Now Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. Before the messenger arrived, Elisha said to the elders, ‘Are you aware that this murderer has sent someone to take off my head? When the messenger comes, see that you shut the door and hold it closed against him. Is not the sound of his master’s feet behind him?’ While he was still speaking with them, the king came down to him and said, ‘This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I hope in the Lord any longer?’ But Elisha said, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a measure of choice meal shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.’ Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, ‘Even if the Lord were to make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?’ But he said, ‘You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat from it.’...
...Then the people went out, and plundered the camp of the Arameans. So a measure of choice meal was sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord. Now the king had appointed the captain on whose hand he leaned to have charge of the gate; the people trampled him to death in the gate, just as the man of God had said when the king came down to him. For when the man of God had said to the king, ‘Two measures of barley shall be sold for a shekel, and a measure of choice meal for a shekel, about this time tomorrow in the gate of Samaria’, the captain had answered the man of God, ‘Even if the Lord were to make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?’ And he had answered, ‘You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat from it.’ It did indeed happen to him; the people trampled him to death in the gate.
Here we pick up the story of Samaria under siege by Aram to such a severe extent that basic commodities are selling at extortionate prices and the population has turned to cannibalism. Israel’s king attributes the situation to God and issues a death sentence against Elisha.
Confronted by the king and his attendant Elisha prophesies that God will make food available at normal prices the next day. The attendant isn’t convinced but the king apparently gives Elisha a stay of execution. Elisha declares that the attendant will witness the prophecy’s fulfilment but not eat the food.
The story digresses to tell of some lepers who discover that the Arameans have abandoned their camp and thus the siege (apparently because they imagined they were under attack from some allies of Israel); and they return to Samaria to report this. The king thinks it is a trap to lure them out of the city to their death; but is persuaded that there is nothing to lose by sending out a couple of scouts. They return with news that it is true and the population of Samaria rush out to plunder everything the Arameans left behind.
There is food available for sale again; and the attendant is trampled to death as the starving Israelites stampede to obtain it – Elisha’s words are fulfilled.
This story isn’t very edifying even though it basically tells of God’s power to save Israel and to satisfy hunger. It reveals some of humanity’s baser inclinations and even Elisha only seems to be spurred into action by a desire for self-preservation. It should remind us that war brings terrible consequences on populations; and of the horrible things we become capable of when a situation becomes desperate.
May we do all in our power to prevent such horrors from being inaugurated.
Gracious God, you provide food sufficient to sustain all peoples and yet we have learned to withhold it as a way of exerting power over others. Forgive us.
We pray for all who will go hungry today, because of poor harvests, as a consequence of disaster, conflict or poverty, or through the inhumanity of others.
May we strive to satisfy their need and to alleviate its causes, in Christ’s name, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.