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 2: The Bald Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

Elisha's Bears

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

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

1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls

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The following chapter is a strange one, and I’m really not surprised that I never heard about Elijah in Sunday School. While the story is one of Yahweh’s triumph over Baal, it functions as a blueprint for dismissing all gods (sort of, but I’ll go into more detail when we get to the right spot in the narrative).

Three years later, we’re introduced to Obadiah, a faithful Hebrew and Ahab’s steward. When Jezebel ordered all the prophets of Yahweh killed, Obadiah sheltered a hundred of them in caves, sneaking them bread and water. It seems in this chapter that the word “prophet” is used somewhat interchangeably with “priest.” If there’s a distinction, I’m not picking up on it.

The famine has been particularly hard on Samaria and, in an attempt to save at least some of his animals, Ahab decides to search for water springs. He has Obadiah go one way while he goes the other. It’s during this search that Obadiah happens upon Elijah, who has been sent back by God to confront Ahab.

When Elijah tells Obadiah to go fetch Ahab, Obadiah has a little freak out. Ahab has been looking everywhere for Elijah. If Obadiah tells him that he’s found him, and then they find that he’s disappeared again, Obadiah will be killed! There seems no possibility, in Obadiah’s mind, that Elijah intends to remain. But Elijah convinces Obadiah to go by promising to stay put.

And he does! When Ahab arrives (Obadiah is not dropped from the narrative), Elijah is waiting for him. They have a one-liner exchange in which Ahab calls Elijah “troubler of Israel” (1 Kgs 18:17) and Elijah turns it back against him with a clever “I know you are, but what am I?” Followed with an invitation to gather all the Israelites, including 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, at Mount Carmel. Surprisingly, rather than just killing Elijah on the spot, Ahab complies. As usual, his motivations are never explained.

Interestingly, the prophets of Baal and Asherah are specified as the ones who “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), and I have a feeling that that’s significant. There’s no mention in our readings so far as a table being described as belonging to a woman rather than to her husband, so it seems clear that the author is trying to highlight something. I’m thinking that there are two plausible ways to read this: a) Jezebel is the true ruler of Israel, not Ahab, or b) Ahab tolerates his wife’s religion, but has not converted himself (therefore they are her prophets, not his).

The Contest

The location appears to have been chosen to make a point. According to my New Bible Commentary, “Carmel was one of the heights on which were located places of worship to Baal, and in choosing this Elijah moved into Baal’s own home territory” (p.343).

Ahab arrives, along with all the Israelites. Interestingly, though, the 400 prophets of Asherah are never mentioned at Mount Carmel. It could be that they had been added into the earlier reference, or perhaps Elijah simply never bothered to challenge them. Or maybe they just didn’t show up. For the purposes of the story, it seems clear that this is about a battle between very similar gods, gods who were clearly in competition for the same niche. From a narrative standpoint, this becomes a sort of mirroring, so challenging Asherah as well just wouldn’t have fit.

Elijah addresses the crowd, telling them that they can’t keep waffling between God and Baal. They must choose their god, and they must do it now. The people remain silent, so Elijah proposes a contest: They will fetch two bulls, each cut one bull to pieces and lay it on a pyre. They will then each pray to their god and, whichever sacrifice ignites and consumes itself will declare which god is true.

So the 450 prophets of Baal select their bull and prepare it, and dance around it for hours. At around noon, Elijah starts mocking them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). It could be that Elijah is being literal, asking if Baal really did fall asleep on the job. It feels more like plain mocking, making up absurd excuses to pre-emptively attack the prophets of Baal for what they must surely be preparing to do themselves. Also interesting here is whether Elijah believes that Baal used to be a god who has now been defeated, if he believes that there is and has always been only one god, or if he believes that this is a further demonstration of Yahweh’s power because he is blocking Baal from being able to perform the miracle.

Regardless, I imagine that this passage must be troubling for any adherents who give it some thought. If we challenge God, if we demand a miracle, is failure proof that He has gone aside? That he is asleep?

The prophets of Baal, predictably, react by redoubling their efforts. They cry out and cut themselves, which the text tells us was their way. This reference to self-harm may be intended to be more than just a description of their religious practices. In Deut. 14:1 and Lev. 19:28, where the practice is forbidden (possibly as an attack on Baal worship), it is connected with the worship of the dead. So it could be that the prophets of Baal are starting to lose faith, perhaps they believe that their god has already been defeated and have begun mourning.

Tim Bulkeley mentions the Canaanite Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, in which Baal is taken to the underworld by Mot. According to him, Anat and El call Baal back to life by cutting themselves. If this is the case, it could be that the use of mourning rituals might have become part of Baal worship. However, I was not able to find this detail in the time I spent Googling (it seems instead that it is Mot who is cut up). What I did find was that the story may be intended as a drought myth, rather than a seasonal myth – which seems more than a tad relevant here.

But no matter how hard the prophets of Baal try, the pyre will not self-ignite.

Elijah’s Turn

Elijah begins by rebuilding God’s altar, which we’re told had been torn down. It’s interesting that Elijah, though clearly presented as a proper prophet of God in the middle of a Temple period, is able to build an altar without any sort of condemnation. The rules seem rather flexible when it comes to putting Baal worshippers in their place.

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

He builds the altar using twelve stones, which our pedantic narrator feels the need to tell us represent the twelve tribes. Once this has been done, he digs a large trench around the altar, piles on wood, and lays cow bits over top. To make his magic trick even more astounding, he has the Israelites pour twelve jugs of water over top – soaking the wood and filling the trench that surrounds the altar. That the people were willing to waste so much water is rather surprising.

When Elijah summons God, fire bursts out on the altar, consuming the bull pieces and even moving into the trenches to evaporate the water.

People who really want to see the Bible as a reliable historical record but don’t want to admit that miracles are real have found several ways to explain this one. The most obvious, that Elijah used water from near a fracking site, is a little anachronistic (but I won’t fault the person who came up with it because it was me). That said, some have seriously proposed that Elijah used some hyper flammable liquid instead of water, or perhaps combined two liquids that exploded on contact. Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that the fire was caused by lightening, a first sign of the rain that will come later in the chapter. To all these speculations, I think my New Bible Commentary has the perfect response: These are “only the frenzied attempt to hold on to the Bible without having the faith to believe it” (p.344).

The case is closed, the contest one, and the Israelites are convinced (for now). On Elijah’s orders, they chase down the 450 prophets of Baal and slaughter them.

His blood lust sated, Elijah climbs back up Mount Carmel and puts his face between his knees. He sends his servant to look out toward the see seven times and, on the seventh, the servant sees a little cloud. The drought is about to end.

Elijah tells Ahab to head home quick, because the rain is about to start. That one little cloud doesn’t wait long, though, and the downpour begins. Elijah then girds his loins and runs, managing to beat Ahab back to Jezreel.