Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Semi-Random Musings (19)

“[T]he one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.”

Tough times, when prophets are anointed in blood.

Not literally, of course; let’s not be grotesque. But the Bible’s first mention of Elijah’s successor tells us he would cause death, and he needed no sword to do it.

Most Old Testament prophets did more suffering and dying than killing and laying waste: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.” Still, there were a few notable exceptions to the rule.

Elijah, Elisha’s mentor, was one of these. Having miraculously convinced the people of Israel that the Lord was indeed God and Baal was not, Elijah called to the crowd, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” The people escorted 850 false prophets to the brook Kishon, and there they were slaughtered, either by Elijah personally, or more likely at his command. Then there was Samuel, who hacked the king of the Amalekites to pieces before God in Gilgal when Saul refused to do his duty as king of Israel.

But these were the exceptions. Prophets were men of the word, not men of the sword.

It is not a simple matter to determine exactly who it was Elisha “put to death”. Most commentators on Kings note that he was not known for either engaging in or commissioning acts of violence. It is highly probable a few of the 42 young thugs cursed by Elisha expired of bear-inflicted injuries, but this is not explicitly stated in the text; moreover, the incident seems to have taken place quite a bit prior to the anointings of both Hazael and Jehu, rather than following after them, as seems to be the burden of the prophecy. Cursing was simply not a prominent feature of Elisha’s latter-day ministry.

In the end, we must confess that we do not know exactly how this prediction was fulfilled. The events described in 1 Kings give us only a hint of the Elisha’s real impact on Israel. His prophetic ministry spanned the reigns of at least four Israelite kings over a period of more than forty years. There were any number of occasions on which this prophetic word may have come to fruition, not least in Elisha’s final oracle, his prediction that the armies of Israel would strike down the armies of Syria on three occasions. This promise was fulfilled during the lifetime of Jehoash.

All the same, Barnes’ suggestion that Elisha slew them “with a spiritual slaying by the ‘word of the Lord,’ which is ‘sharper than any two-edged sword,’ is too ridiculous to be entertained. The sword of Hazael caused literal, physical death, as did the sword of Jehu. Why would the deaths attributed to Elisha be of any other sort?

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“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry II is said to have inquired. Perhaps he only meant it rhetorically, but four of his knights promptly took it upon themselves to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury at vespers.

The writers of fiction and non-fiction alike tell us powerful people rarely need to get their hands dirty. They have subordinates and agents to accomplish their purposes, and often do not even have to issue direct commands in order to have their will carried out. This allows them what we call “plausible deniability” in the event their schemes backfire in some unexpected way.

The execution of Naboth in 1 Kings 21 was just such an occasion. King Ahab complained to his wife Jezebel that his neighbor Naboth refused to sell him a vineyard he coveted, which was Naboth’s right under the Law of Moses. Ahab did not have to tell her he wanted his neighbor dead, or how she ought to do it. He didn’t give a single order. He simply went to bed and pouted; et voilĂ , plausible deniability. Jezebel, a Phoenician princess from Sidon, was quite unused to the peculiar Israelite notion that even kings are required to be subject to laws, so she went out and ruthlessly engineered Naboth’s murder. She had probably seen members of her family do similar things ... or maybe she just couldn’t stand watching her husband behave like a spoiled six-year-old.

Nothing in the narrative suggests for a moment that Ahab knew what was happening. In fact, it reads as if he may well have continued sulking in his chambers. But Jezebel “wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal.” She specified to the elders and leaders of Naboth’s city exactly how he was to be dealt with. She received the news of Naboth’s death, and told her husband he was now free to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard. On one level, it was all Jezebel.

But God was not fooled. Through Elijah, God says to Ahab, “Have you killed and taken possession?” Jezebel would certainly get her just desserts; God would see to that. But he held Ahab primarily responsible for her crime. Ahab knew exactly what sort of depraved psyche he was turning loose on Naboth when he complained to Jezebel about him. Moreover, he was Jezebel’s husband and king, accountable both because he had chosen to marry her in the first place, and because what she did happened on his watch and for his benefit.

How many times do you and I discreetly and deliberately set in motion events with which we would be reluctant to find ourselves identified? God, who knows the motives of men’s hearts, is not fooled by any number of layers of plausible deniability.

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