Summer 2017

Religion and Spirituality

The Law, the Prophets and the Writings, Part 21

Is There No God in Israel?

David Hulme

As we begin the book of 2 Kings, we see that ancient Israel’s divided monarchy is, with few exceptions, a study in idolatry.

Parallels between two prophets and between several monarchs in both Israel and Judah feature in the first part of the book of 2 Kings. Elijah and Elisha, once mentor and assistant, become predecessor and successor. The reign of the evil monarch Ahab in the northern kingdom of Israel is followed first by that of his wicked son Ahaziah and then of his other son, Jehoram (or Joram). In the south, the impact of Ahab’s wicked house will also be felt. Despite the prophets’ work and warnings, the steady decline of the northern kingdom will ultimately terminate in the 10 tribes’ removal and captivity in Assyria (2 Kings 17).

The prevailing theme of 2 Kings is God’s waning influence and the continuing idolatry of leaders and people. Covering about 300 years, the book opens with a reference to the rebellion of neighboring Moab—a sign of the northern kingdom’s growing weakness.

In an inset passage, we learn that Ahaziah’s reign ended because of an accident (2 Kings 1:2–6). Having fallen from a window in his palace in Samaria, he sent his servants to appeal to the pagan god of Ekron, Baal-Zebub, to know whether he would recover. Elijah heard of this via an angel and was directed to ask Ahaziah’s emissaries the question that reverberates through the early chapters: “Is it because there is no god in Israel?” Elijah told the servants that the king would die from his injuries.

When they passed on the prophet’s words to Ahaziah, he asked if the messenger was a man fitting Elijah’s description. The king then sent a captain and 50 men to ask “the man of God” to come to the court. Elijah saw through the request and called down fire on them. The king sent two more squads of 50. The first met the same fate, but God instructed Elijah to go with the second troop to the king. There he confirmed that Ahaziah would die because of his appeal to the god of Ekron. Like others before him, the king had dedicated himself to idolatry and to following Baal: “He did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin; for he served Baal and worshiped him, and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger, according to all that his father had done” (1 Kings 22:52–53). Ahaziah’s death soon followed, and because he had no heir, his brother Joram succeeded him (2 Kings 3:1–3).

When the time came for Elijah to relinquish his role as leading prophet and make way for Elisha (2 Kings 2:1), God would accomplish the separation by removing Elijah from the scene by means of a whirlwind and a fiery chariot. This event is often assumed to mean that the prophet was taken to heaven and given eternal life. There are several problems with this idea, not least of which is the fact that Elijah sent a letter several years later to Jehoram, the son of Judah’s king Jehoshaphat and husband of Athaliah of the house of Ahab, pointing out that Jehoram’s errors were equivalent to the sins of his wife’s family in the northern kingdom (see 2 Chronicles 21:12–15). Further, the fact that Elijah’s servants asked Elisha for permission to search the land following the prophet’s disappearance shows that there was no thought or anticipation on their part of his transfer to heaven (2 Kings 2:16–17).

The mantle of Elijah and a double portion of his spirit had fallen on Elisha as the chariot took him away, both symbolic of his new role as leading prophet (verses 9–10, 13). And here we see the first of several parallels between the two men of God. Elisha took the mantle and struck the Jordan River (verse 14) as Elijah had done earlier (verse 8), and as before the waters parted to allow passage.

Elisha the prophet is a ‘man of God’ who works on behalf of the nation of Israel. His unique call and relationship with the prophet Elijah sets the stage for a fruitful ministry.”

Amy Balogh, “Elisha the Prophet” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary

Near Jericho he was met by the local sons of the prophets, who recognized that “the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (verse 15). The people of the city told Elisha about the poor quality of the water there. Throwing salt into the spring, Elisha pronounced that God had healed the waters (verses 19–22).

When he continued his journey toward Bethel, a group of youngsters came out and mocked him. Elisha understood that God requires His servants be respected, so he called on God to deal with them. Two female bears came out of the woods and mauled the insulters (verses 23–24).

Kings, Prophets and Miracles

When Joram came to power in the northern kingdom, the neighboring king of Moab decided no longer to pay tribute to Israel (3:4–5). Allying with the kings of Judah and Edom, the Israelite king embarked on a military campaign against Moab. When they arrived in the wilderness of Edom and found themselves short of water, Jehoshaphat of Judah asked if there was a prophet they could consult. Learning that Elisha was nearby, the three kings went to see him. The upshot was that despite Elisha’s disgust with the king of Israel, his appreciation for Jehoshaphat caused him to ask for God’s help with their need for water. Water came miraculously the next morning, though there was no rain cloud to be seen. Confused by the early-morning sun’s blood-red reflection on the water, the Moabites thought the allies had turned on each other, but they were put to flight and defeated (verses 6–27).

In chapter 4 we read that a prophet’s widow needed help with an immediate financial problem. Elisha was again instrumental in a miracle (4:1–7): the contents of her single jar of oil lasted until she had no more containers into which to pour it and make it available for sale so she could pay her debts. This is reminiscent of Elijah’s help for the widow at Zarephath, where a small supply of oil and flour did not give out until a famine was over (1 Kings 17:8–16). When that woman’s son died, Elijah asked God to revive him (verses 17–24). This is echoed in Elisha’s raising of the deceased son of a Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32–37).

The confirming of Elisha as a prophet in the tradition of Elijah continued with the cleansing of a poisoned pot of stew (verses 38–41), the miraculous feeding of 100 men from a small amount of food (verses 42–44), the floating of an iron ax-head that had fallen into the Jordan River (6:1–7) and the healing of Naaman, a Syrian commander with leprosy (5:1–14). Notably, this stranger to Israel recognized what so many Israelites did not. After his recovery he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel” (verse 15).

The Miracle of the Floating Axe by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, washed pen on paper (ca. 1653)

The reality of the protective spirit world surrounding God’s servants is brought home in an incident involving one of Elisha’s helpers. Faced with a Syrian attempt to take the prophet captive, the fearful servant came to Elisha: “Alas my master! What shall we do?” Elisha’s reply was consistent with his experience of the reality of God. He replied, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (6:15–16). He then prayed for the young man’s eyes to be opened to their protection. What he saw was “the mountain . . . full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (verse 17). The Syrians were temporarily blinded and led by Elisha to Samaria, where their sight was restored and they were fed and set free.

Prophecies made about the house of Ahab did not all come to fulfillment before his death. Elijah had come to him with God’s message after the murder of Naboth and Ahab’s theft of his vineyard through Jezebel’s complicity. God had said that Ahab would die, that his line and household would be extinguished, and that Jezebel would perish shamefully (1 Kings 21:17–24). But the king’s immediate humble response had caused God to stay the outcome for a few years. Three years later, Ahab died in battle. Then during Elisha’s time, the end came for Ahab’s line and for Jezebel. Choosing one of the younger prophets to anoint Israel’s next king, Elisha sent him with a message to Jehu, commander of Joram’s armies: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I have anointed you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. You shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel’” (2 Kings 9:6–7). Telling his companions what had happened and receiving their support, Jehu went to meet the king, who had been wounded fighting the Syrians. Joram was recovering at Jezreel, where the king of Judah, Ahaziah (not to be confused with the previous king of Israel by the same name), had also come to visit him. Ominously, they all met at the nearby vineyard of Naboth. There Jehu killed the king with a single arrow and Ahaziah fled, only to lose his life in the same way at Megiddo (verses 21–27).

When Jehu entered Jezreel, he caught sight of Jezebel at an upper window. He ordered that she be thrown down, which her servants did, killing her outright. Later that day Jehu sent to have her body buried, but little remained after the dogs had found her. This fulfilled the prophecy that Elijah had spoken: “On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel” (verse 36).

Jehu went on to order the killing of Ahab’s 70 young descendants, plus leaders, friends and priests; 42 brothers of Ahaziah of Judah; the remaining associates of Ahab in Samaria; and all Baal worshipers, their priests and their temple (chapter 10). However, though Jehu ruled for 28 years, he failed to eradicate the idolatrous practices of Jeroboam and left his golden calves intact; he “took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart; for he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, who had made Israel sin” (verse 31).

Syria began taking territory from Israel in these years, including those parts of Israel east of the Jordan that belonged to Gad, Reuben and Manasseh (verses 32–33). But because of his willingness to fulfill the prophecies against Ahab and Jezebel, Jehu was allowed to have four generations of descendants rule in Israel.

The Queen of Judah

The effect of Jehu’s killing of Ahaziah was that his mother, Athaliah, murdered all the royal heirs in Judah except one, Joash, who was hidden from her by his aunt, Jehosheba, in the temple. Seizing power for herself, Athaliah ruled Judah for six years. While there is some potential confusion about her identity—daughter of Omri (8:26, as translated in the King James Version and others), or daughter of Ahab (verse 18; 2 Chronicles 21:6)—it makes most sense chronologically that she was Omri’s child and Ahab’s sister (the Hebrew word can be translated in a number of ways).

No textual error needs to be assumed in 2 Kings 8:18. . . . The most likely meaning of the biblical phrase is ‘. . . for it is from the House of Ahab that his wife descended.’”

Winfried Thiel, “Athaliah (Person)” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary

That she had tried to establish a monarchy in Judah like that of Ahab in Israel is a reasonable assumption. Her earlier influence on her husband Jehoram of Judah is clear: “He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, just as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter [sister] of Ahab was his wife; and he did evil in the sight of the Lord” (verse 18). It was the same with her son, Ahaziah: “His mother’s name was Athaliah the granddaughter [or “daughter,” KJV] of Omri. He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, for his mother advised him to do wickedly. Therefore he did evil in the sight of the Lord, like the house of Ahab; for they were his counselors after the death of his father, to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 22:2–4). The reach of Ahab’s wickedness was clearly extensive—to the point that under Athaliah, Baal worship was encouraged in Judah (2 Chronicles 24:7).

In the seventh year of Athaliah’s reign, the high priest Jehoiada (Jehosheba’s husband) declared Joash king and had the queen executed (2 Kings 11:10–16). Joash proved to be a good king who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days in which Jehoiada the priest instructed him” (12:2). Though idolatry was not completely eradicated, Joash did restore the temple. But his fear of the Syrian king, Hazael, led him to give away all the gold kept in the temple treasury and the king’s house (verses 17–18). After being on the throne for 40 years, Joash was assassinated by two of his servants and succeeded by his son, Amaziah.

In the north, King Jehu had died during Joash’s lengthy reign in Judah and been succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz (13:1). Despite God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf to counter Syrian aggression, the northern tribes continued in the idolatrous ways of Jeroboam. After 17 years, Jehoash succeeded to the throne, only to perpetuate his father’s errors for a further 16 years (verses 10–11).

It was during Jehoash’s rule in Israel that Elisha became terminally ill. Visited by the king, Elisha gave him a warning of what would happen to the northern kingdom at the hand of the Syrians. He instructed the king to take an arrow and shoot it toward Syria through an open window, telling him that he must fight against the Syrians until he overcame them. Next the king had to strike his remaining arrows on the ground. He did so three times and stopped. Elisha was angry that he had not struck five or six times, telling the king that he would successfully strike Syria three times but would fail to defeat them. This was fulfilled in Jehoash’s threefold recapture of Israel’s cities (verse 25).

Elisha’s death soon followed. His burial place was later the site of a final miracle, when a dead man revived after his body touched the prophet’s bones (verses 14–21).

The careers of Elijah and Elisha have come to an end and several other prophets are to come on the scene as Israel and Judah, with few exceptions, continue their downward slide. Next time, several of the so-called minor prophets enter the picture.