Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Second Kings: Miracle Men

Today we start of the Second Book of Kings. I’m sure great wonders are in store for us, just like every other book so far. So let’s dive in, shall we?

The very first story is a real thriller. Ahab’s son Ahaziah is king and has a nasty fall that injures him badly enough to confine him to bed. He sends messengers to Ekron to ask their god (Baal-zebub) whether he will recover. Naturally, this pisses off Yahweh, so he sends Elijah to turn the messengers back with the news that Ahaziah is going to die because he tried to consult with another god.

When Ahaziah hears about this, he sends a company of fifty men to bring Elijah back to see him.

2 Kings 1: 10 But Elijah answered the captain of fifty ‘If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.’ Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.”

OK, so, mystic murder of fifty-one men because Elijah didn’t want to go to the king. Well, actually a hundred and two men, since Ahaziah sends another company and Elijah does the same thing to them. Then Ahaziah, apparently a very slow learner, sends a third company of fifty men. But the captain of this group begs Elijah to spare his life, at which point an angel tells Elijah to go with the captain to meet the king.

So he does, and repeats the exact same message about how Ahaziah is going to die because he tried to consult with another god instead of Yahweh. Then Ahaziah dies, having reigned only two years, and his brother Jehoram becomes king.

Afterwards, we get a story about Elijah and Elisha traveling together. They stop in three different cities, and before leaving each one Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind but he refuses. Also in each one the prophets tell Elisha that God is about to take Elijah from him, to which he responds that he already knows and they should keep quiet about it.

After these stops they travel on to the Jordan river, which Elijah causes to part by smacking it with his cloak. They cross the river and leave behind some fifty prophets who’d been following them, heading off alone into the wilderness.

2 Kings 2:11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

So yeah, Elijah has been physically picked up and taken alive to heaven. Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak, which had fallen off when the whirlwind came, and marched back to the Jordan. He smacked the water with the cloak and made it part again so he could cross back over to where the prophets are waiting for him. They want to go look for Elijah in case the whirlwind dropped him someplace still on earth (or maybe because “Elisha murdered him and buried him in a shallow grave,” seemed like a more plausible story than “Chariots of fire carried him in a whirlwind up to heaven,”), and do so over Elisha’s objection. But their search is fruitless, so instead they start asking Elisha for miracles like making the local water more palatable.

From there we move on to this charming little tale:

2 Kings 2:23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went onto Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.”

Dude! Not cool! That’s some weapons-grade insecurity (not to mention psychotic assholery) there, sending bears to maul children for making fun of your baldness. And then he just travels on as if it ain’t no thang.

Next is a little story about how Jehoram (king of Israel) gets together with Jehosaphat (king of Judah) and the king of Edom to go put the smackdown on the Moabites because they stopped paying a tribute of sheep to Israel after Ahab died. They persuade Elisha to help them out, and so God engages in his usual method of divine intervention: helping his followers kill the fuck out of a whole mess of people. But then, after bitchslapping the Moabite army around and destroying the Moabites’ farmland for shits and giggles, we find the combined army marching on the Moabite capital.

2 Kings 3:27 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. 27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.”

Well how do you like that? Cornered by an Israelite army that showed every indication of wanting to kill every last one of his people, the king of Moab sacrificed his son in a desperate bid for his own god’s intervention to save them. And from his perspective, it certainly must have seemed as though it worked, because the Israelites were driven off.

Now I’ve heard Christians mention this tale as an example of how awful the Moabites were and therefore how they deserved all the genocidal attacks from God’s followers. To this I respond: read up on Jephthah (Judges 11:30 – 11:39, which I covered in my post titled “Judges: Barbeque!” at http://reallyawakeguy.blogspot.com/2013/10/judges-barbeque.html). He did the exact same fucking thing (only under less desperate circumstances), sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to God in exchange for victory in battle. And he’s considered a hero in the Bible. The only difference between him and the king of Moab is which tribal figment of imagination they were sacrificing their offspring to. But as I’ve mentioned before, the choice of gods appears to be the only discernible difference between heroes and villains in this book.

After this, Elisha starts doing something very odd for one of Yahweh’s Old Testament prophets: helping people in ways that don’t involve killing anyone. We get a story about how he miraculously gave a poor widow a vast supply of oil to sell in order to pay off her debts and avoid having to sell her sons into slavery. This is followed by him raising from the dead the son of a Shunammite woman who had given him shelter (though there are some weird sexual overtones to the method he used – whereas just praying was good enough for Elijah to raise the dead, for some reason Elisha has to lie down on top of the boy and kiss him on the mouth a few times to get the same result). After this he purifies a stew that had accidentally been prepared with poisonous ingredients so that it could be eaten safely. And then, in a time of famine, he multiplies a supply of barley and grain to feed a hundred men with food left over. He cures Namaan (a favorite of the king of Syria) of leprosy, and punishes his own assistant with leprosy when the guy tries to con Namaan into paying for the cure. Finally, he… umm… makes an axe head float to the surface when one of his servants accidentally drops it in the water.

What’s interesting about Elisha’s miracles is that they don’t ever seem to include prayer – just weird little rituals seemingly made up on the spot, like throwing a stick in the water to make the axe head float, or tossing flour in the poisonous soup. It looks more like wizardry than anything else. Also, there’s no explicit command from God for him to do any of it. He just seems to wander around tossing off magic at his whim (and other than the bit with bears mauling small children, doing so in ways that really aren’t terribly consistent with the character of God thus far displayed) and occasionally crediting God for it.

It raises a few questions, I think. Are we looking at a god who’s softening a bit, or stories representing an evolution in how the authors (who most certainly were not the ones who wrote the oldest books) regard the role of their imaginary friend and what he expects of his adherents. Perhaps further reading will provide insight, but with a new war with Syria on the horizon I think this may be a good place to stop for today.

Until next time, you be well!

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