Melakhim Bet Chapter 7
Elisha tells the King that by the next day there will be a radical reversal in the economic situation, with such an enormous surplus of food in Israel that the prices will plummet, providing sustenance for all. One of the captains of the Kings army who is also his attendant scoffs at this prediction, questioning Hashem’s ability to fulfill it. Elisha tells him that it will indeed happen but that he will not live to enjoy it.
Four men with tzaraat (leprosy) have been confined outside the city and are suffering from the famine as well. They decide that they have nothing to lose and might as well approach the Aramean camp in hope of winning their sympathy and receiving some food. When they arrive, they discover that the entire outpost has been abandoned; food, clothing and other provisions are strewn everywhere. Hashem had caused the army of Aram to hear the sounds of a vast array of chariots and troops approaching and, in their panic, they fled, leaving their possessions behind. (No doubt, these mysterious “chariots” are related to the chariots of fire that surrounded Elisha, signifying his role as protector of Israel!)
At first, the men with tzaraat begin to help themselves to the food, clothing gold, silver and other precious items they have found. However, they realize that they are acting selfishly and must inform the King of their discovery for the benefit of the nation. When the king hears their report, he is skeptical at first, assuming it may be a trap set by the Arameans who know they are hungry and will wait for the Jews to forage in the camp and then ambush them.
The King sends a search party out and once the report has been confirmed, the entire populace descends upon the abandoned camp to collect the spoils. There was such a tumult as a result of the excitement generated by this development that the attendant of the king, who had doubted Elisha’s prophecy, is trampled and killed by the gate. He does not have the opportunity to eat of the great bounty that is brought into the city and indeed, as Elisha promised, dramatically reduces the prices of food and other necessities in Israel, providing much needed relief to the community.
What was the reason for the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by the Jewish people in this chapter? The cause for the famine and siege is not specified; however, from our knowledge of Tanakh and the overarching theme of the Book of Melakhim, we understand that such painful experiences afflict the Jewish people when they fail to honor their covenant with Hashem and when they stray after other gods. As far as we can tell, though, this spiritual status quo has not changed – why then does Hashem determine that the decree should be suddenly lifted?
From an examination of the king’s behavior and statements in the narrative, we may be able to arrive at a tentative explanation. Apparently, up till now, he has not approached or consulted with Elisha regarding the current crisis, although he seems to believe that Elisha is, at least to some extent, responsible for it. It seems that he is holding onto the hope that it will simply pass, and only once it becomes intolerable does he seek an audience with the prophet.
In this way, Yehoram can be compared to his father, Ahav, who waited until circumstances were desperate before conducting a manhunt to find Eliyahu. There is, however, a key difference: Eliyahu went into hiding and could not be located until Hashem instructed him to present himself to Ahav and put an end to the drought. Elisha, on the other hand, is readily accessible, and is even sitting and conversing with the elders of Israel!
We can see from here that the king had anticipated that the crisis would resolve itself so that he wouldn’t have to humble himself before Elisha. Elisha had a strong following, even among the elders of Israel, and this may have been disconcerting to the king who perceived it as a threat to his political power. Although Yehoram does not have a problem fasting, donning sackcloth and praying to God, he stops short of acknowledging the authority of the prophet until he is compelled to do so.
In general, we have found that although Yehoram is willing to listen to and even follow the directions of the prophet, he never reaches out to him in the first place; it is always Elisha who sends word to Yehoram, either providing him with information, offering his assistance, or bringing him the troops of Aram. In fact, when Elisha would give the king “inside information” regarding the plans of the king of Aram, Yehoram did not simply accept them without reservation; rather, he would send an investigative team to confirm that Elisha’s predictions were true. His trust in the prophecy of Elisha was, as it were, lukewarm. This is the first instance in which we find the king actually taking the initiative to locate and seek guidance from Elisha.
As we know from the Books of Shemuel and Melakhim, a Jewish king must have a strong relationship with a prophet who serves as teacher and mentor and ensures that his governance is in line with the will of the Almighty. Yehoram’s struggle with this issue – particularly, with the challenge, first encountered by Yarovam, of suppressing his own ego and desire for control in order to subordinate himself to the instructions of the prophet – shows that he has potential as a king but has not yet lived up to it.
This may be the key to understanding the transformation that occurs in this story. The fact that, rather than plotting to kill Elisha, King Yehoram seeks the word of Hashem from prophet, is a major step forward for him. It signifies acceptance of the leadership and authority of Elisha, and in this merit he deserves to have the famine alleviated. On the other hand, the narrative emphasizes that the attendant of the king, who expresses skepticism about Elisha’s prediction, is not permitted to benefit from its fulfillment. This further reinforces the point that the core issue at hand is the authority of the prophetic message – the king, who embraces it, is saved, while the captain, who denies it, loses out.
The role of the four metzoraim, victims of tzaraat, is a noteworthy element of this chapter. Typically, as we saw in the case of Naaman, tzaraat visits a person who is arrogant and selfishly indifferent to others, singularly focused on his own power and accomplishments. Remarkably, these four individuals who were forced to live outside of the city on account of their tzaraat, resist the temptation to keep their discovery of the bounty of the Aramean camp to themselves. On the contrary, they feel morally obligated to share the provisions and material goods they have discovered with all of Shomron; through this, they demonstrate empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice, and are worthy of serving as vehicles of Hashem’s salvation of his people.
Thus, we find that the repentance of two “arrogant” parties arouses Divine mercy and brings an end to the debilitating famine. King Yehoram is able to humble himself sufficiently to seek the word of Hashem from the mouth of Elisha, despite the prophet being a popular and influential political “threat” to the crown. The king’s acceptance of the Divine will and acknowledgement of Elisha’s role in the kingdom was a breakthrough on the side of the recipients of the blessings to follow.
At the same time, the repentance of the lepers who fortuitously discover the abandoned Aramean camp, inspires them to become the means by which Hashem delivers the blessings He intends for His people. Here, as always, Elisha does not involve himself in punishing or even confronting the king for his recalcitrance; instead, he merely reinforces the “positive steps” of growth he sees in the king and in the nation by serving as the agent of Hashem’s compassion and providing them with news of relief, sustenance and success.