Abide: 2 Kings 2-7

  • Elijah and Elisha are well-known to Latter-day Saints. The prophecy that Elijah would return was foretold in each of the four books of the Latter-day Saint canon. Indeed, Elijah visited the Prophet Joseph Smith and his counselor, Sidney Rigdon, in the Kirtland Temple, restoring the keys of the sealing power to the earth. Elisha may be less known, but his miracles are seen as some of the most didactic of any performed by prophets after Moses in the Old Testament. What can we learn from these prophets and their ministries? We’ll discuss that and more on today’ episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • Elijah and Elisha are well known to Latter-day Saints. The prophecy that Elijah would return was foretold in each of the four books of the Latter-day Saint cannon. Indeed, Elijah visited the Prophet Joseph Smith and his counselor Sidney Rigdon in the Kirtland Temple, restoring the keys of the ceiling power to the earth. Elisha may be less known, but his miracles are seen as some of the most didactic and powerful of any performed by prophets after Moses in the Old Testament. What can we learn from these prophets and their ministries? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute podcast.


    Joseph Stuart: My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Maxwell Institute and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by Aaron Gorner, one of our research assistants who studies Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Comparative Literature here at BYU. He’s from Raymond, Alberta and upon graduation plans to go to graduate school to further study in these fields. Welcome back to the podcast, Aaron.


    Aaron Gorner: Thanks. Good to be here.


    Joseph Stuart: Glad to have you here. So Kristian, we’re looking at Second Kings chapters two through seven today as the main focus, although there may be spill over into other sections. Could you please give us an overview of these chapters?


    Kristian Heal: To begin with, I think it’s useful to recognize as we approach the stories of Elisha and Elijah that of all the types of Christ presented in the Old Testament, it’s Elijah and Elisha who foreshadow most clearly the ministries of Jesus and his apostles. Elijah calls Elisha from his labors just as Jesus called his apostles from their work to come and follow him. Elijah’s mantle falls upon Elisha, just as the work of declaring the gospel fell upon the apostles. Elisha was a disciple to Elijah, a follower, a student, and a witness just as the apostles were to the life and ministry of Jesus. Elisha performs miracles like Elijah, but even more so, just as Jesus promised His disciples that they would do. When Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elisha continues his work with power and miracles just as the apostles did when Jesus ascended to heaven. Elisha also foreshadows the work of Jesus, as when he feeds a large group of people with a few loaves of bread, raises the dead, and heals a leper. It may also be that early followers of Jesus saw Jesus’s relationship to John the Baptist as being foreshadowed in Elijah and Elisha, especially as Elisha is given a double portion of the Spirit. This foreshadowing is beautiful and instructive, but we shouldn’t let it obscure what is distinctive about the life and ministry of Elisha.


    Joseph Stuart: So what is distinct about Elisha’s ministry and in particular, his call to the ministry?


    Kristian Heal: Elisha appears in three distinct sections of the book of Kings. The first scribes his call, the second his ministry, and the third his death. Elisha’s call is unusual, no other prophet anoints their successor and we normally expect God to call prophets directly, but Elijah is called to go and anoint Elisha to be a prophet. Yet there seems to be something of a prophetic guild around at this time, which though absent from the stories of Elijah, is clearly present in the stories of Elisha. And he seems to be the head of this guild, which is known as the sons or disciples of the prophets the benehad navaim.


    Joseph Stuart: So there isn’t any sort of formal quorum or group that we know of or a guild of Prophets, as it’s called?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, this is really a kind of an interesting phenomenon. When we think of the Old Testament or we think of the Old Testament prophets, we mostly think of the single monolithic characters, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. But we’ve heard it already in our reading of the Old Testament, prophets come up in kind of ecstatic groups. Saul, among the prophets, having the Spirit come upon him and being what are called the kind of ecstatic prophets. So there’s a Tubingen scholar, Jacob Birla, who usually summarizes what The Book of Kings tells us about this guild of Prophets. “These prophetic disciples”, he says, “…have their own houses, but they live part time together with Elisha, sit before him and share their meals with him. Elisha takes responsibility for their health and their economic welfare.” So there seemed to have been a religious community that made their services available to people who needed guidance from God on some matters which is what John Goldingay says in his commentary on things, “There was no organized means for collective support for these prophets, however unlike those with priests where there’s a whole mechanism of feeding them and driving places for them to live.” So this guild of Prophets, these disciples of the prophets had to rely on donations for their sustenance, which possibly explains why Elisha is providing one of the widows of these members of this guild with these sort of cruises of oil so that she can feed her family. Some scholars have suggested a connection between the sons of the prophets and the ecstatic prophets mentioned in first Samuel. But there seems to be an argument lacking any evidence other than the vague similarity of gathered profits. Nonetheless, both the ecstatic prophets and the guild of prophets led by Elisha, give some insight into an early phase of prophetic ministry in ancient Israel, one that seems different from the one that we used to, an organized guild or a monolithic voice in the Prophet. What we have in the Old Testament are multiple voices, and multiple prophets, men and women.


    Joseph Stuart: I’m struck by the idea that these prophets, they’re not monks, or they’re not excluding themselves from society, but rather that their work is both communal and political. Can you say more about that?


    Kristian Heal: If we look at Elisha’s work in the community and especially his miracles, Elisha is a prophet of miracles. It seems to have this communal impact and this sort of political impact. He’s working within both spheres. He’s ministering directly to those in need. And he has this— as we see with most prophets, this kind of political role. He’s called to challenge, or to engage with, or to help the political situation of Israel.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah. In an American context, this may seem really unfamiliar to us. This isn’t Elisha, going around and asking for votes or doing polls, but rather he is interacting with kings. He is helping to shape policy by relaying what God wants to the rulers present. Is that accurate?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s exactly right. This is the role that he and many other prophets take. Elijah— these miracles that he performs and the ways that he benefits the community are things like healing the poisonous water for the people of Jericho, helping the indebted widow, promising the Shumite woman a son and reviving him after his death, making a meal that was poisonous edible for his disciples, feeding 100 men with just 20 loaves of bread, and making an ax head that was lost and that was borrowed rise up from the River Jordan, even his bones revive a dead person. So he has this ministry that helps in the practical situations of life, much as we find the ministry of Jesus.


    Joseph Stuart: It seems important to note here that God often intervenes in the world through his prophets. Does Elisha’s example show up in the modern days of the restoration?


    Kristian Heal: You can see that he’s doing— the types of things he’s doing, it’s useful to sort of step back and say, what kind of ways is Elijah gauging with the world? And I think we can see those kinds of ways are ways that prophets engage with the world, both anciently and today. He’s concerned about the environment, concerned about healing the environment, returning the earth as it were, turning it back to something closer to its paradisiacal glory, to support God’s people and allow them to live there. This is something like the “desert gloomy as a rose”, as the Latter-day Saints come into this part of the world where we are here at Brigham Young University. He’s interested in helping the poor and the destitute in his community. As we, as a church are, and as President Monson especially encouraged us and made a part of the mission of the church. He’s interested in providing posterity and the growth of the people, continuing livelihood, and feeding the hungry, and even in helping out with what’s been lost or borrowed, so these sort of practical ways. Those are the kinds of things we see him doing. Other kinds of ways that the church helps the community from the top to the bottom, from bishops helping in situations, to presidents of the church and prophets helping in a kind of a larger, or in individual circumstances we find with so many stories of the prophets that we get to hear, and probably many more that we don’t get to hear. So there’s something going on here, it seems to me, that has to do with the education of our souls in these works of Elisha. He’s reminding us to use our resources to help others in similar situations. Though the Lord tells us in the Doctrine and Covenants, “It is my purpose to provide for my saints, that all things are mine, but it must need to be done in mine own way. And behold, this is the way that I the Lord have agreed to provide my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” So often the prophets provide free miracles, as Peter said, to somebody in need, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have a give to you,” and then healed him. So after the prophets give of God’s power, but when we have means, God seems to require us to do good in the world.


    Joseph Stuart: In addition to building community, he is also involved in politics, meaning both within his own nation and within the business of surrounding nations. Could you give us a few examples of how Elijah is involved in politics?


    Kristian Heal: He has an army. So he heals the leprosy of Armand, the commander of the Aramian army. This is a political leader who comes to him for help. And this is that famous story of sort of humility, he strikes a troop of Baromean soldiers with blindness, and leads them to Samaria. He performs an arrow ritual with King Joash. And in other ways, he acts in this warning role that prophets often do as well. He’s announcing salvation, he’s predicting events to kings. And he even sends one of his disciples to anoint Jehu king over Israel. He’s doing things that we’ve heard in the past with people like Samuel. And these actions suggest a number of other principles in which the prophets were engaged in the world, that good government is done in consultation with prophets. Ancient Israelite government seems to suggest that both of these roles are important, that you have a political leader and a prophetic figure. We’ve spoken before about how the prophets seem to come with the kings and to rise and fall with kingship in ancient Israel, and that God intervenes in the world to save his people and that God will heal and bless those who turn to Him in faith. This seems to be an important part of this, the message of the works of Elisha as well, in the world around him.


    Joseph Stuart: Prophets also form a vital part of the national life of Israel in the same way that often Americans or Europeans or really wherever you are, you may identify strongly with one or several of your political leaders. But these prophets could also be dangerous as some folks in Second Kings discovered. Could you tell us more about the dangers that can accompany that sort of adoration?


    Kristian Heal: This is perhaps one of the most difficult stories about Elisha. We’ve been able to speak about him in very positive terms up until this point. He’s healing and blessing and serving and working. But we have this lovely story, not so lovely, but sort of interesting, compelling, disturbing story of him being mocked by a group of children for his bald head and two she bears coming out of the woods and mauling them to death.


    Joseph Stuart: Which sounded really funny to me in 10th grade seminary, until I thought about what it would actually be like for two bears to maul 40 children.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, this is a shocking moment. And I’ve been sort of thinking about what is it? What do we take away from this story? Is this one of those stories that we just sort of steer around as we do a sort of an obstacle in the road? Or how do we look at it? What can we think about it? And I think by looking at this story in connection with Elijah, this is a useful way of remembering these things that he did, remembering that when Elijah went up against the priests of Baal in this sort of great showdown on Mount Carmel, it wasn’t simply, okay, the God of Israel, Yahweh has succeeded where as Baal has failed, therefore, we can kind of go our way. No, he took the 400 priests of Baal and killed them all. This is a world of consequences. This is a world in which when God’s prophets are sort of mocked, there are consequences to that. I sort of wonder about that. Today, we sing and we thank thee o God for a prophet for reasons other than the prophet’s sort of capacity to bring about destruction upon those who mock him. We have this other view with respect to prophets.


    Aaron Gorner: This story was brought up in my Hebrew class here at BYU and Professor Perry kind of talked about one way the scholars see goatbaldy (14:06) that these narain, young men, which is interestingly paired with the Hebrew word catone.(14:14) So small young men, whatever that means, because yeladim is children, it’s clearly not children. But they somehow have an influence saying, go up one without the mantle. Dr. Perry sees it as them basically saying, if your God is real, surely he’ll deliver you from, you know, whatever they were doing to him, it’s implied. And so God sends these bears and it’s kind of seen in the Hebrew texts as a way to preserve the authority of God that this is a representation of God, and that if we mock God, it doesn’t turn out good for us. As in the Book of Mormon, it says, fools mock but they shall mourn, that God doesn’t take too kindly to us making light of sacred things.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s really lovely. I think there seems to be something— one of my favorite sort of remarks from the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith that kind of aligns with this idea where he says, “The things of God are of deep import and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, oh man, if thou will lead a soul unto salvation must stretch as high as the utmost heavens and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity. Thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble of the thoughts of God than the vain imaginations of the human heart?” There’s a seriousness about approaching God. And every now and again, in the scriptures and this doesn’t happen— it happens more in the Old Testament than elsewhere. But every now and again in the Old Testament, there are consequences for not taking God seriously. And that probably is an important message for our day as any day.


    Joseph Stuart: Now, something that sticks out to me about Elisha’s ministry is the one to one way that he is ministering to people. Aaron, do you see a message that we could take away about Elisha’s personalized ministry to the people that he encounters.


    Gorner: We see some interesting methods employed here by Elisha, things that aren’t necessarily done anywhere else in the Old Testament record. One in particular, as the healing of the Shumammite woman’s son. In the story, Elisha, he is entreated by this woman, she serves him and as a blessing to her he promises her a son because she was barren and trying to have children. This son is born, she raises him for a while. We’re not sure how long, but then he gets very sick one day when he’s old enough to talk and he dies. And so this woman runs out to Elisha and she says, you know, you need to help me, obviously paraphrasing. And so Elijah, well Elisha sends his servant, Gehazi, ahead of him to go and touch the boy with the staff to hopefully bring him back to life. Gehazi fails at this so the boy is still dead. And so Elisha, the record says, “…went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon the mouth and eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands, and he stretched himself upon the child, and the flesh of the child waxed warm, and then the child sneezes seven times, and comes back to life.” If you think about that for a second, it’s really weird to picture. Here you have an old veiny man, putting his body on a dead body of a child and rubbing his eyes on the dead eyes and mouth on the dead mouth. And it’s really not something you want to imagine. But for some reason, this brings him back to life. Scholar, Thomas Brodie, sees Second Kings 4 as source material for Luke 7, that Luke is using this well known story of Elisha’s healing or bringing back to life to physically demonstrate the spiritual power of the Christ. While the stories do not necessarily line up in super obvious ways. It’s clear to Brody that Luke here draws significantly from the Septuagint text.


    Joseph Stuart: I’d love to hear more about what Brody says. But what do you think Luke might be trying to tell us by drawing on Second Kings 4?


    Aaron Gorner: Yeah, so in Luke 7 we have, you know, here’s Jesus eating dinner at Simon the Pharisees house, and a simple woman who knows of Christ comes in and takes out this really nice perfumed oil and then pours out her vitality at the head of the Prophet Jesus, the Savior. She’s simple. And so the Pharisee thought to himself that if Jesus really knew who she was, he wouldn’t let her touch him. But Jesus, sensing this response, “Seest thou this woman, I entered into thine house and now gives me no water to my feet, but she has washed my feet with tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head, that gives me no kiss. But this woman since the time I came in, have not ceased to kiss my feet, my head with oil you did not anoint, but this woman happened on to my feet with ointment Wherefore I say unto thee, persons, which are many are forgiven, for she loved much, but to whom little has been given the same love of little.” Luke here is presenting a Savior who’s concerned with individual relationships and love beyond anything else. She was forgiven because she loved much. Jesus uses many methods of healing during His ministry, such as laying on of hands in Mark 1, using spittle in Mark 8, mud in John 9, or even pronouncing powerful words like talitha cumi in Mark 5, or hevathah in Mark 7. It is interesting to think about what these different methods say about the Savior.


    Joseph Stuart: It seems to me that the Savior knows us and loves us individually and ministers to us in that way.


    Aaron Gorner: It’s clear that in this Old Testament text, Elisha with his individual ministry to each different person that God doesn’t use the same methods for all of His children. We are all unique beings with different wounds and sensitivities and different ways of being loved or validated. It is beautiful to think of the Savior as one who loves us in a completely individual way, and who will reach out to us in an individual way. In the stories presented, it seems that healing is done not by authority but by love. This love is what manifests the power of healing wounds.


    Stuart: That’s a perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast and follow us on social media at @byumaxwell, on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu.edu? Thank you and have a great week.