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In 1 Kings 19 we see Elijah finds Elisha plowing with 12 yoke of oxen. What would this have said about Elisha to the people of the time?

Note: I'm not looking for a modern allegorical answer about the significance of the 12 yoke of oxen, but for an understanding of how Elisha would have been perceived at the time based on this information (though if the people of the time would have understood it allegorically, that is OK)

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Do you mean in terms of socioeconomic status? –  Soldarnal Feb 22 '13 at 22:46
That he came from a wealthy family with a whole lot of oxen? –  user947 Feb 23 '13 at 2:24
@Soldarnal I mean how the people of the time would have understood it. Would they have just thought "he's from a rich family", or are there other connotations. Perhaps plowing with 12 yoke of oxen was today's equivalent of extreme tractor racing or something? –  cdjc Feb 23 '13 at 19:00
When you say "I'm not looking for an allegorical answer" do you mean you don't want modern allegory read back into the passage or are you trying to exclude any argument that the 12 oxen would have been understood allegorically at the time? –  Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 12:14
Updated to clarify my intentions. I was trying to discourage the sort of vague answers that go on about the significance of the number 12 and drawing conclusions thereupon based on the connections that seem to only be well-defined in their own mind... –  cdjc Sep 17 '13 at 21:53

3 Answers 3

I'm reasonably certain that 24 oxen is, well, a lot of cow. What can we learn from this? First and foremost, that Elisha's family or clan was well-off.

Let's go to an authority. The Anchor Yale Bible, I Kings. Page 455:

19 He found Elisha son of Shaphat; he was plowing. The detail conveys more than local color; Elisha's prosaic background points up the diving quality of his selection. cf. 1 Sam 11:5-6; Amos 7:14-15.

There were twelve teams ahead of him. The large number of teams is generally taken as a sign of wealth; it was this that Elisha would have to give up if he were to follow Elijah.

The entire Elisha cycle is a set of legendary stories with strong echoes in folklore all-over. Reference the Anchor Bible for I and II Kings.

So you should expect to see details that are part of the art of storytelling. Some might even go so far as to say, 'tall tales.'

The immediate implication of all that beef is that it's a big deal for Elisha to throw all this over in favor of following Eliyahu. He is not some poor person with little to lose. (Though he is also not rich enough to get someone else to do his plowing for him.) It also suggests that he is a skillful, powerful, man. Controlling that much ambulatory hamburger is not an easy job.

You might also note two other bits of comparison to relatively nearby texts. First, note that the oxen end up as a sacrificial meal. This supports the idea that they belonged to him, not to the whole village or even perhaps the clan.

Second, note the 'sons of the prophets.' In the Hebrew Bible, prophets come in two flavors. There are the named prophets, who we might think of as ranging from Jonah to Jeremiah along some axis of seriousness. Then there are the nameless sons of the prophets. They travel around, they seem to engage in glossolalia and related practices. They are marginal characters in society. Presenting Elisha as this story presents him very firmly makes him a person of substance, not at all like one of them.

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You clearly have a sense of humor that I appreciate. I also like how you briefly brought in the sons of the prophets. Since controlling 12 teams at a time is a lot of ambulatory hamburger to handle, part of me wonders if Elisha was managing a group of plowmen and that fact was simply expressed that way. Is there any way to determine one way or the other? –  Frank Luke Sep 18 '13 at 14:16
I think that Cogan agrees with you, as he picks 'teams' as opposed to 'couples' of oxen as the translation. A team seems to me to imply a person directing. My original image was 12 yokes each of two oxen, but now I'm thinking a herd of oxen and a platoon of plowmen. –  user947 Sep 19 '13 at 0:58

Arab farmers worked together for social and security reasons, and a single plow was not very effective.

However, the fact that the author mentions twelve pairs rather than simply many is a call to the ancient reader to understand the liturgical significance. Numbers are always significant in the Bible because an "accounting" communicates legal accountability. Hence, Jesus was "numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12). This is also the reason the Jewish saints are numbered in Revelation 7 but the Gentile saints are not. The Jews were under the Law and therefore "numbered," so the passage replicates the repetitive nature of the book of Numbers. (Note that the Levites, not "connected" to the Land, were not to be numbered: Numbers 1:49).

What is the "liturgical significance." It is sacrificial. Elijah built a twelve stone altar on Carmel as a sacrificial substitute for Israel. What Elijah did in miniature (a "mountain" covered in blood and washed in water), God did at full size, slaying the priests of Baal and disposing of the bodies in the brook. The twelve stones were a "liturgical model" of Carmel. The heavenly fire upon the sacrifice became the fire of the Spirit in the hearts of God's armed servants.

Elisha's oxen also become a liturgical model of Israel. Since oxen are "servants" they picture priesthood, men who humble themselves before God and serve in His household. As a side note, the four faces of the cherubim correspond to the four compass points of the Tabernacle, with the face of the ox corresponding to the Bronze Altar, and the house of Moses and Aaron. Solomon's bronze sea was carried by twelve oxen, the twelve priestly tribes under the crystal sea (replicating the architecture of Israel under the "sapphire pavement" of Exodus 24). The picture is of Israel bearing the burden of the Law for the nations. Indeed, 70 bulls were sacrificed at the Feast of Booths for the 70 nations listed in Genesis 10.

Elisha's twenty-four oxen are no doubt priestly, so what is the significance of yoking? Yoking has to do with binding in Covenant, as Israel bound herself to false gods in Numbers, replicating the sin of the golden ox. We see the phrase in both the Old and New Testaments:

So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. (Numbers 25:3)

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2 Cor 6:14)

In Numbers, the passage follows the order of the Ten Words, with this "yoking" corresponding to taking the Lord's name in vain. Taking the Lord's name refers to taking the Covenant oath, the "amen" which makes one accountable to God.

So it seems the twelve yoke of oxen are not the tribes in this case but the priests bound by Covenant, most likely a reference to the twenty-four courses of Aaronic priests set up by David (1 Chron. 24:1-19). The flesh is boiled with the yokes and eaten by the people, a reversal of the sacrifices for the people being eaten by the priests and by God. The old priesthood would be utterly consumed and its authority temporarily transfered to God's legal witnesses, the prophets.

So, Elijah calls Elisha from service under the Davidic Covenant to the prophetic ministry given to him on Horeb earlier in the chapter. Elijah was now a new Moses commissioned to deal with Israel's idolatry. He comes down the mountain and "the golden calf" is consumed. In this case, it is the Temple of Solomon.

We see the same ministry in Paul, who is commissioned in the wilderness, then sent to the Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy. The legal witness of the prophets brings down fire from heaven (Pentecost) and for those who reject this sign, the eventual destruction of the old house and its priesthood. Aligning these two events it seems that this consumption of the numbered oxen is like the Pentecostal sealing of the 144,000 "numbered" firstfruits Jewish believers in Revelation 7. Their sacrificial "consumption" (martyrdom) seals the guilt of the old order.

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The OP asked for a non-allegorical answer. –  user947 Sep 13 '13 at 0:17
@bmargulies That's a modern constraint on ancient literature. The only reason the number of oxen is mentioned is the liturgical significance, as I stated. –  Mike Bull Sep 13 '13 at 3:18
In other words, there is no non-allegorical answer. –  Mike Bull Sep 13 '13 at 3:18
Note: Question is edited to allow for the original meaning to be allagorical –  Jacob Oct 8 '14 at 8:06

A couple thoughts I had were:

It says in the ESV that Elisha "was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him." The first image that came to my mind was that of a long string of 12 sets of oxen but that would seem to me an inefficient way to plow. How would you turn such a long train? One yoke is much easier to maneuver. Then we read that Elisha "was with the twelfth." It would seem a rather obvious and unnecessary statement to make since it already stated that the oxen were in front of him. My conclusion then is that there were 12 men driving 12 sets of oxen with Elisha handling the twelfth in the rear. To the reader of that day this would indicate that Elisha was a man of wealth.

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Perry - Thank you for the approach you have taken. Can you provides us more information (or detail) that would not just rest on what you would tell me if we were drinking coffee at Starbucks? Can you provide us something with more analysis? Otherwise with just the anecdotal thought we are no closer to understanding the passage than if we speculated and pondered together what the passage means... Thanks! –  Joseph Mar 23 at 0:21

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