Alphagramma
Alphagramma
 

The Prophet's Apprentice (Elisha Reimagined)

Written by Peter Robert Flounders
(During The First Decade And A Half Of The Twenty-First Century)

   

 

CHAPTER 3
(3 Kings 3: 1-27)

Rivers of Blood

King Mesha of Moab was a very successful sheep farmer. He would rather have been remembered for more than that, and eventually this turned out to be the case, though again not quite as he might have wished. But the fact remained, he was a good livestock man, employed the right people, and raised hardy, good wool-bearing sheep. Each year, Israel demanded a tribute of a hundred thousand rams and the wool from a hundred thousand lambs. Strong kings in Israel had made sure that this annual levy never failed and it was now an important part of the county's economy. But Mesha knew kings as well as he knew sheep and when King Ahab of Israel died, Mesha seized his opportunity and rebelled. (Irrespective of whom you consider, God's chosen people, or the people of Baal, it seems too often that there is eventually no difference. Since the accuser fell from grace for all eternity, sooner or later nations and individuals behave exactly the same way, never learning the lessons of history. They rebel against parents, against teachers and priests, against rulers and kings, and eventually against God Himself.)

Mesha was born a natural opportunist and was constantly searching for ways to improve his lot. He detested the role of a subject king, and particularly the annual levy due to Israel; a tribute that was both expensive to the Moabites, and essential to Israel, both materially and in the inevitable loss of face and respect should it be lost. When Ahab died it seemed the time was right to test the resolve of Israel, and for a while his assessment of Israel's royal family proved true. King Ahaziah, Ahab's son and heir, who cared little for anything except his creature comforts, did nothing to combat the challenge. However, with the unfolding of the Lord Almighty's great plan, Ahaziah was removed ignominiously, never leaving the bed he was confined to after falling through the roof of his house - a fitting end for a lazy and immoral ruler. His brother Joram assumed the throne of Israel, the Northern Kingdom.

Ahaziah had been a self-indulgent man, and a lazy ruler, sometimes allowing evil by default rather than by design. His father, Ahab, however, had been a genuinely evil man and therefore an evil ruler. (He was the first king to introduce the worship of Baal as the official religion in Israel, the promised land of God's chosen people.) Then he had compounded his sin by marrying the woman, Jezebel, a creature as evil as himself, and as her father before her. (He, her father, Ethbaal, who was a high priest in a pagan temple, had murdered the king of Tyre, then claimed the throne and ruled for thirty-two years.) 1 His daughter faithfully followed her father's example. And as a lover and follower of Baal, she hated the prophets of the LORD with a consuming hatred even before Elijah had first humiliated and then slaughtered her prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel,2 and she remained the only person in the world he had ever feared - a regret he carried with him the remainder of his time on earth.

Ahab had ensured the loyalty of the faithless people by building great cities for them, (but at the same he also built a palace of inlaid ivory for himself), However, even he was sometimes helped by the LORD in battle, and in the end he died with some courage at Ramoth Gilead, allied with King Jehoshaphat of Judah against the king of Aram. Although fatally wounded, he had stayed with his troops until the battle untidily ended.3

Now the throne had passed to King Joram, brother of Ahaziah, and the problem of the Moabite levy belonged to him. He had to decide the best course of action to take with Mesha who was growing increasingly confident with every unchallenged day, and who still refused to pay the annual levy. The choices were limited: to accept the situation as it existed due to his brother's weakness, and let it continue; or to open dialogue with King Mesha in the hope of renegotiating new terms; or risk an all-out attack on Moab.

The first two options would probably be understood by all interested parties as demonstrating the same weakness as his brother, and perhaps leave his own position in greater jeopardy. Yet a frontal attack on Moab was even more hazardous. It would mean a long trek through unfriendly and difficult terrain followed by a prolonged battle with an army that was rested and waiting, and the plan did not promise an optimistic outcome. It was not an easy decision to make. But Joram was as cunning as a desert jackal, and as politically sophisticated as his father before him. His aim was to find a course that combined maximum benefit with minimal risk both to himself and his country.

Although a stronger man than his brother Ahaziah, Joram was as evil as his father before him. Yet, there had been a time when I had thought he might turn out differently. He did rid Israel of the idols of his father and mother, and he did destroy the sacred stone of Baal. Subsequently, however, and perhaps inevitably, he copied Jeroboam, first king of the Northern Kingdom, and replaced the stones with useless calves.4 Once more the Name of the LORD was degraded and not worshipped in Israel - except by the constant remnant reserved for Himself by YAHWEH.

On the one side, therefore, there was a proud heathen king humiliated by his relegation to sheep breeder for Israel, rebelling against the yoke - and on the other a young king newly promoted to the throne by his brother's death, also rebelling against a yoke, but in his case the gentle yoke of the King of kings. But Joram was also full of anger at the scorn of Moab, his personal and patriotic pride stung by the insult, and he was ready to be plunged into the testing furnace of kingship, and the terrible fires of a merciless war.

King Joram mobilised all of Israel and then sent a message to Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, tacitly reminded him of the unwritten, but nevertheless binding, treaty between the halves of the divided kingdom. If either needed help, the other was expected to provide it, as in the days of Ahab and Jehoshaphat,5 and usually it was Israel asking of Judah. 'The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?' The message was terse and to the point and avoided all the normal courtesies expected between neighbouring royal houses.

That Israel and Judah between them held the most fertile land and strategic positions in all the lands might also have proved a major factor in the final decision by the king of Judah. Neighbouring countries were envious and always looking for ways to dispossess the Israelites, so any opportunity to subdue rebellion by forceful means and in doing so confirm the combined strength and superiority of Israel and Judah to other envious onlookers was to be welcomed. 'I will go with you,' he replied. 'I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.'

'By what route shall we attack?' he asked.

'Through the desert of Edom,' he replied.

Jehoshaphat was different, a man after my own heart who followed in the footsteps of David, faithfully serving the God of Israel, driving out the Baal worshippers and ridding Judah of the high places dedicated to Asherah and the cults of prostitution. This was the king who sent priests into the cities of Judah to teach the people the laws of God; who gave his kingdom fair laws and taught the people to act within the covenantal ideal. Oh, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, what have you to do with Joram? 'I am as you are...' No, Jehoshaphat, you are not as he is. You, who have always consulted a prophet of the LORD before a major decision, why did you not consult one then?

But the treaty was made and therefore irrevocable. Judah was now the ally of Israel, and together with the deputised king of Edom, a vassal country to Judah, plans were made for the invasion of Moab and the reinstatement of Israel's tribute from king Mesha. It must have seemed to Joram that the Lord God of Hosts was with him in his fight with Moab when, after much heated discussion, the final route and battle outlines were agreed. For when he left his capital Samaria, he marched through now friendly Judah to be joined by the army of Judah. And then through the desert of Edom, joined again by the vassal armies of Edom, to strike the underbelly of his enemy. All that remained was for the allies to swarm through Moab; a plague of locusts carried on the wind, never stopping until it reached the capital, Kir Hareseth, where the final victory and humiliation of Mesha would be completed.

For seven days they marched, and for seven days I waited. I waited while their initial energy dissipated, waited while their confidence evaporated, and waited until the water supplies were finished. Three armies in the desert of Edom. Thousands of men on the verge of dying of thirst. Hundreds of animals dumbly pleading for the help that no-one was able to give them.

Still I waited.

Joram, double-minded Joram, would shout and scream, 'Has the LORD called us three kings together only to hand us over to Moab?' His confidence was in the strength of armies and the protection of golden calves, but when they were proved as useless as an empty water skin, then he would immediately turn his face to cry and shout like a petulant child at the God from whom he had turned away.

The king of Edom would say nothing, he was there at the request of Jehoshaphat, so he would trust him, and he would obey him - but then perhaps only for a limited time. He was, it must be remembered, on his home territory.

There remained Jehoshaphat, the righteous one, the King of Judah. What would he do? Exactly as I had expected. 'Is there no prophet of the LORD here, that we may enquire of the LORD through him?' And an officer who knew of me through my father Elijah would answer, 'Elisha son of Shaphat is here. He used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.' (Yes I did pour water on the hands of Elijah, and I had done much more besides. I was his servant until the LORD called him home. Sometimes I wish I were his servant still.) Jehoshaphat knew me well and his answer would prove it. 'The word of the LORD is with him.' he said. And so the three rulers came to me.

..........

Elijah first brought me to this place, a small retreat near the brook Zered, early in my apprenticeship. Since then it has often proved a haven for me, a home where my spirit may be healed and my mind and body rested. A personal temple where the God of Abraham may speak with me, a heaven where I may know His mind and His plans for me. Only a few trusted people knew of this place, and one of them was an officer in Joram's army. Soon the kings were also aware, heathen kings and apostate kings. And then my haven became polluted and when I left there later that day, it was for the last time. I did not look back.

They stood before me. Three kings - powerful men feared and respected by friends and enemies alike - there in my temporary dwelling; there in the home of Elisha, blood son of Shaphat, a farmer. But also the adopted son of Elijah, the prophet of God, whose mantle I wear both physically and spiritually.

The king of Edom, the vassal appointed by Jehoshaphat, kept his peace. He, similar to his men and beasts, was also suffering to the same degree as his lord but any solution was not in his hands - not yet at least. If conditions deteriorated much more with no hope of relief then his allegiance might quickly change. He was in the desert with them, but it was his desert, the Desert of Edom. He would not easily die of thirst in his home place. I knew his thoughts, and nothing was hidden.

Joram, son of Ahab and Jezebel, and brother of Ahaziah, realistically what chance had he to turn out differently? Yet the blood of godly men and kings also mingled in his veins along with the blood of apostates and hardened blasphemers. Surely he must have sometimes questioned the wisdom of his ways; or was his eternal soul already seared far beyond redemption? Arrogantly, he stood there, the King of Israel, who had probably sacrificed to golden calves before he left Samaria at the head of his army, confident in his strength and the might of his allies. Where now were his calves? It took all of God's grace and His restraining love to keep me from calling fire down on the head of the hypocrite standing there before me, asking for help with his mouth, the words correct and respectful - while still unrepentant in the hardness of his heart.

Finally there was Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, a righteous man but now in the wrong company, allied with blasphemy because of forgotten promises, regal honour and barely remembered agreements that while often broken, were always remembered in times of need or greed. And even while he risked his life for Joram in the wastes of Edom, his own son Jehoram - co-regent with his father for the last two years - was at home plotting and scheming, waiting for the death of Jehoshaphat so that he might again turn Judah from the paths of righteousness, and away from the one God, the LORD. Oh, Jehoshaphat, my son, far better you had remained at home and tended Judah than risk all you have done for Judah,only for the sake of Joram's petty squabble.

My resolve broke in spite of the LORD's grace. My humanity too often fails me. 'What do we have to do with each other?' I asked of Joram, the bile rising in my throat. 'Go to the prophets of your father and the prophets of your mother.' Hate and revenge tinged my words, I knew. Hatred that I could not regret. I wished that Joram were dead, as the prophets of Ahab and Jezebel were dead, killed on Mount Carmel in combat with my father and the Lord of Hosts.

'No,' the king of Israel answered, 'because it was the LORD who called us three kings together to hand us over to Moab.

The coward was already defeated. It was only my love for Jehoshaphat and my obedience to God that stopped me from calling my servant, Gehazi, and sending for water to wash my hands and cleanse myself of all responsibility for him and the apostasy he represented. Where now were his calves? Where now was there any trace, any remnant of faith in the LORD, the true God of Judah and Israel? None, only blame. '... because it was the LORD who called us three kings together to hand us over to Moab.'

Not his fault, of course. No blame to be laid at the noble feet of Joram, King of Israel: Joram, who called the kings together, who wanted - just as if he were a small child deprived of a plaything - the wool and the lambs from Moab, who led this dry and dusty army through the wilderness of Edom. Oh, no, not his fault '...it was the LORD...'

'As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not look at you or even notice you.'

All three flinched at the utter contempt in my voice, but Joram stepped back as if I had struck him. And in a way I had. Struck him where it hurt the most, in his pride and in his kingship. He was familiar with the servility of his courtiers, familiar with receiving it and ignoring those that gave it, they were as nothing, not even to be noticed. He had never been spoken to this way before, and he would probably never suffer the indignity again. What did I care? I served the LORD, the King of kings. Mortal kings were as the grass in the fields, here today, blown away by the wind tomorrow, as dust under the feet of God. 'But now bring me a harpist,' I continued.

I felt dirty, even unclean, as if I needed the purification of a temple ritual to cleanse me of this man. The harpist came and as he played my spirit eased into the presence of God. And while I rested there once more I appreciated how David - attacked and hated by a murderous Saul - was able to soothe the king's troubled soul and drive out the evil spirits that plagued him.6 The music washed my soul, calmed me, and the words of David's Psalms spoke words of praise in my heart, and lifted me into the courts of the High Temple. The Spirit of God flowed through me like a river and His hand came upon me.

'This is what the LORD says: Make this valley full of ditches. For this is what the LORD says: You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle, and your other animals will drink. This is an easy thing in the eyes of the LORD; he will also hand Moab over to you. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field with stones.'

This was my God exacting his just and his most terrible vengeance. This had nothing to do with the petty desires of Joram, or with the reneged ransoms of sheep and wool; this was a righteous God acting against a heathen people who had defied Him too long. Yet would the Israelites fulfil God's words even now?

..........

Looking down from my vantage place in a small hillside cave, the Valley Hesa7 - through which the brook Zered sometimes runs - was dry and stony, hot and parched with no sign of a cloud or hope of relief. Hundreds of pack animals sought, uselessly, for shade from the merciless heat of the sun's rays near the high, steep walls of the wadi, the same walls that also reflected and intensified the heat and increased the discomfort. But there was no shade and there was no protection, and - most deadly of all - no water. Lives were measured in days, perhaps only hours. Yet the river bed was packed with the heaving backs of men from three nations digging and hewing, profusely sweating out precious liquid and salt - and no doubt profusely cursing. Recruited and, in the main, trained as soldiers, they nevertheless worked furiously as common labourers, labouring as if their lives depended on it - which was the naked truth - digging into the hard, packed soil of the river bed; expending all the spiritual, physical and emotional resources they had left.

And they were doing it because their respective commanders had ordered it so; and the commanders had ordered it because I, Elisha, had commanded it. (Elisha, the servant and disciple of Elijah. Yes, I knew their innermost thoughts, and their doubts, and the sheer desperation that brought them to me.) I spoke the words of the LORD. They listened and then they obeyed, and obeyed without question, committing all their resources to the task I had set them. And still I trembled because, as it was with Elijah, I never really understood why I was singled out for this work, why I was chosen (although my only desire from childhood was to serve the LORD). I would never get used to the awesome responsibility the King's messenger bore, and therefore never treated with anything other and awe and respect. I knew my God too well; to speak His words was a privilege, and to voice His judgments was a fearful thing.

'This is an easy thing in the eyes of the LORD,' I had told the Kings. And so it was - for the LORD, but perhaps not quite as easy for the soldiers of the LORD.

However, the three Kings had faith in my words, or a greater fear of the LORD than I suspected, or an even greater fear that they would die here in the Desert of Edom - so they obeyed me without question and ordered their men to attack the valley floor, carving out ditch after ditch until the river bed was a maze of trenches, and the men were dehydrated and at the outer extremes of life itself.

I waited until the work was finished and the night was cold as only a desert can be cold. And while they slept the sleep of exhaustion, I left and climbed up into the foothills of Edom to wait for the moment to come, and to watch the sun make its magic, unchanging from that first day when light was separated from darkness.

Yes, it was easy for the LORD. While the armies slept, rain fell unseen in the Moabite hills that separated the lands of Moab from the Sea of Salt, the sea that was as barren as the Desert of Edom, and soon a flash-flood raced down from the hills, losing force as it reached the valley and quietly flooding the trenches; the whisper of God, the rush of His Spirit and the breath of the LORD - quickly gone but leaving healing in its wake.8 The trenches and the ditches were filled. Men and beasts, safely camped on the rising ground near the walls for warmth and protection, sprang to life. Joyfully they slaked their thirsts from the little rivers in the arid waste of the valley bed, men and beasts careless of each other in the rush to drink from the rivers of life. Life and hope sprang new and fresh in every heart and the men prepared for whatever the day might bring. They would have no great time to wait.

I watched as the miracle began to happen, watched as the sun began its long, predetermined climb to the heavens. The first golden rays walked down the valley walls, reflecting off the red stone of Edom and turning the water, it seemed, to blood, as indeed it appeared to me from where I watched.

I knew what was to come. To the frightened, suspicious eyes of the watching Moabites, the Valley Hesa would be overflowing with rivers of blood. Their leaders would read this sign, drawing conclusions based on hope or desperation, they would assume that the attacking armies were in disarray, arm all their men from the youngest to even those rich in years and grey hairs, and enlist everyone for a great slaughter of the remnants of the three armies - Judah, Israel and Edom.

And so the LORD will accomplish His purpose. 'This is an easy thing in the eyes of the LORD.' Natural events, rain and sun, will cause this miracle to occur. But who will cause the rain to fall? And who will make the sun to shine? Who placed the stars in the vastness of the heavens, and who first breathed life into man? By whose eternal command does everything that happens, happen? One answer, and one answer only -The Lord God Almighty.

The camp of the Israelites was a scene of apparent chaos. It was the time for the morning sacrifice and among the confusion the priests were preparing to perform their duties. Men were shouting words of thanks and praise, lifting their voices above the cries of the animals. It was a scene without order, a camp in apparent disarray and as far the eye could see, crossing the valley in every direction, were rivers of blood with some apparently crazed soldiers still splashing in it.

The Moabites had prepared their army. They had heard that three kings were coming to fight against them, to dispossess them of land and life, so everyone was armed and manning the borders of their homeland. The Moabite scouts looking down into the valley were instantly deceived. They rushed to their leaders in excited triumph. 'Come, look, the day is ours! They are fighting among themselves. Come, look, everywhere the valley is covered with rivers of blood.'

The leaders, hastily and eagerly, followed the scouts to look down into the valley. Could it be true, was deliverance at hand at this last minute? Their greatest hopes and desires were realised as they indeed saw rivers of blood. 'This is an easy thing in the eyes of the LORD.' They saw what they wanted to see. They believed what they wanted to believe, that the allies, driven mad by thirst, were no longer allied and were at each other's throats. 'That is blood!' they said. 'Those kings must have fought and slaughtered each other. Now to the plunder, Moab!' And from a frightened army preparing to defend a hopeless cause, they turned into a vengeful horde prepared to complete the rout of a decimated and demented army. The orders were shouted, the trumpets were blown and the army of Moab swept down into the valley - shouts of victory already on their lips, and weapons ready for the first taste of blood.

They met an army refreshed and prepared. They met soldiers, officers and kings ready for battle and, for now at least, trusting in the words of the Supreme Commander. Their cries of victory turned quickly to screams of despair as the Israelites fell upon them with an intense and righteous fury. Now indeed there were rivers of blood as fallen men spilled into the water-filled ditches that crossed the valley of Zered. The sun no longer reflected off the red walls of the valley Hesa, but the waters still shone red.

The Moabite commanders shouted to the trumpeters to sound the retreat and the army fled for home, trying desperately to reach their walled cities where defence might be possible. The armies of the three kings followed them closely, mercilessly chopping down the brave rear guard and helpless stragglers, young and old. It was a righteous battle, and in a righteous battle everything must be devoted to the LORD, all living things, men, women, children, beasts and plants, utterly destroyed.9

They invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone onto every good field until it was covered. They stopped all the springs and cut down every good tree. The carnage was immense. This is what the Lord God Almighty had demanded. This was indeed devoting everything Him, in all its human horror.

Step by ferocious step the Israelites gained ground as step by reluctant step the Moabites were forced to concede their land and their people. The defenders fought with increasing desperation as they saw more and more of their families and friends put to the sword without compassion, and farms and fields destroyed for generations. Trees, practically irreplaceable in their wilderness home, cut down and burnt. The invading armies were worse than the locusts, for nothing would grow again for decades once they were gone.

The Moabite numbers were decreasing field by blood-covered field. Soon there would be nowhere to go. Soon there would be nothing left for which to fight, and nothing to defend. I could feel the desperation of the beaten army even from where I waited. As much as I hate those that hate and despise my God, I sometimes wonder if destruction similar to this is really necessary, or is it simply deserved punishment and revenge without mercy.

(At such times of doubt, I remember my father teaching me the rudiments of farming, that which he referred to as the basic essentials. 'Remove every trace of every weed. Leave nothing or within a year the wheat will be more thickly contaminated by the tares than if you had never removed a single stalk. Be ruthless as the weed is ruthless, seeking only to grow and propagate itself, caring nothing for the wholesome wheat.')

There must be no mercy shown by God's armies. It was essential, hard as it might seem, that every weed was forcibly removed, nothing must remain. Every tare must be destroyed, that the wheat might grow cleanly - everything devoted to the LORD. The LORD, omniscient, knowing the end from the beginning; truly a God of love, but also a God of justice, knowing that bad wood must be cut cleanly and completely from the tree, so that the tree, although temporarily injured, might survive and flourish.

Eventually the Moabites reached their final retreat, the last real defence, the capital, Kir Hareseth. They had no place left to go. This was where they would face the final horror of absolute defeat. No more would the Name of the LORD name be blasphemed in Moab. His armies were at the gates. But I still feared even as the men armed with slings surrounded the city and began a relentless barrage that would surely bring Mesha to his knees.

I waited for the final victory, struggling desperately to keep hope in my heart; praying that the LORD's purposes would surely be gained this day, fully and completely, so that the awfulness of this terrible war might not be only for a few sheep skins. But what can I know of the LORD's long-term purposes? And what can I know of the depths of evil that men like Mesha can reach? Yet surely I should have seen what would happen, it was almost inevitable.

King Mesha tried once more before the final horror. At the head of seven hundred swordsmen, he attempted to break through the massed ranks of the king of Edom, hoping it was the weakest link in the chain of of soldiers surrounding his capital. The army with the least to gain from the battle, but even they stood firm, and he was lost. He retreated once more inside the gates and they were forced shut behind him. In his wake he left more bodies to add to his losses, those of his swordsmen that fell to the soldiers of Jehoshaphat's vassal king.

The end when it came was sudden, desperate and horrific. King Mesha, desperate and with no place to turn, had nothing left to try. His lands were destroyed, not a field would grow grain for years to come, for there were hardly enough men left to clear them of their stony coats. Not a tree stood in sight. His army was cut to shreds, leaving only a host of grieving widows and mothers. All that was left for him and his people was death by the sword, or death by siege starvation. And the latter was becoming more unlikely by the minute as the stones from the Israelite slings continued to pound the city and its inhabitants. There could be no possible relief.

I watched the city from afar, yet was able to see all - and wishing I could not. I heard the silence as King Mesha climbed to the top of the city wall and faced the armies surrounding him. His firstborn son stood by his side, strong and brave in the knowledge of what was to come. The firstborn son who was to succeed his father, instead, this day, would sacrifice his birthright, and his life. There on the walls of the city, in full sight of the massed armies of the allies, Mesha slew his son.

The three kings could do nothing. They wilted like unwatered plants in the desert at the fury of Mesha and his sacrifice. Left with nothing to lose, and all hope abandoned, the king sliced the offered throat of the young man with his sword and watched dispassionately as his son's blood spilled onto the city walls. It delivered a blow to the armies that the Moabites had never achieved in battle.

To a man the attacking soldiers turned away and began walking home, looking neither to left or right, and heeding no commands from officers or kings, though few were forthcoming and the few that did were weak and hardly meant. Was it the fury of Mesha's ultimate act that turned them away, or were the battle-hardened soldiers finally sickened by the wanton killing of a son by his father?

Or was it the same kind of fear to which even Elijah succumbed, the ultimate evil incarnate in the face of a queen, and now incarnate in the face of a king? I did not know, and I never will. I only realised that the work was not completed, and therefore the devotion not fulfilled. The tares were left to grow again. And they would, refined and hardened, and infinitely more deadly than before. (Yet from these tares would grow Ruth, and from Ruth's line came David, and from David's line would come the Messiah. In all things, the Lord works his way.)

I left the Desert of Edom, never to return.

 

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