Fribble Friday: My Cup Runneth Over (2 Kings 3–5)

Nearly back on schedule! Maybe for good.

Short snarky summary: Remember that Moabite rebellion? We get the payoff for that line here, with a disasterous but ultimately successful military campaign. Elisha continues to be all miraculous, mostly towards non-Jews, carrying on Elijah’s legacy.

2 Kings keeps bouncing around thematically; we move from local politics and wars among nations to fairly small-scale doings of prophets with no real sense of cohesion between them. This section is indicative of that tendency, as we zoom out from last chapter’s miraculous doings into a war and the zoom back in to watch Elisha continue his itinerant-holy-man gig. The stage-setting for Chapter 3 is that Jehoram, the son of Ahab and the brother of king Ahaziah, who died heirless, has ascended the throne of Israel, while Jehshaphat still reigns in Judah. The text offers qualified praise of Jehoram, suggesting that he is not quite as bad as his father was, because he at least closed down the temple of Baal.

We’re now told a bit about Moab, which bred sheep and paid tribute to Israel. Verse 5 indicates that they got sick of being a tributary and rebelled upon the death of Ahab, which we were told about very briefly back in the very first verse of 2 Kings. Jehoram decides to strike back at the Moabite rebels, and calls up Ahab’s old friend Jehoshaphat, inviting him to join in. Weirdly, Jehoshaphat is enthusiastic and pledges his troops. This seems weird to me because (a) Judah has absolutely no stake in Moab and wouldn’t particularly gain by victory, (b) Judah and Isael, historically, did not get along that well, and (c) the last time Jehoshaphat signed on with an Israelite campaign (against the Arameans, back in 1 Kings 22) was an unmitigated disaster. Ahab says, “OK, let’s go through Edom.” Now, a bit of geography’s in order here. Israel is in the north of modern day Israel and Jordan, curving around the northern edge of the Dead Sea. Judah was south of Israel, in a region which today would be more-or-less central Israel. Moab, archaeological evidence suggests, was on the east of the Dead Sea; its capital, Dhiban, is still around today and is in west-central Jordan, not too far from the modern Israelite border and presumably very close to the border of the Kingdom of Israel. Edom, on the other hand, was a tribal group which occasionally harried the Egyptians, down south of Judah, stretching down as far south as Eilat. Basically, to orient ourselves vis-a-vis the Dead Sea, we have Israel to the northwest-to-northeast, Judah to the west-to-southwest, Edom to the south, and Moab to the west. Oh, and down south where the Edomites are is also the Negev desert.

I mention all this geography because, as an Israel-led plan, moving through Edom seems to make no sense. It’s slightly more convenient for Judah, and it might be a bit of a wash for the highly concentrated Israelite settlement in the south closer to Jerusalem, but it’s entirely the wrong direction for Israel’s significant trans-Jordanian population, or even for the royal court in Samaria. Also, maintaining supply lines through the Negev desert is a much dicier proposition than going through the friendly and agricultural territory of Transjordan.

I mention this last point because when Jehoram, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom (who was not mentioned in the deliberations and presumably has something to do with the choice of route) set off through the desert, they are almost immediately struck by the logistical disaster of running out of water. I guess I’m spoiled by modernity, because the notion of how they ran a war millennia ago is fundamentally alien; strategy as it exists today was, I guess, not a thing, and you just set out and hoped that your troops made it to where they were heading to. Certainly just running out of supplies before engaging the enemy, barring some unforeseen disaster, isn’t something which typically happened in military campaigns after a certain point in history. But, anyways, Team Israel runs into trouble and Jehoram goes on about how God has brought them together only to destroy them. Jehoshaphat suggests they consult a prophet if there’s one around, and one of Jehoram’s attendants says, “Well, there’s Elijah’s groomed successor Elisha,” and Jehoram, who seems less averse to prophets of God than his father or brother was, enthusiastically endorses this suggestion.

Elisha is sent for, and, as we could probably see coming, starts off by castigating Jehoram, suggesting he consult his mother’s own kept prophets. Once they get him mollified, he offers to prophesy as a personal favor to Jehoshaphat (specifically not for Jehoram, about whom he makes no secret of his contempt), and has a musician play to put him into a trance. That last bit is a nice little detail surrounding the whole prophesy gig with a nice aura of the mystical which has been hitherto absent from the story. The prophesy itself, however, is of I’m afraid a piece with the otherfairly mundane prophetic utterances of the last book: the coalition of the three kings will defeat Edom, and they will have plenty of water to drink, arriving not by rain or by wind, but by miracle. And, indeed, overnight water just flows into their vicinity from Edom, and they’re saved from their own incompetence. And then the Moabites see the unlight glinting on the surface of the water, think that it’s blood and that the three kings fought among themselves and died, with the result that the Moabites rush headlong and underprepared into the waiting weapons of the Israelite coalition. So the rebellion is put down, no thanks whatsoever to Jehoram’s planning. In the end of the chapter we’re treated to a snapshot of the sort of things Iron Age armies did when they won a battle: sacking cities, burning down towns, cutting down trees, and ruining fertile fields by throwing stones into them (which doesn’t seem quite as effective as, say, Rome’s famous salting of Carthage’s fields). They then besieged the last stroghold of the king of Moab, who, inexplicably, offers his son and heir as a burnt sacrifice. This extraordinary atrocity actually works, sort of, since the Israelites leave in disgust.

We leave the realm of the political with the next chapter, which returns to the theme of “Elisha makes awesome but plot-irrelevant miracles”. A widow, who hastens to tell Elisha that her late husband was a prophet who feared God, is destitute and in debt. Apparently even prophets have limits, because instead of magically summoning wealth, Elisha asks what possessions she has, presumably because the divine juju needs to rest on some physical object. She has a little bit of oil, so Elisha sends her off to borrow a lot of jugs while he miraclifies the oil. Then he pours oil into the borrowed jugs… and pours… and pours, never exhausting her own meager supply.

It’s worth noting that “oil” in that time and place would have been olive oil, and reasonably valuable but also sufficiently essential that even a poor person would have some, so the tale works, structurally. With gallons of oil the widow reasonably has enough to pay off her debt and prosper after.

The next stop on the Magical Mystery Tour is Shunem, in the north of modern Israel. Elisha decides that a wealthy woman living there who always treats him kindly and with hospitality ought to be done a good turn. She and her husband (more on this interesting inversion of the usual introduction of characters later) decide to make a special comfortable guest room for him, and Elisha, who appreciates this kindly gesture, sends his servant to figure out what sort of miracle she might like. His servant Gehazi reports that she is childless, so Elisha prophecies that she will bear a son within the year. She responds to the news dubiously, but his prophecy comes to pass. Some years later though, he dies, so the Shunammite woman puts him in the aforementioned guest chamber and rushes to find Elisha, over her husband’s protests that the holy man only joins them on the holidays. After a somewhat misleading response to Gehazi’s query about her family’s welfare, she throws herself at Elisha’s feet, accusing him of lying about her good fortune in a son. Elisha admits that (for reasons unknown) he had not been foretold of this by God, and immediately rushes to rectify the situation. First he sends Gehazi to lay his staff on the boy’s face. This I sort of take in the context that, going back to Moses, the staffs of holy men were supposedly imbued with their power. But this fails, and Elisha personally oversees the resurrection with a very intimate ritual: he lies on the corpse, pressing lips to lips, hands to hands, and eyes to eyes until the boy is revived, sneezing several times.

I rather like this episode; it’s a welcome refresher from seemingly incomprehensible miracles to a state that doesn’t deserve it and apparently random acts. Here we have a nice narrative structure of virtue rewarded, rectification of a mistake, and a sense of the passionate and personal nature of true miracle. I also very much like the starring role given to a woman (knocking a few points off for not giving her a name): despite her being a member of a family, and clearly having a husband, she and not he shows all the agency in this tale. For once it’s an episode in the life of the prophets I don’t have to put a question mark of angry bewilderment on.

It’s unfortunately the last episode of that sort for a while. Chapter 4 rounds out with a few more random miracles. Some nameless and apparently quite stupid prophets go foraging, pick some wild, poisonous gourds, and make stew. Then they start eating and realize it’s not good for them. But Elisha comes along, throws flour into the pot, says “It’s OK now,” and behold it is. Maybe “death in the pot” is a euphemism for “unacceptably soupy stew”. I’m going to start using that one in my daily life. The other episode doesn’t involve prophets, or good people, or even apparently people in distress. Someone comes to Elisha with twenty loaves of bread and he says “Give it to all the people,” and it’s set out before a hundred hungry men and there are leftovers. It’s a bit like the oil trick really, or like Jesus’s later loaves-and-fishes routine, but with absolutely no context which might make it remotely relevant.

Chapter 5 blends the political and miracle strands of Elisha’s life with a longer narrative. Naaman, a military leader of the Arameans is afflicted with leprosy, and coincidentally has an Israelite slave girl who, for some reason, decides to make her master’s life better by telling her mistress that there’s a holy man in Israel who could cure him. Informed of this intelligence, the king of Aram sends Naaman with rich gifts to Jehoram, asking him to cure the leprosy. Jehoram, who presumably remembers his father’s slaughter at Aramite hands (possibly even Naaman’s!) figures this is just a pretext for war, but Elisha tells him to relax and just send Naaman to him for treatment. It’s unclear why Elisha keeps pulling Jehoram’s fat out of the fire—he only gets so much credit for not being quite as bad as his father, surely.

Of course, Aram nearly goes to war anyways. Elisha sends his servant to tell Naaman to bathe in the Jordan, advice the latter finds trifling and insulting in the manner of its delivery. His attendants try to calm him down and say that since he came all this way, he might as well at least try the advice. Surprisingly, it works, and this episode sets the stage for all sorts of attributions of extraordinary holy powers to the water of the Jordan (up to and past, of course, John the Baptist’s own ablutionary use of those same waters). Naaman’s declaration after this event is a bit unusual, contextually: “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!” The Deuterocanon is a weird melange of (presumably older) monolateralist bits which assert that worshipping other Gods is wrong, and that Jehovah is more powerful, but kind of ambiguous on whether those other gods are real, and much more explicitly monotheistic bits like this. The rest of Naaman’s speech, I reckon, is also a later addition, where he apologizes for the need to accompany his own king in worship at the temple in Rimmon and promising faith to the Israelite God in his heart.

The chapter ends with a little bit more explanation of Elisha’s methods. The aforementioned Gehazi, realizing Elisha didn’t ask for payment, runs after Naaman and requests a modest recompense, which Naaman provides. He lies about doing this to Elisha, who castigates him for taking payment for what is supposed to be free, and then gives Gehazi leprosy in Naaman’s stead.

Other than the inexplicable political aspect, this part sort of works. Elisha’s miracle serves a definite prophetic purpose, and the sin of Gehazi and his punishment works morlly and thematically.

All in all, this section brings us some pretty good, explicable miracles with solid stories around them and a few that are stupid. A better batting average, really, than we have seen hitherto or are likely to see again for a while.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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