September 12, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Legends about the prophet Elisha

John F. Fink(Thirty-sixth in a series of columns)

The Second Book of Kings begins with the death of King Ahaziah of Israel, the son of Ahab and Jezebel, in 849 B.C., and concludes in 561 B.C. after the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah. However, it also includes stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha circulated by their disciples until they became legends. They include numerous miracles.

We met Elijah in the First Book of Kings, when he was combating Ahab and Jezebel. In the first chapter of the second book, he predicted the death of King Ahaziah. Then, when Ahaziah sent two companies of 50 men to bring him in, he commanded fire to come down from heaven to destroy the companies.

Chapter 2 tells about Elijah’s being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind of a flaming chariot with flaming horses. Elisha, who was walking with him, picked up Elijah’s mantle and inherited his spirit of prophecy.

Then there follow 14 stories in which Elisha is involved in one way or another, some of which are strange indeed. There’s the story, for example, of some small boys who jeered at Elisha, “Go up, baldhead, go up, baldhead ” (2 Kgs 2:23). Elisha cursed them, and two bears came out of the woods and tore 42 of the children to pieces. Footnotes here and in the story about Elijah calling down fire (second paragraph above) say only that the stories were told to enhance the dignity of the prophets and to reflect the power of God.

In Chapter 3, we get a war story that highlights Elisha’s role. He gave advice to the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom in a battle against Moab. The battle itself is strange because the Moabites saw water that they thought was blood, possibly caused by the red sandstone in a dry river bed. They thought that the three kings warred against themselves, so they went out to collect spoils. Then the three kings attacked and destroyed them, as Elisha had predicted.

There’s the story of Elisha predicting that a Shunammite woman will bear a child. A few years after the child is born, he dies, but Elisha restores him to life.

There’s another story of Elisha multiplying 20 barley loaves and some corn to feed 100 people, with some left over.

The story of the cure of Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram, of leprosy is read during Catholic Masses, so it should be familiar. It’s complex, but it includes Naaman’s declaration that there is no God in all the Earth except in Israel, an astounding confession from a pagan.

The story of the siege of Samaria by Aram starts comically, with the king of Aram thinking that he has a traitor in his midst because Israel always knew where he was going to strike. Of course, it was Elisha who told the king of Israel. But then the story gets serious as the siege resulted in the Israelites eating their own children. Then the humor returns when an entire army fled before a few lepers who were out looking for a meal.

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!