He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. They said to him, ‘See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants; please let them go and seek your master; it may be that the spirit of the Lord has caught him up and thrown him down on some mountain or into some valley.’ He responded, ‘No, do not send them.’ But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, ‘Send them.’ So they sent fifty men who searched for three days but did not find him. When they came back to him (he had remained at Jericho), he said to them, ‘‘Did I not say to you, Do not go?’
Now the people of the city said to Elisha, ‘The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.’ He said, ‘Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.’ So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.’ So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.
He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!’ When he turned round and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.
Elisha takes up Elijah’s mantle, strikes the water and calls on God to confirm that Elijah’s power has been transferred to him. The river parts and he crosses back towards Jericho. Other prophets recognise Elisha’s new status but they’re not quite ready to accept that Elijah has truly gone. They persuade Elisha, against his better judgment, to let them make a search just in case Elijah can still be found.
Do we sometimes make it difficult for a new minister, or a new leader in any context, to exercise their role, assured of our full support, because we’re looking back to the previous incumbent and what they did? At best this causes a delay in fruitful work being undertaken; at worst it can undermine a ministry before it really begins.
Once Elisha has been fully accepted he is called upon to use his powers to bring life to the community by purifying the water source on which they depended. People became ill if they drank it; and it was insufficient, or harmful, for their crops. There is still a spring of abundant fresh water in Jericho named after Elisha, a reminder of this ancient tradition and the importance of water in this desert region.
Elisha’s second miracle is less wholesome as he calls for the death of some boys who were teasing him about his distinctive appearance. Some see this incident as prefiguring the massacre of 42 princes by Jehu (2 Kgs.10:12-14), one aspect of the fulfilment of Elijah’s prophecy about the final end of Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs.21:29).
In today’s passage it illustrates that Elisha, as God’s prophet, can exercise divine power over life and death; but it also challenges me to appreciate that even God given powers can be abused. This should be a warning to us all!
Merciful God, help me to respond graciously whenever I am ridiculed for being a Christian or for witnessing to the gospel in a public way.
If I am tempted to use the gifts bestowed on me through your Spirit in self-serving ways, remind me of your purposes and lead me in the footsteps of Christ on the path that brings life to the world. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge