Commentary on 2 Kings 2:1-12
Elisha is the prophet Elijah’s disciple and successor. But Elijah is a little cool toward him. He tries to send him away three times. But Elisha won’t go; he promises to stay close. This sending away is still practiced in Judaism. If you turn up at a synagogue and say you want to convert to Judaism, the rabbi is supposed to send you away three times. “No, being Jewish is hard; go back to something easier, like not being Jewish.” Only if you persist past that are they supposed to let you prepare to convert. Elisha won’t go away.
Elijah and Elisha show us something about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mentors and students. Their relationship recalls Moses’ relationship with Joshua. Just before Moses dies, he hands leadership over to Joshua, who conquers the promised land. There’s a reason these two—Moses and Elijah—turn up at Jesus’ transfiguration. And Elijah never dies—he’s taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot—so he can turn up at odd moments in Israel. Jewish families leave a chair unoccupied for Elijah at Passover, because Elijah’s not dead. So you never know, he could turn up hungry.
As Elijah prepares to depart, Elisha asks a brave thing. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Literally, the Hebrew asks for a double mouthful of Elijah’s spirit.1 A second helping, a bellyful. This is partly a reference to inheritance. Elisha is asking to be Elijah’s firstborn son. A bold ask.
Think of key moments in leadership succession—in politics or business or the military or a family. When we lose an elder, we feel that loss. We think, “No one can measure up; things will get worse.” But Elisha defies that logic. He says, “Elijah, whatever made you special, I want more than that. Double that.” Scripture is saying the next generation will be just fine.
Our prayers are often too small. We should ask God for so much that God says, “Woah, hey, that’s hard! Maybe ease up on me a little?” When Jesus tells the disciples he’s going away, he says, “Actually, you want me to go, because when the Holy Spirit comes, you’ll do greater things than I ever did.” Uh, greater than raising the dead? Feeding 5,000? “Yep. A double mouthful.”
And Elisha gets what he asks for. The rabbis count Elijah doing eight miracles in scripture and Elisha 16. Double. The transition from a beloved elder to a new and untested younger doesn’t have to be a loss. It can be a gain, a doubling, a greater portion. Religion is so often so deeply conservative—cherishing the past, fearing the present. But this is where Christian faith is radically hopeful. The best is yet to come.
Elijah and Elisha here live out the story of Israel in a creative, counterintuitive way. Did you notice the place names? They go to Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho. Don’t skip over these. These are places Israel conquered coming into the promised land.2 Elijah and Elisha are reversing Israel’s entry into the promised land. See, Israel is failing to live up to the covenant. Its kings are offering sacrifice to false gods, putting up pagan images for worship. And Elijah is blasting them for it. Here the two prophets roll back up Israel’s entry into the promised land. They reverse it. They are leaving. When they cross the Jordan, they do it in the reverse direction of Joshua did, backing out the way Israel came in.
The prophets arrive at the Jordan River. Elijah rolls up his mantle so it looks like Moses’ staff. Strikes the river. And it splits in two, like the Red Sea once did. And they moonwalk out of Israel’s promised land. And then the fireworks. A whirlwind. A chariot of fire. Elijah’s taken up, like Jesus would be later in the Ascension.
Elisha calls after him, more gibberish than complete thought: “Father! Horses! Chariots!” I mean, would you have a coherent thought? The mantle is left behind on the ground. Elisha takes it up. And Elisha strikes the Jordan with the mantle too, like Elijah just did. And it parts again. The Jordan River is getting a workout this morning. Elisha has the power Elijah had. Except neither of them owns it. It’s God’s power. Shared. That’s how you can tell power is God’s—God’s power is only and always shared.
This story is so different from some current “thought” in the U.S. about masculinity, leadership, power: if only men flexed more in our families, our social structures, everything would be fine. But that’s not how masculinity or leadership works in the Bible. Or in real life.
Here’s how it actually works: Sometimes you connect with someone. And you become friends, across generations. They notice things about you. You notice things about them. And they encourage you. And you, them.
Church is a place where those connections happen. I’ve had amazing and godly mentors in my life. And I only realized when I started mentoring others, “Oh, so the elder gets as much out of this as the younger—or more.” Some call it reverse mentoring.
Please—make yourself available for this sort of relationship. Notice someone. Ask them nosy questions. Offer to pray for them. Bring up things that are awkward or difficult. Not just sports! We men are terrible at this. Women often make and keep friends. We men, I don’t know why, we don’t. It’s our loss. Scripture shows us relationships between men that matter. More of this, please, God. In our day of crushing loneliness, it’d be a miracle indeed.
After Elijah and Elisha leave the promised land, Elisha comes back in. With a company of friends. Like Jesus with the disciples. Like us, the church. And despite all of Israel’s failures and compromises, they go on living the covenant amid a people who’ve forgotten how to. They’re going to model a different way of life. Fatherhood based on kindness, mentorship founded on love of enemies, masculinity soaked in the (often feminine) wisdom of the Bible. It’s church, it’s humanity done right, it’s what being alive is for.
- It’s a common observation on this text, but I owe it to Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016).
- Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings.