijah is reported to have been taken up to Heaven is a whirlwind and chariot of fire.   Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle and wore it, praying for a portion of Elijah’s spiritual power  (either double or two thirds depending on the text), and it was the touch of this mantle on the river Jordan that caused the river to part once again, allowing Elisha to cross back into Israel.

Elisha the Miracle Worker

Far more than Elijah, who was a confrontational political Prophet focused on opposing the spreading paganism sponsored by Ahab and his circle, Elisha’s life and ministry was focused more on building up the Jewish faith on the ground, partly by miracle working – largely miracles that helped the poor and needy – and strengthening the ‘Sons of the Prophets’ which seem to have been groups of Jewish teachers scattered through the towns and villages of Israel in which young men were educated in their faith.  Elisha was their recognised leader.  It seems that Elisha has learnt from Elijah’s failed ‘top-down’ confrontational strategy and adopted a more patient, ‘bottom up’ incremental strategy to win the hearts and minds of the common people.  It seems to have been more successful, in part because he kept the faith going until the ruling dynasty’s promotion of paganism had faltered with the deaths of Ahab and his son Jehoram.  Elisha was regarded as the foremost prophet in Israel for six decades.

Elisha’s miracles have some striking parallels with those of Christ nearly 900 years later, notably:

  1. Almost immediately after his dry crossing of the Jordan, Elisha was requested by the people of Jericho to solve their water supply problem. All their water sources were contaminated, and the land and town were suffering from drought.  Elisha did so, meaning that the people of Jericho did not have to buy and transport clean water from the nearby town of Bethel at great cost.
  2. The widow of the prophet Obadiah was in deep debt because of her husband’s selfless generosity. Elisha performed a miracle of a bottomless jar of olive oil which allowed her to pay off her debts and have money on which to live, recalling Christ’s miracle of the wine at the wedding of Cana.
  3. A childless elderly couple hosted Elisha when teaching in a town. He asked them if there were anything he could do for them but the wife said they needed nothing and they were happy with what they had.  Elisha’s servant later suggested that they be given a son to look after them.  Elisha agreed and promised them a son.  Less than a year later one was born, recalling the miraculous births of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, and John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Later in childhood the son died, and Elisha returned to raise him from the dead, recalling the miracle of the Roman centurion’s daughter.
  4. A follower of Elisha brought him a basket of 20 loaves of bread made from the harvest’s first fruits. Elisha asked him to feed his 2000 followers with it.  Recalling Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5000, there proved to be more than sufficient bread to do so.

The examples quoted are just a small selection of similar stories, all focused on providing practical help for ordinary people in need.  By these actions, and his teaching, Elisha achieved a large following in Israel as a kind man and helped preserve his faith.

The Politics

However, Elisha could not avoid being dragged into the politics altogether and sometimes we see flashes of his mentor Elijah and his confrontational style.  Straight after purifying the water of Jericho, Elisha travelled to nearby Bethel whose lucrative trade supplying clean water to Jericho he had ended  The young men of Bethel came out to insult and threaten him, despite knowing he was a prophet.  He cursed them and later a pair of bears emerged to attack them, leaving 42 slain.  It seems so out of character with what we know from the rest of his life one wonders if there was more to it and that it was really another clash between the increasingly aggressive polytheistic Jews and the embattled monotheistic traditionalists.

Another other major political incident into which Elisha was dragged, seemingly unwillingly, was his intervention in a war between the rulers of Israel, Judah and Edom against Moab, a principality east of the Dead Sea formerly subject to Israel.  The three kings had invaded Moab together and their armies were in trouble, short of water in the dry valleys and hills of Moab.  Disaster threatened and they rode to meet the prophet, given his renown as a miracle worker.  Seeing Ahab’s son, King Jehoram, who was still promulgating Baal worship in Israel like his father, Elisha said he would have ignored them if it were not for the presence of King Jehoshophat of Judah, who remained loyal to Jehovah.  Instead, he told them to order their armies to dig dry ditches around them, which were then filled with fresh water overnight, saving the campaign, and saying that they would achieve total victory, which they did.

Subsequently, war broke out between the Aramean kingdom based at Damascus and Israel, with the former seeking to take advantage of an Israel weakened by prolonged drought and famine.  Samaria, the capital of Israel, was placed under siege, but Elisha accurately prophesied that the siege would fail.   Furthermore, he repeatedly saved King Jehoram of Israel from the ambushes planned by Benhadad, the king of Damascus, but ordered the elders to shut the door against the messenger of Israel’s ungrateful king who still clung to Baal worship despite all of Elisha’s help.  He bewildered with a strange blindness the soldiers of the Syrian king, and prophesied that Hazael, Benhadad’s chief minister would kill and replace him ss king and become an even greater enemy to Israel, because of the latter’s faithlessness, things which came to pass.

Disasters continued to beset pagan Israel until Elisha supported the revolt of Jehoram’s general Jehu, who killed Jehoram with his own bow and led the killing of all of Ahab’s family, to become king.  Jehu returned Israel to monotheism and the country achieved some peace and respite under his reign and that of his son, although another war broke out with the Syrians under his grandson Jehoash, with Elisha is his final years prophesying a series of victories for Israel which were achieved before the death of the prophet.

Making Sense of It All

A full life is an understatement to describe Elisha.  A long life of public and theological service, and not for nothing is he remembered in the Jewish faith as the’ patriotic prophet’.  His faith and life had a very different nature to that of his mentor Elijah, and in the end he was much more successful because he worked in a different way for his faith, more generously and supportively, on the ground among real people, not just addressing king and Court.  He did his patriotic duty when required, not missing the opportunity to remind errant rulers and people as to why they were in a mess and how to get out of it, and he did not just heal or help Jews, but also their enemies when required.  This is the way the exiled Jewish priests seem to have understood the message of Elisha’s life and times – how Israel was preserved despite the corruption of its rulers at times because people like Elisha worked to sustain the Covenant between Jehovah and the Hebrews.

More interestingly for us today, is the significance of the way in which Elisha advanced his cause.  We see significant elements of Christ’s manner of teaching and mission on Earth, the focus on service, healing and teaching, an unwillingness to become a political prophet in the way that had led Elijah to fail. He worked on the ground, quietly, among the ordinary people, training priests and prophets, and witnessing through miracles and teaching up and down the land.  Even the nature of his miracles were forerunners of those of Jesus – healing, feeding, relieving the poor, lesser, but similar in nature.  In some ways the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus echoes that between between Elijah and Elisha.  John was more strident than Jesus, more confrontational, and achieved little lasting success beyond preparing the way for Jesus’ more spiritual and successful ministry.

That said, Elisha was not apolitical or a pacifist, and he was capable of saying and doing seemingly harsh things at times, but then so was Jesus.  Ultimately, it was his different style of working that led to his success – an Israel restored to Jehovah worship and a degree of peace and security.  For a time.

© 1642again 2019

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