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Tragedy and Idolatry
Most of us in Israel were knowledgeable about our Moabite and Edomite relatives who dwelled in the parched desert lands south and east of Judah. The Edomites were more closely related, as their ancient ancestor, Esau, was the brother to our patriarch, Jacob (who as we know later took on the name Israel). The Moabites were more distantly related to us, as Moab was the son of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Because there was a political intrigue in Samaria at the moment involving Edom and Moab, Athaliah devoted some lessons to explain their origin. He seemed to be extremely well-connected with the ruling elements in Samaria, but I could never figure out how or why. Perhaps he performed some prophetic functions for someone in the royal caste? I will never know the answer to this question, because Athaliah has been gone for many years now. It was certain, though, that he knew things that most of the other Sons of the Prophets did not. He spent long hours with Elisha sharing secret things during this time. One day Athaliah began speaking to me of Moab and our tricky history with them. He went into great details though I wasn’t sure why. Lets walk together, Gehazi, he began. As he paused to collect his thoughts, he stated, When Moses was approaching the land that The God had promised to give to the tribes of Israel, he needed to pass near to the border of Moab. No doubt many of the wanderers imagined that taking Moab’s land would be much simpler and faster than following the challenging rules The God had given them, so our Scriptures record that The God gave specific direction to Moses. Do not harass or attack the people of Moab, The God spoke, for I have given that land as an inheritance to the sons of Lot. That was the beginning of a strange relationship that our people have had with Moab. Our great King David was a close friend of the King of Moab and even entrusted him with the care of his aging parents during the season when Saul was persecuting him. Perhaps this connection to the Moabite king existed because David could make the case of being part Moabite himself. Did you know that? I shook my head no, surprised to learn this. His grandmother, he continued, was named Ruth. She was a Moabite woman who believed in The God and who married David’s grandfather Boaz. Regardless of David’s ancestry, though, he seems to have had on and off relationships with Moab. In earlier times, while our people were still in the wilderness, a king of Moab named Barak hired a magician named Baalam to curse the wandering Israelites and thus save the land of Moab. This magician knew The God – though he didn’t follow his instructions very closely – and quickly realized that The God was not going to curse His people. This led to quite a standoff, with Baalam eventually giving Barak the prophecy that a future king of Israel would one day crush his forehead. Despite his complicated ties to Moab, David eventually fulfilled this prophecy when he destroyed two-thirds of Moab. The remaining third of the people were spared and became vassals to King David. Moab has brought tribute to Israel and Judah ever since in honor of their obligations to David. There are whispers on the streets of Samaria, though, that the new King of Moab intends to try to divide Israel and Judah’s military alliance by refusing to continue the tribute. I nodded. This was mostly boring politics to me. I could not see how it would impact my life at all. Months later a breathless messenger arrived to speak to Elisha. He was dressed in the livery of the King of Judah, something that was very interesting to the handful of the Sons of the Prophets who were lounging around and half-heartedly listening as Athaliah provided instruction on some detail in the scriptures that he deemed to be important. I must not have been paying very good attention either because I cannot remember the subject of his discussion at all. When the King’s messenger arrived, all the attention in the room shifted to the Prophet who stepped out of our hearing to receive the message. We watched them walk out to a private spot behind a small cluster of juniper trees. I looked up at Athaliah and he shrugged. It’s not every day that the King of Judah sends us a messenger, he said. The presence of a representative from Judah was fascinating because it seemed to be a given that the ministry of both Elijah and now Elisha were strictly focused on the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was very rare that we dipped down to Jerusalem, and then only to support formal festival activities or perhaps a conference with the Levites in the temple of Solomon. Otherwise, we never travelled to or through Judah. One time I asked Athaliah about this. Of course he went on to give me a lesson. This split between the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom of Judah happened after the death of King Solomon, Athaliah started. During Solomon’s life, he followed a dissipated path away from The God towards the idols held by his many wives. He paid little attention to his children and drifted along as king. One day a prophet named Ahijah met one of Solomon’s top officials, a highly-talented man named Jeroboam, on some remote road outside Jerusalem. He made a prophecy right there on the road that The God was going to take ten tribes away from Solomon and give them to Jeroboam. Obviously Jeroboam was an ambitious and capable man, so I guess he started to make plans. After Solomon’s death, Solomon’s son Rehoboam became king of the entire nation of Israel. He was an arrogant young man who wanted to make a name for himself through his own power. He refused the wise council from advisors of Solomon’s generation and instead accepted foolish advice from his younger peers on how to lead the nation. Jeroboam, who was well-regarded by the people, tried to intervene with Rehoboam to help save the nation. This did not work, as Rehoboam wouldn’t listen. All of the tribes, save Judah and Benjamin (and Levi for the most part) decided that they had no part in Rehoboam and followed Jeroboam as he formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Rehoboam remained king of the remaining tribes, strictly for the sake of promises made by The God to his grandfather David. His kingdom took the name of his forefather, Judah. Ever since, the original nation of Israel that was led by both David and Solomon has been split. Sometimes the two nations’ kings get along and other times they have been at war with each other. Jeroboam made some strategic decisions early on to keep the two nations separate that have had very unfortunate consequences. He feared that his people would travel to Jerusalem for temple sacrifices and holy weeks and he wanted to maintain tighter control of them, so he set up his own competition. He built two golden idols in the cities of Bethel and Dan that became the religious centers of the Northern Kingdom. He also eliminated the need for Levites to serve in sacrifices to The God. What resulted was the partial worship of The God wrapped fully in idolatry that we see today in our nation. The ministry of the great Prophets Elijah and Elisha have been primarily to the Northern Kingdom that followed Jeroboam. You might already be able to imagine the reasons for this, but maybe I’ll explain in more depth another time. What is important to know is that the Kings of Judah have occasionally made real efforts to serve The God but the Kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the very last one have been idolatrous, self-serving men who have only given attention to The God under the most extreme duress. So the fact that the King of Judah is reaching out to the Prophet is very interesting because he is well aware that Elisha’s primary ministry is to these idolatrous kings of the Northern Kingdom. While we were talking, the messenger and the Prophet decided to extend their walk together so they could discuss the King’s message in even further privacy. When the Prophet finally returned from this consultation, we discovered that the messenger had already returned to the battle from where he had come. This was surprising to us for we were not aware of any warfare going on. Gehazi! The Prophet bellowed upon his return, pacing through our rooms as if he were searching for something. We need to depart immediately! I spun into motion and quickly packed the Prophet’s traveling bag and loaded his donkey. This sort of activity was something that I had lots of practice performing, because many of our missions arose suddenly and required rapid preparations. As we traveled along the byway heading for the wilderness south of Judah I asked Elisha what had happened. Well, you saw the messenger, I suppose, Elisha responded. I nodded, yes I did. Athaliah explained some things to me about the relationship between Israel and Judah that were helpful to me. He suspects that the message has something to do with Moab or Edom due to some things he has been hearing in the courts. Yes, of course, the Prophet replied and continued, When the messenger and I went for a walk, he took me to a private place where three kings awaited me. Though I have seen many things, this surprised me quite a bit. One of these kings was the King of Judah, Jehoshaphat, another was the new King of Israel (now what was his name again? the Prophet joked), and the third was Edom’s king. They are in a great lot of trouble and one of them finally had the smart idea to reach out to see what The God would say. They really ought to have learned by now that their stupid Baal idols are unsurprisingly silent in times of great peril. It turns out that their armies are bogged down in the desert trying to invade Moab but all the water they had expected to find for their men and beasts has dried up since last rainy season. The kings therefore made a long, desperate journey solely to discuss with me what they needed to do. If they don’t find water soon, they will suffer great losses. The God told me to instruct them to dig ditches in the desert and wait. Once they are obedient to The God in this, the next morning the ditches will be filled with water. We are traveling south to observe the hand of The God and see where else we can be of use during this battle. The kings are already racing back to their troops in hopes that The God will bring salvation to them and their armies. Sure enough, a day and a half later when we reached the location of the combined armies of the three kings, they and their animals were drinking water from the ditches they had dug. From what I could discern, the kings awaited the arrival of the Prophet to continue their march to Moab. The Prophet strode to the top of a small hill that was now surrounded by plenty of water. See what the hand of The God has brought you, he shouted to the gathered armies, confidently gesturing in wide circles at the troughs of water all around them. Many of them looked up in surprise. Most likely they had never seen an authentic Prophet of The God before. This is a small thing for The God, he added, and I tell you this as a sign to know that the military might of Moab will crumble before you. Go forth and destroy the walled cities and raze the land of Moab! This caught the soldiers’ attention and they cheered loudly. I looked off to my right where I could see the three kings with their chosen men standing near to them and listening to the Prophet. They had strange expressions on their faces that I couldn’t really interpret. I wondered what they were thinking. The combined armies began to pack up and move out of the camp shortly afterwards. They were clearly in a different state of mind than I imagined they had been a few days earlier. Elisha explained to me that the trouble with water supplies had come about because they were approaching Moab from an unexpected direction which would give them the element of surprise. We didn’t follow them any further, but rather, returned north to Samaria to our own ongoing business and activities. I wondered what was going to happen in Moab. I had heard the Prophet’s words and I had plenty of reasons to believe that The God spoke through him, but I couldn’t figure out why The God even cared about these kinds of military exercises. To me He seemed pleased to maintain a safe distance from the matters that were important to humans. I certainly felt that the King of Israel, who I knew went against everything our priests and prophets told him, did not deserve the attention from Elisha or from The God. Of course, the King was someone easy for me to condemn because I’m sure that at this point in my ministry to the Prophet I was enjoying being viewed as his holy assistant. The King of Edom, of course, was clearly a heathen and I also judged the other two kings for even consorting with him. Regardless, my misguided sense of self-righteousness was inflamed by this event and took a few days to subside. In time, word of the battle reached us back where we were staying. True to the word of The God, Moab had been utterly destroyed but, it was said, the King of Moab remained in his city. He began repaying his tribute to the Kings of Israel and Judah, and things went on as before. Not much beyond this was discussed openly. I puzzled over this and got up the courage to ask Elisha what had happened. This was a very bad thing, he told me as he settled down to recline on a couch. He hesitated for a few moments, gathering his thoughts. The King of Moab had been utterly routed by the coalition of kings and was trapped in his city with just a small handful of devoted warriors, Elisha began. He knew he had irretrievably lost the battle and there was no hope, so he did something drastic that his culture has learned to do when threatened with extinction by an attacker. He conducted a sacrifice in the presence of his enemies in a way that showed his submission. Here Elisha paused and stared straight through me, as if to determine whether to continue. Do you understand, Gehazi? The heathens who populated these lands before the people of Israel arrived had a tradition during times of the greatest peril of lowering themselves in front of their gods in the presence of their enemies. If the sacrifice was large and important enough, it would placate those who it was offered to and the sacrificer could survive. This is what the King of Moab did. He thought he could stop paying his tribute to Israel and Judah that his forefather had promised to King David. He had built up a great army to support his decision and forever throw off the yoke, but what he hadn’t foreseen was the hand of The God against him. His only recourse when he realized that he had completely failed and was in danger of being destroyed was to submit himself again to the yoke through the most dramatic way possible. In some way, the three kings assented to this horrifying apology and allowed the King of Moab to remain. What did he sacrifice that was so important? I asked, nervous about hearing the answer to my question. His son and heir, Elisha responded gravely. This was a troubling thing to think about that led me into deep thought. How could one person’s bad decisions result in such a tragic outcome for others? This brought my mind back to my inability to really understand anything about the Justice of The God, a justice that sometimes required individuals to make devastating sacrifices for others. As we traveled I had plenty of time to ruminate how split-second decisions can have terrible consequences.