Biblical accounts are often understood in terms of how we were told them as children. I can remember more than a few recitations of the story of the calling of Elisha by the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21). The older Elijah put his "mantle" (or outer cloak, probably a sheepskin) on the younger Elisha. I'm not sure if that ever really made much sense to me.
The brevity and simplicity of Biblical stories makes them ideal for retelling to children, and for the same reason, they are easily retold in children's storybooks. When adults try to turn those stories into theater or cinema, however, a problem arises. The stories need to be fleshed out, and there is a need to add to the Biblical story for such production. I can remember my amazement when I first saw Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments -- "Moses had a girlfriend?" I had not recalled that from any of my Sunday school lessons.
Biblical narratives are almost always summaries of the whole story, so it seems strange that Elijah suddenly threw his mantle on Elisha and that the latter followed him with no questions asked. We are told in three verses the gist of what happened, not the entire encounter. Commentaries, scholarly works, and sermons regularly try to help us see the full picture of what we might easily miss in the narrative.
The placing of Elijah's mantle on Elisha seems to have come as a surprise to the young man. The account only emphasizes his response, but he seems, unlike us, to have immediately known what Elijah's action meant.
Sometimes then as now a physical act was used to convey a relationship. There are, for instance, numerous Biblical references to making one's enemy a footstool. When a rebel or enemy was ultimately defeated, he was brought before the victor and then prostrated himself, literally offering his head at the feet of his new master who could choose whether to execute him or acknowledge him as a subordinate prince. When Baal worshippers wished to dedicate their children to a particular power, they passed their children through fire. Usually, this was merely the heat and smoke of the fire or incense. In both cases the physical act conveyed a known relationship.
Elisha knew what it meant when Elijah placed his mantle on him. It meant the prophet had chosen him to a special relationship. The placing of the mantle represented bringing someone under your care and nurture. This was often the adoption of a child or the acknowledgement of a familial responsibility. Thus, when Ruth confronted Boaz, she said, "I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman" (Ruth 3:9). Ruth was telling Boaz that he was her nearest living relative, and she wanted him to acknowledge that fact and consider her as part of his household. Likewise, there is a Turkish expression for adoption that means to draw through one's skirt.1
When Elijah cast his mantle over Elisha, the meaning was clear; the prophet was calling Elisha to be his son and his heir, his successor in his prophetic work. God had told Elijah to do this. The Biblical account is brief, but it is likely this was specifically related to Elisha.
A similar event is seen in reverse in Isaiah 22:21, where a garment and calling is removed from an unworthy man. The Lord told Shebna, captain of the temple, that he would be deprived of his office in favor of another. That man would be clothed with Shebna's "robe" and "girdle" and would thus be given his authority. The placing of "royal robes" at a coronation still conveys a new authority and hence a new relationship between prince and people.
With any adoption you came under authority. Ruth's reference to herself as Boaz's "handmaid" was self-deprecating. She was merely saying she was not seeking status, only to be recognized as a part of the family and under the headship of Boaz.
Elisha would have known Elijah, minimally by reputation. In accepting the mantle so readily, he accepted a new position. Elisha was likely a wealthy heir. His men plowed with twelve teams of oxen, so their farm was very large and their capital extensive. Elisha followed with the plow, apparently keeping the others in view as their supervisor.
Suddenly, Elisha moved from wealthy heir to the poor prophet's successor. He was under Elijah's authority and protection. He would serve Elijah as a son would serve his father. This wasn't a job, but a change in relationship. This is why Elisha immediately requested permission of Elijah to say good-bye to his parents. This meant he already recognized Elijah's authority over him. He was now the son of the prophet. When Elijah was later taken in a chariot of fire, Elisha's mourning cry was, in part, "My father, my father ..." Just prior to that, he had asked Elijah for a double portion of his prophetic spirit; the eldest son always received a double portion of the divided inheritance. Elisha then took up Elijah's mantle, as his disciple, spiritual successor, and adopted heir. None of the students of the school of the prophets objected.
Elisha had, by his adoption, become the son of Elijah. Sonship meant submitting to his spiritual father's authority; hence he requested and received permission to say good-bye to his family. Elisha cooked the two oxen (in an obviously very large feast) and burned their yoke, apparently to signify the end of his work on the farm and the commencement of his new work. Adoption to sonship meant a new fidelity.
Part of Elisha's responsibility as an adopted son was to serve Elijah. Some time later a member of the court of King Jehoram of Israel referred to the [then] prophet Elisha as one who had "poured water on the hands of Elijah" (2 Kings 3:11). Sonship meant service.
The New Testament refers to our adoption, calls God our Father, and calls us His sons. Elijah's adoption of Elisha was accomplished by the covering of a cloak. God has adopted us by a covering as well. The meaning of atonement is that of a covering. Our sins are covered, but we are ourselves covered or washed in the blood of the Lamb.
When Paul spoke of our adoption in Galatians 4, he noted the expectation of obedience: "[T]he heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all" (v. 1). Elisha had been ordained to succeed Elijah, but he began his ministry by serving him. Sons were taught obedience and responsibility, not only under the father but under tutors and governors until they were of age and ready to assume a position of authority. Hebrews 5 speaks of Jesus as a Son, who learned "obedience by the things which he suffered" (v. 8).
Some commentators have seen a reference to adoption of slaves (a common practice) in Galatians 4 as well. Only those slaves adopted as sons were allowed to address their former masters as "Abba, Father" or their wives as "Mama, Mother." This was a privilege not allowed to slaves.2
Paul would also warn us that we are not to remain babes in Christ, but that we are to grow up to be "perfect" or "mature," ready to assume the leadership role for which we have been prepared. The maturity of the son, adopted or natural, does not, however, mean we cease to serve our Father. It only means we have moved from the simple service expected of a child to the leadership responsibilities of an heir. "[I]f children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ ..." (Rom. 8:17).
We, as the covered, adopted children of God, are under His authority. This authority is administered through Jesus Christ of whom the Father said, "[H]ear ye him" (Matt. 17:5). Our Lord Himself put us under His authority when He said, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore ..." (Matt. 28:18-19). Just as Elijah and Elisha were men of authority, the covering or atonement of Jesus Christ and His commission has put us under authority.
Elisha put on the mantle of Elijah to represent Elisha's willing acceptance of his new role. Paul told us to "put off the old man" and "put on the new man," which is equated with putting on the Lord Jesus (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
In Matthew 22 there is a parable in which a man invited to a wedding feast proceeded therein, but without a wedding garment. He was thrown out of the wedding in words describing a man being cast into hell. The sin described is not one of dress, but of coming before God casually and expecting Him to accept us as we are, without any desire to change. The man cast out was self-righteous. He was saying that, "If God wants me, He can take me as I am; I don't need to change." The doctrine of adoption precludes such presumption. We come to our Heavenly Father on His terms, by His grace, expecting like Elisha to be taught obedience and service.
Too many Christians believe they can come to Christ like the man in the parable of the wedding feast. They come expecting that God ought to accept them as they are. They believe they are as good as they can be and perhaps a bit better than they need to be. They come to God as if He were a service-provider-"I think I'll have salvation, please!"-but then refuse to place themselves under His authority. Approaching God as a service-provider reflects neither repentance nor faith.
Those adopted by God are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ and are called to submit to Him. We cannot just speak of the Father's love of His children and neglect that, as a Father, He is our authority figure. We are called both sons and servants, and the expectations of a godly son involve both roles; we learn servanthood in our training as sons and heirs. We are called to obey and serve as disciples for greater purposes in our Father's Kingdom.
Do you approach God as your service-provider or as His servant-son?
1. McClintock and Strong, "Adoption," Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 78.
2. Ibid., 77.