Editor's Note: You will also find the Writing Team's Elijah Background very helpful. Open to all, it includes a map and discussion of Elijah's connection to John the Baptist and Jesus.
Elijah Passes His Mantle to Elisha
2 Kings 2:1-15
Key Verse: Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” 2 Kings 2:9b
- Locate the story in the Old Testament portion of the Bible.
- Tell the story in their own words.
- Define the words prophet and disciple.
- Discuss the relationship between Elijah and Elisha -- teacher/disciple.
- Explore the meaning of Elisha's request for a double portion of Elijah's spirit.
- Explore the meaning behind Elijah's passing the mantle to Elisha.
- Discuss ways they learn from parents and teachers and pick up their "mantles."
- Memorize 2 Kings 2:9b.
The story of Elijah and Elisha is one of deep commitment to God in the face of overwhelming opposition, and of commitment to one another and the mission that Elijah raised Elisha to continue.
Israel in the Time of Elijah and Elisha
After the death of King Solomon in 930 B.C., the kingdom split into the northern kingdom of Israel (with its capitol in Jezreel for a time), and the southern kingdom of Judah (with Jerusalem as its capitol). Very few of the kings in either kingdom lived up to the Law of Moses. They variously disobeyed God's law and allowed the worship of other gods. King Ahab's evil reign in Israel began in 874 B.C, and it was at that time that Elijah appeared.
Ahab was married to Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and daughter of the King of Sidon. Pointedly, the Widow whom Elijah saves lived near Sidon in the village of Zarephath. As you read the stories, Jezebel is very much the antagonist to Elijah.
Ahab and Jezebel were promoting Baal as the national deity of Israel. Baal means “owner or lord.” Baal was a nature and storm god, believed to control fertility of crops and people. He was often pictured with a lightning bolt in his hand and he was felt to be in control of the weather. Ahab was succeeded by his son Ahazaiah, who like his father, worshiped idols.
Elijah and Elisha
Consider the "first" and greatest prophet, Elijah's stature has been lost due to his story being buried in 1 and 2nd Kings, rather than having his own book like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Yet we can see his stature reflected in the story of Jesus and the Transfiguration, when Elijah and Moses appear to him, and in the Passover tradition of providing a place for Elijah at the table. 2nd Kings makes a point of showing how Elisha fulfilled his master's mission. Their bold words and sometimes strange actions became the standard for many of the prophets to come.
The name Elijah means “Yahweh is God.” Elisha was his protege and successor. His name means, "God saves." In their names are their messages.
Elijah suddenly appears in 1 Kings announcing to King Ahab that there will be no rain or dew in Israel for three years as a result of her unfaithfulness. Elijah is probably best known for the contest at Mt. Carmel where he confronted the hundreds of Baal prophets. Because of Elijah’s many confrontations with Ahab he faced persecution. Elijah was often forced to flee for his very life. Throughout all of Elijah’s struggles, God provided for him – by sending ravens to feed him, by providing water during a drought, and later providing miraculous food from a widow and her son. And at a time when Elijah was alone and exhausted, God provided him a helper, Elisha. Elijah found Elisha at home plowing a field. He threw his mantle (outer cloak) over Elisha in a symbolic gesture calling him to follow and be his disciple. A disciple is one who follows and learns from a teacher. Elisha was Elijah’s faithful disciple for about ten years until Elijah's death.
As Elijah’s ministry drew to a close, Elijah and Elisha traveled a final journey together. They made three stops and at each stop, Elijah instructed Elisha to leave. Elisha demonstrated his deep commitment to his master by refusing to leave, saying, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you."
Elijah and Elisha were not alone; other prophets were nearby. No doubt they knew what was happening and speculated about who would succeed Elijah as the greatest prophet in the land. Elijah and Elisha approached their final stop at the banks of the Jordan. Elijah rolled up his mantle, so that it resembled a rod, and struck the water. Immediately it parted and the two prophets passed across on dry land. Elijah’s mantle was a symbol of his authority and power, just as Moses’ rod was a symbol of his. In this way the writer tells us that Elijah was a prophet like Moses.
Elisha then asked Elijah, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” He was asking to be considered as Elijah’s legal heir, the one who would receive a double portion of his inheritance. This was the typical practice of the day, where the eldest son inherited two-thirds of the inheritance. Elisha was not asking to receive twice as much spirit as Elijah. When a prophet died, his spirit was transferred to another. Elisha was asking to receive twice as much of this transferred spirit as any other prophets. His request was for a spiritual inheritance.
Elijah recognized this gift was not his to give – only God may confer such spirit. But he promised the request would be honored if Elisha saw Elijah when he was taken. Elisha did see Elijah ascending to heaven in a whirlwind of fiery chariots and horses. Elisha cried out and tore his garment as a sign of mourning. Then he picked up Elijah’s mantle (the same one Elijah had placed on him when he was called to be his disciple). And like his master, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan with it, dividing the water. The company of watching prophets saw this action and recognized that Elisha was Elijah’s successor. “The spirit of the Lord rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:15).
Elisha DID become Elijah's successor, and was given the mantle of Elijah as a sign of his authority.
The mantle metaphor is not to be lost on those who "raise up children in the way they should go."
The succession of Elisha is recorded as a series of miracles that begins with the parting of the Jordan and includes double the number of miracles Elijah performed (14 to 7). Elisha’s ministry lasted nearly twice as long as Elijah’s ministry (25 years to 13). Elijah boldly and dramatically confronted the apostasy that plagued Israel throughout his years of ministry. Many of Elisha’s miracles demonstrated compassion and mercy. Elijah’s ministry called the people to repentance by emphasizing God’s authority. Elisha’s ministry reminded people of God’s faithfulness and love. Both prophets teach us about the character of God – holiness, authority, and sovereignty, and faithfulness, grace, mercy, and love.
Israel – Northern Kingdom
Jeroboam, the first King of Israel (northern kingdom) set up a rival religious system, including multiple worship centers and even statues of golden calves upon whose back the invisible God supposedly rode. They developed their own priestly system and feasts. As a result of this departure from God’s commands, many of the godly people in the Northern Kingdom left and headed to Judah. Each subsequent northern king departed further and further from the worship procedures of the United Kingdom. In fact, the Bible records that not a single northern king was a good king – they all “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” The primary failure of the kings and the people was idol worship, primarily of Baal (male) and Asherah (female). The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC. Generations later, the "Samaritans" would be derided as the their impure and unfaithful descendants.
Judah – Southern Kingdom
Judah fared better than Israel, although ultimately its fate was similar. A series of kings ruled over Judah. Some were good, but many were apostate. All of the kings came from the line of David. The most evil of the kings was Manasseh who adopted the pagan practice of child sacrifice to the evil god Molech. Manasseh is believed to be the king who had Isaiah killed. Judah survived 135 years after Israel fell, but eventually fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC.
Prophets are spokespeople for God. They serve as “God’s mouth,” speaking God’s word to the people, as God’s messengers. The Hebrew word in the text is nabi -- one who speaks for another. During times of apostasy, God raised up prophets who brought his Word to the people and called them back to faithfulness. Prophets retained their own personalities, communicating God’s message in their own unique and individual ways. How did prophets hear the voice of the Lord? The Bible records four ways through which God communicates with his prophets: External voice; Internal voice; Ability to see specific realities not apparent to others; Visions.
No matter the source of the prophet’s communication, it was recognized as the “word of the Lord.” Most prophets took the “word of the Lord” to the kings in an attempt to convict them of their wrong ways and lead them back to the correct path. Sometimes they were successful; at other times the situation became confrontational. Throughout Israel’s history, we see a repeated pattern – a falling away from faithfulness leading to God’s judgment, the peoples’ repentance and return to faith.
Note: The Writing Team's Elijah Background discussion of the connection of Elijah to John the Baptist and Jesus is not to be missed.
1 and 2 Kings
The text of 1 and 2 Kings was originally one text. For practical purposes (probably so that it would fit on one scroll) it was divided into two books. We do not know the author, although Jewish rabbinical tradition attributes it to Jeremiah. Because it was written during the exile, its main message was to remind God’s people of past sins, but also to offer them hope. Kings is a book of history with many events corroborated by secular historians. But it is chiefly a theological history and as such its primary purpose is to look at the events through a lens of faith.
Kings was written during the Babylonian exile after the fall of the southern kingdom. It tells the story of the ups and downs of Israel detailing the reigns of a series of kings. Each king is evaluated based on their faith (or lack of it) and the events that occurred during their reign. The text brings a message of hope based on God’s unending promise to David. The text also teaches:
Learn your lesson from the mistakes of your ancestors.
Listen to God’s spokespersons, the prophets.
God is good and gracious, ready to forgive when we truly repent.
God is our provider giving us the things we need.
God does not give up hope for God’s people.
God is sovereign – God is in control!
Discussion and Reflection Topics
Elijah’s ministry laid the foundation for Elisha’s ministry, just as those who go before us provide a foundation for our learning. We too, are disciples. Who are our teachers? How did Elisha learn from Elijah? How do we learn from those around us? Our identity as individuals and faith communities is inextricably woven together with those who came before us. Who is passing on the mantle of faith and discipleship to us? To whom will we pass on our mantles? Elijah passed on a physical mantle to Elisha. What are our “mantles” today? What rituals and physical signs do we use as rites of passage? Elisha wanted his inheritance – a double portion of it in fact. What is our inheritance? Do we want it? Or do we see it as a burden to avoid?
- Disciple: Remember Who You Are Study Manual: The Prophets. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
- The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume III. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999.
- Rotation.org writing team discussion.
- Comay, Joan and Ronald Brownrigg. Who’s Who in the Bible. New York: Bonanza Books, 1980.
- Ferguson, Sinclair B. and David F. Wright. New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1988
- Howard, Jr. David. An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1993.
- Richards, Lawrence O. Bible Teacher’s Commentary. Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications, 2002.
- Richards, Lawrence O. Richard’s Complete Bible Dictionary. Iowa Falls, IA: Word Bible Publishers, 2002.
- Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000.
- Writing Team's Elijah Super Set Bible Background, Rotation.org Inc.
Written for Rotation.org by Jaymie Dryden from State Street UMC
Copyright 2007, 2017 Rotation.org
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