Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

What Purpose do Elijah and Elisha Serve in the Books of 1 and 2 Kings?

The study of 1 and 2 Kings often assumes that the division between the two books was an arbitrary one that was made about halfway between the beginning and end of the text of Kings. The investigation of this question reveals not only a rationale behind the division between the two ‘books’; it also raises the larger question of the contrasting roles played by the kings who begin and end the text, and by the prophets whose central role in the books provides hope and life. By tracing major narrative arcs across the beginning and end of 1 and 2 Kings as well as across the appearances and departures of Elijah and Elisha, the themes of physical death and spiritual life set a dramatic tone in the pages of these accounts and provide hope in the midst of judgement.

1. Introduction
This paper will consider the role of 2 Kings and especially the roles of Elijah and Elisha as providing the conclusion, or, better, the greater and more lasting fulfilment, of what was begun in 1 Kings 1. It is clear that the figures of Elijah and Elisha play key roles in the central chapters of the books of Kings, from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 13. Their prominence and the centrality of much of their work are so key to this part of the text that it regularly interrupts the normal and expected sequence of the kings of Judah and of Israel…

2. Why Does 2 Kings Begin Where it Does?
Elijah and Elisha Bring Life and Death
Elijah manifests the divine power through his word. He calls down lethal fire from heaven upon two groups that come to arrest him. When the third leader of his company begs Elijah to spare him, the prophet relents only to visit the king and announce Ahaziah’s death. In 1 Kings 1 and 2 the first king of the Davidic dynasty also dies.

In contrast to royal death, in 2 Kings 2 the emphasis is on a double ‘spirit’. The role of the spirit transfer between the prophets Elijah and Elisha contrasts with the passing of kingship, which is hereditary. Rather than the royal transfer of David, where the first king passes the kingdom to his son Solomon, in the case of Elisha, a non-dynastic prophetic succession is a matter of the spirit. As 1 Kings begins with the question of royal succession through hereditary means, 2 Kings begins with the question of prophetic succession through the spirit. Jericho’s company of prophets witness Elijah’s ascension. The prophetic ministry is life giving. While the fire of death in chapter 1 becomes a fire to draw the prophet to God in chapter 2, the warmth that David tries to find in Abishag dissipates from him in 1 Kings 1:1–2:10 and he passes from this world along ‘the way of all the earth’ (Josh 23:14). A king dies at the beginning of both 1 and 2 Kings. The prophet lives and does not die…

3. The Prophets Reverse Political Expectations
Two arcs remain. Although briefer in content, they reinforce the picture of the initial connection and contrast between the kings and the prophets. A second arc brings us to consider the conflict between the family of Ahab, especially Jezebel, and both Elijah and then Elisha.24 We may recall the great victory of the prophet Elijah against the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18). When Queen Jezebel learns of this, she sends a message to Elijah (1 Kgs 19:2) that he will certainly die by her powerful hand. Elijah escapes and is encouraged by God at Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19). Yahweh proceeds to reverse the roles. Despite the apparent powerlessness of the prophet, Elijah ends his earthly life by ascending to heaven with a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11-12). Far from dying, he becomes virtually the only person ever to ascend to heaven without death.25 Yet, during all the time covered in the narratives from 2 Kings 2 through to and including chapter 9, there is no indication of conviction or remorse from Jezebel. In the final scenes of her life in 2 Kings 9:30-37, Jezebel confirms that she will oppose Jehu or any representative of Yahweh. The murder she planned for Elijah comes down upon her own head. In a divinely orchestrated turn of events, the most zealous Yahwist, Jehu, oversees her brutal death. As Elijah ascended into heavenly bliss, Jezebel descends from her window into a violent death upon the dirt (2 Kgs 9:33). Dogs, despised animals, consume her body and deposit her remains unburied as dung in the open fields. The themes of exaltation and humiliation, of life and death, are thoroughly reversed in a dramatic manner. The prophet is seen as stronger than the strongest of kings and queens in the most powerful Northern Kingdom of Israel. He achieves life over death in a spectacular ascent to heaven. However, the doomed house of Ahab, represented here by the queen, has not enough power to preserve its leader alive, let alone others, nor enough respect to provide a decent burial for her…

4. The Prophets Give Life
A third arc brings us to the account of Elisha after his death and the effect of his bones on bringing back to life a corpse in 2 Kings 13:20-21. Elisha’s death does not signal the end of his impact. He continues to bless the people of Israel, even in death and seemingly by accident. The blessing is the miracle of life beyond hope, of life after what appears to be death, and of life in the midst of mortal danger.

Elijah’s first interaction with a mother and child results in the prophet’s first miracle of giving life. In 1 Kings 17 the child dies and the mother appeals to Elijah, who proceeds to bring her son back to life. Actually, this is not quite accurate. In fact, Elijah cries to Yahweh and it is Yahweh who returns life to the boy. In 2 Kings 4:34-35, a similar account with Elisha also leads to a boy’s revival to life, this time with no intercession to God. The divine power works directly as a result of Elisha’s actions toward the boy, an example of the ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit that enables him to work more powerfully than his mentor. Nevertheless, the revival to life that Elijah exhibits at the beginning of his ministry provides an inclusio at the end of the life of the second prophet, Elisha…

Read the rest of the article here: “Purpose for Elijah and Elisha in the Books of Kings,” Tyndale Bulletin 74 (2023) 49-64 online. https://doi.org/10.53751/001c.75427

See pp. 50-56 for the Hebrew and Greek texts and their connections; and pp. 56-61 for the literary and theological significance of the stories of Elijah and Elisha as arcs across the books of Kings.

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