Call to Ministry Series #16: The Call of Elisha
January 16, 2013
We learn a lot from reflecting on Elisha’s “mantling” call and commissioning events for our lives and ministries. His redirection of life still speaks to us.
The call of Elisha the prophet starts with the word of Yhwh to Elijah on the mountain. After Elijah sought death in the desert because of Jezebel’s opposition, the Lord meets him on the mountain with a revelation in a still, soft voice. Yhwh ends the encounter with three directives that serve as a new commission for Elijah. The first is to anoint Hazael as king in Aram. The second is to anoint Jehu as king over Israel. The third directive directs Elijah to anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet to succeed Elijah.
Elijah goes to carry out the directives, but actually only carries out the last one himself, the one where Elisha is called. After Elijah’s departure from earth (2 Kings 2), Elisha, his successor, anoints Hazael (2 Kings 8:7-15) and Jehu (2 Kings 9-10). Elisha will fulfill Yhwh’s instructions to his master, Elijah.
As with Elijah we do not find a typical call narrative. We find an enigmatic attention-getting action by Elijah and a pretty dramatic passing of the “mantle.”
Elisha’s Call Event?
In 1 Kings 19:19-21 Elijah finds Elisha son of Shaphat plowing in a field. For lack of a better term I will call this event Elisha’s call. It does not follow other patterns. He is plowing in a field with the twelfth yoke of oxen. Abel-meholah was a rich agricultural area. Elisha obviously came from wealth with that many oxen working the field. He stands in contrast with Elijah who originated in a backwater, poor area across the Jordan.
Elijah walks up to Elisha and throws his mantle over Elisha. Hot and sweaty, with dirt and dust caking on him and smelling like oxen – then a prophet tosses his mantle, the symbol of his role as prophet, over him. Evidently Elijah keeps walking because Elisha leaves the team and runs after him.
What a peculiar scene! Elisha interprets Elijah’s action as a request to become his servant or disciple for he asks permission to go say good bye to his parents and then he will follow (v. 20). Elijah continues the enigmatic scene by saying in essence, “No one is stopping you. What have I done that you would make such a request?” John Gray thinks Elijah is really saying, Go, but remember what I have done to you (John Gray, I and II Kings (OT Library) Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970 (2nd ed.), 413). It is too problematic to conclude this from translation, but it seems to reflect the interpretation that Elisha understands for he does follow Elijah after he has said his farewells.
The “mantle” provides the key to the scene. Somehow Elijah’s mantle indicated he was a prophet. When Elijah is taken into heaven in a whirlwind in 2 Kings 2, his mantle is picked up by Elisha who uses it to cross the Jordan (2:14). When the company of prophets sees Elisha at a distance, they say, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2:15), which may be a reference to the mantle he now wore. When Elijah had earlier denounced Ahaziah (2 Kings 1), the king’s servant identified the man who stopped him and who pronounced condemning words against the king as “hairy with a leather belt around his waist.” From this description Ahaziah identifies the man as Elijah. Zechariah the post-exilic prophet would later note that the ashamed prophets of his day would not take up the “hairy mantle” to deceive (Zech 13:4). We do not know exactly what the mantle looked like but even John the Baptizer in the New Testament was identified in a similar way.
Thus the mantle points to a lot more than we understand on a surface level. The action by Elijah seems odd, but to them it spoke volumes about Elisha’s life direction.
A case of shingles on my head invaded my eye causing me to lose sight in the left eye. The ophthalmologist told me after my sight came back under his treatments that it is amazing how a simple illness like shingles could change a person’s life forever. So a simple action with a mantle transformed Elisha’s life forever.
As odd as the scene is, no further conversation ensues. Elisha goes back, kills the oxen, and uses the yoke to boil the animals for a meal with the “people” (we assume the farm hands and his family). Then he follows Elijah as his servant (v. 21). John Gray supposes the sacrifice of the team is a symbol of his break with the old life (John Gray, 1970, 414).
The scene initiates Elisha’s service with Elijah and paves the way for his future prophetic role. What transpires in the scene sounds similar to the occasion Jesus declared, follow me, to some would be disciples. One asked to go bury his father first. Jesus said, Let the dead bury the dead (Matt 8:21). He may have been saying let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead, but the implication is that they were really proffering an excuse to Jesus’ call to discipleship. In a similar context in Luke, the potential disciple promises to follow Jesus but wants to say farewell to his family (9:61). Jesus answers in words that remind us of Elisha plowing: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).
After years of service to Elijah, Elijah’s ascent to heaven in 2 Kings 2:1-18 provides a prophetic transfer to Elisha. It begins with a relative temporal clause, “When Yhwh was about to take Elijah . . . Elijah and Elisha were walking” (2:1). A psychological change for Elisha begins with the transformation from disciple to master (Alexander Rofe, The Prophetical Stories, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988 (Heb. 1982, 1986), 46). The writer highlights Elisha as Elijah walks to his eventual departure. A shift is taking place.
They walk together to Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan River, and the Transjordan region where Elijah is taken away. Elijah keeps telling Elisha to stay behind, and he keeps sticking with him. Everyone seems to know that the master will be taken away from them on this day (vv. 3, 5). At the Jordan Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water. The river parts and they walk across on dry ground (v. 8).
On the other side of the Jordan Elisha makes a bold request. He asks for a “double portion of your spirit” (v. 9). The firstborn son in a family received a double portion of inheritance according to the Torah (Deut 21:17). With fifty other prophets following, perhaps Elisha was asking for a priority place among his peers. Elijah is not dealing with land or monies but with a double portion of his spirit, whatever that means. He indicates it is a difficult request, but if Elisha sees him depart, then it would be granted (v. 10). If he doesn’t see Elijah taken, the implication is that the will of God would not grant the request to Elisha. Elijah seems to be saying it is out of his hands.
A chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two men as they continue walking. Elijah is swept up into the heavens in a whirlwind (v. 11). Elisha is astounded that he indeed sees this amazing event, an event with only a hint of precedence from the Genesis account of Enoch’s story (Gen 5:24).
Does the double portion of Elijah’s spirit come to Elisha? Nothing is made of it in the telling of the stories, but the biblical text of 2 Kings that supplies the stories about Elisha recount approximately twice as many stories as his predecessor, depending how you count. The writer or editors appear to take into account the request in the actual number of stories that surround the two. Of course, Elijah plays a more dramatic role as a prophet, often confronting the powers of his day, and is mentioned in Malachi and often in the New Testament, while Elisha, who had little interaction with major political players, had most of his stories derive from interchanges with common people and with the sons of the prophets, the so-called “company of prophets.” Elisha is mentioned only once in the New Testament.
Once again the mantle plays a key role in the transfer to Elisha. In an often mistranslated passage, 2 Kings 2:13-14, Elisha picks up the mantle and returns to the Jordan. He backtracks the route he and his master had taken. There he rolls up the mantle and strikes the river as Elijah had done. A period should end the sentence after the first strike. Many English translations place a comma after the striking before Elisha asks, “Where is Yhwh the God of Elijah?” But his question makes no sense here unless nothing actually happened. I think he strikes the river and nothing occurred. Power was not in the mantle itself; it was not some magical tool to be prophetically manipulated. Then Elisha asks his question, strikes the water again, and it parts. It is Yhwh who allows Elisha to see Elijah taken, and it is Yhwh who parts the waters using the mantle. A double portion of Elijah’s spirit falls upon Elisha because Yhwh wills it. The real power stems from God.
Elisha hides in the shadow of the great prophet Elijah like a Charles Wesley in the shadow of John Wesley. Yet he impacted a larger populace with his ministry than his master did. It was less dramatic than Elijah’s, unless you were the encampment with the poisoned pottage or the woman with the death of her only son or the Syrian general with leprosy who finds healing and a new personal god, Yhwh (the stories of Elisha’s ministry extend from 2 Kings 2-9 and 13).
What can we learn from the call and commissioning of Elisha?
First, observe that the stories of Elijah and Elisha are about the working of God rather than the ministry of a particular prophet or his disciple. It was Yhwh who commissioned Elijah to anoint his successor. God had a plan. His plan was not simply to carry on Elijah’s ministry but to carry on what God was doing through these two prophets in the world of Israel and her neighbors. Elijah did not know he would not be able to carry out the other two directives. Nor perhaps did he understand that Elisha would fulfill the tasks assigned. But Yhwh did.
We are the means that God uses to continue God’s work. One way or another God’s ministry on earth will be carried out. We must learn this perspective for our ministries, too. None of us is the “whole” of our ministry; we all can be replaced.
Second, notice the radical cost to Elisha in the call to serve God. His call required leaving a place of privilege, wealth, and abundance to follow an itinerant preacher of Yhwh’s word who lived in borrowed shelters and out-of-the-way encampments with marginal respect from people and from their leaders.
It always costs something to follow the call of God. To walk this path is seldom easy, but most of the time it is fulfilling.
Third, even after several years of service to Elijah, Elisha needed to learn for himself that Yhwh was the real power in ministry. It is so easy to connect symbols with power, like a mantle or ordination or a ministry position or a successful program, when it is really the work of God through you or your position or your program. What is “seen” is easier to identify than the invisible Spirit of God. I can just imagine the look on Elisha’s face when he struck the Jordan and nothing happened. His mentor knew where the real power came from – Yhwh. The second time he struck the river the waters parted. Elisha gained the most important knowledge anyone in ministry will ever grasp, and many never will. Empowerment does not come from degrees, positions, mentors, or ordination credentials, but from the Lord.