2 Kings 6:24—7:2 (NIV)✞: Famine in Besieged Samaria
Note: After my brief NIVUK experiment I’m switching back to the NIV for this passage. Although I enjoyed the U.K. spelling, I couldn’t get past the conventions for single and double quotes, which is ‘opposite’ from the “North American convention.”
In the last passage the Arameans and Israelites had been fighting but God caused a miracle in which the Arameans were struck blind, led to the king of Israel, and then released, free to return unharmed to their country. The passage ended with them halting their raids against the land of Israel.
Except not really, because in this passage, “Some time later” (v. 6:24✞), they put the city of Samaria under siege, which causes a famine. How serious is the famine?
There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels.
As I wrote this post my original intent was to make a silly joke about that verse—“Can you believe it? Five shekels of silver for just a quarter of a cab of seed pods?!?”—and then I was going to get serious and actually translate the amounts. Maybe I’d even have converted it to modern currencies. But then I went to the ESV Study Bible notes (which I’ll get to in a second), and noticed that the ESV actually translates that verse differently:
And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver.
2 Kings 6:25 (ESV)✞, emphasis added
The NIV translated part of that Hebrew to “seed pods” while the ESV translated it to “dove’s dung.” And… I’m not literate enough in history to know if it would be common to be buy and sell dove’s dung at normal times, or if this was something that further illustrates how bad the famine is – i.e. so bad that people needed to buy dove’s dung. Part of the reason I’m not sure is that there are types of dung that are (or have been) used for various purposes, such as guano (bat’s dung), and the fact that people have had a variety of uses for cow’s dung.
Regardless, the ESV Study Bible notes do give some further context on these prices, in relative terms:
2 Kings 6:25 donkey’s head … dove’s dung. Donkeys were commonly found among the domestic animals in Syria-Palestine, and various OT laws identify them as significant possessions (e.g., Ex. 13:13; 20:17; 22:4). So severe was the siege that the inhabitants of Samaria were reduced not only to slaughtering and eating valuable animals, but also to consuming body parts that would not normally be consumed, and purchasing them for exorbitant prices (the cost of a live horse in 1 Kings 10:29 is only 150 shekels of silver, and here a donkey’s head costs eighty). During this crisis even half a liter (the fourth part of a kab) of dove’s dung cost what the average worker could make in six months (five shekels of silver).
ESV Study Bible
So that was a lot of context for me to just say that the famine was bad. But the text gives even more context, with a heartbreaking story:
26 As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, “Help me, my lord the king!”
27 The king replied, “If the LORD does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?” 28 Then he asked her, “What’s the matter?”
She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.”
30 When the king heard the woman’s words, he tore his robes. As he went along the wall, the people looked, and they saw that, under his robes, he had sackcloth on his body.
The famine is so bad that people are resorting to eating their children – a practice that has become so commonplace, in fact, that this woman expects the king to take her side and tell the other woman to produce her child so they can eat it!
Luckily, the king has come up with a solution: he’ll put Elisha to death! (Irony doesn’t always translate well, but the “luckily” in that sentence was sarcastic.) He believes this famine to be from the LORD, so, therefore, I guess he assumes that putting the LORD’s main prophet to death might… stop it? Somehow?
The remainder of the passage (vv. 6:32–7:2✞) is a little confusing, so I’ll recount the events as I understand them:
The king sets off to see Elisha but dispatches a “messenger” ahead of him; we’re not told what the messenger is supposed to say, but Elisha interprets him as the one who’s coming to cut off his head (I’m not saying he’s wrong), so he has his people bar the door against him. The king arrives while they still have the door barred against the messenger, and says, “This disaster is from the LORD. Why should I wait for the LORD any longer?” (v. 6:33✞). Again, not sure how putting Elisha to death changes anything, but… desperate times, and all that1.
Elisha, however, is apparently not holding a grudge against the king for wanting to behead him, since he delivers a message from God:
1 Elisha replied, “Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the LORD says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of the finest flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.”
2 The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”
“You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!”
Again, without even knowing what a “seah” or a “shekel” are we can see that these prices are significantly lower than the ones mentioned earlier, so Elisha is telling the king that the famine will be over the very next day.
One thing I’m curious about is whether the author(s) of the book of Kings would agree with the king of Israel: did this famine come from the LORD? Would we consider this a judgement of His? The text doesn’t say, and frankly, I’m not comfortable taking a stand either way. I mean, in the sense that God is in control of everything, yes, we can say that this was under His control as well, but I mean in the sense of a direct judgement on Israel: “because the king of Israel is being wicked I’m going to send a famine” kind of thing.
Regardless, the king’s plan to execute Elisha doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I think it’s a mix of:
|Cultural Practices||Perhaps people in those days would have believed that killing a god’s main prophet would accomplish something?|
|Desperation||The king didn’t think there was anything else he could do!|
|Foolishness||Actually, yes, the king did have something else he could do: he could go to the LORD himself instead of trying to execute His prophet!|
But then Elisha tells the king that, miraculously, the famine will be over the next day.
Yes, miraculously! Because think about it: there is an entire city to feed, and they are so low on food that they’re eating their own children. Where would they possibly get enough food to feed the population of that city? In one day? Even if the Arameans were to stop their siege it would take months to grow and/or ship enough food to feed an entire city!
We’ll see in the next passage how God provides for Samaria.
- This is a short form of yet another English saying: “desperate times call for desperate measures.” ↩