Of Mentors and Mentees 2 Kings 2:1-18

Of Mentors and Mentees 2 Kings 2:1-18 June 7, 2016

We all have had mentors in our lives, acknowledged and unacknowledged, and thus we have all been mentees, pupils, students of those mentors. My wife of nearly 47 years, Diana, has been my best and most trusted mentor, leading and guiding me to emotional parts of myself that I hardly knew I had, to depths of love and loving I would never have experienced without her insistent and tender directions. She was, is, and remains the true light of my living.

However, I also had a mentor for my intellectual life, a wise and cherubic scholar of the Hebrew Bible, W.J.A. Power, a transplanted Canadian from Toronto who has lived nearly all his life in Dallas, Texas, having taught at Perkins School of Theology for over forty years before his retirement. Bill taught Hebrew at the seminary and especially what he called “baby Hebrew,” the introductory class at which he was a master. My participation in that class in 1968-69 changed the course of my life forever. After about a month in that class with Bill Power, I just knew I wanted to do what he did; I wanted to teach Hebrew as well as all the subsidiary fields that surround the language: history, culture, theology, literature. I saw myself as mentee to Bill’s role as mentor.

And so it was with Elijah and Elisha. The former is described to us as the latter’s mentor. In that relationship, Elijah fulfills the demand of YHWH to him on the holy mountain right after Elijah has been challenged to get about his prophetic business rather than remain with YHWH on the mountain, contemplating the divine mystery. Elijah went to Horeb because he claimed he was alone, “one prophet for YHWH.” Wrong, shouts YHWH! There are in fact seven thousand others “who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). Elijah needs to open his eyes to see that he is far from alone as a follower of the one God.

One of his first acts after YHWH’s call is to “anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19:16). He finds his successor in a field plowing, hitched to the twelfth of twelve oxen. When Elijah sees him, he “threw his mantle (cloak) over him” (1 Kings 19:19). This action appears to be a sign that Elisha is the prophetic heir of Elijah, but we note that Elisha does not immediately follow his master, but first asks if he might “kiss his father and mother.” Elijah grants this request but uses an odd phrase in doing so. “ Go, return, for what have I done to you” (1 Kings 19:19)? What does Elijah mean by that enigmatic phrase? The only thing he has done is toss his cloak over Elisha, an act that implies his choice as new prophet. Yet, Elisha has unfinished business with his family before running after the mysterious Elijah, and perhaps Elijah himself is less than eager to choose this particular mentee, implying by his peculiar choice of words that Elisha’s demand to take leave of his family before following him is less than what the mentor expected. We Christians are of course put in mind of Jesus’s harsh demand to his followers to leave all and follow him without question. When a would-be disciple begs time to say goodbye, Jesus speaks quite directly that “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). The mentor-mentee relationship thus begins rather shakily, and that difficulty will not be removed as the story proceeds.

My relationship with Bill was a similar one in certain respects. He recognized in me an eager student who wished to absorb from him all that he knew. Yet, he was reluctant to allow me to get too close to him, though we had fully seven semester-long classes together in the three years of my seminary career. In addition, he became my dissertation advisor as I pursued a doctoral degree. He had written his own dissertation on the book of Job, and I intended to do the same in my work. The difficulty in our relationship came to a head the year I was writing my dissertation, the same year he was on sabbatical leave in New York City. He simply did not respond to my writing, though he had agreed to do so while he was out of Dallas. I finally had to go to the head of the graduate program and beg him to intervene; I needed to finish my work (I had taken a position as associate pastor of a bustling church in another state), and Bill was not helping. Finally, with a rather hard push from the director of the program, Bill did begin to read my work and comment upon it. I must admit that the comments were little better than cursory ones. They made the completion of my work rather easy, but I was never convinced that Bill took that work all that seriously.

When Elisha finally decided to follow Elijah, he threw himself into the work of the prophet completely, becoming Elijah’s closest companion. But all too soon YHWH determined that Elijah’s prophetic work was over, and made the fact clear to the prophet. There is a deep pathos in the relationship of mentor and mentee as Elisha attempts to come to grips with the imminent disappearance of Elijah. The older prophet perhaps attempts to soften the blow of his departure as the two men are leaving Gilgal, a place just a few miles from Jericho and the Jordan River. “Stay here,” says Elijah, “because YHWH has sent me as far as Bethel,” some ten miles west of Gilgal (2 Kings 2:2). But Elisha is having none of that. “As YHWH lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” (2 Kings 2:2). Surely one of the reasons I decided to remain in Dallas for my graduate study was I did to wish to leave my mentor, Bill Power. He knew Job, and I wanted to write on Job; why should I leave this vast source of wit and wisdom?

When the two reach Bethel, holy site of the famous dream of Jacob, the patriarch (Gen 28:10-22), a company of prophets meets Elisha and taunts him by shouting that YHWH is about to take his master away. He responds to them, “I know; shut up” (2 Kings 2:5)! I translate more colloquially because the modern “shut up” is certainly the essence of what the sad and frustrated Elisha must be feeling as he attempts to face the loss of his mentor. This scene is repeated as Elijah is commanded by YHWH to head back east to Jericho and urges Elisha to stay in Bethel. As before, he will not abandon his mentor. Neither will he leave Elijah when the prophet is called by YHWH to the Jordan, just a mile or two from Jericho. When they come to the Jordan, Elijah rolls up his cloak, strikes the waters of the river, and it splits in two, a clear reference to the parting of the Sea of Reeds when YHWH saved Israel from the might of Egypt.

After the prophets have passed through the river on dry ground, Elijah asks his heir, “What can I do for you before I am taken from you” (2 Kings 2:9)? This question is nearly identical to that odd comment Elijah made to Elisha when he called him at first: “what have I done to you”? Elisha replies perhaps as all mentees wish to reply: “Let there be on me a double dose of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9)! A literal translation of this enigmatic phrase might be: “Let there be now a double mouth with your spirit on me.” Elisha appears to want what Elijah has, except twice as much! Exactly! I wanted what Bill Power had, and truth be told, I wanted even more of it!

Elijah responds to this rather cheeky demand by first saying, “You have asked a hard thing” (2 Kings 2:10). And so we mentees always do. He then adds, “If you see me taken up, then it will be granted you; if not, then it will not” (2 Kings 2:10). Is this merely a magic part of the story? I think not. We mentees must never take our eyes off of our mentors, forgetting them in our rush to stand in their places. We must watch them right up until the end. And so Elisha does. He witnesses the terrifying fiery chariot that whisks Elijah into the sky on the back of a whirlwind, watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen” (2 Kings 2:12)! Elisha’s very last words as he sees Elijah disappear, acknowledges that Elijah is his father, his mentor, his master.

But the story has Bible_primer,_Old_Testament,_for_use_in_the_primary_department_of_Sunday_schools_(1919)_(14595468018)not quite ended. The storm wind subsides, and the cloak of Elijah has drifted down to the ground. Elisha picks it up, rolls it as Elijah had done, strikes the Jordan with it, and the waters split just as before. EChapelle_des_Carmélites_-_Interieur_-_Élisée_divisant_les_eaux_du_Jourdain_avec_le_manteau_d'Élielisha is indeed heir to the great Elijah. However, when he is approached by a cadre of the prophets, all crying that “the spirit of Elijah now rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:15), they refuse to believe that the wonderful Elijah is truly gone from the earth. They urge Elisha to send out search parties to see whether he is hidden or injured somewhere. Elisha at first refuses. But, “when they urged him until he was ashamed” (2 Kings 2:17), he agreed to their request. After three days’ search, they found nothing, and Elisha taunts them, “Did I not say to you, don’t go” (2 Kings 2:18)? What is all this? Elisha first takes charge and admits that Elijah will not again be found; Elisha is now prophet in the land. But finally he is “shamed” by their demands to search for the absent prophet. Exactly why is the new master ashamed?

I suggest that Elisha is ashamed for this reason: his demand for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and power was an arrogant request to be more than his mentor had been, an attempt to outstrip him, to surpass him. Some years after Bill Power had retired from Perkins and I had been on the faculty for some twenty years, Bill invited me to lunch, something he had simply never done in all of our years together. We went to his favorite greasy spoon hamburger joint not far from campus. After we had eaten, he turned to me and said, “Someday you will know what it is to have a student who is better than you.” It was something he clearly had thought about for a long time. He meant me, and I was stunned. I was witnessing the attempted disappearance of my mentor in a fiery chariot, buoyed by a whirlwind. I was having none of it. “Bill, you and are vastly different people. I am in no way better than you. We both have our strengths and our weaknesses. There is room in our world for both of us.” He sat silently, and we finished our burgers in comfortable colleagueship, mentor and mentee now become something more, friends, both mentors, indeed.

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  • billmcreynolds

    What a lovely reflection you bring to this text! When this Presbyterian was at Perkins 25 years ago, I missed studying homiletics with you (Bill McElvaney, may he rest in peace, instead), but I do have fond memories of Dr. Power’s classes. He even agreed to leading a small group reading of Jeremiah with several of his students. We were more than a little overwhelmed when, in addition to Dr. Power, Ellen Charry joined us.