Now the company of prophets said to Elisha, ‘As you see, the place where we live under your charge is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, and let us collect logs there, one for each of us, and build a place there for us to live.’ He answered, ‘Do so.’ Then one of them said, ‘Please come with your servants.’ And he answered, ‘I will.’ So he went with them. When they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was felling a log, his axehead fell into the water; he cried out, ‘Alas, master! It was borrowed.’ Then the man of God said, ‘Where did it fall?’ When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. He said, ‘Pick it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it.
Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.
The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city.
When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, ‘Strike this people, please, with blindness.’ So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, ‘This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’ And he led them to Samaria.
As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, ‘O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.’ The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, ‘Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ He answered, ‘No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’ So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.
The miracle of the axe reminds us of the importance of returning anything borrowed in good order to its owner. As with many tools, a replacement simply wouldn’t have the same ‘feel’.
The main story in this section concerns an Aramean invasion of Israel. Through Elisha’s advice Israel’s king evades capture several times. Aram’s king assumes he is being betrayed until he hears of Elisha’s God given insight. A plan is prepared to seize Elisha and Aram’s forces surround the city. The natural fear of Elisha’s servant is dispelled when the prophet’s prayer is answered. God’s power, depicted as a vast heavenly army, is on the side of Elisha.
The blindness that falls on the Arameans may be literal or metaphorical. Either way Elisha isn’t recognised and is able to trick his would-be captors into following him into Samaria, Israel’s stronghold, where they suddenly realise that they are trapped.
Elisha doesn’t allow Israel’s king to execute the prisoners who were given into his hand; but instructs that they are fed and watered and released. Their humiliation and capture is sufficient to convince Aram’s king that he is no match against Israel; there is temporary peace.
Attitudes towards prisoners captured during conflicts nowadays raise many political and theological questions. It is naïve to imagine that releasing all captives would be viewed as an act of strength by the leaders of the nations to which they returned. Where there is no shared understanding of God between the parties involved in conflict, stories such as this must be interpreted with caution.
However prisoners should be treated in humanitarian ways, given food and adequate shelter. As Christians we should campaign for high standards and speak out against all abuses.
It is the leaders of nations, though, whom we need to dissuade from waging war, in the name of Christ.
Holy God, your Son came amongst us as the Prince of Peace;
Forgive our warmongering and guide us in ways of reconciliation that lead to peace.
You have taught us to have compassion on captives and revealed yourself as a God who delivers us from the forces that hold us captive into freedom;
May we learn from you and work to establish justice and freedom for all. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.