For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 8 – 2 Kings 4:42-44 (Related)
It’s easy to see how this OT passage fits with today’s Gospel. But what was the passage about in its original setting – that’s the key question of exegesis or interpretation for any text. A mantra which I try to drum into my students’ heads is: ‘A passage cannot mean anything that the original author would not have expected the original readers/hearers to understand by it’. Whilst this rather knocks on the head most of the OT readings we have around Christmas and Easter, it is nevertheless a sound principle of interpretation. So let’s put Elisha back in his context. What is this text actually about?
Zooming out as far as we can, we see Elisha and his predecessor Elijah as engaged in the battle for the spirit of the nation, trying to keep the people faithful to Yahweh rather than worshipping the Canaanite deity Baal. But the two prophets handle this challenge in two very different ways. Both are miracle workers, but while Elijah’s are huge and dramatic (bringing drought, calling down fire from heaven …) Elisha’s are more domestic and individual in their focus. But they all have the same purpose: to demonstrate the powerlessness of Baal compared to Yahweh.
Now let’s zoom in to this chapter, which contains five of Elisha’s miracles, all around the theme of need and supply. Just as Elijah confronts Baal who is supposed to provide rain, so here Elisha confronts Baal whose job is to supply all our human needs, including fertility as well as food. The final miracle, which ends the chapter and provides our passage for today, is merely the last in a series of linked stories.
So what’s important about this story? First, note where the bread donor comes from – Baal Shalisha. We’re not entirely certain where this is, but the name suggests a centre of Baal worship, perhaps in Ephraim, to the north west of Jerusalem. If that’s true, it is encouraging that even in a place of pagan worship, there is at least one faithful man who recognises Yahweh and his prophet, and wants to do something practical to help. Perhaps this is reminiscent of Elijah’s faithful remnant who have not worshipped Baal.
It isn’t clear in v.43 who exactly ‘his servant’ is. The narrative looks as though Elisha is holding a conversation with the man who brought the loaves, but it may be that the command to give them to the people is addressed to a different man, who acted as servant to him, just as Gehazi had for Elijah. But whoever it was, he provided a stark contrast with Elisha in his lack of faith and vision, just as Philip did in today’s Gospel.
It’s understandable, of course, to doubt when you look at the meagre resources on offer, that fear might set in. But while the servant could only see lack and shortage, the man of God could see plenty, more than enough in fact, as the motif (also in the Gospel story) of having leftovers demonstrates. As I write many supermarket shelves are empty due to the pinging of people in the supply chain. It is easy for a faithless nation to resort to individual hoarding as in the scenes at the start of the pandemic. But Elisha sees in the gift of the man a miracle on its way.
The story challenges us with this contrast between doubt and faith, and the deeper question lying in the background: in whom do we put our faith and hope? As Christians living in a nation of consumerism and greed, what gifts are we bringing to the people of God and his Church, and how are we seeing God use them miraculously to feed many? In a time of national hardship and fear, how are we living differently? How is our faith in God showing itself in our attitudes and actions. This is the kind of counter-cultural living to which we are all called.
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