Old Testament Lectionary 26th July Trinity 8 2 Kings 4:42-44
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
This small and relatively unknown periscope has obviously been chosen to tie in with Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in today’s gospel. It is a simple story, but hidden within it are two larger questions: just who is God, and who is his prophet?
This incident is the fourth miracle story since Elisha has taken over from Elijah as the ‘man of God’, and they function to prove his worthiness for the task. Even at the very start of his ministry Elisha seems to want to prove his worth: in 2 Kings 2:13 he takes Elijah’s cloak and throws down the challenge: ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ the resulting division of the water confirmed that God was indeed with him and that Elijah’s mantle had literally fallen upon him. Then follow a series of miracles which validate this position, although they do seem to be of a different nature from Elijah’s: we might best describe them as being more domestic, although no less powerful. Raising from the dead is no mean trick.
But it may be that we have a continuation in this story of another of Elijah’s miracles. It all hangs on the place from which the man comes to Elisha: Baal-Shalisha. It has been suggested that this town is to be identified with Bethlehem, which literally means ‘House of Bread’, the place from which David came, and in which the Messiah was later to be born. Bethlehem is indeed a place from which God feeds his people. But the name ‘Baal’ also suggests a place where a particular god had a temple or shrine in Canaanite worship. ‘Shalisha’ means ‘three’ or ‘third’, so this place is where the Lord or master over three was worshipped. Elijah’s clashes with the prophets of Baal are well-known and dramatic, but we might expect Elisha’s to be tamer although just as powerful. It would be typical of both prophets for Elijah to summon fire from heaven, but for Elisha to feed hungry people. So it may be the case that what we have here is a much more subdued ‘Mount Carmel-type’ contest to find out who is the real god. Does the bread come from Yahweh’s House of Bread, or from Baal’s Shalisha? And can Elisha, still proving himself as Elijah’s successor, win the contest in his own style?
Elijah has his enemies put to the sword, but Elisha instead brings life as the bread is used to feed starving people in a time of famine. In the gospels the miraculous feedings have a different point, as they demonstrate the authority of Jesus not just over sin and sickness but over fallen and hostile nature itself. Linked as it is to the stilling of the storm, it serves to reveal even more about who this Jesus is, and what authority he has. Perhaps this story of Elisha serves a similar purpose.