Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44
This week’s passage is simple and brief. A man brings limited food, but through a prophetic miracle, the meager supplies provide for a much larger crowd. Three verses. Simple, right? Well, yes and no.
Although today’s passage is only three verses, it closes a chapter with three preceding narratives of prophetic provision. These narratives are all connected through the Hebrew device of the conjunctive waw (2 Kings 4:8, 4:38, 4:42), best translated simply as “and,” but signaling syntactical connection across the entire chapter. Thus, the entirety of 2 Kings 4 must shape our interpretation of these final three verses. I encourage you to take a few minutes to reflectively read through the chapter. Pay attention to recurring patterns.
In 2 Kings 4:1-7, a widow cries out to Elisha for assistance during a period of dire need and in danger of losing her children to slavery. Elisha commands her to obtain as many vessels as possible, which then miraculously get filled with oil, which the woman uses to pay her debts (4:7).
2 Kings 4:8-37 presents two different miracles involving a wealthy Shunammite woman. In verse 4:8, she urges for Elisha to accept her hospitality of meals and lodging. Elisha orders his servant to call her (both 4:12 and 4:15) and as a result she received a prophecy of childbearing, which is fulfilled in 4:17 despite the woman’s surprise and disbelief. In the second episode, the grown child dies and the woman calls her husband to prepare the donkeys for her to find the prophet. After coming to her house, Elisha revives the young man, then again commands the servant to call the Shunammite woman, who receives her revived son.
In 2 Kings 4:38-41, in the midst of a famine, Elisha instructs his servants to boil a pot of stew. The do so, but only after protest. On further instruction, they recognize the pot as edible.
In our primary passage of 2 Kings 4:42-44, we see a similar cycle of a need, faith and miracle. A man from Baal-Shalishah takes initiative by bringing barley and grain to Elisha, presumably as payment for the rendering of prophetic services (cf. 1 Kgs 14:3). Elisha then commands a servant to spread this limited supply to the people. But the generosity seems beyond the limited resource of the relatively modest gift. As a result, the man protests, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” The response is both ironic and polemic as the Canaanite Baal is one of fertility and provision.
The protest contains several possible motivations. Perhaps the man was afraid of the response of the people. (Imagine the embarrassment at serving dinner to only two people for a dinner party of twenty!) Perhaps the man was disappointed that Elisha did not receive the gift. Perhaps the man was merely confused. It turns out that the hospitality of the man is received with a parallel invitation of hospitality for the greater community of one hundred. As a result, the people share a plentiful meal. This passage amplifies several themes of this chapter
The concept of hospitality is developed through dialogue. In two cases, the outsider initiates hospitality, by crying out to Elisha (4:1, 8). It is through the dialogue that Elisha issues a command that is crucial for the miraculous provision. In the first episode, Elisha commands for the collection of oil. In the second passage, Elisha mediates commands through his servants. In the final passage, the Canaanite man from Baal-Shalishah initiates by a gift of food. This initiative of hospitality across religious lines magnifies from hospitality to Elisha to hospitality to a large group.
In each of these cases, the recipient casts some doubt. The widow’s doubt is implied as the lack of vessels eventually ends the flow oil. The Shunammite woman mocks. Her husband also questions the deliberate action in pursuing the prophet at the death of the son. Even the company of prophets expressed doubt for provision during famine.
In these cases, doubt may have delayed the miracle, but it does not ultimately dissuade the prophet. In the last passage, the servant merely asks a question, though the text does not indicate whether he asks humbly or forcefully (or even passive aggressively?). Rather than admonish the lack of faith, Elisha “repeated” but adds the security of “for thus says the Lord” and the promise of “They shall eat and have some left.” This is enough for the servant to finally obey.
The word “God” rarely appears in 2 Kings 4 except as a designation for the man-of-God throughout the passage (40:7, 9, 16, 21, 25, 27, 40). Grammatically, the form indicates a level of possession, in that the man is owned by God. It also takes an element of modifier, so a rough paraphrase may be a “godly man.” The word “LORD” appears a few times (40:1, 27, 30, 33), but never as an active subject. In 2 Kings 4, we do not see the “God who acts” as we see in other places of the Bible, but we do see humans who act on behalf of God. In every case, the prophet commands, and the response is to obey or to question. God is still the mighty One, but through the agency of others.
These themes nicely integrate in the outcome of provision in times of want. The entire chapter resides in a setting of scarcity. The widow is in debt with no natural resources to meet the debt. The Shunammite woman is barren, then loses her only son. There is famine. Ultimately the widow receives the oil to free her from debt. The Shunammite bears a child and much later the dead child is revived to life. The prophets eat. The man from Baal-Shalishah is able to join a community through the multiplication of his food. The provision is striking in relation to human agency.
We are vehicles for God’s miracles. Sometimes we doubt and question. Sometimes the commands are nonsensical. But the obedience is still obedience. And in the end, God supplies abundantly.
So hospitality, doubt, human agency, and provision. These themes are simple, right? Well, yes and no.