Questions on the Elijah / Elisha Cycle

The stories of Elijah and Elisha are weird.

They can be found in 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 10.  I would like to point out that originally the 1 & 2 Samuel were one book, 1 & 2 Kings were one book, and 1 & 2 Chronicles were one book.  That is why the narrative of David, Saul, and Jonathan move seamlessly from the end of 1 Samuel to the beginning of 2 Samuel and the story of Elijah and his successor, Elisha, seamlessly from the end of 1 Kings to the beginning of 2 Kings.

I had my students read the whole chunk of 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 10 in one shot for class this past week.  And if anyone has just sat and read the stories, you may realize these are some of the weirdest places in the Bible.  The students were bewildered and found most of it strange.  Good.  If you are a modern person, you should find these stories disorienting and strange.  We do not live in the same world that produced these them.  Understandably, the students had a lot of questions.

While I had a lesson plan, I spent most of the hour answering – or trying to answer – their questions or respond to their observations.  Many of them had to do with the very rough elements of the narrative – clearly the author / editor of 1 and 2 Kings has brought together several independent stories into a narrative and their are often some jumps, gaps, and difficulties that are apparent in the editorial process.  Or the transmission of these texts are problematic.  Other than these issues of clarity, here are some of the larger issues, questions, or observations that were raised by the students:

  1. One student observed that Elijah looks a lot like Moses!  And, indeed, he does.  It is not entirely clear to me whether Elijah is being portrayed Moses or if Moses is being portrayed in Exodus as Elijah.  The Exodus story interacted with many other stories of the Bible, creating mutual resemblances (cf. 1 Kings 12 and Exodus 1-4: Jeroboam and Moses look a lot like each other).  Either way, Elijah and Moses also have a lot of similarities and this student caught many of them – kudos to her: Elijah encounters God on Mt. Horeb after 40 days just like Moses does in the hypothesized E source and in Deuteronomy (for those unfamiliar with the Documentary Hypothesis, in its classical form, there are hypothesized four sources to the first five books of the bible: J or the Yahwist, E or the Elohist, P for Priestly, and D for Deuteronomic).  In the E and D Sources, Moses meets God on Horeb, whereas in J and P, it is Sinai.  They encounter God as God passes by (see Exodus. 33; 1 Kings 19).  Moreover, both part water (2 Kings 2:8, 14).
  2. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah keeps telling Elisha to do things – in particular, to stay in certain places – but Elisha refuses and keeps at Elijah’s side.  If Elijah is God’s man, does this mean Elisha is also refusing God’s will?  I responded with how I read this: while Elijah largely represents God, he is not God.  To disagree with Elijah is not to disagree with God, per se.  Instead, this chapter illustrates Elisha’s loyalty to Elijah.  An variation on this same theme: Elijah repeatedly tests Elisha’s loyalty, giving him multiple outs, and Elisha passes.
  3. The last question is the most difficult.  Another student (and this student was not alone) was perplexed by 2 Kings 2:23, where a group of boys taunt Elisha, calling him “baldy.”  Apparently Elisha was bald, and was thin-skinned about it, because he cursed the children and immediately a couple female bears came out and mauled the children – forty-two of them – to death.  I, too, find this to be one of the strangest stories in the Bible.  The question the student asked is this: if a prophet is basically God’s representative, and, therefore, should reflect the nature of God in some way, and the prophet does something evil (student’s word), then does this mean God is … (and I filled in the syllogism, because I think the student started to pull back from his own train of thought) evil?  So, this is a hugely problematic passage according to modern ethics. Why such a disproportionate punishment: death by mauling for merely some name-calling?  Get over it, Elisha!  So you don’t have the hair of Samson or Absolom, who cares?  I have two ways to answer this: one looking at the passage in particular, and one looking at broader patterns.
    1. The passage in particular: Elisha is now God’s representative, diplomat.  To disrespect him is to disrespect God.  Therefore, mocking him can perhaps be equated with blasphemy.  Put another way: Elisha has the power of God; he has the power to heal and to harm.  It is not a matter of good or evil, but of power; you must be on the right side of that power.
    2. In general, we have a tendency to think of God as good, but the Bible does not usually take such a position.  God is powerful; God is creative, judgmental, jealous, and even rewards righteousness.  But Good?  That concept is much harder to find.  Let’s look at the not-so-good things God does or at least approves.
      1. In Exodus 7, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  The narrative suggests that Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go earlier without such a hardening, but the hardening was necessary to show the awesome power of God – something that would not be on display if Pharaoh gave in sooner.  But this power includes the death of all the firstborn of Egypt.  If God could have gotten the Israelites out earlier – without the hardening of heart – and saved lives doing it, why not?  Why did God seem to prefer to cause innocent children to die (even if their parents were not so innocent) to get the Israelites out?
      2. In 1 Samuel, God sends an “evil spirit” to torment King Saul.  David is hired as a court musician to soothe Saul when this evil spirit torments him.  My point is: the evil spirit is sent by God.  It is not something God tolerates or allows; it is something God caused to happen.
      3. 1 Kings 22, which is sandwiched into the Elijah-Elisha cycle, is the story of Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah going to battle.  In the process, they consult several prophets to see if the battle will go well. All of them say that Ahab will succeed, except Micaiah son of Imlah.  Micaiah, while at first parroting what the other prophets says, relays that he had a vision of God enthroned in his council, and God asks his council how he can entice Ahab to battle so that Ahab will engage in battle and die.  One member of the divine council says that he will be a lying spirit to all the prophets, having the prophets prophesy that Ahab will succeed in battle, getting him to engage in battle, but, in reality, Ahab will lose.  What I find interesting in this is that this is a false prophecy, but the false prophecy is not the prophets’ fault, but the lying spirit.  Moreover, God approves of and encourages the lying spirit’s actions.  The source of the false prophecy is God.
    3. In short, God seems to do some very shady things according to the Bible.  As the Exodus parallel indicates, it sometimes seems to be more about displaying God’s awesome power, rather than achieving a goal in an ethical manner.  In the 1 Kings 22 example, it is not really a display of awesome power, but getting the desired result – Ahab was, according to the Bible, a very bad king – by deceitful means.
    4. I do not know if my interpretation is correct, but what I do know is this: clearly the authors of the Bible lived and breathed in a different world than we do.  The biblical authors or editors preserved a story that illustrates Elisha’s power, but it is a story that makes one wince.

Again, these stories are very cool.  Elijah and Elisha are very hard-core prophets.  But, they are also very difficult.  I welcome any further suggestions on these observations or questions students gave me.  I also welcome further questions on these stories.


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