Monday, October 24, 2011

The Prophet Who Lost His Head (II Kings 6)

Who lost a head of an ax in a stream? The sons of the prophet (II Kings 6:5, 6)

In the midst of a series of miraculous stories featuring Elisha, the prophet made iron float (II Kings 6:1-7). Though living in a tumultuous time spiritually, Elisha was developing a following, so much so that the prophets had a housing problem. There was not enough room for all of them (II Kings 6:1). (This is a good problem to have.) Elisha accepted his protégés’ recommendation and agreed to join them in building a new settlement along the Jordan River (II Kings 6:2-3).

While cutting trees, one of Elisha’s pupils’ ax heads plunged into the river (II Kings 6:4). The fact that the tool had been borrowed made matters worse. The (literally) poor man turned to Elisha and explained his plight, presumably to evoke empathy, not a miracle (II Kings 6:5).

Mark Batterson (b. 1969) writes:

Notice the verb tense. This apprentice uses the past tense. As far as he’s concerned, this ax head is gone. It reminds me of one of Jack Handey’s deep thoughts: If you drop your keys in a river of molten lava, let ’em go man, ’cause they're gone! If you drop your iron ax head in the river, let it go man, ’cause it's gone! (Batterson, In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day, 31)
Undeterred, Elisha asked where the ax head fell and successfully defied the laws of nature by throwing a stick where his student indicated which signaled the iron to float (II Kings 6:6). The story ends with the prophet instructing his pupil to procure the lost object (II Kings 6:7). The narrator supplies neither explanation nor interpretation. The story ends with no moral, object lesson, life application or even a suggestion to be more prudent.

In many ways, the story is typical as Elisha often saved his fellow prophets from physical want or financial disaster (II Kings 4:1-7, 38-41, 42-44) and Elisha stories often involve water (II Kings 2:18-22, 3:16-20, 5:10-14, 6:1-7). The two halves of the story are unified by the term: maqowm. This word is used for both the “place” where the prophets wish to build (II Kings 6:1, 2) and the “place” where the ax head fell (II Kings 6:6) The floating iron verifies the prophet’s true identity - what Elisha does can only be done by God working through him.

The story’s trainee prophet is in a difficult position. As evidenced by the fact that he had to borrow the tools, he was poor. The law was clear - he would be obligated to make restitution for the lost tool (Exodus 22:13-14). He likely could not. It was the Iron Age and an ax head represented the height of technological achievement. Unlike copper and bronze, iron had to be molded while hot which required a significant amount of fuel. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943) summarizes, “iron was expensive in Bible times and the student-prophet was very poor (Hubbard, First and Second Kings (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 157).” The student prophet became another in a long line of poor, hard working religious workers who could not afford to lose a borrowed tool.

Have you ever borrowed anything you could not afford to replace? Have you ever lost or damaged a borrowed item? When has God bailed you out of a predicament as is the case with this young prophet?

Though the event meant a great deal to Elisha’s student, the episode is strikingly mundane. Commentaries devote little space to it. It is overshadowed by most all of the incidents that precede it: saving a widow and her son from slavery (II Kings 4:1-7), raising a child back to life (II Kings 4:8-36) and curing a Syrian of leprosy (II Kings 5:1-27). Retrieving an ax seems insignificant in comparison. If Elisha were going to utilize divine power, why not simply erect a structure for the prophets?

Critics might even say that Elisha exploits his divinely granted power for pedestrian purposes. The incident is nothing if not a miraculous. Though a few have speculated that Elisha thrust the pole into the water to spear the ax head through the haft-hole or that he simply maneuvered the ax head into shallower waters this was certainly not the author’s intent. Iron, like any mineral with a density greater than one gram per cubic centimeter, does not float. (The density of cast iron is approximately 7.2 grams per cubic centimeter). Elisha performed a miracle in making an iron ax head buoyant. Was this incident worthy of a miracle?

Perhaps the triviality of the story is its significance. Batterson concluded, “God is great not just because nothing is too big for him. God is great because nothing is too small for him either (Batterson, 32).”

In 1980, William J. Krutza (b. 1929) published a book entitled How Much Prayer Should a Hamburger Get?.

How much prayer should a hamburger get? Do you ever opt not to pray for something because it seems too inconsequential? Is anything too trivial to pray about? If something bothers you, why would you not take it to God (Philippians 4:6-7; I Peter 5:7)? How many ax heads lie lifelessly upon river bottoms because no one attempted to retrieve them?

“God may not play dice but he enjoys a good round of Trivial Pursuit every now and again.” - Federico Fellini (1920-1993)

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