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 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.

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.

1 Kings 19: Meditation Retreat

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Following from the story in the last chapter, Ahab rushes home to tell Jezebel about the slaughter of the prophets. I think we’re supposed to understand something about the power dynamics at Israel’s royal court.

When Jezebel vows to come after Elijah, he flees the country again, this time going to Beersheba in Judah. He stops just long enough to deposit his servant before walking off into the wilderness, finding a tree to sit under, and ask God to let him die.

The accuracy of this description of depression is quite accurate, right down to the part where Elijah falls asleep and refuses to get up again for what appears to be a rather long time. During that time, an angel wakes him, gets him to eat a bit of miracle food, and Elijah goes back to sleep. A little later, the angel wakes him again to eat, saying that he must make sure to eat or else “the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7).

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Apparently on those two meals alone, Elijah is able to walk for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness to Horeb. This is a clear reference of the Exodus story, and is perhaps intended to lend some vicarious credibility to Elijah.

Once Elijah finds himself a cave to live in, the same encounter repeats itself, nearly word for word. In both, God asks Elijah what he’s doing there. Elijah responds that he has been very jealous for God because the Israelites have forsaken the covenants, slain the prophets, and thrown down the altars – the latter being rather amusing in light of the Deuteronomist “smash the altars” position.

Similar to Moses’s sighting in Exodus 33:21-23, God tells Elijah to come out and look look at him. Of course, there’s a lengthy pre-show to get through first, complete with great winds, the rocks in God’s path smashing into pieces, an earthquake, and a fire. Lest readers get the wrong theological idea, we’re told explicitly that God is none of these things.

Rather, God is… something. Various translations give it as “a still small voice,” “a gentle whisper,” “a gentle blowing,” “a whistling of a gentle air,” and “a voice of gentle silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah covers his face with his mantle and emerges from the cave, suggesting that perhaps he hadn’t actually seen all the natural disasters that preceded the voice. Since this is where the narrative loops, it seems that two traditions were stitched together, or perhaps this detail of Elijah emerging from the cave migrated a little.

The voice repeats the question: “What are you doing, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). I think it would be a mistake to take this question literally. It’s more like when you walk into the kitchen and find your preschooler, as well as the entire kitchen, utterly covered in flour. You know what he’s doing, you’re not asking to find out.

After Elijah confesses to his jealousy (again), God sends him to the wilderness of Damascus so that he can anoint Hazael as king of Syria. After that, he’s to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel. Finally, he’s to anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, as his own successor. The idea is to destroy Israel. Hazael will take the first swing, anyone who misses while fall to Jehu, and Elisha will sweep up the remainder. Only seven thousand Israelites, those who never bowed to Baal, will survive.

Disregarding God’s wishes, Elijah instead heads straight out to where Elisha is ploughing with twelve oxen. I doubt that the number of oxen is a coincidence.

Rather than anoint him (unless we take “anoint” metaphorically), Elijah places his own mantle over Elisha. Elisha then becomes Elijah’s servant, signifying that he will be Elijah’s successor as Joshua served Moses in Exodus 24:13.

But before Elisha leaves, he slaughters his twelve oxen and throws a feast for the people.