Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 13

In this chapter, a generation of kings pass away and Elisha prophesies victory over the Arameans.

This chapter is the beginning of a long sequence of kings who will come and go over both Israel and Judah.  This section (approximately the next four chapters) is sometimes confusing because there are a lot of kings who have very similar names.  Even for me it's hard to remember the difference between Joash, Jehoash, Jehoahaz, Josiah and so many others.  These names confuse everyone, I think.

I don't think the jumble of names should make this section harder for my readers to understand the big picture, though.  In my opinion, it is not very important to remember the particular genealogies of these two kingdoms, except to remember a few of the more important kings.  There are more important things happening that are easy to remember and understand: namely, the gradual decline of both Israel and Judah, which I mentioned in my introduction to 2 Kings.

We've already seen the process beginning as Aram pillages Jerusalem and takes territory from the northern kingdom Israel.  Hazael fulfills the prophecy that Elisha made about him, that he would destroy the towns of Israel and slay and imprison their people.  In this chapter, Elisha prophesies relief, that Israel would strike the Arameans and defeat them several times, but like Elisha says in v. 19, this is only going to be a temporary victory for Israel.  They will defeat the Arameans several times, but in later times the Arameans will rise up once more and threaten Israel again.

Another thing I keep in mind when reading these chapters is the parade of "evil" kings.  There are a handful of kings who are called good, but the majority of them do "evil in the sight of the LORD" and worship idols.  This is a critical part of the narrative because we are intended to see the relationship between the moral decline of Israel's kings and their political decline at the hands of the foreign powers around them and natural disasters.  This is critical because it establishes the chief narrative of the book of Kings: as Israel and Judah both delve into idolatry, God punishes them by casting them into poverty and distress and ultimately exile from the nation.  It is the progression of God's curse in Deuteronomy 28 and that is exactly the point of this book.

In this chapter, Jahoahaz does evil, but in v. 4 he appeals to the LORD and is granted relief.  Nevertheless, Israel continues in idolatry through his lifetime and the lifetime of his son Jehoash, and then a second Jeroboam becomes king.  Yes, another king of Israel named Jeroboam, because this story was not yet confusing enough.  From now on, Jeroboam son of Nabat is the "original" Jeroboam, and Jeroboam son of Jehoash is the "second" Jeroboam, or Jeroboam II.

Verse 12 implies to us that the alliance between Judah and Israel is over (at least for the moment) because Jehoash is now fighting wars against Amaziah.  This is probably what God intended when he selected Jehu to become king over Israel, ending Ahab's dynasty.

In verse 14, Joash (the king of Israel mentioned in v. 10, not the King Joash of Judah from 2 Kings 12 - that's right, there are two Joashs), uses the expression "my father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel".  It's not clear to me if Joash is familiar with the biblical narrative (which may have been written down in the annals of the king of Israel), or perhaps this expression is some kind of aphorism that would have been commonly known.  Either way, this expression is a reference to what Elisha said in 2 Kings 2:12 when Elijah is taken up to heaven.  In Elisha's case, he is alluding to Elijah being the "power" of Israel, the way that horses and chariots are the power of an army, while more directly referencing the burning horses and chariots of heaven that are taking Elijah up into heaven.

In this case, there are no burning chariots and Elisha will in fact die on earth.  Joash nonetheless calls Elisha the "horses and chariots" of Israel.  In spite of his own idolatry, Joash knows enough about Elisha to respect him as a prophet and one who has helped Israel.

In this story, Elisha has king Joash perform two prophetic acts (prophetic in the sense that his actions are meant to serve as metaphors for what God would do through him).  The first was to shoot an arrow, the "arrow of victory", and the second was to strike the ground with a bunch of arrows.  When Elisha asks him to do these things, he is asking Joash to act in faith that as he follow Elisha's directions, that God would honor him by fulfilling his need for deliverance.  These prophetic acts are comparable to the time that Elisha threw salt in the spring of water and made it clean (2 Kings 2:21).  It's not salt itself that purifies water, it is the act of obedience to God's spirit and acting in faith towards God that causes God to respond with deliverance.

In this case, Joash obeys by shooting the arrow, but when told to strike the ground he strikes it three times and then seems to get confused or awkward or something and he stops, waiting for Elisha to tell him what to do.  Elisha rebukes Joash because if he had acted with greater faith, he would have received a greater miracle because every time he struck the ground became a victory over Aram.  The extent of Joash's faith became the extent of his victories; since he had faith at all, he received three victories, but if he had greater faith, he would have destroyed Aram entirely.  In verse 25 this promise is fulfilled as Joash has three victories over Aram.

After Elisha dies, he performs his last miracle by having his very bones raise a man from the dead.  In general, human bones are a source of ceremonial uncleanliness according to the law.  What this shows is a reversal of the normal pattern: normally bones make you unclean, but because Elisha was a holy man, the spirit of God still lingering on his body after his death is enough to raise someone from the dead.

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