1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elisha
ELISHA (a Hebrew name meaning “God is deliverance”), in the Bible, the disciple and successor of Elijah, was the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah in the valley of the Jordan. He was symbolically elected to the prophetic office by Elijah some time during the reign of Ahab (1 Kings xix. 19-21), and he survived until the reign of Joash. His career thus appears to have extended over a period of nearly sixty years. The relation between Elijah and Elisha was of a particularly close kind, but the difference between them is much more striking than the resemblance. Elijah is the prophet of the wilderness, wandering, rugged and austere; Elisha is the prophet of civilized life, of the city and the court, with the dress, manners and appearance of ordinary “grave citizens.” Elijah is the messenger of vengeance—sudden, fierce and overwhelming; Elisha is the messenger of mercy and restoration. Elijah’s miracles, with few exceptions, are works of wrath and destruction; Elisha’s miracles, with but one notable exception, are works of beneficence and healing. Elijah is the “prophet as fire” (Ecclus, xlviii. 1), an abnormal agent working for exceptional ends; Elisha is the “holy man of God which passeth by us continually” (2 Kings iv. 9), mixing in the common life of the people.
It is impossible to draw up a detailed chronology of his life. In most of the events narrated no further indication of time is given than by the words “the king of Israel,” the name not being specified. There are some instances in which the order of time is obviously the reverse of the order of narrative, and there are other grounds for concluding that the narrative as we now have it is confused and incomplete. This may serve not only to explain the chronological difficulties, but also to throw some light on the altogether exceptional character of the miraculous element in Elisha’s history. On the literary questions, see further Kings.
Not only are Elisha’s miracles very numerous, even more so than those of Elijah, but they stand in a peculiar relation to the man and his work. With all the other prophets the primary function is spiritual teaching; miracles, even though numerous and many of them symbolical like Elisha’s, are only accessory. With Elisha, on the other hand, miracles seem the principal function, and the teaching is altogether subsidiary. An explanation of the superabundance of miracles in Elisha’s life is suggested by the fact that several of them were merely repetitions or doubles of those of his predecessor. Such were: his first miracle, when, returning across the Jordan, he made a dry path for himself in the same manner as Elijah (2 Kings ii. 14); the increase of the widow’s pot of oil (iv. 1-7); and the restoration of the son of the woman of Shunem to life (iv. 18-37). The theory that stories from the earlier life have been imported by mistake into the later, even if tenable, applies only to three of the miracles, and leaves unexplained a much larger number which are not only not repetitions of those of Elijah, but have an entirely opposite character. The healing of the water of Jericho by putting salt in it (ii. 19-22), the provision of water for the army of Jehoshaphat in the arid desert (iii. 6-20), the neutralizing by meal of the poison in the pottage of the famine-stricken sons of the prophets at Jericho (iv. 38-41), the healing of Naaman the Syrian (v. 1-19), and the recovery of the iron axehead that had sunk in the water (vi. 1-7), are all instances of the beneficence which was the general characteristic of Elisha’s wonder-working activity in contrast to that of Elijah. Another miracle of the same class, the feeding of a hundred men with twenty loaves so that something was left over (iv. 42-44), deserves mention as the most striking though not the only instance of a resemblance between the work of Elisha and that of Jesus (Matt. xiv. 13-21). The one distinct exception to the general beneficence of Elisha’s activity—the destruction of the forty-two children who mocked him as he was going up to Bethel (2 Kings ii. 23-25)—presents an ethical difficulty which is scarcely removed by the suggestion that the narrative has lost some particulars which would have shown the real enormity of the children’s offence. We may prefer to imagine that among the homely stories told of him was one which had for its main object the inculcation of respect for one’s elders. The leprosy brought upon Gehazi (v. 20-27), though a miracle of judgment, scarcely belongs to the same class as the other; and it will be observed that Gehazi’s subsequent relations with the court (viii. 1-6) ignore the disease, a fatal hindrance to intercourse. Further, the healing of Naaman (alluded to in Luke iv. 27) presupposes peaceful relations between Israel and the Syrians, with which, however, contrast ch. vi. The wonder-working power of Elisha is represented as continuing even after his death. As the feeding of the hundred men and the cure of leprosy connect his work with that of Jesus, so the story that a dead man who was cast into his sepulchre was brought to life by the mere contact with his bones (2 Kings xiii. 21, cf. Ecclus. xlviii. 12-14) is the most striking instance of an analogy between his miracles and those recorded of medieval saints. Stanley (Jewish Church, 4th ed., ii. 276) in reference to this has remarked that in the life of Elisha alone “in the sacred history the gulf between biblical and ecclesiastical miracles almost disappears.”
The place which Elisha filled in contemporary history was one of great influence and importance, and several narratives testify to his great reputation in Israel. On one occasion, when he delivered the army that had been brought out against Moab from a threatened dearth of water (2 Kings iii.), he plainly intimates that, but for his regard to Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, who was in alliance with Israel, he would not have interfered. Whether he was with the army or was supposed to be living in the desert is left obscure. An interesting touch is the influence of music upon the prophetic mind (v. 15). His next signal interference was during the incursions of the Syrians, when he disclosed the plans of the invaders to the “king of Israel” with such effect that they were again and again baffled. When the “king of Syria” was informed that “Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bed-chamber,” he at once sent an army to take him captive in Dothan. At Elisha’s prayer his terrified servant beheld an army of horses and chariots of fire surrounding the prophet. At a second prayer the invaders were struck blind, and in this state they were led by Elisha to Samaria, where their sight was restored. Their lives were spared at the command of the prophet, and they returned home so impressed that their incursions thenceforward ceased (vi. 8-23). This is immediately followed by the siege of Samaria by Benhadad which caused a famine of the severest kind. The calamity was imputed by the “king of Israel” to the influence of Elisha, and he ordered the prophet to be immediately put to death. Forewarned of the danger, Elisha ordered the messenger who had been sent to slay him to be detained at the door, and, when, immediately afterwards, the king himself came (“messenger” in vi. 33 should rather be king), predicted a great plenty within twenty-four hours. This was fulfilled by the flight of the Syrian army under the circumstances stated in ch. vii. After the episode with regard to the woman of Shunem (viii. 1–6), which is out of its chronological order, Elisha is represented as at Damascus (viii. 7-15). The reverence with which the foreign monarch Benhadad addressed Elisha deserves to be noted as showing the extent of the prophet’s influence. In sending to know the issue of his illness, the king caused himself to be styled “thy son Benhadad.” Equally remarkable is the very ambiguous nature of Elisha’s reply (viii. 10). The most important interference of Elisha in the history of his country constituted the fulfilment of the third of the commands laid upon Elijah. The work of anointing Jehu to be king over Israel was performed by deputy (ix. 1-3). During the forty-five years which the chronological scheme allows for the reigns of Jehu and Jehoahaz the narratives contain no notice of Elisha, but from the circumstances of his death (xiii. 14-21) it is clear that he had continued to enjoy the esteem of the dynasty which he had helped to found. Joash, the grandson of Jehu, waited on him on his death-bed, and addressed him in the words which he himself had used to Elijah: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof” (cf. ii. 12). By the result of a symbolic discharge of arrows he informed the king of his coming success against Syria, and immediately thereafter he died. The explicit statement that he was buried completes the contrast between him and his greater predecessor.
On the narratives, see Kings. In general those where “the prophet appears as on friendly terms with the king, and possessed of influence at court (e.g. 2 Kings iv. 13, vi. 9, vi. 21, compared with xiii. 14), plainly belong to the time of Jehu’s dynasty, though they are related before the fall of the house of Omri. We can distinguish portions of an historical narrative which speaks of Elisha in connexion with events of public interest, without making him the central figure, and a series of anecdotes of properly biographical character.... In the latter we may distinguish one circle connected with Gilgal, Jericho and the Jordan valley to which Abel-Meholah belongs (iv. 1-7? 38-44, v.? vi. 1-7). Here Elisha appears as the head of the prophetic gilds, having his fixed residence at Gilgal. Another circle, which presupposes the accession of the house of Jehu, places him at Dothan or Carmel, and represents him as a personage of almost superhuman dignity. Here there is an obvious parallelism with the history of Elijah, especially with his ascension (cf. 2 Kings vi. 17 with ii. 11; xiii. 14 with ii. 12); and it is to this group of narratives that the ascension of Elijah forms the introduction” (Robertson Smith, Ency. Brit., 9th ed., art. Kings, vol. xiv. p. 186). This twofold representation finds a parallel in the narratives of Samuel, whose history and the conditions reflected therein are analogous to the life and times of Elisha.
Elisha is canonized in the Orthodox Eastern Church, his festival being on the 14th of June, under which date his life is entered in the Acta sanctorum.
- Similarly Elijah enforces respect for the prophetic office in i. 9 sqq. Prof. Kennett points out to the present writer that the epithet “bald-head” may refer to the sign of mourning for Elisha’s lost master (cf. Ez. vii. 18, Deut. xiv. 1); “Go up” is perhaps to be taken literally (in reference to Elijah’s translation).
- The method of obtaining water (v. 16 sq.) is that which still gives its name to the Wādi el-Aḥsā (“valley of water pits”) at the southern end of the Dead Sea (Old Test. Jew. Church, 2nd ed., 147). On the other hand, see Burney, Heb. Text of Kings, p. 270.
- R. V. marg. is an alteration to remove from Elisha the suggestion of an untruth.
- The Gilgal of Elisha is near the Jordan—comp. vi. 1 with iv. 38, שבים לפניו,—and cannot be other than the great sanctuary 2 m. from Jericho, the local holiness of which is still attested in the Onomastica. It is true that in 2 Kings ii. 1 Bethel seems to lie between Gilgal and Jericho; but v. 25 shows that Gilgal was not originally represented as Elisha’s residence in this narrative, which belongs to the Carmel-Dothan series. On the other hand, for the identification with the Gilgal (Jiljilia) S.W. of Shiloh, see G. A. Smith, Ency. Bib. (s.v. Gilgal); Burney, op. cit., p. 264; Skinner, Century Bible: Kings, p. 278.