Elisha

Elisha is presented in the books of Kings as Elijah’s nominated successor (1 Kings 19; 2 Kings 2). In the stories that follow (2 Kings 3-9, 13), he appears in two types of context: politically active in replacing the dynasty of Omri with Jehu and his line, and acting as an adviser to kings; and as a leader among small charismatic groups known as ‘sons of the prophets’ or ‘companies of prophets’.

Elisha begins his independent prophetic career with two contrasting actions (2 Kings 2). He heals the water of Jericho and he pronounces a curse on forty-two boys who mock his baldness, as a result of which the boys are mauled by two bears. These two incidents illustrate the miraculous power associated with Elisha’s personality, power that brings blessing to those who approach him with reverence and destruction to those who oppose or spurn him.

In the stories that follow Elisha uses this miraculous power to heal people with skin disease, help poor folk out of financial trouble and even raise a dead boy to life (1 Kings 4-5). Yet, he also strikes his servant with leprosy (2 Kings 5) and announces the death of a royal official who disbelieves his word (2 Kings 7).

Unlike his predecessor Elijah, Elisha does not criticise the idolatry of Israel and even assists the Israelite kings at times in their struggles against the Arameans (1 Kings 6-7, 13). However, he is also critical of the Omrides, tricks Jehoram during his unsuccessful raid of Moab (2 Kings 3), and inspires the coups that ultimately bring down the Omride dynasty (2 Kings 8-9).

Some modern interpreters think that Elisha is presented as an ambiguous, or even negative, character, too concerned about his power and reputation, and not always effective enough or reliable. However, overt criticism of the prophet is missing from the text of Kings. The focus is more on Elisha’s power to bring life and death to Israel and the surrounding peoples, depending on their attitude to him and to the word of Yahweh he represents.

Anthropological research suggests that Elisha and Elijah have a number of features in common with holy men from other cultures. Their works of power, especially food provision, healing and resuscitation, supernatural knowledge of secret thoughts and distant events, as well as ability to cause harm, parallel the reputation and activities of shamans in a number of societies. These ‘men of God’ most likely were ‘peripheral figures’ in Israelite society, standing at some distance from its central institutions, like the monarchy and the temple cult.

Further reading

Bergen, W. J. Elisha & the End of Prophetism. JSOTSup 286. Sheffield: Continuum, 1999.
Gilmour, R. Juxtaposition and the Elisha Cycle. LHBOTS 594. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Moore, R. D. God Saves: Lessons from the Elisha Stories. JSOTSup 95. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.
Overholt, T. W. Cultural Anthropology and the Old Testament. GBS. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.