We tend to avoid the more gruesome stories in the Bible because they make us uncomfortable. When our eyes fall on brief one liners about mothers eating their children or God killing off His own people, we quickly skip ahead. The problem with jumping over the parts that bother us is that we end up with a general feeling of negativity towards the entire Old Testament and we draw the very false conclusion that the God we find there is a mean, short-tempered, violent sort of Being—quite different than our loving Jesus. But of course this isn’t true. Nowhere will we ever find a more patient, loving, generous, gracious God than the magnificent Yahweh. When we read about Him striking thousands dead and then conclude that He’s unfair, we do Him a gross injustice. If we take time to examine the entire story, we will find that every incident of Yahweh’s mass discipline is always long overdue. The Old Testament is not at all the story of a mean God, but a story of a loving Creator who is continuously disdained by a people who He has heaped countless blessings upon. Instead of approaching the Bible looking for evidence of God’s cruelty, we should try looking for evidence of His grace, for then we will come away with a much more accurate assessment of its contents.
In 2 Kings 6:24-7:20 we come across one of those gruesome stories which rarely gets taught from the pulpit. As is often the case with these kinds of stories, there are many fascinating insights jammed into a short amount of text, and in this post we will attempt to unpack at least a few of them. Remember that anytime you read the Bible, you want to ask the Holy Spirit to interpret it for you. It’s when we rely on Him to teach us that we will gain the wisdom He wants us to have.
After the death of King Solomon, civil war broke out in Israel that resulted in the entire nation being divided into a northern and southern kingdom. The north kept the name Israel while the southern kingdom was named Judah. Jerusalem was the capital of Judah; the city of Samaria became the capital of Israel. Our story in 2 Kings 6 opens with Samaria under siege by a huge army from Aram led by King Ben-Hadad. In 2 Kings 6:24, we’re told that Ben-Hadad “gathered his whole army” for this assault and surrounded the city.
The classic strategy for trying to take down a city with fortified walls is to first cut off its food supply so that the people trapped inside will start starving. This is called sieging. It’s much easier to fight a bunch of desperate, frightened, weak soldiers, but getting a large city to this point can take quite a while. The author of our story lets us know how bad things have become by throwing out a few market prices that are supposed to shock us. He quotes what a donkey’s head and a pile of dove dung are selling for. No doubt the prices are shockingly high, although some of us today have a hard time imagining wanting to buy either of those items.
Along comes the unfortunate king of this miserable city: a king whose name the author never gives, but we know from the timeline that it must be King Joram. Joram is introduced to us in 2 Kings 3:3 as a king who does wrong in the sight of God. Joram is a descendant of Ahab, a particularly evil king who made trouble for the prophet Elijah. Ahab and his nasty wife Jezebel were ardent Baal worshipers and they were responsible for slaughtering many of God’s prophets. It was during Ahab’s reign that Yahweh struck the land with a brutal drought. He had Elijah publicly announce the beginning of the drought and later pray for it to end. Elijah was later whisked off to Heaven via fiery chariot, leaving his disciple Elisha to take his place.
Joram and Elisha have some history already. A little while back, there was a major battle in which Joram got together in a rare moment of truce with the king of Judah to try and punish one of Joram’s enemies. When things started going south in the battle, Joram decided that Yahweh was against him and he asked Elisha for advice. Even evil kings recognized legitimate prophets of God and often turned to them in moments of desperation. At the time, Elisha gave Joram a sarcastic answer and refused to help him. Only out of respect for the king of Judah, who was at risk with Joram, did Elisha finally give in and deliver an encouraging message from God. Now Joram is in trouble again, with his capital under siege, his people starving, and a resident prophet of God who hates him. And why should Elisha like Joram when the king has such contempt for Yahweh?
Walking along the top of Samaria’s fortress wall one day, King Joram is surveying the ugly situation around him and probably wondering why he has to have such crummy luck to be the one in charge. At that moment, he hears a woman call out to him for help. Joram immediately retorts with a sarcastic answer:
“If Yahweh doesn’t help you, how can I? Can I get help from the threshing floor or from the winepress?” (2 Kings 6:27)
No doubt Joram is assuming the woman is going to ask him to come up with some food for her, which of course he’s powerless to do. Notice how he tells her to blame God for her problems instead of him. But now he seems to think he’s being a little too rude, so he finally gives her a chance to explain her problem.
Then the king said to her, “What is your trouble?”
She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we can eat him today. Then we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we boiled my son and ate him. Then the next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we can eat him.’ But she had hidden him.” (2 Kings 6:28-29)
Now it’s Joram’s turn to be surprised. This woman was more enterprising than he’d given her credit for: she was trying to solve her own problem, but she’d hit a snag. She wasn’t asking for handouts, just justice, and that was still something he could help with. But, yuck! Joram isn’t about to involve himself with this nasty scenario. No doubt many eyes are staring at him at this point. If he reacts wrong, they could decide to boil him up next. It’s important for leaders to at least look like they care when their people are suffering, yet at the same time avoid getting their hands dirty with impossible problems. Happily Joram has an option for wiggling out of this one that will both save face and allow him to hurry on: the old robe rip.
The Old Testament is full of people tearing their robes. Tearing through cloth with bare hands is a lot harder than it sounds (try it and you’ll see). But the ancient Jews had a practical method: they’d tear their clothes along weak seam lines that could later be mended. It was a way to publicly express grief, shock and other strong negative emotions. The ancient Jews were a very theatrical people who had no use for subtlety.
Stuck in a seriously awkward situation, Joram simply rips his robes to show everyone that he’s in grief. Underneath, he’s wearing some kind of rough sackcloth that is now revealed to all. Sackcloth is an uncomfortable, scratchy material that was another publicly recognized symbol of grief. By putting on sackcloth as a hidden undergarment that he later just happens to reveal, Joram gives the impression that he’s really in deep sorrow. Knowing Joram’s lack of character, he probably seized the first opportunity to get public points for his private grief—after all, it’s no fun wearing sackcloth if nobody knows about it. POINT TO PONDER: How often do we choose to flaunt the fact that we are fasting in order to impress others with our spirituality? When we publicize our personal sacrifices, by saying things like “I had to miss out on the baseball game to go and help feed the homeless last Saturday,” we prove them to be purely carnal actions that are meaningless to God. When we have to struggle to obey God, or when we feel led to show Him some extra level of devotion, such things should stay between Him and us. Once we start broadcasting the great lengths we’re going to for God, we lose any real spiritual progress that we might have made.
The woman’s problem in this story is quite disturbing, yet this is not the first time cannibalism is mentioned in the Bible. Being trapped in a fortress with no food brings out the worst side of people. Children are vulnerable and easy targets. Such extreme behavior underscores how desperate this situation really is. POINT TO PONDER: Killing and eating other people definitely falls under the category of sin. Eating one’s own child is even more sick, but before we judge the woman in this story as subhuman, we must remember that we are all vulnerable of degrading into someone just like her. It’s been proven time and time again that under extreme stress, normal people will start acting like perverse monsters. God is the only One who can save us from succumbing to our flesh in desperate moments. Before we find ourselves trapped in a situation where morals start sounding meaningless, we must learn how to live in reliance on His strength instead of our own. Problems and crises strike without warning. If we haven’t put effort into strengthening our bond with the Holy Spirit, we will quickly fall apart.
Continuing his walk along the wall, Joram is showing off his sackcloth to everyone and putting distance between himself and that troublesome woman. We expect a man in his situation to do some frustrated cursing, but what we don’t expect is a comment like this:
“May God punish me terribly if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat isn’t cut off from his body today!” (2 Kings 6:31)
Why is Joram blaming Elisha for his problems? This is hardly fair. Elisha isn’t controlling the Aramean army. No, but Elisha represents God to Joram and in his gut, Joram knows that God is ultimately responsible for Samaria’s problems.
Being blamed for what God does comes with the territory when you’re a prophet. If God heals someone, people try to give you the glory. If God attacks someone, you get punished. At this point, Joram can see that his situation is hopeless. His starving army is in no condition to fight, and in a short while, the Arameans will find a way into the city and kill everyone. As king, Joram is certain to die an ugly death, so the only consolation he has left is to try and take someone down with him. His enemy Elisha will do nicely. POINT TO PONDER: When we are rebelling against God, we tend to find His representatives particularly offensive. When is the last time you ended a relationship with someone you knew really cared about you because their words made you feel convicted? Or when’s the last time you treated someone rudely after they pointed out a truth that you didn’t want to deal with?
Elisha is kicking back in his house with some friends when Yahweh warns him that Joram has sent a man to kill him. Before the messenger even arrives, Elisha prophesies to his buddies:
“See, this murderer is sending men to cut off my head. When the messenger arrives, shut the door and hold it; don’t let him in. The sound of his master’s feet is behind him.” (2 Kings 6:32)
No sooner does he say this than the man arrives and announces on behalf of Joram:
“This trouble has come from Yahweh. Why should I wait for Yahweh any longer?”(2 Kings 6:33)
Elisha said, “Listen to the word of Yahweh. This is what Yahweh says: ‘About this time tomorrow seven quarts of fine flour will be sold for two-fifths of an ounce of silver, and thirteen quarts of barley will be sold for two-fifths of an ounce of silver. This will happen at the gate of Samaria.’” (2 Kings 6:33-2 Kings 7:1)
Elisha’s prophecy is shocking: he announces that Samaria will not only be saved, but that her inflated economy will be instantly restored to better than normal in less than 48 hours. The prices Elisha quotes don’t make much sense to us today, but this is like telling Americans in the middle of the Great Depression that in one day’s time they’d have more food than they’d know what to do with. How is this humanly possible? How can a grocery store go from being empty to overstocked when all the truck lines are down and the country’s crops have all been destroyed? What Elisha is predicting is a miracle of unfathomable proportions—too unfathomable for the king’s second-in-command, who scoffingly says:
“Even if Yahweh opened windows in the sky, that couldn’t happen.” (2 Kings 7:2)
This man should have kept his sarcasm to himself, because Yahweh is done being insulted by Joram and his punk friends.
Elisha said, “You will see it with your eyes, but you will not eat any of it.” (2 Kings 7:2)
Here Yahweh is promising to trash the mouthy officer before he can personally enjoy the miracle that’s about to take place. No doubt the officer assumed this was an empty threat, but Elisha’s shocking prophecy has at least dampened Joram’s desire to kill him. The officer returns to Samaria and meanwhile we’re suddenly introduced to four men with a skin disease—possibly lepers—who are hanging around the entrance to Samaria.
When resources get tight, society’s outcasts are the first to be kicked aside. Visible skin problems caused people to be looked down on in ancient Jewish culture. No one wanted to be around sick people, and our diseased foursome are not even inside the city gates. They’re hanging around the outside, apparently being ignored by everyone as they assess their limited options.
They said to each other, “Why do we sit here until we die? There is no food in the city. So if we go into the city, we will die there. If we stay here, we will die. So let’s go to the Aramean camp. If they let us live, we will live. If they kill us, we die.” (2 Kings 7:3-4)
Since all hope is lost for Samaria, these four decide to try their luck at being traitors. They decide to go try and plead for favor from the Arameans. If it doesn’t work, they’ll only end up killed a little earlier than everyone else. It seems like a smart move. They wait until twilight so no one will see them sneaking off, but when they arrive at the Aramean camp, they get the shock of their lives: the stuff is there, but all the soldiers have run away. What on earth happened? Our author helps us out:
Yahweh had caused the Aramean army to hear the sound of chariots, horses, and a large army. They had said to each other, “The king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!” So they got up and ran away in the twilight, leaving their tents, horses, and donkeys. They left the camp standing and ran for their lives. (2 Kings 7:6-7)
Here’s a miracle that God didn’t predict, and it’s a huge one. Remember that the entire Aramean army was assembled outside of Samaria—this was a huge group of soldiers who knew they had the upper hand. They were sitting pretty in their tents, eating plenty of food and relaxing while they waited for the Israelites to waste away. Then, out of the nowhere, they hear a terrifying thunder of noise all around them—a sound of some other massive army approaching. They assume Joram has somehow managed to rustle up some allies to come help him. Their minds are filled with images of many kings charging towards them with overwhelming numbers of men. The sound is so loud that the Arameans conclude they don’t even have time to grab any of their stuff—if they take off running that very instant, they just might save their own necks. POINT TO PONDER: Both God and demons plant images in our minds in order to influence our behavior. Often when we are upset, demons invent scenes of terrible things happening to us in order to amplify our fear. God fabricates His own frightening images as well, and this is not the first time we’ve seen Him terrify huge numbers of men with pure fantasy.
Our diseased foursome now find themselves standing in a sea of treasures. Money, clothes, food, animals—everything is there for the taking and they immediately help themselves.
When the men with the skin disease came to the edge of the camp, they went into one of the tents and ate and drank. They carried silver, gold, and clothes out of the camp and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent. They carried things from this tent and hid them, also. Then they said to each other, “We’re doing wrong. Today we have good news, but we are silent. If we wait until the sun comes up, we’ll be discovered. Let’s go right now and tell the people in the king’s palace.” (2 Kings 7:8-9)
After a moment of revelry, our foursome realize that they should be reporting these supplies to the king so that everyone can benefit. They also realize that if they’re caught partying in the camp when the sun comes up, they’re going to be in big trouble, so they hurry back to Samaria while it’s still dark and tell the gatekeepers that they found the Aramean camp deserted. Naturally, they leave out the fact that they already collected some of the supplies in their own private stash. The news is passed onto the palace and Joram drags himself out of bed in a bad mood and decides the whole thing is a trick. There’s no reason in the world that the Arameans would just walk away from all their stuff. He says to his officers:
“I’ll tell you what the Arameans are doing to us. They know we are starving. They have gone out of the camp to hide in the field. They’re saying, ‘When the Israelites come out of the city, we’ll capture them alive. Then we’ll enter the city.’” (2 Kings 7:12)
If Joram had more respect for God, he would have put more faith in Elisha’s prophecy and his heart might have started racing with excitement at this unexpected turn of events. But instead, he is convinced that both God and Elisha are useless so he is looking for the negative in everything. POINT TO PONDER: Faith inspires, doubt depresses. When we refuse to put our hope in God, we find ourselves with no hope at all.
One of Joram’s officers comes up with a plan. There are still a few horses left in the city that haven’t been turned into sandwiches. Five of them can be used to ride out and check up on this ludicrous story. The worst thing that can happen is that they’ll never make it back. Joram agrees and the spies are dispatched. Five starving men riding out on five starving horses—that had to be an interesting sight.
The men followed the Aramean army as far as the Jordan River. The road was full of clothes and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away as they had hurriedly left. So the messengers returned and told the king. (2 Kings 7:15)
In an effort to run as fast as possible, the Aramean soldiers kept throwing off anything they were carrying at the time they fled. The trail of supplies confirms that something drastic definitely happened to the Arameans and the Israelites are too hungry to care what. They rush out and grab up all the supplies, haul them back to the city, and the food market’s prices dramatically drop to reflect the sudden surplus. Just what are those prices? Our author quotes them exactly:
So seven quarts of fine flour were sold for two-fifths of an ounce of silver, and thirteen quarts of barley were sold for two-fifths of an ounce of silver, just as Yahweh had said. (2 Kings 7:16)
How impressive. Of course, God both knows and controls the future and it was very easy for Him to predict exactly what flour would be going for at any hour of the day. But His method for driving the prices down was nothing less than extraordinary. What an incredible God. But He’s not done impressing us yet. There’s still the matter of that officer who mocked Elisha and said “Even if Yahweh opened windows in the sky, that couldn’t happen.” Joram sends him out to guard the city gate while this raiding of the Aramean camp is carried out. In their desperate stampede to get to food, the people knock the officer over and trample him to death. The officer lives long enough to hear the market prices shift just as God predicted, but he himself never tastes one mouthful of the food. To drive the point home, our author describes the officer’s fate twice, concluding the story with a replay of Elisha’s prophecy, the officer’s sarcastic reply, and his ugly fate.
LEARNING FROM THE CHARACTERS
Each of the characters in this true story teach us an important lesson. Let’s look at them each in turn.
The cannibalistic mother serves as a grave picture of how quickly humans degrade under pressure. Relying on God’s supernatural grace and strength is the only way we can hope to escape acting just like her or worse if we ever find ourselves in a desperate situation.
King Joram reminds us of how powerless human leaders really are without God. While everyone was looking to him for answers, there was nothing he could do to save his people or materialize food. Too often we let fancy titles make us feel more important and powerful than we really are. We become pompous and think we can manage just fine without relying on God. As this story demonstrates, God knows how to reconnect us with our own frailty. Apart from His grace and mercy, we are totally helpless.
Elisha reminds us that those who represent God should expect to be treated as badly as He is by His own people. Elisha almost lost his life because Joram hated God. There were plenty of other prophets that God allowed to be murdered by evil men and women. Serving God does not come with any guarantees of special protection. Many today are trying to serve God as a way to gain blessings and popularity on earth. But God wants us to serve Him out of a desire to bless His heart—not so that He can give us goodies in return.
Joram’s officer reminds us that God’s patience for being mocked can suddenly come to an end. Because of one sarcastic comment and an unbelieving heart, this man died an ugly death. Heart attitude is what matters to God. When God announces that He’s going to do something unfathomable, we naturally have doubts and questions. Mary questioned the angel who told her she was going to birth the Messiah. Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father) questioned the angel that told him he would have a son in his old age. God was reassuring to Mary, but He became angry and punished Zechariah. The difference was their heart attitudes—Mary believed whereas Zechariah mocked.
The four diseased men remind us of how God likes to use social outcasts to carry important messages. It was a prostitute (Rahab) who told Joshua’s spies that God had struck the men of Jericho with terror so that they were afraid to fight against him. It was a barren woman (Rebecca) who bore Jacob, the father of Israel. It was a bunch of dirty shepherds who saw a star in a field and announced to everyone that they’d seen the promised Messiah. It was cured lepers who ran through the streets declaring that Jesus was God. It was a healed demoniac (Mary Magdalene) who announced that Jesus’ tomb was empty and who was the first one to be greeted by her risen Savior. All throughout the Bible, we see God choosing out the unlikely, unlovely, and unwanted to bring critical news of His work. We should learn from this never to judge the value of a message by the identity of the messenger, but to test all things with the Holy Spirit and to expect Him to speak to us through unexpected sources.
The Aramean army reminds us of how quickly God can turn powerful, confident warriors into panicking cowards. We are no match for the God. Yahweh didn’t even bother to use something tangible to conquer the Arameans—He simply played a trick on their senses. Reading about mighty warriors throwing off their clothes and weapons as they flee in terror should remind us of how futile it is to ever rebel against the Holy Spirit or resist His convictions. As Yahweh demonstrated in this story, our Gods don’t have to rely on external forces and circumstances to get us to cooperate with Their program: They can mess with our minds and seize hold of our insides anytime They want. But why go there? Why end up like any one of the rebellious characters in this story when we could choose a life of obedience instead?
Yahweh—of course He is the most important Character in this account, and once again we see Him showcasing His incredible power and mercy. Joram was a rebel who publicly mocked God and encouraged Israel to sin and commit idolatry. Yahweh would have been very just in killing him, yet He had mercy and saved him and the idolatrous Israelites from falling into the hands of the Arameans. The Old Testament is filled with examples of Yahweh dramatically saving His people despite the fact that they disrespect Him. He continues to show this same generosity to us Christians today. In this story, we see Yahweh inflicting suffering on His wayward people to try and turn their focus back onto Him. He brings in the Arameans to show how easily He could destroy them, and then He performs a dramatic miracle to rescue them from harm. Did the Israelites learn from this experience and go back to revering God? Clearly not, for the next chapter opens with an account of God striking the land with a seven year famine in a further attempt to drive His people back to obedience.
What about you? How much discipline does God have to dole out before you will obey His convictions? Is your spirit sensitive to His Voice, eager to answer the first time He speaks, or do you pretend that you can’t hear Him? Don’t trust your own assessment of yourself—ask the Holy Spirit to give you His perspective. If He points out any areas that need improvement, invite Him to do whatever it takes to get you back to where He wants you to be. We cannot improve ourselves in our own strength, but God can change us from the inside out. Ask the Holy Spirit to increase your desire to please your Makers and to help you stay fully aligned with Them so that you will never end up needing the kind of drastic discipline that the Yahweh gave to the people of Samaria.