Tyndale Bulletin 49. 1 (1998) 1-28. The Elisha Narratives and the Coherence of 2 Kings 2-8 1


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Tyndale Bulletin 49.1 (1998) 1-28.

The Elisha Narratives and the

Coherence of 2 Kings 2-81

Philip E. Satterthwaite


2 Kings 2-8, containing most of the narratives of the prophet Elisha, are generally held to be somewhat incoherent. Many of Elisha’s miracles, in particular, seem both trivial and ill-related to their context. This article argues that the key to 2 Kings 2-8 is provided by the portrayal of Elisha as a ‘second Joshua’ in ch. 2. In a logical outworking of this chapter, the subsequent narratives set over against each other Elisha’s followers and the Northern Kingdom, raising the hope that Elisha’s followers will ‘conquer’ the land, bringing the North back to YHWH. This hope is ultimately not realised. The miracle accounts find their place in this interpretation.

I. The Problem: Coherence in 2 Ki. 2-8?

2 Kings 2-8, the chapters in which the majority of the material relating to the prophet Elisha is found, are usually reckoned to pose considerable literary and historical problems. Though Elisha features in every episode, he is found engaged in a range of different activities in which it is hard to see a unifying theme, on the one hand engaging in the politics of his day (war with Moab, ch. 3; war with Aram, chs. 5-7), on the other performing a number of striking, but in the light of the larger context, irrelevant-seeming miracles (ch. 4; 6:1-7). Given the diverse subject-matter and also the differences in length, style, complexity and mood of all these episodes, it is not surprising that some scholars have argued that a variety of sources underlie these

chapters;2 nor that some of the proposals made as to the stages by which chs. 2-8 have reached their present form should be quite intricate.3 It has been suggested that many of the events narrated in chs. 2-8 did not take place during the reign of Jehoram, where Kings4 seems to locate them.5 My impression is that most readers find these chapters difficult. The difficulty consists not in the fact that the individual narratives fail to make clear points about God’s dealings with men and women (on the contrary, they are regularly expound-ed along these lines), but in the fact that it is hard to see why one narrative follows another. This is felt to be worrying, because of an intuition which is partly literary (we ought to be able to relate the parts to the whole in order to understand both better) and partly theological (if narrative incidents seem to follow each other haphazardly, this might suggest a God who has, so to speak, lost the plot in his dealings with his people). In what follows I shall mount a case for the literary coherence of 2 Kings 2-8. The reader may not find all aspects of this case equally convincing, but I hope that it will at least prove suggestive.6

II. Defining the Problem

2 Kings 2-8 must, of course, be read in the context of the larger narrative of Kings of which they form a part. Kings, on any reading, is a complex account which weaves together a number of narrative strands, and much in 2 Kings 2-8 flows from events earlier in Kings. The end of 1 Kings, especially 1 Kings 19, is important for understanding 2 Kings 2-8. This emerges when we examine 2 Kings 2-8 against the background of three linked themes introduced at the end of 1 Kings.

1. Destruction of Ahab’s Line/War against Baal

The first two of these themes may be taken together. They relate to the destruction of Ahab’s line and YHWH’s war against Baal. King Ahab is particularly associated with the introduction of Baal worship into the Northern Kingdom (1 Ki. 16:31-33), and the destruction of Ahab’s line is linked to the eradication of Baal worship. Elijah initiates both processes, waging war against Baal (1 Ki. 17-18) and prophesying the end of Ahab’s line (21:21-24): Jehu completes them both, destroying Ahab’s line (9:21-26; 10:1-11) and putting an end to Baal wor-ship (10:12-28). Ahab’s death in battle at Ramoth Gilead (1 Ki. 22) and the death of Ahab’s elder son Ahaziah (2 Ki. 1) are both partial outworkings of the judgment prophesied by Elijah.

Now, the only explicit references to either of these two themes in 2 Kings 2-8 are at 3:1-3, where Jehoram is said to have got rid of a ‘sacred stone of Baal’ erected by his father, but not to have abandoned worship at Jeroboam’s shrines, and 3:13, where Elisha tells Jehoram, ‘Go to the prophets of your father… and your mother’ (that is, to the prophets of Baal; cf. 1 Ki. 18). It seems likely, however, that both themes form a crucial part of the background to chs. 2-8, and that many episodes in these chapters must be understood in relation to them. Thus the idea of famine as an attack on the claims of Baal’s followers and a judgment on Israel for worshipping Baal, expounded at length in 1 Kings 17-18, seems to be presupposed in passages such as 2 Kings 4:38-44 and 8:1-6, in line with a general tendency in Kings to link both military reverses and famine with YHWH’s judgment on

Israel’s unfaithfulness.7 Similarly, the question of when judgment will fall on Ahab’s line hangs over the entire account of Jehoram’s reign (3:1-9:26), and particularly surfaces in connection with a theme which is prominent and explicit in chs. 2-8, that of the Aramean threat. To this we now turn.

2. The Aramean Threat

War between Aram and Israel dominates 2 Kings 5-8. The theme is first referred to at the time of Baasha (1 Ki. 15:18-21), but the relevant passage for our purposes is 1 Kings 19:15-17, in which the Aramean Hazael is introduced as one of three human agents (the others being Jehu and Elisha himself) who will finally defeat Baal and bring an end to Ahab’s line (the second point is implied in the command to anoint Jehu as king over Israel, v. 16). From then on, references to war with Aram are read in the light of this prediction that an Aramean king will be among those used to accomplish these purposes. As the Arameans, at first laughably over-confident and inept (1 Ki. 20), come to pose an ever more formidable threat to Israel in the chapters following, the reader senses a judgment drawing closer to the house of Ahab. It fits with this that Ahab is killed by an Aramean weapon (1 Ki. 22:34-35), and that Jehoram’s wounding in battle against Hazael (2 Ki. 8:28-29) is the prelude to Jehu’s coup (2 Ki. 9).

1 Kings 19 is important not only for linking the theme of the Aramean threat with those of the destruction of Ahab’s line and the eradication of Baal worship, but for the larger point made by the entire account of Elijah’s meeting with YHWH on Mt. Horeb. Elijah, who has expected a swift, decisive victory against Baal, is told that events will not follow such a course. A partial answer to the question why it is hard to discern a pattern in the events of 2 Kings 2-8 is surely to be found in this chapter, which represents YHWH’s coming judgement on Ahab’s line and Baal’s followers as like a ‘gentle whisper’ rather than earthquake or fire (vv. 11-12), suggesting that it will proceed in ways that will at times be almost undetectable. Similarly, YHWH’s command to anoint Hazael, Jehu and Elisha implies both that

judgment will be protracted (Elijah’s work will have to be carried on by successors) and that it will proceed on a number of fronts (three people are to be anointed). Might we not have expected a long and complex sequel?8

3. The Miracle Accounts

If consideration of the above three themes provides a framework for understanding chs. 2-8, how may those parts of chs. 2-8 which we have not so far referred to be fitted into that framework? The narrative in which Elisha takes up Elijah’s mantle, and with it Elijah’s task (2:1-18), is intelligible in the light of 1 Kings 19: we knew that Elijah’s work was to be carried on beyond his lifetime. The narrative of the war against Moab (ch. 3) can be understood along the same lines as the ‘Aramean threat’ material, as an instance of the recurring pattern in Kings according to which military reverse implies divine judgment. There remain the accounts of Elisha’s miracles: the healing of the waters of Jericho (vv. 19-22); the episode of the boys of Bethel and the bears (vv. 23-25); the four accounts in ch. 4; Naaman’s healing (ch. 5); the floating axe-head (6:1-7). Also to be included here is the episode in which the Shunamite woman of ch. 4 reappears (8:1-6). It is the miracle accounts which seem to raise the greatest obstacles to attempts to read chs. 2-8 as a coherent narrative. They pose two linked problems. Firstly, they seem so trivial: what is their point? Why was it felt important to record them? What is the significance of Elisha’s ability to make an unpleasant vegetable stew palatable, or his raising of an axe-head from the Jordan? Secondly, what is their relevance to their context? Naaman’s healing is relevant to the theme of war with Aram (see below). But if we moved some of the other episodes to

another position, would it really matter?9

One answer to these questions essentially accepts that most of the accounts are trivial and loosely related to their context: they arose in prophetic circles which desired to magnify Elisha’s reputation, and seem to have been included in Kings for the same reason; beyond this, no significance is to be seen in the facts that the accounts have been placed where they have.10

In recent years, however, there has been a tendency, particularly represented in the writings of Alter, Berlin, Bar-Efrat and Sternberg, to question the assumptions underlying this kind of approach.11 It has been asked: does biblical narrative always make connections between events explicit? Is ‘simple’ juxtaposition as simple as it seems? On closer examination, it appears that the answer to both questions is often ‘No’. The artless and disjointed surface appearance of some biblical narratives conceals implicit connections between events which readers are expected to note and make sense of. As they do so, they uncover a wealth of significance and pointed evaluation. This narrative strategy may be summed up in the phrase ‘implicit commentary’: explicit interpretative and evaluative comments are regularly withheld, the narrator instead suggesting

interpretations and evaluations by implicit analogies and contrasts.12 In approaching the miracle accounts of 2 Kings 2-8, my working assumption has been that their seeming triviality and irrelevance to their context is just that: a surface appearance which demands a closer examination.

Another approach, particularly found among more conservative scholars, treats the miracle accounts as neither trivial nor irrelevant to their context, but sums up their relevance to the unfolding narrative in a straightforward and somewhat generalising way. Most of these accounts, on this view, show Elisha meeting the needs of ‘ordinary’, faithful Israelites, and form a counterbalance to those accounts which deal with national or international themes. Thus, for example, Provan deals with 2 Kings 6:1-23 (the accounts of the floating axe-head and the capture of the blinded Arameans) under the heading ‘Miracles, Trivial and Significant’, and comments: ‘God saves individual Israelites as well as Israel. God’s purposes take in the “trivial” as well as the “significant.”’13 That is, part of the purpose of these narratives is to challenge the reader’s views of what is trivial or significant: they show us something of God’s priorities, and his compassion for the needs of his faithful.14 In addition, these miracles, which more than once echo those of Elijah, serve to validate Elisha as a worthy successor to Elijah.15

But is that all that can be said? It is true that these accounts are local in scope, and that the Israelite ruling classes are generally absent from them (8:1-6 is an exception). But I think there is a further, and equally significant contrast intended here, that between faithful

Israel and unfaithful Israel. In many of the miracles Elisha is found interacting with Israelites who are characterised in various ways as loyal to him and to YHWH: the ‘sons of the prophets’, that group almost entirely associated with Elisha in the Old Testament;16 the Shunamite woman; and others.17 These faithful Israelites are set over against the unfaithful Northern Kingdom, the larger Israel of which they are a part, and which is particularly represented in this section of Kings by king Jehoram. By juxtaposing the miracle accounts with narratives relating to the larger Israel, the narrator invites us to draw conclusions about the impact of Elisha’s followers on Israel at large. The following pages will argue this point in detail.

III. Faithful and Unfaithful Israel in 2 Ki. 2-8

1. 2 Ki. 2

Elisha’s ministry could hardly begin with a more impressive flourish: having crossed into Transjordan and witnessed Elijah being taken up to heaven, Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak, uses it to part the waters of the Jordan and crosses back over into Israel (2:1-18). The point of this extraordinary event is not simply that it validates Elisha as YHWH’s prophet, or even that it puts him on a par with Elijah (cf. v. 8), but that it reminds us of the original crossing of the Jordan, when the Israelites entered Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. The preceding narrative has more than once suggested links between Elijah and Moses. Like Moses, Elijah meets YHWH at Horeb and dies in Transjordan. Here we are invited to draw parallels between Elisha, Elijah’s successor, and Joshua, Moses’ successor.18 Is Elisha, the second Joshua,

initiating a second ‘conquest’ of the land, in which the people’s hearts are won back to YHWH, and the quasi-Canaanite worship of the North purged, completing the process begun by Elijah on Mt. Carmel (1 Ki. 18)? The natural implication of the Moses-Joshua ‘typology’ is that Elisha (Joshua) completes the conquest which Elijah (Moses) has not lived to see. Are the ‘sons of the prophets’, who feature promin-ently in ch. 2, to form the nucleus of a restored Israel?

In this context the account of the healing of the waters of Jericho (2:19-22) strikes an encouraging note. Jericho was the city which Joshua cursed (Jos. 6:26; a fact of which we have been reminded at the end of 1 Kings 16). In healing the harmful waters of Jericho Elisha lifts this ancient curse.19 Is his ministry, then, to be one of life and healing? Will he even outstrip Joshua in the blessing he brings to Israel in the land? The next episode (2:23-25) suggests that such blessing will necessarily have judgment as its shadow side. At Bethel, a seat of the false worship instituted by Jeroboam,20 Elisha is rejected and calls down a curse which brings death to the young boys who have taunted him.21 It is a fierce punishment: the death or capture of children is one of the most devastating forms which judgment can take in the Bible, cutting off the future hope of a people.22

The two episodes after Elisha assumes Elijah’s mantle, then, represent in miniature faithful and unfaithful Israel, and their respective fates: faithful Israel enjoys YHWH’s blessings in a renewed Jericho; unfaithful Israel, linked with Jeroboam’s idolatrous worship, rejects YHWH’s prophet, and suffers a judgment of death. Parallels are suggested between these two groups and the Israelites

and Canaanites at the time of Joshua. Here, however, the issue which distinguishes Israelites and ‘Canaanites’ is the attitude displayed to the prophet.23 The last verse of ch. 2, in which Elisha travels first to Carmel, scene of Elijah’s most public victory over Baal, and then to Samaria, the royal capital and seat of opposition to YHWH, suggests his determination to take the battle to the heart of enemy terri-tory.24 But what will be the outcome?25

2. 2 Ki. 3 and 4

We next encounter Elisha in the wilderness of Edom, where he has seemingly followed the king Jehoram on his expedition against rebellious Moab. Chapter 3 is a fascinating narrative, full of surprising turns of events.26 The revolt of Moab against Israel is a judgment on

the house of Ahab.27 But as the chapter develops, and the combined forces of Israel, Judah and Edom drive Moab back, it seems that Moab will after all be subjugated, and the judgment reversed (3:21-25). In a startling final twist, the Israelites are sent reeling back by an anger which seems partly human and partly YHWH’s (3:26-27).28 Elisha prophesied victory over Moabite forces, but not this final reverse for Israel. Like Micaiah in 1 Kings 22, he has been used to deceive an Israelite king, and thus bring a judgment on him. But it is not a decisive judgment: though Moab is not subdued, and the possibility of subduing Moab is never again envisaged in Kings, Jehoram, unlike Ahab in 1 Kings 22, survives.

There follows the account of Elisha’s provision for the widow of a faithful Israelite (4:1-7). It invites comparison with a similar story from the ministry of Elijah (1 Ki. 17:7-16). There are two significant points of contrast. In 1 Kings 17 Elijah’s provision for the woman of Zarephath is described in words which suggest its continuance: ‘For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with YHWH’s word spoken by Elijah’ (1 Ki. 17:16). Elisha’s provision for the Israelite woman is described so as to suggest that, though abundant, it came to an end: ‘Then the oil stopped flowing’ (2 Ki. 4:6). In practice the two narratives may imply the same—each woman receives enough for her needs—but the different wording may be significant. Secondly, Elisha’s provision

involves the filling of vessels (vv. 4 and 6), again a point that is not stated in the earlier narrative. I wonder if some analogy is here suggested with the immediately preceding narrative: there, too, YHWH has miraculously filled pools of water, and thus delivered Israel;29 and the latter stages of the war against Moab might be described as a case where YHWH’s blessing finally stopped, and stopped, on that occasion leaving his people well short of final deliverance.30 There is, of course, a danger in this approach, that of summarising narratives in a way that makes them seem closer than they really are. Nonetheless, is there a parallel? If so, what point is made? That faithful Israelites enjoy greater blessing than the unfaithful king (cf. Elisha’s rebuke in 3:13-14)? That they enjoy abundance in the land, whereas the unfaithful suffer defeat at enemy hands?31 Or that the larger Israel will come to enjoy blessings like those of the widow? For the moment, the question is left hanging.

The following, much longer account of the Shunamite woman and her son (4:8-37) can also be compared to a similar episode from the ministry of Elijah (1 Ki. 17:17-24). But again, there are points of contrast: firstly, Elisha, unlike Elijah, ministers to an Israelite woman; secondly, whereas Elijah revives a son who already existed before he came on the scene, in this narrative there is a preliminary stage, Elisha’s promise of a son, and the birth of this son (4:14-16). The giving of this promise transforms the narrative, suddenly raising the stakes and heightening its intensity. The woman’s response to what should be happy news is startling: ‘No my lord! Man of God, don’t deceive your servant!’ (4:16). Why this anguished tone? It quickly becomes apparent why: the boy’s first words are a shout of pain, after which he dies (vv. 19-20); the woman then travels to confront Elisha with what has come of his promise, brushing aside all who stand in her way (vv. 21-28); there follows a lengthy healing account, in which the boy is only healed at the third attempt (vv. 29-

35). Virtually every note sounded in the narrative, until the very end, is of pain, difficulty, distress, bitterness and uncertainty. Why is this?

The account is a deviant version of a familiar Old Testament ‘type-scene’ in which a child is promised to a childless woman. It is a type-scene particularly characteristic of Genesis, and particularly linked to that theme which above all dominates Genesis, that of the promised ‘seed’ who, contrary to expectation, will become a great nation. Indeed, Elisha’s promise that ‘this time next year you will hold a son in your arms’ (v. 16) apparently echoes the angel’s words to Sarah at Genesis 18:10. The narrative thus seems to be making some point about the future of Israel, the heirs of the Genesis promises. Elisha, perhaps, has seen in the barren Shunamite’s condition the occasion for an act that will be a sign for Israel in his day (vv. 14-16), but is then surprised when the son who is born as a result dies. The words in which he expresses his surprise (‘YHWH has hidden it from me and has not told me’, v. 27) highlight a question which lies behind all of chs. 2-8: what are YHWH’s purposes for Israel?32 The fact that the son is only with difficulty resuscitated (vv. 29-35) may suggest the difficulty with which Israel clings on to life. The notes of pain and death, dwelt on at such length, are ominous. But again the point is unfocused. Is it that the Northern Kingdom is still (barely) viable? That it will (narrowly) survive? Whom does this son represent? Elisha’s followers, who will succeed in bringing life to the nation? Or is the death the death of national exile? Who will survive, and how?33

The next two episodes, death in the pot (4:38-41) and the multiplication of the barley-loaves (4:42-44), both describe the provision of food by Elisha for the ‘sons of the prophets’. There is a similar pattern to the two episodes: in each a preliminary attempt to provide food for the ‘sons of the prophets’ runs into difficulties (vv. 39, 42); a protest is made to Elisha (vv. 41b, 43a), who has initiated both attempts (vv. 38a, 42b); Elisha confirms his earlier instructions (vv. 41b, 43b);34 the ‘sons of the prophets’ are able to eat. As before, differences between the episodes are also significant.

In the first episode Elisha’s instruction to ‘boil up some soup’ is a response to a general famine in Israel. That is, YHWH’s judgment is again making itself felt in the land: the only fruits the land now produces in abundance are (or at least taste) poisonous (vv. 39-40).35 Elisha renders the stew edible, but the suggestion in this episode is of death only narrowly avoided. At the beginning of the second episode the land has begun to yield wholesome produce again (v. 42). In the context of the preceding verses, the reference to first-fruits of barley and fresh produce suggests a lifting of judgment, the more so when Elisha multiplies this produce with the words ‘“For this is what YHWH says: ‘They will eat and have some left over’”’ (v. 43; cf. v. 44b). This episode deals with the same themes as the previous one, but more positively: the land of Israel is showing signs of renewed life.

Reviewing the four accounts of ch. 4, it may be seen that they trace a positive progression: there is a clear movement from life to death in the second of them (vv. 8-37) and also in the third and fourth taken together (vv. 38-44). In a similar way, if the first account (vv. 1-7) has shown Elisha providing for the material needs of one family,

the third and fourth accounts describe a similar provision on a much larger scale.36 Is there then hope for Israel at large? Are Elisha’s followers the ‘first-fruits’ of a restored Israel?

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