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 8
(2 Kings 6: 24 -7: 20)

Fear, Famine And Abomination

The raids stopped. There were no more border violations, no more Aramean incursions in search of slaves or loot, and gradually King Joram relaxed his patrols, although he never relaxed his suspicions. There was peace in Israel, but it was an uneasy, threatening peace, the kind of peace that in the end gave the people and the king, no peace at all.

King Ben-Hadad stayed at home in Damascus, morosely brooding - day by day meditating on the stories his returning conscripts had related to him. Many of his soldiers, including officers and men, he had personally and ruthlessly questioned; searching for the slightest sign of betrayal, the smallest indication that his army had turned treacherous and voluntarily given themselves in to the hands of his enemy - surrendered themselves to the king of Israel. He found nothing, there was nothing to find, and so eventually he had to accept the facts of the matter: I ; through the power of God, his mighty army had been rendered as harmless as a baby.

It was a bitter drink for the king of Aram to swallow, an unpalatable fact to ingest while he contemplated and deliberated long and hard on his future plans. His officers and men waited to see if they would have the chance to redeem themselves - to once more go up against Israel. For they also brooded, ashamed of the fact that they had not been beaten in open warfare, but were literally led as lambs into the enemy's stronghold, unable to lift even a finger to resist.

The result of the king's musings expressed a logic as strange as the logic only fallen men can devise. Obviously, he reasoned, he could not conduct a secret war against King Joram as God was evidently with me and everything he, Ben-Hadad, attempted would be revealed to me and therefore to King Joram. In this he was correct, but his next decision was inexplicable. He could not fight a secret war so he would fight an open war because his forces were vastly superior to the forces of Israel.1 With this plan firmly settled in his mind, he marched on Samaria. King Joram, coming to the same opinion as Ben-Hadad regarding the strengths of the opposing armies, shut himself up in his city and left the country to fend for itself. But the king of Aram wanted only the king of Israel, he desperately needed to avenge his bloodless defeat. He wanted King Joram's head.
So Samaria was besieged.
The Aramean army settled down to wait. As is common with all armies in history (and probably for future wars as well), the soldiers were used to long, indeterminable periods of waiting and inaction, sometimes shattered by short, violent bursts of action. They had food and drink and, most importantly of all, they had time. The countryside and neighbouring villages and towns would provide future supplies if needed, and if ever the king became impatient then the siege engines would be brought to the fore to hurl their mighty arrows or burning bolts. These weapons of terror might then be supplemented with flocks of deadly arrows from the ranks of bowmen, or hails of killing stone from the companies of sling-men. The inhabitants of Samaria were well acquainted with the machinations of war and what to expect - and so the mood in the city deteriorated sharply.

It is in the depths of a long and bitter siege that man's basic inhumanity may rise to the top, as scum rises in a boiling pot. There are individual acts of godliness and kindness but as families see their children starving they become desperate and will go to any lengths to obtain food, or pay any price for any kind of food. For now even the head of an unclean beast such as a donkey 2 was selling for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of dove's dung to use in the place of salt for seasoning 3 for five shekels. And men were paying the obscene prices for obscene food. A year's wage for the head of an unclean beast, a month's earnings for excrement. But as the siege lengthened and Ben-Hadad tightened his stranglehold on Israel's capital so much that even the air that we breathed seemed to struggle to enter the city, humanity descended to levels that a few weeks previously would have been unimaginable.

King Joram, as was his habit since the beginning of hostilities, was walking the walls of his city at night. Perhaps he was just inspecting his defences, the position of his troops or observing the enemy. Perhaps, even, fear might have clouded and disturbed his senses so that he suspected his troops were contemplating running to the enemy for mercy and food.4 Starvation brought its own inevitable consequences both in trust and behaviour. Whatever his reasons, he was on the wall when a woman saw her king and cried out to him, and then he heard firsthand what previously had been only rumours, he heard of the horror that siege brings in its wake. 'Help me, my lord the king!'

He would have heard many such pleas as he went about the city but short of total surrender - an option which would cost his life, a decision he was not yet ready to make - there was nothing he could do. 'If the LORD does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the winepress?' Was this the cry of a desperate man acknowledging that only God could save them? He must have known this from previous experience, yet he had not attempted to change his behaviour in the slightest way, or recant his apostasy. Then he asked her, 'What is the matter?'

She answered, 'This woman said to me, "Give up your son so that we may eat him today, and tomorrow we'll eat my son."

So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, "Give up your son so that we may eat him," but she had hidden him.'

The horror lay not just in the abomination of cannibalism, as shocking as that may seem (although it should have come as no real surprise because it was prophesied long ago in the curses of the covenant 5), no, it lay in the appalling horror of the complaint the woman brought before her king: the other woman had not slaughtered her son as she had promised. No remorse for her dead, boiled and eaten child - no contrition, just a wailing grievance about a broken promise. She wanted the child of her friend also slaughtered, boiled and in her belly - and perhaps the bellies of the rest of her family. Even for Joram, who did evil in the eyes of the LORD, this was beyond comprehension, this was depravity that disturbed and shocked even him. The evil he and the people of Israel had practised was reaping its own reward.

The king lost his senses and what I had feared, and was still fearing, was about to reach its conclusion. He ran along the wall, stumbling frequently, wailing to the skies and tearing at his clothes. This act had pierced even the king's seared conscience. His palace robes were torn to shreds and rags and underneath it could be seen, by those people that dared to look at the king in his anger and anguish, that he wore sackcloth; sackcloth the robes of repentance and prayer: next to his skin. The king was lamenting the fate of the city and its subjects, bewailing the horror that had driven them to blasphemous and horrific acts, crying out to God in His heaven - but still the golden calves remained at Dan and Bethel. It was far better he had torn them down and led the nation back to God in sackcloth and ashes; than this hidden act of contrition.

He was as he always had been, and would ever be. This I accepted and also what was to come from his anger and avoidance of responsibility. He said, 'May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today!'

And here was I cowering in my house, the city's elders also with me trying to comfort and encourage me. Why? Because Elisha, Prophet of God in Israel, had lost the gift of listening to his God. No, I had not lost it, I had destroyed it with my own craven fear. While Ben-Hadad was in his palace deciding what to do about Joram, I was in Samaria growing more fearful each day. Why?Because I realised more and more surely with each passing moment that he would attack and besiege Samaria. And who else could take the blame but Elisha, he who told the king of Israel to return Ben-Hadad's troops feted and fed and in good health? Those same troops that now surrounded the city and were the indirect cause of the abomination that the mother had admitted to the king without shame, or remorse. For weeks I had lived in dread waiting for the words of the king to be spoken. Waited in trembling and craven dread for the sentence of execution to come from King Joram's lips.

But I had been dead for a long time, ever since I succumbed to the overwhelming concern for my own worthless life and the LORD stopped speaking to me. Now I knew from personal experience the inexplicable panic that drove my father, Elijah, to run from Jezebel; now I could really begin to comprehend the doubt and lack of faith that my young servant experienced when he saw the hordes outside Dothan. And I clearly remembered both judging his innocence and weak faith, and particularly how superior I had believed my own faith to be. Now I fully comprehended that I was only an earthen vessel, of no worth in itself, a simple utensil that the LORD sometimes used according to His will, and according to His determination only.

However, as the king was speaking, and as I, locked in my house with the elders, was thinking, a word came to me and as through a moonless night I perceived a little, even though the fear still clung to my soul like the cold grip of Sheol. I realised that I would not die, that the king himself would precede my executioner, and I would live. (But yet I took precautions.) 'Do you not see how this murderer is sending someone to cut off my head? Look, when the messenger comes, close the door and hold it shut against him. Is not the sound of his master's footsteps behind him?'

Was he a murderer? Certainly he was the son of murderous parents whose sins now lay on his shoulders and would remain there until he, himself, repented before the LORD. But no, that is not why I called him murderer, I named him a murderer because he wanted to kill me, Elisha. Any murder he had previously committed was of no interest to me in the place I now dwelt. My terror, although diminishing, was still attempting to control everything I did, even the words that slipped through my lips unhindered and unchecked. But like Elijah's cloud only the size of a man's hand,6 a touch of hope was there, the LORD had spoken to me again even, if through my doubts, I heard Him only faintly. I knew the messenger was coming, God was speaking to me, yet still I wanted doors locked and bolted against a mere man. But it was not the messenger who would come.

The LORD was disregarding my miserable attempts at self-protection and making His own desires known. He caused Joram to repent of his revengeful desire to blame, condemn and kill me. The king sent a runner to call back the servant and he, himself, called upon me.7 There was consternation among the elders when his officers rapped at the door and demanded it opened for the king, and it caused a strange mixture of relief and terror within me. Relief that at last the fearful, trembling would end one way or another, and terror because I wondered, and feared, just what that ending might be.

Immediately the king saw me cowering in the corner of my room with the elders trying halfheartedly to form a protective shield of frail old men leaning on staffs as weathered as their owners, he said, 'This disaster is from the LORD. Why should I wait for the LORD any longer?'

King Joram's voice expressed his despair and hopelessness. He had recognised that if God had permitted this siege there was nothing he could do to end it. He had reached that place where men must arrive if they wish to make peace with the LORD. That place of hopelessness at the feet of mighty God, yet also the place where hope might be born again, a hope now built on solid foundations. But he had given up. Instead of now prostrating himself before his maker, he resolved to surrender himself and his subjects to the nation of Aram and hope that King Ben-Hadad would show the same mercy to him that he had shown to the Aramean army.

But as his despair filled the room leaving no space even for his hatred of me, the Spirit of the LORD again flowed through me, and once more Elisha was God's Prophet in Israel. I said, 'Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the LORD says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.'8

Everyone in the room, the king, his officers, the elders and most of all I, myself, recognised the authority in the words and in the way they were spoken. They had no doubt that Elijah's mantle was once more where it belonged, on my shoulders, and they saw with the eyes of their spirits that God's Holy Spirit had again come upon Elisha.

The silence lasted a moment then the officer on whose arm the king was leaning - not in physical weakness, but drained at being in the presence of God's power - said, perhaps trying to regain ground for his king, 'Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?'

It was better that he had kept his doubts to himself, better that he did not speak and so open himself publicly to God's judgment and sentence. And I was filled with sadness as I passed the judgment of God on him. Why the severity of such a punishment - actually a sentence of death although no-one immediately recognised it as such - when my own sins of doubt and fear were so much worse? But only the LORD sees right to and through a man's heart, which is why only He can truly judge with justice. 'You will see it with your own eyes,' I answered, 'but you will not eat any of it!'

I asked the elders to return to their homes, they would have the task of restoring order the following day, and also the joy of many thanksgiving sacrifices and feasts to arrange. Even in the eyes of these faithful ones, I perceived the occasional flicker of doubt. But they would break through it, like me they would spend what remained of the night on their knees - not praying for my words to come true, but thanking God for the abundance of His mercies.

The remaining hours to dawn passed quickly and quietly in the city, although much more was happening outside the city walls.

..........

The law of Moses states that no leper can live inside the city limits,9 so there were always afflicted souls at the gates, either residents of Samaria hoping and praying for healing, or itinerant lepers moving from town to town seeking help and alms. The siege had driven many away from the city, at the first sight or rumour of the Arameans they had fled to the gates of other cities, but four remained. Born in Samaria, they all had families in the city and were loathe to leave the relative comfort they received in normal times even as they suffered the deprivation of the siege. But they were in a far worse state than even the inhabitants. When the people of the city were eating unclean food, dove's dung and their own children, there was nothing left for the lepers at the gate, not even the recognition of a curse.

Day after day, and long night after long night, they had discussed their desperate situation as their meagre bodily reserves drained to nought. Whichever way they'd looked only death's face stared back at them. A slow end in the city, although none of them could expect more than two or three days, and probably a very quick end in the camp of King Ben-Hadad's encircling army. But now they had reached a decision. They said to each other, 'Why stay here until we die? If we say, "We'll go into the city"- the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let us go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.'

They waited until the dusk. And then while I was before my LORD praying, the four desperate men with nothing to lose that was not already lost went to the camp of the Arameans. Fearfully they crept nearer to the edge of the camp. No sentry's challenge hailed them, no sword cut them down from behind, and no arrow whistled out of the darkness. They could not believe their senses. Gradually they crept past the perimeter and farther into the camp. Nothing was there except darkness and silence. It was beyond their hopes and understanding, but not beyond mine even where I prayed.

I heard what the Arameans imagined they heard, the sound of chariots and horses and a great army. And I heard what they said to one another in their consternation and fear. 'Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!' So they ran to Ben-Hadad and told him that the Israelites had hired auxiliaries from both the king of Egypt and the king of the Hittites and he believed them for he could also hear the same noise.10 Then the king's fear added to their own and in the middle of the night they fled for home, fleeing into the darkness, abandoning their tents, and their horses and donkeys; in their panic they left the camp just as it was and fled without thought for possessions or each other. Turning neither to the right nor to the left they ran for their lives discarding anything they carried to lighten their loads. Running from nothing, except the LORD's command.

The lepers now forgot about the Aramean army and went straight into the nearest tents there to gorge themselves on food and wine. Then, when their bellies were full and they lay content, the sight of the treasure lying around roused the four from their stupors and they collected as much silver, gold and clothes as they could carry, took their loot outside and hid it. Other tents received similar ransacking, and again the treasure was hidden.

However, conscience, or fear of punishment, or perhaps a lingering concern for the people of Samaria starving a short distance away while all this food lay roundabout the city unclaimed and undefended, finally persuaded the four of what must be done - and which should have been done immediately. Whatever the reasoning that finally convinced them, they stopped the looting and reviewed what they were doing. 'We are not doing right,' they decided. 'This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let us go at once and report this to the royal palace.'

It took a little longer, and a little more wine, to finally convince themselves that they had nothing to fear if they reported it immediately, for the life of a leper was a life of exclusion, suspicion and mutual fear. Nevertheless they took their courage in their hands and returned to the gates. There they shouted until they had attracted the bored attention of the gatekeepers. Ignoring the dismissive remarks from guards long accustomed to begging pleas from lepers outside the gates, they shouted, 'We went into the Aramean camp and not a man was there - not a sound of anyone - only tethered horses and donkeys, and the tents left just as they were.'

The gatekeepers initially were doubtful and inclined to dismiss the men and not bother the royal household with news, which if false, might cost them their own lives. But what worth were their lives anyway in the extremes of siege and starvation. And what if it were true! They shouted the news, and it was reported within the royal palace where, of course, the report was met with the same suspicion.

The king got up in the night and said to his officers, 'I will tell you what the Arameans have done to us. They know we are starving; so they have left the camp to hide in the countryside, thinking, "They will surely come out, and then we will take them alive and get into the city."' He was right to consider the possibilities of such a plot, the mighty Joshua had used a similar scheme to defeat the city of Ai. Luring the defending army from out of the city to challenge what they thought was a depleted force, Joshua's men then turned tail and fled as if for their lives. But it was the pursuers whose lives were suddenly in deadly and unexpected danger. The army of Ai chased the running Israelites and ran straight into the ambush of thirty thousand men previously set by Joshua.11 Yes, Joram had every reason to suspect treachery, it was in his nature and so he expected that same trait in each of his enemies, and also in each of his allies.

One of Joram's officers, however, was thinking more clearly than his commander. If what was reported was true he did not want people starving while food rotted outside the gates of the city simply because of the king's paranoia. His advice was simple and straightforward. He said, 'Make some men take five of the horses that are left in the city. Their plight will be like that of all the Israelites left here - yes, they will only be like all these Israelites who are doomed. So let us send them to find out what happened.'

With care they selected the strongest and most reliable men for the excursion, two chariot drivers who were as loyal and brave as any in the suffering city, courageous enough not to surrender if it were a trap, and loyal enough to return with the good news if the lepers' story were true. Two drivers only, not five, for from the king's own depleted stables, only two horses were considered to be in good enough condition for the sortie, and even they would not be able to stand the heat and tension of any running skirmish. But they were the best that were available.

The king, with little hope and far less faith, made ready to send the pair of chariots out of the city to check the Aramean camp. The drivers waited for his orders, tightly controlling nervous horses that were eager to be out of the city where the smell of death lingered in every corner like the stench of a decaying corpse.

He commanded the drivers, 'Go and find out what has happened.'

The horses, at the first slackening of the rein, needed no whip or shouts to encourage them. As fast as the wind they headed for the gates - which barely opened in time, and headed for glory or death, or both - horses and men preferring the freedom and the slightest chance of life, rather than the slow, horrific end that was promised within the city gates. They did not hesitate but drove straight into the Aramean camp, waved and shouted on by the group of lepers, who were all now well-fed and even more well-wined, and dressed in fine clothes.

They drove into the camp, horses straining to go even faster, spinning wheels spewing the debris of a fleeing army behind the chariots. Into the camp, through the camp in moments, and on to the river Jordan, while the horses still had the strength to match their fighting spirits. Everywhere they looked the ground was littered with clothes and armaments thrown away by the soldiers as they lightened their loads in an effort to run faster from an enemy that existed only in their minds.

The mad gallop lasted only a short while and then the horses, blown and sweating, picked their way through the heaps of clothing, stepped over bright unused swords and spears, detoured around abandoned and overturned chariots, and whinnied in reply to the Aramean horses still tethered to them. But the drivers did not stop to release horses, feed or water their animals or themselves, but made their way as quickly as their exhausted horses could pull them, back to their king and their city. This news would cost them their lives more surely than the famine if they delayed one moment longer than necessary.

The king was overjoyed with relief, and almost delirious with the release of tension, although never a word of thanks was offered to his Maker. In a grand gesture, he ordered the gates thrown wide open and allowed the people to swarm through the empty camp of their enemies as unstoppable as a swarm of ravenous, destroying locusts.

Silver in large quantities was looted, herds of all kinds of cattle and ten thousand measures of wheat and barley such as they had never dreamed of.12 And so a seah of flour sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley sold for a shekel, as I had prophesied, and as the LORD had told me.

In charge of the gate to try and control the population as they rushed through them, man, woman and child, the king placed the officer who had disputed my words. The crowds of people, starving and with the smell of food in their nostrils were as unstoppable as the wind and the officer trying vainly to complete his task, fell beneath the stampeding feet and was trampled to death. I took no pleasure in seeing the word of God fulfilled as I recalled the short conversation with him only hours before. 'Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?' he had said to me. And my heart had grieved as I replied, 'You will see it with your own eyes, but you will not eat any of it!' But it was not my place to feel pleasure or pain when the LORD spoke His judgments, only to repeat His words without changing one dot or comma.

And in the market place the words I had spoken to the king were repeated as the vendors went about their business. 'About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.'

In a few days the city would be back to normal. I would have moved on to another place of retreat to meditate on the siege, and on on my failings. To learn from them as best I could, and to try and remove the thorn that still pricks me occasionally when I think of the way I delivered King Ben-Hadad's men back to him. If I had allowed King Joram his way with the helpless Aramean army, what then? Would the women have plotted and promised to eat the very fruit of their wombs, to actually cannibalise their own babies? Would I have cowered in the dark, afraid and craven and hoping to save my own life? Questions that would never be answered by mind and logic, and even by faith only with unwavering perseverance - and even then only with great difficulty.

I needed to strengthen my faith, to regain the lost ground, to overcome the nagging, goading doubts of the past weeks, and to prepare myself for a journey into the lion's den.

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