The Next Faithful Step
Elijah and Elisha in Succession
The question of succession of leadership is important if the impact of any given institution is to outlive the limited years of administration of a particular leader. Succession looks different in different contexts. In the political world, the United States handles presidential succession in a different way than Great Britain handles the succession of the monarch, or of the prime minister. Churches with episcopal structures place the authority for decisions about succession in higher levels of the episcopacy. A congregational or independent church looks to local decision-making: the church membership, or perhaps the choice of the retiring minister. In between these approaches is the representative model, seen notably in Presbyterian communions, that looks to assemblies of delegates to fill vacant pulpits and thus to maintain the presence and witness of the people of God.1
In any and all of these contexts, the actual event of succession can be triumphant, or disastrous, or anything in between, and if we have spent any time at all in a church the examples come easily to mind. The question of succession itself has therefore received fresh attention in the literature of leadership. For instance, a recent collection of essays on the “leadership traditions” of various Judaeo-Christian communities includes the question of how succession handled, including recruitment, cultivation, education, and support.2 It has led also to an engagement with relevant biblical literature. This essay looks at the relationship of Elijah and Elisha as it is portrayed in 1 and 2 Kings to see what insights may be found regarding the problem of succession.
The focal text for the succession of Elisha in Elijah’s ministry is I Kings 19. At the start of the chapter Elijah is at a high point of his success as a prophet, having demonstrated the sovereignty of Israel’s God over against Baal, and having slaughtered the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:38-40). His career takes a fast tumble, however, as Queen Jezebel hears of it, and threatens to slaughter him for his acts; he “runs for his life” (19:3) into the wilderness, then continues his flight for forty days into Sinai. At Horeb, the mountain where Moses received the Commandments, Elijah’s ministry is set back on track as the Lord commands him to head back into the fight. There are three components of this command, three designations or anointings that Elijah must perform: he must christen Hazael of Syria as the appointed scourge of Israel, and Jehu of Israel as the appointed champion of Israel, and Elisha as the appointed “prophet in your place” (19:15-18). Elijah immediately leaves to find Elisha plowing in the field, and “throws his mantle over him.” Elisha joins Elijah’s company from that time, “ministering to him” (19:19-21).
This passage points to a number of elements in succession. The first is the value or advantage of settled succession, not least to the prophet. While we cannot say that we hear of the burnt-out Elijah being “comforted” at Horeb, the prospect of help at least gets him to leave his cave and return to his prophetic work. Secondly the locus of succession is clearly in the Lord’s will. Succession is not something Elijah conceives or requests; God both initiates the idea and announces the candidate. Third, the immediate results are somewhat ambiguous. Elisha responds promptly and faithfully (as we must understand 19:20-21, resisting the temptation to read into it the Gospel encounter of Luke 9:61-62). But we have no details about what his “ministry” to Elijah entailed, or what it had to do with succession. The comment that “he poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11) does not add much. There is a community of the “sons of the prophets” that seems to have gathered around Elijah (1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 3:5), but Elisha remains distinct from them. Was the relationship a mentoring one? Was Elisha learning attitudes, methods, techniques, life style? There is nothing in our literature to encourage such hypotheses. In fact the second important text touching on the question of succession only adds to the ambiguity of the relationship of these men and the purpose of their overlapping association.
2 Kings 2 describes the ascension of Elijah and the commencement of Elisha’s ministry. Here is established the clear succession of Elisha to Elijah. But the second clear theme in the narrative is the element of distance between the two men. Elijah understands the time has come for the Lord to take him, and Elisha accompanies him toward the wilderness. Elijah however desires to make the final journey alone, but Elisha refuses this. Elijah’s motives in asking are not clear, though Elisha’s persistence seems to express his readiness to step into the new work. Asked by Elijah what he would wish as a final favor, Elisha asks for “a double portion of your spirit to be upon me” (2:9). Scholars debate the precise meaning of this request: does Elisha want to be twice the prophet that Elijah was? Is he asking for the “twin” or equal of Elijah’s anointing? Is he asking for the traditional bequest given the eldest son of an estate divided among many?3 A decision on this point needs to take into account that Elijah sees this request as (1) difficult, presumably because it asks for much, but also as (2) impossible, since only the Lord can grant such a request. And so Elijah leaves it to the Lord, who will disclose Godself to Elisha or not: “If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not” (2:10). Elisha does see the ascension, does attain the prophet’s mantle, and does embark on a prophetic career (2:12, 13-14, 15-25). There are ambiguities here about the extent to which Elijah understood what was happening, ambiguities finally resolved by the decisive actions of the Lord. The “double portion” was granted; in our text, it means that Elisha succeeded Elijah as prophet in Israel.
Is it right to say that Elisha is the successor to Elijah’s ministry? The answer is probably both yes and no. Elijah himself “appears abruptly”4 in no obvious prophetic succession, and thus personal succession is not strictly necessary. But Elisha is explicitly a “prophet in [Elijah’s] place.” Other connections between the two prophets are important to the text; the Horeb story together with the ascension story give huge profile to the idea of succession; the mantle which appears in both stories only represents the connectivity of the call of these two. Further, certain (but not all) of the elements in Elijah’s service reappear or are completed in Elisha’s service. The way of the nation of Israel as a whole, as well as the care of individuals within the nation, are the focus both of Elijah (e.g., 17:1-2 and 17:3-7) and of Elisha (e.g., 2 Kings 3:13-20; and 2 Kings 4:8-37) and characterize both ministries. As to particular details, the anointing of Jehu expected of Elijah was in fact accomplished by Elisha; and the fate of Jezebel prophesied by Elijah is brought about under Elisha. In these ways we see Elisha “carrying on” what Elijah began.
But in other ways the ministries are very different. Elijah is much more the loner; Elisha lives in towns and has regular connections with ordinary folk (such as the Shunnamite woman, 2 Kings 4:8-37). A result is that there are more stories of Elisha’s miracles among the people, and in that respect more parallels with the ministry of Jesus.5 Elijah’s fundamental attitude toward God seems more problematic that Elisha’s; where Elijah “runs for his life,” Elisha follows eagerly, asking for all the opportunity he can get. Even the texts reflect a difference; the stories about Elijah tend to take up whole chapters, while those about Elisha are much briefer and varied. If all of this points to anything, perhaps it is that the nature, direction, and success of these ministries have more to do with personality and circumstance than with the mere matter of succession. It’s finally possible to argue the theological point that Elisha’s ministry is not strictly speaking in succession to Elijah; rather it is a succession of prophetic ministry to the Lord, linked to Elijah’s and subsequent to it, but which represents the Lord much more vitally than it represent Elijah.
The traditional approaches to which we alluded in the first paragraphs are all conscientious attempts to negotiate the human and the divine aspects of ministerial call and succession. Too often what we experience is the human side, with its particular dynamics, successes, and failures. But each of these traditions must also leave themselves open to the strong theological challenge that comes from these texts in 1 and 2 Kings, that succession with its clarities and it ambiguities remains a vertical responsibility to the proclamation of the word of God, one that may transcend institution and personality.
As T. R. Hobbs puts it, the commonality of our two prophets lies, despite their differences, in the strength and integrity of their respective witness: “In Elijah and Elisha, Israel knew that ‘there was a prophet in Israel,’ and that ‘there was a God in Israel.’ …They had in common the heart and sole of prophecy: the uncompromising championship of the word of God in human affairs.”6