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)

   

 

EPITAPH
(2 Kings 13: 20, 21)

Now, finally, all goodbyes had been tearfully spoken and farewell tears brokenly shed. There remained only this one last duty to discharge - quickly!

Each man in the burial party was nervous and afraid. Each, however, attempted to control his fear; the dignity of the occasion demanded it. The walk from the city gate to the burial ground outside the city of Gilgal had been long and tiring with only four bearers to share the burden because fear of the Moabite raiders had dissuaded others from sharing the honour.

Moabites: constant thorns in the side of Israel, vultures feeding on the not yet dead body of God's promised land. Bordering the east side of the Sea of Salt and the desert of Edom to the south, Moab had once been given into the hands of Israel, but had been allowed to escape; King Joram of Israel, King Jehoshaphat of Judah, the king of Edom and their joint armies devastated the land of Moab, moving through it like an irresistible plague of locusts leaving nothing alive in their wake. The country belonged to them - then they stopped, suddenly and incomprehensibly. They were literally at the gates of the capital, Kir Hareseth, with the city before them at their mercy. The men of the allied armies had already seen much slaughter that day, had themselves killed men, women and children in the heat of the battle and the following rout. But when King Mesha wantonly and sacrificially slaughtered his son, they ceased hostilities; just gave up fighting and went home. So the Moabites survived that bloody day and now they nipped at the heels of their one-time conquerors, constantly running on the edges, a snarling pack of jackals, particularly dangerous in the early part of the year when the cool spring weather made travelling easier.

The unwilling heroes of the burial party were beginning to regret their initial pride and enthusiasm in stepping forward to claim a corner of the bier - a simple platform with four stubby legs, borne by two long carrying poles - on which the body of their friend lay, wrapped in spices and his grave clothes. A low fence or gallery provided the only adornment or protection. Carrying the body of their late friend, now with something less than due reverential care, they hurried to reach his final resting place. Simon, the deceased, had been a good man, a devout servant of the LORD1, a loving provider for his wife and children and a friend to all who called to him in either in friendship or in need. It was sometimes difficult to understand the ways of the LORD. Yes, He had said, My ways are not yours l2 but surely sometimes, if only for the sake of those left behind, a little knowledge and understanding might help, some little pointer towards an explanation for the apparent injustice of premature death? For instance, why was Simon taken from all who loved and needed him? What lesson might be learned from this, other than that our lives are merely grains of sand on a vast uncaring shore, or that we disappear as easily and quietly as smoke in the wind? Evil men, uncaring husbands and fathers, thieves, robbers of the poor, murderers, all seemed to prosper and live long lives - the Psalmist spoke of the dilemma frequently - yet this good, family man was allowed to die.

The burial ground was not an ordered place. It was really little more than a field with soft, limestone hills and mounds in and around it gaping with the open mouths of family tombs, roughly dug or ornately carved depending on the importance or wealth of the inhabitants. But, with one notable exception, no kings or prophets resided here, they spent eternity within the walls of their cities as was the custom and as was their right. However, Simon's friends did not stop to wonder about their friend's future neighbours or the quality of his permanent home, as they stumbled across the graveyard to reach the family tomb, wending their way hastily and carelessly through the different plots; there would be time to wonder and reminisce when they were safely home once more. But for now they had more urgent matters in mind. The Moabites had been seen far too frequently in the area recently and they were not renowned for mercy, or sympathy for the woes of bereavement; rather they actively and enthusiastically encouraged the latter situation!

No other family members, friends or mourners - sincere or professional - accompanied the burial party as the area was popular with the raiders and therefore considered far too dangerous. Even Simon's young sons had been refused the privilege of helping their father on the final leg of his last earthly journey, and now the bearers were fervently wishing the ban had also extended to them. One thing was certain, it would be a very long time before any one of them volunteered for such a duty again.

Although the men of the burial party were certainly true sons of Abraham, they were equally certainly not of David's noble and courageous line; nor were they slayers of lions, bears and giants named Goliath or otherwise; and certainly not heroes destined to perform heroic deeds. They were just ordinary people, next-door neighbour people, salt of the earth people, who had volunteered for the task, afraid - and becoming more afraid each second they spent outside the city walls - but originally proud to perform this final duty for their late friend. Upright people; respected people; regular attenders at the synagogue, of course; but they were not, and never wanted to be, heroes.

They moved on towards the far side of the field, the roughly rounded ends of the two long poles digging into their shoulders. It had been a long, hard walk from the city with no time for respite. The men at the back held tightly to the short, rear legs trying to steady the bier as it rolled with their unsteady steps. The woven palm leaf canopy waved and trembled precariously with the wind, mimicking the spirits of the men. Simon, tied hand and foot and bound in his grave clothes, rolled slightly from side to side with each jerky movement of his open bier, blissfully unaware that only the short surrounding gallery prevented a final indignity.

Jacob, the oldest and therefore the most careful for his life, stopped suddenly, throwing the others completely off balance and causing the body to roll violently to the side as the bier lurched alarmingly. They turned angrily to ask him what was happening but before they could open their mouths he let out a piercing screech and pointed in the distance. 'Moabites! Run! Run for your lives!' Now he was staring around widely, completely caught up in his fear, and it was virulently contagious. 'There,' he pointed, 'put the body in there, quickly.'

In fairness, it is doubtful whether the others would have panicked so quickly, and therefore done the awful thing they did, if it had not been for Jacob's continuing screams and infectious fear. They ducked into the nearest tomb and unceremoniously dumped Simon's body on the nearest stone shelf without even the briefest cursory examination - uncaring whether or not it was occupied - and, following Jacob's example, ran; robes and tassels flapping around bare legs that pumped furiously, leaving a wake of dust eddies and discarded sandals. Yet, even in their blind panic and cowardice, they had unknowingly performed for their friend a bigger favour than they could ever have imagined.

..........

Later that day the bearers were gathered in Jacob's house, an ashamed and nervous huddle of men, attempting to mend their shattered nerves and somehow recover and rebuild their fallen pride. They needed to decide what would be the proper course to follow. There was no precedent, not in the whole of Israel's history could they think of such a thing. But the situation had to be addressed, there was really no alternative, they must return to the burial ground, remove Simon from the stranger's resting place and take him to the tomb paid for and lovingly prepared by his family. And it must be done quickly. But what could they tell the family, what possible excuse had they to offer? They had known that it would be dangerous when they had volunteered but then, at the first sign of peril, they had panicked and fled. What could they say to Simon's sons, or indeed to their own? The more they talked, the more impossible the situation appeared, and the more difficult it became to resolve anything. Circumstances rapidly deteriorated with charges and counter-charges filling the air as men became more and more vehement, trying vainly to overcome the full horror of their shame. There seemed no solution unless God intervened - and then God did.

In the midst of these recriminations Simon walked in wearing just sufficient of the grave clothes to retain some modesty. After a moment's shocked silence, the ensuing screams were louder than Jacob's had been at the appearance of the Moabites, and the panic even more contagious. Cornered in the room with the ghost, as they thought, unintentionally blocking the doorway, each man believed implicitly it was God's judgment on them and mindlessly promised endless sacrifices if only God would forgive them and spare them just this one last time. It was a while before Simon could quiet their fear, and even then fearful apprehension and superstitious terror were merely a breath away. It would have taken only the merest widening of an eye, or the tiniest jerk of a hand, from their risen friend to set them running, and running until they dropped. Simon, however, remained calm, quietly making reassuring eye contact with each one of them, his very stillness bringing its own calm to a volatile situation. Eventually, however, order was restored and

his friends finally believed their eyes and their ears as Simon asked, 'My friends, tell me what happened, why did you place me in the grave of Elisha?'

'The Moabites, they were hard upon us, we had no choice, we barely escaped.' The words poured from Jacob's lips, sounding as cowardly to the others as they did to him.

His eyes dropped away. Pleading, he asked, 'What would you have had us do, Simon? A dead man, spiced and wrapped and looking only for a bed for eternity. Do not blame us, you would have done the same - wouldn't you? I mean our deaths would have served nothing.' His tirade of excuses ceased suddenly and his eyes lifted and widened. 'What did you say? The tomb of Elisha? Did you say the tomb of Elisha, the prophet?'

Jacob's continuing excuses were less than pleasing to Simon and he answered tersely, 'Yes. Leave that for the moment. Where is my family?'

Another friend answered. 'At home, the elders refused them permission to leave the city - it was, is, far too dangerous.' He waited a second and then added quietly, 'We did volunteer, you know.'

Simon nodded thoughtfully. 'Yes, yes, I do realise that and I do thank you. Now, however, I must return to my family, wash the smell of grave spices from my body, and burn these trappings of death,' he plucked at the remaining bandages with revulsion, 'dress in clean, white clothes and go to the temple for purification. But before I go, I repeat, I do thank you, my friends.'

They shuffled feet that were suddenly too large and awkward, glanced at each other out of the corners of shifting eyes, and coughed nervously. Was this some awful sarcasm, designed purely to extract the maximum revenge for their shameful and irreverent behaviour? One of them cleared his throat, coughed, perhaps again making ready to begin some woeful and inadequate explanation for their inexplicable behaviour.

Simon held up a hand and silenced him before the first embarrassed words reached his lips. 'I awoke blind, trapped in a darkness as dark as death. I was asleep and then life burst through my veins again like the violent waters of a broken dam. But the darkness remained and I was afraid. Oh, how I was afraid. Was this really Sheol, the place of the dead? Was I to spend eternity tied and bound in darkness? Believe me, friends, I knew fear. Then my fear turned to confusion, and then my confusion slowly turned to hope as I realised that I could loosen my bonds, and then I further realised what must have happened to me. But only when I could actually see where I was, and how I was, and examine the clothes I wore for the day's business, only then did I fully understand the miracle of my resurrection - and the reason why.'

His touch of macabre humour did little to ease his friends. One of them suddenly blurted out, 'But the Moabites? Did not they see you? You were lucky to escape with your life!' There was an astonished silence at the incongruity of the statement, then the whole company, following Simon's example, collapsed in laughter as the tension and fear dispersed.

Simon eventually answered the question. 'Think how you reacted only a few moments ago when I walked in, remember your terror and disbelief? Then imagine how the Moabites reacted when they arrived at the burial field, perhaps even to rob my grave, and saw a dead man walk out from the tomb and begin to strip off his grave-clothes. No, my friend, the only thing I saw of Moabites was a small dust cloud rapidly disappearing into the distance.'

Then he closed his eyes and remained in contemplative silence for what seemed an age, and nerves already stretched to breaking point were screaming for release. 'My body lay touching sleeping bones. I did not know then to whom they belonged, only that somehow I must have died, and that the LORD restored my life to me, and I to my family.

'But when I walked outside and looked around, I understood where you had so carefully placed me. In the tomb of Elisha the prophet where he lay at rest until disturbed so rudely by me. But he took no offence,' Simon smiled slightly, 'at least I assume he did not, for the mere touch of his bones raised me from the dead.'
He locked eyes with each one in turn, smiling, forgiving, setting them at ease. 'Do not punish yourselves anymore, be cleansed of guilt and shame. I was dead and now I am alive. Surely that is a reason for joy?'

No-one argued with him and slowly the downcast eyes were lifted, smiles, sheepish at first, broke up guilty faces, and then someone muttered, 'It must have been the will of God.' There were general sighs of relief all round the room as the observation was immediately accepted. Suddenly the burden of responsibility had shifted, forgiveness was granted and, finally, there was the wonderful realisation that in spite of their misgivings, they were, after all, only doing the will of God. Then at Simon's request the youngest in the party ran ahead to warn the family, the friends and the priests so they would be spared the terrible shock suffered by the buries party.

That night there was great rejoicing in the restored family. Many prayers and thanks were lifted to the LORD by priests and friends, followed by joyful feasting as the blood of many sacrificial animals flowed over the alter.

It was a fitting epitaph.

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