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 2
(2 Kings 2; 1-25)

Translation and Transference

The dawn was just breaking and already the morning sun was warm on our backs. Normally I would have been full of anticipation and excitement, wondering what might lie ahead - for rarely a day in the company of Elijah the Tishbite passed without incident. But there was no longer any way to avoid the sadness flooding remorselessly through me, and even my master's strides on this day seemed lacking in energy; although - in truth - that was probably only my imagination. I faced the unpalatable fact that was being forced on me as my mind grasped what my spirit was telling me, and my heart was heavy with foreboding. The long apprenticeship was coming to an end and my discipleship, for better or worse, was complete. I could feel it in my bones, in my belly, and in every fibre of my body. Soon I would be without Elijah, my father, for he was leaving me - to be with his.

I let the land take over my thoughts, sought relief in the history of the ground which we walked. It was overwhelming, pushing aside the nagging apprehensions about my companion, and my future. Everywhere I laid my eyes told of of battles fought and lost, of peace gained and carelessly discarded, of faithfulness and men of faith - men whose like we may never see again - and of bloody treachery and vile apostasy.

Yesterday we had left Gilgal, farthest outpost of Judge Samuel's circuit. The entire nation of Israel crossed the Jordan at Gilgal on the way to the lands promised by the LORD. The priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant went ahead and as soon as their feet touched the edge of the river, the water piled up in a wall and the people crossed. The name itself, Circle of Stones, refers to the twelve stones still standing there, the very stones that the priests were instructed to lift from the centre of the dry Jordan so that future generations would know, as I know, that our fathers crossed the Jordan with dry feet.1

Gilgal, where the LORD said he would roll away the reproach of Egypt and where Joshua circumcised all the children of the generation that left Egypt as slaves; 2 children who due to the LORD's faithfulness - even in the face of Israel's unbelief and unfaithfulness - were free and fulfilling the hopes and dreams of their forefathers. Their parents were the generation that in spite of God's deliverance, in spite of God's care, were faithless, untrusting and afraid to enter the promised land. So in the desert they died. It was their children that eventually claimed the promised land. And as soon as they crossed the Jordan, Joshua circumcised each male in accordance with God's command.

The day before, Elijah and I had paid a pastoral visit to the College at Gilgal, and not a moment too soon because the prophets and the students were plainly agitated in their spirits. I recognised their concern and understood their incomprehension. They were prophets, trained in the College of Prophets, learning to know the mind of God and to obey His every command; and because of this relationship they immediately understood when God told them that they would not see their spiritual father again. What they could not comprehend, however, was the reason. What they had difficulty in accepting was the apparent insecurity of a future without him. Yes, they were prophets and yet, because of the years they had spent under the branches of Elijah's tree, they were still only students with hard lessons to learn, and in many ways they would always remain students. Pupils needing a master.

Elijah tried to offer comfort, reminding them that their duties went far beyond family or human ties. He gently but firmly repeated the foundation of their calling, reminded them that their trust must be in the LORD alone. Had not He always provided for their every need - both practical and spiritual? (Then he glanced at me and the transition was made, immediately understood and accepted, and the responsibility for these hurting souls was mine.) But the grief was not assuaged. As we walked away from Gilgal my heart was sad, for I knew that for my master it was the last time.

..........

We had been made welcome and stayed the night at one of the many homes scattered randomly throughout Israel and Judah that received and welcomed itinerant prophets. Some of the faithful even went so far as to build specific rooms for the purpose. This particular morning, as was Elijah's custom and mine, we left long before the sun had dismissed night's shadows from the eastern sky. It was apparent we would travel far that day.

For a while we walked in companionable silence, each alone with his thoughts, and neither of us afraid of the silence for we had shared many miles this way. Our ever-shortening shadows preceded us as we headed generally west, and although I was reasonably certain where we were going, Elijah had not yet confirmed it. But if, as was likely, it was another pastoral visit - for Elijah, a final visit - there could be little doubt of our destination. As the sun gradually tipped over its zenith we reached a rough fork in the sandy road, close to another home that offered sanctuary to nomadic prophets, Elijah said, 'Stay here; the LORD has sent me to Bethel.'

This Tishbite had surprised me many times over the years, sometimes with the strength of his spirituality, occasionally with the weakness of his humanity, but never quite in this fashion. What could he mean? Stay here! Never since that day long ago when I caught up with him some days from my Meadow of the Dance, had I ever left his side. Never, through good and bad times, through drought and plenty, through the love of friends and hatred of enemies, whatever the circumstances, never had I left him. And there would be no first time today. There was only one way Elijah the Prophet in Israel, and Elisha his servant and apprentice, would ever be parted - and that time was not quite yet.

(Not for the first time I felt a strong affinity with Ruth, whose name is a byword for fidelity in our history, and my words echoed her words when her adopted mother told Ruth to leave her. Do not urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.) 3

'As surely as the LORD lives and you live, I will not leave you.' My voice in spite of my apprehension at contradicting a direct order from my master was, nevertheless, strong and determined. He briefly touched me on the shoulder, a gesture so rare it counted much more than words, smiled sadly, and then we continued our journey.

For a long, long stretch of the road to Bethel I wrestled with my conscience. Did I refuse to leave his side because of my certain love for him? Or was it because I was deathly afraid of losing my inheritance. (The story of Esau who despised his inheritance and held it in such low esteem that his brother Jacob was able to steal his birthright for a paltry bowl of stew,4 was compulsory learning at the college. Perhaps the difference between us was that I trained hard for mine, or perhaps it was by God's grace.) Eventually I came to the conclusion that both reasons were true and, equally important, that both reasons were righteous and valid. I sighed a deep sigh when at last the conflict was resolved and did I catch, from the corner of my eye, a fleeting smile on Elijah's lips that matched my sigh of relief?

..........

We never reached our destination that day. I was disappointed in some respects, although more important events were crowding out personal desires. Bethel, the City of Angels, was very special to me and sometimes, sitting beside some small fire in the desert with Elijah lost in contemplation of his God, I also would strain my eyes for ladders reaching to heaven. Search among the stars for angels ascending and descending, and think of Jacob - that same birthright-stealing Jacob - the man of God who wrestled with God and said of Bethel, 'This is the House of God and the gateway to heaven.'5 Bethel, perhaps City of Angels for psalmists and poets, but for prophets and for me, only House of God would suffice. Yes, it was special to me.

The students and teachers at Bethel were either more forward, or more spiritually aware than their colleagues in Gilgal, and tremendously impatient to see us. They were waiting miles outside the town and, surprisingly, allowed Elijah to walk right by them and wait, resting on his staff, eyes closed and seemingly without a care in this world. Instead they crowded around me, eyes creased with worry and constantly glancing over hunched shoulders to make sure the prophet was not listening or coming nearer. One leaned closer. 'Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?'

The choice of words was profound. Not our master, but your master. Already they had placed me between Elijah and themselves. Already I was their new master, mentor and intercessor. Still agitated they waited impatiently for my answer. 'Yes, I know,' I replied, 'but do not speak of it.'
Do not speak of it because I can hardly bear to hear in words that which my spirit has been saying all day. They withdrew as my beloved master came close to me. His eyes were sad but was there just a hint of pride in his voice as he gave me the order that he certainly expected to be disobeyed? 'Stay here, Elisha; the LORD has sent me to Jericho.'

His eyes never left mine as I replied, 'As surely as the LORD lives and you live, I will not leave you.'

He turned and walked away, never checking whether or not I was following - I was, ignoring the muttered and worried questions from students fretting about the transition between tutors and mentors; between Elijah and myself. My own concerns kept me fully occupied. The time was not long enough, the training was insufficient, I would never cope. His hand rested briefly on my shoulder again. It was as if a lightening bolt of the LORD had hit me, strengthening me with His Spirit, instead of destroying me, and once more I was Elisha, the prophet's apprentice.

I would cope and, more than that, I would prosper. I would receive my double portion and I would grow in the LORD and work for Him, In His name, I would work miracles, pronounce sentences of death, yet raise the dead to life; all these things I would do because that is what my master had taught me.

We walked on to Jericho, the first city of the promised land to be captured by Joshua,6 a city large in Israel's history, and with still more history to write - and onto the Jordan, an insignificant river of impotence beyond its worth.

..........

It was as if I were part of some important temple ritual where each participant must play his part exactly, with no deviation from established patterns of speech and action. The prophets from the Jericho College came out to meet us. In the whole of the intercourse between the prophets, Elijah and myself, only one word differed from the conversation at Bethel.

They said to me, 'Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?' Did I know? With the exception of Elijah, who on earth could, or should, know better than I? And what was also immediately evident with these representatives of the Jericho school was the unchallenged acknowledgement of me as my master's successor.

'Yes, I know,' I replied, 'but do not speak of it.' Why not speak of it even now, was I still harbouring some doubt? Did I still have some small lingering hope - or was it fear? - that what must come to pass may yet not happen? Elijah interrupted my chaotic, unrewarding thoughts. I nearly, and disrespectfully, answered him before he actually gave the command.

'Stay here; the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.'

'As surely as the LORD lives and you live, I will not leave you.'

This time there was no half-smile, no fleeting touch, no real acknowledgement. Elijah just started to walk and I walked with him. We were nearing his journey's end. But why had he tried so much to send me away? The question buzzed through my head like a swarm of hornets defending honey, but there was no sweetness to be found in the question. My feelings swung from an irrational pettiness (did he still need to test my faithfulness after we had shared so much together?) to selfish shame (what if he had just been trying to get time alone, some precious space with which to prepare for eternity). My mind was in a turmoil of conflicting thoughts and emotions, so I left the matter in the hands of the LORD.

We reached the Jordan, the muddy, slow-moving, nondescript Jordan, yet still the river around which so much of Israel's history is interwoven. Keeping at a distance from us, was a group of about fifty men from the college who had come to see this through - whatever the this turned out to be - and a part of me welcomed the company. A larger part of me, however, wanted them gone; I did not want anyone else to share these last minutes with my master. If only we could find a ford and cross this river of God then we might be alone for - for what? I realised that whatever was about to happen, it was beyond my knowledge, prophetic or otherwise.

Then my heart stopped, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth which was as suddenly dry as the desert sand. I could hardly believe it, and could hardly breathe. The long dreamed-of moment had arrived, Elijah was removing his cloak. I shut my eyes and the skin on my shoulders tingled in anticipation of its touch. I heard the soft rustle of the supple goat-skin and waited for its anointing caress. Nothing!

Slowly I opened my eyes again, nervous, unwilling to spoil the moment for which I had waited so long. Elijah had rolled the cloak up tightly and now it was raised above his head! What was he doing? Then he brought it down hard and smote the waters of the Jordan. And the river obeyed this man of God, as it had obeyed the mighty Joshua, and as the Red Sea had obeyed Moses. The waters parted and my master and I, as the children of Israel had done, crossed the mighty Jordan dry-shod.

Now, because I knew it was coming to an end, I was even more a mixture of grief and excitement, and of doubt and hope. I needed my inheritance, I needed it badly. Elijah, my father, knew the p thoughts of his son as well as he knew his own. 'Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?'

'Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,' I replied. There was no other possible answer. The mantle of his ministry, the care of his students, the fathering of the colleges, all of the responsibility had passed to me - and none of it would be possible without the double-share inheritance that was the right of his first-born son..

"You have asked a difficult thing,' he said, 'yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours - otherwise not.'

We walked on as I tried to understand the meaning of his words. Why would I not be here when he was taken from me? What could drive me from his side now? And then I understood and wished I did not. All my questions were suddenly and frighteningly answered as my heart leapt into my throat, choking me and strangling at birth the scream that was rushing to my lips.

The calm of the day was suddenly lashed by a fearsome whirlwind unlike anything I had experienced before. The waters of the Jordan were whipped into a maelstrom of white foam and the sands of the banks formed into black spirals reaching to the sky that snaked across the ground as if alive, tearing up everything in their paths and turning the day into black night. Black night that quickly changed again into the brightness of the noonday sun. I looked up, unable to tear my eyes away although my soul quaked in fear. Across the sky a team of horses streaked towards me. Fire formed their manes and tails, and smoke streamed from their flaring nostrils. Their eyes were red and fearsome. Behind them they pulled a chariot of fire; clean, white, purifying fire that blotted out both the night of the whirlwind, and the glare of the sun. The chariot and the horses of fire separated my master and me, cutting him from my presence on earth for ever. I cried out, my voice a mixture of fear; both fear at the wondrous and terrible sight my eyes beheld, and the overwhelming fear of finally losing my master, my mentor and my father. I wanted to run and hold onto him, throw myself at his feet, grasp his ankles and beg him to stay a while longer. But I held my ground and watched as Elijah was separated from me, lifted up to heaven in the whirlwind that still tore at me. 'My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!' How would Israel survive without the army that was Elijah. How would I survive without the man who was my father?

I tore my clothes in anguish at my loss. I wished for ashes to cover my head and a place to hide my face - but there, there was my father's cloak. I picked it up. There was no magic in its touch, it was merely an old goat skin, travel stained and badly worn, that a few moments ago had covered the shoulders of my father. But it meant so much more. It was his authority and sanctity passed on to me, a double portion. I stood by the Jordan and fear, awe and hope coursed through my veins. I was the son of Elijah, his chosen successor, and the fears and doubts that occasionally haunted him, now haunted me. I girded myself with strength. I am Elisha, prophet to Israel and Judah! I smote the water and cried, 'Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?'

The waters divided to the right and the left, and the God of Elijah was also the God of Elisha, I once more crossed the Jordan dry-shod, and so came into my inheritance.

..........

The confirmation, though not required, came very quickly. I was thanking the LORD, my God for his mercy, my spirit was lifting to him as never before, when I saw and heard the band of prophets approaching me. Their voices, as everything around me, from tiny insect sounds to the cries of eagles far away in their mountain eyries, were as clear as the ripple of the Jordan now fast-flowing as if to regain lost ground. 'The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha,' they called one to another.

Yes, my students, yes my children, my father's spirit does indeed rest on me - a double portion. Then they reached me and bowed low before me, and I realised, perhaps properly for the first time, what the responsibility of God's power really meant.

'Look,' they said, 'we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the LORD has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.'

What was going on? They knew Elijah had gone, surely! If not, why had they said his spirit had passed to me? But then I realised the source of their confusion. They knew he was with the LORD, however they expected his mortal body to have remained on earth, they had not see the full extent of Elijah's translation. They did not know that death had not touched him, so they needed to find his corpse. Elijah must not suffer the dishonour of his body lying undiscovered and unburied somewhere in the mountains. And one other point; perhaps they needed to be absolutely sure, to avoid any lingering doubts. Afraid, as Obadiah who had been sent by Ahab to find the prophet had been, that the Spirit of the LORD had just carried Elijah away for His own purposes.7 For many times the LORD had removed Elijah when his enemies pressed close. As, of course, He had this time, but unlike other occasion, this time there would be no return.

The trouble was I just did not have the heart to stop them doing what they needed to do. But I tried. 'No,' I said, 'do not send them.' The respect built into generations of teachers and prophets should have commanded obedience without prolonged argument. In fact they should have obeyed me instantly in such a situation, and trusted my judgment implicitly - it was not a classroom where debate might be encouraged. But they had lost a father and even if they'd gained a new one, it was not an easy situation to accept without at least some doubt. And they needed to do something, however needless. And at this time, this moment I had waited for all my life, I did not have the heart or the strength to forbid them doing something to occupy themselves - anything. I almost wished I had a similar, pointless task to occupy my hands and thoughts.

So they persisted as I knew they would, and I gave in and allowed them their useless quest. 'Send them.'

Three days the men brought in by the prophets searched for the body of my master; descending into steep-walled valleys and climbing craggy mountain sides. Strong men, able men, it is true, but what use is strength and skill when searching on earth for someone who now lives in heaven? During this period while I allowed them this exercise, I stayed in Jericho, acclimatising myself spiritually and emotionally for the job for which I had been chosen - to serve the LORD in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

When they returned dispirited and weary from the search, and although I yearned to comfort them, I offered no sympathy but merely said, 'Did not I tell you not to go?' The lesson must be learned, and remembered. Elijah's son was now their father.

..........

Jericho, a pleasant city of palm and balsam trees with an oasis nearby where travellers and their animals rest from their travels. (In the time of Moses, it was sometimes called the City of Palms.8) It was a good place to wait while my thoughts turned to God, and I meditated on what He had planned for me. Although beautiful, Jericho remained a city cursed by Joshua, and therefore cursed by God.9 Hiel of Bethel ignored the curse and rebuilt the gates. He sacrificed his firstborn, Abiram during the laying of the foundations, and his youngest son, Segub, died while they lifted the gates between the new-built walls, an act expressly forbidden by Joshua.10

It is over four hundred years since the old walls came down, not by might, not by the sound of trumpets, and not by the marching of many men - but by the strong arm of the LORD.

In many ways the curse remains on Jericho. In part this was the reason for my days of meditation and preparation. The LORD had shown me that soon men would come to see me and talk about water. They had heard from the college that once more a prophet is in their city. The water flows from a fountain and it still carries the evil of the centuries. The ground it is supposed to nourish, it blasts and poisons instead; trees are twisted and die from its ministrations; animals give birth prematurely, and even children born of women are affected by its sickly and corruptive nature.11 They will come soon to ask for my help and I will give it to them.

The men from the city arrived in a mixture of apprehension and self-importance. I wondered why they had never asked Elijah, my father, for help. Had they in some way offended him? Or was the reputation of Elijah too deep a river for them to ford? So we will talk to Elisha... who is Elisha? We will speak to Elisha, the man who poured water on Elijah's hands. We will speak to the servant of Elijah.

So they came as leaders, but also as supplicants; and as land-owners, yet also as beggars. The eldest spoke on behalf of all of them, choosing his words very carefully. 'Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land unproductive.' At least they said the words that recognised my authority in Israel, as a prophet of the LORD.

But they were waiting. Did our deliverer from Egypt, Moses, feel as I feel now when he was at the springs of Marah?12 Marah, or Bitter, as indeed those waters were? Did even that mighty man feel just a little apprehensive as he obeyed the Lord God and threw a branch of wood in to the spring? What could a piece of wood do? Nothing, but look what obeying God can achieve, so why did the chosen people of God not listen to Moses as he spelled out the consequences of obedience and disobedience. If only the people had listened then to the promises and the decree with which the LORD tested their faithfulness.13 Now would I obey the LORD as Moses had?

The city leaders were growing nervous and impatient, perhaps doubting the initial impetuosity that had brought them to this time and this place. 'Bring me a new bowl,' I said, 'and put salt in it.' Salt, so necessary for the preservation of food; salt, without which all food would lose its savour; salt, so necessary for life and the enjoyment of life. And, as the LORD has commanded me, I will use it to season the water.

If they had doubts, they kept them well hidden and brought me a bowl full of clean, crisp salt. I walked to the well and my heart was thumping as the knowledge that now I was really on my own permeated my thoughts and every corner of me. I was glad I had a bowl in my hands; pleased I had an action to perform, a ritual for the men of the city, and something to keep my mind off the task ahead. Then I remembered my name, God is my Salvation, and knew that never again would I feel alone.

I reached the well with its spring of poison, threw the salt into its midst and the LORD spoke through me. ''This is what the LORD says: "I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive."'

I waited. Hesitantly one or two of the men drew near to the water, straining to see if it was healed. Some caught my eye and looked away again. Did they expect that I should prove myself, and the water, by drinking first? I waited. The one who had spoken pulled himself up to his full height, pushed the others out of the way, cupped his hands, lifted some water, committed himself to the LORD, and drank.

His face was answer enough as the sweet water trickled down his chin and throat. Soon many would drink from the sweet spring, but how long will it be remembered what God did today? How long will the people give thanks. I left them shouting for joy and drinking like drunkards at a wedding.

..........

The next day I said my farewells to the college and began my journey to Bethel, to see those we had left so quickly and reassure them that Elijah's mantle rested firmly on my shoulders.

I had not travelled far when I was accosted by a band of young men; ruffians, ungodly and blasphemous calf-worshippers. Constantly they had jeered at the prophets in Jericho. Again and again they had been warned of God's wrath, that He would not forever hold back His anger. Time after time they were warned that to mock a prophet was to mock God, Himself. To jeer at the College of Prophets was to jeer at His handiwork. The warnings were useless, falling on deaf ears, for their road to destruction was firmly founded, and upon it their feet were firmly set.

They had no fear now even as they shouted at me. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' they said. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' That they jeered at me and my physical appearance was nothing; that was to laugh at a tree in winter for being without its crown of leaves. But they must have heard from the college the way Elijah had been taken to be with the LORD. The prophets must have told the tale many times to many people and the story of a fiery chariot and horses of fire would have seemed a nonsense to these unbelievers. And so they blasphemed God by their mockery. It was the final link in an unholy chain of condemnation, and there was no other punishment allowed except death.14

With dread and sadness in the pit of my stomach I cursed them in the name of the LORD. It sounded as terrible to them as it did to me and momentarily they stopped, but redemption was finally beyond them. Before they could begin again the litany of cursing and blasphemy, the jeers on their lips turned to screams as two she-bears rampaged among them. Forty-two blasphemers were ripped and torn that day. Would their peers, their elders or even their parents learn from this horror? I doubted it very much. More likely they would curse God the more until they too learned the fear of God - and for them also it would probably be too late.

The LORD will not have His name taken in vain. God's justice gave me no personal joy although the pain of hearing Him mocked and blasphemed cut through my heart like a heated blade. I was to learn that for the LORD, justice - although often tempered with divine mercy - must always be fulfilled. He is a just God. He had laid out the blessings of obedience, and He had made clear the curses of rebellion. The choice was simple - and the consequences were life or death.

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