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God Saves Samaria Again -- another Miracle of Elisha in 2 Kings 7:1-15

It is right for one beggar to tell another beggar where to find food.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Kings 7:1-15

This week's amazing passage requires knowing all of chapters 6 and 7. In the midst of a catastrophic famine brought on by war, Elisha issues the audacious prophecy that in one day's time, healthy food will be plentiful and cheap. The king and his court don't believe him, but four diseased men stumble into an incredible miracle.

“Look, even if the Lord were to make windows in heaven, could this really happen?” 7:2

I took a couple of days off last week, and the only way to make that work was to sacrifice my weekly Bible study post. Thanks for your patience and understanding, and I hope you had a great time with our introduction to the man Elisha. If you're a literalist about these things, Elisha was twice the prophet that Elijah was (2:9), so we should read these stories very carefully.

I'm hoping you gave an overview of Elisha last week -- the man God said would succeed Elijah, the man who observed Elijah being taken to heaven, and the man who performed a number of miracles that made it clear he was not to be messed with.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Impact of the War in Ukraine on the Global Food Supply

This is an incredibly serious lesson, and it seemed to me the best approach is to jump right into serious discussion.

If you're like most news consumers, you paid attention to the Russian-Ukrainian War for a few weeks, and then it became white noise for you. Well, let's change that. I'd love for you to start your discussion with how you understand that war to be affecting the rest of the world. I'll give you some talking points, but I'd like you to do your own research.

I'm no geo-politician, but I feel confident in saying that the world is stressed right now. Let's walk through the situation.

Factor 1: the population. More people are living on the earth today than ever before.

Those people need places to live, food to eat, water to drink, and access to things like health care, jobs, transportation, and electricity. If resources are already stretched thin, that increase in demand puts stress on the system.

Factor 2: the pandemic. In 2020, we experienced a disruptive event the likes of which we have never seen before -- factories, shipping lanes, distribution centers, all shut down related in some way or another to COVID. We are still recovering from that disruption.

When resources are already stretched thin, and all of a sudden it's harder to get access to some of those resources, it puts great stress on the system.

Factor 3: the uneven global economy. The globe is too interconnected for economies to operate in a box. What happens in America affects everyone else, and vice versa. The fact that major economies have responded to those stressors in very different ways has also put stress on the system.

For example, America responded to the economic slowdown with massive stimulus packages, increasing American spending power. Some countries in Europe didn't do that. That means their citizens had less money to spend on goods that ultimately went to America. I'm not suggesting that one approach is better than another but that the differences in policy cause imbalances in the global economy, putting stress on the system.

Factor 4: the climate extremes. Whether or not you believe what's happening is the result of climate change or climate cycles doesn't change the fact that many parts of the world are experiencing extreme temperature and rain events, and those extremes have immediate impacts on things all over the globe.

I particularly like that WSJ article -- it's just a few bullet points of basic facts. Lower river levels mean that Germany can transport 1% less product. The Italian drought will cut back soybean production by 50%. Increase in the price of hay is forcing ranchers to sell cattle earlier, meaning less beef. And so on. Things that I don't know anything about but can understand in simple bullet points.

Surely you can see how those factors all fit together! Higher temperatures mean more need for air conditioning which requires more power. But there are more people now, and they need even more air conditioning. But higher temperatures mean lower water levels which mean less hydroelectricity. And on and on. Every one of those is a huge stressor on an already stressed system.

And then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Factor 5: the war in Ukraine. Ukraine is called "the breadbasket of Europe". It is a major supplier of grains, seeds, and seed oils (and potatoes, not listed).

The invasion has chased people off of the land, destroyed fields, and diverted supplies from agriculture to military. Here's another powerful slideshow-based article:

(I don't want to take the space to talk about the impact through Russia -- Russia being a massive exporter of fertilizers and natural gas. Our lesson passage most directly connects with the Ukrainian side of things.)

But the downstream effects of this invasion have been catastrophic. Ukraine is a major supplier of foods to areas in Africa that are considered "food insecure", like Egypt and Sudan. Those areas have been dealing with things like massive flooding and heat waves (see above) which have reduced their agricultural capacity. But then this invasion has cut back on their import sources, stressing and already-stressed system.

That article goes into a detail that I would otherwise have no idea about. The UN World Food Program (WFP) steps into the gap for these "food insecure" areas to make sure people are getting fed. But rising prices mean that (1) their money doesn't buy as much as it used to, and (2) people have less money to donate even if they want to help (sounds like the plight of every nonprofit, right? but we aren't tasked with providing food to hundreds of millions of people). They have had to cut rations, even to children.

And that's the cost of war:

  • fields and crops are destroyed

  • workers are killed or chased away

  • resources are diverted to war efforts

This happens in every war. I'm just using the Ukraine war because it's right now. This is what is happening in the background of our passage in 2 Kings.


This Week's Big Idea: The Wars between Aram and Israel

I used this map a few weeks ago; it just reminds us where the players are located.

Israel has an intimate connection with the Arameans, as demonstrated in this famous passage in Deut 26:

5 You are to respond by saying in the presence of the Lord your God: My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with a few people and resided there as an alien. There he became a great, powerful, and populous nation.

Throughout most of their history, "Aramean" referred to a collection of settlements located in the region called "Aram". Jacob lived there for a time, as did Abraham. They were mostly connected by their language -- Aramaic -- which was very influential, dialects of which were spoken by Jews in New Testament times. Very rarely were they allied into anything like a cohesive political force, but when they were, they were a force that could give lots of trouble to Israel.

When David became king, one such alliance (based in Zobah) resisted David's expansion into their territory, and David defeated them (2 Sam 8), leaving a garrison in Damascus. It stayed there for decades until Solomon's rule, when a local tribal ruler mobilized discontent to remove Israelite influence and consolidate power for himself.

We met the first Ben-Hadad, King of Aram (900-860 BC) when King Asa bribed him to break his treaty with Baasha and stop the Israelite invasion of Judah (1 Ki 15 -- remember that?). That event greatly expanded Aram's presence around Israel, and it only grew from there. The king's son, Ben-Hadad II (860-841 BC, also known as Hadadezer) expanded that power. We read about this in 1 Kings 20 -- Aram attacked Samaria, and King Ahab chose to form an alliance with a rival Aramean king rather than listen to the prophet. Ahab eventually defeated the invasion, but he earned God's strict rebuke in the process, at the cost of Aram retaining its military power.

That invasion probably happened in 853 BC. At that same time, Aram was being invaded from the northeast by Assyria. Ben-Hadad pulled his forces and opposed Assyria, defeating invading armies on 3 occasions from 853-845 BC(!!). After Assyria gave up their invasion, Aram turned its attention back to Israel, and that's what's going on in the background of our passage.

This era can be understood through the relative power of Assyria, Aram, and Israel.

  • From 853-845, Assyria wasn't strong enough to break Aram, but it did weaken Aram, and it also gave Israel time to build its military.

  • [*] From 845-841, Aram again tried to conquer Israel, but failed, and there was a coup in Damascus in 841 (see below).

  • From 841-838, Assyria finally gained the upper hand, forcing Damascus to start paying them tribute.

  • From 838-806, Assyria fell into decline, allowing Aram to wreak havoc in Israel and even begin putting pressure on Judah.

  • From 805-796, Assyria got feisty again and invaded Aram. This gave Israel a chance to reclaim its conquered territory.

It goes on and on from there. I put a [*] next to the part of the timeline that affects us. We are in the middle of a 5-year invasion of Israel which has been utterly devastating to the land.


Where We Are in 2 Kings

I gave you the military overview in that previous section, but I want to point out some crushing details.

After last week's event (the miraculous healing of Naaman), we have the bizarre but extremely cool story of the floating axhead, and then we have one of my very favorite events in the Old Testament -- the king of Aram is looking for Elisha because Elisha keeps giving good advice to Israel, preventing Aram from winning decisive battles. His army eventually surrounds Elisha and his servant in a town called Dothan, causing the servant to become concerned (2 Ki 6:8-23). And then there's this exchange:

15 When the servant of the man of God got up early and went out, he discovered an army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. So he asked Elisha, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?” 16 Elisha said, “Don’t be afraid, for those who are with us outnumber those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed, “Lord, please open his eyes and let him see.” So the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he saw that the mountain was covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

In a book filled with striking images, this takes the cake. The point is rather simple -- God doesn't need human help to defeat His enemies. But if humans are going to insist on fighting their own battles, God will let them. Elisha, by himself (in the power of God, of course), "defeats" the entire invading army by putting them at the mercy of the king of Israel and then telling the king to let them go. It's an incredibly powerful story -- God cares more about saving lives than ending them.

Sadly, things don't end there. The next section (2 Ki 6:24-7:2) feeds directly into this week's passage and is necessary to understand what's going on.

Aram is back -- they have reinvaded and are besieging Samaria again. This time, things are worse. The siege, combined with the previous years of agricultural disruption, has resulted in a full-blown famine. According to 8:1, God allowed the famine to last a total of 7 years.

"Famine" is a term for "severe and prolonged hunger". Verse 6:25 literally means that "Samaria's food supply ran out", which is the dictionary definition of a famine. According to Britannica, it can have natural causes like flood and drought, and it can have manmade causes like war and mismanagement. (Actually, that encyclopedia article is filled with horrifying examples of human-caused famines around the world.)

Here's how bad things got.

  • People were eating donkey's heads. Not only was that forbidden by the law (Lev 11:2-8), but they were paying more than half what living horses were selling for during Solomon's reign (1 Ki 10:29).

  • People were eating inedible husks of seeds (a number of scholars believe that the phrase "dove's dung" was slang for these husks because both were equally worthless). They were paying two ounces of silver (5 shekels) for a single cup -- that's 6 months of a laborer's wages.

  • People were eating babies. 6:28 is one of the most controversial verses in the Old Testament because it's so horrifying. (It doesn't mean that the practice was widespread or condoned. It's supposed to be horrifying.)

There is a sickening dichotomy here with Solomon. You remember that when Solomon became king, he heard a case about two women and a baby (1 Ki 3:16-28) which he judged wisely. But King Joram does nothing but tear his robes. He refuses to go to God for help. In fact, he blames Elisha for the situation and wants to kill him!

[Aside: that response should strike you as exceedingly stupid. But remember that King Joram, just like King Ahab with Elijah, believes that Elisha is behind all of these events, not God bringing punishment on Israel for their sins. In 6:33, the king rightly says that the Lord is allowing all of this, but he wrongly believes that the solution is to kill Elisha.]

Right before our passage begins, we learn that the king has gone to Elisha to arrest and execute him (I guess? actually, as has been common for the kings of Israel, he seems to chicken out of his plan pretty quickly and leave Elisha alone).

[Really, this is a bizarre choice of verses for the lesson. It makes no sense without reading all of chapter 6 carefully, and it ends before the payoff verse -- 7:16. In fact, if you don't keep reading through verse 20, you miss the entire conclusion!]


Part 1: Doubts (2 Kings 7:1-2)

Elisha replied, “Hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Lord says: ‘About this time tomorrow at Samaria’s gate, six quarts of fine flour will sell for a half ounce of silver and twelve quarts of barley will sell for a half ounce of silver.’” 2 Then the captain, the king’s right-hand man, responded to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord were to make windows in heaven, could this really happen?”

These verses are really simple if you take the time to learn the context. Here's a summary:

  • The army of Aram is besieging Samaria.

  • We are in the midst of a 7-year famine.

  • We learn that people are paying 2 ounces of silver for a cup on inedible husks.

  • The king discovers that at least one family has eaten their baby.

  • He immediately seeks out Elisha to kill him.

  • Elisha responds with this prophecy.

You can see the stark contrast. "Today, people spend a lot of money on food that's basically inedible. Tomorrow, people will spend a fraction of that money on fine, nutritious food."

If your first reaction is "How is this possible?!", watch out! That's exactly what the king's officer says, and it's basically a way to say "I don't believe God can do this". Here's the thing to remember -- God Himself spoke through Elisha saying this, so there should have been no doubts about it. [Aside: I wonder if this is evidence that the people had gotten used to false prophets speaking lies -- "I've heard some whoppers in my day..."]

Your time in this part of the lesson will be making sure everyone understands the context. Once that's established, you can try to help them see the plight of the people of Samaria.

Here's the challenge: we are seeing inflation in our country, but we aren't seeing anything close to the hyperinflation the people of Samaria were experiencing. These gas prices (more than $7) look pretty terrifying, but they would have to get to something like $40-50 before we could begin to say we kind of understand their plight. And, it would have to be that leftover gas at the very bottom of the tank. Imagine paying $30 for a gallon of milk, or $50 for a loaf of bread. Now we're starting to get into the mindset. What would gas prices have to be for you to become truly worried about your family's well-being?

Perhaps we can think in terms of shortages. We have all gone to the store only to find that they're out of what we want. (But it would have to be the kind of shortage where they're out of everything -- not just your favorite brand of cereal.)

Back to the point: imagine a world in which your money isn't able to buy you the necessities you need to take care of your family. (Sadly, that's the experience of people around the world right now.) That should be a nightmare trigger.

And then imagine that someone says that everything will change tomorrow.


Part 2: Desperate (2 Kings 7:3-8)

3 Now four men with a skin disease were at the entrance to the city gate. They said to each other, “Why just sit here until we die? 4 If we say, ‘Let’s go into the city,’ we will die there because the famine is in the city, but if we sit here, we will also die. So now, come on. Let’s surrender to the Arameans’ camp. If they let us live, we will live; if they kill us, we will die.” 5 So the diseased men got up at twilight to go to the Arameans’ camp. When they came to the camp’s edge, they discovered that no one was there, 6 for the Lord had caused the Aramean camp to hear the sound of chariots, horses, and a large army. The Arameans had said to each other, “The king of Israel must have hired the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to attack us.” 7 So they had gotten up and fled at twilight, abandoning their tents, horses, and donkeys. The camp was intact, and they had fled for their lives. 8 When these diseased men came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent to eat and drink. Then they picked up the silver, gold, and clothing and went off and hid them. They came back and entered another tent, picked things up, and hid them.

The passage takes a strange sidetrack. We are introduced to four men with a skin disease. Note that this does not have to mean leprosy but can refer to any sort of skin outbreak, including infections. Leviticus 13 is the passage to read (not that we should believe that these people cared what the law said anymore). They are hanging out at the city gate, and they have no knowledge of what Elisha had said earlier that day. This is a classic biblical "coincidence".

[Aside: somebody would have to be the ones to discover that the Aramean army was gone, and it would have to be somebody who was willing to die, because the assumption would be that the Arameans would kill anyone who left Samaria. So, why not a set of ostracized Jews? It strikes me similarly to how God sent the message of the birth of Jesus to shepherds -- He will send His messages to anyone who is willing to listen.]

This is a beggar's fantasy -- stumbling across abandoned food and money with no one to keep you from taking it. It happens so often in fiction that it's a trope: "Schmuck Banquet". Sometimes it's a trap, like this scene from Pan's Labyrinth, but sometimes it's just truly abandoned supplies, like this scene from The Return of the King.

What's the sort of treasure that, if you stumbled upon it, you would try to hide from everybody else?

[Aside: I had fun with this one. But it's hard because there are so many laws about property ownership. Even sunken treasure (legitimate salvage) can come with court costs. I settled on finding the ships in Goonies. Except without the mobsters.]

It's ridiculous, but that's the point. The Arameans have been overrunning Israel for years, and the Israelites can't stop them! But look how "easily" God defeats them:

  1. By blinding them and leading them to Samaria.

  2. By making them think there was a bigger army coming.

That's it! That's not even particularly mindbending! How easy are these things for God!


Part 3: Announced (2 Kings 7:9-11)

9 Then they said to each other, “We’re not doing what is right. Today is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until morning light, our punishment will catch up with us. So let’s go tell the king’s household.” 10 The diseased men came and called to the city’s gatekeepers and told them, “We went to the Aramean camp and no one was there—no human sounds. There was nothing but tethered horses and donkeys, and the tents were intact.” 11 The gatekeepers called out, and the news was reported to the king’s household.

After the second tent, the four men develop a conscience. (Well, a conscience fueled by fear of punishment.)

It's dusk, and the people in the city quite literally have no energy, so there probably wouldn't have been anyone to notice what these men were doing (considering they hadn't noticed that the army was gone). And I don't feel too bad for them -- as far as we know, they kept the stuff they had already plundered :).

So the men call out to the gatekeepers. (The gates would have been closed, and they were on the outside.) Sounds like a trap? As I said above in "Schmuck Banquet", it often is. In fact, that's so often the case that this trope also has its own name: "Schmuck Bait".

Does that jewel look too good to be true? It should.

And really, the story they report is absurd. The army left too quickly to take their donkeys and horses? No way. (Again, this just points to how easily God could take care of His people if they would just keep their end of the covenant.) But by this point, everybody is desperate, so this crazy news makes its way to the king.

Fun with Object Lessons. There are two ways you could do this. Put some desirable object/snack on a table and leave it in the middle of your room. Anyone who claims it can just have it. Or, rig it with one of those goofy buzzers -- someone picks it up and sets off the buzzer/alarm. Nothing painful, please, but startling. Of course, we really couldn't understand the feelings of the gatekeepers because they have been in years of famine.


Part 4: Skeptics (2 Kings 7:12-15)

12 So the king got up in the night and said to his servants, “Let me tell you what the Arameans have done to us. They know we are starving, so they have left the camp to hide in the open country, thinking, ‘When they come out of the city, we will take them alive and go into the city.’” 13 But one of his servants responded, “Please, let messengers take five of the horses that are left in the city. Their fate is like the entire Israelite community who will die, so let’s send them and see.” 14 The messengers took two chariots with horses, and the king sent them after the Aramean army, saying, “Go and see.” 15 So they followed them as far as the Jordan. They saw that the whole way was littered with clothes and equipment the Arameans had thrown off in their haste. The messengers returned and told the king.

The king, of course, thinks this is a trap. Really, it's a trap that makes sense. The Arameans might be tired of this siege, and they want to trick the Samarians into opening their gate.

But here's the difference between the gatekeepers being skeptical and the king being skeptical: the king had heard what Elisha said earlier in the day. But he was so against God that he would not consider what was happening to be of God. It took a servant to offer the extremely reasonable suggestion of sending out a scout force. (The reasoning is morbid: "everyone's about to die anyway, so what's the big deal if they die in this trap?") The scouts found not only the empty camp but also the trail of supplies the army had left during their forced march to the Jordan River.

That kinda explains what happened -- the army commanders were convinced that they were almost surrounded by a superior force, so their best chance at survival was to sneak away as quietly as possible. God, I'm sure, put a direction in their minds, and the army went that way in haste, leaving so quietly that no one knew they were gone.

But to bring closure to the opening verses, we have to keep reading:

16 Then the people went out and plundered the Aramean camp. It was then that six quarts of fine flour sold for a half ounce of silver and twelve quarts of barley sold for a half ounce of silver, according to the word of the Lord. 17 The king had appointed the captain, his right-hand man, to be in charge of the city gate, but the people trampled him in the gate. He died, just as the man of God had predicted when the king had come to him. 18 When the man of God had said to the king, “About this time tomorrow twelve quarts of barley will sell for a half ounce of silver and six quarts of fine flour will sell for a half ounce of silver at Samaria’s gate,” 19 this captain had answered the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord were to make windows in heaven, could this really happen?” Elisha had said, “You will in fact see it with your own eyes, but you won’t eat any of it.” 20 This is what happened to him: the people trampled him in the city gate, and he died.

If you think about it, this is the only way Elisha's prophecy could come true in a day. If the Arameans had simply retreated, they would have taken everything with them. If the Israelites had attacked and defeated them, they would have destroyed much of the goods in the process. And if God had just "opened windows to heaven" like the captain joked about, that wouldn't have done anything about the invading army. God's amazing, elegant, and bloodless solution accomplished exactly what Elisha prophesied.

The leader guide recommends ending a discussion about how to handle skeptics, like how the captain was skeptical of Elisha's prophecy. That's fine, but it's best if you stick to the spiritual application (I know, I know -- I always tell us to avoid spiritualizing our applications). Why? Because there are no prophets today like Elisha. There does not need to be, now that we live in the age of the Spirit.

Today, the greatest prophecy, and the one thing that humanity is most skeptical of, is the claim that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and that anyone who believes in Him will have everlasting life. That is our "Hear the word of the Lord"! And yes, people are skeptical, thinking that's too good to be true. Our job is to be persistent and consistent with them until they realize how serious we are.

The leader guide smartly points out that evangelism is simple: "one beggar telling another beggar where to find food". That, of course, is exactly what the four men in our story did.

If they can do it, we can do it.


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