Elisha: The Wonder-Worker
Posted by foryourfaith on August 8, 2011
Late in the ninth century BC, the Israelite monarchy reached its two hundredth anniversary. Standing astride this century are two great prophets Elijah and Elisha. The first half of the century was dominated by the image of the lone Elijah against the massed prophets of Baal. The second half of the century was dominated by his successor, Elisha.
Elisha was a farmer, the son of a man named Shaphat, from the ancient town of Abel-meholah near the Jordan River. In the midst of Elisha’s plowing, Elijah came and cast his prophetic mantle over him. At the touch of the prophet’s mantle, Elisha recognized what it meant: his days of plowing the fields were behind him. He was to continue Elijah’s work as a prophet of judgment on Israel. Elisha asked only to be allowed to kiss his father and mother goodbye before leaving. He marked his break with the past by butchering the oxen he was driving, using the wood of their yokes to cook them, and serving the meat to the people around.
As soon as Elijah departed in the whirlwind and chariot of fire, the miraculous works of Elisha, as heir to both his mantle and his spirit, began. Indeed, Elisha’s works are packed with miracles – monuments that indicated the inexhaustible power of God. Throughout the accounts of Elisha, the marvels multiply. Furthermore, the tapestry of miracles reveals the variety of roles that a great prophet could play in ancient Israel. These ranged from meeting the basic needs of ordinary individuals to changing the course of wars and destiny of nations.
Elisha’s first miracle was the parting of the Jordan River. Just as Elijah had parted the Jordan by striking it with his mantle, so in the same way “the Lord, the God of Elijah” parted the Jordan for his successor.
Once across the Jordan, Elisha met a band of the “the sons of the prophets,” who recognized that “The spirit of Elijah rest on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:15). “The sons of the prophets” were prophetic guilds that had appeared as early as the time of Samuel and Saul and would continue for nearly five centuries. In Elisha’s time they seem to have been organized in communities within various cities. And while Elijah had been a lonely figure whom the sons of the prophets had revered at a distance, Elisha was to live closely among them. It was among such communities that the stories of Elisha were told and retold over the decades until the time came to write them down.
The first such community that Elisha stayed with was in Jericho, and there his first miracle of service took place. The water from the town spring was causing sickness, death, and miscarriages. When he city fathers asked the prophet for help, he took a new bowl that had been filled with salt, went to the spring, threw salt in it, and proclaimed that Yahweh had made the water wholesome. And so it was.
Following this useful miracle, another is described that is troubling and apparently useless. While Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel, some boys mocked his baldness – possibly not natural baldness but a tonsure, which, along with his mantle, marked him as a prophet. The prophet cursed the boys in the name of Yahweh, and two bears “came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys” (2 Kings 2:24).
Why would the prophetic circles have repeated such a seemingly unflattering story about Elisha? They probably did so because, flattering or not, the story demonstrated the aura of power that surrounded the holiness of the prophet. No one could treat the holiness of the prophet with contempt without dire consequences.
It is fitting that several of the biblical stories about Elisha preserve vignettes of life among the “sons of the prophets.” In one of these, the widow and two children of a member of the prophetic guild were left destitute and at the mercy of a creditor who threatened to take the children as his laves to settle the father’s debts. Elisha saved the children by causing the family’s last possession, a jar of oil, to pour out its valuable liquid until it filled every available container in the community. The oil was then sold and the debts paid (2 Kings 4:1-7).
In a time of famine, the sons of the prophets in Gilgal shared Elisha’s pot of stewed vegetables made with wild herbs. When poisonous wild gourds were mistakenly added to the stock, the results could have been disastrous. But the wonder-working prophet had a ready solution. Just as he had earlier poured salt into a spring adding ground meal to the poisoned food, Elisha removed the danger and preserved the valuable food (2 Kings 4:38-41).
Again, when a gift of 20 loaves of barley and some fresh ears of grain was brought to Elisha, representing a farmer’s first fruits of harvest, Elisha miraculously made it possible for a hundred of the men to eat their fill and have leftovers. Centuries later similar miracles would be reported by another wonder-worker, Jesus of Nazareth.
Ready though he was for private needs, the narrative of 2 Kings also shows Elisha to be a man of great national power. Elisha’s first miracle on behalf of the state came early in his career when Jehoram, the king of Israel and son of the infamous Ahab, went to war. He was trying to subdue a rebellion by Mesha, king of Moab, whom Ahab’s father, Omri, had conquered, and to force him to renew his payments of tribute. For this attempt to quell independence, Jehoram made an alliance with the kings of Judah and Edom and marched toward the south. At first the campaign bogged down, and the kings feared for their armies in the vast stretches of the waterless wilderness.
Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, suggested that they consult a prophet of Yahweh. This suggestion brought to light how far the kings of Israel had pushed the prophets of Yahweh from the centers of power. Jehoram, who apparently had numerous prophets of Baal around him, knew of no such prophet of Yahweh: he indeed had to be informed about Elisha.
At first Elisha refused to have anything to do with Jehoram, but for the sake of the king of Judah, who was more faithful to the worship of Yahweh, he consulted the Lord. Here the narrative describes one of the techniques of inspiration used among the prophets. Elisha asked a minstrel to play, and with the flow of the music, evidently, the ecstasy of inspiration was reached: “the power of the Lord came upon him.”
The oracle that Elisha gave promised miraculous water in the desert, the conquest of the Moabites, and the destruction of their land. And sure enough, the next day water flowed in the desert and the needs of the armies were met. The early battles went in favor of the Israelites, and the spoiling of the land proceeded apace. But then, as the campaign neared its end, the fortunes of war took a remarkable turn.
When Mesha saw his hopeless situation against the combined forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom, he was driven to desperate measures. The book of 2 Kings narrates it concisely. “Then he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.” Among the Moabites, evidently, what Mesha did was considered a noble, though extreme, act of devotion to their god Chemosh. Jehoram’s campaign ended in utter failure.
Remarkably, two accounts of this war survive – the Hebrew and the Moabite. The latter is from a black basalt stele set up by Mesha to commemorate his victory over the Israelites. The stone was discovered intact in 1868, but was later broken by Bedouins. Eventually the surviving pieces were reassembled in the Louvre. In the inscription, Mesha attributes his victory to Chemosh, who “saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my adversaries.”
From the Moabites’ point of view, it was the displeasure of their god, Chemosh, that had allowed Omri and the armies of Israel to conquer Moab in the first place, “for Chemosh was angry at his land.” But, in victory, Mesha exulted with considerable exaggeration that in his time and under his leadership “Israel hath perished forever!”
Mesha did not mention the sacrifice of his own son, but did describe his slaughter of the population of whole towns during the war. As an outgrowth of the war, he boasted that he reigned peacefully over the hundred towns which he added to his land. Rarely have the destructive forces of the passage of time allowed us to have a view of both sides of an ancient battle.
Elisha’s involvement in matters of state extended beyond the war with Moab. Once when Syria was warring against Israel, Elisha became a kind of Israelite spy against Syria. By using clairvoyance, he was able to forewarn the king of Israel about the enemy’s moves. When the Syrian king learned that Elisha was frustrating his plans, he massed his army with its chariots and horses against the town where Elisha was staying. The prophet’s young servant was distraught, but Elisha was unafraid. The servant learned the reason for that fearlessness when Elisha prayed that God would open the young man’s eyes. To his amazement the servant saw the supernatural forces that protected Israel focused on Elisha: “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”
Carrying out a commission that God had originally given to Elijah on Mount Horeb, Elisha instigated two political revolutions, one in Syria and one in Israel. The Syrian revolution began when Elisha was in Damascus. King Ben-hedad, who lay seriously ill, took the opportunity to send his minister Hazael to ask the prophet whether he would recover. Elisha recognized that this Hazael was the one whom god had chosen to punish Israel for its apostasy. He urged Hazael to tell Ben-hadad that he would recover even though “the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” As he stared at Hazael, Elisha’s miraculous foresight struck him with pain and he began to weep. He foresaw the horrible carnage that this man would wreak upon Israel. Hazael returned to Ben-hadad and told him he would certainly recover. But the next day, he murdered the king and usurped the throne.
The second revolution took place after Hazael had begun his attacks on Israel. The king of Israel at that time was Joram, one of the sons of Ahab. After a battle in which Joram was wounded and had to withdraw to recover, Elisha sent one of the sons of the prophets on a secret mission to the council of Israelite commanders. There, he was to find Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat. In private, he would then pour a flask of oil over his head with the words, “Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.”
The young prophet carried out his task as commanded. He also urged Jehu to destroy the house of Ahab and Jezebel for their crimes against the prophets of Yahweh. When what the young prophet had done became known, the commanders unanimously acclaimed Jehu as king: the coup d’etat was under way. Jehu moved quickly against Joram. Joram was assassinated, Jezebel was thrown from a window and her body eaten by dogs, and 70 other sons or grandsons of Ahab were killed.
As Elijah had executed the prophets of Baal after the contest on Mount Carmel, so Jehu instituted a deadly purge of all Baal worshippers in the land. Once he tricked a large number of people devoted to Baal into assembling in the temple of Baal. He surrounded the building with armed men and slaughtered everyone inside. He then destroyed the building and turned the house of Baal into a latrine: “Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel.” Thus, did Yahweh punish the apostasy of the house of Ahab.
Many of the wonder stories of Elisha are relatively brief episodes. In several cases, however, the tradition handed down longer narratives that resembled miniature dramas with several characters and scenes.
One of these is the account of Elisha’s dealings with a wealthy Shunammite woman. Along with her husband, she decided to support the prophet’s ministry by providing him food and a room to us on his regular travels across the land.
In response, Elisha determined to reward the woman’s generosity. He learned that the couple had no son and heir and that the husband was too old to beget children. Nevertheless, the prophet promised the Shunammite woman that she would bear a son within the year. And so she did.
Years later, when the boy was old enough to go into the fields to his father, he unfortunately suffered an apparent sunstroke. The boy was carried to his mother and died on her lap. In great distress the mother laid him out in Elisha’s bed and hastened to find the prophet. She found him at Mount Carmel.
After returning with the woman to her home in Shunem, Elisha prayed to Yahweh. He stretched his body over over the dead child, “putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands” and the child’s flesh became warm (2 Kings 4:34). Then Elisha got up, walked back and forth, and again stretched out over the boy. This time he child sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. Mother and son were reunited.
Through this small drama the power of god in Elisha is shown as life-giving, life-restoring, and life-preserving. The prophet is never depicted as performing his astounding feats in public so as to impress the crowds. The manifestations of god’s power met deep personal needs and are as private as the problems they remedy. Only long after the fact do things – including the king of Israel – learn of these mighty deeds.
Elisha did not escape the fate of mortality as his predecessor Elijah had, but even on his death bed his powers are said to have been in full force. As he lay near death, Elisha laid out for the King Joash, the future course of his conflict with Syria.
Elisha’s last reported miracle was perhaps the most astounding of all – since it was performed after he was dead. A funeral procession passing near his grave was attacked by marauders. In panic, the mourners cast the corpse into a nearby grave: it was Elisha’s. When the corpse touched the bones of Elisha, the man revived and stood up. Even death could not limit the life-giving power of the prophet.
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