The Prophet Elisha’s Attention to Ordinary Work (2 Kings 2-6)
As the northern kings slide deeper into apostasy and tyranny, God raises up prophets to oppose them more forcefully than ever. Prophets were figures of immense God-given power coming out of nowhere to speak God's truth in the halls of human power. Elijah and Elisha are by far the most prominent prophets in the books of Kings and Chronicles, and of the two, Elisha is especially notable for the attention he pays to the work of ordinary Israelites. Elisha is called to stand against Israel's rebellious kings throughout a long career (2 Kings 2:13 - 13:20). His actions show that he regards the people’s economic life to be as important as the kingdom’s dynastic struggles, and he tries to protect the people from the disasters brought on by the kings.
Elisha’s first major act is to cleanse the polluted well of the city of Jericho. The chief concern in the passage is agricultural productivity. Without a wholesome well, “the land is unfruitful.” By restoring access to clean water, Elisha makes it possible for the people of the city to resume the God-given mission of humanity to be fruitful, multiply and produce food (Genesis 1:28-30).
After one of the prophets in Elisha’s circle died, his family fell into debt. The fate of a destitute family in ancient Israel was typically to sell some or all of its members into slavery, where at least they would be fed (see “Slavery or Indentured Servitude (Exodus 21:1-11)” at www.theologyofwork.org). The widow is on the verge of selling her two children as slaves and begs Elisha for help (2 Kings 4:1). Elisha comes up with a plan for the family to become economically productive and support themselves. He asks the widow what she has to work with. “Nothing,” she says, “except a jar of oil” (2 Kings 4:2). Apparently this is enough capital for Elisha to begin with. He tells her to borrow empty jars from all her neighbors, and fill them with oil from her jar. She is able to fill every jar with oil before her own jar runs out, and the profit from selling the oil is enough to pay the family’s debts (2 Kings 4:9). In essence, Elisha creates an entrepreneurial community within which the woman is able to start a small business. This is exactly what some of the most effective poverty-fighting methods do today, whether via microfinance, credit societies, agricultural cooperatives, or small-businesses supplier programs on the part of large companies and governments.
Elisha’s actions on behalf of this family reflect God’s love and concern for those in need. How can our work increase the opportunity for people in poverty to work their way toward prosperity? In what ways do we individually and collectively undermine the productive capacity of poor people and economies, and what can we do, with God’s help, to reform?
When Elisha cures the leprosy of Naaman, a commander in the army of Israel’s enemy, Syria, it has important effects in the sphere of work. “It is no little thing that a sick person is made well, especially a leper,” as Jacques Ellul notes in his insightful essay on this passage, because the healing restores the ability to work. In this case the healing restores Naaman to his work of governance, advising his king on dealings with the king of Israel. Interestingly, this healing of a foreigner also leads to the restoration of ethical culture in Elisha’s own organization. Naaman offers to reward Elisha handsomely for the healing. But Elisha will accept nothing for what he regards as simply doing the Lord’s will. However, one of Elisha’s retinue, named Gehazi, sees an opportunity for a little extra remuneration. Gehazi chases after Naaman, and says that Elisha has changed his mind—he will accept a very significant payment after all. After receiving the payment, Gehazi hides his ill-gotten-gain, then lies to Elisha to cover it up. Elisha responds by announcing that Gehazi will be struck with the very leprosy that had left Naaman. Apparently, Elisha recognizes that tolerating corruption in his organization will rapidly undermine all the good that a lifetime of service to God has done.
Naaman’s own actions demonstrate another point in this story. Naaman has a problem—leprosy. He needs to be healed. But his pre-formed notion of what the solution should look like—some kind of dramatic encounter with a prophet, apparently—leads him to refuse the true solution of bathing in the Jordan River when it is offered to him. When he heard this simple remedy delivered by Elisha’s messenger—rather than Elisha himself—“Naaman went away angry.” Neither the solution nor the source seems grand enough for Naaman to pay attention to.
In today’s world, this twofold problem is often repeated. First, a senior leader misses the solution proposed by a lower level employee because they are unwilling to consider insight from someone they regard as unqualified. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great identifies the first sign of what he calls a “level five” leader as humility, a willingness to listen to many sources. Second, the solution is not accepted because it does not match the leader’s imagined approach. Thank God that many leaders today, like Naaman, have subordinates willing to take the risk of talking sense to them. Not only are humble bosses needed in organizations, but courageous subordinates also. Intriguingly, the person who puts the whole episode into motion is the lowest-status person of all, a foreign girl Naaman had captured in a raid and given to his wife as a slave (2 Kings 5:13). This is a wonderful reminder of how arrogance and wrong expectations can block insight, but God’s wisdom keeps trying to break through anyway.
Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God & the Politics of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 35.
Jim Collins, Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001), 22-25.
Cutting wood along the bank of the Jordan River, one of Elisha’s fellow prophets loses an iron axe head into the river. He had borrowed the axe from a lumberjack. The price of such a substantial piece of iron in the bronze age would have meant financial ruin for the owner, and the prophet who borrowed it is distraught. Elisha takes the economic loss as a matter of immediate, personal concern and causes the iron to float on top of the water, where it can be retrieved and returned to its owner. Once again Elisha intervenes to enable someone to work for a living.
The gift of a prophet is to discern God’s aims in daily life and to work and act accordingly. God calls the prophets to restore God's good creation, in the midst of a fallen world, in ways that point to God’s power and glory. The theological aspect of a prophet’s work—calling people to worship the true God—is inevitably accompanied by a practical aspect, restoring the good workings of the created order. The New Testament tells us that some Christians are called to be prophets as well (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Elisha is not only a historical figure who demonstrates God’s concern for his people’s work, but a model for Christians today.