Who was Elisha?
In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Elijah was a prophet, the disciple and successor of Elijah. He was the son of Shaphat, lived at Abel-meholah, at the northern end of the Jordan valley and a little South of the Sea of Galilee.
Nothing is told of his parents but the father's name, though he must have been a man of some wealth and doubtless of earnest piety. No hint is given of Elisha's age or birth-place, and it is almost certain that he was born and reared at Abel-meholah, and was a comparatively young man when we first hear of him. His early life thus was spent on his father's estate, in a god-fearing family, conditions which have produced so many of God's prophets. His moral and religious nature was highly developed in such surroundings, and from his work on his father's farm he was called to his training as a prophet and successor of Elijah.
I. His Call and Preparation
The first mention of him occurs in 1 Kings 19:16 . Elijah was at Horeb, learning perhaps the greatest lesson of his life; and one of the three duties with which he was charged was to anoint Elisha, the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah, as prophet in his stead.
1. His Call
Elijah soon went northward and as he passed the lands of Shaphat he saw Elisha plowing in the rich level field of his father's farm. Twelve yoke of oxen were at work, Elisha himself plowing with the twelfth yoke. Crossing over to him Elijah threw his mantle upon the young man (1 Kings 19:19 ). Elisha seemed to understand the meaning of the symbolic act, and was for a moment overwhelmed with its significance. It meant his adoption as the son and successor of Elijah in the prophetic office. Naturally he would hesitate a moment before making such an important decision.
As Elijah strode on, Elisha felt the irresistible force of the call of God and ran after the great prophet, announcing that he was ready to follow; only he wished to give a parting kiss to his father and mother (1 Kings 19:20 ). Elijah seemed to realize what it meant to the young man, and bade him "Go back again; for what have I done to thee?" The call was not such an urgent one as Elisha seemed to think, and the response had better be deliberate and voluntary. But Elisha had fully made up his mind, slew the yoke of oxen with which he was plowing, boiled their flesh with the wood of the implements he was using, and made a farewell feast for his friends. He then followed Elijah, making a full renunciation of home ties, comforts and privileges. He became Elijah's servant; and we have but one statement describing their relationship (2 Kings 3:11 ): he "poured water on the hands of Elijah."
2. His Preparation
They seem to have spent several years together (1 Kings 22:1 ; 2 Kings 1:17 ), for Elisha became well known among the various schools of the prophets. While ministering to the needs of his master, Elisha learned many deep and important lessons, imbibed much of his spirit, and developed his own religious nature and efficiency until he was ready for the prophetic service himself.
It seems almost certain that they lived among the schools of the prophets, and not in the mountains and hills as Elijah had previously done. During these years the tie between the two men became very deep and strong. They were years of great significance to the young prophet and of careful teaching on the part of the older. The lesson learned at Horeb was not forgotten and its meaning would be profoundly impressed upon the younger man, whose whole afterlife shows that he had deeply imbibed the teaching.
3. The Parting Gift of Elijah
The final scene shows the strong and tender affection he cherished toward his master. Aware that the end was near, he determined to be with him until the last. Nothing could persuade him to leave Elijah. When asked what should be done for him, before his master was taken away, he asks for the elder son's portion, a double portion, of his master's spirit (2 Kings 2:9 ). He has no thought of equality; he would be Elijah's firstborn son.
The request shows how deeply he had imbibed of his master's spirit already. His great teacher disappears in a whirlwind, and, awestruck by the wonderful sight, Elisha rends his clothes, takes up the garment of Elijah, retraces his steps to the Jordan, smites the waters to test whether the spirit of Elijah had really fallen upon him, and as the water parts, he passes over dry shod. The sons of the prophets who have been watching the proceedings from the hills, at once observe that the spirit of Elijah rested upon Elisha, and they bowed before him in reverence and submission (2 Kings 2:12-15 ).
Elisha now begins his prophetic career which must have lasted 50 years, for it extended over the reign of Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash. The change in him is now so manifest that he is universally recognized as Elijah's successor and the religious leader of the prophetic schools. The skepticism of the young prophets regarding the translation of Elijah found little sympathy with Elisha, but he is conciliatory and humors them (2 Kings 2:16-18 ).
II. His Prophetic Career
1. Record of His Career
As we study the life of Elisha we look first at the record of his career. The compiler of these records has followed no strict chronological order. Like other scripture writers he has followed the system of grouping his materials. The records in 2 Ki 2:19 through 5:27 are probably in the order of their occurrence. The events in chapters 6 through 9 cannot be chronologically arranged, as the name of the king of Israel is not mentioned. In 2 Kings 6:23 we are told that the Syrians came no more into the land of Israel, and 2 Kings 6:24 proceeds to give an account of Ben-hadad's invasion and the terrible siege of Samaria. In chapter 5 Gehazi is smitten with leprosy, while in chapter 8 he is in friendly converse with the king. In chapter 13 the death of Joash is recorded, and this is followed by the record of his last interview with Elisha ( 2 Kings 13:14-19 ) which event occurred some years previously.
2. His Ministry in a Private Capacity
When he began his career of service he carried the mantle of Elijah, but we read no more of that mantle; he is arrayed as a private citizen (2 Kings 2:12 ) in common garmerits ( beghādhı̄m ). He carries the walking-staff of ordinary citizens, using it for working miracles (2 Kings 4:29 ). He seems to have lived in different cities, sojourning at Bethel or Jericho with the sons of the prophets, or dwelling in his own home in Dothan or Samaria (2 Kings 6:24 , 2 Kings 6:32 ). He passed Shunem so frequently on foot that a prophet's chamber was built for his special use (2 Kings 4:8-11 ).
(1) Elijah's ministry began by shutting up the heavens for three and a half years; Elisha's began by healing a spring of water near Jericho (2 Kings 2:21 ). One of these possessed certain noxious qualities, and complaint is made to Elisha that it is unfit for drinking and injurious to the land (2 Kings 2:19 ). He takes salt in a new vessel, casts it into the spring and the waters are healed so that there was not "from thence any more death or miscarrying" (2 Kings 2:21 ).
(2) Leaving Jericho, 'a pleasant situation,' he passes up to the highlands of Ephraim, doubtless by the Wady Suweinit, and approaches Bethel, a seat of Baal worship and headquarters of idolatry. The bald head, or perhaps closely cropped head, of Elisha, in contrast with that of Elijah, provoked the ridicule of some "young lads out of the city" who called after him "Go up, thou baldhead," their taunt manifesting the most blatant profanity and utter disregard of God or anything sacred.
Elisha, justly angered, turned and cursed them in the name of Yahweh. Two bears soon break forth from the woods of that wild region and make fearful havoc among the boys. Elisha may have shown severity and a vindictiveness in this, but he was in no way to blame for the punishment which overtook the boys. He had nothing to do with the bears and was in no way responsible for the fate of the lads. The Septuagint adds that they threw stones, and the rabbis tell how Elisha was himself punished, but these attempts to tone down the affair are uncalled for and useless (2 Kings 2:23 , 2 Kings 2:14 ).
(3) From Bethel Elisha passed on to Mt. Carmel, the home of a school of the prophets, spent some time there and returned to Samaria the capital (2 Kings 2:25 ). His next deed of mercy was to relieve the pressing needs of a widow of one of the prophets. The name of the place is not given (2 Kings 4:1-7 )
(4) On his many journeys up and down the country, he frequently passed by the little village of Shunem, on the slopes of "Little Hermon." The modern name is Sôlam . It was about three miles from Jezreel. Accustomed to accept hospitality of one of the women of the place, he so impressed her with his sanctity that she appealed to her husband to build a chamber for the "holy man of God, that passeth by us continually." This was done, and in return for this hospitality a son was born to the woman, who suddenly dies in early boyhood and is restored to life by the prophet (2 Ki 4:8-37).
(5) Elisha is next at Gilgal, residing with the sons of the prophets. It is a time of famine and they are subsisting on what they can find. One of them finds some wild gourds (paḳḳu‛ōth ), shreds them into the pot and they are cooked. The men have no sooner begun to eat than they taste the poison and cry to Elisha, "O man of God, there is death in the pot." Throwing in some meal, Elisha at once renders the dish harmless and wholesome (2 Kings 4:38-41 ).
(6) Probably at about the same time and place and during the same famine, a man from Baal-shalishah brought provisions as a present to Elisha - twenty loaves of fresh barley bread and fresh ears of grain. Unselfishly Elisha commands that it be given to the people to eat. The servant declared it was altogether insufficient for a hundred men, but Elisha predicts that there will be enough and to spare (2 Kings 4:42-44 ). This miracle closely resembles the two miracles of Jesus.
(7) The next incident is the healing of Naaman, the leprous commander of the Syrian army (2 Ki 5:1-19). He is afflicted with the white leprosy, the most malignant kind (2 Kings 5:27 ). A J ewish maiden, captured in one of their numerous invasions of Eastern Palestine, and sold into slavery with a multitude of others, tells her mistress, the wife of Naaman, about the wonder-working Elisha. The maiden tells her mistress that Elisha can heal the leprosy, and Naaman resolves to visit him. Through the king he obtains permission to visit Elisha with a great train and rich presents.
The prophet sends his servant to tell him to dip seven times in the Jordan and he will be healed. Naaman is angered at the lack of deference on the part of Elisha and turns away in a rage to go home. Better counsels prevail, and he obeys the prophet and is cured. Elisha absolutely refuses the rich presents Naaman offers, and permits the Syrian to take some earth from Yahweh's land, that he may build an altar in Syria and worship Yahweh there.
The idea was that a God was localized and could be worshipped only on his own land. Elisha grants Naaman permission apparently to worship Rimmon while avowedly he is a worshipper of Yahweh. The prophet appreciates the difficulties in Naaman's path, believes in his sincerity, and by this concession in no way proves that he believes in the actual existence of a god named Rimmon, or that Yahweh was confined to his own land, or in any way sanctions idolatrous worship. He is conciliatory and tolerant, making the best of the situation.
(8) An act of severity on the part of Elisha follows, but it was richly deserved. Gehazi's true character now manifests itself. He covets the rich presents brought by Naaman, runs after him, and by a clever story secures a rich present from the general. Elisha divines his trick and dooms him and his family to be afflicted with Naaman's leprosy forever (2 Kings 5:20-27 ).
(9) A group of the sons of the prophets, probably at Jericho, finding their quarters too small, determine to build new quarters near the Jordan. While felling the timber the ax-head of one, a borrowed tool, fell into the water and disappeared. It would have been useless to have attempted to search for it in that swift and muddy stream, so he cries in distress to the prophet. Elisha breaks off a stick, casts it in the spot where the ax fell, and makes the iron swim on the surface (2 Kings 6:1-7 ).
3. His Ministry in a Public and National Capacity
Elisha's services to his king and country were numerous and significant.
(1) The first one recorded took place during the attempt of Jehoram to resubjugate Moab which had revolted under King Mesha. In company with Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom, his southern allies, the combined hosts found themselves without water in the wilderness of Edom. The situation is desperate. Jehoram appeals to Jehoshaphat, and on discovering that Elisha was in the camp all three kings appeal to him in their extremity. He refuses any help to Jehoram, bidding him appeal to the prophets of his father Ahab and his mother Jezebel. For Jehoshaphat's sake he will help, calls for a minstrel, and under the spell of the music receives his message. He orders them to dig many trenches to hold the water which shall surely come on the morrow from the land of Edom and without rain. He moreover predicted that Moab would be utterly defeated. These predictions are fulfilled, Mesha is shut up in his capital, and in desperation sacrifices his firstborn son and heir on the walls in sight of all Israel. In great horror the Israelites withdraw, leaving Mesha in possession (2 Ki 3:4-27).
(2) His next services occurred at Samaria. The king of Syria finds that his most secret plans are divulged in some mysterious way, and he fails more than once to take the king of Israel. He suspects treachery in his army, but is told of Elisha's divining powers. Elisha is living at Dothan; and thither the king of Syria sends a large army to capture him. Surrounded by night, Elisha is in no way terrified as his servant is, but prays that the young man's eyes may be opened to see the mountains full of the chariots and horses of Yahweh. Going forth to meet the Syrians as they close in, Elisha prays that they may be stricken with blindness. The word ṣanwērı̄m is used only here and in Genesis 19:11 and probably means mental blindness, or bewilderment, a confusion of mind amounting to illusion. He now tells them that they have come to the wrong place, but he will lead them to the right place. They follow him into the very heart of Samaria and into the power of the king. The latter would have smitten them, but is rebuked by Elisha who counseled that they be fed and sent away (2 Ki 6:8-23). Impressed by such mysterious power and strange clemency the Syrians ceased their marauding attacks.
(3) The next incident must have occurred some time previous, or some time after these events. Samaria is besieged, the Israelites are encouraged to defend their capital to the last, famine prices prevail, and mothers begin to cook their children and eat them. The king in horror and rage will wreak vengeance on Elisha. The latter divines his purpose, anticipates any action on the king's part, and predicts that there will be abundance of food on the morrow. That night a panic seized the Syrian host. They imagined they heard the Hittires coming against them, and fled in headlong rout toward the Jordan. Four lepers discover the deserted camp and report the fact to the king. He suspects an ambuscade, but is persuaded to send a few men to reconnoiter. They find the camp deserted and treasures strewing the path right to the Jordan. The maritans lose no time in plundering the camp and Elisha's predictions are fulfilled to the letter (2 Ki 6:24 through 7:20).
(4) The prophet's next act was one of great significance. It was the carrying out of the first order given to Elijah at Horeb, and the time seemed ripe for it. He proceeds north to Damascus and finds Benhadad sick. Hearing of his presence the king sends a rich present by the hands of his chief captain Hazael and inquires whether he will recover. Elisha gives a double answer. He will recover, the disease will not be fatal, yet he will die. Fixing his eyes on Hazael, Elisha sees a fierce and ruthless successor to Benhadad who will be a terrible scourge to Israel. The man of God weeps, the fierce captain is ashamed, and when told of what he shall do, represents himself as a dog and not able to do such things. But the prospect is too enticing; he tells Benhadad he will recover, and on the morrow smothers him and succeeds to the throne (2 Kings 8:7-15 ).
(5) The next, move of Elisha was even more significant. It is the fulfilling of the second order given Elijah at Mt. Horeb. The Israelites are fighting the Syrians in defense of Ramoth-gilead. The king, Jehoram, is wounded and returns home to Jezreel to recover. Elisha seizes on the opportune moment to have the house of Ahab avenged for its many sins. He dispatches one of the young prophets with a vial of oil to Ramoth-gilead with orders to anoint Jehu, one of the captains of the army, as king over Israel. The young prophet obeys, delivers his message and flees. Jehu tries to conceal the real nature of the interview, but is forced to tell, and is at once proclaimed king. He leaps into his chariot, drives furiously to Jezreel, meets the king by the vineyard of Naborb, sends an arrow through his heart, tramples to death the queen Jezebel, butchers the king's sons and exterminates the royal family. He then treacherously murders the priests of Baal and the revolution is complete; the house of Ahab is destroyed, Baal worship overthrown and an able king is upon the throne (2 Ki 9; 10).
(6) Elisha retains his fervent and patriotic spirit until the last. His final act is in keeping with his long. life of generous deeds and faithful patriotic service. He is on his death bed, having witnessed the fearful oppressions of Israel by Hazael who made Israelites as dust under his feet. The young king Joash visits him, weeps over him, calling him, "My father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof." The dying prophet bids him take his bow and arrow and shoot eastward, an act symbolic of his victory over Syria. Being then commanded to smite upon the ground, he smites three times and stops. The prophet is angry, tells him he should have smitten many times, then he would have smitten Syria many times, but now he shall smite her only thrice (2 Kings 13:14-19 ).
(7) The last wonder in connection with Elisha occurs after this death. His bones were reported to have vitalizing power (2 Kings 13:20-21 ). Tradition says that the man thus restored to life lived but an hour; but the story illustrates something of the reverence held for Elisha.
4. Characteristics of His Ministry
(1) In Comparison with Elijah
In many respects Elisha is a contrast to his great predecessor. Instead of a few remarkable appearances and striking events, his was a steady lifelong ministry; instead of the rugged hills his home was in the quiet valley and on the farm; instead of solitariness he loved the social life and the home. There were no sudden appearances add disappearances, people always knew where to find him. There were no long seasons of hiding or retirement, he was constantly moving about among the people or the prophetic schools. There were no spectacular revolutions, only the effect of a long steady ministry.
His career resembled the latter portion of Elijah's more than the earlier. Elijah had learned well his lesson at Horeb. God is not so much in the tempest, the fire and the earthquake, as in the "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12 ). Elijah was a prophet of fire, Elisha more of a pastor. The former called down fire out of heaven to consume those sent to take him; Elisha anticipates the king when he comes to take him (2 Kings 6:32 , 2 Kings 6:33 ) and gives promises of relief. He merely asks for blindness to come upon the army which surrounded him at Dothan, and spares them when the king would have smitten them (2 Kings 6:21-23 ).
Elijah was austere and terrible, but Elisha was so companionable that the woman at Shunera built him a chamber. His prophetic insight could be helped more by the strains of music than by the mountain solitude (2 Kings 3:15 ). Some of his miracles resemble Elijah's. The multiplication of the oil and the cruse is much like the continued supply of meal and oil to the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:10-16 ), and the raising of the Shunammite's son like the raising of the widow's son at Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24 ).
(2) General Features of His Ministry
His services as a pastor-prophet were more remarkable than his miracles. He could be very severe in the presence of deliberate wrongdoing, stern and unflinching when the occasion required. He could weep before Hazael, knowing what he would do to Israel, yet he anointed him king of Syria (2 Kings 8:11-15 ). When the time was ripe and the occasion opportune, he could instigate a revolution that wiped out a dynasty, exterminated a family, and caused the massacre of the priests of Baal (2 Ki 8; 9).
He possessed the confidence of kings so fully that they addressed him as father and themselves as sons (2 Kings 6:21 ; 2 Kings 13:14 ). He accompanied an army of invasion and three kings consult him in extremity (2 Kings 3:11-19 ). The king of Syria consults him in sickness (2 Kings 8:7 , 2 Kings 8:8 ). The king of Israel seems to blame him for the awful conditions of the siege and would have wreaked vengeance on him (2 Kings 6:31 ). He was something of a military strategist and many times saved the king's army (2 Kings 6:10 ). The king of Israel goes to him for his parting counsel (2 Kings 13:14-19 ). His advice or command seemed to be always taken unhesitatingly. His contribution to the religious life of Israel was not his least service.
Under Jehu he secured the destruction of the Baal worship in its organized form. Under Hazael the nation was trodden down and almost annihilated for its apostasy. By his own ministry many were saved from bowing the knee to Baal. His personal influence among the schools of the prophets was widespread and beneficial. He that escaped the sword of Hazael was slain by Jehu, and he that escaped Jehu was slain by Elisha. Elisha finished the great work of putting down Baal worship begun by Elijah. His work was not so much to add anything to religion, as to cleanse the religion already possessed.
He did not ultimately save the nation, but he did save a large remnant. The corruptions were not all eradicated, the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat were never fully overcome. He passed through a bitter and distressing national humiliation, but emerged with hope. He eagerly watched every turn of events and his counsels were more frequently adopted than those perhaps of any other prophet. He was "the chariots of Israel and tire horsemen thereof" (2 Kings 13:14 ). No condemnation of calf-worship at Dan and Bethel is recorded, but that does not prove that he fully sanctioned it. His was a contest between Yahweh worship and Baal worship. The corrupted form of Yahweh worship was a problem which Amos and Hosea had to face nearly a century later.
III. General Estimate
His character was largely molded by his home life. He was friend and benefactor of foreigner as well as of Israelite. He was large-hearted and generous, tolerant to a remarkable degree, courageous and shrewd when the occasion required, a diplomat as well as a statesman, severe and stern only in the presence of evil and when the occasion demanded. He is accused of being vindictive and of employing falsehood with his enemies. His faults, however, were the faults of his age, and these were but little manifested in his long career. His was a strenuous pastor's life. A homeloving and social man, his real work was that of teaching and helping, rather than working of miracles. He continually went about doing good. He was resourceful and ready and was gifted with a sense of humor. Known as "the man of God," he proved his right to the title by his zeal for God and loving service to man.
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IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.