Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44
Today’s reading is one of two back-to-back but separate stories of Elisha providing food for his disciples.
In the first account (verses 38-41), the context is one of great need — there is a famine in the land. Elisha instructs his servant to make stew for the company of prophets. Intending to gather herbs for the stew, the servant instead gathers a wild vine. The stew is inedible and those eating it declare “there is death in the pot!” Elisha adds flour to the stew, and the crisis is over. He then gives the instruction, “Serve the people and let them eat” (verse 41). In a time of scarcity, Elisha provides safe and tasty food.
The 2 Kings 4:38-41 passage echoes Elisha’s earlier salting of the waters of Jericho to make them “wholesome” (2 Kings 2:21) and Moses’ throwing a piece of wood into the water at Marah so that it changed from bitter to sweet (Exodus 15: 22-25).
It is not necessary to mention Elisha’s stew when preaching on verses 42-44, but examining the earlier passage (verses 38-41) helps draw attention to five dimensions of today’s pericope:
1) Today’s text begins not with scarcity but with generosity. It begins with the announcement that a man from Baal-shalishah comes bringing “food from the first fruits.” The text does not provide his name, only mentioning the village he comes from. There is no indication of any obligation on the part of this man to provide food to Elisha nor any mention that Elisha is in need of food.
The giver arrives without explanation. And it is the gifts that are described: “twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain.” This is a generous amount! It is not hard to picture, to smell, and to savor the taste of this pile of fresh bread and grain, or to recognize the labor that went into producing them.
2) A second surprising act of generosity then takes place: a sharing of these tasty foods. Elisha decides to share these first fruits with others and instructs “Give it to the people and let them eat.”
3) The picture suddenly changes and the generous pile of barley loaves and fresh ears of grain suddenly seems quite small when the servant in charge of administering Elisha’s instruction reveals there are a hundred people to feed. The servant’s question makes it clear that the eating is to include everyone. How can the giving be accomplished with equity?
4) There is nothing magical about the food that is being discussed in this passage, but there is something unusual. It is described as “food from the first fruits.” In the Israelite calendar, the first fruits marked the end of the harvest. The offering of “first fruits” acknowledged that the land and its produce belonged first of all to God. That reality was to serve as a reminder of God’s providing and as a curb against selfishness and greed.
The “food from the first fruits” is a holy offering (Leviticus 23:20). According to the festival instructions, it is to be delivered to the priest who is to offer it before the LORD. In 2 Kings 4, however, it is brought to the prophet Elisha who instructs that it be offered to the people. The people will dine on the LORD’s meal.
5) While the delivery of the first fruits to Elisha could be viewed as a protest against the religious establishment at Gilgal, nothing in the text makes that connection. Nor is there any objection to this redirection of the food offering (unlike the objection to Jesus plucking grain on the Sabbath in Mark 2:23-28). Instead, there is a surprising third act of generosity. Elisha repeats the instruction, “Give it to the people and let them eat,” adding, “for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” And it was so. The source of this abundance is God. The LORD feeds the people with the LORD’s own food.
A miracle occurs in this story: a sack of grain and twenty barley loaves feed one hundred people, with food remaining. It is a miracle:
- made possible by God’s abundant providing.
- initiated by the generosity of an anonymous giver.
- shared with others because of the recipient’s generosity.
- in which all are included because of an administrator’s concern for equity.
- through which the community shares in what is holy.
Interpreters tend to focus on these two verses in 2 Kings 4 as a demonstration of the prophet Elisha’s authority, or as an event surpassed by the bigger feeding miracles of Jesus (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39; Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17). However, the miracle did not start with Elisha, and it did not need to be bigger to be sufficient for that community.
The passage depicts the miracle of daily existence: human community and holy living are dependent upon the abundant providing of God, human generosity and willingness to share, and attention to equity.
A postscript: I write these words in the final week of March as the flood levels on the Red River in northwestern Minnesota begin to recede and losses are tallied up. Sandbag dikes still surround neighborhoods, and weary residents try to resume their regular routines and responsibilities. The loss and displacement in the Red River Valley are not on the scale of the 2004 Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, but they are real. Real people are without homes, and whole communities have spent weeks living with uncertainty, disruption, fear and exhaustion.
The good news is that the River did not surpass the height or strength of the emergency dikes.
The miracle is in the generosity and the sharing: people from near and far teamed up in sandbagging, plugging, pumping, monitoring, organizing, feeding and comforting. Friends and strangers from across the country and around the globe witnessed to God’s abundance through their prayers and encouragement. The first fruits and service owed to God were given to the people of the Red River Valley. It was, indeed, a holy offering.