Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

KD Old Testament Lesson 29: Elisha

Posted by Karl D. on July 28, 2010

1 Introduction

1.1 A Note on approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

1.2 Parallels between Jesus and Elisha

  • Can you think of parallels between events in the life of Elisha and and the life of Jesus?
  • LDS1 and non-LDS commentators2 have pointed out a number of parallels between events in the life of Elisha and the life of Jesus.
  • A Few parallels between Jesus and Elisha
    1. Elisha feeds a multitude with 20 loaves. Jesus feeds 5,000 with a few loaves (2 Kings 4:42-44).
    2. Elisha heals a leper (2 Kings 5). Jesus heals ten lepers.
    3. A man is raised from the dead after his burial when he comes in contact with Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:2-21). Jesus raises Lazarus and himself from the dead.
  • Can you think of other parallels? What do you make of these parallels? Are they important? Are they just a coincidence?

2 Transition: Elijah to Elisha

Chapters 1 through 8 of 2 Kings can be thought of as the story of Elisha. The assigned scriptural text highlights material from that story. My notes don’t make it out of chapter 2.

2.1 Structure of the Narrative

Chapter 2 tells the story of the transfer of prophetic authority and power from Elijah to Elisha. We can think of chapter 2 as pretty much a complete narrative unit. Cohn, in his commentary on second Kings, outlines chapter 2 chiastically:3

A. Elisha and Elisha leave Gilgal (2:1-2)
   B. Elijah and Elisha at Beth-el (2:3-4)
      C. Elijah and Elisha at Jericho (2:5-6)
         D. Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan River (2:7-8)
            E. The ascent of Elijah (2:9-12)
         D' Elisha crosses the Jordan River (2:12-18)
      C' Elisha at Jericho (2:19-22)
   B' Elisha at Beth-el (2:23-24)
A' Elisha returns to Samaria (2:25) 

Certainly this isn’t the only way one can think about the structure of the narrative but I do think that outlining it this way allows us, as readers, to see the importance of location and how the narrative takes us on a journey through these different locations.

  • What do you think of the movement through these different locations? What does the journey and the different locations emphasize about the ascent of Elijah?
  • Does this journey make you think of any other scriptural stories? Which ones? Why?
  • Hens-Piazza4 suggests there is no logical progression to the journey. Assuming this is true, what does that suggest about the journey and the locations traveled and mentioned in the narrative?

2.2 Leaving Gilgal

Read 2 Kings 2:1-2:

1 And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal. 2 And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Beth-el. And Elisha said unto him, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they went down to Beth-el.

  • The narrator informs of the fate of Elijah at the beginning of the narrative. This removes any suspense over the fate of Elijah from the narrative even though Elijah’s ascension is the centerpoint of the chiasm. Is there still a source(s) of suspense for a first time reader of this narrative? Is that source of suspense the “real” focus of the narrative?
  • These verses also introduce us to the first of three encounters where Elijah tells Elisha not to follow him and Elijah refuses to leave his side. Thus we do have a source of tension or suspense in the narrative. Will Elisha continue to follow Elijah? Why doesn’t Elijah want Elisha to follow him? Why is this important? Is there anything to be learned from these encounters? About discipleship?

2.3 At Bethel

Read 2 Kings 2:3-4

3 And the sons of the prophets that were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he said, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace. 4 And Elijah said unto him, Elisha, tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Jericho. And he said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they came to Jericho.

  • Sons of prophets: “The prophetic groups spoken of here appear as loosely organized brotherhoods living together in the towns of northern Israel, and are referenced mostly in the Elisha story cycle.”5
  • Verse 3 describes an encounter between Elisha and the sons of prophets. The text doesn’t give us many clues about the motivation of either the sons of the prophets or Elisha.
  • One wonders why Elisha tells them to be quiet?
  • One wonders what the sons of the prophets mean by “knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day?”
  • The introduction of the sons of the prophet does seem to point to a contrast between Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is a solidarity figure (and even when he is not … he wants to be) where Elisha is surrounded by a brotherhood. Is this contrast important?
  • Verse 4 essentially repeats verse 2. The difference now is that we, as the reader, are now aware that Elisha has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen. Does this additional information reveal any important insights about Elisha? What can we learn from Elisha’s behavior and actions in this situation?

2.4 Jericho

Read 2 Kings 2:5-6:

5 And the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho came to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he answered, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace. 6 And Elijah said unto him, Tarry, I pray thee, here; for the Lord hath sent me to Jordan. And he said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And they two went on.

The events at Jericho are remarkably similar to the events at Bethel. The use of repetition is pretty heavy in this narrative.

  • What does the heavy use of repetition underscore or emphasize to you as the reader?
  • Is there anything to be learned about discipleship from these three repeated exchanges?
  • Does the interaction between Elijah and Elisha remind you of any other scriptural stories?

2.5 Crossing the Jordan

Read 2 Kings 2:7-9

7 And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood to view afar off: and they two stood by Jordan. 8 And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.

  • These verses provide a link with chapter one if one views the numbers used in these narratives as possibly stylized. In chapter 1, there are 50 soldiers and they play a prominent role. Here we see 50 sons of the prophet mentioned. Might this suggest the two narratives are actually linked?
  • It’s hard not to think of Moses and the Exodus in these verses. What does this imagery recall to your mind? This is clearly potent imagery for ancient Israelites … Is it potent imagery for you? Why or why not?
  • Is there other Moses/Exodus imagery in chapter 2?

2.6 The Ascent of Elijah

Read 2 Kings 2:9-12

9 And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. 10 And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so. 11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

  • Are there any difference between what the narrator relates about Elijah’s ascension and what Elisha sees? If so are these differences important?
  • When Elisha exclaims “the chariot of Israel”, is he referring to the chariot of fire or is it possible that he now realizes that Elijah was the chariot of Israel?6
  • The phrase chariot of Israel reminds me of a few chapters later when Elisha dies (notice the very similar language used by Joash towards Elisha):

14 Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof he died. And Joash the king of Israel came down unto him, and wept over his face, and said, O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. (1 Kings 13:14)

  • Suppose Elijah and later Elisha really are the chariots of Israel. What do you make of that imagery? What does that imagery suggest about the role of prophets? Is that imagery still relevant to us today?

2.7 Elisha Cross the Jordan

Read 2 Kings 2:12-18:

12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces. 13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan; 14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over. 15 And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him. 16 And they said unto him, Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send. 17 And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not. 18 And when they came again to him, (for he tarried at Jericho,) he said unto them, Did I not say unto you, Go not?

  • The ripping of clothing plays and important role here. What situation do we usually think of when someone rips up their clothing? 7How is that situation related to this one?
  • The sons of the prophets want to search for Elijah. What does that tell us or reveal about them? Does it give us any insight into their earlier discussions with Elisha before the ascension of Elijah?
  • Why was Elijah ashamed? What does that mean in this context? How is it related to Elisha’s reaction after the search turns up nothing?
  • This part of the narrative and the ones that following seem to be about Elisha asserting or proving his prophetic authority. Parting the Jordan seems to clearly accomplish that but what about the search?

2.8 Elisha and the Children

Read 2 Kings 2:23-24:

(23) And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. (24) And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

  • This strikes me as a pretty difficult pericope. A plain reading of the text is startling. Elisha pronounces a curses which leads to the mauling of 42 children for teasing him. It seems rather inconsistent with LDS conceptions of both prophets and God.

2.8.1 Possible Ways of Interpreting the Story

  • What do you make of the story? Are there ways to interpret or deal with the text that renders it less difficult to modern ears?
  • What are some possible ways to approach or reconcile the difficulties in the text?
  • Which one of the following do you think is most likely? Why? Are there others?
    1. Manuscript or translation problems

      One possibility is that the manuscript has been corrupted by transcription error and/or theologically motivated alterations. (As near as I can tell there is really just no evidence for this possibility but I think it would likelt come up in any class discussion so I include it here).

    2. The plain reading of the text is misleading

      The story is essentially reported correctly, but there is more here than meets the eye. This is not really a story about children teasing a prophet.

    3. The plain reading is basically right but context is important

      The story is essentially reported correctly and maybe in the culture of the time young men or even children teasing the prophet brought sufficient shame to the newly appointed justify the curse.

    4. Others?

2.8.2 A couple of thoughts

I don’t know what is the right option. I guess I tend to lean toward the third option above. But, of course, it is hard to imagine context not being important so I am not exactly going out on limb with that suggestion. Please, take a look at Jim Faulconer’s notes for a larger discussion of this pericope. But let me point out that many commentators believe the story is likely about young men and not children. Also, Let me point out Fred Woods’ outline of 2 Kings 1-2 from his BYU Studies article:8

A. Test of authority; destruction of men (1:1-15) 
   B. Request for diseased item to be healed (1:16-18) 
      C.  The sons of the prophets admit departure of Elijah (2:2-6)
          D. The sons of the prophets are witnesses (2:7) 
             E. Dividing of river Jordan with mantle/coat (2:8) 
                F. Symbol of succession: spirit/mantle (2:9) 
                   G. Witnessing of the event by Elisha (2:10)
                      H. The ascension of Elijah (2:11) 
                   G' Witnessing of the event by Elisha (2:12) 
                F' Symbol of succession: spirit/mantle (2:13)
             E' Dividing of river Jordan with mantle/coat (2:14)
          D' The sons of the prophets are witnesses (2:15) 
      C'  The sons of the prophets admit departure of Elijah (2:16-18)
   B' Request for diseased item to be healed (2:19-22) 
A' Test of authority; destruction of men (2:23-24) 
  • How does seeing the structure of the narrative this way help potentially give important context about the she bear incident?
  • Which chiastic outline do you think is better? This one or the one at the beginning?

Footnotes:

1 Arthur Bassett, see Jim Faulconer’s reading notes for this lesson.

2 see, for example,Randel M. Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels.

3 Cohn, Robert L., 1196, Berit Olam: 2 Kings, The Liturgical Press, 10.

4 Hens-Piazza, 1 and 2 Kings: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, 2006, Abingdon Press, 235

5 Cogan, Mordechi and Hayim Tadmor, 1988, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary , The Anchor Bible, 31

6 Cohn, Robert L., 1196, Berit Olam: 2 Kings, The Liturgical Press, 14.

7 Cohn, Robert L., 1196, Berit Olam: 2 Kings, The Liturgical Press, 15.

8 Adapted from: Woods, Fred E., 1992, “Elisha and the Children: The Question of Accepting Prophetic Succession”, BYU Studies 32, 47-58.

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