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!

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