The Message of the Prophet Elisha Lippman Bodoff



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The Message of the Prophet Elisha
Lippman Bodoff *

In this paper, I would like to offer a new view of a little- known story in Chapter 3 of the second book of Kings concerning Mesha, the pagan king of Moab (c. 9th century BCE), and its connection to the well-known story in the very next chapter, concerning the Israelite woman of Shunam. I believe they have much to tell us about the role of child sacrifice in Jewish tradition and the broader question of whether we must passively accept injustice and the misfortune of innocent, their suffering and sacrifice, even when they are presented to us as God's Will. The Mesha story (2 Kings 3) seems, at first reading, to contradict the traditionally accepted message of the Akedah, the "Binding of Isaac" (Gen. 22), that God rejects and abhors the pagan practice of child sacrifice.1 Mesha, king of Moab, has rebelled against the kingdom of Israel. He is about to be easily defeated by the king of Israel and his allies, the kings of Judah and Edom, as prophesied by the prophet Elisha, after a series of miracles that were forecast in that prophecy. In desperation, Mesha publicly sacrifices his son to the God of Israel atop the walls of the city where he is besieged - whereupon "a great anger comes over Israel"- it is not clear who be-comes angry at Israel, or why - and the three kings lift the siege and return home.

The medieval commentators, not surprisingly, try to refute the apparent message of this story - that God welcomes human sacrifice.2 One commentator says that Mesha did not sacrifice his own son but the son of the king of Edom, whom he had captured during the siege, causing the Edomites to become angry with Israel for causing the death of their king's son. This, presumably, breaks up the alliance and allows Mesha to "snatch victory from the jaws of defeat" Some commentators say that Mesha's act caused God to become angry at Israel for behaving similarly in the past, i.e., engaging in child sacrifice, violating God's prohibition of this pagan practice.3 But all of the commentaries are subject to a fundamental objection: since Elisha had prophesied Israel's easy victory, how could Mesha prevail in the final battle against him?

The Mesha story seems so problematic that one scholar relies heavily on it to support his view that, despite the "happy ending" of the Binding of Isaac, passive submission to the call to sacrifice the beloved first born to God remained a religious ideal in Judaism - though ritually transformed - long afterward, as the ultimate demonstration of true faith in God. This ideal would, thus, form a base of continuity from Judaism to Christianity, based on a common pagan background of sacrificial theology.4 Another scholar has agreed that Abraham represents the Jewish ideal of "Sacrificial Man," accepting, even embracing, the opportunity for suffering and martyrdom, mystical self-annihilation and self-deprivation, and communion with the Divine realm, as evidence of love of God and submission to His Will.5 Indeed, one midrash ties the tow stories together; it portrays Mesha as seeking to emulate Abraham but seeking to go Abraham "one better," as it were, by actually killing his own son, even without being asked.6

These views have not gone unopposed. One recent essay in the Orthodox scholarly journal, Tradition Fatly states that, insofar as the Binding of Isaac (Akedah) could be viewed as presenting Abraham with the choice of obeying God and killing Isaac, or disobeying God and not killing Isaac, Jewish law forbids human murder- and Abraham would be forbidden to kill his son.7 In a recent paper in this publication, I have pointed out that the Talmudic Sages sought to define Abraham not as "sacrificial" but as a loving, life-embracing personality who silently prayed to God that Isaac should not have to be sacrificed.8 At the 1997 Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, one scholar developed the theme that the Akedah did, indeed, reject the pagan ideal of child sacrifice; that Christianity re-adopted that idea, in a transformed way, to be sure; that the Jews became a kind of sacrifice continually offered to God by their religious oppressors in human history; and that the Jews responds ed to this oppression by developing a transformed under standing of the Akedah that would explain their oppression in theological terms. Thus, they began to view the Akedah as a paradigm of their history, and a prophecy of their destiny, as sacrifices to God. Jewish suffering was seen not merely as a matter of helplessness, but as evidence of Israel's purity, spirituality, nobility, even its chosenness - to be accepted, even embraced, as God's Will.9

Given the ongoing debate in Jewish history and Jewish thought on the proper response to the suffering of innocents, I believe that the Mesha-Shunamite stories support resistance, and not passive acceptance and willing sacrifice, as the view of Jewish Scripture.

The key to the Mesha story is to view his bold, public act of sacrificing his son before the shocked eyes of the Israelite armies, as an act of Churchillian defiance - as if to say, "You Israelites (and Judeans and Edomites) may think that this final battle will be easy, but it will not be; it Will be the hardest, longest, bloodiest battle you have ever experienced. We will fight you in every street, in every alley, in every house, in every room, until the last man, woman, and child dies in battle, if necessary we will never surrender. And, as proof, in case you have any doubts about our determination on this matter, here - see what sacrifice I am prepared to make. I am prepared to kill my own son, as you can see, and I do it now. And every one of my people will follow me in sacrificing their most precious lives - their own, and their family's. We will never surrender."

At this juncture, a "great anger" did, indeed, come over the Israelites - not God's anger but their own anger, born of frustration that the easy victory that had been prophesied for them by Elisha was evidently not to be. Instead of faith in Elisha's prophecy of an easy victory, they were overcome with fear of death and defeat by Mesha's show of determination to fight to the end, and they and their allies lifted their siege against Mesha and returned to their homelands. Thus, Elisha's prophecy was forfeited not because God accepted Mesha's sacrifice but because the Israelites lacked the faith to accept God's promise of an easy victory, and act on it.10

Not only does the Elisha-Mesha story not prove that God welcomes and rewards child sacrifice, but the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman that follows it is clearly designed,. in its plot, theme, and language, to parallel the story of the Binding of Isaac, and to convey thereby the message of both - that Man is neither required nor praised for passively accepting the sacrifice of children or other innocents to God as proof of his (or her) piety, faith, or love of God. To the contrary: faced with the reality of injustice, of evil, of the suffering or misfortune of innocents, Man has a right, even a duty - and God expects of Man nothing less - to resist such reality, to ""wrestle with God," as it were, in every feasible way, whether it be by the psychological resistance of "denial" or anger, the religious resistance of doubt, physical resistance against human evil and the indifferent malevolence of nature, or the spiritual resistance of prayer. God may not always accept our resistance, our protests, and our prayers that our innocents be spared. But, while God's ultimate plans and decisions are not ours to fathom, God will always respect our human actions and attitudes - with all their inherent limitations-when they are governed by a desire for justice and righteousness, because this is the only compass that God has given to us to guide our response to the tragedies of life.

The story of Elisha and the Shunamite is easily summarized. After establishing Elisha's rapport with the common people, and the miracles he performed for them in times of need, we read of the kindness of the woman of Shunam to the prophet, Elisha, as Abraham "as known for his kindness to strangers who came his way. Elisha offers to do a kindness for her in return, and-in words that precisely follow the angelic promise to Abraham of the coming birth of Isaac - Elisha promises her a son exactly one year later. She doesn't believe him, for she and her husband are old (2 Kings 4:14, 16, 28), as Sarah and Abraham had not believed the Divine promise to them of a son, for the same reason. (Gen. 17:17 and 18:12) As prophesied, she gives birth to a son one year later, as did Sarah, and the boy grows up, as did Isaac. One day, God "takes" her son, who dies suddenly, evidently as a result of a stroke, as God sought the life of Isaac in the Akedah In denial of her son's death, and in anger at the prophet, and at God, the Shunamite does not wish to bury her son. Instead, the places her son's dead body on the bed that the had set aside so many times for Elisha's use when he passed through her village, as if to say "This is the way God has repaid my kindness to His prophet." And now, standing between her son's death and burial, when Jewish law - with great psychological in-sight - accords the mourner significant freedom in religious observances, feelings, and beliefs,11 the goes to find Elisha, and bitterly remonstrates with him about her son's death- because (according to a midrash) Elisha had promised her earlier that her son would not die prematurely, viz., before his parents, just as God had promised Abraham that Isaac would survive him and sire Abraham's progeny.


Now, if the sacrifice of a child to God is an act of piety, then Elisha's response to the distraught Shunamite should have clearly said so: "If Abraham (and Mesha) were rewarded for their sacrificial acts of faith, surely your piety will cause you to accept, even embrace, as a religious privilege, your son's sacrifice, by God's own hand, as a true act of faith." But Elisha's actual response to the grieving Shunamite mother could not be more different. The sense of his response - refitted more in his deeds than his words - is the following "I did not know about this [death of your child]: God hid it from me. It is unjust. I do not accept what has happened.... I pray to you, O God, not to keep this child that you have so suddenly taken from its mother. I intend to resist Your decree, even to cause you to reverse it, if that is possible, by every resource at my command, every rite and every ritual, every miracle that I can summon. I beseech You to respond to my pain and my prayers, and the pain and prayers of this dead child's mother - as you answer ed and responded to Abraham's prayers on Mount Moriah that You save Isaac."12

The text now tells us of the rites, ritual, and prayers of Elisha as he seeks of God the ultimate miracle, to reverse the Divine decree of death, and to restore the life of the Shunamite woman's dead son. None of the words of Elisha's prayers are provided to us. The texture of the text, as Elisha seeks to bring the child back to life, bespeaks a determination- almost akin to a demand, a rightful, but bold, demand.13 And suddenly, abruptly, the text ends: "... the lad opened his "... He [Elisha] summoned her [the mother] and the came to him; he said, 'Pick up your son.' She came and fell at his feet and bowed down to the ground; and the picked up her son and left"



This story is the most extreme example in Scripture of successful resistance against an apparently unjust Divine decree. As such, it reinforces similar responses by Abraham at Mount Moriah, praying that Isaac be spared from sacrifice; Moses in the desert, challenging God not to violate His covenant by destroying the Israelites on account of their worship of the Golden Calf, and to strike Moses`s name from the Torah, if necessary; Aaron, the High Priest, refusing to perform part of his duties in the Tabernacle after his two sons were strangely consumed by a Divine fire; Job (a parable), who sought a Divine accounting for his suffering; and Jonah, the prophet (8th century BCE - disciple of Elisha) who sought to escape his Divine mission to urge the non-lsraelite city-state of Nineveh to repent from its evil ways, because he was afraid that their repentance would lead to Israel's destruction.14 While these protests were not as dramatic and successful as Elisha's on behalf of the Shunamite mother, they demonstrate that resistance to tragedy is not only acceptable before God, but is desired by Him, because that response, not passivity, always has a chance of saving human life, and perpetuates in us the impulse for justice and righteousness that is our Divine mission in the world.15

From: Midstream February 1999 pp. 10-12

* LIPPMAN BODOFF, since his retirement as assistant general counsel o1 AT&T Technologies, Inc., has devoted himself to Jewish studies, including four years of graduate work and four years as associate editor of Judaism. His essays have appeared in numerous journals.

1Jer. 7:31, 19:5, and 32:35; B. Ta'anit 4a. See also Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trail Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1993 reprint, pp. 64, 73, 79-80, 116. There are only four cases in the Tanach (comprising the Pentateuch, The Prophets, and the Writings) where parents sacrifice their children: Jepthah, who sacrifices his daughter in fulfillment of a vow, and is condemned by Scripture. (see Jeremiah citation above) and the rabbis (B. Ta`antic 4a) for doing so; Ahab and Menasseh, Kings of Israel, who are explicitly condemned for doing so (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6) and Mesha.

2See, e.g., Mikrao`t Gdolot, A.J. Rosenberg, ed. New York: Judaism Press. 1980. ad loc. See also B. San. 39b and B. T`aanit 4a, where the rabbis interpret Jeremiah (see, n. 1) as condemning Mesha as well as Jephtah, without dealing with the difficulties of the Mesha text.

3Cf. the strange Abarbanel on Jer. 7:31 based on a midrash on 2 Kings 3:27, that Israel's enemies were punished because of Mesha`s obscene act.

4Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, Preface, p. 198, Chapters One Six and Twelve, and passim. Cf. text at note 9, below. Levenson also relies, erroneously in my view, on Ezek.

5Yehudah Gellman, "And Sarah Died", tradition, fall, 1997, pp. 57-68. Gellman concedes that the desire for Sacrifice must be balanced by Mercy, represented by Abraham's wife, Sarah. However, in Jewish tradition, Mercy is balanced by justice, not Sacrifice, much less Sacrificial Murder ; see Spiegel, … Trail, pp. 89, 92. Gellman correctly observes (p. 62) that Abraham, as Sacrificial Man, is father of “an entire spiritual orientation”, embracing Jewish mysticism, as well as mystical ideals in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. But this is precisely the philosophy that classical Judaism rejected (see my article cited in note 8).

6Spiegel, … Trail, op. cit., pp. 78-80; B. San 39b. It is difficult to understand in what way Spiegel believes that this midrash was designed to make the Sages more comfortable with the Mesha text. It may reflect their view that the ambiguity of Abraham's passive, silent obedience set a bad example for others later on, who used the Akedah as precedent for both passivity and violence see my article (note 8), and Gershon Mamlak, “The Roots of `Religious` Anti-Zionism”, Midstream, May/June 1998, pp. 10-15; see also note 9.

7Eugene Korn, “Tselem Elokim and the Dialectic of Jewish Morality”, Tradition, Winter 1997, pp. 5-30.

8See B. Ta`anit 15a (and commentary of the Ran) and J. Ta`anit 2:4 (and commentaries of Korban Ha`Edah and Pnai Moshe, ad loc; Lippman Bodoff, “Religious Murders: Weeds in the Garden of Jewish Tradition?” Midstream, January, 1998, pp. 9-14; see also note 12. Because of its Talmudic source and halachic context – this view of Abraham is embodied in the liturgy of our public fasts, including Yom Kippur – I believe it must be accepted to Abraham's desire (!) to kill his son, in the morning service liturgy of certain prayer books, seem highly inappropriate.

I believe that the Sages sought to discredit the idea of Abraham as silent, “Sacrificial Man” by parody and irony in a midrash on which Gellman relies. In it, Abraham – previously silent – presses God to be allowed to slaughter, strangle, or main Isaac, even after God has ordered him not to touch the boy (!) – teaching us, I believe, to avoid such fanaticism, that embraces the extremes of first submission and then violence. A midrash that appears to praise Abraham for his silent sub-mission at the Akedah (Spiegel, ... Trial pp 90-91), is really Based on the idea that God and Israel must have faith in each other's righteousness. Abraham is described after his ordeal, as urging God to speak out in Israel's defense, and to have compassion for it, when it transgresses in future years, just as Abraham refused speak out against the injustice of God's command that he sacrifice Isaac, and suppressed his compassion for his son. Isn't this a blatant non-sequitur? Not really - provided we understand Abraham addressing God this way: "Just as I remained silent, with faith in Your abiding righteousness to save Isaac, so I ask You, in future times, to speak in Israel's defense, and have compassion for it, with faith in its abiding righteousness as Your witness in the world.



9Arnold J. Band "Me-aggadot ha-'Aqedah: Shalom Spiegel's Holocaust Elegy," La Crescenta, CA: Audio Archives International 1997, audio cassette no. 171221-280.* Sadly, Jews who have passively accepted oppression have sometimes turned to violence against other Jews, who were seen as apostates, contaminators and traitors to the Jewish people. See, e.g., my paper, cited in note 8; Todd Endelman, "Jewish Converts in Nineteenth Century Warsaw: A Quantitative Analysis, "Jewish Social Studies, n.s., Fall, 1997, p. 34 (18th-century murders of Jewish apostates by family members): Meyer Balaban, A History of the Liberal Synagogue of Lvov, Lvov 1937, in Polish (19th-century murder of a Liberal rabbi and his daughter by a Chasidic Jew).
*See also Arnold J. Band, "Scholarship as Lamentation:

Shalom Spiegel on 'The Binding of Isaac,'" Jewish Social Studies, New Series, (Fall 1998/Winter 1999):80-90.




10Artscroll Genesis (multi-volume edition), Vol. IV, Brooklyn, NY; Mesorah Publications 1979, at Gen. 32; 8, 11. See also Asher Wisher's similar view that the Israelites forfeited Elisha's prophecy because they could have stopped Mesha's child sacrifice but did not, and were Divinely struck by plague, in Tanach (Kings), Tel Aviv: Dvir, at 2 Kings 3: 27.

11Shulhan Aruch, Y.D., sec. 341, no. 1.

12See no. 8. I believe that Abraham did not say "No" at the outset to God's command to sacrifice Isaac, because he wanted the rejection of child sacrifice to be forthcoming in the tradition and text of the Akedah as a Divine imperative, and not just as a Divine acquiescence to a human value - tinged, as it would inevitably be seen to be, with "selfish" parental love.

13See, e.g., The Torah Anthology: Me'Am Loez. New York: Moznaim, 1997, p. 51.

14See Ex, 32:11-14, 31-35, and 34:1-10 (Moses's plea); Lev. 10:1-3, 16-20 (Aaron's re-fusal); Job, passim; and Jonah 1:1-3 (and commentaries of Rashi and Malbim, ad loc.).

15Significantly, on public fast days during the year, the Torah reading includes Moses's plea, and the liturgy (Mi she'anah) makes reference to Abraham's prayer at Mount Moriah, pointing to the similarity of their responses.

Similarly, the Talmudic Sages paired the story of Elisha and the Shunamite as the haftorah of the Akedah Torah reading each year, signifying their common message of parents urging God to save their children from a Divinely decreed death.





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