Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

At first glance this passage appears as a story of how Elisha becomes a prophet and succeeds in Elijah’s position.

June 27, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

At first glance this passage appears as a story of how Elisha becomes a prophet and succeeds in Elijah’s position.

To some readers this marks the end of Elijah’s career and a stunning replacement announcement to the prophet hiding in a cave in fear of reprisals after his victories on Mount Carmel. Read within the extended narrative of the books of Kings, Elijah’s story and career hardly comes to an end here, the accession of the two kings, Hazael and Jehu, takes place at a much later date (2 Kings 8:8; 9:2), and the announced anointing of Elisha never takes place. Yet at the same time, Elijah becomes more of a servant to Elijah rather than a prophet. The transition from Elijah to Elisha remains blurred in this reading, suggesting either a reliance of the Elisha stories upon Elijah for legitimation, or a rehabilitation of the career of Elijah. In any event, this passage provides exciting opportunities to reflect on vocation discernment and succession in religious service.

In a series of directives, God orders Elijah out of his depression. These orders do not provide details on how Elijah would affect the displacement of the sitting kings in order to anoint Hazael and Jehu. This contrasts with the case of Elisha who will replace Elijah as prophet. These concerns arise since 19:13b-18 appears as an insertion that repeats and interrupts God’s question at 19:9 and the details of the divine appearance given in 19:11-13a.

Excising the divine imperatives on anointing from this chapter enables us to read Elijah coming away from an encounter with God (19:11-13a) with a determination that results in the enlistment of Elisha as part of his company. However, the current shape of the text removes this luxury and readers need to struggle with how these directives shape our reading of Elisha’s start in the service of Elijah. The insertion offers a divine warrant for Elisha’s function as a prophet, one lacking in the real succession story in 2 Kings 2:1-12. It also elevates Elisha’s handling of the anointing of Hazael (2 Kings 8:7-15) and Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-13) as divine directives rather than simply the machinations of a misguided prophet. As the divinely appointed successor of Elijah, Elisha performs these functions, initially given to Elijah but left over after Elijah departed.

The continuation of the narrative in verse 19 following on the insertion of 19:13a-18 anticipates that Elijah would anoint Elisha as a prophet. Not only does this not happen, but the Bible mentions no practice of prophets being anointed. In an odd move, Elijah simply tosses his mantle onto Elisha and little conversation follows. Neither man acknowledges the significance of the action except that Elisha asks for time to bid his parents farewell. Elijah’s cryptic question, “what have I done to you?” both goes unanswered and raises a key question of this passage. Essentially, in this passage Elisha becomes, not the prophetic successor of Elijah but his “servant” (19:21).

The action of tossing the mantle onto Elisha communicates something to him. Presumably Elijah’s mantle represents more than just normal clothing but a distinctive garb worn by prophets. Elijah’s description as hairy (2 Kings 1:8) and prophetic clothing in Zechariah 13:4 suggest that this mantle signified the prophetic office. Apart from the instance of Aaron’s sons succeeding him in the priestly office through transfer of clothing (Numbers 20:25-28), the Bible offers no similar practice of casting a mantle on a successor. Nonetheless, Elisha reads this as a summons to join Elisha. This passage offers no indication that an actual succession takes place since the full transfer of the mantle to Elisha’s possession only occurs at 2 Kings 2:1-12.

Elisha’s departure gets delayed several times in the text. The Hebrew of verse 20 sets up the departure of Elisha. The initial word וַיַּעֲזֺב (ya azob) reads properly as “forsook” and suggests a decisive departure. Elisha’s request to say farewell to his parents in which he promises to leave with Elijah slows down his leaving. Instead of the narrative showing a tearful departure, it leads into verse 21 with the ominous phrase (“he returned from following him”) using the word שׁוב (sub, “return”) as in verse 20 but this time in the opposite direction as proposed by Elijah. All of verse 21 focuses on a series of deliberate actions by Elisha conveyed by a succession of six verbs of identical form. The verb sequence ends with the dominant verb in this passage הלך (halak, “go”) being modified by the verb קום (qum, “get up”).

Elisha joins Elijah as his servant, but it is not an instantaneous move. Apart from his parents, Elisha appears tied to the family wealth. The number of cattle at his disposal (verse 19) suggests a family of means. The sacrificial meal shared with “the people” includes the slaughter of at least a pair of oxen (verse 21), a luxury enjoyed by an elite group in the ancient world. That Elisha remains simply as “Elisha son of Shaphat” throughout the passage may hint at a prominent role for his father in the community. Separating from ties of this nature to become a servant of a lead prophet in a company of prophets ought not to be seen as a simple matter. No doubt Elisha becomes an assistant to Elijah, mostly likely in an apprentice position like that of Joshua and Moses (Joshua 1:1); surrendering his current life to do so.

While the shape of the text sets up Elisha to be Elijah’s successor, the narrative of Elisha’s joining Elijah’s service (19:19-21) offers no indication that this induces Elisha. The succession that ties these two men together lies in the power of the verb halak (to go). God commands Elijah to go (verses 11 and 15). The second instance of God’s command to Elijah in verse 15 includes another imperative sub (“return”). In the context of Elisha’s request to perform his filial duties (verse 20), Elijah repeats the same construction to him: לֵךְ שׁוּב (lek sub, “go return”). Finally, Elisha goes. This command to go binds both men together and them to God. They stand in the succession of those who receive the imperative and have responded. But the story of Elijah and its link with Elisha reminds us that even after responding to the command, failure, depression, family ties and social obligations can complicate the ability to readily respond.