People suffering from the skin disease in ancient Israel were considered to be unclean, and were required to live outside of the community until they were cured (see Lev 13:34-36; cf. Num 12:15).1 They were excluded from the normal life of the city and left at its gates to beg or to perform undesirable tasks to make their living. They represented the lowest stratum of the ancient Israelite society.2 They bore the social stigma of marginalized and ostracized persons.3 A common natural aversion toward skin diseases may be found universally in unrelated cultures, and the rationale behind it can be explained by a theory of impurity: what is considered impure is largely that which is irregular or out of place. Against the norm of whole, healthy skin, skin diseases are abnormal; hence they are shunned.4
In the story, it did not matter so much that the lepers were Israelites in such a life-threatening crisis of a famine. Probably, since they were outcasts, segregated and treated as unclean and abnormal by the neighbor Israelites according to the national law and customs, it might be plausible that they rarely had a social solidarity with their surroundings or an ethnic consciousness. Nevertheless, the story of lepers insinuates a critical perspective on the societal circumstances that cause the members of a society to decide to desert to the enemy country. Their decision to surrender to the hostile country indicates that they were willing to abandon their own country where they have lived from birth.
Here, it is significant to note that the outcasts defect from their own country because of the state’s failure to protect the basic human right to life of its people. The ancient Israelite society was a three-tiered patrimonial and patriarchal structure based on a series of nested households and kin groups organized around agrarian activities.5 At the level of the state or, even a better portrayal, tribal kingdom, the king functioned as paterfamilias, and his subjects as his loyal beings with expectations of protection and succor.6 That the subjects forgo their loyalty to the king implies that the king has failed to offer due protection. Hence, the lepers’ determination to desert to the Arameans indicates that the Omride dynasty had lost function as a legitimate royal regime because of its utter failure to protect their subjects, especially, the lowest class of the society.
At first glance, their determination to surrender to the Arameans is seen as a lack of amor patriae (patriotism), and as a betrayal of their nation. Ironically, they end up saving the nation by deserting the nation. Eventually, in this dire situation where mothers cannibalize their own children inside the city, it would have been a sensible decision for the king to desert to the Arameans. In this sense, the lepers appear more rational and realistic than the king.
Moreover, Arameans’ dialogue in verse 6 suggests another anti-Omride implication of this story. We are told that the Arameans said to one another, “the king of Israel has hired the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to fight against us” (v.6). If the Arameans’ comment in v.6 is regarded as reflecting plausible realities of the military policies of the Omride dynasty, it is possible to infer the narrator’s satire on the Omride monarchy’s arms buildup. Moreover, the pursuit of the rhetorical purpose underlying the reference to the Hittites and Egypt leads us to conjecture that the Omride monarchy’s reinforcement of a military power might be one cause of the severe famine and starvation in Samaria. Indeed, after establishing a powerful and prosperous regime unexcelled in the kingdom’s history, Omri and his house played a leading role in Syro-Palestinian politics.7 Omride international policies entailed a buildup of military strength and territorial annexation combined with a system of negotiated alliances.8 Leading in the creation of a major united front against Assyria with the Aramaean king Hadadezer of Damascus and the Neo-Hittite king Irhulenu of Hamath, the Israelite king Ahab engaged in warfare with Shalmaneser in 853 B.C.E. in northern Syria at Qarqar on the Orontes River.9 The Monolith Inscription providing the fullest account of the ensuing battles and the coalition members and the numbers of their respective military contingents reports that Ahab had a larger chariot force than all of his allies combined.10 From this, it is clear that Israel represented one of the major military powers of Syria-Palestine during the latter days of Ahab’s reign.11 In other words, the Aramaens’ comment was not a groundless rumor but a plausible supposition alluding to the powerful armaments of the Omride dynasty.
In light of the rhetorical aspect, the reference to the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt is reminiscent of the portrayal of Solomon’s military superiority, including equipping large chariot forces from Egypt as well as exporting them to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Aram in 1 Kgs 10:28-29.12 Echoing the Solomonic reinforcement of a military power in this narrative context of a severe famine, the narrator is likely to hint at censure of the Omride dynasty’s expansion of armaments and resultant starvation of the subjects. Ahab’s concern for his horses in time of drought and famine exemplifies the Omride dynasty’s focusing on armaments boost, while neglecting the plight of the subjects suffering from a famine (1 Kgs 18:5). Omride dynasty’s prosperity was achieved at the expense of the complete alienation of several groups of the subjects.13 During the reign of the Omrides, the elites who directed the society’s production and redistribution strategies were not concerned with policies that would sustain all the members of the society, rather they were concerned with their own opulent lifestyle.14 Thus, the failure of taking care of the welfare of the subjects came to full fruition under Jehoram. The war with Ben-Hadad caused the nation to drain of men and money, as a result the frustration of various classes who had suffered under the Omride regime began to build to an explosive point.15
Against the backdrop of this dire condition, we are told that Yahweh took an action to deliver primarily the lepers, as well as the rest of the citizens of Samaria dying of hunger. The most dominant interpretation is that the divine action indicates the fulfillment of Elisha’s prophetic word of v.1 and the lepers function as an instrumental part of Yahweh’s salvation.16 Most commentators recognize without a dissenting voice that the lepers played a vital role in Yahweh’s deliverance of the Israelites from starvation. However, across the tradition of the interpretation, scholars have rarely tried to focus on the fact that the divine action has taken place for the sake of the lepers. No one highlights that the primary and immediate beneficiary of the divine salvation were the lepers.17 Viewing this divine intervention as primarily the salvation of the lepers suggests that God directly cares for and stands up for the lowest class whom the ruler failed to protect. It indicates that Yahweh, the supreme patrimonial lord of the Israelite social hierarchy,18 sides with the lowest class. In other words, Yahweh vindicates the outcasts on the contrary to the conventional ethos of the ancient Israelite society. Reading the story in the broader context of 6:24-7:20, the contrasting depiction of the lepers and the king attracts our attention. The lepers are depicted in such a way in evoking good feelings towards them, while the king is portrayed in a negative light, being seen as doubtful and faithless. Concerning the contrast between the king and the lepers, an exegete points out that the king’s actions are solitary and destructive; by contrast, the lepers’ actions are co-operative and constructive.19 Focusing on the king’s refusal to believe Yahweh’s action to protect the Israelite nation, a commentator also points out that this narrative (7:3-16) demonstrates that the king and indeed the entire Omride line is unfit to rule Israel.20
As mentioned earlier, the narrator’s positive depiction of the lepers allows us to consider a touch of humanity of the lepers. Through the scene of the lepers’ looting for silver and clothing, the narrator reminds us of the similar behavior of Gehazi in 5:23-24 and reveals a difference between the lepers and Gehazi.21 Feeling guilty about their pillaging, the lepers stopped and began to think that they are obliged to inform the Israelites of this good fortune. The narrator draws our attention to the lepers’ ethical sense. The portrayal of the lepers’ awareness of qualms and the obligation to apprise the good news of the entire nation intimates that they are general human beings who can reason and feel qualms not differently from normal people. Furthermore, the narrator depicts the lepers as agents of change who plays a key role in transforming the devastating situation of famine into a recovery of market prices as Elisha’s prophetic word promised (7:1).22 The lepers’ action discloses that in their heart the patriotic spirit still exists despite their desperate and lowly situation.
Still, taking into account of the lepers’ initial decision to desert to the Arameans, we are aware of the tension between the portraits of the lepers as rational figures who abandon their nation, and as morally awakened social transformers. It seems that the narrator does not intend to romanticize the lepers as national heroes in a one dimensional way. This illuminates the literary irony and realism, which suggest that the characters of the biblical narratives embody the literary artistry understood in a multidimensional way. In the same vein, there is a possibility to reconsider Elisha, the main character of the entire Elisha narratives, in the context of this narrative, where Elisha does not appear.
It is notable that for the first time of the entire Elisha cycles, Elisha is absent in this literary unit (7:3-10), only before and after this tale does Elisha’s prophetic word occur (vv.1-2 and vv.18-19). Throughout the elaborated legends of Elisha tradition, Elisha performs prophetic miracles to resolve the crisis of life or death of the weak and endangered members of prophetic groups and their supporters, such as the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets (4:1-7), the great Shunammite woman (4:8-37), the disciples of the prophets, and a leprous commander Naaman (5:1-19). The commonality of these episodes is that Elisha rarely prays to Yahweh, rather resolves their distress with his empowering words. Only when Elisha resuscitates the dead son of Shunammite woman in 4:33, he prays to Yahweh. It is clear that Elisha represents the divine power and presence for those people surrounding him. Elisha’s compassion and its reflection of the very character of God himself are pointed out by a commentator.23 On the contrary to his habitual omission of prayer in dealing with the problems of his acquaintances, Elisha appeals to Yahweh three times for supernatural miracles to deliver him from his own crisis, the threats of the Arameans in 6:8-23.(v.17,18,20).
Taking into account of the divine power Elisha shows to the acquaintances, it is rather odd that Elisha does not do anything to help the lowest of the low from starvation in this national catastrophe, when desperate individuals eat even their own children (6:24-30) and others risk their life by deserting to the hostile country at war (7:3-4). Nevertheless, if we try to understand why Elisha is absent in this story, one possible answer can be inferred from the fact that he should be obliged to follow customary purity law with respect to the leprosy of the day. Looking carefully into Elisha’s healing of Naaman and his imprecation against Gehazi in 5:1-27, it is plausible to infer that Elisha observe the conventional law and order of the day concerning the leprosy and adhere to the belief that the leprosy is attributed to a divine punishment. Perhaps for these reasons, when he heals Naaman, he does not meet nor touch him, rather he only conveys a message to him. After knowing that Gehazi fraudulently obtained and hid treasures brought by Naaman, he curses Gehazi with leprosy. Thus, it is not impossible to understand that Elisha does not appear with the lepers in this story.
The absence of Elisha results in highlighting that Yahweh has come forward as a true advocate for the lowest of the low. As mentioned earlier, it is noteworthy that Yahweh engages in the plight of the lepers and saves them from the life-threatening situation. Yahweh is not confined in the duty to observe the purity law established by Israelites as Elisha is. Thus, this tale is understood as the critique of the ethos of the contempt for the lowest, outcasts represented by the lepers. This critique is strengthened by the comparison of the ways how Elisha and the lepers respectively are saved from their crisis. Elisha’s appeals to Yahweh for the miracles to protect him are preceded by the salvific action of Yahweh in 6:15-20. On the contrary, in the case of the lepers Yahweh just directly saves them without being appealed to by them. Since this story highlights Yahweh’s primary concern for the lowest of the low and Yahweh’s initiative to elevate them to the change agents who ameliorate the malfunctioning society, this also intimates undeniable subversive implications.
Yoon Kyung Kim
PhD Candidate in Hebrew Bible
Graduate Theological Union
- Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 312. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Hens-Piazza, 1-2 Kings, 276. ↩
- David P. Wright, Richard N. Jones, “Leprosy,” ABD 4:281. ↩
- Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 4. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 286. ↩
- Ibid., 303. ↩
- Ibid., 308. ↩
- Ibid.,310. ↩
- Ibid., 310. ↩
- 1 Kgs 10:28-29 is as follows: “Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue, and the king’s traders received them from Kue at a price. A chariot could be imported from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for one hundred fifty; so through the king’s traders they were exported to all the kings of Hittites and the kings of Aram.” (NRSV) ↩
- Renteria, “The Elijah/Elisha Stories,” 86. ↩
- Renteria, “The Elijah/Elisha Stories,” 86. ↩
- Ibid., 87. ↩
- See Rick Dale Moore, God Saves: Lessons from Elisha Stories (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 96-104; Terence E. Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 160; Walter Brueggemann, 1 &2 Kings Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001), 359-363. ↩
- Ibid., 362-3, Brueggemann emphasizes the twin efforts of Yahweh and lepers. He says, “the ruse of Yahweh’s sounds would be incomplete without the reporting lepers.” ↩
- King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 5. ↩
- Moore, God Saves, 96. ↩
- Sweeney, I & II Kings, 313. ↩
- Keith Bodner points out the contrast between the lepers and Gehazi. He points out that “the most recent leper is Gehazi, who himself accumulates a serious amount of Aramean silver by fraudulent means. The four lepers, without any swindling, will themselves discover an even bigger Aramean cache in due course.” See Keith Bodner, Elisha’s Profile in the Book of Kings: The Double Agent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 120. ↩
- 2 Kings 7:1 is as follows: But Elisha said, “Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the LORD, Tomorrow about this time a measure of choice meal shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” (NRSV) ↩
- Burke O. Long points out T.R. Hobbs’ deference to Elisha by quoting his argument that Elisha’s compassion reflects “the very character of God himself” and finds its echo in the ministry of Jesus. See, Burke O. Long, “The Shunammite Woman: In the Shadow of the Prophet?” Bible Review 7 (Feb. 1991), 18. ↩
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