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.

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