Wibble Wednesday: Fugitive Arameans (2 Kings 6–8)

OK, no excuses for further delay. It’s been the end of the semester, and I’ve generally been dealing with other stuff, but the semester’s over and I have no reason not to continue writing this. Part of the problem is that Kings is such a slog. There are a lot of chapters where, really, nothing interesting happens.

Short snarky summary: a lot of back-and-forth wars with the Arameans ensue. Against this backdrop, Elisha continues to work miracles until everyone’s sick of them.

So Aram seems to be the Foe-of-the-Day. Back in the last chapter, Aram seemed rather appeased when their general Naaman was cured of leprosy through Elisha’s advice. But now they’re back and they’re going to fight with Israel for chapters on end. A brief reminder of who the hell these people are: both Biblical and Assyrian sources locate Aram around Damascus and points eastward thereof, to the northeast of Israel. This means that they’re actually geographically pretty far from most of the other nations acknowledged by the Bible: Moab, Judah, and Edom are all well to its south, so Israel is pretty much the only neighbor they have to get into tiffs with (off to their east is unincorporated tribelands, while to the north are the increasingly terrifying Assyrians). They’re arguably a bigger wheel at this point in history than Israel itself is; certainly the independent archaeological record suggests a far wider-ranging and more significant Aramean influence than Israelite influence. The Aramites were also frequently racked by disunity, though, and tended to operate more as a weak confederation of states than as a unified kingdom, which may be how Israel and other nations occasionally get the better of them.

But before we get to the war with Aram, we have another medium-lame miracle from Elisha. Elisha’s coven of prophets (do prophets come in covens? My copy of An Exaltation of Larks is silent on this matter) has decided that the place they are (we don’t even get any details on where it is) is too crowded, so they want to move, build houses, and spread out. Elisha consents to join them, and then, while chopping trees for their lodgings, one of them drops his ax-head into the water. When he tells Elisha that it was borrowed, Elisha drops a straw into the water, magically causing the axhead to float. As miracles go it’s pretty clear why this is not one that gets a lot of play. I mean, I get that, at th time, an iron blade was a valuable thing and dropping one in the water was a Big Deal, but causing a lump of iron to float is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty mediocre miracle.

But now it’s time for the Aramean follies! Aram keeps setting up camp in Israelite territory, while every single time Elisha warns the king of Israel to steer clear of wherever the Arameans are camped. There are several things which are unclear. First, it’s not clear why Elisha is, once more, doing Jehoram a favor when he really, really doesn’t much like Jehoram, and second, it’s not clear why Jehoram doesn’t make better use of this intelligence, to outflank the Arameans or otherwise raid their camps, instead of just avoiding them and prologing the stalemate. But, in any case, the king of Aram, stymied time and again, eventually learns that Elisha’s to blame and descends in siege upon the city of Dothan where Elisha’s sheltered.

Henceforth the story becomes mildly trippy. Chariots of fire surround the Arameans, and on Elisha’s command, the Arameans are struck with blindness. Then Elisha actually goes out and talks to the Aramean host, saying, “You’re in the wrong place. I’ll take you where you want to be,” and leads them right into the king’s court of Samaria, where on Elisha’s command they are cured of their blindness and taken captive by the king. The king asks if he should kill them (addressing Elisha, peculiarly, as “Father”), and Elisha says that, no, they should be treated courteously and sent on their way in peace.

But there’s no profit in kindness, because shortly the Arameans attack again, besieging Samaria until the people inside begin to starve. King Jehoram is deeply upset when one of his subjects tells a horrifying story of making a bargain with another woman to eat their children on alternate days but, after they’ve shared one child’s flesh, the other hid her child. Irrationally, this story makes Jehoram swear vengeance on Elisha. Why Elisha? Nothing about this seems to be his fault. The messenger sent to bring Elisha to be executed seems to blame God, but that’s not really Elisha’s fault either. And Elisha gives good news, anyways, that within 24 hours, food will be plentiful and cheap, but with the dire prognostication that the messenger will not get to taste any of it. This comes to pass when God calls up the sound of an enormous army, and the Arameans flee leaving behind their provisions. Some lepers (who are outcast from the city, and thus not within the beseiged walls), stumble across the Aramean camp while attempting to desert; they then report the miracle to the city, where everybody comes out in great rejoicing to plunder the camp, and in their eagerness trample the aforementioned messenger to death.

In Chapter 8 we move away from these military actions briefly, but Elisha is still the focus of the story. The Shunammite woman from chapter 4, whom Elisha predicted a son for, and whose son died and was revived by Elisha, gets a peculiar curtain call. Elisha returns to her to do another good turn, instructing her to leave the land for seven years while a famine rages. It’s not clear exactly how this fits in timelinewise with everything else, but lets assume it’s in chronological order, so we have the Aramean raids ending in their blindness and capture, then (hopefully some time later) the Aramean siege of Samaria, and then the Shummanite woman’s departure, and then we have a seven-year timeskip because she then comes back (it seems it’d make more sense to have her go away before some of the Aramean battles, so as to not have this “and then, for seven years, nothing happened” gap, but I dunno if the text remotely supports that). Anyways, on her return, she appeals for the return of her land and home, which were apparently occupied by squatters, so Elisha’s servant Gehazi (last seen in Chapter 5 being cursed with leprosy for taking payment for a cure) visits the king of Israel, who asks to know what all Elisha has done. This is a kind of odd and continuity-breaking question for Jehoram to ask, since he knows Elisha pretty well, and was present for most of his miracles, but Gehazi tells him about the one he didn’t know about, which is the revival of the Shummanite woman’s son, and the king is sufficiently impressed to send a eunuch to redress the woman’s complaints.

Next up, we’re told that king Ben-hadad of Aram is old and ill. This particular king is cited as the mastermind behind the siege of Samaria, so maybe the entire seven-year famine bit is supposed to be after everything else and so we’re now at a later date with that great warlord grown aged and feeble. Anyways, Elisha visits Damascus on his wanderings, so Ben-hadad sends Hazael, who later context suggests is a prince of Aram, to ask Elisha if he will recover from his illness. Elisha tells Hazael that Ben-hadad will die, but that he should deceive the king (it is not clear what, if any, purpose this deception serves). Elisha then weeps, explaining that Hazael will deliver horrible destruction on Israel. Hazael, doubting his ability to do such a thing, inquires further, and Elisha prophesies that Hazael will be king. You might think Hazael would swear friendship, or at least swear not to deliver horrible destruction, but he doesn’t, and exactly what Elisha’s role and purpose is here seems murky. He seems to simultaneously regard Hazael well enough to be truthful to him and firmly believe he will do evil things. Then again Elisha demonstrates the same hot-and-cold wllingness to be of service to someone he doesn’t respect vis-a-vis Jehoram, so maybe it’s just how he operates.

After Ben-hadad’s passing, we get a few more kingships passing along. Jehoshaphat, who had been king of Judah long enough to serve alongside Ahab in campaigns against Edom, dies, leaving his son Joram, who is married into the house of Ahab, as his heir. In an unprecedented twist, this king of Judah is assessed by the text as a bad man; usually it’s the Israelite kings who are bad and the Judahites good. God apparently did not favor Joram’s endeavors but, because he was of the house of David, opted not to destroy him: instead he just failed militarily, losing Edom and Libnah in rebellions and eventually dying, succeeded by his son Ahaziah as king.

The final few verses of Chapter 9 detail how Ahaziah ruled. Influenced by his bad dad, he too is a king regarded as evil (for the only crime the text really recognizes, which is idolworship), and spends a lot of time hanging around with the king of Israel, who, confusingly, the text insists on identifying as “Joram son of Ahab” rather than “Jehoram of Israel”. This is confusing in no small part because Ahaziah’s father is also named Joram and is kin (through marriage) to Ahab. Anyways, Ahaziah and Joram fight against Hazael, and Joram is wounded, and they both retire to Jezreel: Joram to convalesce, and Ahaziah to keep him company.

Elisha is finally going to lose patience with these royals next chapter, and punish them for their misdeeds.


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

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