Lesson 29: “He Took Up…the Mantle of Elijah” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings: 2 Kings 2, 5, 8

Manual Goals:

  1. To help class members understand how the authority (mantle) passes from one prophet to another.
  2. To encourage them to obey the words of the prophets, and
  3. To assure them that the power of God is greater than any other power.

Introduction

Ahh, Elisha. The prophet of God who made bears eat children because they mocked his baldness. A reminder that even the prophets have human failings? A biblical example of male fragility? An object lesson about evil-speaking of the Lord’s anointed? We’ll talk more about the bears in a bit.

In our Gospel Doctrine curriculum, we’re moving out of the History portion and on to the Prophets. Glancing over the lesson outlines for the next few months, I’m struck by all the upcoming opportunities to explore various elements of the complex doctrine of prophethood. We’re used to the “follow the prophet” guidance, but there is so much more available that can spark meaty, meaningful, and personal discussion in our Sunday School classes. I think often when we study and discuss prophets, we’re barely scratching the surface of a theologically deep doctrine.  As a people whose church has been restored and is led by living prophets, it seems that we should all be participating in a more robust understanding of what it is to be a people guided by prophets.

What are prophet-related topics that you can imagine being discussed in this and upcoming lessons? A few I would suggest: prophetic authority, models of prophethood, communication with God, what it means to be a human and a prophet, prophetic fallibility, what it means to support our prophets, what does obedience look like. I want to hear your ideas so please leave them in the comments.

What are some of the prophet-themes that you can really get into with this lesson? The manual suggests three: succession/authority, obedience, and the prophets’ use of the power of God. I’m just going to focus on the first, for the sake of space, and also because this is a good lesson to talk about that transition of authority whereas the other topics can be found in upcoming lessons (or previous ones- Lesson #28 on Elijah is a great place to work through these).

From Elijah 2 Elisha

As we open our readings, we’re seeing the transition from Elijah to Elisha. First, I think it’s beneficial to note the relationship between the two men. When Elijah goes to Mt. Horeb, he is depressed and dejected. He feels absolutely, profoundly alone in the world and he longs for death. I love that he lays his thoughts out to the Lord and the Lord listens to him. In response, God gives Elijah his new mission, which includes the calling of men who will work alongside him, notably Elisha, who will become his dear friend and successor.

When Elijah meets Elisha, he’s already been told by the Lord that Elisha will be the next prophet. He goes up to him, removes his cloak, or mantle, and throws it over Elisha’s shoulders, indicating that Elisha will take up his calling.

We often speak of the “mantle” of the prophet in a metaphoric sense, probably because of the stories that came after Joseph Smith’s death, when Brigham Young spoke and people testified that he appeared and sounded remarkably like Joseph, even reporting a sort of transfiguration, describing it as the mantle of Joseph resting upon Brigham. So although the mantle we speak of and the mantle that Elijah wore are different things, they are both representative of prophetic authority.

That’s pretty much where the similarities between prophetic succession in the Old Testament and today end. In fact, let’s make it clear that there is very little overlap in prophets of ye olden times with the modern prophets we know today in terms of how they are chosen, sustained, and lead. This isn’t a how-to manual on how one prophet succeeds another in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the manual loosely suggests. But it is a glimpse into the real challenges of taking up the mantle of prophet and that is something that we can study and learn from both then and today.

It’s important to note that there are many prophets running around at this time in the Divided Kingdom. There are royal prophets, prophetic guilds, wild-eyed wilderness prophets, sandwich-board doomsday prophets. As far as prophets of the One God of Israel, Elijah had believed he was the last one on earth but we found that Obediah had secretly hidden and sustained a hundred others. So by the time Elijah is ready for his holy chariot, he is no longer alone. In fact he spends his last day visiting multiple prophetic communities.

Elijah is clearly chief among these prophets. Filling his sandals is a daunting task, even if God himself pointed to Elisha as the next “prophet in his place”, even if it’s clear that Elijah has been preparing him for this task since he first met him and threw his mantle over his shoulders.

What are some of the challenges that Elisha faces as the new prophet? How does Elisha address these challenges?

Elisha’s insecurity and desire to fill his teacher’s role well are clear when Elijah asks what he can do for him before he dies. Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. He both needs the power and reassurance that he is up to the task. But he’s also smartly asking for what an eldest son, an obvious heir, would receive when his father dies. This ask provides a confirmation both to Elisha and the rest of the prophetic communities that he indeed is the chosen successor to Elijah.

Per usual when someone takes another’s place, be it patriarch or prophet, there are parallels emphasized in the text to show the new person as a similitude of the former. Discuss the use of the mantle to part the water, both by Elijah and then by Elisha.

Once Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind (but don’t take Elisha’s word for it, the others insist on searching for Elijah’s body to be sure that he was taken up) Elisha immediately performs a miracle that demonstrates his ability to access God’s power.

We naturally react to miracles with awe and wonder. Why is it easier to respond to them than to the still, peaceful voice with which God speaks?

And finally, the bears. Why does crabby Elisha sick the bears on the poor, admittedly obnoxious kids? Ok, it’s not actually just because they hurt his feelings. It, too, speaks to Elisha needing to step into Elijah’s shoes and show people that he has the power and authority that Elijah had. You see, Elijah was a “hairy man.” What does that mean? Did he have luscious early 90’s Eddie Vedder locks? Did he look like he was wearing a hair suit like Esau? All we know is it was enough to be noted in the annals of biblical history.

Now Elisha was, to put it delicately, follically-challenged. Does he need to be a hairy man to be a prophet? Of course not! (I’m looking at you, President Hunter) But he’s already feeling pressured, insecure, probably overwhelmed and a bit touchy. So when a pack of youth come along (likely smarmy teenagers, not rosy cheeked toddlers) and tease him about something that marks him as so obviously different from Elijah, it stings. A lot. So much so that his reaction is quick and angry. He curses them and two bears come out of the woods and violently kill them. Yikes. You decide if you want to use this opportunity to discuss how to sustain prophets who are also fallible human beings. Have fun with that.

From Monson 2 Nelson

With a very recent prophetic succession, I think this is a great opportunity to talk about how we react to a new prophet. Let’s explore the biases we come in with, the judgements and assumptions we make. This is a great, concrete discussion that can be had in Gospel Doctrine.

We can all admit that we have favorites. There are apostles whose voices and messages resonate more with us as individuals, who we perk up at when we hear their voice at General Conference. There are others who we cringe at and listen to more critically, or ignore completely.

Does this lesson inspire any more compassion for the task before them? Does it change how we think about them?

Read D&C 21:5 and discuss what it means to receive the words of the prophets in “all patience and faith.” Especially patience sometimes.  

When a new prophet takes the place of the old, it’s crucial to remember that he is not the end of the line. Instead he is the guide that points us towards Christ. We look through him to Christ, not to him for Christ.

I, like many of you, cringe at the cultish tone of the primary song “Follow the Prophet.” My husband often mutters that it sounds like it belongs in a Soviet gulag. It’s especially awkward when your kids start singing it and marching around your non-Mormon parents’ living room. But Patrick suggests that he would be more okay with the song if one small change could be made: capitalize the W in “way.” Because “follow the prophet, he knows the way” sounds like a demand for blind obedience. But “follow the prophet, he knows the Way” reminds us that we don’t follow the prophet simply because he is the prophet, but because he is in tune with Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that is what we’re aiming for.

I personally still think the tune is damnable enough to chuck the whole thing.

Take a look at these great posts in the archives:

“The President of the Church and the Prophet of the Church” by JKC

“The Longest, Hardest Calling” by D. Christian Harrison

“Boyd K. Packer and Prophetic Despair” by Kristine

Comments

  1. I love the minor key songs in the songbook. Follow the Prophet has a quick tempo and minor sound that really makes it stand out. It does sound a little Russian, but I think of it like an exciting Cossack dance than Communist drudgery.

  2. My now adult daughter made parodies of the primary songs. “Follow the Prophet” became “Follow Amanda, she knows the way.” To escape the boring primary pablum- by going right out the back door and under the fence to get on the temple grounds which were adjacent to the ward house. Lucky the little monkeys didn’t disrupt the Sunday morning secret temple rituals which set the prophets apart from the rest of us peasants in the Kingdom.

    My problem is when it appears to me from my perspective that the prophet is standing between me and Christ.When confronted by the commandment to follow the prophets, I ask, to where? If they are not leading to Christ, then I ain’t following them anywhere else.

  3. Here’s a fascinating look at what could have really been going on when the youths taunted Elisha, and it has a lot to do with the question of succession and authority:

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/elisha-and-children-question-accepting-prophetic-succession

  4. David W Robbins says:

    “Follow the prophet” always strikes me as a rare example (for Latter-day Saints) of the klezmer musical tradition from Eastern Europe.

  5. David, Yes! When I was the Primary President we had a music leader who handed out instruments and the kids were allowed to use them for the refrain of FTP and it sounded like so much Hava Nagila with tambourines, bells, and blocks and castanets. Awesome. And that is how the song always is in my head.

  6. One thing about Prophets in the Old Testament…they RARELY follow some plan of succession. They are often nobodies, coming from no where of significance. And then they hear the word of the Lord to them directly, and go cry repentance.

    And as much as this particular story of Elijah and Elisha plays right into all our mormon fantasies about orderly succession and priesthood lineage…we’re ignoring the power of the phrase Elijah utters to Elisha when Elisha makes the request for a double portion.

    10 And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.

    There’s no guarantee there. This isn’t set in stone. It’s not Elijah’s will that makes it so. When Elisha requests to have the same relationship/power that Elijah has developed…Elijah’s response is more or less “Well, you’re asking the wrong person. What you desire is between you and God.”

    This is the thing I wish we understood in our church. There are all sorts of different kinds of prophets in the Old Testament. And they have varying levels of gifts, powers, and prestige/acceptance. A few stand out as real exceptions…having truly dramatic displays of power and communion with God. Moses, Samuel, Elijah. In the BoM, not all prophets are the same. Nephi (of the Book of Helaman) is a great prophet and seems to be shown to be an exception, in that he receives a level of authority not all prophets attain.

    Not all prophets are created equal. We rarely recognize that in our modern church. We like to imagine whoever leads the current church is like Moses, Enoch, Elijah, or Joseph Smith. But often, they’re not. They do not manifest the same gifts. And, by the way, that’s okay if they’re not. Because not all prophets are created equal.

    We do ourselves a disservice to read this chapter as an example of how prophetic mantles are passed from one leader to the next, when Elijah himself makes it clear “Whether or not you get my level of power and relationship with God isn’t up to me…it’s between you and God.”

    Holding a certain position in our church is no guarantee that someone has the full measure of God’s gift and power. You don’t get to pass that on simply by laying hands on someone’s head. It comes not by father or mother, but by the voice of God (JST Gen 14).

    True succession is not automatic. No leader can give another their personal transformation. No set of leaders can bestow upon another an authentic and personal relationship with God. It has always come by God’s will, and God’s alone.

  7. I have thoughts on the bears, and I think that, in general, people are largely missing some important subtext when they read these verses. Playing Devil’s Advocate on Elisha’s behalf, here is what I see:

    Regarding the victims: “Youths” or even “Young men” is a term that is very loosely used in the Old Testament. Rehoboam’s friends and associates were described as “young men” but we also know that Rehoboam was 41 when he became king, so it’s just as likely that these figures were adults in the physical prime of their lives as that they were younger.

    Regarding the location: Beth-El was relatively hostile territory for somebody like Elisha. Beth-El was one of the two designated worship sites in Israel (the other was Dan) for people to offer sacrifices to gods other than the Lord to keep them from visiting Jerusalem annually. It’s very likely that these “young men” were people who would have been especially eager to threaten or menace Elisha in the wake of Elijah’s departure, especially because …

    Regarding the baldness: As you have correctly observed, Elisha was touchy about his baldness largely because of the contrast it drew between him and Elijah. Immediately after Elisha returned from seeing Elisha ascend into heaven, people associated with him showed that they didn’t totally accept that Elisha could now be in charge of him, because they begged him to allow 50 people to go looking for Elijah (Elisha eventually relented and was visibly annoyed with the group when they came back and were surprised that they couldn’t find Elijah). The baldness was just one more reminder that he wasn’t going to live up to Elijah in the minds of either those friendly to him and also those who would have wanted to hurt him (and who would have been more afraid of Elijah because Elijah, as shown in 2 Kings 1, was known for doing things like lighting soldiers on fire essentially for sport).

    Regarding the “go up” taunt: This is almost certainly a reference to the way in which Elijah had left the world; it’s reasonable to assume that word and rumor of Elijah going up into heaven in a whirlwind and riding a chariot of fire was spreading far and wide. In this context, from this group of people, “go up” takes on a threatening tone.

    Put this all together, and you have Elisha, dealing with the clear knowledge that he’s going to have to work hard to convince people that he was in fact Elijah’s designated successor, in unfriendly territory, surrounded by a large number of able-bodied men in the prime of their lives, who essentially taunt him with “Drop dead baldy, you’re not Elijah and we’re not afraid of you.” The summoning of the bears is not only an act of defense but also somewhat of an act of lashing out, a way of saying “Yes, I’m not Elijah, and I’m not going to do things the same way he would, but just because I’m not going to light you on fire doesn’t mean you’re going to hurt me.”

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