Previously, I discussed (and rebutted) the claim that the Scriptural discussion of the transport of Joseph's bones from Egypt to Canaan was evidence of the veneration of relics in the Old Testament (link). Now, I turn to a second favorite passage that relic-venerators tend to appeal to, as allegedly supporting their position. That passage is the discussion of the resuscitation of a man who touched Elisha's bones.
The Scripture in question is as follows:
2 Kings 13:20-21
20And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. 21And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.
The point of this passage would seem to be an indication of the extreme poverty of the prophet, as well as a testimony to the reality of his divine appointment as a prophet.
1) Note that they buried Elisha. They did not place his bones in a synagogue or in the temple to be venerated.
2) Note that they buried Elisha in a place of the dead. This is confirmed by the fact that men who were burying a man (who is so unimportant as not even to be named in Scripture) found Elisha's sepulcher at hand. Thus, it appears that Elisha's sepulcher was not in a place of great importance, but in a place of the dead.
3) Note that Elisha's sepulchre was open. If it had been a closed sepulchre, it would not have been convenient to dump a body into it. An open sepulchre was an unpleasant and foul thing, even though it had an important purpose. In fact, the Psalmist uses it to provide a negative picture of the sinful man's mouth:
Psalm 5:9 For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.
Notice the comparison there. An open sepulchre, as you can see, has the advantage of not smelling so bad at the mouth of the sepulchre, but inside is death: a carcase. We can deduce that these open sepulchres were either deep (to accomplish this smell prevention issue), and consequently the prophet Jeremiah likens the quiver of mighty men to an open sepulchre:
Jeremiah 5:16 Their quiver is as an open sepulchre, they are all mighty men.
Or possibly the idea is that open sepulchres were in essence mass graves: which would also make sense both in the context of 2 Kings 13 and Jeremiah 5 (although I am inclined to the former view).
Some have suggested that an open sepulchre is basically a crevasse in the earth, a deep, naturally occurring pit into which a body could basically be dumped, thereby saving cost in terms of the time spent having to dig up the earth for burial. This would make sense as well - the idea being in Jeremiah 5 that the mighty men have a basically limitless supply of arrows.
4) The sepulchre was not a rock-face sepulchre, like that in which Jesus was buried. Recall that the man was not simply tossed or placed into the sepulchre, but lowered into the open sepulchre. This "lowered" suggests that the sepulchre opened upward rather than laterally. Again, this confirms that Elijah was not buried in some elaborate tomb designed to honor him, but rather in a low-cost alternative.
Analysis of Verse with Respect to Veneration Hypothesis
With the analysis above in mind, we should examine the verse in view of the hypothesis that it has something to do with venerating relics. Frankly, of course, there is no hint of veneration. Indeed, the idea of placing (even carefully) an apparently dead body on top of Elisha's would seem to show the opposite of veneration for him (dead bodies were unclean).
One might argue that the knowledge that it was the place where Elisha was buried shows some amount of honor, but it is the sort of bare honor that demonstrates that Elisha was at least not buried in an unmarked grave (as contrasted, for example, with the Muslims' practices).
Rather than being used specifically for the purposes of showing veneration, some might argue this as showing the supernatural effects associated with the corpses of holy men.
Leaving aside the issue of whether Elisha was particularly holy, it is interesting to note that the passage does not explicitly say that the man about to be buried was dead. It says he revived, which is ambiguous (both in the original Hebrew and in our English translation) as to whether the man came to life or simply recovered from a state of apparent death (presumably folks wouldn't bury an apparently alive person).
Either way, it is reasonable to infer that one of the reasons for the mention of the revival was to highlight this as a sort of posthumous miracle of Elisha. It is a reasonable inference, but not a necessary one. Regardless of whether it is a correct inference, all that it demonstrates is that God chose to testify to Elisha's gifts in this particular way at this particular time.
In other words, we would have no logical or proper ground to infer a general principle from this isolated and Scripturally unexplained occurrence. It certainly does not teach the veneration of relics, nor does it provide a rational basis for endorsing the superstitious legends that have sprung up around various relics, within churches that engage in relic veneration.
In short, we can reject the theory that 2 Kings 13:20-21 in any way supports relic veneration or the churches that practice such activity. You might think, based on the explanation above, that no one would attempt to use such a clearly unhelpful passage as 2 Kings 13:20-21, but - in fact - we see such happening in papist apologetics (Dave Armstrong, for example, falsely claims that "In the Old Law we read of the veneration of the Jews for the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), and of the prophet Eliseus [Elisha] ...." (quoting with approval from Bertrand Conway) link; See also Steve Ray relying on Joseph and Elisha, Ron aka "Saint under Construction" similarly relying on Joseph and Elisha, and this anonymous article that has received Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur which relies on Elisha while wisely omitting reference to Joseph)
May the God of the Living keep us from this,