The Meeting of Eliyahu and Elisha: A Study in Prophetic Ethics

  • by: Jeremiah Unterman

The haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol (the Sabbath before Passover) is Malachi 3:4-24, the last words in the Prophets. The very last verses read, “(22) Remember the Torah of Moshe (Moses), My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb upon all Israel, laws and statutes. (23) Behold, I am sending you Eliyah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of Hashem (God). (24) And he shall return the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers, lest I come and smite the Earth with utter destruction.”
These verses are the first to predict a redemptive role for Eliyahu, and all future references to Eliyahu in a messianic context hearken back to them. But, why does Malachi find this act of parent-child reconciliation so meaningful? Why is Elijah’s future act attached to remembrance of the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah of Moshe? And why, without this reconciliation, will complete destruction of the world result?
For the answers to these questions, 1 Kings 19 is most instructive. Here, we find Eliyahu tied to Moshe. In this chapter, Eliyahu runs for his life from Jezebel. By the command of an angel, he goes 40 day and 40 nights, without eating, to Horeb (vs. 8), just as Moshe spent 40 days and nights there. Once there, he comes to “the cave” (vs. 9), an allusion to the very “cleft in the rock” mentioned in Exodus 33:22. There he receives a crucial revelation from Hashem (vss. 9-18), as Moshe did (Exod. 33:17 – 34:7).
In I Kings 19, Eliyahu is given a mission by God to change the history of the Northern kingdom of Israel. God commands him to return and anoint Hazael to be king of Aram, Jehu to be king of Israel, and Elisha to be a prophet in Eliyahu’s place (vss. 15-17). The result will be the eradication of Baal worship in the North.
Elisha understands that Eliyahu’s throwing his mantle upon him indicates that he wishes Elisha to come into his service. Elisha knows nothing of God’s command to Eliyahu to change the course of history. He only wants permission to first kiss his parents good-bye and then he will follow Eliyahu.
Eliyahu’s response, “lekh shuv ki ma asiti lakh“(“Go back, for what have I done to you?”), has been the subject of much commentary. However, upon examination of a concordance (or a Bible computer program) concerning this phrase, one finds that every time (35 in all) the interrogative ma (what) is followed by asa (do) in the “past” (perfect) tense, the reference is always to a negative action, to something bad, to some harm that has occurred, real or imaginary. So, for example, Gen. 3:13 – God to the woman in the Garden, “What have you done?”; Exod. 14:11 – when the Israelites see the Egyptian army approaching, they turn to Moshe and say, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert, what is this that you have done to us to bring us out of Egypt?”; Josh. 7:19 – when Achan takes of the herem (forbidden things), Joshua says to him, “Tell me what you have done”, and in the next verse Achan says, “Truly have I sinned against Hashem, God of Israel, such and such have I done”; Jer. 8:6 – in an accusation against the people, the prophet says, “no man regrets his evil deeds, saying ‘what have I done?”; 1 Sam. 20:1 – in response to Shaul’s (Saul) attempt to kill him, David protests his innocence to Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my transgression? And what is my sin before your father that he seeks my life?”
Similarly, the only two other appearances besides 1 Kings 19:20 of “What have I done to you?” are a protestation of innocence: Num. 22:28 – after Balaam strikes his ass for the third time, the animal speaks and says, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”; Michah 6:3 – in His suit against Israel for disobedience and immorality, God says, “My people, what have I done to you and wherein have I wearied you? Answer against me!” And the next verse continues, “for I have brought you up out of the land of Egypt”.
Thus, the evidence forces us to realize that Eliyahu is asking Elisha, “what bad thing have I done to you?” Whenever, this accusation is made, it is always in response to somebody’s action. What did Elisha do to provoke this response? He asked permission to kiss his parents good-bye. The request implies that Eliyahu could actually say, “No!” However, Eliyahu’s response indicates that to deny Elisha’s request is the furthest thing from his mind! His answer is, “Of course, go home and enjoy a proper farewell, for what wrong have I done to you that you should suspect that I would not allow a child to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and one’s mother!” And that’s what Elisha does.
In the context of the chapter, Eliyahu’s response to Elisha acquires sublime religious-ethical significance. The mission of God shall not be carried out while turning a blind eye to the simple, mundane ethical mitzvah of honoring one’s parents.
This entire chapter is reviewed by Malachi in his last words, but he goes one step further. If, with Eliyahu, the mission of God must be delayed for the performance of the simple, ethical mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, with Malachi, the mission of God cannot be accomplished without proper relations between children and parents. For, are not these relations at the heart of the relationship of Israel to God? See, Malachi 1:6 – “A son will honor his father… and if I am a father, where is My honor?”; Malachi 3:17 – “and I shall have mercy upon you as a father has mercy upon his son who serves him.”
Many messages here apply to us. The ceremony on Pesach night, from its first mention in Exodus 12: 26-27, contains God’s command for instructions by the parents in response to the children’s questions – and this is the framework of the entire seder. Given Malachi’s emphasis on Eliyahu, and the story of Eliyahu meeting Elisha, it is fitting that Eliyahu is there (a cup of wine for Elijah is part of the constant elements of the seder table) when the hearts of parents and children are turned to each other by God’s very commands.
Furthermore, in a society such as ours, which so encourages self-centeredness, one can find many ways to inculcate the concern of Eliyahu and Malachi for family relationships.
Permit me to close on a different tact: in a world in which so many Jews, Christians, and Moslems believe that they are fulfilling a Divine mission, it is well to consider that Eliyahu had no hesitation in delaying the process of redemption itself so that an ethical deed might be performed. More than that, must we not read 1 Kings 19 with Malachi, and conclude as he does, that in order to prevent the failure of the mission of God, and the utter destruction that would follow, the simplest, most mundane ethical act must be performed, and that the place to start is in our homes. Chag sameach!
1Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all claim that the first part of the last verse refers to repentance by the fathers with the sons (cf. Mishna Eduyot 8:7), but the similar language of Ezra 6:22 (like Malachi, a 5th cent. BCE text) clearly indicates that the translation of “al” is “to” and not “with”.
2Apparently using it as firewood, cf. 2 Sam. 24:22.
3Rashi, Radak, Ralbag, and Abravanel all understand that Eliyahu has given Elisha such permission. However, concerning the phrase “what have I done to you?” Rashi says, “that you should follow me”; Radak – “if I have thrown my mantle upon you, then you must run after me”; Ralbag – “I have already done this to awaken you that you will come to shelter under my wings”; Abravanel – “after I have done a great thing to you, it’s not worthy that you should throw it behind your back.”