Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Elisha the Establishment Prophet: 2 Kings 6:8 - 8:15

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

The Arameans attack Israel, and finally Elisha finds a purpose for his magic powers - not a very good one in my mind, though. He starts aiding the king of Israel, who as you will recall is living well outside the grace of God. God's previous prophets hated the kings of Israel - and the feeling was usually mutual, because authoritarian leaders generally don't take preachers unwilling to toe the appropriate patriotic line. But Elisha doesn't seem concerned about such things.

In order to do his bit in defending Israel, Elisha starts feeding critical intelligence to the king, telling him in advance where the Arameans will attack. The king of Aram eventually divines that a prophet is responsible for this and sends out a force to kill Elisha. Finally, Elisha actually prays to God for a change, but these aren't normal prayers - they're basically commands, which God promptly "obeys" (at least according to the narrative). Elisha strikes the enemy force blind, then stands before them and tells them he is a guide. The deception accomplished, he leads them into Samaria and surrenders them to the king as prisoners of war. King Joram is ready to kill Elisha's prisoners, but instead, Elisha decides that they ought to live. So he commands a great feast prepared, wines and dines the foreigners, and then "sends them away" back to Aram.

Later, the Arameans return to Samaria in force and besiege the city, trapping king Joram inside. Food grows so scarce inside the city that donkey heads become prized commodities and the poorer folk begin engaing in cannibalism. For some reason, a frustrated Joram decides that Elisha is responsible for the siege and decides to kill him. To save his life, Elisha promises his best miracle yet: the siege will lift and immediately food will become cheap again.

Just as promised, during the evening God causes all the Arameans to hallucinate, imagining they're hearing the sound of an enormous cavalry force charging the camp. They decide that Hittite and Egyptian mercenaries are intervening on behalf of the Israelites, and promptly flee, leaving their tents and supplies behind. Four lepers are the first to discover the abandoned camp, because as lepers they're already living outside of the city, and at thsi point quite coincidentally decide that they should try to defect to the Arameans.

The lepers feast on the army supplies and then race back to the town to declare the good news. Initially Joram believes it must be a ruse, so he stands outside the gate and despatches scouts on fast horses. The people are more willing than the king to accept their good fortune, though, and stampede out to the Aramean camp. In the process, Joram comes to a most ignoble end: he is trampled to death by the crowd.

After this, Elisha appears to retire from politics again. He proclaims a famine, though for no apparent reason - he doesn't bother condemning anyone or providing a reason why God is going to cause this famine. He finds the woman whose son he resurrected and carts her off to live with the Philistines for the duration of the famine. Later he leaves Israel himself, going to Damascus to meet with the Arameans.

Elisha's next act is a most strange one. The Aramean king, Ben-Hadad, is ill, and sends his chief aide Hazael to offer Elisha forty camel-loads of "finest wares" in exchange for a treatment, or at least a prophecy about the illness. Elisha admits to Hazael that the king is going to die, but inexplicably he orders Hazael to tell Ben-Hadad he's going to recover. Why the deception? Elisha also prophecies that Hazael is going to be king after Ben-Hadad dies, something which distresses him greatly because he seems to think Hazael is going to do great harm to Israel and its people. Hazel, cheered by the prophecy, promptly goes to the palace and assassinates Ben-Hadad.