2 Kings 4 (NIV)✞: The Widow’s Olive Oil, The Shunammite’s Son Restored to Life, Death in the Pot, Feeding of a Hundred
This is going to sound facetious but the NIV section heading “Death in the Pot” sounds so much like the title of a murder mystery that I just can’t stop thinking of it that way.
That comment seems even more facetious given how structurally important this one chapter is in the entire Bible, in a way that had never occurred to me until writing this post, but I’ll get to that in the Thoughts section below…
This chapter lists a number of miracles performed by Elisha. For once I’m not going to go through the passage in detail; just a brief synopsis of each miracle using the NIV section headings.
The Widow’s Olive Oil
In verses 1–7✞ one of the prophets in Elisha’s company has died and his widow approaches Elisha because a creditor is demanding her sons as slaves. Elisha has her gather as many jars as she can and start pouring oil into them from the small jar of olive oil she has – her only remaining possession. So they get as many jars as they can and start pouring oil, and it miraculously keeps pouring until all of the jars she has gathered are filled. She is then told to sell the oil so that she can pay off her creditor and live off of the rest of the proceeds.
The Shunammite’s Son Restored to Life
This is a longer story, in verses 8–37✞. Skipping over almost all of it, the basics are:
- Elisha and his servant Gehazi often find themselves in a place called Shunem. A “well-to-do woman” (v. 8✞) and her husband live there; whenever Elisha and Gehazi are in town the couple feed them and even go so far as to provide a place for them to sleep.
- To thank the woman for her hospitality Elisha asks her what he can do for her. She declines to ask for anything, but Gehazi mentions that she has no son so Elisha promises her that she’ll have a son within the year. She actually responds with distress, asking Elisha not to mislead her, but sure enough she has a son within the year.
- Interestingly, it doesn’t seem Elisha and the woman speak the same language. As I’m reading verses 11–16✞ it seems like Gehazi is translating between them.
- Years later the boy has some kind of problem with his head and dies. We aren’t told how many years, but the boy is old enough to speak. The woman brings his body up to Elisha’s room, lays him on the bed, and then immediately sets out to find Elisha.
- The husband doesn’t seem to have been informed of the boy’s death because he asks her why she’s going when it’s not any kind of special day.
- She travels by donkey to find Elisha. As soon as he sees her in the distance he seems to sense that something must be wrong for her to be seeking him out: “When he saw her in the distance, the man of God said to his servant Gehazi, ‘Look! There’s the Shunammite! Run to meet her and ask her, “Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is your child all right?”’” (vv. 25b-26✞).
- Once again we’re shown that, just because he’s a prophet, it doesn’t mean Elisha can just “tap into” God’s thoughts whenever he wants: the woman takes hold of his feet and Gehazi wants to push her away but Elisha says, “Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why” (v. 27✞). In answer, she simply relays the bitterness of her soul:
“Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?”
- He sends Gehazi to go and place his staff on the boy’s face (which doesn’t do anything), but also follows himself with the woman.
- When he does reach the woman’s house he brings the boy back to life.
Death in the Pot
In verses 38–41✞ Elisha travels to Gilgal, where there is a famine. Someone goes out to gather some herbs with which to make a stew and also gathers a bunch of gourds (though nobody knows what kind of gourds they are).
40 The stew was poured out for the men, but as they began to eat it, they cried out, “Man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it.
41 Elisha said, “Get some flour.” He put it into the pot and said, “Serve it to the people to eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot.
Feeding of a Hundred
Finally, we have a miracle in which Elisha feeds a number of people:
42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said.
43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked.
But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.
The main thing that occurs to me about this chapter is how much these events echo forward or echo back to miracles performed by other prophets: the miracle of the neverending oil echoes back to a miracle performed by Elijah; the raising of the boy to life echoes back to a miracle performed by Elijah and echoes forward to various miracles performed by Jesus; the feeding of a hundred people really echoes forward to Jesus’ feedings of the 5,000 and 4,000.
In this way of looking at the chapter Elisha almost seems like a pivot point: there are miracles performed by Elijah that get repeated by Elisha, then a miracle performed by Elisha that, to my memory, doesn’t have any “echoes” of other prophets (except himself earlier on), and then miracles performed by Elisha that get repeated (and expanded) by Jesus. And, although it had never occurred to me before, I think that’s actually a valid way to look at this chapter because after Elisha there isn’t another prophet who performs miracles like this until Jesus!
I need to sit with this point for a second because until writing this post I never realized this! Yes, there are a bunch more prophets between Elisha and Jesus, but those prophets are doing the typical work of a prophet: delivering the LORD’s messages to His people. They’re not performing miracles.
To be clear, other miracles do occur after Elisha’s time—for example, Uzziah is struck with leprosy in 2 Chronicles 26 (NIV)✞, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are delivered from the furnace in Daniel 3 (NIV)✞, Daniel is delivered from the lion’s den in Daniel 6 (NIV)✞, and Jonah is delivered from the fish in Jonah 1—2 (NIV)✞—but these are all miracles the LORD performs “directly,” without a prophet “performing the miracle” the way we see Elisha and Elijah and Jesus doing. This is dangerous language to use, of course; making it seem like the LORD is not the one performing any of these miracles would be blasphemous. But, at the same time, the Bible talks about these men “performing miracles,” and Elisha seems to be the last one talked about in that way until Jesus.
So, now that I’ve looked it up and see that Elisha really is the last of God’s prophets who “performs miracles” until the time of Jesus, suddenly Chapter 4 seems way more significant than I’d previously thought! This transition from Elijah to Elisha, and then from Elisha to Jesus, that I’d thought was just “a neat way of looking at this chapter,” is actually a pivot point across the Scriptures, from Old Covenant to New.
To be clear, the author(s) who originally put together the book of Kings had no idea this was occurring. They probably thought they were illustrating the pivot from Elijah to Elisha, the “last” prophet to “perform miracles” for God (as far as they knew), but they would have had no idea that this same pivot would occur later on from Elisha to Jesus. But now that I see it I can’t unsee it, and am honestly surprised I’ve never heard preachers calling this out before.
It also makes me second-guess myself, and wonder if I’m missing something, which wouldn’t surprise me, though a quick conversation with a Pastor friend of mind seemed to confirm that I’m not crazy.
But let’s talk about the miracles themselves:
The Widow’s Olive Oil
The first thing to note about this story1 is that it would have been a totally normal practice for the creditor to take the widow’s sons as slaves. The concept of “bankruptcy” didn’t exist, so if someone owed money they couldn’t pay back they had no choice but to become the creditor’s slave until the debt had been paid off. Or, as in this case, since the widow herself likely wouldn’t have made a good slave, her sons would be taken instead.
It’s worth noting, however, that a “slave” in that day was very different from what we in the modern world normally think of as a slave. A slave would have been closer to what we would think of as a servant, though they’d become “servants” through circumstances rather than as a choice of profession. It wasn’t great to be a slave, by a long shot, but it was nothing like the horrors that white Westerners performed on Africans in the North Atlantic slave trade. I feel like there should be a different word for that kind of “slavery” to the kind of “slavery” that had so commonly been a part of society before that.
- To state the obvious, slavery in the days of the book of Kings—and, frankly, all of history until the North Atlantic slave trade—had nothing to do with race or ethnicity, or even nationality (other than the fact that the Israelites had some specific rules about slavery in which fellow Israelites were treated differently in some ways). It was either due to financial reasons, such as in this case, or because a nation had conquered another nation and turned the conquered people into slaves. The idea that “this person’s skin colour is different and therefore they’re genetically inferior and therefore suited to be a slave” was a perversion of the human heart that had to be invented by white Europeans and North Americans.
- If the widow’s sons had been taken as slaves, they wouldn’t have been slaves for life. The work they did would have been working down the debt until it was paid off.
And there would be a number of other differences as well, mostly related to the fact that they would have been considered human beings; the evil of racism wouldn’t be invented for thousands of years.
The Shunammite’s Son Restored to Life
One thing to call out from this passage is that this is one of the few instances in the entire Bible of someone being raised from the dead. We think of that as being something that happens all the time in the Bible but it doesn’t; there are only a few instances where anyone is raised from the dead, they just happen to be so well known that we think it’s more common than it really is:
- Elijah raised a boy from the dead
- Elisha does so here
- Elisha sort of does it again later when his bones raise someone to life!
- Jesus raises some people from the dead, including those who come to life upon his death
- Luke raises someone from the dead in Acts 9:32–43, and Paul does so in Acts 20:7–12.
So we shouldn’t read this story and think, “ho hum, another person being raised to life in the Bible,” we should be blown away by one of the largest miracles that occur within the pages of Scripture!
It’s also a story that makes my heart break for the woman. True, her grief was only temporary, but for that period she must have been going through such turmoil! Elisha asks her what he can do for her and she says she doesn’t need for him to do anything; he tells her she’ll have a son and her only response is to say, essentially, please don’t tease me with that idea! But then she has the son… and he dies!
So yes, we know how the story ends, and her grief might have been short-lived, but I’m sure it was also intense for that period of time!
Death in the Pot
The most interesting part of this story is that I can’t think of a related example elsewhere in the Bible. The story of the widow and her oil relates back to a story from Elijah’s life, and the story of the Shunammite’s son being raised from the dead and the feeding of 100 people relate forward to events in Jesus’ life, but I can’t think of another story similar to the poisoned stew – other than the poisoned well that Elisha himself healed in Chapter 2.
This is all the more relevant if my point about pivoting from Elijah to Elisha, and then from Elisha to Jesus, is a valid one, because part of that pivot is this miracle that has no forward- or backward-looking echoes to other miracles, the only echo is to a miracle performed by Elisha himself, in the “middle of the pivoting.”
Feeding of a Hundred
Still on the point of these pivots, this story is obviously reminiscent of the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 that Jesus will perform. (Or rather, those stories are reminiscent of this one, from a temporal perspective.) From the point of view of the timelines, the miracles Jesus performs are almost a beat-for-beat recurrence of this story!
So, with that in mind, it’s all the more striking that Jesus’ disciples are shocked at the idea that He is going to feed so many people.
- When he feeds the 5,000 they should have been remembering this story from Elisha
- When he feeds the 4,000 they should have been remembering this story from Elisha and the previous feeding of the 5,000
As usual, however, my point is not to say, “Wow, those disciples sure were dumb!” My point is to turn it back around on myself: we can know everything the Bible says—and I’m sure Jesus’ disciples did know this story from the life of Elisha—but when you’re in the moment being tested by God, knowing what the text says isn’t the same as having faith in Him. It’s one thing to know a story from 2 Kings 4 but it’s quite another to truly believe Jesus when He says He’s going to do the same thing (though for 50x as many people).
When the disciples were faced with 5,000 hungry people, with only a couple of loaves of bread and some fish in their hands, their first impulse wasn’t to think, “Wow, God is about to do something amazing!” It was to think, “Who does Jesus think he is? Elisha?!?” Or maybe they weren’t thinking that – but I’m sure I would have been!
That being said, they had even less of an excuse for their lack of faith at the feeding of the 4,000, coming as it did after the feeding of the 5,000. I’m not saying I would have done better, were I in their place, it still would have taken a lot of faith to expect God to do it again, I’m just saying there was even more reason for faith that second time then there had been the first time.
- I try to avoid using the word “story” because “story” can mean “fictional” and I don’t want to give that impression, but it’s so much more concise to say “this ‘story’” than to say “this ‘sequence of events,’” or “these ‘things that happened,’” or something even more laborious. ↩