Melakhim Bet Chapter 6
Elisha’s students find that their lodgings do not provide sufficient living space. He instructs them to move to a new area and build a dwelling for themselves; one of them insists that he accompany them, and he agrees. While they are cutting down trees, the axe-head of one of the disciples falls into the Jordan River and disappears; he is very distraught because he had borrowed it from someone else. Elisha throws a stick into the water and the axe-head floats to the top, at which time he tells the student to retrieve it.
The King of Aram is continually attempting to attack Israel, but his designs are thwarted because Elisha regularly informs the King of Israel of the enemy’s plans in advance. The King of Aram decides to focus on apprehending and killing Elisha so that the King of Israel loses his greatest defensive asset. Elisha and his servant wake up in the morning in Dotan to discover a vast array of chariots and soldiers encamped about the city to seize them, and the servant is afraid. Elisha reassures his attendant that they have a greater army on their side than does Aram, and prays to Hashem to open the young boy’s eyes so he can perceive the heavenly horses and chariots of fire that encircle Elisha like a protective wall.
When the troops of Aram descend to arrest Elisha, he prays to Hashem to strike them with blindness and then convinces them that they have come to the wrong address. The prophet guides the soldiers of Aram to Shomron where he stands them before the King of Israel and then restores their vision. The King of Israel, seeing the enemy forces vulnerable and within his grasp, asks Elisha if he should strike them down. Elisha responds that they should be treated not as combatants but as captives, and therefore should be provided with ample food and drink. The men of Aram partake of bread and water offered to them in Shomron and then return to their country. The border incursions from Aram cease from this point on.
Ben-Haddad, King of Aram lays siege to Shomron for three years and there is a severe and crippling famine in Israel (there is much discussion in the commentaries of how this war broke out in light of the “peace” that seemed to be achieved in the previous paragraph). Even normally inedible items like donkey’s heads and dung are exorbitantly priced because they are the only sustenance the population has available. One day, the King of Israel is walking along the wall of the city when a woman calls out to him for help. At first, he dismisses her plea, since he is not in a position to help anyone, but then he invites her to share her story.
The woman recounts how she and a neighbor had entered into a gruesome agreement: they would cook and consume her child for dinner to save themselves from starvation and, when they were again hungry, they would cook and consume the neighbor’s child. They had already eaten this woman’s child but her neighbor now refused to honor her end of the deal! The King is so terrified and moved by the depths of depravity to which the suffering has brought his people that he tears his garment, revealing sackcloth underneath – a sign that he has been praying and repenting, hoping for God to improve their situation.
However, the King’s moment of sadness quickly translates into anger. He declares his intention to execute Elisha for having allowed this horrific ordeal to befall the people, and he sends a messenger to seize the prophet. Meanwhile, Elisha is sitting in his house and conversing with the elders of Israel when he receives a prophetic message that, in his words, “this son of a murderer [Yehoram, son of Ahav]” has come to kill him – a messenger will soon arrive with the king far long behind him. Elisha instructs the elders to shut the door and keep it closed; when the messenger finally does arrive, he is followed by the king who speaks to Elisha (apparently, at least initially, from behind the door) and bemoans the evil that has been visited upon Israel, asking how much longer the Jewish people must wait for deliverance from the Almighty.
There is a great deal to comment on in this chapter. Let us highlight just a few of its interesting elements. The Rabbis observe that it is only after the “removal” of Gehazi that the number of disciples of Elisha becomes too large for their accommodations. Apparently, Gehazi’s negative influence and perhaps his policies of exclusion prevented those who sought to learn from Elisha from gaining access to him. The absence of Gehazi allows for a positive change of dynamic in the “academy” of Elisha.
The whole episode, however, reveals to us how fundamentally different Elisha is from his teacher, Eliyahu. Eliyahu was a loner who spent most of his time in solitude; the majority of his interactions with others are prompted by necessity. Elisha, by contrast, is intimately involved with other people; he lives with his students, eats with them and builds houses with them. As we have seen from the very outset, Elisha’s conception of the role of the prophet is of a teacher and mentor who lives among the people, shares their burdens and advocates for their welfare.
The story of the army of Aram also emphasizes this quality of Elisha. He serves as an asset to the King of Israel, providing him with “inside intelligence” that safeguards and promotes the interests of Israel. When the troops descend upon Elisha, he allows his worried attendant to perceive the chariots and horses of fire that surround and protect them. Undoubtedly, these chariots of fire are the same ones that Elisha saw carry Eliyahu away to heaven, and that inspired him to refer to Eliyahu as the “chariot of Israel”.
Elisha called Eliyahu the chariot of Israel because, like a military chariot that provides safety and security to its nation through physical strength, Eliyahu protected his nation through spiritual strength, in the merit of his relationship with Hashem. Elisha, who will also be dubbed “chariot of Israel” when he passes away, enables his servant to see that he, too, is a vehicle of divine providence and protection for Israel, and that they have nothing to fear from the threat looming over them. However, perhaps unlike Eliyahu, Elisha seems to embrace his role in a more positive spirit than did his mentor.
Just as Elisha asks Hashem to endow his attendant with special “vision” so that he can perceive the invisible, spiritual activity occurring behind the scenes, so too does he ask Hashem remove vision from the army of Aram that attempts to besiege him. Many of the commentaries explain this not as a physiological blindness but as a state of confusion that descended upon them and confounded them. When he has finally guided them to Shomron their clarity of perception returns and they must have rightfully feared for their lives.
Rather than allow the King of Israel to take advantage of the vulnerability of his enemies, however, Elisha directs the King to follow his path of compassion and mercy, offering them food and drink, and then send them home. Just as with the healing of Naaman, Elisha places the highest value on the sanctification of Hashem’s name through manifesting His infinite kindness to all of his creatures. And, indeed, this approach was successful in fostering a state of peace and tranquility between Aram and Israel, at least for some time afterward.
There is much discussion in the modern commentaries about the identity of the King of Israel (who is never named) in this story, since the one that follows seems clearly to refer to Yehoram, son of Ahav. Many contemporary writers find it difficult to accept that the wicked Yehoram would show such deference to Elisha, calling him “my father” and heeding his instructions so carefully when given the opportunity to strike the army of Aram.
For this and several other reasons, they suggest that this episode took place during the period of one of the later kings who enjoyed a closer and more cooperative relationship with Elisha, and that it is included here out of chronological order because it fits the theme of this catalogue of the deeds of Elisha. Proponents of this view offer a number of persuasive arguments to support it.
Nevertheless, we will follow the opinion of our Sages that these stories all describe Yehoram, son of Ahav. Throughout his career, we see that he had a complicated and ambivalent attitude toward Elisha, sometimes ignoring him, sometimes seeking him, sometimes rejecting him. And in all the stories about him (whether he is named or not) he has a signature style of operation; he tends to react first, and only think later. For instance, when contacted by the King of Aram about Naaman’s illness, his first response is to panic, and he is not able to regain his composure until Elisha reaches out to him. Similarly, when the army of Aram arrives in Shomron, his initial thought is to kill them until Elisha steps in. We see this again when he runs to execute Elisha for his purported role in the famine but then backtracks and humbly requests his guidance.
This pattern of behavior strongly supports the traditional view that the King of Israel in all of these stories is Yehoram who, like his father Ahav, was a complicated personality. Indeed, we can see why he is regarded as a substantial improvement over his father in terms of his principles, policies and relationship with Hashem; then again, it seems that Elisha’s influence had much to do with that as well.
It is quite conceivable that when Elisha brought nothing but blessing to the king, he was willing to heed his directives, and that, when famine decimated the population, the King held Elisha responsible and vented anger toward him. In this way, the appellation “my father” is quite apt – Elisha was a sort of father figure to the people and to the king, dealing kindly and generously with them, helping them, yet never compromising on or apologizing for the high moral standards by which Hashem judged and punished them.
In the story of the famine itself, we see the inner conflict of the king as well. Distraught over the plight of his nation, he has been wearing sackcloth and probably praying and fasting, hoping for deliverance from God. This reflects positively on his capacity for self-reflection and introspection. He takes responsibility for the situation and recognizes its divine origin.Yet, when he is pushed over the edge by the tragic tale of the two desperate women plotting to consume their children, he is filled with rage and blames the prophet for the terrible state of affairs. This shows us a side of his character that is less noble and more immature. However, despite the aggressive intentions he articulates and Elisha’s labeling him “son of a murderer”, when he reaches the prophet, we again see humility and desperation, not violence. We will consider Elisha’s response to Yehoram in the chapter ahead.