2 Kings 14-15: Precarious Politics

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My eyes are glazing over with the timelines, but my New Bible Commentary is very adamant that there are discrepancies. I’m inclined to take them at their word, since they seem so uncomfortable with it. They variously try to explain discrepancies through co-regencies, pretenders, and attempts to erase predecessors from the record following a coup. A fourth option that they don’t acknowledge is simple error – typos, guesswork to fill in incomplete records, and differences in regional record keeping are all perfectly plausible explanations.

We begin with Amaziah, who took the crown of Judah in the second year of Israel’s Joash. He was 25 years old when he became king, and he ruled for 29 years. His mother was Jehoaddin, a Jerusalem local.

Amaziah was great, but our narrator wants to make sure we understand that he wasn’t as great as David. His major downside is that he failed to destroy the “high places” – local centres of worship.

When Amaziah settled into his crown, he went after the conspirators who had murdered his father in 2 Kgs 12:20-21. He did, at least, spare their children, “according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses” (2 Kgs 14:6) – a reference to Deut. 24:16, and not Deut. 5:9-10.

Amaziah and Jehoash go to war

Back in 2 Kings 13:10-13, in the overview of the Israelite monarchy, we learned that Jehoash fought against Amaziah. Despite the fact that Jehoash’s death was recorded there, the narrative now brings us back to fill out the details of the war between Judah and Israel (because all the name repetitions wouldn’t be confusing enough without time skipping). This time, however, we get things from Judah’s point of view.

At some point during his reign, Amaziah defeated the Edomites – killing ten thousand of them and securing Shela (which he renamed Joktheel).

He later sent messengers to Jehoash, king of Israel, asking for a face-to-face meeting. Jehoash responds with a parable in which a thistle asks a cedar for their children to marry, then a wild beast comes by and tramples the thistle. (The parable may be a reference to – or using the same established conventions as – the one found in Judges 9:8-15.) He concludes by warning Amaziah: You’ve beaten the Edomites and are giddy with your success, but don’t provoke trouble lest you lead to your (and Judah’s) downfall.

2 Kings 14-15The meaning seems clear enough: Jehoash sees Amaziah as below him (just a thistle to his cedar), and he’ll end up getting trampled in a completely unrelated event if he tries to arrange a marriage with Jehoash? I’m not sure the parallels are quite straight. Regardless, the insult seems clear.

What’s less clear is the reason for it. When Jehoash says, “Be content with your glory, and stay at home” (2 Kgs 14:10), it makes me think that Amaziah was so pumped by his success against Edom that he was planning on coming after Israel next.

Certainly, what comes next seems to bear out this interpretation, since we’re told that Amaziah wouldn’t listen and, therefore, the two nations met in battle at Beth-shemesh.

Unfortunately for Amaziah, Israel wins the day and he is captured. Jehoash then pushed forward to Jerusalem, crashing through its walls, sacking the city, and taking hostages. Though not stated here, my study Bible suggests that the hostages were taken in exchange for Amaziah’s return. This seems plausible, and there’s no contradicting mention here of Amaziah’s return to Jerusalem, where we find him later in the chapter.

The narrative skips forward to Jehoash’s death, after which he is succeeded by his son, Jeroboam.

Back to Judah, Amaziah outlived Jehoash by 15 years. He finally died at the hands of another conspiracy (perhaps related to the one that killed his father in 2 Kgs 12:20-21, or maybe retribution for Amaziah’s slaughter of the last conspirators, or maybe just a sign of how unstable the region was at the time). The conspiracy forced Amaziah to flee to Lachish, and it’s there that he was killed. His body was returned to Jerusalem for burial.

The narrative tells us that his son, Azariah (elsewhere called Uzziah), was made king at the age of 16. I was unclear whether he simply succeeded his father, or if he was perhaps the centre of the coup that saw his father killed. The phrasing is ambiguous enough that I was able to concoct a narrative in which Azariah is crowned, and that this prompted Amaziah to flee to Lachish.

Of Azariah’s reign, we learn only that he built a place to Elath and “restored it to Judah” (2 Kgs 14:22). I wasn’t sure what this meant, but my study Bible suggests that it may have been a seaport that could be restored once the Edomites were pushed back.

The reign of Jeroboam II

The narrative then moves back to Israel, where Jeroboam took the crown in the fifteenth year of Judah’s Amaziah. He reigned for forty-one years and, like his predecessors, carried on the sins of the first Jeroboam.

Which seems like such an odd complaint, since it’s clear that that the kings of Judah are doing the same (in keeping the high places). Yet while this qualifies as a mere first strike for the kings of Judah, it damns the kings of Israel – despite how anachronistic the demand for a fully centralized cult seems to be.

Of Jeroboam’s reign, we learn that he restored the borders of Israel, acting as God’s agent in sparing Israel from destruction. All of this was in fulfilment of the prophecy delivered by Jonah – yes, that Jonah.

After his death, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Zechariah.

The reign of Azariah

We then skip back down to Judah, where Amaziah’s son, Azariah, took the crown in the 27th year of Israel’s Jeroboam. As above, he came to power at 16, and he ruled for 52 years. His mother, another Jerusalem native, was named Jecoliah. He gets God’s stamp of approval, despite the fact that he did not remove the high places.

At some point during his reign, Azariah became a leper and shut himself away. Though he continued as king in name, his son, Jotham, took over governance.

A limestone tablet was found in Jerusalem with the inscription: “Hither were brought the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah: not to be opened.” This is through to refer to Azariah, though the tablet has been dated to the first century CE. One theory is that Azariah’s corpse may have later been reburied, and that the tablet was made at that time.

Israel changing hands

Over the next few years, we see Israel changing hands multiple times – a testament to the political instability in the region.

In the 38th year of Judah’s Azariah, Zechariah succeeded his father. He ruled for a mere six months, though that was long enough for our narrator to condemn him (once again for continuing the cultic practices of Jeroboam).

He was killed by Shallum, son of Jabesh. This is, of course, in fulfilment of the prophecy that Jehu’s dynasty would last only until the fourth generation, as per 2 Kgs 10:30.

Shallum’s reign began in the 39th year of Azariah, and lasted only a single month. He was murdered by Menahem, son of Gadi.

Menahem seems to have brought a little stability to Israel, keeping hold of his crown for ten years. In that time, or perhaps during his coup, he sacked Tappuah and “ripped up all the women in it who were with child” (2 Kgs 15:16). This rather horrifying act seems to have been a convention of sorts, as we saw Elisha prophecy in 2 Kings 8:12 that Hazael would do the same. Was it really something people in the region were doing, perhaps as a form of psychological warfare? Or is this propaganda meant to highlight the savagery of enemies? Perhaps both…

Menahem receives the same judgement as all the kings of Israel – he was evil ni the way of Jeroboam. During his rule, the Assyrians harassed Israel, lead by a king identified here as Pul (though my study Bible indicates that this is just another name for Tiglath-pileser III). Menahem collected a total of 1,000 talents of silver, taxed from the wealthy men of Israel (50 shekels each, which is apparently the equivalent of about $25), to bribe Pul against attacking. It works, and Pul is turned away.

In the 50th year of Azariah’s reign in Judah, Menahem died and was succeeded by his son, Pekahiah. He, too, was evil in Jeroboam’s way, but lasted only two years before being murdered by his captain, Pekah (aided by fifty Gileadites).

Despite his beginnings, Pekah managed to hold on to power for twenty years, though he spent them losing Israel piece by piece to the Assyrians. We see here the beginning of a diaspora as the Assyrians carry off the Israelites they capture back to Assyria.

Pekah’s rule ended as it began, with a coup. In the 2th year of Judah’s Jotham, Hoshea deposed Pekah and installed himself as king. Though not mentioned here, it seems that an Assyrian inscription has Tiglath-pileser claiming to have placed Hoshea on the throne, perhaps as a puppet.

Back to Judah, we learn that Jotham began his rule in the second year of Israel’s Pekah. He was 25 years old at his ascension, and lasted for sixteen years. His mother’s name was Jerusha, identified as the daughter of Zadok. As with his predecessors, he is judged generally good, but shame about those high places.

Of his rule, we’re only told here that he built the upper gate of the temple, and that his rule saw harassment from Syria (under Rezin) and Israel (under Pekah). He was succeeded by his son, Ahaz.

2 Kings 13: The rule of the J names

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Note: This post is coming a bit late and I missed Friday’s. Oops! I’ve eaten through my buffer and am now writing on deadlines (or, rather, not). Sorry!

Much of this chapter continues the chronology Israel’s rulers. Unfortunately, nearly all of them have names that start with Js and there are loads of repeats, so it can get pretty confusing. I found that I needed to refer back to the timeline I posted in March to be able to follow along.

We begin in the twenty-third year of Joash’s reign in Judah, when Jehu is replaced by Jehoahaz. He ruled for seventeen years, but was terrible in the way of Jeroboam (in other words, he either maintained or failed to destroy the rural shrines).

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a ruler of one country abolishing his local forms of worship to bow instead to a newer form completely under the political control of a rival king. Still, we’re apparently counting this as a sin.

A sin so bad that God punished Israel by putting it into the hands of Hazael, king of Syria (followed by his son, Benhadad).

To his credit, Jehoahaz did call out to God, and God listened by sending the Israelites a saviour who, it seems, managed to get Israel a temporary reprieve from Syria’s attacks. But because the Israelites still didn’t destroy their local centres of worship (and this time the presence of Asherah is also mentioned – which may or may not have once/still been part of the broader YHWH cult), the Syrians returned with a vengeance.

The construction sounds an awful lot like the formula used in Judges. Except that the focus is on the monarchy. That means that a) the king is the one calling out to God, rather than the people, and b) whoever the saviour is or what their deeds were goes completely unmentioned.

After Jehoahaz’s death, he was succeeded by Jehoash (also called Joash in one instance). Jehoash’s reign lasted for sixteen years, during which he continued to allow local expressions of faith, in the way of Jeroboam. Otherwise, all we get in this quick summary is that he fought against King Amaziah of Judah (who followed King Joash). After his death, he was succeeded by yet another Jeroboam.

Elisha’s Terminal Illness

Elisha has fallen sick, and we’re told that it’s the illness that will eventually kill him. There’s no reason to think that people would have known this at the time, though he’s been active in enough stories to peg his age somewhere around “very advanced,” so it’s hard to imagine that his death wasn’t anticipated.

So King Jehoash of Israel comes to him weeping, and calls out: “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kgs 13:14), a phrase that is a clear call back to Elisha’s own words to Elijah in 2 Kgs 2:12, and that make as little sense here as they did then. I can only assume that it’s a Humpty Dumpty reference and move on from there.

Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, by William Dyce, 1844

Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, by William Dyce, 1844

As a final living miracle, Elisha instructs the king to draw a bow. He lays his hands over the king’s hands and tells him to fire out through the window. When the Jehoash does so, Elisha announces that this signals the impending victory over Syria.

This story is similar to God telling Joshua to hold his javelin out toward Ai in Jos. 8:18. In both cases, there’s a question of whether this counts as sympathetic magic.

In particular, this case has a trial aspect. Jehoash is then instructed to take the remaining arrows and strike the ground with them. He does so three times, then stops. Elisha is furious because it means that he will only beat Syria three times, not the five or six times needed to really defeat Syria. So because Jehoash did not properly complete the ritual, the victory he had asked for would only be half-way achieved. It really is hard to see this as anything other than sympathetic magic.

When Elisha dies, he is buried in an area where Moabites are known to invade in the spring. At some later point in time, another funeral is being held in the area when the Moabites are seen approaching. The attendees panic, tossing the corpse into Elisha’s grave, and flee. When the corpse lands on Elisha – specifically, when it touches Elisha’s bones – the man revives.

The story cuts off there, but we might imagine that he would be rather unhappy to find himself in the middle of a Moabite raid. We can imagine how brief his return might have been.

Also, was Elisha’s grave just sitting open? Was the man being buried in the same tomb as Elisha?

Syria’s Succession

While Hazael, king of Syria, continually harassed Israel during Jehoahaz’s reign, God never allowed Israel to be destroyed completely. This is attributed in part to how “gracious” he is (2 Kgs 13:23 – just try and read that without sarcasm), and in part because of the covenant he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When Hazael died, he was succeeded by his son, Benhadad. Perhaps profiting from the destabilization that usually accompanies a change in leadership, Jehoash was able to retake many of the Israelite cities Syria had conquered – these, then, are the three victories he earned himself earlier with Elisha.

2 Kings 12: Infrastructure Maintenance

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I noticed in the last chapter that Jehoash’s name is written differently in different sections of the text. There, he was called Joash in the narrative portion, but switched to Jehoash for the chronological summary. Here, it’s the reverse.

Jehoash’s reign is situated, beginning in the seventh year of Jehu’s rule in Israel. It lasted forty years. We also learn that his mother was Zibiah of Beersheba (for some reason, I fudged the genealogy and said in my last post that he was Athaliah’s son – he was, in fact, her grandson). Our author tells us that Jehoash was great because he was educated by the priests. This conflicts with the assessment in 2 Chronicles 24:17-19, where Jehoash fell into idolatry. It’s possible that we have two separate traditions, each with their own assessment of Jehoash’s time as king. Another possibility is that the author means to tell us that Jehoash was great while he was educated (read: controlled, or under the influence of) the priests. Not that he remained awesome until his death. This explanation is complicated, however, by the fact that Jehoash’s death is given some narration space, yet the reasons for it are not given here (the Chronicles account will tell us that Jehoash’s assassination was a response to his idolatry).

Construction Corruption

There are certainly hints of conflict between Jehoash and the priests, though. At some point in the first twenty-three years of his reign, he dedicated some of the money raised by the priests to be used in repairing the temple. How this was supposed to work is explained in some detail, but rather confusing, and mentions “acquaintances” from whom the priests were supposed to collect these funds.

According to my New Bible Commentary, ‘acquaintance’ was “a technical term which occurs in Ugaritic texts along with priests, temple prostitutes, and silver casters. The suggestion has been made that they were ‘assessors’, possibly to help the priests fix the cost or value of sacrificial animals and other offerings” (p.357). So it seems that they were not meant to solicit donations from their acquaintances – my first stab at understanding the passage – but rather physically collect the value from those who might exchange gifts in kind into money.

King Jehoash Collects Funds to Repair the Temple  II KIngs 12:9-14But by the twenty-third year of Jehoash’s rule, the priests still had not used any of the money collected (or failed to collect the money – a less likely but possible interpretation) to make repairs to the temple. It seems no coincidence that Jehoash would have been 30 at this time, established enough in adulthood, perhaps, to break free of the priests’ control. Reading between the lines, it seems that the priests took advantage of Jehoash’s youth and dependence on them to enrich themselves – at the expense of the temple itself. That Jehoash was then forced to rein them in puts an interesting spin on the Chronicles claim that he was given to idolatry (which, as we’ve seen with Jeroboam’s bulls, appears to be used for anyone who renounces the authority of the Jerusalem priests).

To interfere with this corruption, Jehoash forbids the priests from taking the money directly. Rather, a donation box is built and placed in the temple. When a donation is made, the priests who guard the temple’s threshold must put it into the box, where it is kept until it can be weighed and placed in bags by another party (controlled by the king?) and then delivered to the workmen tasked with making repairs.

Guilt and sin offerings would not go into the box, as these properly belonged to the priests. The money collected isn’t to be used for special furnishings (such as trumpets, vessels, basins, etc). The detail isn’t explained, though my study Bible speculates that it may have had to do with the funds available – enough for structural repairs, but not enough for furnishings. Having been in many Catholic churches growing up, I wondered if this might not be evidence of more corruption. Perhaps Jehoash feared that the priests would spend the money on things like gold or silver bowls, things that look very fancy and increase prestige in the short term, yet continue to neglect the less spectacular maintenance of the building’s structure.

Yet despite the fact that Jehoash’s collections box appears to be a response to corruption, the text specifically tells us that the men who delivered the money to the workmen performing the repairs were not to be made to account for the funds, “for they dealt honestly” (2 Kings 12:15). How can they be known to deal honestly if they aren’t accounting for the funds? This could be an indication of the distrust between the religious and “secular” (to the extent that the Jerusalem monarchy could be said to be secular at this time) authorities. If the men who are acting as intermediaries between the temple and the workmen are the king’s, not holding them accountable might be a power play.

Mention of Jehoash’s repairs to the temple are mentioned in an artifact known as the Jehoash Inscription. Whether or not the inscription is authentic appears to be a matter of debate, with consensus seeming to fall on the opinion that it is a modern forgery.

Syria’s Advances and the End of Jehoash

Around this time, King Hazael of Syria has been busy. After conquering Gath, he sets his sights on Jerusalem. To hold him at bay, Jehoash loots both palace and temple, paying Hazael to turn back. This arrangement seems like vassalage, but without the ongoing nature of such agreements.

At this point, Jehoash’s name switches back to Joash as, at the end of his reign, some of his subjects begin to conspire against him. His term ends when two of his subjects, Jozacar son of Shimeath and Jehozabad son of Shomer, murder him. He is succeeded by his son, Amaziah.

2 Kings 11: Athaliah’s brief reign

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EDIT: I have been tricked by too many Ah- and Je- names. In my initial writing of this post, I mistakenly identified Joash as Athaliah’s son, rather than as Ahaziah’s.

When Jehu kills Ahaziah, he creates a power vacuum in Judah – one that Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, takes advantage of. To secure her hold on the country, she murders her late husband’s entire family. All except for Jehosheba and Joash (a shortening of Jehoash). Jehosheba is the daughter of Jehoram, sister to Ahaziah. Her nephew, Joash, is Ahaziah’s son.

When Athaliah came after the dynasty members, Jehosheba hid her little nephew and his nurse in a room, saving the child. She kept him with her for six years, hidden “in the house of the Lord.” Not to get into spoilers, but 2 Ch. 22:11 tells us that Jehosheba was the wife of the high priest Jehoiada. It seems likely, then, that her nephew was being raised in her household, perhaps in an apartment attached to the temple complex.

In the meantime, Athaliah ruled Judah. This is a somewhat amusing turn of events since Athaliah was born into Ahab’s dynasty (likely his daughter or sister – 2 Kings 8:26). So while Jehu was purging the dynasty from Israel, he provided the opportunity for it to take control in Judah!

Coup and counter-coup

After six years in hiding, it was time for Joash’s triumphant return.

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour's Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Jehoiada called several guard captains (including the captains of the “Carites,” which may be a variation of “Cherethites,” as mentioned in 2 Sam. 20:23) to the temple. There, the high priest showed them the prince, revealing that he still lived. It seems odd that his continued existence would have gone unnoticed – did Athaliah forget about her own grandson when she went on her murderous rampage?

Or perhaps he was known to have escaped, but not where he was hiding. Or, my favourite theory, he was an imposter and Jehoiada hoped to control the country through a puppet king, young enough to be controlled.

Jehoiada organizes the captains, forming a plan of attack. There’s much mention of the Sabbath, which seems to imply that the coup is meant to take place on that day (perhaps while there is a change of guard, resulting in two companies being nearby instead of only one). Either way, the captains agree and follow the priest’s directions. They bring Joash out and perform a coronation ceremony.

Queen Athaliah hears the noise they are making and emerges to find her seven-year-old grandson, surrounded by arms-men, wearing a crown. She tears at her clothes and screams out, “Treason! Treason!” Which, of course, it is. (And, yes, she’s murdered every member of the previous dynasty that she could get her hands on, but so has every other dynasty founder we’ve seen so far – including David, though his actions were painted a pretty colour of apologism).

Jehoiada calls for the queen to be brought outside the temple and murdered, along with anyone loyal to her. Murder is just fine, but he doesn’t want it happening inside the temple.

The priest then makes a covenant between God, the new king, and the people. While it is blessedly not given in detail this time, it’s clear that this is the same sort of covenant that we saw Moses, Joshua, and David all swear. Which makes sense, since David’s dynasty was interrupted by Athaliah and now needs a sort of re-launching.

Before they can bring the new king to his palace, however, they have one more task: The destruction of the local temple of Baal (and murder of its high priest, Mattan, before its altars). They say that a Dothraki coronation without at least two deaths and a temple burning is considered a dull affair.

In a final verse, we learn that Joash was only seven years old when the crown was put on his head. An interesting little note here, this verse (2 Kings 11:21) is the first time that his name is spelled out, Jehoash. This would seem to indicate that the information about his age at ascension came from a different source from the story of the events surrounding it. Or, perhaps, as a chronicle detail, it was meant to be written more formally.

2 Kings 10: Taking care of the competition

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We have a rather gruesome chapter here as Jehu, newly become king of Israel, solidifies his position. He begins with Ahab’s seventy sons (a number no dou bt inflated by counting all male descendants, including grandsons, though still rather impressive). Jehu writes to the rulers and elders of Samaria, as well as to the guardians of these princelings (I’m assuming that not all of them were underaged, though presumably a fair number would have been. He asks them to select the best of Ahab’s descendants and set him up on Ahab’s throne to fight in Samaria’s defense.

The rulers, elders, and guardians are rightly wary of this, since Jehu has just assassinated two kings. What chance would a brand new, untried king have? So instead of setting up a new king, which would only lead to war and sieges (we saw just how terrible those can be in 2 Kings 7: 24-31), they throw themselves at Jehu’s mercy. They will do anything he asks, they say, except instate a new king.

In his second letter, Jehu accepts the leaders’ submission and asks that they behead all of Ahab’s sons (again, this could refer to any male descendant) and bring them to Jezreel the next day.

The scene is a powerful one. The sons were “with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up” (2 Kgs 10:6), people they trusted, when Jehu’s letter arrived. Suddenly, the leaders turned on their charges, killing them and filling baskets with their heads. When they are brought to him, Jehu leaves the heads in heaps at the city gates overnight. The next morning, he addresses the Israelites, taking responsibility for killing Joram but reminding them that they were the ones who had killed his descendants. He reminded them, too, that Elijah had predicted that this would happen to Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs 21:21)… and his followers. And with that, it seems that he killed all of them as well (“So Jehu slew all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his great men, and his familiar friends, and his priests, until he left him none remaining” – 2 Kgs 10:11).

Not quite done yet, he came to Betheked of the Shepherds, where he found the kinsmen of the (now slain) king of Judah, Ahaziah. They were on their way to Samaria to visit their king, as well as the “royal princes and the sons of the queen mother” (2 Kgs 10:13) – which I take to mean Jezebel and the recently murdered seventy sons.

Jehu orders his followers to take the travellers alive. Which, we’re told, they do, but only in order to bring them to a pit. There, they murder all forty-two of them. This was, apparently, what Jehu had in mind when he told them to “take them alive.”

Though the reasoning isn’t explained in the text, King Ahaziah was the son of Athaliah, who was related to Ahab and possibly Jezebel – she was either their daughter, or possibly Ahab’s sister (2 Kgs 8:26 only tells us that she was a daughter of Ahab’s dynasty). So I’m seeing the argument being made that the whole dynasty of Judah was made complicit in Ahab and Jezebel’s sins through their unfortunate marriage alliance.

Cultic Concerns

After all this bloodshed, Jehu meets up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab. They great each other, and it seems that Jehu asks Jehonadab if he’s on board with Jehu’s “cleansing” of Israel. Not to give away too many spoilers, but it seems that we’ll learn about the Rechabites later on (such as 1 Chr. 2:55). According to my Study Bible, they “fiercely maintained the old desert way of life, believing that only thus could they properly worship the Lord.” It makes sense, then, that Jehu would approach a man who appears to be their leader for help as he turns his attentions to wiping out the worship of Baal in Israel.

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

It seems that tradition also gives the two men more of a relationship. My New Bible Commentary cites a reference in Josephus (Ant. ix.6.6) to Jehu and Jehonadab being “friends of long standing” (p.355).

When Jehonadab answers that his goals align with Jehu’s, Jehu stretches out his hand and lifts Jehonadab onto his chariot. Together, they ride off into the sunset so that Jehonadab can see Jehu’s “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kgs 10:16). Presumably with Jehonadab watching, he rode all the way to Samaria and, there, killed Ahab’s remaining supporters.

With that done, Jehu assembles all the people and announces: “Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu will serve him much” (2 Kgs 10:18). He calls for all the prophets, priests, and worshippers of Baal to attend a great sacrifice he’ll be hosting. We’re quickly informed, however, that it was all a trick (though, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already guessed as much from Jehu’s weasel-y words – he’ll serve Baal much, eh?).

The set up is clearly meant to be read humorously, a point reinforced by what seems to be a play on words. My New Bible Commentary says that, in Hebrew, the word used here to mean “served” is very close to a word meaning “destroyed”. “To a person not paying attention, the words would sound alike” (p.356). I think we can assume that Jehu may have been smirking while he delivered this little speech.

Baal’s followers all came and filled his temple. They brought out special vestments and everything.

Jehu and Jehonadab addressed the throng, making sure that only Baal worshippers were present. Jehu presided over the sacrifices while, outside eighty soldiers guarded the exits with instructions not to let any of the Baal worshippers escape (if any did, the punishment was death).

When the sacrifice is done, Jehu gives the order and his soldiers rush in, slaughtering all the worshippers. Done, they brought out “the pillar that was in the house of Baal” (2 Kgs 10:26), presumably an object of some sacral significance, and burned it. After tearing down Baal’s temple, they made it into a latrine.

A Retrospective

Jehu may have wiped out the worship of Baal from Israel, but he still failed at achieving proper cultic purity. What this means, of course, is that he failed to tear down Jeroboam’s golden calves, located in Bethel and Dan.

This is a sore point for the Deuteronomist, for whom idolatry was a focus. It seems likely, however, that the charge is anachronistic. There’s little evidence that the YHWH cult at the time had rejected the use of idols. If we expand that to include symbolic imagery (I’ve seen the argument made that the golden calves were not meant to represent YHWH, but rather to form a seat on which he was to sit – much as the cherubim function in Solomon’s temple), we have a fair bit of evidence to the contrary.

It’s also possible that the later Deuteronomist condemnation of the calves had its roots at this time, in which case we seem to be looking at competing geographic variations of the YHWH cult. The Jerusalem/Judah variation seems to have begun forming a more rigid, urban, centralized, top-down cultic structure, and may well have seen the more rural, disparate, folk-based Israelite variation as a serious threat.

The text tells us that God told Jehu that, because of this oversight, his dynasty would only last four generations before it, too, would fall. The construction, “the Lord said to Jehu” (2 Kgs 10:30) struck me. For the last little while, God’s messages have all either been issued to prophets or relayed through them, suggesting that the messages were connected to stories about those prophets. Here, however, the prophet is omitted. To me, this suggested that the author of this chapter was not referencing a pre-existing tradition, but rather adding in new material.

In this case, the author would have known that Jehu’s dynasty would fall in four generations, and sought an explanation. After all, the Jehu material so far casts him as a sincere and zealous worshipper (I’m a little too cynical to take that slant at face value, since getting rid of the Baal worshippers would have also meant getting rid of a lot of potentially influential competitors, many of whom may have enjoyed the support of the previous royal dynasty, while solidifying Jehu’s control over the YHWHist base – especially when we see his two named supporters being Elisha and Jehonadab, both apparently religious leaders). That a fall was to come would have required some explanation, and the calves were convenient scape-cattle. And, of course, the message suits the Deuteronomist’s motives quite neatly.

The final few verses give us some more of the chronology. We learn that pieces of Israel were being shaved off as Hazael, the Syrian king, seems to have been taking advantage of Israel’s political upheaval. It seems that, in this time, Israel lost everything east of the Jordan to Syria.

Jehu held onto Israel (or, at least, parts of it) for 28 years before he was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

2 Kings 9: Coup

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In our last chapter, we read that King Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah were fighting against King Hazael of Syria. While they were fighting at Ramoth-Gilead, Joram was injured, so he and Ahaziah retreated to Jezreel until Joram’s recovery. We can gather from this chapter that a fair portion of the army was left behind. And it’s there that we find Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army that Elijah had been told to anoint as king way back in 1 Kings 19:15-18 (his reign is intended as a punishment for Israel, which is perhaps not the most desirable quality to be hired for).

Elijah failed to carry out most of the jobs God gave him, though at least in the last chapter (where Elisha anointed Hazael), we could chalk it up to a conflation of the two prophets. Here, however, even Elisha outsources the work.

In what looks extraordinarily like a set up for a practical joke, Elisha tasks one of the sons of the Prophets with going to Ramoth-Gilead, splash some oil at Jehu, then run away. Which he does, inviting Jehu into a house and pouring oil over him. He delivers a quick speech about bringing down the house of Ahab and getting vengeance on Jezebel, then flees.

Jehu’s servants are obviously confused by their leader now dripping with oil and the weird guy who just dashed off toward the horizon. At first, Jehu refuses to explain (displaying the typical humility we’ve been associated with our prophet-anointed leaders), but at least explains that he has been anointed the new king of Israel. His followers respond by removing their clothes and putting them “under him on the bare steps” (2 Kgs 9:13), apparently as a way of declaring their support for Jehu. Finishing off the ceremony, they blow some trumpets and proclaim him their king.

It points to the fluidity of the monarchy. We saw Saul anointed by a prophet and then, separately, accepted by the people in 1 Sam. 9-11. While he was still king, the same prophet then anointed David in 1 Sam. 16:13. More recently, Hazael was anointed while another king of Syria still ruled (2 Kings 8). It seems that getting anointed by a prophet was an important step in a successful coup.

My New Bible Commentary suggests the possibility that Jehu and his commanders had already been considering a coup (prompted by the mention of the commanders being “in council” in 2 Kgs 9:5). Whether or not that’s the case, Jehu is certainly quite amenable to the suggestion – just as Hazael was in the last chapter.

To Jezreel

Having been declared Israel’s new king by its army, Jehu immediately locks Ramoth-Gilead down to prevent word of it from getting to Joram. When he rides out toward Jezreel, it’s under the cover of secrecy, giving Joram no chance to prepare a defence.

Jehu can’t hide from Jezreel’s watch, however, and they see his army’s approach. Unfortunately for Joram, the messenger he sends out to ask if Jehu comes in peace is convinced to switch sides, joining the advance on Jezreel. When the same happens with a second messenger, Joram decides that he needs to talk to Jehu for himself. If you want something done right…

When Joram leaves the protection of Jezreel, he brings Ahaziah along with him. As it just so happens, the two kings meet the rebels on Naboth’s vineyard – the stealing of which led to the cursing of Jezebel and her husband’s dynasty in 1 Kings 21. When they come face to face, Joram – ever hopeful – asks again if Jehu has come in peace. “What peace can there be, so long as the harlotries and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?” (2 Kgs 9:22) is the reply. So, basically, that’s a no.

Realizing that he’s in big trouble, Joram reels around and tries to flee, but Jehu shoots him in the back with an arrow. The death is perhaps a little more honourable than Hazael’s suffocation of Benhadad, but only by a smidge. Jehu has his aide, Bidkar, toss the body onto Naboth’s old land to fulfil the curse from 1 Kings 21:17-19.

Ahaziah remains, at least for now. When he tries to flee, Jehu pursues him and his men manage to shoot the king of Judah as well. He doesn’t die instantly as Joram had, however. Instead, he makes it all the way to Megiddo before he falls, and is then conveyed back to Jerusalem for burial. We also get a rather out-of-place verse telling us that Ahaziah began his reign in the eleventh year of Joram (2 Kings 9:29), which is not only appearing at the wrong end, but also conflicts with 2 Kings 8:25.

The Fall of Jezebel

It’s hard not to feel for Jezebel as she sees Jehu coming, presumably knowing that he’s just killed her son and is now coming after her. Instead of trying to run away as both Joram and Ahaziah had done, she dresses herself in queenly regalia and faces Jehu from her window. She knows what’s coming, yet she meets her fate head on and in the full dignity of her station.

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Or she’s a dirty dirty whore who was so vain that she took the time to put on her whore paint and shriek out of her window before getting her totally justified comeuppance. Either interpretation is perfectly valid. Really. (Does my eye-roll transcend the information superhighway?)

As Jehu approaches, Jezebel calls him a “Zimri” – a reference to another Israelite military coup leader who murdered his king. The accusation is both an apt comparison and a curse, since Zimri was himself deposed after only seven days. The story can be found in 1 Kings 16:8-20.

Rather than respond to the accusation, Jehu calls out to any of Jezebel’s servants who might be on his side, asking them to throw her down. Two or three eunuchs respond, tossing their mistress from the window, after which her body was trampled by Jehu’s horses.

Jehu took the time to eat and drink, presumably in celebration, before finally calling for Jezebel’s body to be properly buried, as befits her status as a king’s daughter (she was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon, 1 Kings 16:31). By that time, however, her corpse had been eaten by dogs, leaving nothing more than that her skull, feet, and the palm of her hands. Basically, it’s the exact opposite of a mob hit.

To close off the story, we get Jehu justifying his actions by calling it all the will of God, as prophesied by Elijah in 1 Kings 21:23 (though Jehu’s version adds a few gruesome details).

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.

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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