Typology That Is True to the Text: What Elijah and Elisha Point Out for Modern Interpreters of Scripture

roadway sign in desert land

How does typology work? Is it something that we do when we interpret Scripture? Or, is it something that Scripture does and we recognize when we read and interpret? In other words, is typology a method of interpretation, distinctive from a literal interpretation and similar to an allegorical method? Or, is typology something that is inherent to Scripture itself?

This is no small question. Volumes have been written to debate the point. And for more than the last decade I have thought about, written about, and preached about this very thing. It my conviction, outlined in a forthcoming article co-written with Sam Emadi, that typology is found in Scripture and it not something that the interpretive community brings to Scripture. To illustrate, consider the storyline of Elijah and Elisha.

Elijah and Elisha in 1–2 Kings

If you are familiar with these two prophets, you probably remember Elisha’s parting request: “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me” (2 Kings 2:9). In this request and its subsequent fulfillment, Elisha sees Elijah depart (the condition of this double portion), receives Elijah’s prophetic mantle, and immediately parts the Jordan River, just like Elijah, and Joshua, and Moses before him. (More on that in a moment).

In short, the storyline of Elijah and Elisha is one that is more than simple history. As noted in a previous post, 1–2 Kings is a history that centers on Israel’s prophets. It is no accident that Elijah is the key figure at the end of 1 Kings and Elisha is the key figure to open 2 Kings. Together, they bring the Word of God to the people of God, and especially the kings of Israel and Judah. But just as important as their relationship with the kings is their relationship to one another. And this is where the typological relationship between the two come into focus.

For starters, the author of 1–2 Kings intentionally paints Elisha as a second Elijah, thus giving us the first glimpse that typology is in text. Consider two ways this is observed. First, when Elisha seeks a double portion of the Spirit, the author of Kings fulfills this perfectly. Whereas Elijah records eight miracles; Elisha records sixteen (Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 174). Then second, when we compare the lives of Elijah and Elisha, we discover intentional recapitulation, i.e., Elisha is presented as reliving the events of Elijah. For example, Peter Leithart (1 and 2 Kings, 213) supplies the following chart,



Ends a drought (1 Kings 18)

Ends a famine (2 Kings 7)

Jezebel swears to kill (1 Kings 19:2)

Jehoram swears to kill (2 Kings 6:31)

Goes to Sinai (1 Kings 19:3–8)

God to Damascus (2 Kings 8:7)

To anoint Hazael and Jehu (1 Kings 19:17)

Anoints Hazael and Jehu (2 Kings 8:13; 9:1–3)

By comparing these two order of events, we can see the way that 1–2 Kings intentionally compare the two prophets. This, plus the events of 1 Kings 2, makes it impossible to understand Elijah without Elisha, and vice versa. And to the point of typology, we find that the patterns are inherent in the text. That is, the author of 1 and 2 Kings presents these two prophets typologically, i.e., with observable patterns.

Elijah and Elisha in the Whole Bible

Taking one step back from 1–2 Kings, we can observe something else about Elijah and Elisha—namely, that these two prophets mirror the previous pair of prophets (Moses and Joshua) and foreshadow a later pair of prophets (John the Baptist and Jesus). Additionally, Elijah and Elisha foreshadow Christ and the Church.

Previously, I have noted the way typology includes pairs, but here in 1–2 Kings, Peter Leithart provides copious evidence for reading 1–2 Kings typologically. Which means, we read this passage typologically because typological patterns are found in the text, and these patterns (types) point backward in redemptive history and forward. We do not need to spice up our reading with some typological method, or some figural or allegorical interpretation. Rather, because the divinely inspired Word of God is written typologically, we can see and savor the images of Christ that are found in the historical narrative of Elijah and Elisha. To that end, consider what we find in the text.

Elijah is a type of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:14; Mark 9:9-13; Luke 1:17), and the transition from Elijah to Elisha foreshadows the succession from John to Jesus. Like John, Elijah is a lone voice in the wilderness, but Elisha is surrounded by disciples. Jesus’s ministry is a ministry of life-giving miracles—cleansing lepers (Mark 1:40-45), raising dead sons and restoring them to their mothers (Luke 7:11-17), relieving distress. Similarly, Elisha raises the dead (2 Kgs. 4:18-37), provides a meal for one hundred men from twenty loaves of barley bread (4:42-44), cleanses a leper (2 Kgs. 5). On the surface of things, Elisha is a type of Jesus.

But the typology works another way as well: Elijah is a type of Jesus himself, and Elisha of the disciples who continued Jesus’s ministry after his ascension. Elisha first appears plowing a field, but he leaves home and family (1 Kgs. Elisha 19:19-21) like the disciples of Jesus who leave their fishing boats and tax booths to follow him. At the beginning of 2 Kgs. 2, Elisha doggedly follows his master, refusing to stay behind, until Elijah is taken from him in a whirlwind. Because he follows Elijah, Elisha becomes like his master, and after Elijah departs he immediately begins to replicate his ministry. Having received the promised double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha is a “reincarnation” (or “reanimation”) of Elijah, as the church is the body of Christ in the Spirit of Jesus. The sons of the prophets recognize the family resemblance between Elisha and his predecessor, just as the Jews perceive the of Peter and the apostles and courage remember they have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).

From this angle, the Elijah-Elisha narrative directly foreshadows the sequence of the biography of Jesus (Brodie 1999, chap. 5). The Gospels begin with the ministry of the Elijah-like John, who confronts the ambivalent King Herod and his bloodthirsty queen and calls Israel to repentance (Mark 1:1-8; 6:14-29). John baptizes Jesus as his successor (Mark 1:9-11), as Elijah calls Elisha (1 Kgs. 19:19-21); and Jesus receives the Spirit as he is baptized, as Elisha receives the spirit of Elijah. Jesus announces the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple (Mark 13), and Elisha anoints the temple-destroyer, Jehu (2 Kgs. 9:1-10). Jesus comes eating and drinking (Luke 7:34), and Elisha’s ministry is like Jesus’s above all in giving central attention to the gift of food and drink. He heals the deadly waters at Jericho (2 Kgs. 2:19-22), provides healthy food for the sons of the prophets (4:38-41), multiplies loaves to feed a multitude (4:42-44), feeds Aramean soldiers who come to capture him (6:20-23), and provides food for besieged Samaria (7:1, 18-20). The Gospels end at an empty tomb, and Elisha’s story ends with his life-giving grave (13:20-21).

The story of 2 Kgs. 2 reaches backward as well. Throughout his ministry, Elijah is a new Moses, and Elisha his Joshua. Ahab is Pharaoh, and once his son dies (Passover), Elijah and Elisha leave the land whose gods are defeated and whose prince is dead (exodus). Elijah departs on the far side of the Jordan, as Moses does, while Elisha returns to carry on a conquest, significantly starting at Jericho. The christological typology is thus multilayered: Moses is Elijah is John; Joshua is Elisha is Jesus. Yet also, Moses is Elijah is Jesus, and Joshua is Elisha is the church. (1 and 2 Kings, 171–72)

Remarkable and refulgent of the divine nature of Scripture is the only way to respond to these overwhelming correspondences.

But importantly, these typological patterns are not just accidental features of God’s will overriding the words of human authors. Divine inspiration is not an alternating pattern between God’s words and man’s. Rather, the author of 1–2 Kings, led by the Spirit and all that the Spirit has said and done before from the time of Moses until his time, wrote his history of Israel prophetically. In other words, following the pattern of sound words found in the Law and the earlier Prophets (Joshua, Judges, etc.), the author of 1–2 Kings filled his story with biblical typology. And accordingly, in the fulness of time, we see how Elijah and Elisha not only point back to Moses and Joshua, but also forward to Christ and the Church.

Typology is Inscribed in Scripture

All in all, the Elijah-Elisha narrative is a fresh reminder that God’s word is one and that in God’s one, unfolding story, typology is natural to the text. Typology is not a foreign species introduced to the Bible; typology is the way in which it was written. 

That said, I suspect many do not feel comfortable with typology, at least typology that sees as much in the text as Peter Leithart does. The reason for this, I would argue, is not because biblical patterns are not in the text, but because too many interpreters of the text (I’m looking especially at my Dispensational brothers) do not appreciate the way Scripture was written, as a divinely-inspired narrative where persons, places, events, and institutions are the historical types by which God unfolds his redemptive story.

Indeed, much of the appetite in evangelicalism for allegorical methods and figurative readings is an overreaction to the life-less (read: Christ-less) readings of the Old Testament. When preachers of the new covenant argue that they do not preach from the Old Testament, but only draw out principles for living and moral examples, they misread the Bible and the excise thirty-nine books which proclaim the glories of Christ. As Paul says in Galatians 3:8, God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham. And the way he did that was by type and shadow, promise and pattern.

Indeed, we do not need to make the mistake of allegorizing the Old Testament in order to correct the mistake of a grammatical-historical approach which denies typology. No, read rightly, a grammatical-historical approach to the Bible is filled with typology, because the Bible is written typologically. Indeed, the only way to see Christ in all of Scripture is to see how types and patterns, shadows and servants fill the pages of Scripture until the substance of Christ comes, in the life, death, and resurrection of God the Son.

In 1–2 Kings, we find good evidence for seeing the way Scripture is written typologically. And we who read and preach the Bible should labor to see Christ in all of Scripture in the ways it has been written. As Hebrews 1 puts it, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, . . .”

May we who love the Son, see all the signposts in Scripture that point to him.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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3 thoughts on “Typology That Is True to the Text: What Elijah and Elisha Point Out for Modern Interpreters of Scripture

  1. Pingback: Preaching Post Roundup (December 2, 2021) | From Text to Sermon

  2. I’m no theologian, but I would agree that “typology is something that is inherent to Scripture itself”. Thank you for the instructive example of Elijah and Elisha as being from the same type as John and Jesus, and as Jesus and his disciples.

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