2 Kings 8: The Expedient

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We return to the narrative of the Shunammite woman, here identified instead by her relationship to The Boy Who Lived. Elisha is again showing her some special favour by warning her of a coming famine that would last seven years. Following his advice, she packs up her family and moves to Philistia to wait out the disaster.

At the end of the seven years, the family returns and the woman appeals to the king of Israel (still unnamed) for the restoration of her house and lands. As luck would have it (or perhaps it was orchestrated by Elisha), she happens to arrive just as Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, is telling the king of Israel all about her son’s miraculous resurrection. She is able to confirm the story and, awed, the king not only restores all her stuff, he even backdates it to the time she left Israel.

Gehazi’s leprosy (acquired in 2 Kgs 5:27) isn’t mentioned here. Commentaries mostly seem to explain this by assuming that the stories are presented out of order, and that the healing of Naaman has not yet occurred. It could also be a simple omission on the narrator’s part, or it could be that the two stories come from separate traditions (one of which does not include a leprous Gehazi).

However, I noticed that the description of Gehazi’s skin as being “white as snow” sounded familiar and, sure enough, it is the same description used of Miriam’s leprosy in Numbers 12:10. In Miriam’s case, her condition only seems to have lasted for seven days (or less). It’s possible, then, that the disease referred to was a short-lived one (perhaps infection, so that Gehazi caught it from Naaman), and that Gehazi’s skin condition had cleared up prior to this chapter. This would, however, appear to conflict with Elisha’s curse that the condition would affect Gehazi’s descendants as well, unless he simply means that they would all contract a bout of it at some point.

That said, given the possibility of different traditions or the stories simply being out of order, it’s unnecessary to look quite so far for an explanation.

Another thing I noticed about this story is that the property is described as belonging to the Shunammite woman, and the king of Israel restores it to her. In fact, her husband is not mentioned at all in this chapter. It’s possible that she is a widow by this time (her husband is described as old in 2 Kgs 4:14), though she’s never referred to as such.

Benhadad’s Illness

In 2 Kgs 1:2-4, Ahaziah, the king of Israel, was ill. Wanting to know if he would recover, he sent messengers out to Ekron to ask the god Baalzebub after his fate. Here, we get something of a reversal. It is Benhadad, the king of Syria, who is ill, and he sends out a messenger to ask YHWH if he will recover.

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Taking advantage of the fact that Elisha is in Damascus, Benhadad sends out Hazael with gifts. Elisha predicts that Benhadad will recover from his illness, but he is still fated to die. There is a difficult passage in here where it seems that Elisha stares at Hazael until Hazael is ashamed, or perhaps Elisha and Hazael stare at each other until Elisha is ashamed, or Hazael stares at Elisha until Elisha is ashamed, or… you get the point. It’s a nice bout of the pronoun game that unnecessarily complicates the passage. At the end, Elisha begins to weep.

Hazael asks why Elisha is weeping, and the latter responds that Hazael will do some really awful things to Israel. Hazael seems confused, and asks how someone of his status could possibly manage to do that. Elisha then reveals that Hazael will become king of Syria. When Hazael returns to his king, he relates only that Benhadad will recover from his illness. The next day, however, he suffocates Benhadad in his bed and declares himself king.

There’s some question here about what’s going on: Was Hazael going to kill Benhadad all along (which would make sense of the earlier passage, if Elisha sees the future and stares at Hazael, who feels some shame at what he’d been planning), or did Elisha plant the idea in Hazael’s mind (and therefore was himself ashamed at what he was about to do)? Some commentaries argue that God wanted to punish Israel and had decided to use Hazael for that purpose (which would fit with 1 Kgs 19:14-18), yet needed Elisha to nudge Hazael to make it happen.

We also see some more of the odd conflation of Elijah and Elisha. In 1 Kgs 19:15, God commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael king of Syria – which he never did (at least not that was narrated). Yet it seems that Elisha is, if not anointing, at least announcing Hazael’s social ascent.

Interestingly, it seems that King Shalmaneser III of Assyria wrote about Hazael’s usupring of the Syrian crown, describing him as the “son of a nobody” (meaning someone outside of the dynastic line). No mention is made of the method, though.

Dynastic Details

We return to the dynastic records with Jehoram, who took the crown of Judah in the fifth year of Israel’s Joram (Joram being a variation of Jehoram, clearly employed to make this confusing chronology slightly less so). The record here seems to agree with 2 Kgs 3:1, though not with 2 Kgs 1:17 (unless, as I’ve mentioned previously, we write in a co-reign). He was 32 years and ruled for 8 years (a figure that apparently varies quite a bit between versions, like as beleaguered scribes tried to make all the dates match).

Our author has a dim view of Jehoram, largely, it seems, because of his marriage to Ahab’s daughter. Still, he stayed his hand against Judah for David’s sake.

While Jehoram’s greatest fault seems to be his marriage, it was also during his reign that Judah lost control over Edom and Libnah. It seems that King Joram of Israel tried to take advantage of the situation by going after Edom for himself (or perhaps he was trying to help Judah put down the rebellion). Unfortunately for him, he was overwhelmed by the Edomite forces. He managed to fight his way free, but by then his army had already routed.

After Jehoram came Ahaziah, ascending in the twelfth year of Joram of Israel. He was twenty-two years old, and reigned for only one year. His mother was Athaliah, listed here as the granddaughter of Omri, presumably the daughter of Ahab who married Jehoram. Our narrator wasn’t a fan of Ahaziah either, and for the same reason that he disliked his father – his close relationship with the kings of Israel (in this case by parentage rather than marriage).

The only note we get here about Ahaziah’s single year as king is that he fought against King Hazael of Syria alongside King Joram of Israel. During the conflict, Joram was injured at Ramoth-gilead, and Ahaziah went to visit him while he was recovering in Jezreel.

2 Kings 6-7: Elisha versus the Syrians

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The first miracle of this chapter pair is similar to what we’ve been seeing – tricks to show off Elisha’s power without much apparent theological significance.

In it, the sons of the prophets complain that the place where they’ve been living is too small, and ask Elisha for permission to go to the Jordan river and build a new home for themselves there. As a side note, this provides us with some clue about who the sons of the prophets were, since they are living “under [Elisha’s] charge” (2 Kgs 6:1). It seems that these sons, at least, were perhaps Elisha’s apprentices, or under-priests.

As one of the sons is cutting wood, his axe head falls into the water. This is doubly a disaster because it was a loaner. Elisha is able to retrieve the axe head by throwing a stick into the water, causing the iron of the axe head to float.

A Tricky Escape

The next two stories return to the Syria/Israel conflict. In the first, Syria has been raiding Israel and, it seems, setting up ambushes. Sadly for the still unnamed king of Syria, Elisha can apparently hear him at all times (even in his bedroom!) and has been tipping off the unnamed king of Israel.

The Syrian king initially believes that there is a spy, but his servant tells him about Elisha. So the Syrian king decides to eliminate the problem at its root and sends an army out to Dothan to capture Elisha.

When they wake in the morning, Elisha and his retinue find the Syrian army outside. In a scene that seems straight out of a Christian chain letter, one of Elisha’s servants expresses his concern, to which Elisha says: “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kgs 6:8). With a prayer, he opens the servant’s eyes, allowing him to see a surrounding host of chariots and horses made of fire (perhaps the company Elijah’s horse and chariot came from in 2 Kgs 2:11).

The chariots of fire are a bit of a red herring, though, because Elijah defeats the army by making them all blind. He then goes out and tells them that they’ve gone the wrong way. Never fear, however, because Elisha will lead them to Elisha. My New Bible Commentary notes on the theological problem of a prophet lying, which illustrates the problem of trying to reinterpret humour/power stories as moral tales.

Rather than lead the blind Syrians to himself, however, Elisha takes them strait into the heart of Samaria. When he returns their vision, they realize that they’ve been brought into the power centre of their enemies.

The king of Israel is pleased as punch with the opportunity to rid himself of some enemies, but Elisha refuses. The soldiers are to be treated like POWs: They are to be fed and released. The king acquiesces and, either in fear of Elisha’s power or in gratitude for their treatment, the Syrians stopped raiding Israel.

The Siege of Samaria

Just kidding. The very first thing we learn after being told that the Syrians ceased attacking Israel is that the king of Syria is mustering an army against Israel. He clearly didn’t get the memo. (Or, more likely, the stories have been placed together without too much mind for chronology or continuity.)

Samaria falling to the AssyriansThis time, the Syrian king is named – Benhadad – though the king of Israel still lacks one. While the Syrian king’s name should help us locate the story in time, there’s more than one Benhadad and, without knowing the Israelite king’s name, our window for these Elisha stories is quite broad.

The Syrian army besieges Samaria, resulting in a rather nasty famine. It’s bad enough that the king of Israel is accosted by woman while he’s out walking. She begs for help because she made a deal with another woman that they would eat her son on the first day, and the other woman’s son on the second day. They ate her son, but on the second day the other woman hid her son. The king is suitably heartbroken by the story and rends his clothes, displaying the sackcloth he had been wearing underneath – a gratifying detail that shows that the king’s grief is apparently genuine rather than performed.

For some reason, he blames Elisha for the situation and vows to have him beheaded.

Elisha knows they are coming, however, and bars his door. When they arrive, he tells them that all will soon be well. By tomorrow, he assures them, food will be plenty. One of the king’s captains is doubtful, so Elisha predicts that, while the city will soon be eating, the captain won’t.

The Four Lepers

While all this is going on, four lepers are hanging out by the gates of Samaria, feeling sorry for themselves. Figuring that they will die if they stay where they are and die if they go into the city, they might as well take a chance on the Syrians and the possibility of mercy.

When they get to the Syrian camp, however, they find it empty. It seems that the Syrians fled when they heard the supernatural sounds of a great army descending upon them.

The lepers are rather overjoyed by their discovery and set to work eating from the army’s supplies. They loot the tents, carrying the stuff away and hiding it. After a few trips, however, it occurs to them that they really should let the rest of the Samarians know. It doesn’t seem to be an attack of conscience, though, so much as the fear that they might be punished if it’s found out that they knew and didn’t tell the others.

The king is still cautious, thinking it could be an ambush. On the advice of a servant, he sends out scouts who get as far as the Jordan river following the discards of the fleeing army. Satisfied, the Samarians head out to plunder the Syrian camp, fulfilling Elisha’s prediction.

The doubting captain had been guarding the city gates and was trampled when the hungry citizens rushed out, thereby fulfilling the second part of Elisha’s prophecy. Our narrator repeats the whole interaction between Elisha and the captain, connecting all the dots for any reader who may have forgotten to pay attention. While the story doesn’t explicitly state that the captain was killed as punishment for his doubt (as opposed to a prediction of an event that would have happened regardless), this little moralizing note certainly makes it seem that way.

Betty Bowers’ Handy Bible Interpretation Guide

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(h/t: Exploring Our Matrix)

2 Kings 5: A Tale of Two Lepers

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We continue our tale of Elisha’s miracles with Naaman, a highly esteemed Syrian military commander. Sadly, despite his valour and prowess, he was also a leper. His wife had a maidservant who had been captured during one of Syria’s raids into Israel, and, one day, she tells her mistress about a prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman.

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (in the British Museum collection)

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (in the British Museum collection)

Ecstatic about the possibility of a cure, Naaman asks his king (unnamed) for permission to go to Israel and seek out this prophet. His king agrees, and sends him with a letter instructing the king of Israel (also unnamed) to cure Naaman. In a rather amusing scene, the king of Israel mistakenly believes that the letter is instructing him, personally, to cure Naaman, and he rends his clothes over his inability to do so (fearful that failing to obey would result in hostilities between the two countries).

Elisha hears of this and sends word that the king should just send Naaman over to him – precisely what had been intended from the beginning! Sometimes the Bible is a lot like a ’90s sitcom.

The humour continues when Elisha refuses to meet with Naaman, and instead tells him via messenger to go dunk himself in the Jordan river seven times. Naaman is furious, not only that Elisha wouldn’t speak to him directly, but also that the cure should be so simple. Where’s the hand-waving? Where’s the ritual? And why should the Jordan river be necessary to cleanse him? Is it supposed to be better than the perfectly good rivers of Syria?

He is talked down by his servants, who argue that he had been prepared to follow complex and onerous instructions, so why not just dunk himself in the river a few times just in case it works? So he does it, and he is cured.

When he returns to Elisha, he acknowledges God’s power in terms that sound suspiciously monotheistic (“Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” 2 Kings 5:15). Indeed, this may be one of the stronger monotheistic statements we’ve had so far.

He’s a convert, but he also has his official duties. When his king worships the state god Rimmon, Naaman must be there and he must bow his head. Therefore, he asks pre-emptive forgiveness for performing the faith of Rimmon even while he is, internally, a worshiper of YHWH. This is, of course, an age old dilemma – will God forgive the performance so long as the heart is true? Elisha tells him to “go in peace” (2 Kgs 5:19), which seems to imply that the forgiveness is granted, but still leaves enough ambiguity to keep theologians busy.

Gifts

In their final interaction, Naaman offers gifts to repay Elisha, which Elisha refuses. Before I read any commentaries, I wondered if this was meant to further insult Naaman (certainly, there are plenty of cultures where refusing a gift is considered very rude). However, commentaries seem to be arguing that Elisha was trying to distinguish himself from the prophets we saw in 1 Kings 22. He wasn’t prophesying for pay, but because he was serving God. In context, it might have been very bad for business for him to seem to be using his prophecies in order to increase his personal wealth. Note, for example, that he only used his powers to help the Shunammite woman after she had been providing him with room and board for a while (2 Kgs 4:8-17).

Gehazi isn’t too happy about this, however, and runs out after Naaman. Claiming to speak on Elisha’s behalf, he says that two Ephraimite prophets have just arried, and they require a talent of silver and two festal garments. Naaman, who had come expecting to pay far more, happily grants the amount plus an additional silver talent. According to the notes in my study Bible, this would have been a rather extraordinary amount.

When he returns, Elisha asks him where he’s been. “Nowhere,” answers Gehazi, channeling his internal teenager. Elisha knows better, however, claiming to have followed his servant “in spirit” (2 Kgs 5:26) while he was meeting with Naaman. Now is not the time to accept gifts, he says, then proceeds to lists gifts well beyond what Gehazi actually received. Are these references to things Gehazi has previously swindled? Did Naaman give over much more that was lost from the earlier part of the story? Or does this mean that Elisha does not know what Gehazi actually received?

In any case, Elisha curses his servant, transferring Naaman’s leprosy onto him and all his descendants forever.

Brant Clements points out that the story of Naaman is one of a great man humiliated, over and over again, until he accepts God:

Chapter 5 is taken up by the story of Naaman, the general of Aram’s army, a powerful man who is brought low by a skin disease. Repeatedly, and comically, the powerful Naaman is humbled in this narrative. He takes advice from a slave girl. Elisha won’t even come out to meet him. He is sent to wash in the Jordan, a river he thinks is inferior to his home waterways. In the end he is both cleansed of his leprosy and converted to the worship of Israel’s God.

Challenging the powerful is the best use of mythology!

Elijah’s Apprentice

I wanted to take a moment to talk about Elijah and Elisha. There’s a good deal of repetition between the two (both raise a child from the dead, both help a widow by increasing her supply of oil, both part a river). However, there are differences as well. Collins writes:

The stories about Elijah, however, reflect a greater theological interest. Elijah is engaged in polemic against the worship of Baal, and he emerges as a champion of social justice, whereas Elisha is more simply a wonder-worker. Accordingly, some scholars regard the Elisha stories as older than those about Elijah. There is some doubt about the historicity of Elijah. His name means “YHWH is my God,” and the stories about him have obvious symbolic significance. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.142)

This certainly feels right, though I get a similar feeling from Elisha. Gehazi, in particular, is making me wonder about Elisha’s origins. Both here and in the last chapter, he plays a priestly character – acting as an intercessor between the supplicant and the “god,” and then as a cautionary tale against priestly greed. That certainly doesn’t mean that Elisha is a proto-YHWHist deity turned into a prophet, but he could be an older and highly mythologized cultic figure.

2 Kings 4: The Assorted Miracles of Elisha, Part I

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The following few chapters continue to relate the various miraculous works of Elisha over the course of his career. In this chapter, we get five (two involving a Shunammite woman).

The Debtor’s Widow

One of the sons of the prophets has died, leaving behind a widow, two children, and a pile of debts. Now, because they’ve defaulted, the collector is coming to take the two kids as his slaves. In desperation, the widow comes to Elisha for help. When he asks her if she has any assets, she names only a single jar of oil. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough for Elisha!

Elisha tells the widow to collect as many vessels as she can, even to borrow from her neighbours. Then, she must pour the oil into the vessels. She does, and the oil just keeps coming, filling every vessel she’s collected. My New Bible Commentary notes that the extent of the miracle is bound only by how many vessels the widow bothers to procure – in other words, how much faith does she have in Elisha’s abilities.

When she’s done pouring, Elisha tells her to sell the oil and to use the proceeds to pay off her family’s debts.

This story mirrors Elijah’s miracle in 1 Kings 17:14-16, where a woman’s jar of flour and jar of oil replenish themselves continually throughout a famine.

The Kind Shunammite

Elisha’s next stop is to Shunam, where he is fed by a wealthy woman. This becomes a habit, as she feeds him every time he passes through. After a while of this, she has a guest room prepared in her home for Elisha to stay in whenever he’s in town. Interestingly, it is the woman who takes the initiative in all of this, going so far as to argue in favour of building the room for Elisha to her husband.

One day, Elisha decides to repay all her kindness, so he asks his servant, Gehazi, to ask the woman if she would like him to speak well of her to a king of the commander of an army. When she refuses, Gehazi prompts his master that she has no sons and her husband is old. So Elisha tells the woman that she will bear a son within a year. Like Sarah in Genesis 18:12, she doesn’t believe, and she asks Elisha not to lie to her. But, miracle of miracles, she does bear a son!

The story of the unexpected pregnancy is a familiar one: We’ve seen it happen to Sarah (Gen. 17:16-19), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21-26), Rachel (Gen. 30:22-24), Manoah’s wife (Judges 13:2-5), and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:19-20). In those cases, the unexpected pregnancy was a way of marking the resulting child as special – a predictor of future greatness. Here, however, the pattern is shifted and the unusual pregnancy marks out Elisha, not the son.

The Dead Boy

All is not well for the Shunammite woman, however. A few years pass and, one day, her son goes out with his father and the reapers. Suddenly, his head begins to hurt and he’s sent home. After lying on his mother’s lap until noon, he dies.

Elisha Raising the Shunammite's Son, by Benjamin West, 1765

Elisha Raising the Shunammite’s Son, by Benjamin West, 1765

The Shunammite woman places the boy on the bed in her guest room, then shuts the door. This, says my New Bible Commentary, was “to retain the nep̄eš or life-essence” (p.351). It seems that souls can’t pass through doors. She then saddles a donkey and rushes out to find Elisha, who is currently at Mount Carmel.

Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, asks her if she and her family are well. Strangely, she responds that “it is well [with us]” (2 Kgs 4:26). I wonder if there’s a translation issue here and that she’s merely exchanging a greeting with Gehazi before bringing her problem to Elisha – perhaps indicating that she doesn’t have time to speak through a servant. If this is the case, I do wish that my study Bible would mention it in the notes, since it comes off seeming very strange.

Once she reaches Elisha, she throws herself at his feet and argues that she had never asked for a son, and she had asked Elisha not to deceive her (in other words, it is cruel for him to give her a son and then take him away, especially when she never asked to be made vulnerable to that pain).

Elisha sends Gehazi ahead with his staff, instructing him to touch the boy’s face with the staff. Gehazi does so, but it does nothing. When Elisha arrives, shuts himself in the room with the boy and lies over the corpse (his mouth over the boy’s mouth, his eyes over the boy’s eyes, his hands over the boy’s hands). When the corpse warms, Elisha rises, paces about for a bit, then stretches himself over the corpse again. This time, the boy sneezes seven times and opens his eyes (or, according to the LXX, Elisha stretches himself over the boy seven times and there is no sneezing).

The story is a close parallel of Elijah’s miracle in 1 Kings 17:17-24. A big difference here is the inclusion of Gehazi as a sort of barrier between Elisha and the Shunammite woman. At every step, they speak to each other through the servant, and it is Gehazi who is sent on Elisha’s behalf to attempt the miracle. We’ll meet Gehazi again in the next chapter, and there he’ll use his position in quite naughty ways.

The Spoiled Pottage

For the next miracle, Elisha is hanging out with a bunch of the sons of the prophets in Gilgal during a famine. When he tells his servant to prepare a pottage for the sons, one of them (which I assume refers to one of the sons rather than one of the servants) goes out to gather some herbs. While he’s walking around, he stumbles on a vine bearing unfamiliar gourds. Clearly driven to desperation by the famine, he decides to cut up the gourds and add them to the pottage.

When they begin to eat, however, the sons of the prophets realize that the pottage is poison and refuse to eat more. To purify the meal, Elisha throws in some meal and the pottage becomes safe to eat.

Unlike the story in 1 Kings 2:19-22, there’s no real indication that the pottage is actually poison. The spring water was causing illness and miscarriages, but no one is harmed by the pottage. Did some of the sons recognize the gourds and know that they were poison? Were they just freaked out by the unfamiliar addition? Or did some of them become ill and the text just fails to mention it?

Food Aplenty

The chapter closes with another food-related miracle. This time, a man comes to Elisha at Baalshalisha with a first fruits offering. It isn’t explained why the offering is made to Elisha rather than/in addition to a priest. My New Bible Commentary suggests that this could be done in protest of the state-sponsored cultic powers (as we saw illustrated in 1 Kings 22). This would suggest, however, that Elisha was outside of that structure, even though he seems to be hanging on to the royal household and armies (as we saw in 2 Kings 3).

It could simply be that the YHWH cult was still quite a bit looser (at least in Samaria) at the time, giving people some choice in where offerings might be made, and to whom. Or perhaps Elisha was a sort of master prophet for the area (as suggested by his retinue of sons of the prophets), in the same way that Samuel seems to have been. Even if the state religion was changing and formalizing, it’s quite possible that there were either hold-overs or dissenting sub-cults with followers of their own.

In any case, Elisha asks the man to feed all hundred of the sons of the prophets staying with Elisha. The man balks, saying that there are far too many people for the amount of food he’s brought, but Elisha insists. The miracle is that the food not only does manage to feed everyone, but with leftovers besides!

I noticed a repetition of the numbers 50 and 100 in references to the prophets (and their sons). When Elijah died, his death march was joined by fifty sons of the prophets (2 Kings 2:7). Earlier, when Obadiah hid the prophets from Jezebel, he saved a hundred of them, hiding them in two groups of fifty each (1 Kings 18:4). I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, or if the number had some sort of significance among the followers of Elijah/Elisha.

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(h/t: Exploring Our Matrix)

2 Kings 3: The Sheep of Moab

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We begin the chapter on a rather confusing note, as our narrator tells us that Jehoram succeeded Ahab in the 18th year of Jehoshaphat’s rule in Judah. This presents us with a problem, since it conflicts with 2 Kings 1:17, where Jehoram succeeded Ahaziah (who is here skipped over) in the second year of Jehoram, king of Judah (the son of Jehoshaphat).

This works in terms of Omri’s dynastic lineage, since Ahaziah and Jehoram were brothers, and therefore both Ahab’s sons. It’s also conceivable that a chronicler skipped over Ahaziah because of the shortness of his reign (easily forgotten, hardly worth mentioning). However, none of this can square with the matching against Judah’s chronology.

For that, the dominant explanation seems to be that there was a co-regency period during which both Jehoram of Judah and Jehoshaphat were kings (perhaps while one did the battle thing, the other stayed home and did the statecraft thing). It seems more likely, however, that we just suffer either from shoddy chroniclers and/or  from our poor author trying to piece together the records found in two (or more) separate books and feeling just as frustrated as we are when the numbers just won’t add up no matter how many times he shuffles the beads around on his abacus (I am certainly familiar with those feelz).

Yet while our author may be confused about the dates, he’s quite clear when it comes to his assessment of Jehoram. Spoilers: He was just awful. But at least he wasn’t the same sort of awful as his parents, and did put aside his Baals (hopefully before he got hairy palms). Unfortunately, he walked the way of Jeroboam, which I suppose means that he either built multiple unsanctioned shrines, or allowed worship to take place in them. In the end, he ruled, Baal-less, for twelve years.

On to Moab

What’s really interesting about this chapter is that we actually have two versions of the story – one from the Hebrew side, and the other from the Moabite side. The frustrating thing is that there don’t seem to be any accessible authoritative translations of the Moabite version, found in the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone). I’m finding claims about its contents, but I can’t confirm them against anything other than Wikipedia’s own claims, which leaves me rather vulnerable to circular evidence chains.

From what I can glean, however, both agree that Israel lost the conflict (sorry, spoilers) and both seem to credit Moab’s victory to their god, Chemosh. I know, I know! But more on that when we get to it. First, the set up.

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

It seems that Moab was a vassal state, and required to pay an annual tribute of 100,000 lambs, plus the wool of 100,000 rams. The numbers seem rather excessive, and I’m seeing some conjecture that it was only a one-time payment, or that it was meant to be spread out over a number of years, but I think it likely that this is just a nice big-sounding number used as a stand in to indicate that it was, like, totally a lot of lambs and wool.

After Ahab’s death, however, King Mesha of Moab decided that maybe he didn’t have to make those tributes any more. The testing of a new leader is certainly not uncommon. Jehoram responds by mustering his army and calling on King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. When they decide to go through Edom, it seems that its king and army joined in the fun (with the strong implication that Edom was also a vassal state, and perhaps did not have much choice in the matter).

Unfortunately for these combined armies, they were unable to find enough water to sustain them. So they decide to consult with God, calling on Elisha to serve as their telephone. Elisha initially refuses, sore over Jehoram’s dynasty’s infidelity toward God. In response, Jehoram argues that the drought that is about to win Moab the war is God’s doing, so yes, they’d like to speak with God, please. The whole exchange sounds like it would have been delivered with sneers.

Elisha does query God in the end, however, with the help of a (trance inducing) minstrel. God promises that the dry riverbeds will soon be full of pools and that Israel will defeat Moab.

Well, the first part comes true, anyway. By morning, pools had formed in the riverbeds, and the Israelite (plus allies) army was able to water itself.

God seems to have really tried to fulfill the second portion as well. When the Moabites saw the water, it appeared red – tricking them into thinking that the various encamped armies had turned on each other, and it was their blood pooling in the riverbed. My study Bible thinks that the colour comes from the “red sandstone of Edom” (pointing to the connection between Edom and the colour references in Genesis 25:30), while my New Bible Companion proposes that it was a reflection of the sunrise.

Figuring that they’d just scored a really great looting opportunity, they head out to the Israelite camp, only to find it full of very much alive Israelites. The Israelites attack, and thoroughly smash the Moabites. They start taking cities, and there’s a bit in there about throwing stones. It’s all very victorious-y.

It’s also all very short-lived.

Realizing that he’s beaten, King Mesha pulls his Hail Mary move – sacrificing his eldest son, his heir, on a city wall. Chemosh isn’t named here, but Mesha is a Moabite, so it seems fair to assume that the sacrifice was made to that God rather than the Hebrew one. The sacrifice is effective and causes a “great wrath” (2 Kings 3:27) on the Israelite army, forcing them into retreat.

This appears very much to be a conflict between gods, with God having promised the Israelites a victory and Chemosh having denied it. Of course, my New Bible Commentary calls this “a highly unlikely suggestion” (p.351), but they would, wouldn’t they? The explanation they give is that it might have been disgust at the act – which, done on the wall, would have been fully visible by the attacking Israelites – that drove the Israelites away. A few commentators connect the verse with the one before it, in which we see Mesha meeting Edom on the battlefield, to conclude that it was the king of Edom’s son who was murdered on the wall rather than Mesha’s. If seen this way, Israelites retreat would have been a morale issue.

Either way, it seems undeniable that Israel lost its attack and Moab was freed from its vassalage, and both sides’ records tell us that same story. What’s really interesting here is that Israel’s victory was promised by God yet not granted, and that this wasn’t somehow turned into some sermon on the sins of Israel.

2 Kings 2: The Bald Moses

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The first story in this chapter is about Elijah being taken up by God in a whirlwind. While reading, I kept wondering if this is meant to be an Elijah story (about his ascension) or an Elisha story (about his accession). After some reflection, I think it may be the latter, though it could certainly be argued either way.

Elijah and Elisha begin the chapter by walking about. Each time they stop (first at Bethel, then Jericho, then the river Jordan), Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, and each time Elisha refuses. Each time, the “sons of the prophets” tell Elisha that God is about to take his master, and Elisha responds that he already knows, and that they should “hold your peace.” By the time they get to the Jordan river, they’ve accumulated fifty sons of the prophets following along, though hanging back.

The term “sons of the prophets” likely refers to either apprentice or lesser prophets, perhaps in some kind of cultic guild. It seems unlikely that it would refer to actual biological offspring. This is reinforced later on in the same chapter (2 Kings 2:12) where Elisha calls Elijah “my father.”

2 Kings 2When Elisha asked the sons of the prophets to keep quiet, it seems an indication of the solemnity of their progress. Combined with the repetition of the journey, it gives the story a sense of ritual. I wonder if there was a time when a local cult periodically did a particular journey (pure conjecture, but perhaps it might have ended with a human sacrifice), and the tradition was later preserved in this story. Or the repetition could just be there to draw attention to Elijah’s ascension, thereby highlighting its importance.

When they reach the river, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water with it, parting it so that Elijah and Elisha can walk across. This is, of course, quite reminiscent of Moses’s parting of the water in Exodus 14:21. I wonder if the Elijah story is meant to be a reference to the Moses story, or if both were a reference to something else?

Separated now from the fifty sons of the prophets who had come along, Elijah asks Elisha to ask for a parting gift before he is taken. Elisha asks to inherit a “double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). This seems almost certainly to be a reference to the inheritance portion meant to be given to a firstborn son (Deut. 21:17), thus setting Elisha apart as Elijah’s proper spiritual heir. Elijah’s response, that Elisha will only get his inheritance if he sees Elijah taken, appears to be an acknowledgement that this inheritance is only God’s to grant.

As it is, there are no issues since Elisha does, indeed, see Elijah taken. First, a fire chariot pulled by fire horses comes between Elisha and Elijah, separating them. Then Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (the only other person who appears to have been taken without dying first is Enoch, in Genesis 5:24).

If you’re noticing a pattern and wondering, yes, Elijah does appear to have been a firebender. Certainly, he seems to have been closely associated with the element in his miracles, as we saw in 1 Kings 18:38 and 3 Kings 1:9-16.

With Elijah gone, Elisha rends his clothes in grief, then takes up Elijah’s mantle (for the second time, since Elijah had given it to him in 1 Kings 19:19). He then performs a reverse miracle and strikes the river water with the mantle, as Elijah had done, and parts the water for himself.

The sons of the prophets seem to be of two minds. On the one hand, they immediately recognize Elisha as Elijah’s heir and bow before him. But then they are convinced that God just flicked Elijah off somewhere. Perhaps they’ve seen be play Black & White and think that God is as clumsy a deity as I am? In any case, they ask for permission to go find his body. Though he initially refuses, Elisha does eventually give them permission and they spend three days looking. The lack of a body is, apparently, confirmation that a miracle has taken place.

Further Miracles

Now that he’s the head honcho, it’s time for Elisha to get started on some miracles of his own.

His first is in Jericho, where the water appears to be causing deaths and miscarriages. Elisha solves the problem by throwing some salt into a local spring, thereby purifying it.

The people of the city say that the “land is unfruitful” (2 Kings 2:19), which I thought could mean a drought, but Elisha’s miracle is very specifically purifying the water. It could be, therefore, that it is the people/animals who are unfruitful, due to the miscarriages.

So far so good. I think we can all agree that purifying a water source so that it is no longer causing death and miscarriage is, generally speaking, a net positive. Unfortunately, Elisha then immediately follows that miracle with another in Bethel. There, a few small boys make fun of him for being bald. Rather hilariously, my New Bible Commentary spends a fair bit of time trying to argue that Elisha wasn’t actually bald, and that the boys were just making it up to be insulting. I’m sure there’s a theological purpose there, but I can’t stop laughing long enough to look it up. Whatever it is, it seems to be very important to the NBC editors that Elisha is most definitely not bald!

While Elisha’s earlier miracle was to save a community from what was probably a natural disaster, this time he’s just being a total douche. No one likes to be bullied, but there is such a thing as an appropriate response, and cursing small boys so that forty-two of them are mauled by two bears is definitely not it.

Elisha's Bears

Interestingly in the context of the number’s later significance, my study Bible indicates that 42 was thought to be a number of ill omen.

After the bear episode, Elisha makes his way to Mount Carmel, then returns to Samaria.

Discovery at the tomb

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Joke - Easter Bunny

2 Kings 1: The Fires of Heaven

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This is a strange chapter that seems to have been cobbled together from multiple sources. It begins by telling us that war broke out between Israel and Moab after Ahab’s death. Moab isn’t mentioned again in the chapter, so it seems our chapter separator with shoddy aim strikes again.

The chapter begins for real when Ahaziah falls out of a window. Bedridden, he sends messengers to ask Baalzebub, the god of Ekron, if he will recover from his injuries. It’s clear from his use of the name “Baalzebub” that the story has been the subjected to at least a little fictionalizing (“Baalzebub” meaning “Lord of the Flies” – a nickname that is clearly meant to poke at the rival god). The proper name was Baal-zebul, which, according to my study Bible, means something like “lord of the divine abode” or “Baal the prince” – far more fitting designations.

2 Kings 1We know from 1 Kings 18 that there was a tradition of Baal prophets in Israel, even if the individuals in that chapter would have needed replacing (and with Jezebel in court, it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have been). So why send all the way to Ekron? It seems that there was a particularly noted sanctuary to Baal there, and perhaps it’s a testament to the severity of Ahaziah’s injuries that he sent out for prophecy (there’s a sense in which the act of prophecy is both a foretelling and a curse/blessing that alters the future, as we saw in 1 Kings 22, when Ahab neglected to ask for Micaiah’s prophecy because Micaiah never prophesied anything good – so there may have been a sense that going to a more powerful source would be more likely to bring about a desired outcome).

Unfortunately for Ahaziah, his messengers are intercepted by our old friend Elijah, who asks them why they would be sent all the way to Ekron rather than a “God in Israel” (2 Kings 1:3)? The criticism here is two-fold: Firstly that Ahaziah would seek his prophecy outside of Israel, which I suppose would acknowledge the primacy of an external shrine. Secondly, it hints at Yahweh as the “God in Israel,” reducing Baal – despite a clear local presence – to a foreign interloper.

Also, adds Elijah, there’s no need to go so far. Ahaziah is definitely going to die.

The messengers are convinced to turn around, and report the incident to Ahaziah. Once they describe the prophet as wearing a haircloth garment (presumably fur clothes, rather than a cilice popularized later on) with a leather belt, Ahaziah recognizes Elijah.

A captain and his fifty

Ahaziah sends a captain with fifty soldiers back to deal with Elijah, whom they call “man of God” and order him to come out from his hiding spot. To this, Elijah replies that if he truly is a man of God, may fire come down from heaven. Predictably, it does, killing the soldiers.

So Ahaziah sends another captain with another fifty, and the same thing happens.

When Ahaziah sends a third group, it becomes rather clear that he’s a slow learner. Not so the soldiers, though, who try a different approach. Rather than ordering Elijah down, the captain falls on his knees and begs for their lives. Elijah responds to this new approach and comes down. He repeats his earlier prophecy that Ahaziah will die, but this time he says that Ahaziah’s injuries will kill him because he sought to consult with Baalzebub.

As predicted, Ahaziah does die, and he is succeeded by Jehoram – his brother, since he had no sons. Jehoram is not to be confused with King Jehoram of Judah, in whose second reigning year Jehoram of Israel ascended the throne.

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