Commentary on 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Elijah, once described as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8) is an imposing presence in the dynastic histories of Israel and Judah.
What he prophesies, comes to pass. He declares a three-year drought and ends it with the famous contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. He outruns a chariot. He is fed by birds and angels. He raises from the dead a widow’s son. Twice he calls fire down on a contingent of soldiers. And he doesn’t die but ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, the mantle of his authority and power tumbling down upon his disciple Elisha. Wow!
As we heard in last Sunday’s lectionary text from the first half of 1 Kings 19, the mighty prophet is gripped by fear and despair after his great victory at Mt. Carmel because of the death threats of Jezebel, the Sidonian wife of King Ahab and patroness of Baal and Asherah worship in Israel. He heads south, so despondent that he wishes he could die: “It is enough, LORD, now take away my life” (19:4). He ultimately arrives at Mt. Horeb (Sinai), the place of the covenant where the LORD commanded “No other gods before me,” where, with the commandment still ringing in their ears, the people made and worshiped a golden calf, a foreshadowing of the golden calves that Jeroboam’s installed at Dan and Bethel as focal points for Baal worship (1 Kings 12:28–32). The calves stood in Elijah’s and Elisha’s time, and beyond (2 Kings 10:29).
Perhaps Elijah hopes for divine guidance or consolation at Mt. Horeb, “the mount of God.” He feels alone, the sole champion of a lost cause, ready to throw in the towel. “I have been zealous and faithful; the people are faithless and deadly. I alone am left, and now they are seeking to kill me” (verse 14). The prophet sounds both pitiful and grandiose, but we should not judge him too harshly. Many of us have been to that mountain and recited our complaint.
Elijah-Moses parallels feature prominently in 1 Kings 19:
- prophetic anger and condemnation of idolatry involving golden calf worship;
- a 40-day/year journey in the wilderness sustained by food from heaven;
- discouragement to the point of asking to die (Numbers 11:15);
- a dramatic revelation at the mountain of God (Exodus 33:17-34:7).
Elijah is the “prophet like Moses” for his time (Deuteronomy 18:15), and Elisha will take up this role when Elijah is gone. Many of Elisha’s deeds will parallel — and surpass — Elijah’s.
Elijah’s victory at Carmel, journey into despair, and the theophany on the mountain set the context for this Sunday’s reading, and a sermon on the text should outline these events, especially if Isaiah rather than 1 Kings 19 was used on the previous Sunday. At this juncture in the story one might expect God to offer Elijah comfort and reassurance. The LORD responds instead by sending Elijah back into the fray.
God tacitly accepts Elijah’s letter of resignation and instructs him to anoint his successor. But the prophet has several tasks before he is swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot. He must return north and use his prophetic authority to rearrange the political landscape in Aram (Syria) and Israel by anointing two new kings, Hazael for Aram and Jehu for Israel. This is no small thing since this act will precipitate regicide and dynastic revolution.
Prophets are potent political actors whose words and actions sometimes instigate violence, a fact that the lectionary editors have obscured by omitting verses 17. Unexpectedly, it is Elisha, not Elijah, who later anoints Hazael and Jehu; see 2 Kings 8:7-15; 9:1-13. There is significant disarrangement of material in this section of the history. God subtly corrects Elijah’s “I alone am left” lament by noting that 7,000 remain in Israel who have been faithful to the LORD (verse 18, also omitted in the lectionary). The light has not gone out, as Elijah imagines. Despair confidently projects a calamitous future, but the calculus of despair overestimates human knowing and overlooks the power of God.
If Elijah still wrestles with despair and doubt, he doesn’t say so. He heads north to the wilderness of Damascus where he finds Elisha toiling in his family’s field behind a pair of oxen. Eleven other teams are plowing ahead of him, and he is bringing up the rear. We cannot identify Abel-meholah, Elisha’s village (19:6; possibly a region). It probably lay east of Beth-shean, near the Jordan. This is the region of Gilead, where Elijah also lived. Elisha’s position in the plow line may indicate he is among the least in his clan, eating everyone else’s dust.
Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha and walks away. The mantle is the symbol of Elijah’s authority and will be featured again when he ascends to heaven (2 Kings 2:1–12). Elisha recognizes at once what Elijah’s act means and runs after him, showing that he has accepted the call of discipleship. His immediate response brings to mind Jesus’s disciples dropping their nets and putting their hand to the plow without looking back or taking care of family duties (Luke 9:57-62).
Unlike Jesus’s disciples, however, Elisha asks to say farewell to his family. Elijah’s response is abrupt and puzzling: “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” What indeed! The Hebrew is terse and enigmatic, but the import seems to be, “Turn back. I have not coerced you. The choice is yours.” Elisha does turn back, but his actions make it clear that his commitment to his new vocation is absolute. He kills and cooks his oxen using their yoke to make the fire, and he provides a feast for the people. “I’m done here; love you all; good bye.”
Elisha turned back, but it was only to, as it were, sell all, distribute the money, and follow his new master, as Jesus later invited the rich ruler to do in Luke 18:18-23. It would be unfair to criticize Elisha for his desire to say farewell. Elijah does not seem to do so. Jesus’ words at the end of Luke 9 alluding to Elisha’s turning back serve to emphasize the greater eschatological urgency of discipleship in Jesus’ time and not Elisha’s slackness.