The Occasional Danger of Trusting a Prophet: Reflections for Transfiguration Sunday

A three-day search yields no sign of the prophet, of course, and then Elisha attempts to save face by saying to the failed searchers, "Did I not say to you, do not go?" (2 Kings 2:18). Well, he did say that, but not consistently. Is this new prophet altogether to be trusted in his role?

Two more prophetic actions quickly occur. First, Elisha is asked by an unnamed city to sweeten their water source, which he proceeds to do, using the unlikely material of salt to do the trick. The water is immediately made drinkable so that the city may prosper. And so it does "even to this day," as the storyteller concludes his tale (2 Kings 2:19-22).

But now comes the notorious story of the bears and its mauling of some young boys. Elisha appears in these stories to be especially sensitive to the demands and comments of others. He was hurt by the gang of prophets' constant taunting about Elijah's coming death; he was forced to look for Elijah by this same gang, though he knew that the prophet would never be found; and now some boys shout after him that he is hair challenged; i.e., he is bald and they demand that he leave their city of Bethel. In response, Elisha curses the boys "in the name of YHWH," whereupon two she bears bound out of the forest and maul forty-two of the boys. And leaving the bleeding and ravaged children in his wake, Elisha went on to Mount Carmel, site of Elijah's great triumph over the four hundred priests of Baal, and then returned to Samaria (2 Kings 2:23-25). By returning to Carmel, Elisha forces us to make a terrible comparison between Elijah's heroic stand against the Baal priests and Elisha's petty assault against some cat-calling children.

This wretched tale is most easily understood as a signal of great prophetic power, and I assume that is the reason it has been remembered. But when it is added to two other stories of Elisha's obvious thin-skinned nature, his inability to assess and withstand the demands and taunts of others, it provides for us a negative model of a prophet. Can such a one be trusted to bring to us the word of YHWH, or will his own personality, his own obvious weakness, cloud that word for us so that it cannot be fully trusted?

Once again I would argue that the Bible is incapable of telling simple stories. Even here, as a prophet succeeds to the task of the great Elijah, we are warned that his actions and words should be tested and evaluated with great care. Is that not doubly true for us, we would-be prophets, who are charged with rightly handling the word of truth for our people? Should we not all carefully assess what we are told to be words from YHWH, since they are, after all, pouring out of the mouth of one who is all too human? And even more should we who are speaking the "word of God" not be very careful to say and to recognize that our word and God's word too often get mashed up together so as to make easy distinctions between them finally impossible? The longer we preach, the more such thoughts ought to trouble and command us in that task.

12/2/2022 9:10:37 PM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.