Summary: What Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s office can tell us about the transfer of power: God’s use of imperfect people, the need for loyalty, ambition, and decisiveness.
A TRANSFER OF POWER
How many of you came to our play? Do you remember when Steve came in at the beginning of the 2nd Act, dressed as Samson with hair almost down to his waist? Did you laugh?
If you did, you better watch out for bears.
That’s what happened to the boys of Bethel who made fun of Elisha on his way back from seeing Elijah off. “Go away, baldhead!” they cried, or more likely the Hebrew equivalent of, “shoo, baldy!” Elijah didn’t take it in good humor, as Steve certainly took all the teasing we gave him. Far from it. Elisha cursed the boys, and two bears attacked them. Forty-two kids got mauled. Now, mind you, they were unruly, and disrespectful, and maybe threatening, and maybe Elijah was scared. Wouldn’t you be, with 42 juvenile delinquents harassing you? Perhaps a little chastisement would have been in order, but mauled by bears? I mean, really.
Not the sort of behavior you expect from a prophet, is it? Hardly a good role model for us to follow. He certainly hadn’t heart of turning the other cheek. And he was just fresh from being anointed with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, too. Does this kind of behavior really honor God? Why on earth would God choose someone who would do that kind of thing? How can God use someone who would lose his temper like that? Don’t God’s people already have enough trouble from our opponents - even when we bend over backwards to keep the peace? What is going on here?
I think the point - at least one of them - is that God uses imperfect people. And he uses them best when they are passionate, even when their passion sometimes leads them in the wrong direction.
Let me explain what I mean.
In this morning’s passage, the part that has stuck in people’s minds for the last couple of millennia is the fiery chariot. From Milton’s Paradise Lost to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” we’ve been fascinated by the spectacular images of the chariot of fire and the horses of fire, and Elijah being swept up into heaven on a whirlwind. Did you know that Enoch and Elijah are the only two people in the Bible who don’t die? “Enoch walked with God,” it says in Genesis 5:24, “and then he was not, for the Lord took him.” These are the holiest men in Scripture, except of course for Jesus, the ones closest to God. Not even Abraham, the “friend of God,” or David, “the man after God’s own heart,” have the reputation for whole-hearted, single-minded zeal for God that Elijah did.
It is, after all, Elijah that Malachi said would return before the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” It is Elijah for whom Jews set an extra place at the table during Passover. It was Elijah that the people of Judea compared John the Baptist to, and asked Jesus about. And it was Elijah who appeared with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. Elijah is the superstar, the all-time highest scorer on God’s team. Elisha, bad-tempered Elisha, was quite a comedown, hardly worth spending our time on after the blazing radiance of Elijah’s example, right?
First of all, when he asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elijah granted it. Some rabbinical commentators argued that Elisha performed twice as many miracles as Elijah, 16 to 8 or 24 to 12, depending how you count them. Modern scholars are more likely to put it in the cultural context of Ancient Israel: the first-born son would get twice as much as the other sons, and along with it the father’s authority. In this view, the phrase is just an idiom meaning succession. But however you interpret the words, there’s no question that Elisha is a legitimate and at least equally powerful heir to Elijah’s power and position.
Secondly, Elisha preached for 50 years, during the reigns of Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, and Jehoash. Unlike Elijah, he didn’t stay out in the wilderness but circulated among the towns and cities of Samaria. He had access to the highest nobles and officials in the land and was even sought out by foreigners for advice and help. His ministry was characterized by healing, miraculous provision, even raising a young man from the dead.
And yet it starts with what looks like an unconscionable display of vindictiveness.
All of the historical books of the Bible pick and choose among the hundreds of events, selecting the ones that best communicate the message the author is trying to get across. Why do you suppose this one is included?
Some try to explain it away.
Others claim it is simply an illustration that Elisha did indeed receive power from God - both to bless and to curse.