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 4
(2 Kings 4: 8-44; 8: 1-6)

Relationships

Elijah, my father, in his confrontation with king Ahab, also had dealings with Ahab's steward, Obadiah.1 It occurred during one of the many famines in Samaria when Obadiah, on instructions from the king, met up with the Troubler of Israel, Ahab's ironic name for Elijah who, if nothing else, was certainly a troubler of Ahab and his wife.2 Obadiah was a devout man and although a faithful servant and steward of the king had secretly hidden a hundred prophets in two caves to save them from the tender ministrations of faithless Ahab and particularly his evil consort, Jezebel.

When the king died, and the prophets dispersed to their homes, Obadiah joined the college at Gilgal to study and advance his prophetic calling which unfortunately proved to be sadly lacking. The occasional work he obtained when not studying was not enough to pay off the debts he had incurred in feeding and caring for these persecuted men of God. (It cost him dearly, and now it was costing his family everything they had, including freedom.) Unfortunately, while still in his prime and still full of hope, he suddenly died. All his debts immediately became his wife's responsibility.3

His widow, bereft of husband and provider, did what she could, cleaning, cooking or any menial task that came her way, eventually selling everything she had in a doomed effort to stave off the inevitable. The money her meagre resources raised was not nearly enough and, with instincts honed as sharp as vultures, the creditors were soon at her door. The only items of value left in her house were her two young sons and in strict accordance with the law their lives were forfeit to any creditors, and forced to work for them until the debt was cleared. The law did state, however, that workers in such circumstances should be treated as hired men, and not as slaves.4 Further protection was added in the law of Moses: that they should work for six years only and then be freed.5 That was the law.

(Often I wondered about the law even as I sought to obey every written word. The law was written because natural man in his fallen state needed rules, harsh rules, harshly enforced - and the innocent needed protection. So where was the protection of the innocent in this case, and how was it possible for uncaring, self-righteous men to be within the law? Yet within the law, as understood to the letter, they were not evil. However, if you looked at the spirit of the law, God's divine instruction, then it was plain to see how it had been twisted, deliberately misinterpreted - too often by the priests themselves, the protectors of the law - and mismanaged to protect the strongest and persecute the most helpless, the widows and orphans, and all those in the greatest need. But justice is mine, says the LORD, and I do His will and nothing else.)

Gehazi, my servant, my student, came to me. (Gehazi, who serves me as faithfully as I served Elijah. Gehazi, a man whose very name means Valley of Vision, but whose vision would one day turn as dry as the Valley Hesa. Gehazi, my son. who could not, or would not, see his own downfall approaching, and therefore take steps to avoid it.) He waited until I had finished my morning ablutions and my morning prayers. 'The widow of Obadiah is here to see you, master.'

'Send her through, Gehazi.'

She bustled in full of defiant energy Although nervous in my presence, she was a she-lion protecting her cubs, and also a Jewish woman enraged at the Mosaic law which seemed to offer her and her family no protection, no voice and no rights So she came to the prophet, the first call in matters of medicine or law, and even occasionally to hear what the LORD had to say. First she reminded me what Obadiah, her husband, had done for his God and of the risks he had taken in the name of the LORD,6 and then added in full righteous indignation, and including me in her unspoken condemnation, 'Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now the creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.'

I noticed the words that were deliberately unstressed but still directed at me personally, your servant, you know. Obadiah was a secret, though devout, servant of God, and a friend to Elijah and the debts had been incurred while my master was with us. Therefore, the responsibility for Obadiah's commitments had also passed to me. And yes, I did know he was a righteous and brave man, although perhaps not as prudent for his blood family as he had been for the prophetic members of the larger family. Or perhaps, as so many men before him taken at full flood, he thought that many years remained for him. We never seem to learn that the only day we have is the one we are living, and that even the completion of that same day will ulimately be denied us.

'How can I help you?' I asked. The question was rhetorical, all she wanted was her children safe. How I accomplished that was between God and me, it was not her business. All she asked for, all she demanded, was deserved mercy, and quick results; she knew that debt collectors were not famous for their patience or their mercy. And her expression left me in no doubt.

'Tell me,' I continued quickly, 'what do you have in your house?'

Again her expression was worth a hundred words. What did she have in the house? Had she not sold everything to try and keep her cubs, to try and postpone this day that was now upon her. The she-lion's teeth were close to biting. 'Your servant has nothing there at all,' she said scathingly, 'except a little oil.'

I ignored her tone as the Spirit of the Lord came upon me and told me exactly what to say and do. I repeated the instructions word for word to the widow of Obadiah. 'Go round and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Do not ask for just a few.' I intended to make sure that her reward would be in direct accordance with her obedience and her faith. 'Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.' She looked at me in some doubt for a moment and then her face cleared, perhaps she was remembering when Elijah had performed a similar miracle for the widow of Zarephath,7 and that after all I was the Prophet's Apprentice and therefore probably familiar with the process.

She left, hesitating momentarily at the door while Gehazi waited, barely hiding his impatience and his disapproval at her attitude. She, however, was simply wondering why I remained behind and why she must do this by herself. The answer to her unspoken question was also simple, although I refrained from expressing it. The LORD had no need of my hand in his miracles, and soon the widow would learn this important fact and eventually thanks and praise would go where they were properly due. More importantly, she would also learn that God was indeed a husband to the widow and a father to the orphans.

She followed my instructions meticulously, collecting all the jars she was able to, limited only by her faith or the neighbours' supplies, probably the latter for she really was a determined woman. She shut the door and her sons handed her the jars and the pots one by one; small pots, large jars, some cracked but watertight, some old and misshapen, one or two dusty from disuse, drab colours, bright colours, the range was inexhaustible - and so was the supply of oil that ceased only when the last receptacle was was filled and overflowing. Then, and only then, did the oil stop flowing - but even the jar it had flowed from remained full. His mercies are new and fresh every morning, and His love is limited only by the size and desire of the receptacles waiting to receive it.

She came rushing in to tell me the good news, brushing by Gehazi as if he did not exist. What she had to tell could not wait for his approval or the niceties of protocol. 'Go,' I smiled, 'sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what's left.'

She went rushing out, one widow in Israel that knew her God was bigger than the law.

..........

Some time later I left on one of my visits to Mount Carmel, a place I loved for the memories of my father's experiences with the LORD there, and also for my own times with the LORD on His mountain, simply resting in His presence. On the way I often stayed at Shunem for respite and refreshments, and to make pastoral visits to the young prophets and others training in the way of God. In Shunem there lived a wealthy family and the lady of the house was a true follower of God, full of zeal and wanting to help His prophet in any way she could.

Often I would stop at the house to break my journey and to enjoy a meal. One day the lady spoke to her husband. 'I know that this man who often comes this way is a holy man of God. Let us make a small room for him on the roof and put in a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he may stay there whenever he comes to see us.'

Her husband immediately agreed and a room was very quickly built and furnished. Although it was an oasis for me when I was in Shunem, a place to rest and refresh myself on the way to Mount Carmel, it was not without some disadvantages, slight as they were. At the end of the day the roofs of the houses resemble the market place more than dwellings, both in the chattering noise and continuous bustle. The Shunammite's home was large compared to most houses but still built closely adjacent to her neighbours, as were all the others, so conversation to and fro across the roof tops was easy, and frequent. The women at the end of the day - and each day for the average Jewish woman was as the day before: work from dawn to dusk with little to relieve the unending drudgery - climbed the outside stairs to their respective roofs. There they could enjoy the cool of the dwindling day and enter into fast and furious gossip with their neighbours, telling or hearing the latest news. And sometimes they would bring flax plants, pulled by the roots with the small blue flowers still bright, to spread out for drying; or turn over sheaves already there, or collect plants that were dried and ready. (The same plants that Rahab the prostitute used to hide Joshua's spies, ensuring her own safety while sealing the fate of Jericho.)8 Then the fibre from the woody stems would be used to make linen and rope. The work of a wife of noble character..... selecting wool and flax with eager hands,9 a wise king once said; a man with thousands of slaves and wives, no doubt all of whom were of noble character, but none as noble as these working wives, the living bedrock of our society. From the daily task of making bread to making clothes, and the preparation of all the materials involved, plus the care of children and husband left the normal housewife with very little time for personal leisure. So the evening period of rest and gossip was a period to anticipate during the day's work, and enjoy to the full when at last evening came.

The only time the chatter stilled, and then only for the briefest of moments, was if they saw me picking my way carefully across the roof to my room. The silence, short as it was, was still a mark of respect for me and I appreciated it.

I also appreciated the God-fearing goodness of my benefactor, so one evening while resting upon my bed in that small room on the roof which had become very precious to me, it occurred to me that I should do something for this woman of God. This righteous lady that asked for nothing except the opportunity to serve me, others like me, and God. I called Gehazi to me. I said, 'Call the Shunammite.'

A few minutes later, he stood before me again. 'She is waiting below, master, what shall I say to her?'

Even in her own home this righteous woman would do nothing that might in the slightest way be construed as improper. So she waited below and would not climb to the roof while I was there, and certainly not enter my room and so fuel the flames of gossip, even though my servant would be in attendance. I said to him, 'Tell her, "You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?'' '

She replied, 'I have a home among my own people.' I was not surprised when Gehazi brought me her answer. This woman did not want an elevated position for her husband in the court of the king, or a high rank in the armies of the king. She enjoyed her life among her friends, and among them she had rank and honour enough. But even so I knew there was one great need lying on her heart.

'What can be done for her?' I asked.

Gehazi replied, 'Well, she has no son and her husband is old.'

I said, 'Call her.' So he called her, and this time she obeyed. She stood in the doorway, nervous and apprehensive, yet still bearing the unmistakable stamp of a Jewish matriarch.

'About this time next year, 'I told her, 'you will hold a son in your arms.'

'No, my lord,'she objected.'Do not mislead your servant, O man of God!' Her body slumped and suddenly she was just a vulnerable childless wife with an aching, unfulfilled mother's heart.

Mislead her? No, even if I were capable of deception in my work, she was the last person I would deceive. I smiled and dismissed her and my servant. She left me but her back was straight again, yet she now carried an air of puzzlement and the smallest grain of hope. The following day I travelled the final leg to the mountain to spend time with my God. I needed to be refreshed and reequipped for the constant battle in which I was engaged.

True to the LORD's word, she became pregnant and the following year the woman, the wife became a mother of a male child. Her delight and gratitude were boundless and each time I visited she proudly showed me her son. Year after year, he grew and prospered and I took an almost parental pride as I watched his progress. However, during one of my visits to Mount Carmel, an inexplicable and therefore totally unexpected tragedy occurred. The son ran out to the fields where his father was helping his threshers. He was stumbling, holding his head and nearly screaming with pain and fear. 'My head! My head!' he cried to his father.

His father told a servant, 'Carry him to his mother.' Mothers knew what to do. The fields were no places for sick children. Home was where he should be, in his mother's care.

The servant lifted the boy and ran home with him. The distraught mother nursed her son on her lap until the afternoon, but all her prayers and all her entreaties were of no avail, and the boy, born as a miracle, died as a tragedy. Then this woman, so reminiscent now of Obadiah's widow in faith and tenacity, took him up and laid her dead son on the bed in the room on the roof reserved for me. Responsible for the birth of her son, I was being held responsible for his death and, perhaps, his rebirth.

Then she called to her husband and said, 'Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.' Giving him the assurance that she would not be long, but also not telling him why she was going. What could she say, Your son is dead, I intend that the prophet shall raise him from that death? No, although he respected her faith and indulged her to an extent far greater than most husbands, it is probable he would have balked at that.

Naturally, however, he was puzzled. 'Why go to him today? It is not the new moon or the Sabbath.' If the Sabbath, he would not have been working but very likely coming with her to visit me. Neither was it the new moon, a time when some elected to spend the holy days with men of God.

She gave a reply so typical of her sex. 'It is all right.' Which he would interpret as, I know what I am doing so do not ask so many questions. So she saddled her donkey and told her servant, 'Lead on; do not slow down for me unless I tell you.' And then she set out to confront me with her distress and to ask me why her miracle child should have died. Only later would I learn the details, but my spirit told me she would come, for her need was reaching out to me. I did not know what that need was; that her son was dead. The Lord had hidden this knowledge from me. Sometimes it is better to forget understanding and just accept what He allows us to receive. This was one of those times.

I waited somewhat impatiently for her arrival. My curiosity was overwhelming me. Eventually, I saw her in the distance. 'Look!' I said to Gehazi, 'There is the Shunammite! Run to meet her and ask her, "Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is your child all right?"'

Gehazi returned somewhat disgruntled and somewhat rebuffed. He told me, '"Everything is all right," she said.'

No, that was not true, could not be true, everything was certainly not all right. It was just that she wanted the master not the servant. I had experienced what Gehazi was experiencing in my own life. No matter how much the LORD used me, the people had always asked for Elijah, not Elisha. My master had to be taken away before ever I was properly accepted, and so it would be with Gehazi - or so it might have been.

She arrived in a rush and immediately fell down and grasped my feet; a petitioner not an accuser, but still overflowing with hurt and incomprehension. Gehazi, perhaps still smarting, came over to pull her away. 'Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why.' My frustration probably made my words sound harsher as I rebuked my servant's insensitivity. But it is only when He wills it that I see anything. Only when He commands it, that I can prophesy.

She looked up at me forlornly, her face open, showing clearly her hurt and despair. 'Did I ask you for a son, my Lord?' she said. 'Did not I tell you, "Do not raise my hopes"?' Although she tried not to, her words still accused me, held me responsible, and cut me to the heart. No wonder she was distraught, her son was dead. The sudden knowledge filled me with pain, and an unwanted and unnecessary guilt. She had never asked for a child, although her mother's heart would have yearned for one. I had held out the hope of one, and God had delivered it to her. And it was infinitely more distressing to have the joy of an unexpected son suddenly snatched away after a few too-short years, than never to have experienced the joy and bittersweet pain of motherhood.

I said to Gehazi, 'Tuck your cloak into your belt, take my staff in your hand and run. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff on the boy's face.' And while he was there I would pray to the LORD that the child might be raised.

The mother was caught in indecision but she quickly made her choice. Much as she wanted to run after Gehazi, her instincts told her to stay by my side. She wanted the master, not the servant, and she wanted him there with her child. She watched Gehazi leave then turned to me. She said, 'As surely as the LORD lives and you live, I will not leave you.'

The last time I had heard those exact words, I was uttering them, and my master, Elijah was trying to separate us. She could not have known this, of course, but the words were as final to me, as inarguable, as a word directly from God. Gently, I unfastened her hands from my ankles and lifted her to her feet. She waited, wanting to be with her son, but not without me. As surely as the LORD lives and you live, I will not leave you. No, there was no way we would be separated. I nodded towards the door and followed her as she left, worried eyes darting glances over her shoulder to make sure I followed.

Before we reached her home, Gehazi met us. He had done exactly as he was told but with no result. He said to me, 'The boy has not awakened.' What had I expected? Had I really thought that my servant with my staff would be enough to lift the boy from the gates of Sheol, or that my prayers at a distance would accomplish this miracle?

The woman said nothing, showing neither surprise nor disappointment. Rather by her impatience she beckoned me on to her home. Still, the LORD showed me nothing; no instructions, no word at all, it was as if the sky had become a bronze barrier separating me from the wisdom of my Lord.

When we reached her home I entered the room reserved for me where the mother had placed her child, closing the door both on her and my servant. Neither were happy with the arrangement if for differing reasons. Gehazi wanted to be with his master at this crucial time perhaps to learn, or merely to gain insight, to see how I would deal with the situation; she simply wanted to be with her child. But I needed to be with my God, alone and private, I needed to hear Him, I needed to break through the silence that deafened me. The child was cold and dead, of that there was no doubt, and so I prayed with a fervency unmatched before in my life of prayer.

At last my testing and waiting was over. The LORD commanded me and I obeyed. I lay upon the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes and hands to hands. Perhaps this is why the room was barred to the mother and Gehazi so that they would not be disturbed by my actions, particularly the mother who would be protective of her child even in death.

His body grew warm. I lifted myself from the child and walked back and forth across the room still calling silently to the One whom even death obeyed. I lay on him once more. He sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.

I called to Gehazi. When he entered I said, 'Call the Shunammite.' And he did. When she stood in the doorway, I said, 'Take your son.' She entered fully, fell at my feet and bowed her head to the ground. (I hoped it was God she was praising, and not me. I hoped it was the Lord who was receiving her thanks, and not His prophet. But I was too weary for more questions and answers.) The joy in her eyes was enough for the moment as she took her son and went out.

Before we left the house, the Lord gave me one more word for this faithful Shunammite servant of His. I said to her, 'Go away with your family and stay for a while wherever you can, because the Lord has decreed a famine in the land that will last seven years.' She obeyed me unhesitatingly and without the slightest argument, and she and her family left for the land of the Philistines.

I had no answer for my servant's questioning looks as we went on our way, he had heard exactly what I had said. There was nothing more to say.

..........

We returned to Gilgal at a time when the famine held huge areas of the country in its unrelenting grasp. While I was meeting with the prophets in the college I told my servant, Gehazi, 'Put on the large pot and cook some stew for these men.' They had been sitting under my instruction attentively for a very long time and then we had spent further time in prayer before the LORD. But after so much spiritual nourishment, they were feeling the need of physical sustenance. One of the younger men went into the fields to gather wild herbs. While he was out searching he stumbled across a wild vine and picked the gourds, which were similar to the wild cucumber. He returned with a fold of his cloak full of herbs and these wild gourds. Cutting them up he threw them into the pot, although I or nobody else there could be certain what they were. But food was already very scarce and anything edible that thickened or freshened a stew went into the meal,

Gehazi poured out the stew for the men who attacked it with vigour for the smell had already made big appetites bigger. Almost immediately the first two or three began to wretch and hold their stomachs. 'O man of God,' they cried out, 'there is death in the pot!' It was bad enough that they had aching stomachs, although it was only temporary as no food had stayed in them long enough to cause long-lasting effects. The real disaster was the loss of so much food; the amount needed to feed everyone for that day and perhaps more. In such times of famine that was disaster indeed.

I said, 'Get some flour.' I threw it in the pot and glanced at my servant. 'Serve it to the people to eat.' I knew there was now nothing harmful in the pot, but I would not eat until they did. They trusted me, they ate, and it was good.

..........

The LORD provided more help for us, a man from Baal Shalishah, a town to the north east of Gilgal who came to see me at the college; one of the few who had brought a harvest to fruition. He brought with him the first fruits of his barley harvest; twenty loaves baked from the first ripe corn, along with bags of new corn. He was a faithful man and a strict believer in the Mosaic law: the first fruits of the harvest should be offered at the temple. But the temple was in Jerusalem and for most people in Israel, travel to Jerusalem was prohibited.

So this man came to me, a prophet of God, with his offering. And in a time of famine it was well-timed and well-received. I said to Gehazi, 'Give it to the people to eat.'

My man of vision was losing his vision more day by day. His skepticism distorted his voice as as he asked, 'How can I set this before a hundred men?' For months, even years, of the famine he had seen our God feed us, feed the prophets at all the colleges, both the men and their families. Yet still he doubted.

Now I turned my first request into a command that could not be disobeyed. 'Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: "They will eat and have some left over."' The LORD does not just meet our needs. He fills our cups full and running over. In the midst of famine He feeds us, in the desert He gives us water, wherever we are, whatever is around us, if we put our faith in the Lord God Almighty, why should we fear for ought?

The men sat at the table. The bread was good, very good, they ate until they could eat no more. And there was some left over, just as the Lord had said through His prophet, Elisha.

..........

Israel during King Joram's reign seemed never to be without famine or deprivation of some kind. I wondered at the blindness of the king and his courtiers that they could not, or would not, see what was before them. Why did they not understand the lesson that God was teaching them and their people? Israel was constantly in a state of famine while on her borders heathen countries were flourishing, even Philistia that long-time enemy of God. The Shunammite woman on my advice stayed there during the worst of the famine that lasted seven years. But when she returned, a widow with a full grown son, it was to find that her lands had been sequestered by the crown and she was without resources of any kind. A woman without a husband and with no means of support for her son or herself. But she was not the kind of woman to bemoan her fate and wail in a corner wringing her hands in helpless despair. She, without hesitation, went straight to the seat of power. She went to see the king for justice.

King Joram since the battle with King Mesha and his deliverance from the desert, liked to keep himself informed of my movements and actions. As I would have nothing to do with him, he regularly ordered Gehazi to attend the palace and bring him up to date. Typically, he would order, 'Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done.' I often wondered why. Was it genuine interest in my life, or simply a way of trying to win my favour? If so, there was only one way to achieve the latter; he must turn from his own ways and seek the One Way, the Lord God of Hosts.

It was on one of these occasions that the Shunammite woman turned up. Gehazi immediately said, 'This is the woman, my lord my king, and this is her son whom Elisha restored to life.' When Gehazi repeated his words to me later, it struck me why he would eventually fail. Elisha did not, could not, restore the boy to life. The LORD restored his life; the prophet was merely a channel of His grace. There is no room for personal pride in doing his work, ego silts up and eventually completely blocks the channel through which His grace freely flows.

The king asked the woman about her experience and, of course, she did not miss the opportunity to voice her grievance and no doubt ask the king why there was no justice for widows in Israel. And just as another widow I remembered from years before, she would also discover that the LORD keeps His promises, and that He is indeed a husband to the widow, and a father to the orphan. And that when He gives, as my prophets had learned, He gives in abundance. The king instructed the official assigned to her case, 'Give back everything that belonged to her, including all the income from her land from the day she left the country until now.'

Willing or not, King Joram was doing the LORD's will.

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