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The Second Book of Kings - The Prophet Elisha

Ahaziah had fallen from the balcony of his upper room in Samaria and he lay ill in bed when the Moabites rebelled against Israel. The king sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, god of Ekron and ask him for recovery from his illness. An angel of God warned Elijah the Prophet and Elijah, wearing nothing but a hair cloak and a leather loincloth, was furious. He intercepted the messengers saying that Yahweh had commanded that Azaiah would never leave his bed and would certainly die. Azaiah sent soldiers out to capture Elijah. Elijah sat on the top of a hill and fire from heaven fell and destroyed the soldiers who came up to grab him. This happened two times. The third time the captain of the guards begged Elijah to spare his men, to come down with him and give his divine message to Azaiah. Elijah went with the captain. Azaiah died shortly after, exactly as Elijah had prophesied.

Azaiah had no son so his brother Jehoram succeeded him.

Elijah was a very powerful prophet. He was one of the few who like Moses would converse with God and to whom Yahweh showed his power over the elements. Therefore Elijah was often represented in paintings together with Moses. In the Transfiguration story of the New Testament for instance, Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, and stand around Jesus as the glory of God is shown to the apostles that were closest to Christ.

Elijah now knew he was close to death.

Elijah and Elisha set out for Gilgal. Elijah told that he only was sent by God to Bethal, Jericho and the Jordan but Elisha insisted many times to accompany him until Elijah conceded. Elijah crossed the Jordan by separating the waves. The two prophets then stood near the Jordan and Elijah asked Elisha what he wished. Elisha asked Yahweh to inherit a double share of Elijah’s spirit and Elijah told him that this wish would be granted if Elisha could see Elijah’s departure to the heavens. Elisha saw indeed Elijah go up to heaven in a whirlwind.

Elisha took Elijah’s cloak, which had fallen and went back to the Jordan and the other prophets in Jericho.


Elisha was indeed a powerful prophet too who performed many miracles. For instance, he made foul water become wholesome and he conjured bears to devour young boys who had scolded at him. Elisha was already old and bald then, when he took up the inheritance of Elijah.

While Elisha was a prophet Jehoram was King if Israel (from 852 to 841) and he did like his father Ahab had one. He did what was displeasing to Yahweh. Elisha brought water back during a drought while the Israelites attacked the rebellious Moabites. The armies stood in front of each other in a valley and the water in the valley looked like blood to the Moabites as the sun shone on it. The Moabites were defeated.

Elisha performed many other miracles. Once he brought many jars of oil to a poor woman that was pursued by creditors. He told the woman to bring as many empty jars as she could get and from one jar she had still full with oil, she filled all the other jars. He changed bad, poisoned soup by putting some mead in the pot. Men lost an axe in a river and Elisha could point to where the axe was lost in the river. Two miracles of Elisha are told in long in the Book of Kings: the story of the woman of Shunem and the story of the healing of Naaman.

One day Elisha was on his way to Shunem. He was invited to stay and eat with a woman of rank who lived in Shunem. After that, when he passed that house he repeatedly stayed there, as he was always welcome. The woman even proposed to her husband to build a room for the holy man so that he could rest in a bed there. Elisha thought about what he could do to help the woman in return. Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, had heard that the woman had no son and that her husband was old. So Elisha told the woman of Shunem that she would conceive and hold a son in her arms this time next year. The woman could not believe him, but she did conceive and gave birth to a son.

The son of the woman of Shunem grew up and one day he exclaimed suddenly he had a pain in the head. The boy died by midday. The mother went to Mount Carmel and called upon Elisha. Elisha sent his servant Gehazi with his staff and told Gehazi to stretch the staff on the child. Gehazi sped to the house in Shunem, laid the staff on the child, but nothing happened. When Elisha arrived somewhat later, he stretched himself on top of the child and lowered himself seven times onto the boy. Then the child sneezed and opened his eyes. Elisha called in the Shunamite woman to take her son.

Elisha later said to the woman of Shunem to move away with her family and to go to live in a foreign country for Yahweh would send a famine over Israel, which would last seven years. The woman hurried to follow Elisha’s advice and she went to live in Philistine territory. After the seven years she came back and lodged her claim for her house and land to the King. The King was just asking Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, about Elisha’s deeds and Gehazi explained the miracle that the prophet had exercised on the woman’s son. The King then restored all the property to the woman of Shunem.

Elisha cured Naaman, the army commander of the Aramaeans from a virulent skin disease. For his flesh to become clean again, Naaman had to bathe seven times in the Jordan. Elisha did not accept any money from Naaman but Elisha’s servant ran after Naaman and asked for silver and festal robes. When Gehazi returned, Elisha knew already what had happened. He told Gehazi to keep the money but Naaman’s skin disease would now cling to Gehazi and his descendants forever. From that moment Gehazi became white ass now from skin disease.

The Aramaeans waged war on Israel but Elisha could know the plans of the King of Aram. A small Aramaean force came to besiege the town of Dotham to capture the prophet. Elisha prayed to Yahweh and the Aramaeans were struck sunblind. Elisha whispered to the men of Aram that they were on the wrong road and he took them inside Samaria. He opened their eyes inside Samaria. The King of Israel proposed to have the men killed but Elisha only wanted them to be fed and sent off again. No Aramaean raiding parties then invaded Israel again.

Elisha travelled to Damascus. King Ben-Hadad of Aram was ill. He sent Hazael to Elisha to ask him to consult Yahweh and find out whether he would recover from his illness. Elisha answered to Hazael that Ben-Hadad might recover, but he also told that he would surely die. Then Elisha wept and he said to Hazael that he had seen Hazael as King of Aram, killing the Israelites and burn down their houses, and bringing horrors of suffering over Israel. Hazael went back to his master. He told him he might recover. The next day Ben-Hadad took a blanket, soaked it in water, and spread it over his face. Ben-Hadad thus died. Hazael succeeded on him to the throne of Aram.

In Judah reigned Jehoram (848-841 BC) and then Azaiah, son of Jehoram (841).

In those times Elisha sent one of his disciples to anoint as King of Israel Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi. Elisha now gave a message to Jehu to avenge the blood of the prophets on Jezebel and on the whole family of Ahab. Jezebel would be given to be eaten by dogs in the Field of Jezreel. Jehoram was still King of Israel then so Jehu plotted against the king. Jehu and the non-suspecting Jehoram met in a field near Ramoth, which the king was holding against Hazael, King of Aram. Jehu struck down Jehoram and sent an arrow in his hearth. Thus Jehu realised the sentence of Yahweh against Ahab’s family. Jehu also went in pursuit of Ahaziah the King of Judah and killed him in Megiddo. Then Jehu went back to Jezreel where he knew he would find Jezebel. Jezebel made her eyes up with mascara and appeared at a window. She spoke out to Jehu but he ordered her officials to throw her down the window. Jehu then went inside the building and ate and drank. Then he ordered Jezebel buried because after all she was a king’s daughter. But when the servants looked for her body, they only found her skull, feet and hands. Dogs had eaten her flesh as Elisha had prophesied. Jehu killed every member of the House of Ahab surviving in Jezreel. He also slaughtered the brothers of Azaiah. He destroyed Baal’s temple, destroyed Baal’s image and all the adherents of the foreign gods. Jehu thus rid Israel of Baal. He reigned as king from 841 to 814 BC. At the end of his reign Yahweh began to whittle Israel down and Hazael defeated the Israelites throughout many territories.

When Athaliah, mother of Azaiah heard that her son was killed, she murdered all the rest of the royal family around her. But Azaiah’s sister could rescue Jeboash, Azaiah’s son. She hid him from Athaliah. Athaliah governed the country now. Jeboash stayed hidden in the Temple for six years. The Jehoiada, the Temple priest, sent for the regimental commanders and showed them the righteous King of Judah. They crowned Jehoash to King of Judah. They anointed him as king, clapped their hands and shouted, ‘Long live the King’. Athaliah heard this. She came by. When she saw Jehoash she tore her clothes and shouted for treason. They commanders of the guard her and killed her outside the Temple.

Jehoash ruled in Judah from 835 to 796. In the end Jehoash’s own retainers rebelled and murdered him. His son Anaziah succeeded him.

Jehu of Israel was succeeded by Jehoahaz, his son (814-798 BC). His son Jehoash or Joash then reigned after him (798-783 BC).

In Joash’s reign Elisha fell ill. Th King came out to see him and shed tears. Elisha told the King to pen the window, to take a bow and arrow. While Joash tended the bow, Elisha laid his hand on the king’s hand until the king drew the arrow. The arrow was sent to the east. Elisha said, ‘shoot’ and the King shot again. Elisha said this was the arrow of victory over Aram. The King would defeat the Aramaeans at Aphek. Then Elisha ordered the king to shoot into the ground and the king’s arrows struck the ground three times. Elisha was not satisfied with that. ‘You will only defeat Aram three time’, he said, ‘You should have struck the ground at least a dozen times’. Then Elisha died. Even after his burial his tom performed miracles.

Elisha multiplies the Bread

Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto (1519-1594). Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Venice. Ca. 1577/1578.

Elisha was a very powerful Prophet who performed many miracles, some of which remind of the life of Jesus. Many stories form Elisha’s life also remind of his master, Elijah, so that the two Prophets may have been but one and the same person, or for whom Elijah’s stories were repeated in stories of his successor.

Once, a man came from Baal-Shahishah, bringing bread from the first fruits, twenty barley loaves and also he brought fresh grain that was still in the husk. Elisha told the man to give it to eat to the company. But the servant was surprised at that command, because there were a hundred men. He wondered how a few loaves could serve for so many. But Elisha insisted. Elisha told that Yahweh had said, ‘Eat and there will be left over.’ The servant complied. All the men ate from the loaves and even some was indeed left over, as Yahweh had predicted.

Jacopo Tintoretto painted several pictures in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice around the theme of the Eucharist. Jesus used bread and wine and asked his disciples to eat the bread and to drink the wine in remembrance of him. The ritual o the Last Supper became the main moment of the Catholic ritual of Mass. Tintoretto painted scene son miracles involving bread, scenes of Prophets and of Jesus near the altar of the Upper Hall of the Scuola. One of these pictures is the oval oil picture in the ceiling of the hall, ‘Elisha multiplies the Bread’, painted around 1577- 1578.

The painting shows Elisha handing out the bread. Tintoretto painted the prophet as a young man. He had read the Bible well. The miracle of the multiplication of loaves is told in the Bible in the Elisha cycle soon after Elijah’s death. Elijah died and had transferred his functions to Elisha, so Tintoretto considered Elisha still to be a young man.

Tintoretto had an oval form to bring his scene, always a difficult shape for a picture. He had a brilliant idea. He painted Elisha as a long, towering figure of power and authority, distributing the bread and slightly curved in the act, so that he could position the Prophet all along one side of the oval. In this way the figure of Elisha fits perfectly the shape of the frame. Since Tintoretto positioned Elisha along a side, he had ample space to show a few Jewish women and the bread. Tintoretto painted them like humble and almost like beggar women, very much lower in the picture than Elisha. This imaging of Elisha is very much a Mannerist means, full of tension and that tension is not relieved as in Baroque art.

Other figures of Jews are in the background and a blue sky fills the scene, but much of that might be restoration work done by Giuseppe Angeli around 1777 – 1778. The Guardians of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco always, over the centuries, saw to it that the decorations of the Scuola remained in good order. During one of these restorations done by Giuseppe Angeli from 1770 on, this painter worked for many years on Tintoretto’s pictures and other paintings in the Scuola.

Tintoretto painted a marvellous Elisha. He painted not in pure colours, even though it is difficult to know sometimes what colours he really used, because Tintoretto’s hues have become altered with time. Today we see dark yellow and orange shades, which go well together. Tintoretto applied strong chiaroscuro shading on the mantle of the Prophet and the volume of that mantle makes of Elisha the imposing figure that impresses also the viewer that looks up to the high oval. It is as if Elisha looks down, an effect that Tintoretto must have sought out deliberately, as if a heavenly figure looked down from the sky, through openings in the ceiling of the upper Hall. Tintoretto also painted a marvellous basket in which Elisha holds the bread. He showed splendidly how the light brightens the threads of the reed. Such beautiful and many shades are also on the Jewish women. Tintoretto painted in visible brushstrokes that remained independent each, and that were unwaveringly correct. This was a powerful new way of painting, not a fine detailed filling in of well-delineated areas, not fine transitions, but in the lines of paint made by a brush that sculpted as much as it painted and that proves immediately that the picture is a painting and not reality itself – of course. There is indeed a tactile quality in this way of laying paint that is remarkable and entirely Tintoretto’s own style. Jacopo Robusti was a very self-assured artist, and in 1577-1578 fully in possession and confidence of his skills.

The Death of the Children of Bethel

Laurent de La Hyre (1606-1656). Musée des Beaux-Arts. Arras. 1653.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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