Monday, June 29, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 8

In this chapter, Hazael becomes king over Aram and Ahaziah becomes king over Judah.

This chapter is a bit diverse; it covers several different stories and I don't think it has just one theme, but if I had to choose just one, it would be "royal transitions" as Aram gets a new king and Judah goes through two kings.

The first story is only barely related to the rest of the chapter.  We see the unnamed woman from 2 Kings 4:8-37, whom Elisha first gave a son and then raised that same son from the dead.  Like what I discussed in 2 Kings 4, we can see that the woman maintained her friendship with the prophet and in this case she benefits from it tremendously when he warns her about a coming famine.  It is likely that the story here is retrospective and that the seven years of famine are the same as the famine that has been striking Israel for some time now.  For instance, 2 Kings 4:38 mentions a famine in the land, and this could be the same famine being discussed now.

What happened is that while the woman was out of the land, some person or family moved into the woman's home and took over her fields and now she is petitioning the king to get it back.

Interestingly, Gehazi appears to still be the servant of Elisha.  It's possible that this part of the story is also retrospective (i.e. it occurred before Gehazi was cursed in 2 Kings 5:27), or it's possible that Gehazi remained Elisha's servant even after he was struck with leprosy.  I haven't read any definitive commentary that leans one way or another.  Personally, I think it's unlikely Gehazi would have remained Elisha's servant after being struck with leprosy because the laws of ceremonial cleanliness would render Elisha unclean every time he was with Gehazi.  This would be very disruptive to Elisha's ministry.  Of course, it's even harder on Gehazi, but he received leprosy as punishment for misusing Elisha's authority as prophet and his own authority as Elisha's servant, which is yet another reason why Elisha should remove Gehazi as servant, because he proved himself untrustworthy.

I think the more interesting part of this story is how it shows the relationship between the king and Elisha.  One of the commentaries I read suggested that the "king" mentioned in this story could be Jehu on the assumption that Joram (the previous king of Israel) would have been familiar with Elisha.  Either way, I would personally interpret this as a sort of rapprochement between the king and Elisha.  The king is expressing interest in Elisha's acts, and when he learns about what Elisha did for the woman he grants her a favor.  Since we have already learned the woman has a close relationship with Elisha, the king granting her a favor shows that the king is at least somewhat amenable to Elisha's activity.

After some consideration, I guess this is something we have always known; in the past, the king has always been pleased whenever Elisha did something in his favor (like deliver him from the Arameans) and always responded with hostility whenever things went poorly (like when they were besieged by the Arameans).  The king is taking more interest in Elisha, but I would not be surprised to see the king turn on him when things deteriorate again.

After this, Elisha goes to Damascus in order to anoint Hazael as king of Aram (which Elijah had been commanded to do back in 1 Kings 19).  This is the fulfillment of at least two commands from God, the first that Hazael would reign over Aram and the second (from 1 Kings 20:42) is that Ben-hadad should die.

There are parallels between this story and the story from 2 Kings 1 when Ahaziah sent messengers to query the prophets of Baal if he would live.  In both cases, there is a sick king asking after his health.  Ahaziah sent a messenger to ask the prophets of Baal, while Ben-hadad sends a messenger to ask the prophet of the LORD.  Neither king turned to his own god.  In both cases, the king dies.

This passage is interesting to me not because Elisha tells Hazael to lie to Ben-hadad, nor because Hazael goes on to murder Ben-hadad (which if you read carefully, Elisha did not tell him to do), but because Elisha was going to anoint Hazael even though he knew that Hazael would harshly treat the Israelites, his own people.  As I just mentioned, God commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael back in 1 Kings 19:15, and in 1 Kings 19:17 it is strongly implied that Hazael would be a force of judgment upon Israel, putting them to death with a sword.  This language is perhaps figurative, but nonetheless threatening.

It is more likely than not a judgment upon Israel's idolatry, but Elisha is genuinely moved with compassion for his own people, weeping openly before Hazael with the prophetic foreknowledge of what Hazael would do.  Hazael, for his part, proves himself to be something of an anti-David.  After being anointed king, Hazael takes the matter into his own hands and murders his master, the former king Ben-hadad.  David, on the other hand, continued to serve Saul even after Saul tried to murder him on several occasions.  In this way, Hazael has already shown that he is not a righteous king like David, nor will Hazael follow the LORD.  The LORD is anointing Hazael as king not because of his moral character, but because Hazael will help fulfill the LORD's judgment upon Israel.  Would it have been better if Hazael were a righteous king?  Sure.  But God can't change that, at least not right now.  In large part that is a matter for Hazael to work out in his own life.  But just because Hazael is not a righteous person does not mean that God can't use him.  God has shown over and over that he can use wicked men to fulfill his purposes and gradually build towards the redemption of mankind.

Think of Pharaoh.  In Exodus 4:21 (and elsewhere) God says that he would harden Pharaoh's heart so that God could perform great miracles and work a great deliverance for Israel with Pharaoh standing in opposition.  It would have been better for Pharaoh and all of Egypt if Pharaoh had been a righteous man and had allowed Israel to depart in peace.  It would have been better if Pharaoh had not oppressed Israel and enslaved them.  Even though God can "harden his heart", God cannot change Pharaoh's fundamental character or desires, which means that the only question is how God will respond to Pharaoh's wickedness.   What God shows is that his salvation, his purposes and his plan for human redemption cannot be derailed by human wickedness, whether Pharaoh's or Hazael's.  Pharaoh stood against the plans of God and God simply co-opted him into his plan of salvation.  Hazael is not quite the anti-hero like Pharaoh, but he is a murderous and self-serving man and if God isn't going to save him, he can still use him in the bigger plan.

In verse 18 of this chapter, we can see the continued political integration between the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah when the new king of Judah marries a daughter of the king of Israel.  This political integration began with the alliance between Jehoshaphat and Ahab and it is secured in the next generation by marriage.  Verses 18 and 27 tell us about the poisonous effect of this alliance as the house of Ahab leads the kings of Judah deeply into idolatry, contrary to the ways of the LORD.

Verses 19-20 tell us that God refused to destroy Judah for the sake of David, but that he would punish and weaken Judah by inciting revolts in their subservient neighbors.  Note that even though verse 22 tells us that Edom revolted "until this day", the day in question is when this passage was written.  It's possible that Edom could later be re-conquered by Judah after this passage was authored.

Furthermore, in verses 28-29 we see Judah and Israel fighting together against Aram and the king of Israel is wounded in battle.  Ahaziah, a friend of Joram, goes to visit him in Israel, and this sets the stage for the next act of divine judgment upon the idolatrous rulers of these two houses.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 7

In this chapter, the LORD delivers Israel and Samaria from the army of Aram.

Structurally, this story is a chiasm.  It begins with a prophetic declaration that Israel would be delivered and that the disbelieving royal official would see it but not eat of it, and it ends with very nearly the exact same text.  The rest of the story is the fulfillment of Elisha's prophecy, with both deliverance for the people of Israel and death for the man without faith.

The basic framework of this story is that the LORD delivers Israel through his supernatural power, and then we get to see four different reactions to that from Elisha, the king of Israel, the king’s faithless officer and the desperate lepers.  This should give us an idea of Israel's society at the time, as well as a picture of how people respond to divine deliverance in general.

As we might expect, Elisha announces the LORD’s deliverance and responds with the faith that we typically see from him.  I feel like Elisha is a bit of one-dimensional character in these stories; more often than not, Elisha stands in as a proxy for God rather than as a person in his own right.

The king responds with skepticism, reluctant to believe that Israel was actually delivered, but he acquiesced to send a few scouts out to search for the Arameans.  In this way the king seems to follow in the pattern of Ahab, opportunistic and taking advantage of God's deliverance, but never really following the LORD.

The king’s officer responds with disbelief, saying that it was impossible for God to save Israel, and because of this Elisha cursed him to see the LORD’s deliverance but that he would not share in it. This is similar to the faithless spies in Numbers 13 who entered the promised land but said that it was impossible for Israel to conquer it. They saw the promised land, but God cursed them that they could not enter it because they did not respond with faith.

The lepers were camping out at the gate of the city. Because of their skin disease, they were not permitted to live within the city walls, which is part of the law (evidently, part of the law that was still followed). They were in a desperate situation, suffering from the famine afflicting the city but forced to live outside the protection of the walls and more vulnerable to attack from the Arameans. After discovering the empty camp and taking a few moments to enrich themselves, they realize that they have an obligation to share the good news with the entire city. I see the lepers’ reaction as primarily being self-interest. They go out to the Arameans not in faith or faithlessness, but as an attempt to save themselves, and then they go inform the city because the realized they could be punished by the king (or perhaps God) for not sharing the news with the rest of the people.  In this way, I see the lepers as reacting in a way similar to the king of Israel, Joram.  Both Joram and the lepers are happy to receive the LORD's salvation, but for lack of a better word, they do not respond to it.  I don't think the lepers or Joram have done anything sinful per se, but God's mercy demands a response and I don't see it here.  They are saved for the moment, but they are not transformed.

So there are these four main groups, one that responds with faith, one that responds with no faith, and two groups that respond with a sort of opportunistic neutrality, neither accepting nor rejecting God's activity but taking advantage of the situation as it evolved.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 6

In this chapter, Elisha continues the series of miracles and defeats an army of Arameans.

Conceptually, this chapter is similar to the previous one in that it contains a series of vignettes (if you will) describing some of the events from Elisha’s life, particularly focusing on the miracles he performed at different times.

The first miracle, causing the axhead to float, is another case of Elisha demonstrating God’s power and supremacy over natural law, which he has done previously by dividing the Jordan, multiplying food and oil, and raising a dead son back to life (amongst other things). These actions demonstrate God’s provision in a variety of ways, cutting through any barriers or resistance against God’s plan, God’s power to feed us and provide for our needs, redemption from death respectively.

Floating the axhead shows once again that God has power to undo natural law, namely that iron is heavier than water and should sink. Elisha throws a branch (which floats by nature) as an act of faith that the iron should also float, and because Elisha has prophetic authority (which I discussed in the previous chapter), God responds to his faith.

We can also infer from this passage that axheads must have been very expensive in this historical period, both that someone would need to borrow an axhead and that he would be so clearly concerned when it was lost.

I also think it’s interesting that the axhead fell into water that must have been deep enough they could not recover the axhead by hand, and it also probably was not flowing rapidly because if it were, the axhead would likely have floated off downstream once Elisha made it float. This is curious to me because I would have assumed the Jordan had a shallow bank, gradually increasing in depth, but this chapter seems to imply that the Jordan had a very steep bank in this area and that it was too dangerous to dive into.  Or maybe the Israelites didn't know how to swim.

All things considered, I don't have any big morals to pull out of this story like I did in the last chapter.  All I really learned from this story is that there is no miracle too strange or trivial that God cannot do it.  I mean, floating an axhead is a pretty silly thing compared to raising somebody from the dead, but it shows God's power over natural law and his concern for his people, so it's still a pretty cool story.

The next, much longer section, is a story of how Elisha saves Israel twice from invading Arameans. In the previous chapter, Joram (king of Israel) feared that Ben-hadad was sending Naaman to create a pretext for military conflict (2 Kings 5:7), which gives us an idea of the political climate between these two nations. We also knew that the Arameans were indeed raiding Israel and capturing slaves from there (2 Kings 5:2), which means there has been ongoing conflict between Israel and Aram for some time. Even though Elisha really does heal Naaman, and Naaman declares his obedience to the LORD, the Arameans nevertheless continue attacking Israel, which surprised me a bit. I would think Naaman would counsel against attacking Israel, but it appears that the Arameans at large wish to exercise their military superiority over Israel.  Even though Naaman is never mentioned again, I wonder how his life changed after he was healed?  Did he become an ally of Israel?  Did he continue in the faith, or backslide and worship Rimmon again?  He had a powerful encounter with God, but did that result in long term transformation or just a brief spark, a flash in the pan, that was quickly extinguished?  From the biblical text, we will never learn, so let's move on.

In this conflict, Elisha assists Joram and Israel against their enemies, much like when Elisha helped Israel and Judah against the Moabites in 2 Kings 3 and when Elijah helped Israel twice against the Arameans back in 1 Kings 20. I’ve never really understood why the prophets agreed to help Israel in light of Israel’s idolatry and how the kings of Israel so often try to harm the prophets. I would guess this is simply an act of mercy, preserving Israel and giving them a chance to repent in spite of their idolatry. But I don’t understand why the prophets show mercy in these cases and inflict curses upon Israel elsewhere (for instance, when Elijah declared a drought and famine over Israel in 1 Kings 17).  I don't really have an answer here.

This story is another example of God demonstrating his supremacy, first by showing that he (through his prophet Elisha) possesses all knowledge, knowing the secrets that Ben-hadad spoke in his innermost bedroom. Strange as it may sound, Ben-hadad thinks he can catch the prophet by surprise, sending a swift force of horses and chariots at night to catch the prophet unawares and capture him. This seems like it should be a strategy doomed to failure from the very beginning, but Ben-hadad’s troops do, in fact, find Elisha and trap him in the city, but Elisha shows us that it was actually the Arameans who walked into a trap and by surrounding Dothan, they were actually surrounded by God’s heavenly armies.

There are three parallels I want to discuss in this chapter. The first is a parallel between the chariots of fire that visit Elijah and Elisha, the second is the parallel between the spiritual realm and the natural realm, and the third is the parallel between the armies of Ben-hadad and the armies of God.

First, we should see this chapter as a parallel to the burning horses and chariot that came to sweep Elijah up to heaven in 2 Kings 2. Since Elisha was a recipient of a double portion from Elijah, he is visited by an army of heavenly chariots compared to a single chariot for Elijah.  Why are the chariots burning?  To answer this, we should remember the burning bush with the LORD’s presence that Moses encountered in Exodus 3.  We should also remember when the angel of God sparked a fire with his staff to burn an offering in Judges 6:21, and in Judges 13:20 another angel of the LORD ascended in the smoke of a burnt offering.

The common theme here is fire, and the fire speaks of God’s presence or spirit as a metaphor.  God uses fire to depict himself because fire refers to the intensity and purifying force of God’s presence. The fire is purifying because it burns up everything that can be consumed, but it does not burn up precious metals like gold or silver which are used in the construction of the temple. In the same way that the temple is covered with gold, our lives must also reflect the purity of gold in order to survive the burning presence of God.  In fact, it is the fire itself that purifies precious metals by burning away and melting impurities.

Second, this chapter shows us that there is an invisible or spiritual realm that co-exists with the physical realm. In verse 17, Elisha did not pray that God would send an army of fiery chariots, because Elisha knew that the army was already with him. Instead, he prayed that his servant’s eyes would be opened to see the spiritual reality that was already present with them. In the same way, there is a hidden spiritual realm that coincides with the natural world everywhere we go, and there is an army of God's angels that helps the physical gatherings of God's people wherever they go.

The last parallel is between the horses and chariots of Ben-hadad that fight against Elisha and Israel, and the burning horses and chariots of God that fight for them. This shows that even if Elisha had not known all of Ben-hadad’s secret strategies, the armies of heaven could have driven him to defeat at any time. Therefore God possesses all power as well as all knowledge, supreme in every way.

However, the burning horses and chariots are not called into action as far as I can tell, because Elisha simply prays that his enemies would be struck with blindness. In contrast to his servant, who is given vision of the invisible realm, the men of Ben-hadad have their vision of the natural world clouded and obscured, such that they are delivered into the hands of Elisha and Joram, the king of Israel. However, the men are not killed but sent back alive to Ben-hadad. Verse 23 tells us that the Arameans stopped raiding Israel, perhaps because Ben-hadad realized it would be impossible to capture Elisha and he should simply relent.

This convinces the Arameans to stop raiding, but they do not make peace with Israel; instead, they attack with a full-forced army, besiege Samaria, and seem to be trying to destroy Israel in one fell swoop. The Arameans are once again in a superior position, with the people inside the city trapped without food. Donkeys were unclean animals and not supposed to be eaten as food, but because of the famine even a donkey’s head (the least edible part of the body) is selling for a large amount of money. The women eating their own children in verses 28-29 are acting in fulfillment of the curse for disobedience that the LORD promised them in Deuteronomy 28:53-57. In this case, Elisha is going to bring them deliverance, but in the long run, if Israel continues in disobedience they will receive the fullness of the curse, which is the destruction of their cities and being driven into exile in a foreign land.

Like Ahab who called Elijah “my enemy” and a “troubler of Israel”, Joram sees Elisha as being the source of his problems even though Elisha had frequently been his deliverer in previous conflicts with the Arameans. Nevertheless, even though Joram intends to kill Elisha, Elisha delivers Israel once again in the next chapter through his prophetic declaration and in accordance with God’s will.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 5

In this chapter, Elisha heals an Aramean general and Gehazi tries to profit from it.

This is another significant chapter, not because it does much to advance the overall course of Israel's history, but because it can teach us some really important principles about exercising divine authority on earth.

Now that I have thrown out a big, ambiguous term like "divine authority", what do I mean?  I'm not going to offer a formal definition right now because I'm not sure if I even could formally define or encompass divine authority, but I'll try to give a brief explanation and a few examples.  Divine authority is the power given to God's representatives on earth, chiefly through covenantal relationships.  It is "divine" because it comes from God and it originates with God, and it is "authority" because those who are given divine authority do not have the power within themselves to do anything, but they have authority over aspects of the natural world to reshape things in accordance with God's purposes.  It is "authority" because it is delegated to such people, much like how a king or president might give authority to his officials to carry out various duties.  Examples will perhaps help to make this more clear.

Example 1: Genesis 2:23-24.  This is something I briefly discussed in my commentary at the time, but in this passage the man is making a formal pronouncement, echoing the creative acts of God in Genesis 1, and verse 24 tells us that because of the man's statement, marriage now exists.  We know that Adam did this in accordance with God's will because in that same chapter God said that he would create a "helper" for Adam (v. 18), and then in verse 23 Adam makes a declaration in agreement with God.

Example 2: Exodus 7 (and following).  In this passage, particularly v. 1, God says that he is going to make Moses "like God to Pharaoh", essentially granting Moses the power to do whatever miracles he needs to do to bring Israel out of slavery.  What follows in this chapter (and later chapters) is Moses performing a sequence of increasingly devastating plagues in judgment of Egypt's misbehavior towards Israel.  In essence, God gave Moses both the capability and the prerogative to destroy Egypt.  Moses had this power for the completion of a specific task (freeing Israel) that was in accordance with God's will.

Example 3: 1 Kings 18:36-38.  Elijah demonstrates divine authority by making a verbal declaration (through his prayer) in agreement with God's will in order to fulfill God's purpose (restoring Israel to their faith).  In this case, Elijah has power to perform supernatural miracles because of this divine authority.

There are many more examples but this selection should give my readers a general flavor for what I am talking about.  In these cases, God empowers specific people to work in accordance with his plans.  Natural or physical laws are overruled by God's laws and power.

Now, with all of this as the context, we can properly read 2 Kings 5 and why Gehazi is punished for trying to receive payment from Naaman.  I think the heart of this chapter is in verse 26.  God did not send Naaman to Elisha so that Elisha or Gehazi could become rich, but so that Naaman could be saved from idolatry and enter into faith in the LORD.  This is Gehazi's sin: he wanted to use divine authority (expressed through Elisha by healing Naaman) for personal gain.

It is interesting to contrast this with the miracles that occurred in the previous chapter when Elisha multiplied oil to provide for a widow and bread to feed the company of prophets during a famine.  Those instances are substantially different in character from what Gehazi is doing here.  In both of those previous cases, Elisha performed a miracle to meet an urgent need, whether it is hunger or a widow's children about to be taken into slavery.  In this chapter, there is no indication that either Gehazi or Elisha were in any desperate need; indeed, even if they were, the critical point we should have learned by now is that God could provide for them.  There is no reason why a prophet should ever need to receive payment in exchange for a miracle.  If a prophet is in need, God provides for that man or woman, like when God sent meat and bread by ravens to feed Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:6) or caused flour and oil to multiply when Elijah stayed with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:16).

Elisha's criticism of Gehazi is that he sought to use God's power to multiply fields, vineyards and slaves, to become a wealthy and great man, to feed off the largesse of God's sovereign grace to enrich himself.  This is a profound corruption of God's purposes and authority.  Also, think about how it would have affected Naaman if Elisha had accepted payment from him.  It would have taught Naaman that he could buy miracles, that God is a heavenly merchant who sells healing, rather than a heavenly king who demands obedience and devotion.  This means that Gehazi's behavior could subtly poison Elisha's influence by turning the power of God into something that can be bought, accessible to the wealthy and denied to the poor.  Instead, Elisha often demonstrates an egalitarianism by performing miracles for the poor and the wealthy alike, accepting payment from none.

Next I would like to discuss Naaman's response to Elisha.  At first, Naaman is angry that Elisha asked him to do something simple.  Expecting a fanciful demonstration and religious ritual, he got no such thing.  Nor was he given a complex or challenging task, not even a single offering to make: simply wash and be clean.  How remarkable that sometimes the simplest task requires the greatest faith, because when there is a long and elaborate ritual, we can often build our faith upon that ritual.  Naaman expected Elisha to perform some sort of incantation as if healing required it, and I can't help but imagine that we often think likewise.  I would also imagine this is precisely why God wanted no fancy rituals, because he wanted Naaman to understand that God's power and Elisha's authority does not depend on any pattern of behavior.  Divine authority.  It's like when Elijah called down fire from heaven with a simple prayer, when the frantic dancing and self injury of the prophets of Baal did nothing.

The only ritual that can ever compel God to act are the rituals that he tells us to use.  But in that case, it's not a ritual in the true sense of the word, because the real power behind such actions is not in the ritual itself, but in our obedience to God's will.  "Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams."  (1 Samuel 15:22).  God commanded Israel to perform many sacrifices in the Law of Moses, but the sacrifices mean nothing in themselves; it is only in the spirit of obedience to God that the sacrifices have meaning.  For instance, the sons of Eli exalted themselves above God by taking meat with fat still on it when people came to offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:12-17).  Even in the midst of offering sacrifices and serving as priests, because the sons of Eli did not act in obedience, they were cursed by God and died.  Similar to Gehazi, the sons of Eli sought to enrich themselves through their position as priests, stepping beyond their proper bounds.

After Naaman is healed, Elisha refuses to take his gift and Naaman declares that he would worship the LORD only.  There are two parts to this that I find interesting.  The first is that we have no indication that Naaman did anything to start following the Law of Moses.  Naaman did not get circumcised, nor did he begin keeping the regulations of the covenant.  And yet, by Elisha's response in v. 19, it appears that Elisha accepted Naaman's declaration.  The second part I find interesting is the exception that Naaman requests in v. 18.  He basically says that part of his royal duty is to physically support the king when the king bows down to a particular idol, Rimmon, and in carrying out his duty, Naaman must also bow before Rimmon.  Naaman asks to be pardoned for this, and Elisha grants him this pardon.  I think this is also very interesting because it goes to the heart of what devotion to God even means.  What Naaman is saying is that his body would bow to Rimmon, but his heart would remain devoted to the LORD, and this is accepted in God's sight.

If I had to summarize these topics, I would refer to 1 Samuel 16:7: "man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart".  God is not interested in the appearance of obedience or devotion, he wants people to be devoted to him in their hearts.  The reason why God does not try to force Naaman to obey the Law is that it would have been impractical for him to do so, and would have forced Naaman to leave his position in the Aramean army, where he holds considerable influence that he could use for good or evil.  In fact, God is willing to grant Naaman an exception, permitting him to bow before Rimmon, which Naaman (by his own conscience) recognizes is contrary to God's will.

Obeying the covenant is a mark of devotion for Israel because God commanded them to obey the covenant.  But we must always remember that obedience is better than sacrifices: it was never the covenantal laws that mattered, but always obedience and devotion to God.  In this matter, Naaman demonstrates devotion to God but in a way that is different from the covenantal laws.  This is what makes following God very challenging: there is no set or rules or laws governing behavior that we can follow that would be sufficient to please God.  The only way to please God is to listen to what he says and do it.  Rules and laws are "safe" because they are predictable, understandable and definite.  God is unpredictable (to us), not understandable (most of the time) and indefinite.  Listening to God means that we will often be surprised, challenged and even confused.  The bad news is that God is not willing to change to suite our desires, so the only thing we can do is learn to deal with it.  The good news is that life with God is defined by our relationship with him, which means that we can (and should) talk about it with him and even though God will not change, he is willing to explain a lot of these things to us and help us.

It's a hard thing to learn dependence on another, especially when that "other" is God, but it is also deeply fulfilling to enter that place of trust once we have grown enough to recognize his faithfulness in everything he does.  We still don't understand, we will still be surprised and challenged and all those things, but when we learn to trust him in spite of it all, we can find a deeper peace than could ever be known in a purely abstract code of rituals and laws.  There is no abstract moral code that is capable of giving life to man; the covenantal laws were only meant to provide structure and patterns for Israel to build a relationship with God.  But it is a profound mistake to put that structure and patterns in the very place of God, thinking that in the laws and apart from God we can find what we are looking for.  It has always been, and always will be, the relationship with God itself that is the essence of our healing, like the healing of Naaman.  If God wishes to change or negate that structure entirely, that is his decision to make and our obedience to follow.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 4

In this chapter, Elisha continues his prophetic ministry by performing several miracles.

I think this chapter is fascinating.  There are several different ways this chapter can be read, whether we are analyzing Israel's history during this timeframe or looking at the higher level story of God's interactions with his people.

The first narrative in this chapter is Elisha acting to establish his prophetic authority.  As when Elisha divided the Jordan and crossed over into Israel, Elisha is establishing himself before the people as a prophet by the miracles that he performs here.  Why does prophetic authority matter?  And perhaps even more simply, what does prophetic authority even mean?  The answer to both of these questions is also simple.  By performing miracles, Elisha is establishing his credentials as a representative of God on earth.  Simple, but intimidating.  If you see someone walking down the street, and rather than taking a bridge across some river, they hit the river with their jacket and the water divides so they can cross over on dry land, I think it's fair to say that most people would be inclined to listen to what that person has to say.  If someone raises your dead son back to life and then starts telling you about which god is real and which god is fake, it's fair to say that you will pay attention to him or her.  By performing a long sequence of miracles, Elisha is establishing his authority not just before a single person, but before the entire nation.

This makes it even more remarkable when the kings and people of Israel do not listen to him, like two chapters ago when we saw the youth of Bethel going to harass him, not in spite of his status as a prophet, but they are actually harassing him because he is a prophet of God.  What this means is that the people are responding to miracles not with repentence, but with increasing hardness of heart and increasing rebellion against God.  If God were to do even greater miracles on their behalf, they would nevertheless continue in rebellion.  Against hardness, God must send judgment to break them down, which means that we are heading towards yet another conflict between God and his people.

The second narrative is the ongoing distress in Israel as they face famine, poverty and disease.  We see this narrative woven throughout the chapter as it forms the basis of most of Elisha's miracles.  Both of the first two miracles involve someone dying, whether it's the woman's husband or the Shunammite's son.  In verse 38, we learn that there is an ongoing famine which necessitates Elisha's third and fourth miracles, making poisonous gourds edible and multiplying bread respectively.  This chapter is filled with poverty, death and famine which Elisha relieves, to be sure, but we should know that the famine must be widespread and afflicting most of Israel at this time.

The third narrative is the allegorical significance of the miracles, which I personally think is the most interesting part of the chapter.  I will go through each miracle in turn.

In the first miracle, Elisha begins by asking the woman what she haves.  This is a common pattern in biblical miracles.  For instance, in Exodus 4:2 the LORD asks Moses what he has in his hand, and then uses his staff as the instrument of many miracles.  In another case, Jonathan was one of only two men with swords in all of Israel in 1 Samuel 14, but because of Jonathan's great faith he was able to take that sword and defeat an army.  So the first point is this: when God performs a miracle in your life or in anyone's life, it oftentimes begins with what we have, no matter how small or weak it may seem.

This woman is living in almost total poverty, but Elisha asks her what she has, and she has nothing but a jar of oil.  Nevertheless, that jar of oil becomes the seed of her miracle.  Why is it that God acts by multiplying her oil rather than dropping a trunk full of gold coins out of the sky in front of her?  I'm not sure if I quite understand myself, but I think the most likely answer is that God wants to work in and through our lives to bring multiplication.  We could just as well ask why God didn't spontaneously create billions of humans to populate the earth back in Genesis 1.  Instead, he created two people and then asked them to multiply and fill the earth.  In a similar way, God wants to fill our lives with blessing and abundance, but oftentimes he does this by operating through the skills and possessions we already possess in a supernatural way.

The second reason I believe God does this is because he is trying to establish a spiritual principle through a physical miracle, but the principle applies more broadly than just to the physical world.  What I mean is this: God muliplies oil here to show us that he multiplies what we already possess.  But these possessions do not need to be physical things.  God multiplies love, faithfulness, righteousness and many other things.  God showed us that he could multiply oil so that when we come to him with just a single "jar" of love, we can trust him to multiply that as well and bring us to a place of abundance through his supernatural power.

After Elisha hears the woman's answer, he tells her to go bring many empty vessels from all of her neighbors, "do not get a few" (v. 3).  This is when the woman has to act in faith.  The number of vessels she brings is the size of her faith and expectation of a miracle, and that in turn determines the size of the miracle she receives, because the oil stops when she runs out of jars.  You better believe that if she had just gotten one or two empty jars, she would have only gotten one or two jars of oil before the oil stopped flowing.

The jars also represent the woman's capacity for receiving blessing.  I think this is an important point and it's something that is often misunderstood about God's ways.  Everyone who comes to God receives the fullness of joy and love, but not everyone has the same number of jars.  When we stand before God, everyone will experience him to the fullness of their capacity and everyone will be overwhelmed by the power of his love.  But the love that overwhelms one person may not be enough love to overwhelm another person.  We all have access to the fullness of God; God does not withhold anything of his heart from us, but nobody on earth has the maturity to experience that fullness without dying, so God is forced to conceal parts of himself in order to protect us while we grow.  Dying; that is a strong word.  How could we imagine someone dying from too much love?  It's hard to understand unless you have experienced it, and once you have experienced it, it requires no explanation.  The best analogy I can think of is Exodus 33:20 when God says that he is going to show himself to Moses, but not his face because his glory (later equated to his compassion and grace) would kill Moses if he saw it.

This addresses a commonly raised "paradox", where people ask how it would be possible to spend eternity in heaven without getting bored.  The answer is simple.  When we arrive in heaven, we will be overwhelmed by love and joy to the very extent of our capacity.  We will not be able to even imagine a better life.  But what happens over time is our capacity to experience God grows, and we progressively experience a joy and love even greater than our imagination, and it continues to grow year after year, century after century, and on into the mists of time.  It is possible to make more jars.

Lastly, we see the woman is dependent on the help of her neighbors to get these jars.  Even though the miracle is for her personally, it happens in the context of community, and this is often the case for miracles of love and joy as well (multiplication of personal character).  I could talk more about this, but I think I've said what is important.

Minor note: from the story we can infer that olive oil was expensive, so having many jars of olive oil was enough to not only pay off the woman's debt, but provide for her when she no longer had a husband to work their land.  In the past I have discussed the vulnerability of widows in Israelite culture, and this miracle shows God's ultimate care and protection for widows.

The second miracle feels even more powerful to me than the first one.  In this second miracle, the woman begins by making a place for Elisha.  She feeds him and Elisha forms a habit of returning to her every time he passes through that town.  The woman sees Elisha coming over and over and asks her husband to build a small room for him in her house.

Making space.  The woman makes space for Elisha, but also makes space for God.  In the first miracle (the widow), the woman barely knew Elisha at all, but he had compassion on her.  In this second miracle, the woman had built a relationship with Elisha over time, eating with him many times and more than welcoming him into her own home, she made a room for him to stay there.  Unlike the first woman, this woman was not in obvious distress.  She was probably wealthy and when Elisha asked if he could do any favors for her, she replies that she is in need of nothing.

But that's not quite true.  Gehazi notes that the woman does not have a child.  Elisha, acting on his prophetic authority, declares that the woman will have a child (much like Eli declared that Hannah would have a child in 1 Samuel 1), and once he does that it's like the dam bursts.  The woman shows how upset she is that Elisha would even say that, and we can infer her history.  Clearly this woman has wanted a son for years to carry on the family name.  For context, in Israel's culture at the time it was one of the woman's chief roles in the family to bear sons to carry on the family name and inheritance, and barrenness was often considered a sign of disgrace.  I wrote about this in depth in Genesis 14.

The woman is acting like someone who has been disappointed over and over, has given up hope and is upset that Elisha would touch this obviously painful area.  She had resolved herself to a life of disappointment, that God could never give her what she wanted, so him even saying anything about a son is enough to make her upset.  This is the first resurrection in this story, because the woman's hope and expectation of a child was dead and Elisha had to bring that back to life before she could have a child.  Indeed, rather than just give the woman a child, Elisha first must tell her that she is going to bear a son so that she would know it was the LORD and not a natural occurrence.

Although the woman does not ask for a son or for this miracle to occur, she had positioned herself to receive the miracle because she received the prophet and the God for whom the prophet stands.  Indeed, by receiving God into our lives, we position ourselves to receive miracles even when we do not ask for them because God wants to bring restoration into our lives and this woman (in spite of everything she had going for her) needed restoration in this area of her family life.

Some years later, the child has grown and he gets some kind of infection or migraine or something.  In verse 19, the father sends the child to his mother, which I think shows how much more the woman cared about having a son than her husband.  There is no doubt in my mind this is a momma's boy.  This is not to say that the father didn't care about him, but he knew that his wife cared about their son more than anything else in the world.

When the boy dies, the woman takes him up to Elisha's room and bed.  Having made a place for God in her life, she is now willing to put her son into that place.  This is an act of surrender, giving what she cares about most into God's dominion.

Verse 23 is another peculiar one, which reflects a little poorly on the husband.  When his wife desires to go see Elisha, the husband says that there are no religious rituals which would require a prophet's attention, as if he doesn't realize that his son is dead or that Elisha originally prophesied the birth of his son.  In this case, the woman clearly shows that she cares about her son more than her husband does.

When the Shunammite woman gets to Elisha, Elisha suspects that something is wrong, asking if everything is okay with her and her family.  The woman replies the same thing to Gehazi as what she said to her husband, that everything is okay, because she only wants to speak to Elisha and nobody else.

Verse 27 is interesting.  Why would God conceal something from the prophet?  How would Elisha even know?  It seems to suggest that Elisha could simply ask God questions and God would answer him, but for some reason God does not answer him about this woman.  There is an interesting parallel between the woman on one hand refusing to answer her husband and Gehazi, and on the other hand God refuses to answer Elisha.  The woman only wants to speak to Elisha, and interestingly God seems to go along with that because he refuses to answer Elisha also.

In verse 28, it all comes out a second time.  All of the pain and disappointment this woman had suffered so many years instantly comes back when her son dies.  Last time, the prophet had to come to her and speak to her about giving her a son.  This time, the woman comes to him.  Even though her statement is one of pain and grief, placing her son in Elisha's bed and going out to Elisha is a statement of hopefulness.  It's possible the woman came to him just to complain, but it is just as possible (if not more so) that she came to him because she expects and knows that he can do something about it.  Last time, it was God directing his activity towards her, but this time the woman comes to Elisha and to God for healing.

At the woman's persistence, Elisha agrees to go to the house and he prays for the child twice, raising him from the dead.  This is the second resurrection, and this time it is final.  Elisha's action here is a throwback to 1 Kings 17:21, when Elijah (Elisha's master) raised a boy from the dead by laying on top of him, much like Elisha lays on top of the boy here.

What a powerful story.  The parallel between the emotional healing of the woman and the miraculous resurrection of her son is what I find so striking about this, and it was all precipitated by the woman's consistent friendship with Elisha and devotion to the LORD.  Even though she never asked Elisha for a son, in her heart she had always wanted a son and God saw what she wanted even when she didn't ask.  God is committed to healing us and bringing redemption to areas of pain and all we have to do is make room for him to move.

(Minor note: the seven sneezes in v. 35 indicates breath in his lungs, symbolic of life as per Genesis 2:7.)

I've already written a lot so I will try to get through the last two miracles quickly.

The miracle of making the poisonous stew edible reminds me of 2 Kings 2:19-22 when Elisha purified bad water by throwing salt in it.  Here, he makes poisonous gourds edible by throwing flour into it.  I think the moral of this story is also similar to the last one; it is Elisha demonstrating once again that God has the power and the desire to undo the curse that is befalling Israel.  This is yet another kind of resurrection.  Where in the previous story Elisha raised the dead son back to life, in this story he takes "death in the pot" and removes the "harm" from it to make it good.

The miracle in verses 42-44 is similar to the multiplication of oil in many ways.  Elisha took a few loaves of bread and multiplied it to feed many.  The only real difference is that multiplying the oil was a miracle for one person, while multiplying the bread is a miracle to provide for the whole community.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 3

In this chapter, Israel, Judah and Edom go up and sack Moab.

I'm going to begin with a quick reminder, since not everyone may remember.  Verse 3 says that Jehoram "clung to" the sins of Jeroboam son of Nabat.  Jeroboam was the first king of the divided northern kingdom, and all the way back in 1 Kings 12 we learned that Jeroboam constructed two idols in the northern kingdom to keep his people from going to Jerusalem to worship.  This was the sin of Jeroboam, because it led his kingdom to worship idols contrary to the Law.

Moving on, we see four nations mentioned in this chapter.  Judah (the southern kingdom), Israel (the northern kingdom), Edom and Moab.  Both Edom and Moab were conquered by David.  Edom was conquered by David in 2 Samuel 8:12-14 and forced into subserviance.  Moab was also conquered by David, but 2 Kings 1:1 told us that Moab rebelled after the death of Ahab, and now we get a bit more detail on that situation.  We learn that Moab used to pay tribute of lambs and wool to Israel.  It is likely that after the kingdom was divided, Moab was subjected to Israel, while Edom was subjected to Judah.  Moab rebels, but Judah remains strong enough to continue dominating Edom.

After the death of Ahaziah, who did not have a son, Jehoram the son of Ahab (Ahaziah's brother) becomes king.

We saw in 1 Kings 22 that Jehoshaphat was an ally of Ahab, and in this chapter we see that Jehoshaphat remains an ally of Israel after Ahab's death.  In the big picture, this is probably a bad thing for Jehoshaphat for the same reason that it was bad last time.  Basically, the northern kingdom is drifting into idolatry as per the sin of Jeroboam.  This means that the northern kingdom Israel is under the curses from Deuteronomy 28 and in essence that is why Ahab was killed in 1 Kings 22.  While the curse is primarily upon Israel, Judah suffers loss by allying themselves with Israel inasmuch as the destruction that befalls Israel strikes them too.  To wit, Jehoshaphat may have survived the defeat in 1 Kings 22, but his army was defeated and certainly many men of Judah died because of Jehoshaphat's alliance with Ahab.

With all that context, in this chapter we see that the alliance between Judah and Israel is successful against Moab, because God intervenes on behalf of Jehoshaphat, but in the long run this alliance is going to be destructive for Judah.

So, Jehoshaphat goes out to war alongside Jehoram and Israel, and whether through poor fortune or poor planning, they find themselves with a large army wandering into the desert with no water, and they are miraculously saved.  The biggest question in my mind is why; why did God choose to save these armies and deliver the Moabites into their hands?  It's the same question I asked when God delivered Ahab from the Arameans twice in 1 Kings 20 and I honestly don't have a good answer here.  It's clear from the story that Elisha is only willing to help because of Jehoshaphat, who is a devout follower of the LORD in spite of his alliance with Israel.

Meanwhile, Jehoram insists several times that this is the LORD's fault, that they were "called together" by the LORD to give them into the hands of the Moabites.  It's as if Jehoram had heard the stories of how Micaiah prophesied his father's death, and now Jehoram is convinced that God is trying to destroy him.  Of course, it's not like Jehoram is repenting or turning away from the sin of Jeroboam, though it does that he Jehoram did not sin quite as much as his father Ahab.

The way that I interpret Jehoram's behavior is similar to Ahaziah.  Jehoram appears to be somewhat antagonistic towards Elisha and the LORD, insisting that the LORD is trying to undermine or kill him.  Meanwhile, Elisha responds similarly to the earlier prophets, simply refusing to have anything to do with Jehoram but in this case honoring Jehoshaphat.

One thing I should mention, in case it's not obvious, is that all of Elijah, Micaiah and Elisha were sent to the northern kingdom.  So far, none of these prophets have really interacted much at all with the kings or people of Judah and that's because to a large extent, these prophets were sent to the king and people who were in a much worse spiritual state.  Between Israel and Judah, Judah is much more close to obeying the covenant and following the LORD compared to Israel.  Judah is not in as much need for rebuking or prophetic warnings as Israel, and therefore the prophets were sent to the people most in need of that kind of ministry.  This is not how prophets always operate, but in this case and in the kingdom period in Israel, most of the prophets we will see are going to be doing a lot of warning and rebuking, while the northern and southern kingdoms gradually drift deeper and deeper into idolatry and sin.  Since the northern kingdom is currently in a deeper darkness, they receive the first wave of prophets, whose stories we are now reading.

Now there are a few other things I would like to talk about.  I think the miracle in this chapter is pretty straightforward; it is a desert provision kind of thing, similar to what we saw several times in the book of Numbers when Moses drew water out of a rock or when God caused quail to fall from the sky.  So I'm not really going to talk about the trenches of water.  Instead, the first thing I would like to discuss is verse 15 when it says that Elisha asked for a minstrel to come play for him, before he prophesied.  This is really interesting because it distinctively shows the connection that sometimes exists between music and prophetic ministry or (if I may generalize) because music and ministry of any kind.  And why music?  I don't have a clear answer.  We know music has power; much earlier in 1 Samuel 10:5 we learned that the company of prophets would come down from the high place playing many instruments and prophesying.  Another time, in 1 Samuel 16:23 we learned that David attended to Saul, relieving him of the evil spirit, by playing a lyre.

I think music has spiritual power; I think these passages demonstrate the spiritual power of music, though without telling us why.  I will take a minute to drift into my own personal opinion and muse upon the subject, though I want to state up front that this is my opinion and I don't have firmly grounded scriptural references to back this up.  With all that said, I think music has power for two or perhaps three reasons, which in my mind all revolve around the notions of rhythm, frequency and vibration.  It is sometimes easy and sometimes hard to explain phenomena in the natural world that revolve around frequency: heart beats, the cycle between day and night, the tides of the ocean, seasonal variation, the ticking of a clock or a hanging pendulum, and so on.  In more subtle terms, there is frequency inherent in electromagnetic waves and even in the vibration of particular atoms and even more obscurely, the possibility that is it the vibration of strings that make up all the different kinds of particles in the world (this is called string theory).

All of those things are natural phenomena, but it raises the question of what kind of role vibration and rhythms can play in spiritual phenomena.  In Genesis 1, God began with patterns and rhythms, alternating between day and night while progressing through the different realms of creation (I explained a bit of this in my commentary on that chapter).  At the same time, the natural world reveals to us aspects of the creator, because his personality and ideals were shaped into the things that he made.

So in the first place, I believe music has power because there is music in the heart of God.  I think music speaks to him in some kind of deep and profound way, and he created us in his own image and that is why music speaks powerfully to people as well.

In the second place, I think music has power because of the rhythms, harmonies and frequency that mimic the musical aspects of creation.

In the third place, I think music has power because of its close connection with worship.  I think in the spiritual realm music is transformed into a kind of force that can either be used constructively or destructively depending upon the spirit that is infused into the music.  A spirit of worship directed towards God can be used to build people up, but a spirit of worship directed towards idols or demons can be used destructively to hurt others or encourage violence.

Anyway, I'm going to move on to the next topic.  I will probably discuss music again sometime because it shows up often in the bible and I think there are some really deep spiritual truths in here, but I don't want to lay out a full exposition here.

The last thing I would like to talk about is verse 27.  This is a really disturbing image to me.  The king of Moab, Mesha, (who did not worship the LORD) offered his oldest son as a burnt offering, presumably to his own god, and this caused a great fury to come against Israel who were evidently defeated in battle and went back to their own country.  A plain reading of this text would suggest that somehow his offering to a pagan god caused that god to come to his aid and defeat Israel and the LORD.  We know this to not be the case because the LORD is stronger than any other god.  A plausible alternative (one proffered by Rashi) is that God remembered Israel's sins, "that they too worship pagan deities and are not worthy of miracles".

Rashi also quotes the Talmud to suggest that Mesha may have asked his servants about Israel and learned that their forefather Abraham had once been told by God to sacrifice his son (in Genesis 22).  I think this is less plausible because it isn't necessary to explain Mesha's actions here: in the author's time period, everyone would have understood that the firstborn son is the most important person to a father.  The author specifically points out that this is the child "who was to reign in his place," his successor, and we also know from various passages in the bible that sacrificing your children to pagan deities is a moderately common and well known practice, such that Moses felt he had to specifically prohibit it (Deuteronomy 18:9-10).  More specifically, Moses said this was a practice of the peoples in Canaan whom the Israelites were coming to displace, so I think it is very likely that the Moabites would have also practiced child sacrifice.

I am not surprised that Mesha tried offering his son as a sacrifice, what surprises me is that it seemed to work.  Personally, my opinion is that the "great fury" is the power of the pagan gods awakened by this dark offering, and while the power of God is greater than any false god, Israel was also practicing idolatry at this time and as a result was not under God's covenantal protection.  God does perform a miracle to deliver Israel by sending them water in the desert, but that wasn't an act of covenantal protection as much as it was in response to the personal devotion of Elisha.