A Double Portion

One of the more commonly misunderstood passages of scripture deals with a specific request that Elisha made from Elijah before he was taken up in to the first heaven and transported to another place [1]. The relevant portion of this passage to today’s discussion takes place in 2 Kings 2:9-12, which reads: “And so it was, when they had crossed over [the Jordan River] that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces.”

What is it that Elisha requested of Elijah? He made a request for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit to rest on him. This was a request, obviously, that Elijah himself could not grant. After all, the Eternal Himself gives the Holy Spirit in such measure as He sees fit for His own purposes. Elijah, as a commissioned prophet to the people of Israel, had a sufficient measure of the Holy Spirit to be able to behave in miraculous ways that were designed to impress upon Israel the power of God and His willingness to act in the lives of His believers. It is commonly thought that Elisha wanted twice the measure of the Holy Spirit that was in Elijah, and this would have been a cheeky and bold request indeed, had he made it. However, the context of the situation as a whole as well as the context of biblical law (which this passage cites) would argue instead that Elisha was not asking for twice the measure of the Holy Spirit that rested in Elijah, but rather a double portion of the inheritance of Elijah’s prophetic legacy, which would recognize him as the “firstborn” of Elijah’s successors.

The Bible itself gives some context as to this understanding of Elisha’s request. For one, the sons of the prophets of Jericho, who would have been expected to have some measure of the Holy Spirit themselves as a community of believers, recognized very quickly that Elisha was the spiritual heir of Elijah, in 2 Kings 2:15: “Now when the sons of the prophets who were from Jericho saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him, and bowed down to the ground before him.” These godly men, who were themselves also servants of God among wayward and rebellious Israel, recognized that Elisha was the successor to Elijah, and that Elisha’s request had been granted. After all, God had promised to Elijah himself that Elisha would be his prophetic successor at the moment of Elijah’s despondency [2] in 1 Kings 19:15-18: “Then the Eternal said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus, and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Here we see that God Himself viewed Elisha as Elijah’s successor even before Elisha himself had any inkling of it himself. Even though the acts of the prophets which we deem the most praiseworthy are those which save lives, God views Elisha’s task as being one of judgment, leading to the death of those wicked who hardened themselves against God’s ways. Given the comparison between Elisha as a prophet and the civil rulers to be anointed by Elijah, namely Hazael as king over Syria (whose reign was oppressive for many Israelites) and Jehu (whose bloody decisiveness destroyed the family of Ahab and killed many believers of Baal in Samaria, even if his own heart was not loyal towards God), it is not surprising or illegitimate that the sons of the prophet should not act towards Elisha in many ways like a ruler when they recognized he had succeeded Elijah as a prophet. It should also be noted that Elijah himself did not anoint either Hazael or Jehu as he had been commanded. Instead, Elisha himself anointed Hazael to be king over Syria (see 2 Kings 8:7-15) and a servant of Elisha anointed Jehu to be king over Israel (see 2 Kings 9:1-13), fulfilling the mandate that God had given to Elijah years before. This is further evidence that Elisha was the divinely appointed successor of Elijah, in that he took care of his predecessor’s unfinished business, showing as seamless as possible a transition between the activities of Elijah and that of Elisha.

Let us now examine, briefly, where this particular concept, that of the double portion, springs from in the first place. The relevant law dealing with this subject comes, not surprisingly, in the concept of family inheritance rights (which form the basis of inheritance rights for prophets and rulers), in Deuteronomy 21:15-17, which reads: “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the unloved, and if the firstborn son is of her who is unloved, then it shall be, on the day he bequeaths his possessions to his sons, that he must not bestow firstborn status on the son of the loved wife in preference to the son of the unloved, the true firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.”

While I do not wish to wade into the subject of polygamy here [3], this law establishes a context by which we should view Elisah’s request for a double portion of the Holy Spirit to rest on him. Elisha wished himself to be seen as the successor of Elijah and inherit from Elijah the power and strength that was necessary to complete the appointed task of a prophet. It is in this light that he calls Elijah twice “my father” when Elijah is being taken away from him. The fact that God granted the request meant that God (and the sons of the Prophets who soon saw him) recognized his status as the firstborn and heir of his “father” Elijah by giving him the “double portion” of the Holy Spirit that he requested not out of selfishness but out of a conscientious desire to follow along Elijah’s footsteps as a prophet. Sadly, there was no prophetic succession afterward because Elisha himself did not have a godly and divinely appointed successor to pass the mantle to, so to speak.

Let us reflect upon the seriousness of this matter. Divinely established offices are of such importance, whether they are in the realm of the family, the church, or the state, that God established laws and ceremonies to show the transition from one person and one generation to the next. The plans and purposes of God are of such a lengthy unfolding as it takes many years for them to manifest themselves, and so we too need to be aware that no matter how godly we may be as leaders of God’s people and servants of the Most High, we will likely have unfinished business that needs to be passed on when it is time for us to depart this earth, and so we too need to pay a close attention to the aspect of legacy, both by training and mentoring our successors while there is time for us to help develop and encourage the character of those who will follow us as well as to pass along to them the knowledge of the tasks that we were not able to complete during our own time in the offices where God has placed us. In so doing, let us not be remiss in giving the double portion to our heirs and successors that allows them to complete the tasks that have been set for them, so that our work may continue after we ourselves have finished our days.
[1] He did not go into God’s heaven, as is commonly misunderstood, but this particular issue has been addressed in other places (See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/spirited-away/) so we need not discuss it in detail here.

It should be recognized, however, that the mistaken interpretation of this passage is very common in Christian circles who are not overly concerned with the Torah. See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/book-review-the-people-factor/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/book-review-greater/

[2] For more detail on this despondency, see: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/25/i-am-no-better-than-my-fathers/.

[3] See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/deuteronomy-2115-17-if-a-man-has-two-wives/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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