Monday, July 07, 2008

Elisha the Pointless Prophet: 2 Kings 3 - 6:7

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I was wrong before - this new king Joram is still of Ahab's line, just a younger son. His chief benefit is that he's no quite as evil "as his father and mother," which is a bit of a backhanded compliment but more than one might expect under the circumstances. At this point, Moab was still paying tribute to Israel, but at some point after Ahab dies, they decide to stop and see what happens. Joram therefore mobilizes Israel's armies to punish Moab. Once again, king Jehoshaphat agrees to send some troops from Judah to help Israel. The army of Edom ends up with them, though it's not clear why.

After a week's pursuit, the three kings realize they're in the middle of the desert and short on water. Why they were foolish enough to get into such a predicament is also not clear, but now, Jehoshaphat decides, it's time to call upon some prophets of God to find out what they should do. It just so happens that Elisha is nearby, and they decide to consult him.

Now, I have to say that so far I'm disappointed by Elisha. He certainly has all the miracle-working power of his mentor Elijah, but he seems to lack purpose. The old prophet would have mocked and tormented these incompetent kings and no doubt peformed some sort of exaggerated ritual to prove his point, complete with fire from heaven. But Elisha merely gives military advice, and even magically brings water to the land so that the army can drink and recover - but only after a harpist is summoned to play him a song, which seems like an odd trade. With Elisha's help, the Israelites invade Moabite land and win major victories, destroying towns and damming brooks and cutting down "every good tree."

Usually Israel is permitted to wage wars against its foreign enemies with complete impunity, and according to the old militarist yardstick, God must be with them on this occasion - after all, are they not fighting the evil Moabites? Has not the prophet of God given water to the army? Well, maybe. But this last statement about the war contains a key warning: the Israelites cut down the "good trees." They're not supposed to do that - back in Deuteronomy, the rules of war explicitly protected trees.

Once the war's over, Elisha wanders off again, and what he does next sort of proves my point about him lacking a purpose. With apparently nothing better to do, he starts trying to reproduce the miracles once performed by Elijah. First he performs the old ever-flowing-jar-of-oil trick. Then he goes to Shunem and raises someone from the dead - once again a young boy - in a very similar ritual, except that this time when the boy returns from the dead, for some reason he sneezes seven times.

With that over with, Elisha branches out into some miracles which parallel Christ's later miracles in the New Testament. He blesses a pot of stew and turns it from "death in the pot" - whatever that is - into good food. He takes twenty loaves of bread and feeds a hundred man (actually, this seems within the realm of possibility, especially if Elisha is doling out the bread in contemporary communion-sized helpings).

However, perhaps the lowest point in Elisha's career as prophet so far is when he sinks to the level of the donkey-finding prophet, the silly little God-blessed mystic that seemed popular in Saul's time. At the beginning of chapter 6, a lumberjack working along a lakeshore accidentally loses his iron axhead in the water. Fortunately a prophet was found - Elisha, naturally - to perform an inexplicable ritual involving throwing sticks into the water, after which the axhead was retrieved. This is a variant of the "find the donkey" story - in this case, prophets can recover your belongings through magic tricks if you've accidentally lost them somewhere.

With nothing better to do, Elisha goes into the private medical business. An Aramean army commander named Naaman comes to Israel hoping that this famous prophet will cure him of his leprosy and, fortunately, Elisha can do just that; he prescribes a treatment including seven separate baths in the Jordan river. Elisha seems willing to do this for free, and when his servant Gehazi secretly demands payment for the cure, Elisha flies into a rage and strikes him with leprosy instead. In the meantime, Naaman asks for - and seemingly gets - Elisha's permission for a very strange thing: the right to worship foreign gods. He won't offer any sacrifices to those gods, Naaman promises, but he will bow down in their temples because he is expected to by his master, the king of Aram. Perhaps, because Naaman isn't an Israelite and therefore simply isn't subject to the laws of Moses, Elisha is simply telling him that he has to make his own moral judgements. If so, that would be cool, I guess.

Unlike Elijah, Elisha isn't following God's explicit guidance in performing most of these miracles. Back in 1 Kings, Elijah would hear God's word, and then would go and do something. Elisha doesn't. Random things just seem to happen around him.

In fact, I have to wonder at the divine authenticity - if there is any - for what Elisha is doing so far. He has basically no political or social role as an activist or dissident, the way most of the major prophets have so far. He can certainly perform miracles, but he doesn't seem to ascribe any great theological meaning to what he does. He's even responsible for the Israelite strategy of damming creeks and cutting down trees, which basically means that this so-called "prophet" is telling the Israelites to commit war crimes prohibited by God's own law.