Commentary on 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
The text assigned for this week begins midway through a conversation that Elijah is having with Yahweh. Elijah has arrived at Mount Horeb, exhausted and discouraged, after receiving a death threat from Jezebel. When Yahweh asks him what he’s doing there, Elijah launches into a litany of complaints: he has been zealous for Yahweh; Israel has abandoned the covenant, broken down Yahweh’s altars and killed Yahweh’s prophets; and he is the sole survivor (verse 10). Yahweh responds to the complaint with a remarkable self-disclosure that comes not through the powerful sounds of wind, earthquake, or fire, but rather, with a faint whisper.
When Yahweh questions Elijah a second time, the prophet reiterates his complaints, suggesting that the experience has done nothing to change his outlook or his mood (verse 14). This time, however, Yahweh ignores the prophet’s complaints and tells him instead to get up and get going. Yahweh, in short, no longer permits the prophet to wallow in woe, nor does Yahweh allow Elijah to retire from prophetic ministry. Instead, Yahweh gives the prophet a new assignment. (For background, see my comments on the Second Reading for the previous week.)
The new assignment portends a momentous upheaval. Yahweh intends to instigate regime change in Israel and in Damascus, Israel’s sometime ally and sometime adversary. Furthermore, Yahweh has selected a prophetic successor to be God’s voice to the new regimes. Yahweh’s command that Elijah anoint Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha therefore signals nothing less than a profound reordering of the religious and political life of Israel and of its powerful neighbor. The Israelite regime that Elijah confronts is characterized by abuse of power and aggressive programs to champion Baal as Israel’s god. Its demise has been signaled by Yahweh’s victorious display of sovereign power over Baal and his prophets on Mount Carmel, and its destruction will soon be decreed by Yahweh (1 Kings 21:20-26). Elijah, Ahab, and Ben-hadad thus represent a religious and political ordering that will soon end, while Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu represent the new religious and political configuration that Yahweh will bring to pass.
Elijah sets out toward the desert of Damascus, as if to anoint Hazael, but he ends up anointing Elisha instead. The narrator makes a point of reporting that Elisha is plowing with twelve pairs of oxen when Elijah encounters him. The report reveals that Elisha is wealthy. Arable land in Israel was at a premium, and only the wealthy had enough of it to sustain oxen. Twelve yokes of oxen, therefore, indicate opulence, while alluding symbolically to the tribes of Israel.
The brief call narrative suggests three trajectories for proclamation. The first derives from the contrast between Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is the quintessential outsider. He hails from a group of settlers across the Jordan in Gilead, and much of his story takes place within the geographical and social margins of Israel. He leads a meager existence, subsisting on food brought by scavenging ravens and on the scant resources of a destitute widow living outside the boundaries of Israel. Elijah is a solitary figure by his own account, who stands in resolute and unwavering opposition to the principalities and powers of his time. Elisha, on the other hand, possesses considerable wealth, and much of his ministry will take place at the center of power. Jehoshaphat of Judah respects him, the kings of Jehu’s dynasty seek his advice, and he heals an Aramean general of leprosy. He holds considerable esteem over prophetic groups as well (2 Kings 2:1-15; 6:1; 9:1-4).
Elijah and Elisha therefore occupy opposite ends of the social spectrum. Their disparate personalities and social locations confirm that God’s calling is no respecter of persons. God chooses Elijah the loner to oppose arrogant power and chooses the well-connected Elisha to guide Israel’s kings through complicated times. Consistent with other prophetic call narratives, Elisha receives his calling when he is not looking for it. He responds immediately and decisively, however, leaving the oxen and running after Elijah, asking only that he may kiss his father and mother.
We hear echoes of this account in Jesus’ admonition that no one who looks back while plowing is fit for the Reign of God (Luke 9:62), suggesting that Elisha’s request expresses a certain reservation. We may then be tempted to view Elijah’s brusque “What do I have to do with you?” as a rebuke. Yet, Elijah’s question is ambiguous, and Elisha does not in fact follow immediately. Instead he slaughters a yoke of oxen and hosts a communal meal, perhaps as a ritual of transition through which he honors his relationships and says his goodbyes.
Secondly, we note that the account ends with the report that Elisha served Elijah. The Hebrew verb employed here (sharat) also signifies Joshua’s relationship with Moses (for example, Exodus 24:13; 13:11; Numbers 11:28; Joshua 1:1), intimating a mentoring relationship along similar lines. Like Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha guide God’s people through a momentous and transformation, the transition from nomadic existence to settled life in the land in the case of the former and a comprehensive reordering of the religious and political landscape in the latter. In both cases, the mentoring relationship forges the continuity and stability necessary to navigate turbulent transition. As with Joshua, Elisha’s ministry will be shaped by example and instruction. He will be ready when the time comes.
Finally, we note the curious discrepancies in the way that Elijah carries out the command that God gives him at Horeb. He never anoints Hazel or Jehu as Yahweh directs, and he designates Elisha as his successor by throwing his mantle over him rather than by anointing him. Whereas Elijah has been a zealous servant earlier in the story, he now appears to obey selectively and in his own way. We are left to ponder why. Whatever his attitude, there is no word of recrimination. Yahweh seems to accept Elijah’s selective obedience, and subsequent episodes will reveal that Yahweh still values and uses this servant, despite his less than meticulous obedience.