Elisha’s double portion.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 February 2022

2 Kings 2.9-10.

The first time I heard of a “double portion” had to do with food. You’re dividing up the pizza; you want two slices instead of just one; how come Dad gets two slices and you don’t? But no, that’s not what it refers to in the bible.

The first time I heard of double portions in the bible, was in Sunday school. It was a lesson our overeager youth pastor taught us about the eighth-century BC prophet Elijah of Tishbe, the guy who stopped the rain for three years, and made a gentile widow’s food last way longer then it shoulda, and called down fire on both altars and men. And when it was time for Elijah to get raptured, he handed off his job to his apprentice Elisha ben Shaphat, and they had this conversation:

2 Kings 2.9-10 KJV
9 And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. 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.

Elisha, explained our excited youth pastor, asked for twice the spirit of Elijah. Twice the anointing. Double the power!

And after he watched Elisha ascend to heaven, he got it! As proven by the fact Elijah performed seven miracles in the bible, but Elijah performed twice that number, a whopping 14. (True, one of ’em took place after Elisha died, when a corpse came back to life after touching his bones. 2Ki 13.21 But it totally counts.)

Some years later I became Pentecostal. Unlike my previous church, Pentecostals correctly understand the spirit who empowered Elijah is the Holy Spirit; that every time a human being does miracles they’re doing it in the Holy Spirit’s power, ’cause he’s the one who inspired 1Pe 1.21 and empowered 1Co 12.11 prophets. So their spin on “the double portion” isn’t that Elisha was granted twice Elijah’s spirit, but twice the Holy Spirit.

No, this doesn’t mean there were two Holy Spirits knocking around inside Elisha. There’s only one God. It only means the Spirit empowered him twice as much as he did Elijah. Elisha became twice as miraculous. Twice as prophetic.

For fun, let’s say one of Elisha’s students made this same request of him. Theoretically this student could’ve received twice Elisha’s anointing. Elisha did 14 miracles; Elisha’s successor could’ve performed 28 of them. And if this successor passed a double-portion anointing along to a third guy, that guy could’ve done 56 miracles. His successor, 112 miracles. The next successor, 224 miracles. And so on, and so on.

A thousand generations later, devout descendants of Elijah’s anointing and Elisha’s double anointing, could potentially perform so many miracles, they’d do ’em by accident. Sneeze in an elevator, and everybody steps out totally cured of their allergies. Fart and everyone’s gastroenteric problems are gone. And so forth.

How sad, this Pentecostal lamented, that people didn’t have the faith to keep pursuing this “double portion anointing.” They could’ve doubled the miracles in the world with every successive generation.

How sad, I’ve learned since, that people keep repeating this old, and stupid, Christian cliché. ’Cause it proves they’ve clearly not read the other parts of the bible, which clear up precisely what a “double portion” is. Heck, they’ve probably heard it explained before, but some mental disconnect keeps ’em from applying it to the Elijah/Elisha story.

Inheritance and double portions.

As I explained in my article on patriarchy, when a father died his property was divided into equal portions—equal to the number of his sons plus one. And if he had no sons, the LORD decreed it’d be divided among his daughters, Nu 27.8 rather than leapfrogging them to the nearest male relative—with the caveat that they marry within their tribe, lest the land leave the tribe. Nu 36.5-9

Whichever child held the birthright was the father’s designated successor as head of the family. By custom this tended to be the eldest son, but the bible records so many exceptions, you realize this custom wasn’t all that customary. (Isaac wasn’t eldest, Jacob wasn’t eldest, Joseph wasn’t eldest, Ephraim wasn’t eldest, David wasn’t eldest, Solomon wasn’t eldest… and so forth.) Anywho, the son with the birthright was expected to take care of all his father’s wives and family members. Had to get all the unmarried girls married off to good people. Had to supervise the employees and slaves. If the father was a tribal elder, now so was the birthright-holder. If there were any particular family blessings or prophecies (or even curses) that’d fall on their shoulders too.

So in order to help start ’em off, they were granted one more portion than their siblings. Twice what the others inherited. Or as it was also called, the “double portion.”

Nope, it wasn’t twice what the father left behind. Because that’s not physically possible. “I have 20 acres, but my eldest shall receive 40.” I mean, the father could predict his son might gain 20 more acres, through purchase or marriage or conquest. But unless God’s behind this prediction, it’ll come to nothing. And even so, he can’t deed 20 hypothetical acres. Nope; if the father had 20 acres and four sons, the land got divided by five. Three sons got four acres, and the one with the birthright got double that: Eight acres.

The Holy Spirit is indivisible, of course: Either we get all of him, or none of him. He doesn’t come in portions. God didn’t divide himself into pieces and scatter himself among all the prophets of Israel… and Elisha would receive two pieces of Spirit. That’s bonkers. “Double portion” isn’t literal; it’s a euphemism. It means Elisha wanted the birthright. He wanted to be Elijah’s designated successor.

Elisha, the new Elijah.

Elijah was the LORD’s chief prophet in northern Israel. No, not by dint of getting appointed to the job, or having it as a hereditary office passed down to him like a head priest. Elijah had it because of demonstrated ability: He stopped the rain and called down fire. He straight-up declared what would happen in the future, with no metaphors nor parables to conceal it, and it straight-up happened. So if you didn’t know how to hear from the LORD (as many didn’t), you went to someone who did, and Elijah was absolutely known to hear from the LORD. He was the go-to prophet for kings, priests, and people.

Well, Elisha wanted that.

Now, he could’ve asked for the birthright solely because he wanted the honor of the position. And if that were the case, the Spirit would have ignored his request. Only idiots or fakes wanna be prophets for the honor. Prophets serve. And real prophets learn from experience it ain’t that much of an honor. I mean yeah, it’s nice to be able to hear God… but considering how pagan our world is (and considering how pagan the kings of ancient Israel were, including the constant threat of death if you prophesied stuff they didn’t wanna hear), it’s a rough duty.

This is why Elijah’s response was, “Thou hast asked a hard thing.” Not because it’s too difficult for God; nothing is. Jr 32.17 But it was gonna be all kinds of hard for Elisha. His master wasn’t warning him away from the request, or rebuking him for hubris. True prophets, like both Elijah and Elisha, are humble. They know they’re working for God; they know titles don’t matter. Elisha asked to succeed Elijah out of humility. And likewise in humility, Elijah said the decision wasn’t really up to him—but if God confirmed it by letting Elisha watch him get raptured, there ya go. The Jericho prophets further confirmed it when Elisha later met with them. 2Ki 2.15

Much of the reason for this teaching about “twice the spirit” isn’t just because people are ignorant of the historical context. It’s because people love the idea of getting more of something—more of anything. It’s basic human greed. So we love this story, and never fact-check it.

And maybe we should fact-check it. You know that claim Elisha performed twice the miracles of Elijah? Okay: I simply plowed through the scriptures and listed every God-action in their stories. (And obviously I count God speaking to them, and their subsequent prophecies, among their miracles. ’Cause it’s not like hearing God isn’t miraculous.)

  1. Declared the rain turned off. 1Ki 17.1
  2. Heard God’s directions to hide out in Cherith. 1Ki 17.2-4
  3. Fed by ravens. 1Ki 17.6
  4. Heard God’s directions to hide out in Zarephath. 1Ki 17.8-9
  5. Heard God promise to resupply the widow’s food. 1Ki 17.14
  6. God resupplying the widow’s food. 1Ki 17.15-16
  7. Cured the widow’s son. 1Ki 17.21-23
  8. Heard God send him to Ahab. 1Ki 18.1
  9. Called down fire on an altar. 1Ki 18.36-38
  10. Outran Ahab’s chariot. 1Ki 18.46
  11. Fed by an angel. 1Ki 19.5-6
  12. Fed again by an angel. 1Ki 19.7-8
  13. Heard God at Mt. Horeb (Sinai). 1Ki 19.9-18
  14. Heard God send him to Horeb. 1Ki 21.18-19
  15. Heard God again after Ahab mourned. 1Ki 21.28-29
  16. Heard God’s angel send him to Ahaziah’s messengers. 2Ki 1.3-4
  17. Called down fire on 50 men. 2Ki 1.10
  18. Called down fire on another 50 men. 2Ki 1.12
  19. Heard God’s angel send him to Ahaziah. 2Ki 1.15
  20. Heard God send him to Bethel. 2Ki 2.2
  21. Heard God send him to Jericho. 2Ki 2.4
  22. Heard God send him to the Jordan. 2Ki 2.6
  23. Parted the Jordan. 2Ki 2.8
  24. Got raptured. 2Ki 2.11
  1. Saw Elijah get raptured. 2Ki 2.12
  2. Parted the Jordan. 2Ki 2.14
  3. Cursed boys—who then got mauled. 2Ki 2.24
  4. Heard God’s instructions for a battle. 2Ki 3.15-19
  5. Instructed a widow how God would multiply her oil. 2Ki 4.1-7
  6. Prophesied a woman would have a son. 2Ki 4.16
  7. Raised her son from the dead. 2Ki 4.32-37
  8. Cured a stew of poison. 2Ki 4.40-41
  9. Fed 100 with 20 loaves. 2Ki 4.42-44
  10. Instructed Naaman of Syria to wash himself of leprosy. 2Ki 5.10
  11. Knew his servant had taken money from Naaman, and cursed him. 2Ki 5.26-27
  12. Made an axehead float. 2Ki 6.5-7
  13. Warned Joram of Syrians. 2Ki 6.9
  14. Warned Joram of Syrians more than twice. 2Ki 6.10
  15. Revealed God’s army to his servant. 2Ki 6.16-17
  16. Had God strike the Syrians with blindness. 2Ki 6.18
  17. Had God open their eyes back up. 2Ki 6.20
  18. Prophesied the siege would be lifted. 2Ki 7.1
  19. Prophesied the captain wouldn’t live to enjoy it. 2Ki 7.2
  20. Prophesied a famine. 2Ki 8.1
  21. Prophesied Hazael would succeed Syria’s king. 2Ki 8.10-13
  22. Sent a prophet to anoint Jehu as king. 2Ki 9.1-3
  23. Prophesied Jehoahaz would defeat Syria three times. 2Ki 13.17-19
  24. (His bones raised a dead man.) 2Ki 13.21

It just happens that each prophet winds up with 24 miraculous events. We can speculate there were even more, not included in the bible; we have no idea how many times Elisha actually warned Joram about the Syrians, 2Ki 6.9-10 but no doubt it was more than once. So… double the miracles? Nope. You gotta do some serious jiggery-pokery to combine or dismiss miracles.

Funny math abounds in popular Christian misinterpretations of scripture. Christians want so much to find meaningful coincidences, we’ll monkey with the numbers till we create one. I’ve heard people claim Jesus’s apostles performed exactly twice as many miracles as their Lord did in the gospels. I haven’t sat down and listed them, as I did with Elijah and Elisha—and it’ll get a bit tricky with the way the gospels overlap. But let’s put the bible aside for a moment and think about it: Of course the apostles should’ve performed more than twice Jesus’s miracles. Jesus ministered on earth what, three or four years? In contrast the apostles ministered for decades. And there were more of ’em! Each with the same Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus. Each training others, just like Jesus trained them, to do as he did. See, all our lists only include the bible stories, and there are likely dozens, if not thousands, more miracles not listed in the scriptures. Certainly true when it comes to Jesus. Jn 21.25

Yeah, we should of course see later generations do more mighty acts. We’re preceded by so many good examples; we should have way more faith than we demonstrate. It’s not a matter of doubling the power. Nor doubling the spirit, nor doubling anything; it’s not about math. Math is actually limiting: We might aim for achieving twice what our forebears did, yet the Spirit may want us to do ten times as much, ’cause our forebears started late, slacked off, lacked faith, whatever. In certain cases the Spirit actually expects less of us—’cause our forebears burnt themselves out instead of multiplying themselves, and the Spirit wants more miracle-workers, not fewer people with bigger jobs.

If you wanna follow Elisha’s actual in-context example, do this: Get involved in a ministry like Elijah’s. Doesn’t have to be a prophetic ministry. Any ministry will do. Go assist the leader. Be helpful. Be useful. Be humble. Be Spirit-led. Develop those gifts and abilities that help the ministry, and grow God’s kingdom, most. When the time comes, and you see your talents can serve the ministry best in administration, then ask your boss for that double portion. If you ask in all humility, your boss may say yes. Or not, ’cause other plans had already been made. If you did ask in all humility, you’ll be okay with your boss’s answer either way.

Christianity always suffers a shortage of humble leaders. If you wanna take on such a role, go for it.