But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no prophet of the Lord here, through whom we may inquire of the Lord?’ Then one of the servants of the king of Israel answered, ‘Elisha son of Shaphat, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah, is here.’ Jehoshaphat said, ‘The word of the Lord is with him.’ So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him.
Elisha said to the king of Israel, ‘What have I to do with you? Go to your father’s prophets or to your mother’s.’ But the king of Israel said to him, ‘No; it is the Lord who has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab.’ Elisha said, ‘As the Lord of hosts lives, whom I serve, were it not that I have regard for King Jehoshaphat of Judah, I would give you neither a look nor a glance. But get me a musician.’ And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him. And he said, ‘Thus says the Lord, “I will make this wadi full of pools.” For thus says the Lord, “You shall see neither wind nor rain, but the wadi shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, you, your cattle, and your animals.” This is only a trifle in the sight of the Lord, for he will also hand Moab over to you. You shall conquer every fortified city and every choice city; every good tree you shall fell, all springs of water you shall stop up, and every good piece of land you shall ruin with stones.’ The next day, about the time of the morning offering, suddenly water began to flow from the direction of Edom, until the country was filled with water.
This is an extract from a longer story about a rebellion by Moab against the combined forces of Israel, Judah and Edom. The allies are marching on Moab but they run out of water in the desert and Israel’s king interprets this as divine judgment on them. Judah’s king calls for a prophet who can consult Yahweh on their behalf and Elisha, described as a servant of Elijah, is suggested.
Initially Elisha rejects the approach by his own king, the son of Ahab and Jezebel, and only agrees to help because Judah’s king remains faithful to Yahweh. Elisha uses music to evoke a trance during which he prophesies that the wadi will miraculously fill with water, to resolve the immediate problem; but more than that, God will give them victory over Moab. Both prophecies are quickly fulfilled.
We are forced to recognise that Elisha is presented as God’s mouthpiece in Israel’s wartime success; but we no longer hold a polytheistic worldview and reject the idea that God acts solely on the side of one nation. Nor can we ignore Elisha’s instructions to the allies that they destroy Moab’s cities, cut down its trees, cut off its water supply and ruin its arable land. This implies total devastation; but there is no evidence that such policies were practised by the small states of the Ancient Near East. So perhaps we should read this as an ancient narrator’s exaggerated account of how to crush a rebellion.
However in today’s world such devastation is being inflicted. Mass destruction, genocide, ecological carnage, the redirection of water supplies, cutting down rain forests; such actions are taking place, all in the name of economic growth, national security, political goals, etc.
Woe betide anyone who takes Biblical stories like this out of context to justify human sin!
Holy God, we proclaim you as God of all creation. We rejoice that your love extends to people of all nations and that you care for us in good times and in bad. We trust in your eternal purposes. Forgive our failure to speak out against the destructive forces that are at work on earth. Forgive the ways in which we are complicit in the devastation of your wonderful world. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge