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1 Kings 19:19-21 tells the story of Elisha’s appointment as a successor to Elijah. In verse 19, Elisha is found ploughing with 12 yoke of oxen, and Elijah throws his cloak on him. Two related questions asked about the implications of Elisha ploughing his field and the ownership of the land/cattle. This question is focused on the following verse:

And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." And he said to him, "Go back again, for what have I done to you?"
- 1 Kings 19:20, ESV

Both pieces of Elijah’s reply are confusing to me. "Go back again" (לֵ֣ךְ שׁ֔וּב , "Go return")? Is that sarcasm? ("If your parents are more important to you than this calling, go back, I don’t want you.")

The second part is even odder to me, apparently somehow connected to the first by "for" ( כי): "what have I done to you?" (מֶה־עָשִׂ֖יתִי לָֽךְ׃). A brief search yields suggestions that this may be:

  • a reference to the casting of the cloak, with the implication of denying its significance
  • a self-contained idiom meaning "I’m not going to stop you" (but it's a perfect verb...)
  • The LXX reads Ανάστρεφε, ὅτι πεποίηκά σοι which doesn’t seem to be a question at all, translated by NETS "Go back, for I am done with you."

How should we understand Elijah’s reply here?

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The Idea in Brief

The Latin Vulgate appears to qualify and amplify the ambiguous meaning of the Masoretic Text. That is, Elijah gives his blessing for Elisha to return home to bid his family and friends good-bye because of the anointing by Elijah. Thus the Latin Vulgate adds "and return" (i.e., to me, Elijah).

The basis for the Latin Vulgate reading may have come not only from the general context, but also from the "frame" of cantillation and accent marks of the Masoretic Text, which would support the reading of the Latin Vulgate.

Discussion

Latin Vulgate

The Latin Vulgate provides an alternative reading. The following English translation from the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition comes from the Latin Vulgate.

1 Kings 19:20 (DRAE)
20 And he forthwith left the oxen and ran after Elias, and said: Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee. And he said to him: Go, and return back: for that which was my part, I have done to thee.

The following quote in Latin from the Latin Vulgate comes from Fourth Edition of the Biblia Sacra Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem.

1 Regum 19:20 (Vulgate)
20 qui statim relictis bubus cucurrit post Heliam et ait osculer oro te patrem meum et matrem meam et sic sequar te dixitque ei vade et revertere quod enim meum erat feci tibi.

The Latin Vulgate amplifies what appears in the Masoretic Text. That is, Elijah did something for which Elisha was to go back AND return (to Elijah). The placement and occurrence of the Hebrew words within the system of cantillation and accents marks in the Masoretic Text appears to support this reading and interpretation of the Latin Vulgate.

Masoretic Text

The key to understanding the correct interpretation of this verse is the Hebrew phrase "כי מה," which carries the typical translation of for which. Through the use of the Interlinear Scripture Analyzer, which relies on the Masoretic Text from the Leningrad Codex, a search of כי (H3588) and מה (H4100) as a phrase discloses that this phrase occurs 13 times in the Hebrew Bible, and in each case the phrase appears either interrogatory or rhetorical (as apparent in the current case of the verse at hand). In fact, the phrase "כִּי מֶה עָשִׂיתִי" occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible. In both 1 Sam 26:18 and 1 Sam 29:8 (and 1 Ki 19:20) the idea appears to be "for what have I done..."

Secondly, according to the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which also relies on the Leningrad Codex as its source of the Masoretic Text, the verse is parsed according to the system of Masoretic cantillation and accent markings. According to Hebrew Bible Software Analysis Tools for Cantillation Analysis, we see can analyze the parsing of the cantillation, and, in doing so, determine the hierarchy of thought. That is, the cantillations and accents cascade; thus the major accent in the middle of the verse (annotated by the Atnach) divides the verse so that the second half of the verse follows and modifies the first half of the verse. Likewise, the phrases in both halves of the verse "cascade down," respectively, as the more powerful disjunctive accents overpower the weaker accents on both sides.

For example, the following images depict the parsing of the cantillation based on the accents marks on each word for this verse. Image 1 provides the linear perspective and Image 2 provides the functional perspective. Please click on each image to enlarge for better viewing.

Image 1 - Linear View

enter image description here

Image 2 - Functional View (same verse)

enter image description here

When we analyze the cantillation marks, we see that the second half of the verse appears in the image that follows, below -- that is, this part of the verse follows the Atnach disjunctive accent, which divides the verse in two (please see the Atnach division line in Image 1, above). The following image is the second half of the verse based in this division principle. That is, the image below captures what follows the Atnach disjunctive accent. We see that the Zaqef Qatan disjunctive accent "masters" this second half of the verse, and therefore subsumes the Tipcha that follows (since the Tipcha is weaker than the Zaqef Qatan).

enter image description here

The words highlighted in red are “and he said, go return.” The remainder of the verse (which contains the phrase "כי מה") modifies and expounds the words in red, and says, “because of what I did to you.”

In other words, the latter words (accentuated by Tipcha) modify the previous words (accentuated by the Zaqef Qatan). This entire "box" of words (noted in the image, above) comprises the second half of the verse.

This second half of the verse now modifies the first half of the verse, which ended on the Atnach accent. So as the verse is read (or sung aloud in the Synagogue), the pronunciation of the cantillation marks (in tandem with the accents) "boxes" the words and/or phrases to indicate the flow of logic to the listener (to include those who are blind or illiterate). This intonation places emphasis on the flow and cascade of thought as the verse is read.

In other words, what Elijah did to Elisha (Tipcha "box") amplifies and explains why Elijah commanded him to go back (Zaqef Qatan "box"). This flow of thought is implicit, based on the cantillation marks and accents; the Latin Vulgate on the other hand takes this implicit flow of thought and provides the explicit translation.

In summary, this cantillation arrangement forces the idea that Elisha's anointing by Elijah was the reason that he go return to his parents. But unlike the other two occurrences in the Hebrew Bible where the phrase "כִּי מֶה עָשִׂיתִי" occurs with the idea of unilateral, or one-way movement, the cantillation marks in this verse force the idea of bilateral direction. That is, Elijah tells Elisha to go back to his parents, but the idea that he return is implied "because of what I did to you." Thus the Latin Vulgate translators write vade et revertere (that is, go and return back) quod enim meum erat feci tibi (that is, for that which was my part I have done to you).

Conclusion

The Latin Vulgate amplifies the Masoretic Text which otherwise appears ambiguous. That is, the Latin Vulgate appears to provide the correct meaning through the placement and order of the Hebrew words (within the context of the Masoretic cantillation and accent marks within the verse). Thus the blessing on Elisha from Elijah was the basis for the return of Elisha to his parents and the people to say good-bye. The implication from the placement of the Hebrew words in the verse in tandem with the cantillation of accents is that Elisha return to Elijah.

In this regard, the Latin Vulgate makes explicit what is otherwise implicit in the system of cantillation and accent marks of the Masoretic Text of this verse.

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and he [Elisha] forsaketh the oxen, and runneth after Elijah, and saith, 'Let me give a kiss, I pray thee, to my father and to my mother, and I go after thee.' And he saith to him, 'Go, turn back, for what have I done to thee?' - 1 Kings 19:20, YLT

He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, "Please let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, then I will follow you." Elijah said to him, "Go back! Indeed, what have I done to you?" NET

Elijah was lamenting the prophet's mantel he had bestowed on Elisha. He feared for him, knowing what was to come. What have I done to you, given what I know will happen to you?

He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. - 1 Kings 19:14, 16, ESV

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Combining Matthew Henry's insight here, Constable's insight here, and perhaps a soupçon of my own insight, I suggest we are safe in saying the following:

Elijah's idiomatic expression, and possibly a common Hebraism in Elijah's day, "Go back again, for what have I done to you?" could be paraphrased as follows:

"Go ahead. You're free to do as you like."

Notice that in context, Elisha is obviously a member of the landed gentry. He has eleven servants/employees in front of him plowing the field, each with a pair of oxen, as he plows right along with them. (Perhaps the 12 pair of oxen are symbolic of Elisha's yet future role of providing prophetic leadership to the 12 tribes of Israel and Judah.)

Once Elijah had done as the LORD had commanded him to do; namely, anoint Elisha the son of Shaphat as his acolyte and eventual successor, Elijah's task was complete. By throwing his mantle onto Elisha (see 19:16b and 19:19b), the message was clear to Elisha: he was to be the senior prophet's successor.

In other words, Elijah's job was not to force Elijah to follow him at once. No, Elisha's desire to follow Elijah would have to come from both Elisha and the LORD.

In modern parlance, Elijah was saying to Elisha,

"Hey, dude, right now I'm not the boss of you. If out of respect for your parents you want to say goodbye to them and to your peeps first, go ahead. I've done my job as the LORD commanded me; the rest is a matter between you and the LORD."

Perhaps you, like me, are reminded of Jesus' call to those would-be followers who made excuses for not following him right away. One said,

"'Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father'" (Luke 9:59).

Another said,

"'I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home'" (v.61).

Interestingly, notice how Jesus responded to the latter person,

"'No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God'" (v.62; my emphasis vis a vis Elisha's activity at the time he was anointed by Elijah).

Inquiring minds might want to know if there's a similarity between Elijah's passing of his mantle to Elisha and Jesus' invitation to the two men, above, to follow him. If there is, the connection is likely coincidental, but the principle the three calls may have in common is this: When calling people, God does not impress them into service the way a draft board impresses men into the military.

Whether a person chooses to obey God's call or not is up to him or her. If, however, the person being called is willing to count the cost, so to speak, and is thereafter submissive to God's leading, she or he will likely heed the call willingly, gladly, and then be at peace with the decision, at least initially.

In a sense, then, Elijah's "what have I done for you?" put the ball into Elisha's court. Unlike the would-be followers of Christ who wanted to bury their father (i.e., wait until the father died!) or who wanted to say good-by to the people at home before becoming Jesus' disciples, Elisha, after kissing his parents goodbye, then followed Elijah and "ministered to him" (v.21b).

Moreover, realizing he no longer needed the oxen he was plowing with before his "call," he sacrificed them, parboiled their meat with a fire fueled by the plowing implements he no longer needed, and then threw a party for his household. The main course: ox meat (see v.21).

In conclusion, I think we are safe in concluding that Elisha, an obviously wealthy (and hardworking) land owner, did in fact count the cost of being Elijah's prophet in training. After doing so, he gladly submitted himself to the aging and discouraged Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:1-18, esp. v.4). Nor did Elisha start out his apprenticeship by performing spectacular miracles. Later in 2 Kings 3:11, a servant of King Jehoshaphat describes Elisha as a prophet who "used to pour water on the hands of Elijah"! In other words, Elisha went from being a wealthy farmer to a mere servant of the prophet Elijah, whose greatness was defined not by wealth (at one point an angel had to supply him with food and drink!--see 1 Kings 19:5 ff.), but by his obedient relationship with the one true God: Yahweh, the LORD.

  • Although I believe the OP was looking for a linguistic understanding of the rendering of the meaning, the answer is best understood contextually, which is the response you gave. – Tau Feb 5 '15 at 3:23
  • @Tau: Thanks for the vote of confidence. Someone just obviated your vote, however. Oh well . . .. Don – rhetorician Feb 6 '15 at 18:56
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From Keil and Delitzsch's OT Commentary,

Elijah answered, "Go, return, for what have I done to thee?" שׁוּב לך belong together, as in 1 Kings 19:15; so that Elijah thereby gave him permission to return to his father and mother. כּי signifies for, not yet (Thenius); for there is no antithesis here, according to which כּי might serve for a more emphatic assurance (Ewald, 330, b.). The words "what have I done to thee?" can only mean, I have not wanted to put any constraint upon thee, but leave it to thy free will to decide in favour of the prophetic calling.(Taken from here)

It can best be said that, 'I have put no constraint on you, other than cast my mantle(my ministry) upon you. It's the Lord's constraint that should guide you'.

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