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25

CHAPTER III

ELISHA

2 Kings ii. 1-25

"He did wonders in his life, and at death even his works were marvellous. For all this the people repented not."—Ecclus. xlviii. 14, 15.

At this point we enter into the cycle of supernatural stories, which gathered round the name of Elisha in the prophetic communities. Some of them are full of charm and tenderness; but in some cases it is difficult to point out their intrinsic superiority over the ecclesiastical miracles with which monkish historians have embellished the lives of the saints. We can but narrate them as they stand, for we possess none of the means for critical or historical analysis which might enable us to discriminate between essential facts and accidental elements.

We see at once that the figure of Elisha3737   The name Elisha means "My God is salvation." is far less impressive than that of Elijah. He inspires less of awe and terror. He lives far more in cities and amid the ordinary surroundings of civilised life. The honour with which he was treated was the honour of respect and admiration for his kindliness. He plays his part in no stupendous scenes like those at Carmel and at Horeb, and nearly all his miracles were miracles of26 mercy. Other remarkable differences are observable in the records of Elijah and Elisha. In the case of the former his main work was the opposition to Baal-worship; but although Baal-worship still prevailed (2 Kings x. 18-27) we read of no protests raised by Elisha against it. "With him"—perhaps it should be more accurately said, in the narrative which tells us of him—"the miracles are everything, the prophetic work nothing." The conception of a prophet's mission in these stories of him differs widely from that which dominates the splendid midrash of Elijah.

His separate career began with an act of beneficence. He had stopped for a time at Jericho. The curse of the rebuilding of the town upon a site which Joshua had devoted to the ban had expended itself on Hiel, its builder. It was now a flourishing city, and the home of a large school of prophets. But though the situation was pleasant as "a garden of the Lord,"3838   Gen. xiii. 10. "The city of palms" (Deut. xxxiv. 3). the water was bad, and the land "miscarried." In other words, the deleterious spring caused diseases among the inhabitants, and caused the trees to cast their fruit. So the men of the city came to Elisha, and humbly addressing him as "my lord," implored his help. He told them to bring him a new cruse full of salt, and going with it to the fountain cast it into the springs, proclaiming in Jehovah's name that they were healed, and that there should be no more death or miscarrying land. The gushing waters of the Ain-es-Sultân, fed by the spring of Quarantania, are to this day pointed out as the Fountains of Elisha, as they have been since the days of Josephus.3939   Jos., B. J., IV. viii. 3; Robinson, Bibl. Researches, i. 554.

The anecdote of this beautiful interposition to help27 a troubled city is followed by one of the stories which naturally repel us more than any other in the Old Testament. Elisha, on leaving Jericho, returned to Bethel, and as he climbed through the forest up the ascent leading to the town through what is now called the Wady Suweinît, a number of young lads—with the rudeness which in boys is often a venial characteristic of their gay spirits or want of proper training, and which to this day is common among boys in the East—laughed at him, and mocked him with the cry "Go up, round-head! go up, round-head!"4040   Abarbanel's notion that they meant "Ascend to heaven as Elijah did" is absurd. What struck these ill-bred and irreverent youngsters was the contrast between the rough hair-skin garb and unkempt shaggy locks of Elijah, "the lord of hair," and the smooth civilised aspect and shorter hair of his disciple. If the word quereach means "bald"4141   קֵרֵהַ This means bald at the back of the head, as נִבֵּהַ (gibbeach), means "forehead-bald" (Ewald, iii. 512). Elisha could not have been bald from old age, since he lived on for nearly sixty years, and must have been a young man. Baldness involved a suspicion of leprosy, and was disliked by Easterns (Lev. xxi. 5, xiii. 43; Isa. iii. 17, 24, xv. 2), as much as by the Romans (Suet., Jul. Cæs., 45; Domit., 18). Elisha's prophetic activity lasted through the reigns of Joram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, and Joash (i.e., 12 + 28 + 17 + 2 years). we see an additional reason for their ill-mannered jeers, since baldness was a cause of reproach and suspicion in the East, where it is comparatively rare. No doubt, too, the conduct of these young scoffers was the more offensive, and even the more wicked, because of the deeper reverence for age which prevails in Eastern countries, and above all because Elisha was known as a prophet. Perhaps, too, if some other reading lies behind the ἐλίθαζον of one MS. of the Septuagint, they pelted him with28 stones.4242   The κατέπαιζον of the Vat. LXX. implies persistent and vehement insult. The Post-Mishnic Rabbis, however, say that Elisha was punished with sickness for this deed (Bava-Metzia, f. 87, 1). That Elisha should have rebuked them, and that seriously—that he should even have inflicted some punishment upon them to reform their manners—would have been natural; but we cannot repress the shudder with which we read the verse, "And he turned back and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tare forty-and-two children of them." Surely the punishment was disproportionate to the offence! Who could doom so much as a single rude boy, not to speak of forty-two, to a horrible and agonising death for shouting after any one? It is the chief exception to the general course of Elisha's compassionate interpositions. Here, too, we must leave the narrative where it is; but we hold it quite admissible to conjecture that the incident, in some form or other, really occurred—that the boys were insolent, and that some of them may have been killed by the wild beasts which at that time abounded in Palestine—and yet that the nuances of the story which cause deepest offence to us may have suffered from some corruption of the tradition in the original records, and may admit of being represented in a slightly different form.

After this Elisha went for a time to the ancient haunts of his master on Mount Carmel, and thence returned to Samaria, the capital of his country, which he seems to have chosen for his most permanent dwelling-place.


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