Elisha is an enigmatic character. On the one hand, he is the powerful prophet of God, second in his time only to his own mentor Elijah. On the other hand, his life was taken up with secular events and worldly politics.
The story for today is about Elisha's assumption of Elijah's power when Elijah left this world. It is the beginning of Elisha's ministry and it tells us much about the man.
At the beginning of the story, Elijah is still alive. Elisha was his disciple and his designated successor, so it is natural that the two men were travelling together. (It is likely that there were other disciples and servants also in the party — Elijah was a powerful man in Israel and Judah — but they play no part and are not mentioned here.)
Elijah seems to know that the end of his life
is near, but he doesn't speak of it directly.
Instead, Elijah begins to tell Elisha to leave him.
The prophets are travelling from Gilgal, which is
west of the Jordan not far north of the Dead Sea,
and they are travelling west toward Bethel.
Before they come near Bethel, Elijah says to Elisha,
Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Bethel.
Elisha refuses his master's instruction.
(I would suppose that was in itself unusual.
The Bible makes no comment on it,
but the student would be expected to accept
the discipline of his teacher.)
As certainly as the Lord lives and as you live,
I will not leave you.
What do we learn from this about Elisha? Elisha is loyal to his teacher Elijah; not only loyal to Elijah's cause but personally dedicated to the man. Being separated would be unacceptable. We can already guess that Elisha knows that his master soon will leave him. Neither Elisha nor Elijah speak of this directly. They both know; they know because they are both informed by God; they each know that the other knows and we see here the tender dancing around the issue that happens between two friends who care much for each other. And so Elijah says no more and they go on.
The prophets at Bethel have no such reticence.
They take Elisha aside to make certain he knows
that Elijah's life is nearly over.
They ask Elisha whether he knows this.
Yes, I know, Elisha answers.
Do not talk about this, he says; it is too painful.
Or perhaps he thinks it was disrespectful
to speak of Elijah behind his back,
especially since it is the season for his leaving.
At Bethel, Elijah again tells Elisha to stay behind
and again the disciple refuses his master.
As certainly as the Lord lives and as you live,
I will not leave you.
Elisha is loyal to Elijah, his teacher,
but notice that it is the living God
who is always first in his statement of loyalty.
Elijah has been the prophet of God;
it would not be possible to be loyal to Elijah
without first being loyal to his Lord and Master.
So they go back east to Jericho,
only a few miles from where they began in Gilgal.
At Jericho again some of the local prophets
speak to Elisha about what is going to happen.
Do you know that today the Lord is going
to take your master from you? they ask.
Yes, I know, Elisha answers.
At Jericho, Elijah again offers to let Elisha
stay behind. Again he refuses.
So they traveled on together.
By this time it is obvious that Elisha
will not leave his teacher.
Three times Elijah has asked
and three times Elisha has refused.
How often must a person defend his loyalty?
In the Bible, it is often three times.
How often did Jesus ask Simon Peter,
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
The Gospel According to John tells us that
Peter was distressed that Jesus asked
him a third time. So it is here. Three
times Elijah offers his disciple the chance
to stay behind and three times Elisha answers
As certainly as the Lord lives and
as you live, I will not leave you.
The result of this affirmation is that
they traveled on together. They
travelled east this time, to the Jordan River.
Beyond the river is the wilderness —
the desert where there were no permanent cities.
The local prophets who had accompanied the two
men as far as the Jordan do not presume the
right to go any farther with them. The river,
which is by nature a barrier and a boundary
line, serves as a door for the prophets, a door
which Elijah opens by striking the water.
They go on and disappear from sight.
Now they are alone. Now Elisha's loyalty is
certain. Now there is no more dissembling.
Elijah speaks plainly.
What can I do for
you, he asks,
before I am taken away
from you? And Elisha answers,
double portion of your spirit come to me.
That is, two parts, probably two-thirds of
the prophetic spirit that Elijah had received
from God, or it may represent the extra
portion which belongs to the first-born son.
And Elijah agrees; he says,
difficult request! If you see me taken from
you, may it be so, but if you don't, it will
There are different kinds of loyalty. Sometimes people are loyal only until they can take power for themselves. Sometimes we are loyal until we have an offer of a better job.
There's a place for this sort of temporary loyalty. There was an election for governor when I was working in the state Budget Office and it was fascinating to watch the loyalties of the state employees change from the old governor to the governor-elect. That was appropriate; civil servants are supposed to be loyal to the governor elected by the people.
The case in our story today is different. The old prophet does not hold power in his own right or even as a representative of the people of Israel. Instead, Elijah is the representative of God. Loyalty to God requires loyalty to his appointed prophet. A new prophet can't take over Elijah's role until God is ready to make the change. For this reason, Elisha must remain loyal to the very last if he is worthy to become Elijah's successor.
Elisha has been offered the chance to stay behind but he has chosen loyalty instead. And so they walked together, the three of them: Elisha, Elijah, and God.
As they were walking along and talking,
knowing, of course, that the end was near,
look, a chariot of fire and horses of fire …
and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm.
Elisha cries out at the loss of his teacher.
First he calls to Elijah,
My father, my father!
for Elijah was indeed his father in a sense:
his teacher, his mentor, his example, his leader.
Then Elisha says,
The chariot and horsemen of Israel!
It is generally thought that this is another reference
to Elijah, the "mighty defender of Israel"
as the Good News Bible translates this phrase.
(A later king of Israel addressed Elisha
with these same words at the end of Elisha's life.)
On the other hand, Elisha is face to face
with the chariot of fire sent to take his master home.
Is it not possible that Elisha might be referring
to God's power, and not Elijah's, as the defense
Elijah has just been taken away by a whirlwind. He is not seen again until the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Another story about Elisha will help to illustrate this. It was years later. Syria was at war with Israel, and Elisha passed information to the king of Israel about the Syrian army's movements. The Syrian king determined to capture Elisha in order to close this security breach. The king didn't care whether Elisha was a prophet or a spymaster; the king merely wanted to keep his secrets.
One morning, Elisha's servant got up, went outside,
and saw a Syrian army surrounding their village.
Oh no, my master! What will we do? he cried.
But Elisha was calm.
Don't be afraid, for our side outnumbers them.
The poor servant didn't know what to think,
so Elisha asked God to reveal the truth to the man.
Then he saw that
the hill was full of horses and
chariots of fire all around Elisha — the
Prophets in those days were far more like warlords
than would make me comfortable.
But there was this difference:
Elisha recognized that true strength was from God,
horses and chariots of fire
outnumbered the chariots of wood and iron.
The rest of this later story is also interesting.
God and Elisha work together to confuse the Syrians
and lead them to Samaria, then the capital city of
Israel. The king of Israel, finding a Syrian army
under his hand, wanted to kill them all —
but he had the sense to ask Elisha before he did so.
And Elisha answered him,
Do not strike them down!
You did not capture them with your sword or bow,
so what gives you the right to strike them down?
Give them some food and water.
So instead of death the Syrians were given a feast
— and a debt — and then sent home.
But all of that is in the future.
Elisha picks up Elijah's cloak. We have a saying, to succeed another person in office or influence is to pick up his mantle. Here Elisha does exactly that: He picks up Elijah's mantle, or cloak, and also picks up his master's power and office. Elisha returns to the Jordan River, opens the watery barrier just as Elijah had done: Elisha picks up Elijah's cloak, rolls it up, and strikes the Jordan. Then he returns to the waiting band of prophets.
They had been alone in the desert,
Elisha, Elijah, and God.
No one else knew what had happened there.
Now Elisha is returning to public life
and his first act is an unmistakable claim
to the power and the place that Elijah had held.
Elisha holds Elijah's cloak in his hand, calls out,
Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?,
and reenacts Elijah's last miracle.
The prophets waiting on the other side of the
river recognize the meaning of this act at once.
The spirit that energized Elijah rests upon
Elisha, they say to each other.
There is an element of political and even military
power in Elisha's claim to succeed his teacher.
The other prophets
went to meet him and bowed
down to the ground before Elisha.
The other prophets respected Elisha, but they also wanted to know what had happened to Elijah. I think they had mixed feelings. What if Elijah were still alive and Elisha was a usurper — someone who had not been loyal to the end? On the other hand, what if Elijah were dead and the prophets had not properly honored his passing? Their reputation, their status, and perhaps their lives were on the line just as much as Elisha's.
For all these reasons, the prophets want to
search for Elijah, to know what had really
happened, but they don't want to cross the new
leader, either. Eventually, Elisha
embarrassed. So he let them go looking
in the desert. That they found nothing is
consistent with Elisha's story of what happened
Elisha has made his claim but in the uncertainty of the moment, without the benefit of almost 3,000 years of reflection, not finding Elijah or his body really didn't settle anything with certainty.
There follow two short and (for us) unsettling stories in which Elisha provides some practical evidence to back up his claim to be God's representative. The great prophets of that time were public leaders and people needed to know that Elisha could carry out the role.
In the first story, the leaders of Jericho, the town where Elisha was staying, complained about the bad water in the town's spring. This was, in their telling, Jericho's only flaw. Elisha asked them to bring him a new jar of salt, which he dumped in the spring. The spring became fresh and remained so. By doing this, Elisha demonstrated his power to improve the lives of the people.
This first story is unsettling because it doesn't seem to make practical sense. Throwing salt into the spring would normally poison it, not clear the impurities. And why does Elisha insist on a new jar? Obviously we do not have enough information to provide a scientific explanation, but that is not the point of the story.
The point is that Elisha first demonstrated that God had entrusted him with the ability to help make life better.
In the second of these small stories, Elisha
is setting off from Jericho to other towns.
A crowd of boys follows, taunting him
Go on up, baldy! I can't
quite imagine that they would have done the
same thing to Elijah. The old prophet fought
with kings — and against them. Elijah
was feared as well as honored. I can imagine
the boys hearing their parents say, Well,
Elisha may be a prophet but he sure is no
Try not to get hung up on the
The word boy can be applied to anyone
from a baby to the Lads of the Irish Troubles;
Solomon used it for himself after he became king.
That they were
young boys suggests to me
that they were not old enough to leave home
and join either the bandits or the army. But
there were 50 or more of them in the road
taunting a powerful public figure. To me this is
a teenage street gang deliberately threatening
the new leader.
Notice, too, that Elisha did nothing himself
against these boys. Rather,
he called God's
judgment down on them. Even so, this is
unsettling because I don't like my saints to
wish ill on anyone. I like better the words
attributed to Thomas More (whose birthday was
also in February, by the way): "I do no
man harm; I say no man harm; I think no man
harm." But in our story, Elisha said harm
to these gang members, and that is uncomfortable
The best I can think is that the boys became
so deceived by the illusion of their own power
that they ignored the dangers of the woods
and marched between the bears and their cubs.
However it happened, the story says,
Two female bears came out of the woods
and ripped forty-two of the boys to pieces.
We don't know how many others escaped.
The point of this little story (which is far shorter than my comments on it) is to demonstrate that Elisha is truly God's representative, that any insult or threat against him would be answered — not by Elisha, but by the God whom Elisha served.
Elisha was offered the option of staying back, but he chose instead to remain loyal to his master and to God, who was his master's master. They walked together, Elisha, Elijah, and God, until Elijah was taken away. Elisha's loyalty to God and to Elijah endured to the very end of Elijah's life and his reward is to pick up the mantle and become the prophet of God.
Not everyone is called to pick up the mantle of power; not everyone is chosen as God's prophet. The good news is that we too can walk together with our teacher, our master, our friend.
Jesus does not condemn me when I choose to stay in Gilgal, or in Bethel, or in Jericho, and I often do. The more beautiful choice is to remain loyal and to go with my master into the wilderness. Then we can walk together — you, and I, and Jesus.
Scripture quotations taken from the NetBible.
February 26, 2006
June 4, 2006