Melakhim Bet Chapter 13
Yehoahaz, son of Yehu, rules over Israel in Shomron. During his reign, the Jews are heavily oppressed by Aram at the hands of Hazael and his son, Ben-Haddad. Yehoahaz prays to Hashem and is granted some measure of deliverance from Aram, but the kingdom remains in a clearly inferior and fragile state, with minimal military infrastructure intact (it has mostly been decimated by the enemy).
Yehoahaz does not improve the religious condition of his people, allowing the sanctuaries of Yarovam to continue functioning and also permitting an Ashera remain standing in the capital. Yehoahaz dies and his son, Yehoash, assumes leadership, essentially following the same path as his father.
Elisha becomes ill and is on his deathbed. He is visited by Yehoash, the King of Israel, who weeps and calls the prophet “my father, chariot of Israel and its horsemen.” Elisha tells Yehoash to take a bow and arrows and to place his hand upon the bow and open the eastern window. The prophet places his hand upon that of the king and instructs him to shoot; this, Elisha says, symbolizes the prediction that Hashem’s “arrow of victory” will smite Aram.
Elisha then directs Yehoash to take the arrows and hit the ground with them; Yehoash strikes the ground three times. The prophet is upset and criticizes the king for not hitting the ground five or six times; now, he declares, Israel will only defeat Aram three times on the battlefield.
Elisha dies and is buried. One day, a group of Jews near the location of Elisha’s grave were interring their own relative, when a raiding band of Moabites approached them. Fearing a conflict, the Jews cast the body of their family member into the cave wherein Elisha was buried and flee. When the corpse touches the bones of Elisha, it is revived, and the formerly dead man stands up and emerges from the cave.
Hazael oppresses the Jewish people harshly all the days of Yehoahaz. Nonetheless, Hashem’s compassion for Israel prevents Aram from destroying them. When Hazael dies, his son Ben-Haddad reigns in his stead. Yehoash, son of Yehoahaz, takes advantage of the relative weakness of Ben-Haddad to conduct several successful military operations against Aram, recapturing many of the cities of Israel that had been taken from his father by Hazael over the course of their many battles.
There is a great deal to comment upon in this chapter. Let us focus, however, on the final episode in the life of Elisha, the remarkable prophet who served Israel for a span of sixty years – the longest prophetic career in our history! King Yehoash refers to Elisha with the same appellation that Elisha himself used for Eliyahu on the occasion of his mysterious departure – “my father, my father, chariot of Israel and its horsemen”.
Hearing Elisha declare this about his mentor, recognizing the role of Eliyahu in providing security and protection to the Jewish people, is not surprising. However, hearing the King of Israel acknowledge Elisha as his teacher and as the source of merit protecting the nation is truly remarkable. Without a doubt, Elisha had earned the respect, admiration and reverence of the political establishment of Israel despite the prophet’s implicit opposition to the values and policies of the regime. He successfully endeared himself to the same government that resisted and even spurned his predecessor.
Elisha conveys two messages to Yehoash before he passes away, and each one is communicated through a symbolic action that involves the king himself. There is much discussion about the nature of the prophetic message here and the role that the physical dramatization is supposed to play in the situation. For example, why does Yehoash’s striking of the ground three times necessarily mean that he will only strike Aram three times?
A closer examination of the interaction between the prophet and the king may help us discover the answer. Yehoash’s visit and his demonstration of deference to Elisha reflect his respect for the prophet but also reveal his insecurity – he fears that, with the loss of Elisha will come the loss of Divine providence in Israel. Elisha’s order for the king to shoot an arrow eastward while he himself places his hands on those of the king is a symbolic message that the merit of the prophet will continue to exercise an influence and assist the king in his battles against Aram.
The fact that Yehoash accepts the superiority of the prophet and embraces his guidance, and will therefore understand his victories as Divinely ordained and not the result of human might, entitles him to succeed against his enemies. The first prophecy, embodied by the arrow flying toward Aram, symbolizes the idea that Hashem will enable Israel to triumph over its persecutors.
In the second scene, however, Elisha instructs Yehoash to act alone, striking the arrows against the ground. Without Elisha’s hands involved, Yehoash is weaker, more reticent, and more reserved. This is a signal that, after the passing of the prophet, Yehoash will not have internalized the strength, conviction and courage necessary to inflict any lasting damage on Aram; he will succeed, at the most, in delivering his people from the oppression that has been debilitating them. Elisha is disappointed to see that Yehoash is too weak to carry the inspiration of the prophet within his soul; the physical departure of Elisha will rob the king of much of his strength as a leader.
Finally, let us consider the posthumous miracle of Elisha. It is noteworthy that there is a dispute among the commentators whether the man that was revived after his body was cast into Elisha’s tomb actually went on to live a productive life or whether he died again soon after. Either way, the Rabbis comment that Elisha’s revival of a corpse after his own death was a fulfillment of the promise that he would have a double portion of Eliyahu’s spirit; Eliyahu resurrected one person, while Elisha was responsible for two such miracles.
However, we must wonder what function this unusual deed serves – why did Hashem revive a dead man simply because his body came into contact with the bones of Elisha?
Some thinkers have suggested that this miracle was a sign of respect for the prophet and all that he stood for during his lengthy career. All his life, Elisha had done his best to show compassion and support for Israel and to defend the nation against its enemies. The scene of a band of marauding Moabites interfering with the funeral of an innocent Jewish man would have certainly disturbed Elisha had he witnessed it. He would have intervened to ensure that the Jew received a proper interment in his family burial plot rather than being an unwitting victim of the terrorism of Moab and being abandoned in a random cave.
Moreover, we can imagine that the emergence of a “ghost”, a newly risen dead man from the grave, would have scared and intimidated the Moabites who, witnessing this spectacle, were probably hesitant to conduct further border incursions into Israel in the future. So, as defender of Israel and thwarter of those who wished them harm, Elisha was granted one last opportunity to make a difference.
We can suggest an even simpler possibility that is consistent with our comments on the interaction between Elisha and Yehoash; namely, the miracle demonstrated the lingering effects of the prophet’s influence. Even after death, his memory, his teachings and his presence can be felt and can be a source of strength and guidance to the living. Contrary to Yehoash’s impressions, Elisha’s death did not have to mean the end of his role in protecting and assisting the nation of Israel, if only the community would continue to contemplate and revere his message.