Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Only two verses long, this lectionary selection is obviously — and notably — quite short!

Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44

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Only two verses long, this lectionary selection is obviously — and notably — quite short!

But even in its brevity, it resonates and connects with all the other texts for thus Sunday, and therefore would be a wonderful choice for the sermon text.

Within the larger context of 2 Kings 4, this story comes as the fourth in a series of miracles performed by Elisha, stories which function to prove that Elisha is a prophet worthy of inheriting Elijah’s role.  The first story (2 Kings 4:1-7) tells of the widow who, like the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:7-16) has only a small jar of oil, but its amount multiplies so that she is able to fill all the empty vessels she can find.

The second story is of a Shunammite woman who first is able to conceive and give birth to a son despite the advanced age of her husband (2 Kings 4:14), and then, when that son dies, Elisha brings him back to life (4:34-35, cf. 1 Kings 17:19-23).  In the third story, Elisha purifies a stew so that the people are able to eat it.  In the fourth and final story, Elisha is not mentioned by name, but is only referred to as “the man of God.”  Such a title sets the stage for what is going to happen — this man of God will speak in God’s name.  The miraculous provision that will occur will demonstrate the power and authority of both Elisha and God. 

The context for this fourth miracle is the same as the previous one: there is a famine in the land (verse 38).  T. Hobbs notes that the description of the bread of the first fruits (verse 42) “locates this event during the time of harvest when the famine would be most severely felt.”1  Food in such a time is not a luxury, but a necessity.  We can see the urgency of the need for food in the fourfold repetition of the verb “eat” in these two verses.

God miraculously provides through the raw materials brought by the messenger from Baal-shalishah.  While the location has been debated, the Old Latin version identifies it with Bethlehem,2 which literally means, “house of bread,” a place that should be known for its provision.  But if the place name is “Baal-shalishah,” there is a connection with the Canaanite god Baal.

Baal is the god identified with the house of Omri, the kings who are in power when Elijah and Elisha prophesy, and who are opposed to these two prophets of the Lord.  Baal is also a god of rain and fertility who provides food.  As with previous accounts that set the Lord against Baal (cf. 1 Kings 18) there is some polemic in this story about which god is ultimately able to provide.

Upon seeing the supplies, Elisha commands the man to give the food to the man so the others may eat.  The servant asks a genuine and practical question, similar to the one asked by Philip in the gospel reading for the day: how can the bread of the first fruits, the twenty loaves of barley and the corn be enough for one hundred men?  In response to servant’s question, Elisha repeats the command, using exactly the same words he did in the previous verse: give (it) to the men that they may eat.  The difference in the second time is his addition that, “thus says the Lord.”  These are no longer just Elisha’s own words and command, but are now connected with the word of God, and God’s promise that they will eat, and there will be some left over.  The final verse, with characteristic brevity, tells that the promise came true.  They ate and there was some left over, just as the Lord had said.

As mentioned above, this brief story connects with every other text for this day.  Psalm 145 reiterates the message that God’s words are trustworthy, proclaiming, “The Lord is faithful in all his words” (Psalm 145:13).  It also explains that God is the provider of food (Psalm 145:15) but more than meeting a necessity, God can satisfy desires (Psalm 145:16).

In the Gospel reading from John, we notice that Jesus also started with loaves of barley to feed the hungry.  We also see that while Elisha fed one hundred, Jesus fed five thousand, and the text quantifies the amount left over as enough to fill twelve baskets.  The reading from the epistle to the Ephesians proclaims that this God is one who is able to do more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).  The specific example from Kings is that God is able to provide food to people who are hungry and in need, according to God’s word.  The other texts testify to the abundance of God’s faithfulness and provision, daring us to believe that God can and will do what God has promised, and even more.

1T. R Hobbs, 2 Kings. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 13, Waco, TX: Word, 1985, 53.
2Ibid., 44.