I love this story.
19 So [Elijah] departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kings 19:19–21 ESV)
Elijah has just fled into the wilderness, after vanquishing Jezebel’s prophets of Baal (Elijah was no slouch, and after defeating them in a battle of burnt offerings, he slaughtered them all at the brook of Kishron), after Jezebel threatened to do the same to Elijah. This man of God, unafraid to confront 450 men and their false god, unafraid to soak his burnt offering three times, fears the wrath of Ahab’s queen. He ran for his life … into the wilderness.
There, in the wilderness (a journey of 40 days to Horeb, the mountain of God), Elijah meets The Lord. Not in fire, or wind, or earthquake, but in the gentle whisper. And Israel’s God tells Elijah to “return to the wilderness of Damascus” and anoint as new king over Syria (Israel’s enemy), and a new king over Israel.
And a new prophet to succeed him.
Like so many of these call stories, God finds Elisha at work, minding his own business, plowing the field, unaware of what God has already planned for him.
Elijah doesn’t even talk to him. There’s no “follow me.” Just a draping of his cloak (אַדֶּרֶת, from אֶדֶר which means majesty, glory, or splendor, and it is the same cloak Elijah hides behind earlier in chapter 19 when he finally perceives the Lord in the small whisper) upon Elisha and an automatic understanding on Elisha’s part what that means. He knows he’s been called. He knows he must follow. He knows — Elisha knows — he has no choice.
Elisha looks back, and Elijah gives him leave to look back. It is one of the Bible’s testier exchanges, and in complete contrast to the words of Jesus in Luke 9:57–62, which end with Jesus saying “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Whether Elisha kisses his mother and father goodbye we don’t know, because scripture doesn’t explicitly say. But it does say that Elisha takes the tools of his trade — and very likely the sustenance of his family and maybe even his village — and destroys them. He sacrifices the oxen, twelve of them, and cooks the meat on their shattered yokes, to feed “the people” (עָם).
Elisha abandons his family, his people, and he appears to leave them with no visible means of support. His call, to follow — to assist (שָׁרַת, literally to serve or attend or even minister to) — comes first, apparently, and nothing else matters. He goes from being the master of his fate, and likely his family and his people’s wellbeing, to being a mere servant and attendant to a not particularly well-liked prophet of God.
Elisha doesn’t really come into his own, however, until Elijah is taken up into heaven. At which point, he asks for and receives a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, which gives Elisha the power to raise the dead and make a tiny bit of oil fill many jars, and even make a poisonous meal safe (giving us one of the Bible’s best quotes:
“O man of God, there is death in that pot!” (מָ֤וֶת בַּסִּיר אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים)
But he is called, and he knows it, and he leaves his people,. He destroys everything, celebrating his call maybe, before he leaves. He says goodbye to the people he has lived with, labors with, possibly loved with, to walk into the wilderness with his newfound master Elijah. Elishah, the son of Shaphat (שָׁפַט) — the judge, the lawgiver, the ruler, the vindicator — is walking away from everything, and quite possibly leaving his people without a way to care and feed themselves. (Though his family may have been quite wealthy and 12 oxen and their tack may have been nothing to them.) To follow a man who found him ploughing a field and cast his glory upon him. To follow a man who angrily asked, “What have I done for you?”
Because it’s a thankless call, holding the powerful of Israel accountable, caring for the poor and hungry in the midst of drought and war, leading the Assyrian army around blinded and delivering it into the hands of Israel and then demanding mercy for the very people who came to attack and kill and plunder. Witnessing in a vision the evil that a Syrian general will do to his very own people and yet proclaiming God’s healing upon that general and anointing him king of Syria.
It’s God’s call for Elisha. It’s God’s call for some of us, this “hard thing” that Elijah says we will be given when we see him ascend. But it is also one way the church is called into the world, to stare violence and desolation in the face without flinching, to wander the wilderness, feed and comfort the hungry, raise the dead, and heal the enemies of God’s people so that world may know “there is a prophet in Israel.”