2 King 2:1-15 – Step Four – Closer Study of Context

Let’s now look at how 2 Kings 2:1-25 relates to its historical/cultural, literary and theological contexts.

1. Examine the text’s historical and cultural context.

We can begin with the historical/cultural context of this text.

(1) Learn what you can about the history of the text.

We don’t know a great deal about the history of this text.

What is related here may have been passed down in oral and then written form among the sons of the prophets (“the company of the prophets”). This material was evidently brought to the southern kingdom after the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. It was eventually incorporated into the Deuternomic History. As was mentioned in 2 Kings 2:1-25 – Step Two – Introductory Survey, the final form of this history was written after 562-561 B.C.

(2) Review the history in the text.

Elisha son of Shaphat is connected with events that occurred during the reigns of the following kings of the northern kingdom of Israel: Jorah (Jehoram), Jehu, Jehoahaz and Jehoash (Joash). Most date his ministry as occurring from about 850 to 800 B.C.

As mentioned in 2 Kings 2:1-25 – Step Two – Introductory Survey, Elisha is initially referred to in 1 Kings 19:16 as the one Elijah is to anoint as his successor. 1 Kings 19:19-21 tells us how Elisha leaves the family farm in Abel-Meholah and becomes Elijah’s attendant. This takes place during the reign of Ahab (874-853), probably near the end of Ahab’s reign.

Elisha succeeds Elijah in 2 Kings 2. Then, in 2 Kings 3, he appears in connection with the campaign of Jehoram king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah against Moab. Jehoram reigned from 852 to 841.

A question regarding chronology comes up at this point. 2 Chronicles 21:12-15 refers to a letter written by Elijah to Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah (not the same as the Jehoram king of Israel). When Jehoram king of Judah succeeded his father Jehoshaphat on the throne, he had all of his brothers killed and followed the path of Ahab in the northern kingdom. Through Elijah’s letter, the LORD condemns Jehoram and says he will be severely punished.

It is argued that in order for Elijah to have written this letter, he would have to have been alive at the time Jehoshaphat died and Jehoram king of Judah massacred his brothers. But in 2 Kings 3 we read about Elisha’s involvement in the military campaign in which Jehoshaphat participated. So it would seem that Elijah must still have been alive when the events of 2 Kings 3 took place and that the events of 2 Kings 2 actually occurred at a later time, after Jehoshaphat’s death.[1]

(3) Study any aspects of culture that are relevant to the text.

One aspect of culture relevant to the text is the role of the prophet in Israelite society.

Prophecy in the Ancient Near Eastern context has been defined by B. Buller as “communication-based intermediation between the divine world and human society.”[2] The prophet functions as the spokesperson for the god. Buller writes: “Intermediation was a social reality throughout most of the ancient Near East during the entire biblical period and beyond.”[3] In the Bible, prophets are generally spokespersons for either Yahweh or Baal.

In our text, groups called “the sons of the prophets” appear. On Bible Hub, the Pulpit Commentary has the following note in connection with 1 Kings 20:35:

“Here mentioned for the first time, though the prophetic schools probably owed their existence, certainly their development, to Samuel. The [sons of the prophets] are of course not the children, but the pupils of the prophets. For this use of “son,” cf. 1 Samuel 20:31 (“a son of death”); 2 Samuel 12:5; Deuteronomy 25:2; Matthew 23:15; 1 Kings 4:30; Ezra 2:1; John 17:12, and Amos 7:14. … The word, again, does not necessarily imply youth. That they were sometimes married men appears from 2 Kings 6:1, though this was probably after their collegiate life was ended. As they were called ‘sons,’ so their instructor, or head, was called ‘father.’”[4]

The sons of the prophets seem to be living at several locations and look to Elijah and then Elisha as their leaders. Similar groups of prophets appear elsewhere in the Old Testament (1 Sam 10:5; 19:20; 1 Kings 20:35–43; Amos 7:14).[5]

In verse 9 of our text, Elisha asks to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. This reference to a “double portion” appears to be connected with the idea that the firstborn son received a double portion of his father’s estate (Deut. 21:17). So Elisha is asking for the inheritance like that of a firstborn son. He is not asking for twice the amount of Elijah’s spirit.[6]

Our text mentions chariots and horsemen (or horses). Horse-drawn chariots were used by ancient Near-Eastern armies in war. The Egyptians and Assyrians had chariots manned by two men, a driver and an archer. Later, a third man was added, a shield bearer. “The chariots and horsemen (or horses) of Israel” appears to refer the source of Israel’s military strength.

In verses 20-21, Elisha uses salt to make the water of the spring wholesome. Salt was a commonly used seasoning and preservative in biblical times, and was highly valued. According to Ezekiel 16:4, newborn infants were rubbed with salt, possibly to purify them.

2. Examine the text’s literary context.

We will move on now to look at the literary context of 2 Kings 2:1-25.

(1) Identify the genre of the book in which the text appears.

The genre of the Deuternomic History as a whole is historical narrative. Some would categorize the Elijah and Elisha stories as “legends” because of the miraculous elements in them.[7] The only basis for doing that, however, would appear to be an a priori denial of the miraculous.[8]

(2) Use principles appropriate to the book’s genre to study the text.

Here we will use the principles recommended by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth.[9]

Fee and Stuart note that the story biblical narratives tell is God’s story. Like other narratives, they have three basic parts: characters, plot and plot resolution. They “presuppose some kind of conflict or tension that needs resolving.”[10]

Stories in the Old Testament are part of the larger story of “God’s redeeming a people for his name.” Individual Old Testament stories are not allegories “filled with hidden meaning.” They are “not intended to teach moral lessons.” But they may illustrate what is taught explicitly elsewhere.[11]

The narrator of an Old Testament story chooses what he will tell, but usually doesn’t explain or evaluate what he is writing about. He establishes the point of view from which the story is told.

(a) Determine what characters (including God) are present in this narrative.

The major characters in this narrative are Elijah, Elisha and God. Minor characters include the sons of the prophets at various locations, the men of Jericho who express concern about the water and ground, and the boys who mock Elisha.

(b) Determine what scenes make up this narrative.

Scene 1: Elijah and Elisha go from Gilgal to Bethel (vss. 1-3).

Scene 2: Elijah and Elisha go from Bethel to Jericho (vss. 4-5).

Scene 3: Elijah and Elisha go from Jericho to the Jordan (vss. 6).

Scene 4: Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan miraculously (vss. 7-8).

Scene 5: Elisha requests a double portion of Elijah’s spirit; Elijah is taken to heaven in a wind storm (vss. 9-12).

Scene 6: Elisha crosses the Jordan miraculously and is recognized as having the spirit of Elijah (vss. 13-15).

Scene 7: The sons of the prophets ask permission to send a search party; Elijah is not found (vss. 16-18).

Scene 8: Through Elisha the Yahweh heals the water of Jericho (vss. 19-22).

Scene 9: Elisha curses the mocking boys, who are then mauled (vss. 23-25).

(c) Determine the structure of the narrative’s plot, what conflict may be present and how the conflict is resolved.

Scenes 1-7 belong together as a single narrative. Scenes 8 and 9 are mini-narratives that confirm the point made by the narrative in scenes 1-7.

The first three scenes of the narrative in verses 1-18 increase the tension as we learn that Elijah is to be taken from Elijah and Elisha refuses to leave Elijah, in spite of being told to do so.

Scenes 4 and 6 correspond. In each case there is a miraculous crossing of the Jordan.

Scene 5 is the climax of the story, as Elijah is taken from Elisha.

Scene 7 concludes this story, showing us that Elisha really has been taken to heaven.

The mini-narrative in scene 8 develops tension because of the bad water and unfruitful land; the tension is resolved as Yahweh heals the water through Elisha.

The mini-narrative in scene 9 develops tension as the boys mock Elisha; the tension is resolved as Elisha curses the boys and they are mauled.

Nelson believes that the narrative “moves from the known world to a place of mystery,” and then “back across the Jordan into the world of the ordinary.” He says that “Elijah leads Elisha and the reader on a pointless, roundabout journey from Gilgal, near the Jordan, to Bethel, then back to Jericho (only a few kilometers from Gilgal) and the Jordan.” Then the story takes the reader “to Jericho and then on to Bethel and to Samaria via Mount Carmel.”[12]

According to Nelson, “Elisha’s personal transformation represents a second plot development.” He writes:

“Elisha’s growth to fit the mantle of Elijah is highlighted by a reverse process among the sons of the prophets. At first they predict what will happen (vv. 3, 5) and correctly interpret what has taken place (v. 15). However, their insistence on a search for Elijah shows that they are less perspicacious at the end of the story than they were at the start.”[13]

Nelson points to the “motif of testing” as a third plot movement. Elisha is being tested throughout the narrative until at last he inherits the double portion of the spirit of Elijah that he desired.[14]

(d) Take note of how dialogue functions in the narrative.

Dialogue is important in scenes 1-5 and scene 7. In each of these scenes, the dialogue functions to increase the tension. Nelson describes this in some detail in his commentary.[15]

(e) Take note of how devices such as repetition and inclusion are used in the narrative.

The narrative in verses 1-18 makes use of repetition to build tension in the first three scenes. As noted in 2 Kings 2:1-25 – Step Two – Introductory Survey, the entire chapter has a chiastic structure. It may be laid out as follows:

Scene 1: Elijah and Elisha go from Gilgal to Bethel (vss. 1-3)

Scene 2: Elijah and Elisha go from Bethel to Jericho (vss. 4-5).

Scene 3: Elijah and Elisha go from Jericho to the Jordan (vss. 6).

Scene 4: Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan miraculously (vss. 7-8).

Scene 5: Elisha requests a double portion of Elijah’s spirit; Elijah is taken to heaven in a wind storm (vss. 9-12).

Scene 6: Elisha crosses the Jordan miraculously and is recognized as having the spirit of Elijah (vss. 13-15).

Scene 7: The sons of the prophets ask permission to send a search party; Elijah is not found (vss. 16-18).

Scene 8: Through Elisha the Yahweh heals the water of Jericho (vss. 19-22).

Scene 9: Elisha curses the mocking boys from Bethel, who are then mauled (vss. 23-25).[16]

(3) Determine how the narrative fits into the overall scheme of the book.

According to Provan, the plot of 1 and 2 Kings “is concerned with the attempt that Israel makes (or more often, does not make) under its monarchy to live as the people of God in the promised land and with how God deals with the Israelites in their success and failure.”[17] Elijah and Elisha serve as spokesmen for God during the reigns of several kings who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. As spokesmen for God, they oppose the worship of Baal in the northern kingdom.

The narrative in verses 1-18 connects the Elijah stories with the Elisha stories in 1 and 2 Kings. They show that there was a continuity between the two prophets. The narratives in verses 19-25 confirm that Yahweh is working through Elisha to bless and to judge, as he had worked through Elijah.

According to Nelson, 2 Kings 2 “echoes with the fire of earlier Elijah narratives (1:10-14; 1 Kings 18:24). The fifty searchers link back to the fifties of chapter 1. The brief stop at Mount Carmel (v. 25) bridges back to Elijah (1 Kings 18) and forward to Elisha (4:24 etc.). The mantle of Elijah, which has already played its part in the call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19, directs the reader’s attention to Elijah’s unfinished mission (vv. 15-16) to be completed by Elisha.”[18]

Davis notes that 2 Kings 2 “stands between the concluding formula for Ahaziah in 1:17–18 and the introductory formula for Jehoram/Joram in 3:1–3. One could slide 2 Kings 2 out of its place and never miss it, for the end of chapter 1 would flow right into the beginning of chapter 3. Some see this as evidence that 2 Kings 2 was a later addition shoved into place at this point. I think there’s a better explanation: the writer/editor, assuming he was endowed with a modicum of intelligence and skill, deliberately interrupted the predictable flow of his narrative and injected this Elijah-to-Elisha story at this point because he considered it to be of particular importance.”[19]

3. Investigate the text’s theological context.

Now we should consider the theological context of 2 Kings 2:1-25

(1) Locate the text in the history of redemption (the Bible’s salvation story) that culminates in Jesus Christ.

As Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha are spokesmen for the LORD who speak to his covenant people on his behalf. They especially address the unfaithful kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. As prophets, they foreshadow Jesus Christ, who came to serve as prophet, priest and king. The miracles that accompany their ministries point forward to the miracles of Jesus.

Dillard writes the following about Baal and the LORD:

“In ancient Canaan, Baal was known as ‘the Rider of the Clouds.’ He was a warlike weather deity. The billowing dark clouds of a storm were viewed as the battle chariot in which Baal rode, thundering forth his voice and carrying lightning as his spear….

“Instead of granting Baal the epithet ‘Rider of the Clouds,’ the Old Testament insists that this title properly belongs to the Lord (Deut. 33:26; Pss. 68:4; 104:3; Isa. 19:1). The Lord God of Israel rides the heavens in his storm chariot at the head of the heavenly armies (Pss. 68:17; 104:3; Ezek. 1; Joel 2:5; Hab. 3:8; Zech. 6:1–2; 1 Chron. 28:18; 2 Kings 7:6). Yahweh’s chariot is in the whirlwind (Isa. 66:15; Jer. 4:13). The glory cloud, that pillar of fire and smoke that attested to the presence of God, preceded Israel into battle. God and the armies of heaven fought on Israel’s behalf from within the cloud at the Reed Sea (Ex. 15:4, 19).

“When Elisha saw the whirlwind, the fire and horses, the symbolism was unmistakable (2 Kings 2:11–12). The warrior God, the captain of the armies of heaven, had come to retrieve his servant and catch him up into his war chariot. Elijah had fought the good fight, and now his commander would take him out of the fray and into his heavenly reward.”[20]

Dillard also sees parallels between Elijah’s ascension into heaven and Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

In addition, he notes that in the New Testament, the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus “mirrors aspects of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha.” He writes:

“It was at the Jordan River that both John and Elijah anointed their successors. Jesus and Elisha would both enjoy the presence of God’s Spirit (‘a double portion’) in a measure beyond that of their predecessors. Moses had divided the Sea, and Elijah had divided the Jordan. Elisha, as the successor of both Moses and Elijah, demonstrated that the same Spirit rested upon him when he, too, divided the waters (2 Kings 2:8, 14).”[21]

“John came dressed like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Matt. 3:4), and there at the Jordan anointed his successor. Instead of the river opening, it was the heavens that opened; God’s Spirit descended on and enfolded Jesus (Matt. 3:16–17). Elisha had asked for a double portion of the Spirit that rested on Elijah. The ‘double portion’ was the inheritance allotted to the firstborn son in Israel (Deut. 21:17). Similarly, when the Spirit descended upon Jesus, God’s own voice testified from heaven, ‘“This is my beloved son,” here is my firstborn.’”[22]

Thus one can say that the transition from Elijah to Elisha looks back to the transition from Moses to Joshua and forward to the transition from John the Baptist to Jesus and from Jesus to the apostles.

(2) Determine what God is doing or saying in the text and/or what the text reveals about God and his will.

God is showing that from one generation to the next, he equips his agents with his Spirit to speak to his people, bringing blessing to those who revere him and judgment to those who despise him.

Bavinck notes that Elijah and Elisha were “organs of revelation, who nevertheless never wrote a book that was included in the canon.”[23]

Bavinck says about miracles: “Frequently also they have the direct or indirect purpose of confirming the mission of the prophets, the truth of their word, and thus belief in their witness.”[24]

(3) Consider how the text might relate to the creeds and confessions of the Christian church.

In explaining the name “Christ” in the Apostles’ Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism in Answer 31 says that Jesus is “our chief prophet and teacher who fully reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our deliverance.”[25]

  1. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_kings/2-1.htm, accessed 12/20/19. Dillard, Raymond B. 2 Chronicles. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 1987. Word Biblical Commentary. 167-168.

  2. Buller, B. “Prophets, Prophecy.” Ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003. 662.

  3. Ibid. 663.

  4. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_kings/20-35.htm, accessed 1/7/20.

  5. Möller, K. “Prophets and Prophecy.” Ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005. 827.

  6. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_kings/2-9.htm, accessed 1/8/20.

  7. Jones, Gwilym H. 1 and 2 Kings, Volume II. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984. The New Century Library. 69; Long, Burke O. 2 Kings, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991. 29, 34–35; Nelson, Richard D. First and Second Kings. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. 161.

  8. House, Paul R. 1, 2 Kings. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995. 50-54; Davis, Dale Ralph. 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury. Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005. Focus on the Bible Commentary. 28-30.

  9. Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2014. Chapter 5. A summary can be found at https://redeemernw.org/blog/learners/a-way-to-read-the-bible/the-prophets-enforcing-covenant-in-israel-part-11, accessed 9/25/19. See also the material of Jim Ellis at https://bible.org/seriespage/understanding-writing-prophets#P4144_1449446, accessed 9/25/19.

  10. Ibid. 94.

  11. Ibid. 96-97.

  12. Nelson. 158-159.

  13. Ibid. 159

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid. 159-161.

  16. Davis. 30.

  17. Provan. 2.

  18. Nelson. 158.

  19. Davis. 31.

  20. Dillard, Raymond B. Faith in the Face of Apostasy: The Gospel according to Elijah & Elisha. Ed. Tremper Longman III and J. Alan Groves. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1999. The Gospel according to the Old Testament. 81-84.

  21. Ibid. 86.

  22. Ibid. 87.

  23. Bavinck, Herman, John Bolt, and John Vriend. Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. 381.

  24. Ibid. 337.

  25. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism, accessed on 12/28/19.