Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
2 Kings 4
YHWH Provides For A Poor Woman And Her Two Sons Who Seek Elisha’s Help Through The Miracle Of Multiplying The Oil In A Vessel (2 Kings 4:1-7).
It will be seen that this miracle, and the one of raising the dead in the next passage, are vaguely parallel to two of Elijah’s miracles in 1 Kings 18:9-23. But in each case it is only the central theme that is the same (multiplying oil, and in Elijah’s case meal, and raising a dead son), otherwise in all the details the stories are very different. Given the fact that Jesus performed similar miracles (multiplying bread twice, raising the dead a number of times) we may see them as typical of miracles that God might choose to perform, rather than as miracles which are duplicates of one original (Elisha will also shortly multiply bread as well). Indeed we may see in each case that Elisha himself got the idea from Elijah, as well as from YHWH. As we have already seen with regard to the parting of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:8; 2 Kings 2:14), Elisha liked reproducing what Elijah had done. We need not doubt therefore that these were two different incidents.
The first deals with the case of a poor widow who had two sons, whose wife and father had been one of the sons of the prophets (it was in some ways similar to Jesus healing Peter’s wife’s mother in showing compassion to the relative of a disciple- Mark 1:29-31). Because she was in debt it looked as though her sons would be sold by their creditor as bondsmen (slaves) in order to repay the debt. Strictly this was against the Law in Leviticus 25:39-40 (although in accord with the Code of Hammurabi), however the term ‘bondsmen’ may here be being used loosely of the alternative described there (compare also Isaiah 50:1). Either way it was not a very happy situation for the prophet’s widow. The Law in Exodus 21:7 is irrelevant to this incident, for that has to do with the special situation of Habiru seven year contracts (as also evidenced at Nuzi), or Habiru wife contracts, and has no connection with a situation like this.
Elisha then asked her what possessions she had, and learned that all that she had was a small jar of olive oil. So he told her to borrow from her neighbours as many pots and vessels as she could, and when she had done so to ensure her privacy and then continue pouring the oil into the vessels until the jar ran dry. She was to continue pouring the oil until all the vessels had been filled. The he told her to sell the oil and use what she obtained, first to pay off her debt (which she could do in oil), and then to provide for the financial future of herself and her sons.
The story is so dissimilar in every way to the one in 1 Kings 17:8-16 that it is difficult to see how they could both be derived from the same occurrence. (Of course most who make the claim also believe that nothing like it occurred at all, but that is not on the basis of evidence but simply on the basis of their philosophical position).
· Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets to Elisha, saying, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared YHWH, and the creditor has come to take for himself my two children to be bondsmen” (2 Kings 4:1).
· And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what have you in the house?” And she said, “Your handmaid has nothing in the house, apart from a pot of oil” (2 Kings 4:2).
· Then he said, “Go, borrow for yourself vessels abroad of all your neighbours, even empty vessels. Borrow not a few” (2 Kings 4:3).
· “And you shall go in, and shut the door on you and on your sons, and pour out into all those vessels, and you shall set aside that which is full” (2 Kings 4:4).
· So she went from him, and shut the door on her and on her sons. They brought the vessels to her, and she poured out (2 Kings 4:5).
· And it came about, when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, “Bring me yet a vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not a vessel more.” And the oil stayed (2 Kings 4:6).
· Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, “Go, sell the oil, and pay your debt, and live, you and your sons, from what remains” (2 Kings 4:7).
Note that in ‘a’ the widow of one of the sons of the prophets came to Elisha because she could not pay her debt and her sons were about to be sold off as slaves, and in the parallel Elisha is able to tell her to pay her debt and provide for the future of the two boys. In ‘b’ she has nothing in the house but a pot of oil, and in the parallel she has large numbers of vessels full of oil. In ‘c’ he tells her to borrow a large number of vessels from her neighbours and friends, and in the parallel the vessels were brought to her and she filled them. Centrally in ‘d’ she was to go to in privacy into her house and fill all the vessels, putting them to one side as they were filled.
2 Kings 4:1
‘Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets to Elisha, saying, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared YHWH, and the creditor has come to take for himself my two children to be bondsmen.” ’
The death of a husband was a catastrophe for a woman with no grown up sons, for it meant that there was no provider for the family, and this may well have been moreso for wives of ‘sons of the prophets’ who were probably the poorest in Israel due to persecution and discrimination. It is clear that these sons of the prophets were not living in their own community. The widow thus turned to Elijah for help. Their condition was largely due to the fact that they had feared YHWH, and now she had built up debts and could not repay them. The result was that the creditor was threatening to sell her sons as bondservants in order to recoup the debt. This was forbidden by the Law of Moses in Leviticus 25:39-40, but Israel would not be strictly observing the Law of Moses under their current king, and in other countries this was accepted practise (e.g. under the Code of Hammurabi)
2 Kings 4:2
‘And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what have you in the house?” And she said, “Your handmaid has nothing in the house, apart from a pot of oil.” ’
Elisha’s reply indicated that he was ready to help, and he asked her what she had in her house. And it was then that he learned of the family’s total destitution. All that she had was one small vessel of oil.
2 Kings 4:3-4
‘Then he said, “Go, borrow for yourself vessels abroad of all your neighbours, even empty vessels. Borrow not a few. And you shall go in, and shut the door on you and on your sons, and pour out into all those vessels, and you shall set aside that which is full.” ’
We can almost hear Elisha say at this stage, ‘silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give you’ (Acts 3:6), for his meaning was the same. And he told her to go abroad among her neighbours and borrow as many vessels from her neighbours as she could, and to ensure that she did not stop at a few. As so often, if she was to enjoy a miracle she must exercise faith and put in effort. Then she must close her door on all outsiders and in complete privacy pour oil out of her jar into all the vessels that she had collected, and as each became full to set it aside.
We are left to assume her busy search for vessels among her neighbours for that is assumed. As so often in Scripture the command given by a prophet or by YHWH assumes that the action follows.
2 Kings 4:5
‘So she went from him, and shut the door on her and on her sons. They brought the vessels to her, and she poured out.’
So she went from him, and having collected as many vessels as she could borrow, she shut herself and her sons up in complete privacy, and as her sons brought the vessels to her, she poured oil into them.
2 Kings 4:6
‘And it came about, when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, “Bring me yet a vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not a vessel more.” And the oil stayed.’
Having filled all the vessels that they brought to her she then said to one of her sons, ‘bring me another vessel’. But the son replied, ‘Mummy, there are no more vessels.’ And at that the oil from her small vessel ceased flowing.
2 Kings 4:7
‘Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, “Go, sell the oil, and pay your debt, and live, you and your sons, from what remains.”
Filled with wonder she came and told ‘the man of God’ what had happened, and he gently told her to go and sell the oil, pay off her debt, and then use what remained to provide for herself and her sons into the future.
Note the change to ‘man of God’ which emphasised that this had been done by YHWH. In the short term there was no purpose in this miracle except to demonstrate God’s love and compassion for His own. In the longer term it is a blessing to all believers, and once again reveals YHWH as the God of creation. But it was deliberately done in private with no eye-witnesses, and was simply demonstrating how God cares for His own, and revealing the compassion of Elisha. It is, however, a reminder to us that when we become aware of our deepest need, we can seek to Him to fill our ‘vessels’ with oil, knowing that He will do so.
SECTION 8. The Wonder-working Ministry Of Elisha (2 Kings 4:1 to 2 Kings 8:15)
It will be noted that from this point on, until 2 Kings 8:15, no king of Israel is mentioned by name, even though, for example, Naaman’s name is given in chapter 5, and Ben-hadad, the king of Aram, is mentioned in 2 Kings 6:24; 2 Kings 8:7. (The reign of Jehoram then recommences in 2 Kings 8:16). It is clear that the prophetic author was concerned at this point that our attention should be taken away from the kings to the wonder-working power of YHWH through His prophet Elisha. The kings (and the chronology) were not considered important. It was the events, and the advancement of God’s kingdom through Elisha that were seen as important in contrast with the failure of the kings.
a A prophet’s widow comes to Elisha in her destitution and Elisha multiplies oil for her (2 Kings 4:1-7).
b Elisha raises to life and restores to a Shunammite her only son (2 Kings 4:8-37).
c Elisha restores a stew for his followers and feeds a hundred men on twenty small cakes of bread (2 Kings 4:38-44).
d The skin of the skin-diseased Naaman of Aram, who comes seeking Elisha in peace, is made pure as a babe’s (2 Kings 5:1-27).
e The borrowed axe-head is made to float, a symbol of the need for Israel to have its sharp edge restored by Elisha (2 Kings 6:1-7).
d The Aramaeans, who came seeking Elisha in hostility, are blinded (2 Kings 6:8-23).
c Elisha restores food to the people at the siege of Samaria, and feeds a large number on Aramaean supplies (2 Kings 6:24 to 2 Kings 7:20).
b The king restores to the Shunammite her land (2 Kings 8:1-6).
a Benhadad of Aram sends to Elisha in his illness and is assured that he will not die of his illness, but Elisha declares that nevertheless he will die, as it turns out, through assassination by Hazael (2 Kings 8:7-15).
Note that in ‘a’ Elisha is approached by a prophet’s widow in her need and is provided for, and in the parallel Elisha is approached on behalf of the king of Aram in his need and is reassured, although then being assassinated. Once more we have the contrast between blessing and judgment. In ‘b’ the Shunammite receives her son back to life, and in the parallel she receives her land back. In ‘c’ the stew is restored as edible in the midst of famine and the bread is multiplied to feed the sons of the prophets, and in the parallel food is restored to the besieged in a time of famine, and is multiplied to them. In ‘d’ Naaman an Aramaean comes in peace and is restored to health, and in the parallel Aramaeans come in hostility and are blinded. Centrally in ‘e’ the borrowed axe-head, symbolic of Israel’s cutting edge, is restored to its possessor.
1). A Wealthy Couple Provide A Permanent Lodging Place For Elisha For When He Visits Shunem (2 Kings 4:8-10).
The story commences with the kindness of a wealthy couple who truly believe in YHWH to YHWH’s servant Elisha.
a And on one particular day Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a wealthy woman, and she constrained him to eat bread. And so it was, that as often as he passed by, he turned in there to eat bread (2 Kings 4:8).
b And she said to her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually” (2 Kings 4:9).
a “Let us make, I pray you, a little chamber on the wall, and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a seat, and a lamp, and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he will turn in there” (2 Kings 4:10).
Note that in ‘a’ Elisha would ‘turn in’ at the wealthy woman’s to eat bread, and in the parallel the purpose of the provision of a room was so that he would be able to ‘turn in’ there. Central in ‘b’ is the fact that it was done because he was a ‘holy man of God’. The woman was a true believer in YHWH.
2 Kings 4:8
‘And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a wealthy woman, and she constrained him to eat bread (a meal). And so it was, that as often as he passed by, he turned in there to eat bread.’
Shunem was about eight kilometre (five miles) from Jezreel and therefore near a main route through the valley. It was thus heavily frequented, and Elisha would pass that way often on his way between Mount Carmel and Jezreel. One day when he was passing through a wealthy woman who was a true worshipper of YHWH and who lived there, and had no doubt noticed his passing a number of times, constrained him to enter her house for a meal. And after that he often enjoyed a meal there.
2 Kings 4:9
‘And she said to her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually.” ’
This acquaintance with him led to her to point out to her husband that this continually passing prophet was genuinely ‘a holy man of God’ (a true prophet of YHWH).
2 Kings 4:10
“Let us make, I pray you, a little chamber on the wall, and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a seat, and a lamp, and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he will turn in there.”
So she suggested that they built a room onto their presumably large house (or a brick room on the roof of the house rather than simply a rude shelter, accessible by outside steps) where he could stay. There they would provide him with a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp, all the basics that were needed to make a man comfortable. Then whenever he passed by he could stay there. This was evidence of their relative wealth, for most houses could only support a makeshift lean-to on the flat roof for visitors to stay in. It would therefore have provided Elisha with undreamed of comfort. The lamp would be a small vessel containing oil with a pinched neck into which a wick was placed and lit.
There is a reminder to us here that if we are generous to those who truly serve God (not to money grabbers) we will not lose our reward.
Elisha And The Shunammite Woman (2 Kings 4:8-37).
Shunem was near a well travelled road between Mount Carmel and Jezreel, one which Elisha would use frequently. In the process he became recognised by a wealthy couple who built a small brick built room on their house for him to stay in. Having stayed there on numerous occasions, and wanting to demonstrate his gratitude, he promised the couple a son, in spite of the advanced age of the husband.
The son was duly born. But sadly when he had grown to boyhood he suffered from what was probably cerebral meningitis and died. Full of faith his mother went to Elisha, who sent his servant with Elisha’s own staff to heal him, but on the servant failing he went himself. After some effort the son was raised up, and Elisha presented him to his mother.
The account splits up into three subsections:
1) A wealthy couple provide a permanent lodging place for Elisha for when he visited Shunem (2 Kings 4:8-10).
2) Elisha demonstrates his gratitude by promising her a son and a son is duly born (2 Kings 4:11-17).
3) When the son grows up he dies suddenly, and on the woman appealing to Elijah, he raises the son from the dead (2 Kings 4:18-37).
The major lesson behind the story is that YHWH is the living God Who has the power of life and death and is able to raise up whom He will.
2). Elisha Seeks To Demonstrate His Gratitude And Promises Her A Son Even Though Her Husband Is Old, And A Son Is Duly Born (2 Kings 4:11-17).
As we discover again later in the case of Naaman Elisha had a habit, when speaking officially as a prophet, of speaking through his servant. In this case when he wanted to discuss with her how he could help her he sent his servant Gehazi, and when Gehazi called her to come, in 2 Kings 4:12 it was before Gehazi that she stood, who acted as an intermediary. She would probably not have seen it as seemly to enter the prophet’s room while he was there.
Gehazi then approached Elisha, and Elisha told him what to say to the woman, after which Gehazi communicated it to the woman. She gave him her reply and he then brought an answer back to Elisha, that there was nothing that he could do for her. But Gehazi also informed Elisha that the couple had no son. Elisha now realised that what he had to say was so important that it must be communicated directly. Note the emphasis on the fact that when she did come she stood in the doorway. Elisha then informed her that within a year she would have a son. She found it hard to believe, but sure enough, before a year had gone she found herself bearing a son.
a And on a certain day he came there, and he turned into the chamber and lay there (2 Kings 4:11).
b And he said to Gehazi his servant, “Call this Shunammite.” And when he had called her, she stood before him (2 Kings 4:12).
c And he said to him, “Say now to her, Behold, you have been careful for us with all this care, what is to be done for you? Would you be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host?” (2 Kings 4:13 a).
d And she answered, “I dwell among my own people” (2 Kings 4:13 b).
c And he said, “What then is to be done for her?” And Gehazi answered, “Truly she has no son, and her husband is old” (2 Kings 4:13 b).
b And he said, “Call her.” And when he had called her, she stood in the door (2 Kings 4:15).
a And he said, “At this season, when the time comes round, you will embrace a son.” And she said, “No, my lord, you man of God, do not lie to your handmaid.” And the woman conceived, and bore a son at that season, when the time came round, as Elisha had said to her (2 Kings 4:16-17).
Note that ‘on a certain day’ Elisha visited the home, and in the parallel the son was to be born ‘when the time came round’, and it was so. In ‘b’ the woman is called before Gehazi, and in the parallel she is called before Elisha. In ‘c’ Elisha wants to know what can be done for her, and in the parallel that is still the question. Centrally in ‘d’ she explains that she wants for nothing.
2 Kings 4:11
‘And on a certain day he came there, and he turned into the chamber and lay there.’
One day Elisha visited the couple and went to his room. He may well have been feeling exhausted, for he lay down and rested. ‘On a certain day’ is vague and indicates that this incident is only vaguely related to its context. It is not, therefore, necessarily in chronological order. Indeed we should notice that the whole incident takes place over some years, for the baby who is born has time to grow to boyhood. Thus it certainly takes us beyond incidents that follow.
2 Kings 4:12
‘And he said to Gehazi his servant, “Call this Shunammite.” And when he had called her, she stood before him.’
Then Elisha told his servant Gehazi to ‘call the Shunammite’. The idea was not that she should come to Elisha’s room, for that would not have been seemly, but that she would talk with Gehazi. Thus when Gehazi called her she stood before him (Gehazi).
2 Kings 4:13
‘And he said to him, “Say now to her, Behold, you have been careful for us with all this care, what is to be done for you? Would you be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host?”
Elisha had instructed Gehazi to point out that they were grateful for the care that she had taken of them, and to ask what they could do in return. Would she like being recommended to the king or the commander of the host of Israel? The idea may have been of remission of taxes, or of avoiding the need to provide so many men for military service, but the idea was more probably (going by her reply) an offer of special protection and a favoured position, something which would have been very useful for someone who was wealthy but living among strangers. It is interesting evidence of the favour in which Elisha stood with the king at this time that he could even offer this.
2 Kings 4:13
‘And she answered, “I dwell among my own people.”
Her reply was that she dwelt among her own people and had no need of anything. She did not want rewarding for their act of kindness. As a wealthy landowner, living among his own clan which would have a deep concern for its own, her husband did not need to look outside for help. (But as is often so in life there would come a time when her circumstances changed and she was only too happy for the king’s help - 2 Kings 8:1-6).
2 Kings 4:14
‘And he said, “What then is to be done for her?” And Gehazi answered, “Truly she has no son, and her husband is old.” ’
Elisha then consulted with Gehazi about what they could do for her, and Gehazi pointed out that her husband was old, and that they had no son and heir.
2 Kings 4:15
‘And he said, “Call her.” And when he had called her, she stood in the door.’
So Elisha told his servant to invite her to come and see him personally. And when she came she stood in the doorway, not wanting to enter his room. This may have been because it was not considered seemly in her circles for a woman to enter a man’s room. or it may be because she saw the room as ‘holy’ because it was Elisha’s.
2 Kings 4:16
‘And he said, “At this season, when the time comes round, you will embrace a son.” And she said, “No, my lord, you man of God, do not lie to your handmaid.”
Then he informed her that within a year she would be cuddling a son. But she found it difficult to believe and she asked him not to deceive her. She just could not believe his promise. It was too much to hope for.
2 Kings 4:17
‘And the woman conceived, and bore a son at that season, when the time came round, as Elisha had said to her.’
But sure enough within a short time she conceived a son who was born to her at the time that Elisha had declared. She learned, as Sarah had before her, that YHWH could give life as He wished, and that there was no need for Baal. Nothing was too hard with Him (compare Genesis 17:15-16; Genesis 18:10-14). It also demonstrated quite openly that YHWH was more effective than any fertility goddess.
3). When The Son Grows To Boyhood He Dies Suddenly, And On The Woman Appealing To Elisha, He Raises Her Son From The Dead (2 Kings 4:18-37).
One thing worse than not having a son and heir, especially in the circumstances of those times, was to have one and lose him while he was still a boy. That was what happened in this case. For during harvest time the son, who was the joy of the family, went out to join his father and his fellow-reapers in the fields, and collapsed and was taken home dying.
But the woman had faith in YHWH and she immediately set out to find Elisha. On arriving where he was she informed him of what had happened and Elisha immediately responded and sent his servant with Elisha’s own staff to lay it on the boy’s face. The servant, however, could only report failure. Elisha meanwhile was proceeding towards the house with the woman, and when he arrived at the house he went up to his room where the boy lay, and brought him back to life, after which he brought the son back to his mother, thereby demonstrating the unique life-giving power of YHWH.
a And when the child was grown, on a particular day, he went out to his father to the reapers, and he said to his father, “My head, my head.” And he said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother” (2 Kings 4:18-19).
b And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat (or ‘lay’) on her knees until noon, and then died (2 Kings 4:20).
c And she went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door on him, and went out (2 Kings 4:21).
d And she called to her husband, and said, “Send me, I pray you, one of the servants, and one of the asses, that I may run to the man of God, and come again.” And he said, “Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor sabbath.” And she said, “It will be well.” Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant, “Drive, and go forward. Do not slow down the riding, unless I bid you” (2 Kings 4:22-24).
e So she went, and came to the man of God to mount Carmel. And it came about, when the man of God saw her afar off, that he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, yonder is the Shunammite, run, I pray you, now to meet her, and say to her, “Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?” And she answered, “It is well.” And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught hold of his feet (2 Kings 4:25-27 a).
f Gehazi came near to push her away, but the man of God said, “Let her alone, for her soul is vexed within her, and YHWH has hidden it from me, and has not told me” (2 Kings 4:27 b).
g Then she said, “Did I desire a son of my lord? Did I not say, Do not deceive me?” (2 Kings 4:28).
f Then he said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go your way. If you meet any man, do not salute him. And if any salute you, do not answer him again. And lay my staff on the face of the child” (2 Kings 4:29).
e And the mother of the child said, “As YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” And he arose, and followed her (2 Kings 4:30).
d And Gehazi passed on before them, and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was neither voice, nor hearing. For which reason he returned to meet him, and told him, saying, “The child has not awoken” (2 Kings 4:31).
c And when Elisha had come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid on his bed (2 Kings 4:32).
b He went in therefore, and shut the door on both of them, and prayed to YHWH. And he went up, and lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, and his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands, and he stretched himself on him, and the flesh of the child grew warm. Then he returned, and walked in the house once to and fro, and went up, and stretched himself on him, and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes (2 Kings 4:33-35).
a And he called Gehazi, and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she had come in to him, he said, “Take up your son.” Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground, and she took up her son, and went out (2 Kings 4:36-37).
Note that in ‘a’ the mother receives her son dying, and in the parallel she receives him alive and well. In ‘b’ the son has died, and in the parallel Elisha brings him back to life. In ‘c’ the woman lays her child on the bed of the man of God, and in the parallel the man of God found him lying on his bed. In ‘d’ the woman goes with her servant urgently to see Elisha, and in the parallel Elisha’s servant urgently goes on ahead in order to see if he can ‘awaken’ the child. In ‘e’ the Shunnamite arrives and catches hold of Elisha’s feet, and in the parallel she will not leave him. In ‘f’ Elisha is deeply concerned about what the woman wants, and in the parallel his servant is urgently sent to deal with here ‘want’. Central in ‘g’ is her complaint that Elisha has not dealt fairly with her in giving her a son only for her to lose him while still a boy.
2 Kings 4:18
‘And when the child was grown, on a certain day, he went out to his father to the reapers.’
Year passed by as the son grew to boyhood, and one day he went out to see his father who was at work among the reapers in his fields, where he no doubt wanted to ‘play his part’. Again the timing of the incident is vague, ‘on a certain day’. As the son of wealthy parents he was not automatically called on while still young to himself help in the fields.
2 Kings 4:19
‘And he said to his father, “My head, my head.” And he said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” ’
But as he was present in the fields he cried to his father, ‘My head, my head’, and presumably collapsed. The father immediately ordered a servant to carry the boy to his mother. He was probably not over-concerned, thinking that it was heat exhaustion or something similar. But the fact that he did not go himself suggests that he was overseeing a number of workers.
2 Kings 4:20
‘And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees until noon, and then died.’
The servant brought the boy to his mother who took him on her knees, but at noontide he died. The speed of the death is against it merely being sunstroke, especially as he would have been suitably dressed, and used to the sun. It rather suggests something like cerebral malaria. (A similar case is described in Jewish tradition in Judith 8:3, although there the man had been out in the sun much longer).
The blow to the mother can be appreciated. But in this case the son was a special gift from God, and she was therefore sure that the man of God who had promised her the son would be able to do something about it..
2 Kings 4:21
‘And she went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door on him, and went out.’
So she took her son up to the man of God’s room and laid him on the man of God’s bed, and then shut the door on him, closing it behind her. A number of suggestions have been made for why she did this:
1) In order that the man of God might feel guilty when he arrived and found him there. This to us, however, appears very unlikely as she intended to go and see the man of God with expectation that he could do something.
2) In the hope that by his being shut in on the man of God’s bed his spirit might somehow be kept near the body until the man of God could come. Certainly the later Jews believed that the spirit did not desert the body for three days. (This does not indicate that it was true, only that it was what people believed).
3) Her wanting to bring her son into as close a contact with the man of God as she could, so that somehow he might be under his protection. It was probably the holiest place that she knew of in the vicinity. It was thus in itself a cry of faith to God. We can compare how people would later touch the hem of Jesus’ robe.
4) There may, of course have been a combination of reasons. She was probably greatly distraught and not thinking too clearly and simply wanted her dead son as near to the man of God whom she was about to seek, as possible.
2 Kings 4:22
‘And she called to her husband, and said, “Send me, I pray you, one of the servants, and one of the asses, that I may run to the man of God, and come again.” ’
We are not told whether she sent a message to inform her husband of the boy’s death, or whether she hoped to spare him grief by obtaining the man of God’s help before he knew. (He would not know where the boy was when he got home). But she sent a message to her husband asking him to send her a servant, and one of the asses, so that she could go and see the man of God and return.
2 Kings 4:23
‘And he said, “Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor sabbath.” And she said, “It will be well.”
The message puzzled her husband who sent a reply asking her why she was going to visit the man of God on a day which was not a special day, like a new moon or sabbath. Both the day of each new moon (the commencement of each ‘month’) and the seventh day (the Sabbath) were looked on as ‘holy days’, and it would appear that people had the custom of visiting prophets on these days, possibly with petitions, and presumably with the hope of learning more about God and His word. (Compare how in Saul’s day all the courtiers were expected to attend at court for a feast at the new moon - 1 Samuel 20:5). Note how this indicates that there was at this time no restriction on travel on the Sabbath, as long as it was for a holy purpose. (There was no restriction to ‘a sabbath day’s journey’). For the association of new moon and Sabbath see Amos 8:5 (note the restrictions); Hosea 2:11; Isaiah 1:13. The Sabbath was unique to Israel and by occurring every seven days was deliberately disconnected with phases of the moon. We must not therefore read into it any connection with ideas at Ugarit or Babylon. The Law of Moses specifically connects it with God in His creative work (Exodus 20:11), and with the deliverance from servitude in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). It became generally recognised in Israel because of the procedures on the collecting of the manna (Exodus 16), which instilled it into them for ‘forty years’.
Her laconic reply, ‘all will be well’, was a general reassurance without explaining anything. It was important to the author as an expression of her faith.
2 Kings 4:24
‘Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant, “Drive, and go forward. Do not slow down the riding, unless I bid you.”
This does not necessarily mean that she saddled the ass herself. She would probably get the servant to do it, although she was under such constraint that she might well have tried to do it herself in order to hurry things up. Then she told the servant to proceed as quickly as possible, driving the ass at speed unless she said otherwise.
2 Kings 4:25-26
‘So she went, and came to the man of God to mount Carmel. And it came about, when the man of God saw her afar off, that he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, yonder is the Shunammite, run, I pray you, now to meet her, and say to her, “Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?” And she answered, “It is well.”
In this way she proceeded towards Mount Carmel at a rapid pace. The man of God was on Mount Carmel and spotted her at a distance, and the speed of her approach made him recognise that something was wrong. So he sent his servant Gehazi to enquire whether all were well. Her reply to him was a non-committal, ‘All is well’. She wanted to speak to the man of God personally.
Note the continual emphasis on ‘the man of God’ (true prophet of YHWH). It was the fact that he was a ‘man of God’ that gave her hope, and that would be evidenced by what he was about to do. (He is mentioned by name in 2 Kings 4:8; 2 Kings 4:17; 2 Kings 4:32, embracing the whole story).
2 Kings 4:27
‘And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came near to push her away, but the man of God said, “Let her alone, for her soul is vexed within her, and YHWH has hidden it from me, and has not told me.” ’
On arrival at where Elisha stood on the hill, she hurriedly dismounted and ran and, falling before him, seized his feet, at which Gehazi sought to constrain her and push her away. But the man of God told him to desist, because it was clear that she was under some deep emotion about something that YHWH had not divulged to him. This suggests that he was in fact used to YHWH revealing to him facts about the needs of the people whom he served.
2 Kings 4:28
‘Then she said, “Did I desire a son of my lord? Did I not say, Do not deceive me?” ’
Her deep distress comes out in these words. They were probably not the only ones that she spoke, but they went to the heart of her distress. She and her husband had become reconciled to their childlessness, and she had made no attempt to ask the prophet for such a gift. But he had insisted, and now she was worse off than if he had not done so, for she had lost her young son and was totally bereft as only a mother can be. Had he not then in the end deceived her, as she had asked him not to? But behind her complaint lay the cry of a heart in pain that yet still believed that he could help her, a plea that he discerned.
2 Kings 4:29
‘Then he said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go your way. If you meet any man, do not salute him. And if any salute you, do not answer him again. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” ’
So Elisha turned to Gehazi, and told him to tuck his robe in his belt and hurry on his way with Elisha’s staff in his hand. He was not to salute anyone on the way, or acknowledge a salute (formal salutations were a lengthy affair and could have caused considerable delay). Such behaviour would make clear to all that he was on an urgent mission (compare Jesus’ similar words to His disciples - Luke 10:4). And when he arrived at the woman’s house he was to lay his staff on the child’s face.
The staff was, of course, the symbol of Elisha’s authority (compare the staff of Moses) and therefore of his authority under YHWH. It was therefore seen as a means of conveying Elisha’s God-given authority to the situation in hand, and of bringing the dead son within the range of Elisha’s power. There was no idea of magic involved. It was little different to the sending of handkerchiefs through which healing was dispensed in Acts 19:12, a practise which has also resulted in healings in modern times (my uncle had a gift of healing and used the method successfully a number of times. He did not believe in magic, but in the power of the God Who had given him his gift).
2 Kings 4:30
‘And the mother of the child said, “As YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” And he arose, and followed her.’
The woman, however, was not content with this. She was convinced that what was needed was the presence of Elisha himself. And so she declared with a most solemn oath that she would not leave Elisha until her son was cured. Thus Elisha arose and went with her.
2 Kings 4:31
‘And Gehazi passed on before them, and laid the staff on the face of the child; but there was neither voice, nor hearing. For which reason he returned to meet him, and told him, saying, “The child has not awoken.” ’
Gehazi had gone on ahead of them, and when he reached the woman’s house he went to Elisha’s room and laid the staff on the boy’s face, but with no response. He did not speak, and he did not move. So Gehazi returned to report failure, declaring, ‘the child has not awoken’.
We are not told whether Elisha was actually expecting the child to be cured by this method, or whether it was intended to be but a preliminary to his own coming, part of the procedure of healing, which in fact took some time.
2 Kings 4:32
‘And when Elisha had come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid on his bed.’
The distance between Shunem and Mount Carmel was around thirty two kilometres (over twenty miles). Thus by this time the child had been dead for at least two days, even granted that the ass had been pressed hard. It would certainly have needed rest periods in the burning heat, or it would have come to a halt. And there had been preparation time at the beginning, and the time needed to explain things to Elisha. So when Elisha came into the house the child was clearly dead, and was still laid out on his bed.
2 Kings 4:33
‘He went in therefore, and shut the door on both of them, and prayed to YHWH.’
Wanting complete privacy for what he was about to do, Elisha went into the room, shutting both the mother and the servant out, and there he prayed to YHWH.
2 Kings 4:34
‘And he went up, and lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, and his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands, and he stretched himself on him, and the flesh of the child grew warm.’
Then he went up to the child who was cold with the cold of death (in spite of the hot climate). He had been lying there for over two days. And Elisha went up and lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, and his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands, and he stretched himself on him. There was no question of ‘mouth to mouth resuscitation’. He had been in this state for too long. The point was rather to communicate to the child the power of Elisha in every part of his body. We can compare how when the woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment ‘power went out of Him’ (Mark 5:30). Compare also ‘the laying on of hands to heal the sick’ (Mark 5:23; Mark 6:5; Mark 16:18; Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13; Acts 28:8). This was how God healed through His servants. It is a reminder that divine healing was demanding on the healer (after a period of healing my uncle would be totally exhausted). It is, however, important to note that it follows the fact that he had ‘prayed to YHWH’ (2 Kings 4:33), and was still no doubt doing so in his heart. Elisha was looking to the power of YHWH not to ancient beliefs about life.
At length he recognised that the child’s body had become warm again. A semblance of life had been restored. The miracle had taken place.
2 Kings 4:35
‘Then he returned, and walked in the house once to and fro, and went up, and stretched himself on him, and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.’
Elisha then arose and walked up and down once. He had just completed a long journey in the heat, and had then accomplished what he had on the boy. It is thus quite probable that he felt that he had to ‘stretch his limbs’. Then he once more went and stretched himself on the boy, and the child ‘sneezed seven times’ and opened his eyes. He had come back to life.
‘Seven times’ probably simply means ‘a number of times in accordance with God’s perfect plan’. It is doubtful if Elisha was counting.
2 Kings 4:36
‘And he called Gehazi, and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she had come in to him, he said, “Take up your son.”
Elisha then summoned Gehazi and told him to call the no doubt anxious Shunnamite. And when she came in he said, ‘Take up your son,’ This remarkable healing was one of the examples that Gehazi recounted to the king of Israel when he had asked about the wonderful things done by Elisha (2 Kings 8:5).
2 Kings 4:37
‘Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground, and she took up her son, and went out.’
Full of gratitude the woman fell at his feet, and bowed herself before him, and then she took up her son and went out. She could probably tell that Elisha was exhausted, and may well still have felt uneasy about being in that holy room when the prophet was there.
The lesson of the passage is clear, and it is that the living God had the power of life and death. He had brought about the birth of the boy, He had allowed the boy to die, and He had raised him up again. All life was in His hands from the cradle to the grave. There was thus no need for a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. YHWH was totally sufficient for His people’s needs.
Death In The Pot (2 Kings 4:38-41).
To turn this story into an example of the culinary art, with Elisha as the experienced chief cook is to misrepresent it. Whatever we may think it is quite clear that the author saw it as a miracle, and intended it to be read in that way. Furthermore it would never have been recorded had it not been seen in that way by the participants. They would have had many experiences of when food did not quite taste right and was put right by adding something more, no doubt resulting in some leg-pulling. No one bothered to record things like that. But this was clearly seen as something different.
One problem is, of course, that, while we may hazard guesses, there is no indication what the plant was that was added to the pot, but we can safely assume that it was not anything common. That is why we do not see it as fitting in with the usual suggestions. It was clearly not a commonly recognised plant (‘they did not know them’). However, the idea that it was poisonous did simply rest on the taste. But no one, probably even Elisha, knew whether it was so or not. Thus the adding of the meal was intended to be a divine remedy for the situation, not just something to make the stew more palatable, necessary because it was a time of shortage and they could not afford to lose what was in the pot. And for that it turned out to be perfectly satisfactory. It was another example of Elisha’s remarkable powers.
a And Elisha came again to Gilgal. And there was a famine in the land, and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him (2 Kings 4:38 a).
b And he said to his servant, “Set on the great pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 4:38 b).
c And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered from it wild gourds, his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of stew, for they did not know them (2 Kings 4:39).
b So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came about, as they were eating of the stew, that they cried out, and said, “O man of God, there is death in the pot.” And they could not eat of it (2 Kings 4:40).
a But he said, “Then bring meal.” And he cast it into the pot, and he said, “Pour out for the people, that they may eat.” And there was no harm in the pot (2 Kings 4:41).
Note that in ‘a’ there was famine in the land and the sons of the prophets were depending on Elisha, and in the parallel their need is met by Elisha. In ‘b’ the stew was set on the fire so that it would be ready for the sons of the prophets to eat, and in the parallel they tried to eat of it but could not. Central in ‘c’ is the reason for the problem, the gathering of an unknown ingredient.
2 Kings 4:38
‘And Elisha came again to Gilgal. And there was a famine in the land, and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him. And he said to his servant, “Set on the great pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” ’
The famine was probably the same one as described in 2 Kings 8:1. We do not know which Gilgal it was, whether the one in the Jordan rift valley, or the one in the hills above Bethel, or possibly another one. The important thing is that Elisha and the sons of the prophets were having a community meal. This may have been because the famine had brought them together, or because they were having a special conference in view of the coming of Elisha to the region. But as their acknowledged leader when he was present Elisha gave orders for a large pot of stew to be put on the fire to boil, ready for their meal.
2 Kings 4:39
‘And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered from it wild gourds, his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of stew, for they did not know them.’
We have here a stark warning of the danger of eating things which are unknown to us, unless of course we have good grounds for knowing them to be safe. This is especially so when we gather them in the wild. In this case one of the sons of the prophets found an unknown ‘vine’ and gathered its fruits, which he then placed in his turned up robe (forming a carrier bag). When they were brought back to the camp they were shredded with everything else, even though ‘they did not know them’. Possibly no one thought to ask, each assuming that the others knew what they were. The fact that it was unknown indicates that it was a rare plant, and it is therefore unlikely that we can identify it. The description is a loose one using common terminology. The plant was ‘a creeping plant’ producing some kind of ‘knop like fruit’, but as the description came from a layman it cannot be taken too literally. Any suggestions based on plants which were common can be discounted (thus we exclude the later guess at the colocynth, a common wild plant which produced cucumber like fruit, and was purgative, and in quantities, poisonous. It would be too commonly known).
2 Kings 4:40
‘So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came about, as they were eating of the stew, that they cried out, and said, “O man of God, there is death in the pot.” And they could not eat of it.’
‘There is death in the pot.’ It would only be when the stew was tasted and found to be inedible that questions would be asked, and it may well be that when that occurred the description from the culprit indicated to a fellow son of the prophets some kind of rare ‘fruit’ which from past experience he knew to be poisonous. Thus it may well be that it was literally poisonous. To make it into a kind of joke such as we might make over something we do not like the taste of is to ignore the seriousness with which this story has been treated. It is not meant to be light entertainment. As a result of what they had discovered they could clearly not eat of it. As presumably what the man had put in was a relatively small part of the ingredients, its drastic effect on the taste is remarkable evidence of its potency.
2 Kings 4:41
‘But he said, “Then bring meal.” And he cast it into the pot, and he said, “Pour out for the people, that they may eat.” And there was no harm in the pot.’
So Elisha called for some meal to be brought , and he himself cast it into the pot, and then declared it to be now perfectly safe. And so it turned out to be. While we would not discount the fact that adding meal could quite well have a taste-changing effect on the stew, making it palatable, we would not deny. It may even have helped to compensate for whatever poison was in the pot. But if so it was YHWH Who knew about that, not Elisha and the sons of the prophets. They saw it as a miracle. And it was certainly a miracle of answered prayer.
The final point behind the story was that as the God of Creation, YHWH had full control over all vegetation, and could make of it what He would.
Elisha Feeds A ‘Multitude’ With A Relatively Few Loaves of Bread (2 Kings 4:42-44).
While the likeness to the account of the feeding of many thousands by Jesus with five loaves and two fish is limited to the fact of the multiplying of the food, this miracle clearly does not bear comparison with that in level of difficulty. But it was remarkable nonetheless. For when some of the firstfruits were brought to Elisha, he fed a hundred men on twenty small barley loaves, with food left over. The fact that there was some left over demonstrates that it was not just a token meal or a making do with what was available. All ate and were satisfied.
The emphasis is not on the fact that this was a sacramental meal (an invention of commentators) but on the fact that they were all able to eat with something left over. There is an emphasis on the miraculous content of what happened. So little genuinely fed so many.
a And there came a man from Baal-shalishah, and brought the man of God bread of the first-fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of grain in his sack (2 Kings 4:42 a).
b And he said, “Give to the people, that they may eat . (2 Kings 4:42 b).
c And his servant said, “What, should I set this before a hundred men?” (2 Kings 4:43 a).
b But he said, “Give the people, that they may eat, for thus says YHWH, “They shall eat, and shall leave some of it” (2 Kings 4:43 b).
a So he set it before them, and they ate, and left some of it, according to the word of YHWH (2 Kings 4:44).
Note than in ‘a’ the food was brought to Elisha, and in the parallel the man sets it before the people, and they all ate and were filled. In ‘b’ Elisha commands that it be given to the people, and in the parallel repeats the command with the explanation that YHWH would make it sufficient. Centrally in ‘c’ the servant is astonished that so little should be offered to so many people.
2 Kings 4:42
‘And there came a man from Baal-shalishah, and brought the man of God bread of the first-fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and freshly plucked ears of grain in his sack. And he said, “Give to the people, that they may eat.” ’
Baal-shalisha lay twenty two kilometres (fourteen miles) north of Lydda in the plain of Sharon. From there came a man bearing some of the firstfruits for ‘the man of God’. In Judah the firstfruits (Leviticus 23:20) would be for the priests. But in Israel many did not recognise the priests at the false sanctuaries, and probably therefore saw this as a satisfactory method of making their gift to YHWH. The man brought twenty barley loaves and some freshly plucked ears of grain in a sack. Elisha was present at a gathering of about one hundred men (probably mostly sons of the prophets, some of whom may have had their wives or sons with them) and he therefore commanded that the bread be given to them so that they could eat. It is not said that it was during the famine but it might well have been so.
2 Kings 4:43
‘And his servant said, “What, should I set this before a hundred men?” But he said, “Give the people, that they may eat, for thus says YHWH, “They shall eat, and shall leave some of it.” ’
The servant was astonished. So little before a hundred men? Elisha’s reply confirms that he is aware of how little it is but he asserts that YHWH has promised that they will all eat sufficient and that some will be left over. The emphasis all though is on the miracle of so many being fed with so little. There is not even a hint that any other alternative applied.
2 Kings 4:44
‘So he set it before them, and they ate, and left some of it, according to the word of YHWH.’
And the result that in accord with YHWH’s prophetic utterance all of them ate of it and some was left over. Any attempt to remove the miraculous ignores the emphasis in the account and must be dismissed as ludicrous. The whole point of the story is that, unlike Baal, YHWH was able to take twenty loaves and multiply them as He wished. He was the Lord of bread and grain. We will accept that in some way it may have been a sacrament, but only because YHWH multiplied the bread so that all had sufficient. It was thus food from YHWH indeed, and fed both body and soul to the full.
It is also a reminder to us that He can take of what few talents we have and multiply them so that our lives can be fully effective for him. But that can only be when we first of all hand it all over to Him and commence whatever we discover that He wants us to do.
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