Saturday, August 30, 2008

2 Kings 1 - 7: Elisha, Man of Miracles

So, in the decades since the death of Solomon, we’ve had the Israelites split between two countries, the larger Israel and the smaller Judah. Judah has Jerusalem and the temple, and tends to have better – more religiously orthodox – kings. Asa, for instance. Israel, meanwhile, has just suffered through the reign of bad King Ahab.

In the first chapter of 2 Kings, Ahab’s son and heir, Ahaziah, has a nasty fall, and sends off to “Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron” to get a prophesy as to whether he will recover. Elijah intercepts the messenger on the road, though, and sends him back to the king with the message that, for relying on another god for prophecy, his punishment is that he is condemned to death. Twice, Ahaziah sends infantry units of 50 men apiece to try to bring Elijah in to discuss the matter, but both times Elijah invokes fire that comes down “from heaven” and kills off the soldiers. After the captain of a third detachment pleads for his life, Elijah agrees to be taken to the palace. He repeats the message: because Ahaziah tried to consult Baal, he will never get up from his sick bed. Shortly after, sure enough, the king dies.

Take-home lessons: 1) If you are a king, don’t consult Baal’s oracles. 2) If you are an infantryman, try to dodge prophet roundup duty.

Elijah Hands Off the Baton

In MRtB coverage of the end of 1 Kings, I neglected to tell you that Elijah had acquired a sidekick named Elisha. I’d never heard of Elisha, so I didn’t figure he’d turn out to be very important. As 2 Kings gets underway, though, he turns into a major league holy man, churning out miracles great and small like there’s no tomorrow.

As for Elijah, dooming King Ahaziah turns out to be his last big gig. In 2 Kings 2, his earthly career comes to a spectacular close.

...suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated [Elijah
and Elisha], and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (2:11)
(Notice that here, as with the fire-invoking incident above, we have another mention of “heaven,” only the second or third in the Bible so far. No details or explanation yet, though.)

Elijah’s assumption happens very publicly, and in its aftermath Elisha is assumed to be the new leading holy man. He immediately starts in with the miracles, of which it must be said that some seem more laudable than others. The first two, for instance: Elisha first casts salt into a well that produces bad water. The well is “healed,” and the townspeople have access to clean water from then on. Then, on his way to the next town, some children make fun of him on the road. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” (2:24) So, he summons two bears who attack and maul forty-two of the children.

Take-home lesson: Don’t mock prophets.

Joram v. Moab

Meanwhile, Ahaziah’s brother Joram inherits the Kingdom of Israel, and with it a problem that has been brewing since King Ahab died. The king of Moab has rebelled against Israel, and is refusing to pay his tribute of lambs and wool. Joram puts together an alliance with Judah and the King of Edom, and their combined armies set off across the desert of Edom to attack Moab.

Just because you have three kings doesn’t mean you have three wise men, though, and they fail to pack enough water to make it across the desert. After seven days on the march, they find themselves in serious trouble. Jehosephat, the king of Judah, suggests they consult a prophet of God. It turns out that Elisha is marching with the army (Why? Not explained.), and when he agrees to consult with God about the situation, he is told that the army must dig a bunch of ditches. They do, and the ditches fill with water during the night. So, the expedition is saved, and the Israelites are able to inflict the just punishment on Moab that you would expect for falling behind on your lamb and wool payments:
...the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree.... When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him... he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. (3:24-27)
Having shown the Moabites who’s boss, the Israelites go home.


Elisha hasn’t said much of anything yet, but he certainly produces a lot of miracles. In 2 Kings 4, he:
  • Grants a widow a bottomless jar of oil, in order that she can pay off her creditors
  • Grants an older woman a child, and subsequently brings the child back from the dead.
  • Removes the poison from a poorly prepared stew.
In 2 Kings 5, he:

  • Cures the commander of a neighboring kingdom’s army of his leprosy.
  • Punishes a servant who tries to scam payment out of the commander by afflicting him and all of his descendents with leprosy.
And at the beginning of 2 Kings 6, he makes an axehead that has been dropped in the river float to the surface, so it can be retrieved. So, it’s a real range of tricks this guy has up his sleeves.

War and Magic: Israel v. Aram

Israel and the neighboring kingdom of Aram now go to war. King Joram uses Elisha and his miracle-working capabilities as a kind of one-man special operations unit. Elisha knows where the superior Aramite force is and is going to be at all times, so the Israelite army is able to avoid ambush or pitched battle. When the Aramites send a large cavalry and chariot force to kill Elisha, he strikes them blind and leads them to Samaria, Joram’s capital. King Joram is a little puzzled about what to do with all of these prisoners of war, and asks Elisha if he should kill them. No, says Elisha, in an answer wholly uncharacteristic of the Old Testament hitherto:

“Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill men you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” (6:22)
This act of mercy settles things down for a while, but eventually the Aramites return and lay siege to Samaria. Food runs very short, and the situation is dire. We are shown just how bad the situation is both through commodities prices – the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels – and through this colorful anecdote:
6:26 As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, "Help me, my lord the king!"
27 The king replied, "If the LORD does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?" 28 Then he asked her, "What's the matter?"
She answered, "This woman said to me, 'Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we'll eat my son.' 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son so we may eat him,' but she had hidden him."
30 When the king heard the woman's words, he tore his robes. As he went along the wall, the people looked, and there, underneath, he had sackcloth on his body. 31 He said, "May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today!"
The king thinks Elisha of has caused the famine (which seems a little nuts -- the famine is clearly the result of the siege -- but maybe he things Elisha brought on the siege somehow?) but when he confronts the prophet, Elisha responds by predicting a rapid fall in the price of grain:
This is what the Lord says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria. (7:1)
During the night, the Arameans experience an aural illusion of great armies arriving to attack them. They panic and run, abandoning their food stores. In the morning, the Israelites are able to scavenge the Aramean camp, and behold, the spot price for barley plummets.

Wow! This Elisha wields some serious divine power! How come I’ve never heard of him? Will there be another name change, like with “Abram” back in Genesis? Does he turn out to be a flash in the pan who dies in the next chapter, or something? Or am I just ignorant? The latter is always a good bet...

Next time: More Miracles! More Kings! More Killings!

Friday, August 15, 2008

1 Kings 17-22: Enter Elijah

Prior to this week's reading, I knew that there was a famous prophet, Elijah. That was the sum total of my knowledge about him: that he existed, and that he was important. I vaguely expected we would read about him in the Book of Elijah, but it turns out there's no such book. So, I'm ignorant. I guess that's why we're here.

Elijah and the Drought

So, when we left off last time, we had Ahab on the throne in Israel. He was married to that Jezebel, Jezebel, and despised by God for his rampant flirtation with other gods. So now we meet Elijah as he prophesies a major drought.

Upon delivering this curse, he immediately hightails it out of town -- he's not going to be popular with King Ahab -- and lives in the wilderness, where ravens bring him food. After a while, the local stream dries up, so he has to bid farewell to his ravens and lodge with a widow and her son; their little household is kept in food and water by divine favor, while the drought ravages the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Jezebel is having God's prophets persecuted and killed, and is patronizing prophets of Baal and Asherah. Elijah comes out of hiding and confronts Ahab, proposing a miracle duel. He appears at Mt. Carmel with 450 priests of Baal. Each set up wood for a bonfire and lay pieces of a sacrificial bull on top of it; the contest is to make the sacrifice burst spontaneously into flame.

The priests of Baal chant and incant and dance all day, but Baal doesn't come through for them. Then, as afternoon is getting on, Elijah has the people pour twelve large jars of water over his sacrifice -- one for each tribe -- and then asks God to make a fire. Which God does. The people are immediately convinced that they should return to worshiping God, and they spend the rest of the day busily slaughtering the hapless priests of Baal. But Elijah decrees an end to the drought, and climbs to the top of Mt. Carmel. That night, the rains come.

On Miracles

At the risk of stating the obvious, the whole idea of miracles is highly problematic. Here, to convince the Israelites that he does indeed exist, God is thought to have violated the laws of nature. He made the rules, and apparently he can break them. Fair enough. Yet everyone has, at one time or another, asked God for a demo, a little miracle just for them, to prove His existence, and of course He never complies. The only solicited miracles that come to pass are either strictly rhetorical in nature -- the "every time I look in a child's eyes, I see a miracle" sort of pieties -- or very, very, very easily conceivable as non-miracles -- the "I prayed for my son to come home alive from Iraq, and he did" sort of thing.

So, why does Elijah rate, and we don't? Should hearing about Elijah, about this mysterious spontaneous fire of long ago, really strengthen our faith in God? Or, should it weaken our faith in God that we are not able to replicate the experience? Could it be that God won't show me a little miracle because he just doesn't have the stuff anymore?

Too, offering proof through miraculous events puts God over a bit of a conceptual barrel. The reason a miracle is impressive is that it abrogates otherwise absolute laws of nature. Fire doesn't bloom spontaneously out of water-soaked wood; when it does, it's amazing. However, if miracles happened all the time, then laws of nature would no longer be so absolute, would they. A miracle, when repeated, is less and less of a miracle. It gradually degrades into a freak occurrence, then an anomaly, and eventually just one of those unexplained things that happens every once in a while.

And it's not like God could provide everyone with just their one little convincer miracle, either. You know how we are. After a while, we'd begin to wonder if we had remembered the original miracle right. "Did I REALLY see fire burst out of that soaked wood?" we'd ask. "Maybe it was some kind of freak chemical reaction. Maybe that Elijah guy was messing with us." And we'd ask for a confirming miracle. And the cycle of reaffirmation would mean that everybody eventually needed to be reassured a couple times a month, and the natural order would be completely haywire, and the study of physics would slide into deep decline.

And these are just the inherent logical problems of miracles as instruments of faith. We get these even before the moral questions rear their ugly heads. Moral questions, such as "If God can perform miracles at will, is it right for him not to eliminate the AIDS virus, tooth decay, and lite jazz?" The miraculous, as evidence for the divine, is just a big, problematic can of worms. And for this reason, when we saw the miracles of Moses, and now with this miracle of Elijah, I always feel like they do as much to hurt as to help the case for the existence of God.

The Whisper of God

Anyway. Having provoked the slaughter of all of the Queen's priests, Elijah knows that he will have continue to have some trouble with the authorities. He gets the heck bacl out of town. He wanders in the wildness for a while, has conversations with an angel, and finally ends up in a cave, where he has a conversation with God himself. To lift his spirits, God tells him to leave the cave and witness His passing. The description of this manifestation of God (in 1 Kings 19) is quite lovely, I think.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
As alien as it is to my background to consider God manifesting himself in a single location, I do like the concept of that manifestation being not a blazing light, or an earthquake or a fire, but rather just a gentle whisper. That the whisper turns out to be about putting people who have chosen other religions to the sword kind of kills the mood, but it was nice while it lasted.

Ahab Continues to Make God Mad

1 Kings 20 tells of a war between Israel and the powerful neighboring kingdom of Aram. Even though he is not crazy about King Ahab, God says that he will deliver a victory to convince the Israelites of his power. (See what I mean? That spontaneous fire only convinced them for a little while, and already they need convincing again!) Using a strategy suggested by the prophets, Ahab catches the Aram army unprepared in the hills, and sends them packing. The next year, the Arameans try again, and again the Israelites prevail. This time they capture the King of Aram, Ben-Hadad.

Ben-Hadad negotiates with Ahab, offering to return all the Israelite territory that Aram has captured over the years in exchange for his life. Ahab agrees. This angers God, however; apparently, he was expected to kill Ben-Hadad (although we are never told about any specific instructions on this point). Ahab, here, comes off much as old King Saul did; in seeming to embody positive qualities of mercy and skilled diplomacy, he angers God by not conducting a more thorough killing.

In 1 Kings 21, Ahab angers god on the domestic scene. He wants some real estate, but the owner won't sell. So, he lets Jezebel engineer a scheme where the owner is framed for treason and stoned to death. Voila! Free vineyard! For which scheme God is understandably not happy with the person who rules in his name.

Finally, in 1 Kings 22, there's another big battle with Aram, and this time the Israelites lose. Ahab is slain. Leading up to the battle, there is a confusing bit where four hundred prophets predict victory, and one predicts defeat, and of course the one nay-sayer turns out to be right. The point may be that the four hundred yes-men are not prophets of God, but rather of Baal or Asherah, but this isn't specified; without that piece of information, it's a little hard to decode the story.

And finally,

1 Kings ends with brief mention of two more kings. Jehoshaphat -- as in "jumpin' Jehoshaphat," perhaps? -- is Asa's son, taking over the throne of Judah at his father's death, and like Asa he is thought to be a good, righteous, effective king. Ahaziah, son of Ahab, rules Israel for a couple of years after his dad dies, and is considered another bad Baal-worshiping apple. It looks like we'll see more about him next time, as the narrative slides unbroken from 1 Kings into 2 Kings.

Next Time: More about Ahaziah! And other strange doings!