Thursday, August 13, 2009

Elisha as Role Model

Much has been said recently about Elisha and the incident with the bears in 2 Kgs 2:23-25. We have David Ker to thank for that. Others who have weighed in on the issue: Doug Chaplin, Peter Kirk, Matt Page, Tim Bulkeley, James McGrath, and John Hobbins.

It seems that a common assumption for many reading this passage is that Elisha has done something wrong. After all, why else call him a "bad boy"? In the comments to Matt's post, Peter describes Elisha's curse as an abuse of his God-given power. The question has to be asked. If it was an abuse of power, then why did God allow it? Was God constrained to obey Elisha's curse even though the punishment didn't fit the crime or did he respond with a just punishment for their mockery (i.e., unbelief)?

If Elisha is a "bad boy" for this act, then what do we make of the fact that the New Testament seems to consciously model Jesus's role as a miracle worker on the miracles of Elijah and Elisha? There is a consistent pattern in these stories. Many of the miracles from 1 and 2 Kings have parallels in the Gospels. Here are some examples.

Elijah miraculously multiplies a handful of meal and oil into an 3 year food supply for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:8-16). Similarly, Elisha multiples oil for a widow to sell to pay her debts (2 Kgs 4:1-7). Elisha also feeds 100 with a few loaves with some left over (2 Kgs 4:42-44). Jesus multiplies 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough to feed a multitude with 12 baskets left over (Matt 14:13-21).

In 1 Kgs 17:17-24, the widow's son dies and Elijah brings him back to life. Elisha revives the Shunammite's son in 2 Kgs 4:32-37. Jesus brings Jairus's daughter back to life (Matt 9:18-26) and revives a widow's son (Luke 7:11-16). Healing is also an important parallel. Elisha heals Naaman, a leper, in 2 Kgs 5:9-19. Jesus heals a leper in Matt 8:1-4.

Both Elisha and Jesus are depicted as having power over the forces of nature. Elisha splits the Jordan (2 Kgs 2:13-14) as Elijah had done (2 Kgs 2:8). Jesus walks on water (Matt 14:22-33). Elisha makes an ax head float (2 Kgs 6:1-7), purifies drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-22) and some poisonous stew (2 Kgs 4:38-41). Jesus calms a storm on the sea (Matt 8:23-27).

The parallels run deeper than just miracles. After the incident with Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18), Elijah flees to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (1 Kgs 19:4-8). After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (Matt 4:1-2). The call of Elisha to follow Elijah in 1 Kgs 19:19-21 is described in similar terms to how Jesus calls his disciples (Matt 4:18-22, Luke 9:57-62). Furthermore, the NT associates John the Baptist with Elijah (Matt 11:7-14), so are we meant to understand an implicit association of Jesus with Elisha? That's hard to say since Jesus's ascension in Acts 1:6-11 is very reminiscent of Elijah's ascension in 2 Kgs 2:11-12 - right down to the disciples watching him go and receiving his power (Blenkinsopp 1996, 253 n. 32). The cycle continued as Peter was depicted healing a cripple (Acts 3) and raising the dead (Acts 9).

Finally, we need to understand that not all miracles are good. Sometimes people are healed, sometimes they die. (John's posts emphasized this.) Joseph Blenkinsopp describes these "bad" miracles as "punitive miracles" (1996, 63). Virtually all who are at the receiving end of a punitive miracle have done something bad to deserve it. The difference is in our perspective on how "bad" it was. The Bible's perspective is that bad is bad. Show no partiality in judgment (Lev 19:15). There are examples for all our prophets here. Elijah personally kills the prophets of Baal after the miracle of the fire from heaven to light the altar. We're all familiar with Elisha and the bears, but remember that Elisha also strikes his servant Gehazi with leprosy for his greed after the healing of Naaman (2 Kgs 5:27). Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit (Matt 21:18-22) - granted it was out of season and the incident seems out of character for Jesus, much like the bears incident. Peter announces death for Sapphira for lying (Acts 5:1-11).

We like to think of biblical law as based on the lex talionis (eye for an eye), but there are many stories where the punishment doesn't fit the crime (for our modern-day sensibilities). The Bible passes a death sentence for many who did no worse than the boys in 2 Kgs 2:23. For example, what about the guy who is found picking up sticks on the Sabbath in Num 15:32-33? The law didn't actually tell him what he could or couldn't do. (It neglects to tell us what exactly qualifies as "work.") They're just starting to figure this "Law" thing out, so give him a free pass on this one, right? Wrong, he's stoned to death. Disobey your parents? That's right - death for you, too (Deut 21:18-21).

The dilemma remains. What to do with the Bible stories that violate our modern-day sense of ethics or our sense of what God must be like? Do we accept them as products of a different, more primitive time? Do we judge them for not conforming to our standard of "Christian" behavior? I certainly don't have the answer, and I'm not recommending anyone model themselves after Elisha and start cursing people who make fun of you. But the NT stories do seem to model Jesus on Elisha. What should we make of that?

Reference: Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1996. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Revised and Enlarged. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.


  1. Thanks for the link. I don't want to commit myself to the view that Elisha actually did the wrong thing. I don't think it is clear from the Bible whether he did right or wrong. But I don't think we should assume that he did right just because he was a prophet. That is the Islamic view of prophets, but not the Judaic or Christian one.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Peter. For me the issue has become, how are we deciding the difference between good and bad, right and wrong? I agree that the Bible is not explicit about whether it was right or wrong for Elisha to curse the boys. I don't think I'm just assuming Elisha was right, but I'm leaving open the possibility that he was.

  3. Perhaps, as another prototype, King David, "man according to heart of God", Elisha, and other messianic prototype of the First Testament has its share of "hero" and "anti-hero".
    The ambiguity characteristic in the First Testament.
    Jesus came so that they comply with the showing, even historic or symbolic, as with non-personal elements of the Torah (p. ex. The sacrifices), bring them to perfection, with his ministry and Cruz, the incarnate God who sent the prototypes, consuming what mere humans failed.
    Christ made by faith that right.

  4. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for an insightful post.

    In moral dilemmas, a binary opposition, right or wrong, is not the only way to frame the issues.

    For example, one might say that a certain act A, while within the law, does not express the spirit of the law, or more basically, the spirit of the constitution. Act A may be within one's rights, but still wanting, or indeed very questionable.

    For example, if someone breaks and enters my house, and is armed, it may be within my rights to shoot him. Depending on the circumstances, however, that act, even if legitimate, might be highly questionable.

    You also ask: on what basis, from the point of view of the Hebrew Bible itself, would Elisha's response to the jeering children be considered wrong - if you think that is too strong, substitute "less than ideal" or "not as magnanimous as it could have been."

    Three sources: the principle of enemy-love is laid out in Moses (Exodus 23:4-5) and in Solomon (Proverbs 25:21-22), and is narratively demonstrated by David (1 Sam 14:12-21).

    For the rest, I do not think it is defensible to suggest that the author of the Elisha narrative as a saintly figure. He's a fierce, ornery guy who does not always get his way (thank God). But here God lets him get his way. That's the real nub of the question if you ask me: the utter abandon with which God allows people who have divinely sanctioned authority (king, prophet, priest) to abuse it.

  5. Thanks, John. That's helpful. I view it as part of the Bible's common tension of "do as I say - don't do as my characters do", which I think was ultimately the point for David's "Bad boy" study.