Elisha – Steadfast, Merciful, Bald and at times a bit Grumpy.
While learning to drive last century, I took my father south across his parish boundary to the Fife village of Freuchie to collect something. A little later as we crossed the main street, heading back to the car, a group of youths started jeering. “Hey baldy minister! How many times do you polish your head in the mornings?” was the one I remember most clearly. “Just the once!” my father called back, grinning.
Elisha was the son of a wealthy Jordan valley farmer. The prophet Elijah came and threw his cloak around the young Elisha’s shoulders as he was directing his father’s servants at their ploughing. At once he recognised the call of God and became Elijah’s attendant. His devotion and admiration of Elijah is clearly evident in his insistence in staying at his master’s side on his last day on earth and his request to receive a double portion of the great prophet’s anointing before he is taken away. This double portion is similar to the right of the first born son to a double portion of his father’s inheritance. “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel! And Elisha saw him no more.” 2 Kings 2: 12.
He picks up Elijah’s cloak and like carrying a baton or a torch he continues for the next half century or so the kind of work he saw his master do. Elisha’s name means “God is Salvation” and much of his life reflects this. He is a much more gentle and gracious man than his master Elijah. His miracles are at times like the ones Jesus was to perform after him; merciful, generous, saving and gracious. He sweetens a bitter spring of water in Jericho during a drought. He neutralises the poisonous stew of the company of prophets. A prophet’s widow in dire poverty has her dwindled stock of oil multiplied. In sympathy a sunken, borrowed axe head floats and is no longer lost. Twenty loaves feed a hundred with some left over. Most amazingly he restores life to the son of the Shunammite woman who had showed him great kindness and hospitality. Leading the blind Aramean army to the centre of Samaria he commands a feast for them rather than a slaughter having first put his trust in God to rescue them from the initial siege.
Yet there was a stern side to this man. With God clearly at the centre of his life he showed no deference to Kings or military commanders. He followed through on God’s judgement on the house of Ahab and Jezebel as spoken through Elijah. He sent a message, rather than perform a theatrical ceremony in person, to Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan to receive healing. Having refused the commander’s gifts of thanks he shows no pity to his servant Gehazi who has to face the consequence of his disobedience. Even on his death bed Elisha directs King Joash to perform a symbolic act yet with righteous indignation pronounces a lesser outcome to the coming battles because of the half hearted effort of the king.
When the company of prophets insist on looking for Elijah following the whirlwind, the “Didn’t I tell you not to go?” in 2Kings 2:18 rings with irritability. When the youths at Bethel jeered at him “Go on up you baldhead!” (2Kings 2:23)I sense something of a little stronger reaction that causes forty-two of them to get mauled by two bears. Elisha is steadfast in his faith, merciful in his actions, righteous and true to God’s prophetic word and yet retained normal human traits. We can learn much from his life of devotion and faithfulness. Fortunately for the boys in Freuchie the nearest bears remained secure in Camperdown Zoo 24 miles away.