Elijah and Elisha: Part II Similarities and Differences

By Zucker, David J. | Jewish Bible Quarterly, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview

Elijah and Elisha: Part II Similarities and Differences


Zucker, David J., Jewish Bible Quarterly


During their approximately six years together, (1) Elijah is a formative influence on his disciple Elisha. The latter follows literally and figuratively in many of his mentor's ways. That said, Elisha ben Shaphat likewise breaks new ground, showing that, as he comes into his own, he allows his own personality and interests to blossom.

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the prophet Elijah erupted upon the scene in midninth-century BCE Samaria without warning and without fanfare. Abruptly, he proclaims his prophecy to King Ahab: ?As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding? (I Kgs. 17:1). Without waiting for a reply or response, Elijah quits Ahab's presence at God's command and departs eastward, crossing the River Jordan. He heads for the Wadi Kerith, where he goes into hiding.

Elijah is a powerful, extraordinary, and impressive figure. He dresses in distinctive clothing and is instantly recognizable (II Kgs. 1:8). Though essentially a loner, he occasionally has an unnamed attendant. Towards the end of his time, as depicted in First Kings, he designates his successor Elisha and advises him.

At the close of his (biblical) prophetic career, (2) Elijah's departure is even more dramatic than his entrance. Again, crossing the Jordan amidst a fiery chariot with fiery horses ... Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. He leaves behind a mystified audience (II Kgs. 2:11, 16-18).

ELIJAH AND ELISHA: SIMILARITIES

Elijah appoints Elisha ben Shaphat to be his successor, and serves for a time as Elisha's mentor. Many of the acts of Elisha replicate the work of Elijah. Although Elisha follows the path of his direct exemplar, Elijah, he takes some time finding his prophetic footing. Elijah had a special cloak which he had thrown over Elisha's shoulders when he delegated him as a disciple (I Kgs. 19:19). Yet immediately after this, Elijah retrieves the garment. Just before he ascends to heaven, Elijah takes the mantle and strikes the Jordan to stop it flowing so that he and Elisha can cross over on dry land. When Elijah ascends, he leaves the cloak behind. Elisha takes that item of clothing and, invoking "the God of Elijah," strikes the Jordan and splits it in two (II Kgs. 2:13-14). Elisha then travels from Jericho, via Beth El, and on to Mount Carmel and Samaria, "two major sites of Elijah's activity. It thereby further associates him with the activities of his master." (3)

Although done subtly, the text connects the two men on the occasion of Elisha's appointment. He is plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. That number reminds the reader of the twelve stones that Elijah set up at Mt. Carmel (I Kgs. 19:19-21; 18:31-32) as well as the not-so-subtle connection to the twelve tribes.

When Elijah ascends to heaven, Elisha calls out "Father, father, Israel's chariots and horsemen!" When Elisha is dying, King Joash of Israel visits him and repeats those same words (II Kgs. 2:12; 13:14). Just as Elijah is known as a wonder-worker in his post-biblical existence, so is a miracle associated with Elisha after his death. Someone being interred is placed in Elisha's grave: when the corpse touches Elisha's bones, it revives and stands up (II Kgs. 13:20-21).

Elisha duplicates some miracles performed by his mentor for a number of reasons. He wishes to honor Elijah's memory, he seeks to realize his own power, and he wants to be seen by others as a prophet of God in his own right. (4) Several of the miraculous deeds ascribed to Elisha, including the multiplication of oil and bread (II Kgs. 4:4-5, 43-44), and the resuscitation of the Shunammite woman's son (II Kgs. 4:33-35), have precedents in the Elijah cycle of stories (cf. I Kgs. 17:14-16, 20-22). (5)

In addition, both prophets interact with the rulers of their day - Elijah with Ahab and Jezebel (I Kgs. 17:1; 18:1-2, 17-19, 41; 19:1-2; 21:17-24), Elisha with King Jehoram of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah (II Kgs. …

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