For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied II Kings 7.
Syria is besieging Samaria, the capital city in Northern Israel, and there is a desperate famine within that city. Elisha the prophet predicts that the famine will end the very next day. Not only will there be an abundance of grain, but its price will fall. Israelites will no longer have to buy expensive donkey heads or eat their own children, as they were doing during the famine.
A close advisor to the king mocks Elisha, sarcastically asking if God will open the windows of heaven. Elisha then predicts that the advisor will witness the end of the famine, but he will not partake of it. The fulfillment of this prophecy occurs later in the chapter, when the advisor dies as Northern Israelites rush to eat some newfound food.
At first, I thought that this advisor got a raw deal. Why should he believe the prophecy of Elisha? The prospect that the famine would end sounds like a pretty amazing thing! Pardon this advisor if he finds faith difficult. So do I, for that matter!
But Josephus offered a reasonable interpretation of this passage, in Antiquities 9, Chapter 4: the vast majority of the Northern Israelites, including the king, believed Elisha’s prophecy, on account of the “experience they had of the truth of his former predictions”. Elisha had a record as a confirmed man of God. Elisha had done miracles and had made predictions that came to pass. The king knew this, for he actually blamed Elisha for the famine! Commentators speculate that the king believed that Elisha brought it about, or allowed it to exist in that he refrained from asking God to remove it. The king and much of Northern Israel realized that Elisha was God’s mouthpiece. The advisor was just being a jerk. He should have believed Elisha, on the basis of Elisha’s sterling record as a prophet. This wasn’t a matter of blind faith! And, according to Josephus, the advisor expressed doubt that God could end the famine. It’s one thing to doubt that God will do something. It’s another thing to doubt that God can do something. Was the advisor guilty of the latter?
There were four lepers outside of the city of Samaria. Lepers had to be outside of the Israelite community, to avoid defiling it (Leviticus 13:46; Numbers 5:3). These lepers reasoned as follows. They’re hungry. They’ll die of starvation if they remain outside of the city. If they break the rules and go inside of the city, then they’ll die of starvation there, since that’s where the famine is. So how about going to the camp of the Syrians and surrendering to them? The Syrians may accept their surrender and give them food. Or the Syrians could kill them. But at least the Syrians have food! There’s a chance that the lepers will get fed in the Syrian camp. So what do they have to lose?
God causes the Syrians to flee from their camp, by causing a noise. The Syrians conclude that the Israelites must have hired the kings of the Hittites or the kings of Egypt to fight against them, and so the Syrians run away. Now, there’s a Syrian camp that is empty of Syrian soldiers, and yet it is replete with food, precious metals, clothing, etc. The lepers arrive at the camp, thinking that they’ll have to beg for food, but instead they find that food is there for the taking!
As the lepers enjoy the food in the Syrian camp, they conclude that they’re not doing the right thing: they’re enjoying all this food, when there’s a famine in the city of Samaria. They fear that they will find avon—iniquity or punishment—were they to remain silent about the food that they found. And so they go to the gate of the city (since they still can’t enter it, as lepers) and cry out that they have found food.
The king of Israel is initially skeptical, for he thinks that the Syrians are setting up a trap. The king of Israel has a particular scenario in mind: the Israelites will go to the Syrian camp to eat food, and the Syrians will come out of hiding, capture the Israelites, and take the city of Samaria. And so the king sends a few chariots to check out the camp.
But is this a wise plan? Didn’t the king consider that the Israelite soldiers in the chariots could check out the camp, find that the Syrians aren’t there, bring the Israelites to the camp, and then the Syrians would come out of hiding and do their dirty work? The king may have assumed that the soldiers were astute enough to determine if the Syrians were nearby. Or perhaps the king, like the lepers, had a “What is there to lose?” attitude. Here was a chance for Northern Israel to get food. Maybe the Israelites will die trying, but they’ll die if they do not try, so why not try?
But the Syrians really have fled, and so the Israelites rush to plunder the camp. The advisor, who scoffed at Elisha’s prophecy, gets trampled and dies in the onrush. And the famine is at an end. Not only do the Northern Israelites possess the wealth of the Syrian camp, but the Syrians are no longer besieging Samaria, blocking traders from entering the city. The Israelites now have access to food.
I have to admire the lepers in this story. Here were people who may have been punished by God for some sin, since leprosy could be a divine punishment in the Hebrew Bible. A trespass offering was part of the ritual that occurred when the leper was cleansed and about to re-enter society (Leviticus 14:12-14), perhaps indicating that the leper brought the disease on himself through some sin. And God struck Miriam with leprosy because she spoke against Moses (Numbers 12).
These people may have been punished by God, and they are definitely outcasts from Israelite society. But they feel compelled to share with all of Israel the food that they’ve found, rather than hogging it up for themselves. They could have chosen to be bitter against God and Israelite society, saying that God can kill them, as far as they care, as long as they go down full and happy. And, as far as the Israelites are concerned, who cares? Let them starve!
But the lepers don’t take this attitude: they choose to share. Part of their motivation is a sense that hogging up the food in a time of famine is not right. Part of it is that they fear God: they may have leprosy, but they still want to live, and so they won’t anger God further by keeping the food for themselves. But I’d like to think that another part of their motivation was that they didn’t allow themselves to be consumed with bitterness, even as their flesh on their bodies was rotting. Sure, they didn’t like their leprosy, but that’s the way their lives were at that point. They’d might as well accept reality! There was no point to snubbing the society who rejected them, or to angering further the God who may have been punishing them. They were where they were, and so they might as well work within those parameters!
I can see a parallel between this story and my Asperger’s. I dislike being an outsider. And there are plenty of times when I hate God because of my Asperger’s. And yet, I have what I have. I need to learn how to work within my situation, which, in this case, is who I am. I’m tempted to resent the communities that have snubbed me, and yet, they are people too! They have their needs. And, if this doesn’t warm my hearts towards them and motivate me to show them love, then I can fall back on the will of God, as the lepers did: God wants me to love them, to be concerned about their well-being as fellow members of the human race.
Then there are times when I should take an approach of “What do I have to lose?”, as the lepers did. I apply this to social risks: being friendly to people even if they reject me, asking a young lady out, etc. The only problem here is that there are pay-offs to being a loner: I can avoid hurt and pain. The lepers got to the point where they realized that there was no pay-off to them sitting around all day, doing nothing. If there was a chance that they could get food, then they’d might as well take it, even if they were to die trying!
Moreover, I shouldn’t put limits on God, which is what the king’s advisor did. I may feel that I will never find happiness, or enjoy the blessings that others do. But there are plenty of things that God can do—and, as we see in this chapter, God can act in ways that we don’t anticipate. God can bless a city that appears hopeless. And he can bless those on the margins of society, who feel cut off from God and their fellow human beings. I may feel discouraged, but I should never say never!