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The Prophet’s First Challenge
One of the first challenges that Elisha faced came almost immediately after he crossed the Jordan and returned to the Sons of the Prophets and me. This whole situation seemed exotic and strange during that moment and still does looking backwards in time at it. We all saw Elisha walking back alone wearing Elijah’s prophetic robes and carrying Elijah’s staff. He parted the Jordan in exactly the same way that Elijah had done earlier in the day. The group of prophets unreservedly ran to meet him at the river’s bank. They were very excited and their tongues were flapping. The Prophet has left us and Elisha has assumed his role! cried many of the prophets in their own unique ways. This seemed to be well understood. However – and perhaps this was due to peer pressure or some sort of mania – they immediately began offering to go search for Elijah. I suppose I found this threatening, because now that Elisha had assumed the role of Prophet of Israel, it stood to reason that I, as his assistant, was now Assistant to the Prophet of Israel. Finding Elijah was the last thing I was interested in at this point. Indeed, I never really cared for him anyway. Fortunately, Elisha seemed to agree with my unspoken sentiment and he told them not to try to find Elijah. The young prophets badgered Elisha about this issue for a while and then – disappointing to me – he gave in to them. Fine, he said. Go look for him. Do whatever you want with your time. They all ran off gleefully. I’ll go look on the hilltop over there, one said. Maybe The God picked him up and dropped them on the hill? Another said, I’ll go look upriver in the Jordan valley. Maybe The God released him there? One by one and in groups they ran off until only Elisha and I were left. What’s wrong with those fellows, he asked, shaking his head side to side. I have no idea, I replied. What are we going to do now? Well, I think we need to wait for these guys to get this out of their system. I saw Elijah taken away right in front of my eyes. He’s gone. In front of your eyes, I asked? Yes. It seems strange, but I think I saw The God’s horses and chariots come and take him away. Really? They radiated something that looked like fire, Elisha replied. But I had the sense that it was something greater. I think you have also seen the vision of the river flowing in the dry places and had the sense of something unimaginable approaching. I’ve had this vision a few times but have never seen whatever it was that was coming. Yes, that’s what I saw and felt too. Did you have this same feeling when Elijah was taken away? No, I felt that I was finally seeing a small portion of the object of all that joy. Elisha grew silent and I could tell that there would be no further discussion for a while. The description of the flaming horses and chariots captured all of my attention. I felt like I could almost see them in my head. These thoughts occupied me for the next few hours until the Sons of the Prophets dragged back into camp. We couldn’t find Elijah, they individually relayed. I told you that you wouldn’t, Elisha mentioned casually. The prophets nodded a bit ashamed. Where do we go next? they asked. And with this, Elisha, the new Prophet of The God moved forward past the first challenge to his authority and earned the devotion of a group of men he would grow to love.
The New Work Begins
So, where do you think we are heading? the young prophet asked me. Elisha told me we were going to Bethel, I replied. This young man had obviously not been paying attention. Didn’t the leaders of Jericho offer the Prophet the opportunity to rest in their city for a few months to prepare? Yes, after he did that thing with putting salt in their water supply they were pretty happy with him. I laughed. Who would have ever expected that The God would do something like that for Elisha’s first official miracle. The city was overjoyed after they realized that there had been a fundamental change to the water coming from their spring. Evidently this had been a real problem for a long time. After this, Elisha, the new Prophet of Israel, said his goodbyes to Jericho’s leaders and unceremoniously left town with me and a whole bunch of Sons of the Prophets rapturously in tow. They still felt a bit embarrassed by their notion that they would be able to find Elijah wherever The God had deposited him. Elisha repeatedly reassured them that he understood. They were young men and they still had some maturing to do. Their heads hung low during this conversation, but they had mostly overcome their shame by now and had eager expectations for what changes would lie ahead. Now we were headed to Bethel, perhaps reversing the direction that Elijah had taken towards the far bank of the Jordan and his rendezvous with The God’s fiery chariots. Bethel is an interesting place for another reason that I didn’t tell you on the journey to the Jordan. Athaliah had quietly approached from behind and now was walking with me. I was starting to have a very high regard for his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. His training in these Scriptures exceeded even the priests who served in the synagogue in my home village. Please tell me, I replied, grateful to have something to distract my mind from the dusty, hot road we traveled on. As I told you, Bethel is where our father Abraham built an altar to The God on his way to Egypt. He chose a spot between Bethel (which the Canaanites had named Luz) and the city of Ai. Since Bethel means House of God, it’s likely that Abraham gave this place this name, but we just don’t know for sure. Ai and Luz were very old cities even when Abraham passed through. When Abraham’s grandson Jacob journeyed this way as he fled for his life from his brother Esau he ran out of daylight at this location and decided to stop. His sleep was fitful that night, for he had a dream-vision of The God’s Throne and his messengers ascending to the Throne and descending to the Earth. The God spoke to Jacob here and repeated the promise he had made to Abraham years earlier. This was a very important moment in the history of our people, for it’s quite possible that Jacob didn’t really know about or understand the promise made to his grandfather. Afterwards it was crystal-clear to him, though, and the next morning he set up another altar there and renamed the place Bethel just as his grandfather had done many years earlier. His commitment to The God marks one of the greatest transition points for our people, for it was at this point they turned from being a band of nomads who were affiliated with The God towards the structure they would adopt as a nation who was called to be separate from the world for the purpose of revealing The God. Jacob, of course, was ultimately renamed Israel and his sons became the tribes that we all still are members of. This is very good, I replied. So Bethel marks a transition in many ways. It’s a transition from the Canaanite city of Luz to the city of Bethel and it marks the migration from nomadic wandering to being a large family who becomes a nation. The God seems to revel in transitions, I notice. Athaliah smiled at this and nodded in agreement. Yes, of course this was all part of the promise that The God made to Abraham and to Jacob. There’s even one more recent transition that Bethel and it’s sister city of Ai represents. Perhaps this is more challenging, though. When Joshua led our people into the Promised Land, he crossed the Jordan much in the same way that Elisha just crossed. Before the people conquered the walled city of Jericho, The God made it extremely clear to Joshua that no one was to take any of the riches of Jericho for themselves. All was to be destroyed and the gold and silver was to be preserved for the treasury of The God that was managed by the Levites. Unbeknownst to anyone – except probably his close family – one lone man staggered away from the battle carrying valuable items, including gold and silver, from Jericho. He hid these in a hole that he dug under a rug in his tent. The God was extremely angry with this. Meanwhile, the war leaders of the tribes were excited about their successes in Jericho and took a small war party to conquer Ai (and probably aimed to capture Bethel too). The men of Ai rallied to the attack and chased Israel’s war band away. Many warriors were lost and all of Israel became greatly afraid and discouraged at this. Was The God turning his back on them already? When Joshua prostrated himself before The God in hopes of learning why this had happened, The God pointed out to him that the rules about not taking anything from Jericho had not been obeyed. This seems to us small men as a small disobedience, perhaps? I nodded in agreement. But, he continued, The God needed to make a point. Ai (and Bethel) would once again be a transition point for our people. The Captain of the Army of The God was present at Jericho and revealed himself to Joshua. The outcome was a great victory over a very formidable walled city. But the people of Israel were not able to defeat even a small city if they did not trust in the goodness of the commands of The God. Even one dissident (his name was Achan, by the way) was enough to prevent The God from blessing his people with a victory. The God needed his people to understand that the only reason they were going to move into the Promised Land of rest would be as His people who were separated for His glory, not their glory. Once the transgression had been dealt with (yes, lives were sacrificed for this sin), the people of The God easily captured Ai and the rest of the region, then moved into the rest of the Promised Land. No one who stood before them could resist them when they were working together with The God in the way that He called them to obey. I thought about this a bit. So in this way, I asked, Bethel and Ai represent another transition. Casting aside our willfulness to do things our way and choosing the Way of The God? Perhaps this also shows that working as a cohesive nation bound to The God in obedience was a greater stage in the development of Israel? Yes, Athaliah smiled, That is a wonderful insight. It has always represented this. This was great food for thought to me. Bethel representing a transition made a lot of sense. Elijah’s backwards route to the Jordan informed Elisha of the changes that The God would make through his ascending to the role of The God’s Prophet. Bethel would be the location of a major turning point in this ministry and in the history of our nation. As we ascended upwards to Bethel, there was a strange incident that occurred. I’ll try to relate this as best as I can, but I still don’t fully understand it. I would consider this perplexing event to be the second challenge to Elisha’s position as the prophetic successor. We were very near to Bethel and all were looking forward to some rest from the trials of the road. The narrow, dusty path we had been following for the last day was moving into its final ascent before we reached Bethel. Scrub oaks and other brushy trees had given way since morning to an ancient grove of olive trees stretching up the sides of the hills which rose on either side of the path. The tops of the hills were thickly forested with the cypress and cedar trees common to the highlands. We stopped for a rest in a small opening in the olive grove where it was obvious that many generations of travelers had chosen to refresh themselves before the final climb to Bethel. Looking around at the olives that surrounded our resting area, I pondered how the olive fruits, though only the size of small pebbles now, would become the reason why many hundreds of harvesters from the village would infest this area during the coming fall season. Suddenly, a large group of boys flooded the clearing we rested in, emerging together from the trees around us and surprising us with their sudden approach. The Sons of the Prophets, half of whom had jumped up to their feet and were starting to become agitated. A band of young people this size anywhere in Israel was very unusual. In most places across the nation, the youth spent daylight hours out working in the fields and were too busy to assemble in these kinds of numbers. This group that just emerged from the forest appeared to have malicious thoughts, for many were carrying wooden staffs and others were holding stones. The Sons of the Prophets started to move towards the boys to drive them away, when the boys began chanting together, Go on up, Baldhead! Get out of here Baldhead! and many similar things. The Sons of the Prophets were clearly aggrieved by the insult to the Prophet and began to charge the group. This was not going well. Suddenly, Elisha, who had been ignoring the mob, stood up, looked directly at the youths, and yelled a curse at them. Go back to your master and may The God glorify himself over you! The young men in the mob laughed among themselves. They stopped laughing, however, when several light-brown bears tore out of the woods to the north of the road and hurled themselves into the mob. The offending group broke up quickly with panicking youths fleeing in terror in every direction to escape the bears. I’m not sure where they went, how many of them were hurt by the bears, or even what their objective was. Like I mentioned, it was a really inexplicable event and I never saw anything quite like it again. It was almost like some power had assembled them in opposition to the coming message and work of the new Prophet. In a way it was Elisha’s second major challenge to his role as the Prophet of Israel and apparently The God took it personally. Eventually our small band made its way to Israel’s capital city, Samaria, the place where the Prophet felt called to make his new home. A few years of peace and semi-obscurity passed here and many of the Sons of the Prophets drifted off towards their own ministries. Eli confided in me that he knew that The God was taking these men off to greater things and that he was actually relieved that they were far fewer now. Those guys are hard to deal with, he told me, laughing. I understood what he meant, but I was definitely pleased that one of the ones who stayed was my friend Athaliah, who continued to instruct me in the ways of The God. Though I listened intently and accumulated knowledge, I look back and notice that much of the new learning entered into my head but mostly never made it to my heart. I was certainly proud of the things I was learning, for in time, my knowledge likely equalled that of my old village priests, but I still lacked something critical. During my time in Samaria helping the Prophet prepare for whatever work would come to him next, my duties were very well-defined but often were repetitive and tiring. I served the Prophet in any way that he required, whether that was acquiring food and bringing water, maintaining the small house in which we were able to stay, cooking meals, tending to animals, or any other service that was needed for the Prophet’s ministry. People from Samaria and the surrounding region would daily line up to wait for him so they could petition for justice, advice, or healing. I helped manage these lines of needy people so they didn’t turn into a mob. This task in itself was exhausting because large numbers of frantic and needy people are very challenging to serve. In time the word spread and people came from all over the Northern Kingdom of Israel to see the Prophet. Occasionally a rare pilgrim would arrive from Judah and even more infrequently seekers would come from our cousin nations of Edom and Moab. There were apparently a few believers in The God left in these two nations, though most had turned aside to other gods. Despite the presence of a handful of the faithful, our nations continued to struggle to maintain very complex ties. It is this entanglement with our cousins that led to my first real experience with war.