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A. Elijah Is Taken Away By YHWH Into Heaven And His Spirit Comes on Elisha Who Re-enters Canaan (2 Kings 2:1-12.2.18 ).
In this remarkable account we have the first definite indication in Scripture that a man can be taken up into Heaven. Such conceptions were generally avoided in Israel because of polytheistic ideas about the world of the gods. Any detailed reference to Heaven would have been misunderstood in those terms. Thus even here we learn the fact, but are given no details about it whatsoever. God wanted men to concentrate on living their lives in this world, in spiritual communication with Himself, not to be speculating on the next world. But for all believers from then on the taking of Elijah was an indication that death was not the end, without taking the matter any further (but compare Psalms 16:11; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 23:6, which are Psalms of David).
The account commences by making clear that what will happen is the sovereign purpose of YHWH Himself, ‘and it came about, when YHWH would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven’ (2 Kings 2:1). Man was not involved in the decision in any way. Unlike myths in other countries it was not a question of a man seeking to pierce the world of the gods and obtain immortality. It was all of God’s doing. Elijah’s ministry had been fulfilled and God was using the opportunity to establish the faith of Elisha, while at the same time taking His faithful servant to Himself. Incidentally the emphasis is clearly on Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind, not in a chariot of fire. The ‘chariots of Israel’ were not for general conveyance purposes, but in order to make clear to Elisha that his dependence must be on ‘the things that are (usually) invisible’. Compare 2 Kings 6:17. From this moment on Elisha never doubted that he was surrounded by the chariots of God.
We are not given any indication as to when this event occurred. It is placed here in order to emphasise the superiority of Elisha’s ‘coronation’ to that of Jehoram’s. But it did not necessarily occur before it, and the letter that Elijah sent to Jehoram of Judah (2 Chronicles 21:12), no doubt early in his reign as the direction of his reign became apparent, suggests otherwise (although his tendencies might have been apparent during his co-regency so that the letter could have been written in readiness for when he had become sole king, and delivered posthumously). Nor is this contradicted by the fact that Elisha was consulted by the kings in chapter 3. Elisha was consulted there because he was available to hand, on a special assignment to the army, not necessarily because Elijah was dead. Indeed the account suggests that his credibility at that stage was dependent on the recent relationship that he had had with Elijah as his ‘servant’ (2 Kings 3:11). This had seemingly ceased because of this special assignment, but it still gave him, as a young prophet, credibility.
The significance of the details of the journey should not be overlooked. They moved from Bethel, to Jericho, to the Jordan, followed by the miraculous crossing of the Jordan, which was the precise reversal of what had happened when Israel had first taken possession of Canaan under Joshua. In view of the parallel miracle at the Jordan this surely cannot be coincidental. Elisha would then reverse the journey the opposite way round. It was an indication that YHWH was offering Israel, through Elisha, a new beginning, something which increases the significance of what then happened at Bethel.
The passing on of the Spirit to Elisha looks back to the similar occurrences with Moses and the elders (Numbers 11:16-4.11.17) and Moses and Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9). Elisha was Elijah’s God-appointed successor. Nevertheless Elijah would not presume to promise him the firstborn’s portion (the double portion) of ‘the spirit of Elijah’. What was to be given was in YHWH’s hands to give or not to give. The Spirit is not at man’s disposal but at God’s. He knew, of course, that Elisha would to some extent be blessed with the Spirit, but it was not for him to determine to what extent and in what way. That was for God to decide.
a And it came about, when YHWH would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven, that Elijah went down with Elisha from Gilgal (2 Kings 2:1).
b And Elijah said to Elisha, “Wait here, I pray you, for YHWH has sent me as far as Beth-el.” And Elisha said, “As YHWH lives and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Beth-el. And the sons of the prophets who were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha, and said to him, “Did you know that YHWH will take away your master from your head today?” And he said, “Yes, I know it. You hold your peace” (2 Kings 2:2-12.2.3).
And Elijah said to him, “Elisha, wait here, I pray you, for YHWH has sent me to Jericho.” And he said, “As YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. And the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came near to Elisha, and said to him, “Did you know that YHWH will take away your master from your head today?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it. You hold your peace” (2 Kings 2:4-12.2.5).
And Elijah said to him, “Wait here, I pray you, for YHWH has sent me to the Jordan.” And he said, “As YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” And the two of them went on. And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood over against them afar off, and the two of them stood by the Jordan (2 Kings 2:6-12.2.7).
c And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided this way and that, so that the two of them went over on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8).
d And it came about, when they were gone over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “I pray you, let a double portion of your spirit be on me” (2 Kings 2:9).
e And he said, “You have asked a hard thing. If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be so to you, but if not, it will not be so” (2 Kings 2:10).
f And it came about, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which separated them both apart, and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).
e And Elisha saw it, and he cried, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and their horsemen!” And he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes, and tore them in two pieces (2 Kings 2:12).
d He also took up the mantle of Elijah which fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:13).
c And he took the mantle of Elijah which fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, “Where is YHWH, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had smitten the waters, they were divided this way and that, and Elisha went over (2 Kings 2:14).
b And when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho over against him saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him (2 Kings 2:15).
a And they said to him, “See now, there are with your servants fifty strong men. Let them go, we pray you, and seek your master, lest the Spirit of YHWH has taken him up, and cast him on some mountain, or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” And when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men, and they sought for three days, but did not find him. And they came back to him, while he waited at Jericho, and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?” (2 Kings 2:16-12.2.18).
Note that in ‘a’ YHWH intended to take Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind, and in the parallel the prophets insisted on searching for him because they thought that YHWH might have taken him up and cast him down. In ‘b’ Elisha reveals a threefold determination to accompany Elijah, and on reaching the Jordan the prophets watch afar off, and in the parallel the prophets acknowledge that the Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha. In ‘c’ Elijah parted the Jordan, and in the parallel Elisha did so. In ‘d’ Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s Spirit, and in the parallel he dons his mantle. In ‘e’ the double portion will be given to him if he sees what is to follow, and in the parallel he saw what followed. Centrally in ‘f’ Elijah was taken up in the whirlwind and Elisha saw it, and saw also saw ‘the chariots of Israel’.
2 Kings 2:1
‘And it came about, when YHWH would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven, that Elijah went down with Elisha from Gilgal.’
Note the stress on the fact that Elijah’s being taken up in a whirlwind was to be the sovereign act of YHWH. There is no suggestion that Elijah or anyone else sought it. It was YHWH’s sovereign choice. He had planned to take him up. It would appear that Elijah and Elisha were residing in Gilgal. There were a number of Gilgals (the name simply indicates a stone circle) and this was presumably not the one at which Israel first stayed when they crossed the Jordan. That had been in the Jordan rift valley. This was seemingly on the other side of Bethel, and was higher up than Bethel for they ‘went down’ from it.
2 Kings 2:2
‘And Elijah said to Elisha, “Wait here, I pray you, for YHWH has sent me as far as Beth-el.” And Elisha said, “As YHWH lives and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Beth-el.’
It would appear that Elisha had had a prophetic realisation that something significant was about to happen and that he should be a part of it, for normally he would have obeyed his ‘master’. Thus when Elijah called on him to return to Gilgal and wait there while he moved on to Bethel at YHWH’s directing, he declared with a solemn oath his intention of going with Elijah, come what may.
2 Kings 2:3
‘And the sons of the prophets who were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha, and said to him, “Did you know that YHWH will take away your master from your head today?” And he said, “Yes, I know it. You hold your peace.” ’
As they approached Bethel ‘the sons of the prophets’ i.e. those who were prophets under their prophetic teachers, ‘came forth’ and asked Elisha if he realised that Elijah was that day to be taken from being ‘over Elisha’ head’. In other words that in some way he would be departing so that he was no longer Elisha’ master. Elisha declared immediately that he was very well aware of the fact. It would appear that YHWH had given him some revelation on the matter.
This awareness of the sons of the prophets about the matter appears to indicate a close relationship between them and Elijah, as followers to a leader, and it will be noted that there were sons of the prophets at a number of places. These communities had presumably been built up by Elijah with the purpose of stemming the tide of unbelief in Israel, by training up prophets to minister among the people (we have no grounds for presuming that they were related in any way to the bands of prophets in Samuel’s days. Unlike them they are never connected with ecstatic utterances). As we know, they had at some stage suffered persecution from Jezebel (1 Kings 18:13). They are a reminder that behind what we know of Elijah’s activities he had had a successful ministry, and it was no doubt from their ranks that the ‘prophets of YHWH’ kept appearing. Once trained they would then go and live in various parts of Israel, possibly at well known sanctuaries, where they could carry on their ministry.
What has been called ‘the impression of solitariness’ about Elijah is regularly overstated. We gain it because we know so little about him. For we should note that we do know very little about him, or where he usually lived, or what he did, when persecution was not rife. Both examples of his solitariness in fact occurred under special circumstances when he needed to be in hiding. And here he certainly seems well known to the sons of the prophets in both locations. (His ‘sudden appearances’ were only sudden to the people involved, not necessarily sudden to believers).
The question of prophets in Israel is a very complicated one, for there were undoubtedly cultic prophets officially attached to different sanctuaries (e.g. the Temple, Bethel, Dan), presumably appointed by the cult officials, some of whom were ‘false prophets’ (not prophesying truly), and others of whom were genuine prophets (like Zechariah), but there were also prophets who were seen as relatively independent of the cult. What we call the writing prophets were mainly of this latter kind. These ‘sons of the prophets’ may also have been of the latter kind, which may be why they were called ‘sons of the prophets’. The term is only used in the time of Elijah and Elisha and nowhere else, and in the case of Elisha, 2 Kings 6:1 demonstrates their close connection with him. The same was probably true of Elijah except when persecution was at its most intense when all had to go into hiding. There are absolutely no grounds for likening them to dervishes or ‘ecstatic prophets’.
2 Kings 2:4
‘And Elijah said to him, “Elisha, wait here, I pray you, for YHWH has sent me to Jericho.” And he said, “As YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.’
Elijah then informed Elisha that he should wait at Bethel because YHWH had sent him to Jericho. Again Elisha insisted on going with him. It would seem clear from this that Elijah wanted to make no promises to Elisha of what was coming, but was quite willing for him to accompany him. (He could otherwise have forbidden it more forcefully). While Elisha was his appointed successor, Elijah wanted it to be recognised that he did not presume to know what purposes YHWH had for him.
2 Kings 2:5
‘And the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came near to Elisha, and said to him, “Did you know that YHWH will take away your master from your head today?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it. You hold your peace.” ’
Once again the sons of the prophets, although this time of the Jericho community (which may well have been associated with the original sanctuary at Gilgal in the Jordan rift valley where YHWH had recorded His Name when the Tabernacle was sited there), approached Elisha and warned him that Elijah was to be taken from them. And once again Elisha confirmed that YHWH had also made him aware of the fact.
2 Kings 2:6
‘And Elijah said to him, “Wait here, I pray you, for YHWH has sent me to the Jordan.” And he said, “As YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” And the two of them went on.’
Once again Elijah sought to persuade Elisha to stay behind, and once again Elisha refused forcefully, with the result that the two of them went on together.
2 Kings 2:7
‘And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood over against them afar off, and the two of them stood by the Jordan.’
Fifty of the sons of the prophets followed the two, and watched them from a distance. Meanwhile Elijah and Elisha approached the Jordan.
2 Kings 2:8
‘And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided this way and that, so that the two of them went over on dry ground.’
Elijah then took his robe and wrapped it together and smote the waters of the Jordan so that they parted before them. As with Moses’ rod, so Elijah’s robe symbolised his authority. This deliberate act of prophetic symbolism confirms that Elijah was depicting in some way that in him ‘Israel’ was reversing the entry into Canaan. It may well have been declaring that Israel’s future as a nation of YHWH would now totally depend on Elisha.
2 Kings 2:9
‘And it came about, when they were gone over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “I pray you, let a double portion of your spirit be on me.” ’
Once they were over the Jordan Elijah then asked Elisha what he wanted him to do for him before he as taken from him. Elisha’s answer was prompt. He wanted the firstborn’s double portion (Deuteronomy 12:17) of the Spirit of Elijah.
2 Kings 2:10
‘And he said, “You have asked a hard thing. If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be so to you, but if not, it will not be so.” ’
It is significant that in spite of the fact the Elisha was his duly anointed successor, Elijah did not presume that that automatically qualified him for such an important ‘gift’. Indeed he recognised it as a ‘hard thing’. It would all depend on what YHWH’s will was. He had been given a unique gift of the Spirit, and it was YHWH Who alone could decide whether Elijah’s ‘Spirit’ was passed on at all. But there would be a simple test. If Elisha’s spiritual eyes were so opened by YHWH that he saw what was about to take place in the counsels of God, it would be evidence that he had received the ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit which would qualify him to lead the spiritual communities that he had set up. It would be evidence that he had been given spiritual illumination, seeing what other men do not see.
2 Kings 2:11
‘And it came about, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which separated them both apart, and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’
As they walked on they saw coming towards them a chariot of fire with horses of fire, which divided the two apart, causing them to scatter. Then a whirlwind took Elijah up into Heaven. In view of the fact that the chariot of fire and horses of fire appear again, along with others, elsewhere (2 Kings 6:17; compare also 2 Kings 13:14 where the king saw Elisha as the chariot of Israel and its horsemen, but not as a fiery chariot), they were seemingly a message to Elisha of God’s presence with him and with Israel rather than being a conveyance for Elijah. There are therefore no grounds for suggesting that Elijah was carried up in the chariot of fire. It was a war chariot, not public transport.
The very purpose of the separation was so that Elisha would not be carried up in the whirlwind with Elijah (confirming that it was a physical phenomenon). The vision of the chariots and horsemen of fire may very well have been gathered from lightning that danced along the ground, thus conjuring up the vision. But the fact that this was so discounts totally any connection with a chariot of the sun (beloved of some commentators), which would necessarily by its nature remain in the heavens.
2 Kings 2:12
‘And Elisha saw it, and he cried, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and their horsemen!” And he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes, and tore them in two pieces.’
It is stressed that Elisha ‘saw it’ (saw the chariot not just the lightning). By this he knew that the Spirit of Elijah had come on him. And he called out to Elijah as he departed, ‘my father, my father, the chariots of Israel and their horsemen’. In other words, ‘my spiritual father, I have seen the heavenly occurrences that you spoke of, just as you said’. And he never forgot from that moment that the forces of YHWH, invisible to other men but seen by him, were with him.
From that moment he saw Elijah no more. But because it had been confirmed to him that he had received the Spirit of Elijah, he tore his own robe in two, possibly partly in mourning, but also partly because it was no longer required, for he was replacing it with the robe of Elijah, which had fallen from him, a further indication from YHWH of what Elisha had received. When Elijah had called Elisha he had thrown his robe over him. Now it is YHWH Who has provided Elijah’s robe for Elisha.
2 Kings 2:13
‘He also took up the mantle of Elijah which fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of the Jordan.’
Taking up Elijah’s robe Elisha went back to the Jordan. In him the new Israel was about to re-enter the land, and he was entering with the authority of Elijah and of YHWH. In Elisha YHWH was seeking to repossess the land.
2 Kings 2:14
‘And he took the mantle of Elijah which fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, “Where is YHWH, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had smitten the waters, they were divided this way and that, and Elisha went over.’
Then he took the robe which had fallen from Elijah, and smote the waters crying out, ‘Where is YHWH, the God of Elijah?’ and the result was that the Jordan once more parted for him to cross over. He was entering the land as Israel had done of yore, on behalf of the new believing Israel. Such ‘partings of the Jordan’ (although of course not such spectacular ones) have in fact been known to take place naturally and have been witnessed in modern times. Thus as He regularly does, (and did with the Plagues of Egypt), God took a natural occurrence, and enhanced it in order to indicate His divine sovereignty and His acceptance of His servant.
2 Kings 2:15
‘And when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho over against him saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.’
We are not told what precisely the sons of the prophets from Jericho saw, apart from Elisha wearing the robe of Elijah. But it clearly convinced them that the Spirit of Elijah rested on Elisha, and they therefore came and submitted to him as their new leader. There were a number of such communities, so that this does not mean that Elisha remained with them, except on occasions. It was simply that all recognised him as YHWH’s prime prophet. He could always be approached, wherever he was, when they needed guidance.
‘And when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho over against him saw him.’ If this indicated that they were at Jericho itself all the time then they could not have seen what happened at the Jordan (unless by prophetic insight). But we have already been told that some of them followed Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan to ‘view far off’ (2 Kings 2:7). They may well then, on seeing what had happened, have raced back to tell the others, so that all were aware of what had happened and that it had been witnessed by eye-witnesses.
2 Kings 2:16
‘And they said to him, “See now, there are with your servants fifty strong men. Let them go, we pray you, and seek your master, lest the Spirit of YHWH has taken him up, and cast him on some mountain, or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” ’
The fifty strong men were presumably the ones who had ‘viewed far off’ in 2 Kings 2:7. We are not told precisely how much the sons of the prophets had seen of what happened, nor how they knew what had happened to Elijah. It may well have been from Elisha, or some of them may have observed it at a distance. But once they learned that Elijah had been taken up by a whirlwind they suggested that they should send out a search party in order to discover whether the whirlwind had deposited his body somewhere, pointing out that they had among them fifty strong men who would gladly carry out the task. Elisha, however, who recognised what had truly happened, and that Elijah was with God in Heaven, told them that it was unnecessary.
2 Kings 2:17
‘And when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men, and they sought for three days, but did not find him.’
But when they continued to urge them he gave way. They may well have pointed out that for Elijah to remain unburied would put a curse on the land. Thus his shame may have been caused by their persistent urging which made him doubt for a moment his position so that he was ashamed of himself for not having done what they said, or it may have been caused by him being ashamed of their attitude, while recognising that they would not cease urging him until he gave way.
The result was that fifty strong men went out and searched for Elijah’s body for three days, but of course they found nothing. It was a sign of the dangers of the time that it was felt necessary for such a large band (the equivalent of a military unit) to be involved.
2 Kings 2:18
‘And they came back to him, while he waited at Jericho, and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?” ’
When they came back and reported their failure to find Elijah’s body, Elisha said ‘Did I not tell you not to go?’ He had known quite well that Elijah was nowhere on earth to be found.
B. The ‘Healing’ of Jericho’s Spring (2 Kings 2:19-12.2.22 ).
The new beginning for Israel resulting from Elisha’ entry into the land over the Jordan results the men of Jericho asking him to ‘heal’ a spring of water at Jericho, in a similar fashion to the way in which Moses, having crossed the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) into a new deliverance, also healed a spring of water (Exodus 15:23-2.15.25). They were beginning to see Elisha as the new Moses.
Excavations have shown that Jericho, apart from small numbers of people, was on the whole unoccupied as a city for around four hundred years up to the time of Ahab when it was rebuilt by Hiel at the cost of his two sons (1 Kings 16:34). This was partly due to the curse that Joshua had put on it, but it may also possibly have been partly due to the problem now being exposed, which could be seen as a part of the curse. It had become recognised that the water from the spring at the foot of the mound caused excessive miscarriages. Interestingly a fairly recent scientific survey of the region has revealed a tendency for springs in the area to become contaminated with natural radioactivity, something which is known to cause miscarriages. Others see the ‘miscarrying’ as referring to the land with the indication that the spring had become polluted and useless for agriculture.
Whichever way it was those who were living there brought their problem to Elisha. It is clear that they saw Elisha in a different light from Elijah, (the problem had been there for a long time), possibly because of the way in which he had entered the land. It had probably reminded them of the incident in Exodus 15:23-2.15.25. There hope was that he might be able to ‘heal’ the spring. Calling for a new dish and some salt, Elijah obliged by casting the salt into the spring. Then he assured them that YHWH had declared that He had healed the waters.
a And the men of the city said to Elisha, “See, we pray you, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land miscarries” (2 Kings 2:19).
b And he said, “Bring me a new dish, and put salt in it. And they brought it to him. And he went forth to the spring of the waters, and cast salt in it, and said, “Thus says YHWH, I have healed these waters” (2 Kings 2:20-12.2.21 a).
a “There shall not be from there any more death or miscarrying”. So the waters were healed to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke (2 Kings 2:21-12.2.22).
2 Kings 2:19
‘And the men of the city said to Elisha, “See, we pray you, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land miscarries.” ’
The city of Jericho had been known as the city of palm trees (Deuteronomy 34:3; Judges 1:16; Judges 3:13). It was well watered by a large spring, and with a pleasant, although hot, climate. But something had happened to the waters of the spring which resulted in ‘the land miscarrying’. This could be because of radiation (hydrological surveys have shown a tendency to radiation in the area), or because of some other source of contamination. It has been suggested that the contamination was caused by a parasitic infection connected with snails. Radiation would cause miscarriages in women, while contaminated and infected water could have a bad effect on either health or the fruitfulness of the land. Whichever way it was the waters needed ‘healing’.
2 Kings 2:20
‘And he said, “Bring me a new dish, and put salt in it. And they brought it to him.’
Elisha therefore called for a new dish and some salt. The ‘new dish’ would indicate to the people that what he was about to do had a holy, God-connected purpose, which was why the dish must not have been contaminated in any way by earthly contacts (compare the new cart that carried the Ark in 2 Samuel 6:3, and the unridden colt that carried Jesus in Mark 11:2). Salt was seen as a means of purifying (Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19).
2 Kings 2:21
‘And he went forth to the spring of the waters, and cast salt in it, and said, “Thus says YHWH, I have healed these waters. There shall not be from there any more death or miscarrying.” ’
Elisha then went and cast the salt into the spring, and declared in the Name of YHWH, that the waters were now healed and that there would therefore in future be no death or miscarrying. Note the direct claim of YHWH that ‘I have healed these waters’.
It has been suggested that an earth tremor might have shifted the geological strata from which the radiation infection was coming, thus naturally purifying the water for the future. But as with so many miracles, even if that were so, it was the timing and effectiveness that was special. If the problem was connected with snails than the salt could have been ‘multiplied’ by YHWH and have killed off the colony of snails. Either way it was rightly seen to be the work of YHWH.
2 Kings 2:22
‘So the waters were healed to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke.’
So the waters were healed by YHWH in accordance with Elisha’s word, and remained healed to the day of writing. There was no further trouble. This miracle was a further picture of why YHWH had raised up Elisha. It was in order to purify Israel and make it fruitful.
C. The Young Men Of Bethel Gather To Mock The Prophet Of YHWH And Are Ravaged By Bears (2 Kings 2:23-12.2.25 ).
As Elisha went up from Jericho to Bethel, continuing his symbolic journey, young men ‘came forth’ from the city to ‘greet’ him. This was in total contrast with his previous visit with Elijah when the sons of the prophets had ‘come forth’ to greet them (2 Kings 2:3). The contrast is clearly intended. This was a large party of determined anti-Yahwists (well over forty two) come to see off a prophet of YHWH. The word rendered ‘young men’ is similarly used of Absalom as a grown man (2 Samuel 14:21; 2 Samuel 18:5). That the sons of the prophets did not come out to greet him (as they had done on every other occasion) must be seen as significant. It would suggest that they were being intimidated, and in some way forcibly prevented from doing so. Instead the city sent out this large group of ruffians and bullies in order to see off Elisha, with the aim of mocking his status. The syncretistic sanctuary city of Bethel with its golden calf wanted nothing to do with a true prophet of YHWH.
The whole of the city would probably be watching in order to see what happened. It was a test of the ‘new’ prophet’s standing. If he turned tail and fled people would be able to draw their own conclusions. But instead Elisha turned round and issued a solemn curse on the young men, with the result that two she-bears (probably with the intention of defending their young from this group of men who had disturbed them, and therefore extra fiercely) came out of the forest which was near Bethel, which Elisha and the young men may well have been entering, and severely mauled forty two of the young men. These men may not all necessarily have been killed. It was intended to vindicate the prophet, not to be an execution squad.
a And he went up from there to Beth-el (2 Kings 2:23 a).
b And as he was going up by the way, there came forth young men out of the city, and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead, go up, you baldhead.” (2 Kings 2:23 b).
c And he looked behind him and saw them, and cursed them in the name of YHWH (2 Kings 2:24 a).
b And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two young men from among them (2 Kings 2:24 b).
a And he went from there to mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria (2 Kings 2:25).
Note that in ‘a’ he went to Bethel and in the parallel went to Mount Carmel and Samaria. In ‘b’ the young men grievously insulted Elisha, and in the parallel they were mauled by bears. Centrally in ‘c’ Elisha cursed them in the Name of YHWH.
2 Kings 2:23
‘And he went up from there to Beth-el, and as he was going up by the way, there came forth young men out of the city, and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead, go up, you baldhead.” ’
The journey to Bethel completed the ‘entry into the land’ which followed the pattern of the conquest, parting of Jordan, Jericho, Bethel. But instead of the sons of the prophets ‘coming forth’ from Bethel as previously (2 Kings 2:3), a gang of hooligans ‘came forth’. The contrast is surely significant. On all previous occasions he had been met by sons of the prophets (2 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 2:5; 2 Kings 2:15). His reception here was also in total contrast with the courtesy of his reception at Jericho, both from the sons of the prophets and the people, which is one reason why the two incidents have been set side by side. Here the sons of the prophets at Bethel were clearly having to keep out of the way, knowing that the city had organised its own reception for Elisha and that things could get ugly. They would have known that the intention was not to kill Elisha but to see him off with a deliberate and organised insult against ‘the prophet of YHWH’. It was not thus simply a group of passing children otherwise the sons of the prophets would have come out as well. The number of young men involved reveals their underlying fear of what Elisha could do (they remembered what Elijah had done to two military units before him - 2 Kings 1:9-12.1.12). It demonstrated that paradoxically the deniers of true Yahwism, who rather supported their own watered down syncretistic Yahwism, were still afraid of his power. It demonstrated that in their hearts they really knew the truth but found it too uncomfortable.
Made brave by their numbers (there must have been at least fifty of them for forty two to be mauled) the hooligans approached Elisha and hurled insults. The term ‘bald-head’ was a clearly intended insult (As an oriental traveller Elisha would have had his head covered so that they would not have been able to see whether he was bald or not). They were deliberately degrading the prophet of YHWH, and in accordance with Deuteronomy 18:19 this would be ‘required of them’ (that is, they would be punished for it). To insult the representative of YHWH was to insult YHWH Himself (compare 2 Chronicles 36:16-14.36.17).
Hair was seen as a sign of virility, and long hair was a sign of being dedicated to YHWH (Numbers 6:5; Judges 13:5). (There is, on the other hand, no evidence of prophets having tonsures). Thus the suggestion that he was ‘bald’ was a deliberate denigration of his status. It was saying that his claim to dedication was false. There may be behind this the idea that without Elijah being with him he was to be seen as ‘shorn’, and therefore helpless. This would tie in with their suggestion that he should ‘go up’ as Elijah had. They may well have been belittling the idea of his succession to Elijah as the prophet of YHWH supreme and suggesting that if he really was he should demonstrate it by copying him.
2 Kings 2:24
‘And he looked behind him and saw them, and cursed them in the name of YHWH. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two young men from among them.’
Being faced up with this issue at this moment when he was entering into the fullness of his dedication to YHWH, and with a whole city watching to see whether he would survive his humiliation, and whether YHWH Himself would do anything, it was necessary for Elisha (and YHWH) to act, and to do it in such a way as to vindicate his status. He accordingly pronounced a curse on them in the Name of YHWH. Now it was open to YHWH to vindicate His prophet. If He did so Elisha’s reputation as a prophet would be upheld. If He did not do so Elisha’ reputation would have been in ruins. And sure enough two she-bears, disturbed by the commotion and probably defending their young, came out of the trees and mauled forty two of the young men as they no doubt fled. We are not told whether any died, although possibly some did, if only from their wounds. Once again YHWH was seen as in control of creation, and as defending the honour of His prophets, dispensing fully merited judgment.
Forty two may have been chosen because it indicated the intensified completeness (3x2) of divine perfection (3 x 2 x 7), a complete divinely perfect number (compare 2 Kings 10:14).
2 Kings 2:25
‘And he went from there to mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.’
Then Elisha continued on his symbolic journey by going to Mount Carmel the site of YHWH’s vindication by Elijah. He was ‘possessing’ the land for YHWH. Then he returned to Samaria.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 2 Kings 2". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany