Alphagramma
Alphagramma
 

The Prophet's Apprentice (Elisha Reimagined)

Written by Peter Robert Flounders
(During The First Decade And A Half Of The Twenty-First Century)

   

 

CHAPTER 1
(1 Kings 19: 1-21)

The Meadow of the Dance

The rhythmic swaying of the oxen's rumps might have, in other circumstances, soothed my senses as on other days, and allowed me to meditate lightly as I followed the plough, eyes and hands working in unthinking unison to give one more straight furrow in a nearly completed field of straight furrows. The other eleven yoke stretched away to the right and front of me forming an almost perfect diagonal. The lead ploughman was the oldest, and therefore the most experienced, and although from my position I could watch them at all times, the need was hardly there. They were craftsmen; well-paid and well cared for, they did the best they could and they were the best; my father would not keep and employ any other kind. Yet even as the mid-afternoon sun beat down hard on my shoulders and sweat saturated my clothing and ran from my brow in a constant stream from which the flies drank salt, I still watched them. The land belongs to Shaphat and I am Elisha, twenty-five years old1, the son of Shaphat. It is my land and I should have had a wife to share it with me, a fact my mother often shared with all who would listen, and with me whether I listened or not. But since my boyhood I have had but one love - the LORD, my Lord.

But today is different. An irrepressible excitement trembled through my bones, shedding the tiredness from my thighs and easing the ache in my shoulders as the oak plough bucked and strained to leave the rich earth, and the iron-shod tip fought to dig deeper. Occasionally, one of the ploughmen would snatch a quick, pleading glance at me over his shoulder. Normally I would have called a short water break about this time. They needed to rest in the shade for a while and replace the fluid they had sweated out on behalf of my father. But not just yet. There was an anticipation filling my spirit that was becoming nearly unbearable; something was about to happen, but what?

Then it seemed as if time itself came to an end, as if the sun stopped in the sky and the shadows refused to lengthen across my field, Abel-Mehola, The Meadow of the Dance. (The reason for the name was a mystery, perhaps the earlier inhabitants used it for their pagan worship, perhaps once it was only a meadow where children loved to play and dance. Perhaps it was many things - but for this day it is the place where my destiny would be fulfilled.)

A dark figure was striding purposefully towards me. Small and indistinguishable at first, my heart still beat faster as my spirit recognised the man I had never met before. He drew closer and his old cloak flapped around his shoulders as his long legs covered the ground. Nearer, his face was stern and lined, speaking of troubles unshared by ordinary men, of battles fought and won at great cost to himself - although of that he would have been uncaring - but his eyes gleamed out at me, caught me, held me transfixed; I was a rabbit away from its burrow, captured by the unblinking stare of an eagle.

Then he was upon me, his cloak swirled about me, the mantle of the LORD settled on me and the Spirit of the LORD flowed through me. I was reborn as my thoughts rushed hither and thither out of control and my spirit soared through the heavens; my limbs were soft as a woman's, and there was not an iota of sense left in my entire being.

I began to prophesy2 and, as King Saul and King David before me, I danced to the LORD, my mouth full of ecstatic praise and utterances as His Spirit filled me. And in this holy state I saw the LORD's plans for me, and they were good. For no matter what befell me, good or bad, or whom I met, kings or commoners, friends or enemies, chosen or pagans - always the LORD would be there leading me, guiding me, directing my feet on the path I should follow.

The ground swayed beneath my feet and I fell full length in the fresh earth of Abel-Mehola, my Meadow of the Dance. I lifted my spinning head. But wait! He was walking away! Leaving me! Not now, surely not now!

Scrambling to my feet, I rushed after him, stumbling and falling as limbs refused to obey me. My voice croaked and gasped, unable to form coherent words. My soul screamed out for help. 'Wait,' I cried. 'Let me first kiss my father and mother goodbye, then I will follow you.' In anguish I waited, interminably it seemed.

He stopped. Slowly he turned to face me. An infinite sadness of knowledge filled the eyes of Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of the living God. Slowly, almost brokenly, he nodded. 'Go back,' he said. Then, in a whisper I hardly heard, "What have I done to you?'

I knew what he had done to me, I thanked God for what he had done for me. Yes, the life of a prophet was hard and dangerous; to speak God's word to kings and commoners without fear or favour was always dangerous. The life was lonely and there could be no turning back, neither for friends or family, for love or for fear. But I had no other choice, and I had no other ambition. To serve the LORD was my only dream, to serve as His anointed prophet was beyond my wildest dreams. Oh, yes, Elijah, I know what you have done to me. And from that moment I became Elijah's servant and disciple all the days of his life.3

..........

I watched him walk away. Soon I would follow him to begin my training as the servant of Elijah: I would tend to his physical needs, pour water on his hands, do anything he called me to do, and I would also learn - under the guidance of his discipleship - to become the servant of God. I called the ploughmen who had stopped work and were staring at me in open-eyed wonder, their faces momentarily as dumb as the oxen before them. They knew something momentous had occurred. They just could not guess what and I was not really sure I could tell them. 'Stop work for the day,' I shouted to them. 'Take your oxen back to the stables. Clean your ploughs and lay them up for the day. But my oxen and my plough take to my father's house. Then call your families, wives, children, parents, and all who are part of the house of Shaphat. This evening we feast and celebrate.'

I turned my back on their shocked faces, and turned deaf ears to their cries of amazement. There was a lot to think about and a lot more on which to meditate; there was also an old life to leave behind, and a new one to begin.

Abel-Mehola, the land I strode across when eventually my legs obeyed me, is part of my father's estates and has been in our family since our fathers fought alongside Moses and he, fulfilling the covenant made with them if they crossed the Jordan to help win the promised land, granted the land south of the river to them and their descendants.4 Here we settled and here we will remain, we of the tribe of Manasseh. It is a land that rewards hard work and good husbandry. It is a land of history and the ground is soaked in the blood of heroes and of evil men, of the righteous and the unrighteous. The land itself is the proof of the stories told by our fathers and their fathers before them; proof of our history, and proof of our faith in the one living God.

The remnant of the Midianite army reached our borders when fleeing from Gideon and his three hundred trumpets.5 Gideon, so representative of many of our heroes, the kind of men deliberately chosen by the LORD, common folk with all the insecurities and fears common to their peers, thus ensuring that no servant of the Sovereign LORD would ever get the glory due to Him. Gideon, unbelieving and not wanting to believe, the very least in his family, and belonging to a clan that was the weakest in Manasseh. Yet the angel of God told him to go in the strength he had. What strength? Gideon tested God not once but twice, and how he lived to fight the Midianites I shall never know. So did God, understanding the weakness of His chosen leader, give Gideon a huge army to generate self-esteem and confidence? No, he cut it, and cut it again, decimation was too small a word, until there were only three hundred men left - warriors with only lamps and clay pots for weapons.and Gideon was left with only the strength of the LORD on which to rely. The only place where there is total security, and the only way to have absolute confidence in the future.

When they reached this land that now belongs to Shaphat, and only then, did the LORD allow the increase of the army from the surrounding tribes. The slaughter of the Midianites was dreadful to behold and the waters of the Jordan were ours. My father's land, my land, and my waters.

North of the fertile Jordan valley, we are situated just ten miles from Beth-Shean the town that King Saul failed to conquer, a town of infamy where his mutilated body and those of his sons were hung on the city walls as if they were common unforgiven criminals. David, however, that flawed man, that king after God's heart, wrested it from the Canaanites even though they were thought invincible with their chariots of iron, and today it is the land of Manasseh: my tribe, my people, my land and my heritage. Israel is, and always will be, the land. The promised land. And when we lose sight of our God, we will lose the land.

This land is part of Israel, and is part of me. I am part of it, and when I leave, that piece of me will remain and always I will grieve a little for the life that was left behind. But what lies ahead excites me more than any grief, overwhelms me more than the sadness of leave-taking, fills me with joy that at last my dream is fulfilled and now, once more, I dance in the Meadow of the Dance. Dance before the LORD with thanksgiving in my heart for He heard me, answered my prayers, fulfilled my visions, and one day I will be prophet to both Israel and Judah. With my helpers I drove before me twelve yoke of oxen. With my God I will serve the twelve tribes of God's chosen people.

Nearing the house, my happiness diminished at the thought of the pain my leaving would cause. My parents are God-fearing people who brought me up in the ways of the LORD and no doubt believed, knowing my hunger after God, that one day I would join the College of the Prophets - one of many that have existed in one form or another since the days of Samuel the prophet - but they will experience the pain of my leaving. My father will endure the loss as I renounce his fatherhood, even though in his heart he will agree with, and support the reason, in that same grieving heart he will also suffer the pain. Losing me to a college where I would still be in the area and able to come home for visits was one thing; losing me to follow unknown paths with perhaps no hope of seeing me again was entirely another. My father will understand that when Elijah's mantle settled on my shoulders, I became his adopted son, if not in law, then certainly in custom and in spirit - and the latter was all I needed; he also knows a son may only have one father.

Their faces expressed their emotions as I told them what had happened, how at last my destiny was laid out before me: pain and pride were evident in my father's tears and crushing hugs. He asked no futile questions as he embraced me - there was none to ask; and I had no answers. A road lay before me and I had no choice other than to follow it. My mother failed to choke back the thousand objections she wanted to raise, voicing them and apologising for them in the same breath, as she elbowed my father away and smothered me in her arms. My heart failed momentarily as the full truth hit me: this might be the last time I felt this softness that had been a part of me all my life; the last time I would smell the sweet smell of her gentleness. I wept and my heart ached for her also. Father grasped me again and we remained for some moments, three people holding tightly to each other, desperately creating memories to cling to in the future, while all around servants, workmen and their families also wept empathetic tears if not yet fully aware of the cause. I pulled away reluctantly. There was work to do, preparations to make, and Elijah was drawing further and further away.

On my instructions the servants quickly broke up my plough and used the pieces to make a fire in the fire-pit. A tingle of regret ran through me as I watched the hard oak shaft - cunningly carved to follow the natural curve of the wood - stripped of its iron bands and thrown into the fire-pit. The cross piece which my hands had held many times to guide the plough followed the pieces of the shaft, the leather grips worn and of no further use. It had served me well but I would use it no more. And then, with my own hand, I killed the ox that had served me so faithfully. A sacrifice to the LORD. The servants took the meat and cooked it, then eagerly dished it out to everyone, masters and mistresses, craftsmen and servants, families and friends, and there was great rejoicing - softened by quiet tears.

I kissed my parents, embraced them one last time and without a backward glance at the embers of the plough, the ashes of my old life, or the weeping friends and family, I walked away from my inheritance, my life, and all I once held dear.

The adventure had begun.

..........

It was days before I caught Elijah. I was young and strong, full of vigour and sure of myself. But he was God's man. To anoint me he had walked non-stop from Mount Sinai, where he had met with the living God, to my home where he met with me - a distance of over two hundred miles. To catch or even match Elijah physically was harder than driving twelve yoke of oxen alone. To catch or even match him spiritually was a task of gigantic proportions. But I was determined. One day I would have his anointing - and more. A double allowance. He fathers the colleges and the prophets therein, he teaches them and blesses them, pours out his life for them; but he has adopted me, I am his firstborn and I must carry on his name and, more importantly, his work - a double share is therefore my right and my inheritance.

He greeted me without surprise when I reached him. And for the days and weeks that followed - going where, I had no idea and never asked - he talked and I listened.

(In fact, I would listen, and watch, for over nine years before Elijah's prophetic ministry with all its responsibility and terror passed to me. Nine long years, my apprenticeship would last, nine years following my master through the courts of kings and the homes of commoners; nearly a decade while his fame as a prophet grew and I was known merely as the one who poured water on Elijah's hands. Little more, in the sight (and thoughts) of many, than merely his personal servant. If God had shown me then the time required for my training and instruction, it might have seemed an age too long to wait. But when it eventually came to an end, it seemed a terrifying age too soon.)

He talked, and the tales I had heard of this man proved not to be exaggerated legends, and the legends themselves were far less than the truth. He spoke of miracles as I spoke of meals. He talked about kings the way I mentioned servants - particularly Ahab and the battle on Mount Carmel when the LORD used Elijah to prove there was only one God in Israel.

It really came as no surprise when I later discovered that the College of Prophets I had hoped to join was fathered by Elijah, perpetuating the tradition of Samuel the founder of this college and many others. (Samuel, the last Judge of Israel before the people demanded a king; Samuel, king maker and king breaker; Samuel, first and foremost a prophet of the living God who rebuked both kings and commoners for violations of the covenant.)

Samuel's Colleges of Prophets were created when he trod the well-worn path of his circuit from Ramah to Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and other places, before returning to Ramah, travelling the country to bring justice and judgment.6 God's prophets were needed then and are needed now to fearlessly speak God's word in a country constantly torn by politics, apostasy and the general faithlessness of God's chosen people. (God's chosen - I love my people, but sometimes they drive me to despair. It is so good for us that the LORD, although a God of unfailing justice, is also a God whose mercies never come to an end.)

My new master appeared fearless to me, even when he described his temporary cowardice in the face of the evil woman, Jezebel. But the telling of the story was not without shame for Elijah's voice betrayed his feelings. His voice told me that he had, in his own eyes, and in his heart of hearts, miserably failed the God he loved so deeply and so much wanted to serve well. I ached for him, could almost see him under the broom tree in the desert, sick at heart and ashamed of his human weakness. Many a man would easily excuse himself this temporary failing, perhaps recall famous victories to boost his self-image, but not Elijah, he was a man of brutal honesty, particularly with himself. And a kind of jealousy filled me when he talked of the angel providing for him, strengthening Elijah for his journey of forty days and nights to Horeb, or Sinai, the Holy Mountain of God. The mountain where the LORD had spoken with Moses through a burning bush; where he had received the law and where the LORD had made His covenant with Israel. A place of wonder and mystery and miracles.

But it was when Elijah told me of his meeting with the LORD on Mount Sinai that I finally understood the mantle that would one day be mine. And terror fought with pride, and abject humility swamped both emotions. 'The the LORD spoke to me,' he said quietly, 'in a whisper, in a still small voice, that was more terrifying than the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. The silence was so vast it filled the universe and when the small voice spoke it sounded like eternity and I hid my face in my cloak, tried to hide myself from His presence, and yearned to die.'

He gazed into the flames of the fire that cooked our simple, evening meal. 'I had lost my trust in God, you see. I believed that every righteous person was dead, murdered, and that only those who had broken God's covenant and rejected His name, had survived.' With just a touch of irony he added, 'God showed me I was wrong.' He glanced at me. 'Seven thousand God had kept for Himself, seven thousand prophets alive and well and waiting the LORD's commands.'7

He paused for a while. 'But it is more than risking your own life, it is than being prepared to give up that life - sometime you may be called to take life.' He paused again. 'And you, Elisha, while you may have Kings to anoint - you will certainly also have people on whom to pass God's sentence of death.'

For a time we sat in silence while I considered his words, then he repeated my name softly, almost a whisper, his eyes were shut. 'Elisha,' he whispered again, God is my Salvation. Why do think your father give you that name?' He never paused for an answer from me. 'I will tell you why, because God wanted you to have the name of Elisha. Names are important to God, and your name is especially important to Him - and to you. Remember in the dark times to come, Elisha. Remember the name that God has given you: Elisha, God is my Salvation. For there will be times when all you will have to hold onto is your name.' Now he stared at me full face, shrugged off the old, worn goat's skin that served as his cloak, held it in his hands and asked, 'Will you be able to sentence people to death, Elisha? Do you still want this mantle I wear?' The Meadow of the Dance gleamed large and attractive in my mind. I lay down and tried to hide my fears and doubts in the sanctuary of sleep.

It was many years later when the enormity of what I might be called to do was physically and horribly demonstrated. (But at that time, I never realised that Elijah's ministry on earth was reaching its conclusion and that soon his call would come and he would literally be lifted up into heaven.) It happened during the Moabite rebellion. Ahaziah, an apostate, a worshipper of calves and of his mother's idols, Baal and Ashtoreth, was king of Israel.

The calf is always depicted as the favourite animal of the Canaanite male god Baal, his female counterpart, Ashtoreth, and their deluded worshippers. Wooden calves, golden calves, stone calves, carved or cast, they are raised up on pedestals, then worshipped. Made by man and worshipped by man - the sense of it always escapes me, but the evilness never leaves me.

For ever since the deliverance out of Egypt and the inroads into the borders and eventually the lands of the Canaanites and other countries, these worthless gods have encroached on the faith of faithless Israel. Time after time they have experimented with this apostasy, from the golden calf made in the wilderness when Moses was talking to the LORD, to the calves cynically made and erected by Jeroboam at Bethel and Dan for Israel's worship.

King Jeroboam, the man who eventually divided the Kingdom, initially lead an abortive rebellion against King Solomon. He narrowly escaped with his life and fled to Egypt. However, when Solomon died and Rehoboam took the throne, Jeroboam returned. And then the young King Rehoboam demonstrated his inexperience by refusing to negotiate with the northern tribes and allowing Jeroboam to attain and keep the kingship of the ten northern tribes. And so today, because of the folly and private ambitions of kings, we have a Kingdom and its people divided. Tribe against tribe, and Israelite against Israelite. A chosen nation, children of the LORD, yet at times despising that inheritance - such sin, such wickedness.

Newly elected King Jeroboam, however, was clever, and a far more wily man with no intention of losing any part of his kingdom. he suspected that if the people of the new Northern Kingdom continued to worship at Jerusalem, the capital of Judah - the Southern Kingdom - his support might be eroded as the people travelled there to worship. His answer was to erect the calves for the convenience of the people. And the people, the chosen people (God forgive them) decided to save their legs by not walking to Jerusalem to worship the true God, and instead risked their lives by committing apostasy and worshipping creatures made of metal at Bethel and Dan. It is beyond my comprehension and the blasphemy of it appals me every time I think of it.

So, back to Ahaziah, son of Ahab and Jezebel, carrying on in the tradition and apostasy of King Jeroboam and worshipping calves. One day he fell through the lattice of his upper window and badly injured himself.8 Confined to his bed and with his doctors and healers unable to do anything or even offer any prognosis, he decided to consult Baal-Zebub, one of the minor gods worshipped at Ekron, a Northern city of Palestine. (It was, and still is, rightly called, 'The Barren Place', for both physically and spiritually it lives up to its name.) To this end the King's messengers were dispatched.

Unfortunately for King Ahaziah, the LORD knew what he had done and dispatched one of His own messengers. Elijah and I were resting when he arrived. Angels, messengers from God, I never got used to them, and I have never failed in their company to be struck dumb by fear and awe; never able to do anything other than observe and listen. The company of angels is a fearful thing, they are not beings one gets accustomed to easily, unless, perhaps, one's name is Elijah. 'Go up and meet the messengers of the King of Samaria,' the angel said to him, 'and ask them, "Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?" Therefore this is what the LORD says: "You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!"' And so, as commanded, we went to meet the messengers of Ahaziah.

The messengers listened to Elijah and immediately retraced their steps. People never - or very rarely - argued with the man from Tishbeh, sometimes simply called, the Tishbite. And if they did the consequences were usually severe. We waited for events to unfold. (The king would have easily recognised Elijah from the description his men gave him, and that was true for most royalty.) We made a small temporary camp and I prepared a light meal while we waited; Elijah in patience and mediation, and I in apprehension and some foreboding. In the fullness of time we were greeted by the sight of a Captain with a company of fifty armed men. I had the feeling, the prophetic feeling, that it would very quickly become an extremely hard lesson for the King - and a warning for all those who turned away from the LORD to follow pagan gods and idols. The LORD had said, 'You will have no gods before me.' He is jealous for His people, and He is just.

We were waiting on a hill. The captain shouted up, 'Man of God, the King says, "Come down!"' Fear filled me because I knew it was inevitable that something dreadful was about to happen.

Elijah stood and glared down at them. Tall; long black hair now streaked with grey; long grizzled beard; even dressed in goat skin with a leather belt, he was an imposing, terrifying figure. 'If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your men.' Of course it did. It could not and would not be stopped. I turned away from the sight and the screams but Elijah never wavered. He was protecting the name and reputation of his God who would not take second place to any other god.

The fires were dead. I had killed my own small fire, wishing never to see the smallest flame again, and any further cooking of food was impossible with the stench of the burning men still in my nostrils, even though the conflagration flared quickly and was finished in seconds. Elijah resumed his meditations, while I thought only about the enormity of the action that had just taken place. Far too soon another captain was there with another company of fifty men, too eager, it seemed to me, for promotion - or sacrifice. His arrogance, even on the killing ground of his colleagues so recently and horribly consumed by fire, was staggering. 'Come down at once!' were the last orders he gave this side of Sheol.

We waited, I in a nervous state of apprehension, my Master in his usual mediative state, and once more a captain with a company of fifty men arrived. I wondered if the whole of the Israelite army would be destroyed this way. But this captain had quickly learned from experience and judging by what we had seen so far in officer material, should have been promoted to full general. He climbed up the hill and promptly fell on his knees before Elijah. 'Man of God,' he begged, 'please have respect for my life and the lives of these fifty men, your servants! See, fire has fallen from heaven and consumed the first two captains and all their men. But now have respect for my life!'

Elijah waited for instructions. The angel said to him, 'Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.'

Afraid of the captain, after what had just happened? It seemed incredible to me that the angel found it necessary to reassure him. But this is the human race since the fall. It was the same for our ancestors in the wilderness; miracle after miracle and still they doubted and were afraid, and turned from God. And even with Elijah it had happened; inflicting absolute and terrifying defeat on the prophets of Baal, mocking and humiliating them in front of the people and the king, then fleeing from a woman. Our loving God knows our weaknesses. It is well that He does, for we so very seldom acknowledge them ourselves.

So we went to Samaria, to the palace of the King with the captain trying hard to hide his apprehension at bringing Elijah into his presence, after all, he had seen at first hand the consequences of arrogance, and he also knew his sovereign. We hastened on, I and the soldiers struggling to keep pace with my master who was indeed marching firmly as to war on behalf of his beloved, the LORD.

It was not my first time with Elijah in a palace, but apprehension still soured my belly - there were so many guards, so many soldiers, and crafty sorcerers with Baal worshippers glancing at us surreptitiously from under slanted, painted eyes. It was a place from the lowest hell and no doubt its inhabitants would eventually reach those depths.

Elijah marched straight into the king's chamber. There were no pleasantries. He simply told the king, 'This is what the LORD says: Is it because there is no God in Israel for you to consult that you have sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Because you have done this, you will never leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die.' The despair was evident on the face of Ahaziah for he knew there could be no reprieve. No matter what he did or promised, Elijah had spoken the word of the LORD, there could be no turning. And so he died, never leaving his bed, as the LORD had said through His servant, Elijah.

I learned that day how terrible was the Word of the LORD; how irrevocable, once uttered; and, for a fleeting moment, I questioned my calling.

I could not have known then, but that was the last time I would enter the court of a king with the prophet of the King of Kings. It had been over nine years since that day in my Meadow of the Dance. Almost a decade of following my master, serving him, and learning from him. And yet there still seemed so much more yet to learn from Elijah, the Tishbite.

But it was not to be. Everything I had not learned, would stay unlearned from Elijah. The sands of time were quickly running out and the mantle of the LORD's office would soon fall on me: Elisha, the Prophet's Apprentice.

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