Friday, August 3
Second Kings 2: We come now to one of the most memorable scenes in Holy Scripture, Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire. No comment about the event could possibly be as interesting as the event.
Jewish and Christian imaginative tradition was fascinated by the simple fact that Elijah never died. Like Enoch, he was taken up by the Lord into heaven. Later on, the last of Israel’s canonical prophets, Malachi, foretold his return. This prophecy led to vast religious speculation, which has continued to the present day. Let us consider a single example of such speculation:
In Mark’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration (9:2-10), one of its most notable features is the curious way the evangelist speaks of the arrival of Moses and Elijah. Whereas Matthew and Luke say simply, “Moses and Elijah appeared” on the scene, Mark lays a special stress on Elijah. He writes, “Elijah appeared to them with Moses.” Not only does Mark mention Elijah before Moses, but the verb he uses, “appeared” (ophthe), is singular, not plural. Mark’s account is about the arrival of Elijah, Moses playing a rather secondary role.
Why is Elijah so prominent in Mark’s story of the Transfiguration? This emphasis can hardly be insignificant. To throw light on the question, I suggest three steps:
First, let us observe that Mark’s version of the Transfiguration is followed immediately by a question about the return of Elijah. Speaking of the three apostles that had just witnessed the scene, Mark writes, “And they asked Him, saying, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’”
As it stands in Mark, this question strikes one as curious, a bit odd, in context. Why, right between the Transfiguration and the healing of the little boy at the bottom of the mountain, do the apostles suddenly become inquisitive about the return of Elijah? It is rather strange.
Second, if their question is rendered odd by its context, perhaps we should look more closely at that context. What I propose to do here is remove the Transfiguration from Mark’s story and have a look at the context without it.
If this procedure seems unusual, let me explain. I don’t intend to alter or rearrange the biblical passage. On the contrary, I simply want to understand how the Transfiguration story is set within its context in Mark. This is why I propose to examine that context without the Transfiguration. This is something on the order of picturing a ring apart from its gem, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for a jeweler to do.
Now, if we remove the story of the Transfiguration from Mark’s sequence for a moment, we will notice something very peculiar and interesting. Without the Transfiguration, here is the way chapter nine of Mark begins:
And He said to them, “Amen, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Then He answered and told them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.”
We immediately notice that this hypothetical narrative sequence flows more logically (if this is the word I want) than the actual story as Mark tells it. The apostles’ question about the return of Elijah no longer seems odd or abrupt. It appears, rather, as a natural and expected response. The Lord predicts, “there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power,” and the disciples answer, “Well, all right, but isn’t Elijah supposed to come first?” That is to say, the narrative sequence makes perfect sense without the Transfiguration.
Third, if the sequence is completely logical without the Transfiguration, then what does the Transfiguration add to the story? This question brings me to the substance of my argument; namely, in Mark’s account the Transfiguration seems to have been inserted (whether by Mark or by an earlier source on which he relies—this question is not important to our purpose) into an earlier narrative sequence, because it does, in fact, directly address the question of the return of Elijah. Indeed, this is exactly what Mark says with respect to the Transfiguration: “Elijah appeared”!
We see, then, how the Transfiguration story functions in the sequence of Mark’s narrative. Its position serves to answer a question about Elijah’s return. He came back at the Transfiguration! In the theology of Mark, Elijah’s arrival at the Transfiguration of our Lord places that event into the context of a specific prophecy abut Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).
As the story flows in Mark, moreover, this appearance of Elijah at the Transfiguration scene not only fulfills the prophecy of Malachi; it also identifies Malachi’s “day of the Lord” with the Resurrection. We see this very clearly in Mark’s sequence, where the question about Elijah expresses the apostles’ puzzlement about the Resurrection. Mark writes,
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
Finally we may comment that this Markan emphasis on Elijah in the Transfiguration story is very different from that in Matthew and Luke. Although Matthew (17:1-12) follows Mark in the sequence of these two stories, he does not give a special emphasis to Elijah in his account of the Transfiguration. On the contrary, he adds an explanatory note that symbolically identifies Elijah with John the Baptist (17:13). Luke, who makes the same identification (1:17), completely omits the apostles’ question about the return of Elijah.
Although the full meaning of Elijah’s return has never been completely settled in Christian theology, it is worth remarking that St. Ambrose followed Mark’s lead in seeing the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5 in the Lord’s Transfiguration (De Virginibus 1.3.12).
Saturday, August 4
Second Kings 3: The present chapter, concerned with Israel’s dealings with the Moabite nation, testifies to Elisha’s prophetic involvement in geopolitics.
Omri, the father of Ahab, had subjected the Moabites thirty years before. Indeed, the Moabite king in the present chapter, Mesha, left us an important inscription, which speaks of that subjection and of his own rebellion against Israel. That inscription reads, in part, “Omri, king of Israel, had oppressed Moab for many days, for Kemosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him, and he also said, ‘I will oppress Moab.’ In my days he said this, but I have triumphed over him and his house, and Israel has perished forever.” Needless to say, the present chapter of Kings gives a somewhat different version of Mesha’s rebellion.
What Mesha did accomplish was the fortification of the northern routes from Israel, which obliged Jehoram to approach Moab from the south—“by way of the wilderness of Edom” (verse 8). For this venture, he needed the cooperation of Judah and Edom; this he secured by establishing a coalition with King Jehoshaphat and the Edomites (verse 7). The formation of this coalition is to be dated between 852 and 848.
The southern approach to Moab lay through the desert, through which the coalition force was obliged to march for a whole week, exhausting their water supply. In desperation they sought prophetic counsel from Elisha, whom they knew to have been the servant of Elijah (verses 9-12).
Elisha, who knew a thing or two about Baal worship in Israel, first suggested— sarcastically—that these three kings seek counsel from Baalist prophets. In the context of the current shortage of water, this sarcasm recalled the famous drought of Ahab’s time, the drought that ended when Elijah killed the prophets of Baal.
At last, however, Elisha prophesies an abundance of water to supply the needs of the coalition army, and the next morning a flood flows from the south—that is, from the very desert. The besieged Moabites, when they saw the water on the red sandstone hills to the south, imagined it was blood, and they concluded that the three partners of the coalition must have slaughtered one another during the night. (In Hebrew the very word, “Edom,” means “red” and is a cognate of dam, which means “blood.”
Rushing out to despoil the besieging camp, the Moabites were routed by the forces of the coalition. King Mesha, in desperation, offered his own son in sacrifice, thus bringing “a great wrath on Israel.” Apparently this terrible gesture rallied the forces of Moab, so that they dispersed the coalition and gained independence from Israel. Contrary to Mesha’s claim, however, it is not true that “Israel has perished forever.”
Sunday, August 5
Second Kings 4: Having already examined the ways in which Elijah resembles Moses, let us look at the signs of a similar resemblance in the case of Elisha. These have to do chiefly his ministry as a worker of miracles. Indeed, Moses and Elisha are clearly the Old Testament’s two great thaumaturges. This is not to say that Elisha is portrayed as a miracle-worker in order to make him look like another Moses. Indeed, the very opposite presumption is made here. That is to say, it is presumed here that the Bible portrays Elisha as resembling Moses the miracle-worker because he did, in fact, work miracles, as Moses had done. Nonetheless, that point understood, it is reasonable to suggest that the author of Kings does tell his story in such a way as to accentuate the similarities between the two men in this matter of miracles. In this respect it is worth examining the context and sequence of 2 Kings 2—6 rather closely.
First, the prophetic ministry of Elisha begins where that of Elijah left off; namely, with the miraculous parting of the waters (2:14), this repetition of the miracle putting one in mind, of course, of both Moses and Joshua. Next, in grudging response to the persistent requests made by “the sons of the prophets,” Elisha authorizes a search for Elijah’s body. Knowing what had happened to Elijah, Elisha is hardly surprised at their failure to find it (2:15–17), and the attentive reader will remember that, among the last recorded facts about Moses, it was said, “no one knows his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
Such is the context in which Elisha begins his ministry as a worker of miracles. These latter immediately come in a fairly rapid sequence reminiscent of the ten plagues of Moses. And, like those Mosaic plagues, these recorded miracles of Elisha are also ten in number: the purification of the spring at Jericho (2:19–21), the efficacious cursing of his foes (2:23–25), the wondrous flow of water (3:16–20), the miraculous production of oil (4:1–7), the raising of the dead boy (4:18–37), the purging of the pot of stew (4:38–41), the multiplication of food (4:42–44), the cleansing of Naaman’s leprosy and its transferal to Gehazi
(5:1–27), the floating ax head (6:1–7), and the blinding and enlightenment of the Syrian soldiers (6:8–23).
As both prophet and miracle-worker, Elisha stands in Holy Scripture as a very special foreshadowing of Christ. In truth, except for Moses, no other Old Testament figure so completely combines both of those characteristics of our Lord as does this ninth-century prophet, who was also a healer of leprosy, provider of food and water, and raiser of the dead. It is particularly proper, then, that Elisha appears as an illustration in Jesus’ first recorded public words, the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. In that sermon, the Lord recalls that “many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).
Monday, August 6
Second Kings 5: Naaman’s is the most interesting story of a Gentile who came to the faith and worship of Israel’s God. A general in the service of King Benhadad II of Syria during the ninth century before Christ, he was persuaded by a little Israelite girl, a captive of the Syrians, to make a pilgrimage to Israel in hopes of being cleansed of his leprosy. Fortunately for Naaman, the Prophet Elisha was in residence at the time, for whom the curing of leprosy was a small part of a day’s work.
We know on the authority of Jesus Himself that Naaman’s story signified God’s plans for the salvation of the Gentiles (Luke 4:27; 2 Kings 5:15–17). That is to say, what happened to Naaman prefigured the Christian mission to the nations. An especially ironic feature of this story is that this Gentile confessed the true God during a time when many in Israel were engaged in the worship of false gods. He obeyed the Lord’s prophet when not a few of that prophet’s coreligionists were refusing to do so.
And just what did Elisha oblige Naaman to do? “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:10). This order seems simple enough, but Naaman evidently expected something a bit more sudden and dramatic: “I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy’” (5:11).
Naaman, you see, though a religious man, did not yet know about sacraments, and the action required of him by Elisha—dipping into the Jordan seven times—had a distinctly sacramental quality. It was not “only a symbol,” but a symbolic action specifically designated by God for the granting of grace. It actually accomplished something.
By bathing in the Jordan, Naaman would be doing a thing of great moment. He would be identifying with the Israelites who went through that river as their passage into the Promised Land. A whole generation of them had been baptized, as it were, in the Jordan, as the previous generation had been baptized in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2). Just as those ancient events had foreshadowed the Christian sacrament of baptism (10:11), Naaman’s mystic sevenfold immersion in that same mystic river was to serve as a prophecy of the future baptizing of the nations.
What was required of Naaman was the “obedience of faith” ( hypakoepisteos – Romans 1:5; 16:26). Unless he did what he was told, he would remain a leper. John Chrystostom thus compared Naaman to the blind man whom Jesus commanded to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam; both were required to make the same act of obedience in faith ( Homilies on John 56). Naaman received from Elisha essentially that same command Paul would one day receive from Ananais: “Arise and be baptized, and was away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” ( Acts 22:16).
Naaman did not understand any of this. What, after all, was so special about the Jordan River? “Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” Naaman was not yet fully won over. He still resisted doing something he did not understand: “So he turned away in a rage” ( 2 Kings 5:12).
Naaman’s loyal friends, however, eventually persuaded him to obey the prophet, “so he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (5:14). By way of prophetic prefiguration, Naaman submitted to the stern exhortation of the Apostle Peter, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). He went, he washed, he was cleansed.
It is in such terms that the Church of Jesus Christ has ever read the story of Naaman. The little girl who sent Naaman to be baptized, said Ambrose of Milan, “bore the mien of the Church and represented her image”—speciem habebat Ecclesiae et figuram representabat (De Sacramentis 2.8). “It was not for nothing,” wrote Irenaeus of Lyons,
but for our instruction, that Naaman of old, suffering from leprosy, was cleansed by being baptized [on baptistheis ekathaireto]. For as we are lepers by sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions through [dia] the sacred water and the invoking of the Lord, being spiritually regenerated as newborn children, even as the Lord declared, “Unless a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the Kingdom of God” (Fragment 34).
Tuesday, August 7
Second Kings 6: The saga of Elisha continues. After the miracle of the floating ax head (replicated later on in the life of Saint Benedict, according to Saint Gregory’s biography of him), there follow an account of Syrian military activity against Israel and the victory of Elisha over Israel’s enemies (verses 8-23).
The story of the ax head must not be separated from its context, which is the building project of “the sons of the prophets.” These men, who lived hidden in caves during the time of Ahab and Jezebel, are now out in the open; they no longer fear for their lives. This simple fact indicates the recent popular ascendancy of the prophets, along with the diminished power of the throne. We observe that the kings now consult with the authentic prophets, something Ahab and Jezebel never did when Elijah was still around.
Indeed, in the story that follows—of war between Syria and Israel—the prophetic ministry is so dominant that the author neglects even to mention the names of the respective kings. We must piece together other information to discern that they are Jehoram of Israel and Benhadad of Damascus.
Because this is a story of the prophetic ministry, there is considerable attention paid to sight. Thus, Benhadad instructs his men to “see where [Elisha] is” (verse 13). Elisha prays that his opponents will be struck blind (verse 18), and two times prays that someone will see (verses 17, 20). That is to say, the prophet finds his advantage through the medium of light. When he wishes, Elisha’s enemies are submerged in darkness, like the men of Sodom and Egypt. As for the prophet himself, he seems always aware of the invisible world that surrounds him and his contemporaries; he is especially conscious of the presence of angels, who have charge over the Lord’s loyal servants. Indeed, it appears that the angels in this story are charged to serve and guard the prophetic mission of Elisha.
This angelic guardianship leads to the great reversal, in which the Syrian forces, dispatched to capture Elisha, become his prisoners! There ensues the ironical scene in which King Jehoram of Israel seeks to take advantage of the captured Syrians, whom his own army had been unable to defeat. Elisha, however, will not permit it. He it was—not the king—who took these men captive. He will treat them with the respect due a prisoner-of-war after the fighting is over. He feeds the prisoners and sends them home. Israel’s king has nothing to say about it. Clearly, the prophets are now more powerful than the kings.
Wednesday, August 8
Second Kings 7: Notwithstanding the firm assertion, “the Syrians came no more on raids into the land of Israel” (6:23), we are immediately informed that “Benhadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria” (6:24). There follows a long story of this siege, with particular attention to the activity of Elisha (6:24—7:20).
This new story of a Syrian attack is the twin of the story that immediately precedes it. Each narrative starts with a nervous king facing a serious problem; both kings lay the blame on Elisha, and both kings try to capture him. In each case, Elisha returns good for evil, providing food for the Syrians in the first story and providing plunder for the Israelites in the second.
In this second story, the Syrian siege produces famine in the city of Samaria, a famine so severe that the head of an ass—an unclean animal—becomes something of a delicacy, and the people are reduced to consuming pigeon’s dung. This is the context in which the king of Israel is approached by the woman who presents her personal problem with respect to cannibalism. Her request—which may put the reader in mind of another question a mother once posed to Solomon—distresses the king. Utterly frustrated, he irrationally lays the blame on Elisha. In response to the king’s threat, the prophet foretells a coming abundance that will relieve the famine.
There follows a story of divinely induced panic among the Syrian forces, causing them to flee and leave behind sufficient spoils to relieve the famine in Samaria. This account contains the ironical incident of the four lepers, who mount their own “attack” on the Syrians. After feasting sufficiently on the booty of the camp, the lepers return to the city and announce the miraculous deliverance. Although not permitted to enter the city, the lepers become its “deliverers.”
Thus, by reason of God’s subtle activity—as Elisha foretells—a condition of siege and famine is transformed into a scene of abundance. At the story’s beginning, the people have nothing. At the end—with no discernible change in the general economy—they have more than enough. This account is a living illustration of the biblical declaration, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. / He has put down the mighty from their thrones,? / And exalted the lowly. / He has filled the hungry with good things,? / And the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
Thursday, August 9
Second Kings 8: This chapter includes several components: the later life of the Elisha’s Shunammite friend (verses 1-6), Elisha’s involvement in the overthrow of Benhadad and his prophecy of coming troubles from the new Syrian leadership (verses 7-15), and the reigns of Jehoram and Ahaziah of Judah (verses 16-24).
In First Kings 18 Elijah was instructed to anoint Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Samaria, and Elisha as a prophet to succeed himself. While there is no biblical testimony that he personally did any of these things, Elijah’s choice of Elisha to succeed him did lead, in fact, to the ascendancies of Hazael and Jehu over their respective kingdoms. Both these future kings are approached by Elisha.
Elisha, even as he confronts the death of Benhadad, however, and foretells the rise of Hazael, is tormented in mind by the terrible things the future Syrian kings will do to Israel. The prophet is so distressed that his gaze becomes fixed, as though in trance. He begins to weep, foreseeing the social and geopolitical tragedies associated with the new dynasty in Syria. These are later described by Amos:
For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four,? / I will not turn away its punishment,? / Because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron. / But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael,? / Which shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad. / I will also break the gate bar of Damascus, / ?And cut off the inhabitant from the Valley of Aven,? / And the one who holds the scepter from Beth Eden.? / The people of Syria shall go captive to Kir (Amos 1:3-5)
There are two men named Jehoram in verse 16. One is the son of Jehoshaphat in Judah, the other is the son of Ahab in Israel. “Joram” is an alternative spelling in both cases.
If this is confusing to Bible readers today, this may also have been the case for the contemporaries of these two men, because their families became mixed. Jehoram of Judah married the Princess Athaliah, the sister of Jehoram of Israel. That is to say, the two Jehorams were brothers-in-law. Put another way—Jehoram of Judah was a son-in-law of Jezebel, while Jehoram of Israel was a son of Jezebel. Anyway, the Bible has nothing good to say about either. Indeed, the wedding arrangements of the two families simply enhanced the moral decadence of each. The simultaneous insurrections in Edom and Libnah testify that the two families are about to unravel.
Friday, August 10
Second Kings 9: A great deal of blood is shed in this chapter. It needed to be done.
Jehoram of Judah (848-841) is succeeded by his son Ahaziah, whose mother was Athaliah, sister to Jehoram of Israel (852-841). When war breaks out between Israel and Syria, this new king of Judah joins his uncle, Jehoram, in the combat with the new Syrian king, Hazael. When Uncle Jehoram is wounded, he is taken to recover at the royal court at Jezreel, where Nephew Ahaziah comes to visit him (8:25-29). This is the setting for Elisha’s next intervention.
The prophet, in the interests of secrecy, dispatches one of his assistants to the battle camp of the Israelites with a flask of oil and instructions to anoint one of the generals—a particularly energetic chariot-driver, as it turns out—to be the new king of Israel (verses 1-10). The Lord has determined that the dynasty of Omri, particularly the legacy of Ahab and Jezebel, must come to an end.
Since King Jehoram is at Jezreel recovering from his wounds, Jehu has no trouble uniting the troops in his seizure of power (verses 11-13). Jehu next comes to Jezreel to finish off Jehoram and his mother Jezebel (14-20). As Jehu rides in—according to the inherited biblical text—it is said that “he drives furiously.”
Apparently this description of Jehu’s driving habits bothered some earlier readers of Holy Scripture, for reasons not entirely clear to the present writer. Thus, an early Aramaic version (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan) changes the expression to “with gentleness,” and Josephus (Antiquities 9.6.3) declares that Jehu drove his chariot “slowly and in good order.”
Uncle Jehoram and Nephew Ahaziah, who apprehensively ride out to meet Jehu, come to the famous vineyard stolen from Naboth by Ahab and Jezebel. It is a fitting place for the dynasty of Omri to meet its fate. Jehu had accompanied Ahab in that long distant hour when Elijah prophesied this day of reckoning (verse 21-26). Nephew Ahaziah, the young and energetic King of Judah, attempts to flee, but he makes it only four miles to the south when he is struck by an arrow. He finally dies at a site five and a half miles northwest of where he was wounded.
Finally, there is the pathetic scene in which Jezebel gets all dolled up to meet Jehu, who orders her to be thrown from an upper storey of the palace. Dogs devour her body before Jehu remembers that she is entitled to a royal burial.