Elisha’s double portion.

No, it’s not about getting twice as much as your predecessor. Just your fellow heirs.

2 Kings 2.9-10

The first time I heard of the idea of “the double portion,” it was in Sunday school, in a lesson our overeager youth pastor taught us about the eighth-century BC prophet Elijah of Tishbe, and his apprentice Elisha. On the day Elijah got raptured, he and Elisha had this conversation:

2 Kings 2.9-10 KWL
9 This happened when they crossed the river:
Elijah told Elisha, “Ask me to do for you, before I’m taken from you.”
Elisha said, “Please assign the double portion of your spirit to me.”
10 Elijah said, “You ask for a serious burden.
If you see me get taken from you, it’s yours.
If not, it’s not.”

Elisha, our youth pastor explained, requested twice the spirit of Elijah. Double 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, and I heard the charismatic spin on this interpretation: Elijah didn’t just get twice Elijah’s spirit, but twice the Holy Spirit. ’Cause the Spirit inspired 1Pe 1.21 and empowered 1Co 12.11 the prophets. No, this doesn’t mean there were two Holy Spirits knocking around inside Elisha. It means the Spirit empowered him to be twice as mighty as Elijah. Twice as miraculous. Twice as prophetic.

And y’know, had one of Elisha’s students made this same request of him, theoretically this guy 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 on a third guy, that guy could’ve done 56 miracles. And his successor, 112 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 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. 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 father’s designated successor as head of the family. (By custom this tended to be the eldest son, but the bible is full of exceptions.) The son with the birthright was expected to take care of all the father’s wives and family members. Had to get all the unmarried girls married off, and married well. 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. 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 twice that: Eight acres.

Of course, the Holy Spirit is indivisible. Either we get all of him, or none of him. He doesn’t come in portions. So it wasn’t like God would divide himself into pieces and scatter himself among all the prophets of Israel… and Elisha would receive two pieces. 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.

Elisha wanted to be recognized as the LORD’s chief prophet in northern Israel—the recognized elder of all the LORD’s other prophets, and the go-to prophet for kings, priests, and people.

Now, he could’ve asked for the birthright 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 know: 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, “You ask for a serious burden.” The KJV’s “Thou hast asked a hard thing” suggests he made a difficult request, but we all know nothing’s too difficult for God. Jr 32.17 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 like the story, and never fact-check it. The claim that Elisha performed twice the miracles of Elijah? Well, depends on what jiggery-pokery you gotta do to combine or dismiss miracles. I’ll list ’em all, individually.

  1. Declared the rain turned off. 1Ki 17.1
  2. Heard God’s directions to hide out in Kherýt. 1Ki 17.2-4
  3. Fed by ravens. 1Ki 17.6
  4. Heard God’s directions to hide out in Charfát. 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 Akháv. 1Ki 18.1
  9. Called down fire on an altar. 1Ki 18.36-38
  10. Outran Akháv’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. Khorév (Sinai). 1Ki 19.9-18
  14. Heard God send him to Akháv. 1Ki 21.18-19
  15. Heard God again after Akháv mourned. 1Ki 21.28-29
  16. Heard God’s angel send him to Akhazyáh’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 Akhazyáh. 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. Ascended into heaven. 2Ki 2.11
  1. Saw Elijah ascend into heaven. 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 Nahamán of Syria to wash himself of leprosy. 2Ki 5.10
  11. Knew his servant had taken money from Nahamán, and cursed him. 2Ki 5.26-27
  12. Made an axehead float. 2Ki 6.5-7
  13. Warned Yorám of Syrians. 2Ki 6.9
  14. Warned Yorám 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 Khazaél would succeed Syria’s king. 2Ki 8.10-13
  22. Sent a prophet to anoint Yehú as king. 2Ki 9.1-3
  23. Prophesied Yehoakház would defeat Syria three times. 2Ki 13.17-19
  24. (His bones raised a dead man.) 2Ki 13.21

Obviously I count God speaking to them, and their prophecies, among their miracles. (’Cause it’s not like hearing God isn’t miraculous.) Nope, didn’t count ’em before I listed them: I just plowed through the scriptures and listed every God-action in their stories. It just happens that each prophet winds up with 24 miraculous items. Though we can probably grant Elisha a few more: We don’t know exactly how many times he warned Joram about the Syrians. 2Ki 6.9-10

Funny math abounds in Christian interpretations of scripture. We 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 twice as many miracles as their Lord did. 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 tick, and think about it: The apostles should’ve performed way more than twice Jesus’s miracles. Jesus ministered on earth what, three years or so? And the apostles ministered for decades. And there were more of ’em, each with the same Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus. See, our lists only include the bible stories. There are likely dozens, even hundreds, more miracles not listed in the scriptures. Certainly true when it comes to Jesus. Jn 21.25

Yeah, we should 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, doubling anything; it’s not about math. Math is actually limiting: We might aim for achieving twice what our predecessors did, and the Spirit may want us to do ten times as much, ’cause our predecessors started late, slacked off, lacked faith, whatever. In certain cases the Spirit actually expects less of us—’cause our predecessors were burning 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. 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.