Melakhim Bet Chapter 8
Elisha tells the Shunammite woman whose son he resuscitated that she should leave her home and find a new place to live because there will be a famine of seven years in the land. She relocates to the land of the Pelishtim for that period of time; however, when she returns, she finds that her property has been taken from her by squatters. The woman approaches the king to complain about this injustice and asks for it to be corrected.
Fortuitously, the king happens to be in the middle of a conversation with Gehazi, the former attendant of Elisha, whom he had asked to recount to him the wondrous deeds of the prophet. Gehazi is in the midst of telling the king the story of Elisha’s miraculous restoration of the life of the son of the Shunammite woman, when she arrives with her son and corroborates the tale. The king orders that her property be returned to her and that she be compensated for whatever her land had produced from the day she left Israel.
Ben-Haddad, King of Aram, is ill. He sends his general, Hazael, to Elisha to inquire whether he will survive his illness. Elisha instructs Hazael to tell Ben-Haddad that he will live; however, he adds, Hashem has shown him that Ben-Haddad will die. There is a long, awkward pause and Elisha begins to cry, much to the surprise of Hazael. Elisha explains that he knows that Hazael will cause much suffering to the Jewish people, killing young Jewish men, pregnant women and children. Hazael is perplexed by this prophecy until Elisha clarifies that Hazael has been chosen to be the next king of Aram. Hazael returns to Ben-Haddad and notifies him that Elisha said he will live. The next day, under the guise of taking care of his master, Hazael places a wet cloth over the face of Ben-Haddad, killing him.
There is an obvious difficulty here – how can Elisha instruct Hazael to lie to Ben-Haddad? There are a couple of approaches to this question. One is that he did not lie; the prophecy was that Ben-Haddad would recover from his illness, but that he would die nonetheless – by the hand of Hazael! Some interpret this as a mere foretelling of the future and some suggest that Elisha insinuated that Hazael should, in fact, kill his master.
Still other commentators understand this more as a matter of medical ethics; in other words, it is dangerous and counterproductive to inform a terminally ill person of a bad prognosis, even if it is true, because it can demoralize the patient and hasten death. Therefore, Elisha recommended that Ben-Haddad be given a positive, if inaccurate, report.
Yehoram, son of Yehoshaphat, is now king of Yehuda. His father, Yehoshaphat, enjoyed a close and productive friendship with Ahav and therefore Yehoram was married to Atalyah, the daughter of Ahav. This explains why, unlike his righteous predecessors, Yehoram follows the wicked path of the House of Ahav. Yehoram deals with uprisings in Edom and Livnah during his eight year reign and then dies and is succeeded by his son, Ahazya.
Ahazya, who is the son of Atalya, models his kingship after Ahav as well. Ahazya and Yoram, son of Ahav, go to war against Aram, currently led by Hazael. Yoram is wounded in battle and finds refuge in Yizrael where he can recuperate from his injuries. Ahazya arrives to visit the sick Yoram as he slowly recovers.
This chapter is comprised of multiple sections and each one deserves a treatment of its own; for the sake of brevity, let us focus on one or two of its intriguing elements. To begin with, the “epilogue” to the story of the Shunammite woman seems out of place. What did the prophetic author seek to gain by sharing this little vignette about her departure and return to the land of Israel, and her struggle to recover her misappropriated property? Moreover, what is Gehazi doing back in the picture, and why has the King of Israel engaged him in conversation?
In light of our analysis of the previous chapter, we may be able to explain several of these unusual aspects of the narrative. The struggle of King Yehoram until now has been his resistance to fully coming to terms with the reality of Elisha’s prophecy and miraculous “accomplishments”. The last story recounted his acceptance of the role of the prophet in Israel and drew our attention to the significant “step forward” that this represented for the king.
It makes perfect sense, in the aftermath of the fulfillment of Elisha’s prediction about the economic turnaround in Shomron, that the king would be inspired to further investigate the wondrous reports of Elisha’s activities. Gehazi comes across like a minor celebrity doing the rounds on the talk show circuit and promoting a “tell all” book about his life in Hollywood among the big stars. He is more than happy to satisfy the king’s curiosity about the prophet, no doubt touting his own close relationship with Elisha and participation in some of the remarkable anecdotes about him.
There is one further point worth noting about Gehazi. Based on numerous compelling hints in the text, the Rabbis say that the four lepers in the previous chapter who discovered the abandoned camp of Aram were, in fact, Gehazi and his three sons. What lesson do the Sages intend to convey to us by “inserting” Gehazi into the story of the four lepers? Apparently, in a fascinating reversal, Gehazi, the arrogant attendant of Elisha who took advantage of any and every opportunity to enrich himself, repented from his evil ways and did exactly the opposite!
This time, he insisted upon informing the king and the populace of his tremendous find and thereby saving them from the crippling famine. In the merit of his change of heart and adjustment of priorities, he was healed from his tzaraat. Not only did he share the material blessings with others, but we now read how he is involved in educating and inspiring the king of Israel with accounts of the miracles of Elisha. Through his interactions with Naaman, he diluted and undermined the sanctification of God’s name the prophet had wrought by healing the Aramean general. Here, Gehazi is seen correcting that failure, putting forth his best effort to sanctify Hashem’s name through his conversation with the king.
The three personalities of note in the story – the woman, Gehazi and the king –are all individuals who have evolved in their relationship and perspective on Elisha and who now respect and revere his status as a man of God. They have all grown from and continue to benefit from his influence in their lives, even when he is not physically present. And this positive engagement with the prophet is bi-directional. Elisha offers instruction and guidance to the Shunammite woman, sparing her from the famine – he has not forgotten her and still feels a sense of responsibility for her welfare and that of her son. In the merit of her abiding by his word, not only does the woman avoid the suffering to which famine would expose her, she is also in the “right place at the right time” to gain the audience with the king necessary for her to lay claim to her legal entitlements.
The fact that the woman is referred to throughout the narrative as “the woman whose son Elisha revived” points to the idea that, ever since his miraculous deed, the prophet has a “vested interest” in her survival and that of her son; he wishes to see his intervention safeguarded and perpetuated and to make sure that she and her son thrive, regardless of circumstances.
The story of Hazael is remarkable on many levels. Elisha here is completing the task initially entrusted to Eliyahu, selecting the King of Aram who he knows will cause tremendous harm to the Jewish people. Consistent with his persona as the man of mercy and agent of Divine Compassion, Elisha weeps when delivering the message to Hazael. We can surmise that these tears were not simply a spontaneous, unscripted emotional reaction; such a lack of composure would be unbecoming of a prophet. Rather, the crying was PART of the dramatic delivery of the content of the prophecy, intended to convey to
Hazael that he was capable of incredible cruelty but should restrain himself and temper his aggression with a sense of morality and sensitivity to others. Elisha thus informed Hazael of his future position as king and his success as military leader but subtly cautioned him that unleashing the full force of his might against Israel would be seen as a tragedy in the eyes of Hashem and, therefore, in the eyes of his prophet. Hazael will retain his freedom of choice and is called upon to adhere to principles of dignity and humanity even as he defeats his enemies.
From the outset, we see that Hazael is a character to be reckoned with; upon learning what destiny holds in store for him, he takes the law into his own hands, quietly murdering his convalescent master so as to speed up the process of his inheritance of the throne. Whether we accept the view of the commentaries that this was implicitly sanctioned by Elisha or the view that adamantly insists that it was not legitimized by the prophet, it is nonetheless a shocking act that reveals the sort of heinous deeds of which the new king of Aram is capable.
Despite Ben-Haddad’s ruthless behavior and corrupt values, he nonetheless reaches out to Elisha for a prognosis of his illness. Apparently, Elisha’s repeated acts of sanctification of Hashem’s name before the people of Aram have been successful; now, even their king acknowledges the legitimacy of his prophecy. This is a far cry from the beginning of Melakhim Bet, when even the king of Israel sought the opinions of foreign gods for advice!
During the era of Kings David and Solomon, the mission of the monarch was to inspire the nations of the world with Hashem’s greatness and wisdom. Now, the Kings of Israel have totally lost sight of this ideal and the prophets, particularly Elisha, rise to the occasion and ensure that the name of Hashem continues to be known and praised by all people, Jew and Gentile alike.