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.

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