Elijah the Reticent Prophet?

PIAZZETTA Giovanni Battista | Elijah Taken Up in the Chariot of Fire. | | Italian | Baroque

I have spent a fair bit of time in the study of the Elijah texts in 1-2 Kings (and continue to work on such for an upcoming commentary on 1 Kings). One thing that keeps bothering me about Elijah is his apparent reticence toward passing his prophetic ministry on to Elisha.

I’m still (honestly) bothered by the character of Elijah throughout his collected stories. And I’m not alone as witnessed in several recently published works.* He may take up the role of the eschatological prototype prophet in later traditions (Malachi 4.5-6; Sirach 48.12; 4Q246; 4Q521; 4Q558; Matt.17.10-12; Luke 1.17), but he is a complex and conflicted character in the narratives portraying him.

He was instructed to “anoint” Elisha (and Hazael and Jehu for that matter; 1 Kings 19.15-16), but simply throws his cloak over him as he passes by (1 Kings 19.19). Talk about a seeming passive-aggressive concession to imparting the prophetic anointing. In fact, he fails to follow through with the clear instruction from the LORD to go back the way he came and go to Damascus to anoint Hazael as new king of Aram, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi, new king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat as replacement prophet to carry out the final judgments against Ahab and his house (and by default the kingdom of Israel). Elijah never does anoint either Hazael or Jehu (both of which will only later be appointed by Elisha after Elijah is gone). Nor does he go to Damascus. The narrator has him going and finding Elisha and casting his hairy cloak over him as he continues on his way (to who knows where).

Then we find him apparently desiring to get rid of Elisha as Elisha persists against Elijah and the sons of the prophets who all seek to dissuade him (2 Kings 2.2-6). We are never told why in the narrative. In fact, Elijah keeps insisting Elisha stay behind at each city as he is being led to go to another location: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan. We also see Elijah only reticently relenting to Elisha’s requests by not even seeking its fulfillment, but just handing it over to the LORD as if he doesn’t really care if it happens or not (2 Kings 2.10). He seems throughout the text to not actually want Elisha in his place as prophet of Israel.

He certainly remains a rather troubling character (and not only for the house of Ahab, but also for the readers of his stories). But perhaps I am over-reading these texts. What do you think in light of these narrative indicators?

* Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson, eds., Characters and Characterization in the Book of Kings (T & T Clark, 2020) and Roy L. Heller. The Characters of Elijah and Elisha and the Deuteronomic Evaluation of Prophecy: Miracles and Manipulation (LHBOTS 671; Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2018).

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3 Responses to Elijah the Reticent Prophet?

  1. Robby Kagarise says:

    Good questions. How do you take the “you have asked a hard thing” line from Elijah? Do you see any clues in this for your questions?

    • Rick Wadholm says:

      I read it as almost avoiding responsibility for what may happen. It certainly shows deference to the divine prerogative, but there are enough other cues that cause me pause on whether it is him abandoning personal engagement on this.

      • Robby Kagarise says:

        Interesting. Some years ago, I flipped from reading it as having to do with divine prerogative (as in, “it’s really hard to get this from God”) to a commentary on the harsh reality of a life lived with this sort of prophetic gift (as in, “you have asked for a hard thing to live with”). I came to see the multiple attempts to ditch Elisha as Elijah giving him the opportunity to opt out while there was still time or, to put it another way, as efforts to make sure Elisha was serious about taking on this burden. Your questions make me want to go back and probe through the story again.

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