Here’s the link to my combined podcast of lessons 29-30, and transcript. These chapters are about the transition from Elijah to Elisha and some of Elisha’ prophetic acts, which raise questions about the varying nature of prophets and prophetic succession. The manual suggests that in 2:1-10, “Elijah prepares Elisha to become the new prophet.” This kind of language assumes several things, namely, that there is only “one” prophet, namely,“the prophet,” the one prophet who is THE Prophet. Now both the Bible, Book of Mormon, and LDS history are slightly at odds here. How so? With the Church’s structure today, the President of the Church is often referred to as “The Prophet” meaning, “the current president of the Church.” This usage represents a shift in terminology.
For much of LDS Church history, “the prophet” referred not the current President of the Church but to Joseph Smith. This began to change in 1951 when David O. McKay became President of the Church. With his shock of white hair and white suit, as well as his magnetic and charismatic personality, he looked and acted the role of a prophet, to the extent that even non-LDS people who had no idea who he was wanted to know. (See the excellent biography for some stories along these lines, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism)
By the mid-50’s, McKay was being referred to as “the prophet.” He would serve as president of the Church until 1970, nearly 20 years. By that point, the tradition had shifted, and whoever occupied the office of President of the Church became colloquially known as “the prophet.”
In my teaching experiences, equating “prophet” with “President of the Church” has led to some confusion and presentism when reading the scriptures. Seeing that so-and-so is “a prophet” leads to assumptions of modern priesthood office, of Church hierarchy and structure, and that that prophet is a *lone* prophet and head of a formal organization. I don’t think those assumptions are justifiable. It is clear from the Bible and Book of Mormon that there are often multiple prophets simultaneously. “Prophet” then, is not equivalent to “President of the Church.”
This is all in the background, when the manual says “Elijah prepares Elisha to become the new prophet.” Now, there is a certainly a sense in which Elisha steps up to fill Elijah’s shoes (see 1ki 19:16ff). However, this kind of succession story is fairly rare, and I don’t think we should take it as paradigmatic or the norm. In the last post, I mentioned different kinds of prophets. Elijah had considered himself not just a lone prophet, but virtually the last true disciple of Yahweh. Unknown to him, Obadiah had hidden away 100 other prophets (1Ki 18:4).
While Elijah was a loner, Elisha is associated with one of the prophetic groups, who may or may not be prophets themselves, depending on how we understand the Hebrew. One of these groups is at Bethel, another at Jericho (2Ki 2:3, 5). Elisha will become a leader of one of these groups. Prophets are of different kinds. Elisha, who is not mentioned outside of 2Ki 2-9, inside or outside the Bible, does not seem to do much in the way of preaching or teaching, but much in the way of miracles. He’s a man of action.
Elisha is an unusual that way, in that the texts about him seem heavily focused on miracles. Indeed, Elisha approaches omniscience, cleans up environmental issues (note the later editorial tag “to this day” attached to the healing of the salty water), heals the sick and transfers that illness to a greedy servant, makes iron float, causes a container to fill endlessly with oil, and bears protect his reputation. He induces blindness in the Aramean army. After Elisha’s death, mere contact with his bones brings the dead back to life! (2Ki 13:20-21)
Should we take these as paradigmatic characteristics of all prophets? I don’t think so. The primary characteristic of a prophet is not priesthood, nor hierarchical authority, nor miracle working or extensive preaching or writing. The primary characteristic of a prophet is that God has chosen to work or speak through them for the good of his children, and that can be done in a variety of ways and contexts. Prophethood is a gift of the spirit, not an ordained office.
In Elisha’s case, these miracles serve to indicate or prove, in some way, his succession to Elijah. He does what Elijah does, but more so, he is Elijah to the next level, Elijah upgraded. On this note, some have misunderstood Elisha’s request for a double portion of the spirit. This is not asking for 2x what Elijah has. Rather, this is the language of the firstborn son, who received a portion 2x the size of his other brothers. IOW, if there were three sons, the inheritance was divided into four parts, and the firstborn received 2/4 while the other two brothers received 1/4 each (see Numbers 11:17 and 24-26.
- “father”- “The ambiguous term ‘father’ (2 Kgs 2:12; 13:14), used of both Elijah and Elisha, is often interpreted as an honorific title designating the leader of a prophetic guild.- “Elisha (Person)” Anchor Bible Dictionary. “In addition to indicating a biological relationship, father indicates a tutorial one: “instructor, counselor, teacher, leader” (Gen. 45:8; Judg. 17:10; Jer. 31:9). Israel’s chariots and horsemen: The same title, possibly an epithet of Elijah as Israel’s defender, is addressed to Elisha when he is about to die in 13:14. In the case of Elisha, it may have been based on the incident recorded in 6:17–18. No similar story is recorded about Elijah.”- The Jewish Study Bible
- Bears. 2:23-25 After calling him “baldy” Elisha curses a number of males (in spite of KJV “children” their age is indeterminate, but probably skews young or teenage). Bears then show up and rip them to pieces. Artificial baldness or head-shaving was forbidden in Israel, so it’s likely he was naturally bald. Physical details are rarely provided unless relevant, so what is the relevance? It is likely the fact that Elijah was said to be a hairy man (2Ki 1:8) and the “mantle” he wore contributed to that hairiness.
“If Elijah was a hairy man… Elisha’s baldness would be a stark contrast and perhaps suggest to some that he could never have the same powers as his master. This taunt would therefore be a disavowal of his prophetic office and calling and would be strikingly refuted by the immediate fulfillment of his curse. Therefore in verses 19–22 Elisha removed a curse, while in 23–24 he effectuated a curse.”-The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
“Here, as in vv. 19–22, Elisha does and says something to produce the desired result. First he turns and looks at the boys, then curses them in the name of the LORD. He does not pray that they be punished, although he himself calls down the punishment. The bears did not kill and eat. The large carnage is mentioned as an indication that their behavior was not natural. This story, like the Elijah story in 1:9–16, emphasizes that the man of God must be treated with proper respect.” – The Jewish Study Bible.
For an LDS treatment, see Fred Woods, “Elisha and the Children: the Question of Accepting Prophetic Succession.” BYU Studies 32:3 (1992)
It may seem silly to us that because one prophet was hairy, another couldn’t be as powerful or valid simply because he was bald. And yet, I suspect many of us, as we get older, look at the succession of Church presidents and wonder if this one is “as good” as that one because of such superficial or even very real differences. Once again, prophets are of different kinds.
- 2Ki 5:1 leper and “leprosy”- Leprosy in the Bible is rarely actually leprosy or Hanson’s disease, but refers to a variety of conditions that affected the skin or other surfaces. Mold and mildew on a house wall was also called “leprosy” for example (e.g. Lev 14:34, 44, 55)
- 5:3 Samaria– Fortified into the capital city of the n. kingdom by Omri (1Ki 16:23-24), and the surrounding area also took on the name of the capital.
- Elisha and Elijah in the New Testament- Jesus later uses the stories of both Elijah and Elisha in his hometown, emphasizing that their miracles were not always done to Israelites, even in times of need. He does this by way of explanation as to why he performs no miracles in his home town.
Luke 4:22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.(NRSV)
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