Water is Life (2 Kings 2:19-22)

rh-healingspringatjerichoJericho had been inhabited for centuries, watered by springs that surrounded the town. The City of Palms was a fertile place, or at least it had been; now the water was bad, the life blood of the land poisoned, bringing death to crops and animals and people. The tainted waters, it was said, caused the soil to miscarry, and the people who lived there feared for their future and mourned their past.

The history of civilisation is, in some ways, the history of water – streams and rivers, irrigation and wells, sewage systems and canals. Water is essential, for farming, for hygiene, for life itself, and when water becomes polluted, when water dries up, civilisation starts to fade and move on.

The story of Elisha healing the water is a strange one, but let’s see it as a healing miracle for a whole community, rather than an individual; a resurrection miracle for the land rather than a person. Jericho is dying, but the prophet walks into town and brings the springs back to life in the power of God. Day to day urban practicalities sit alongside more spiritual concerns, the two not separate but intimately interwoven. There’s a darker side to that – in Joshua 6:26, Jericho is placed under a curse, with death promised to whoever rebuilds it. The weight of history sits heavily upon that community, but Elisha turns the situation round – the healing of the waters is also a healing of that curse, a new start for a community, an act of grace.

Nowadays, that healing would be a more controversial subject. Some of the biggest problems relating to the supply of water aren’t related to natural forces but to human greed and a refusal to consider the human cost of corporate ‘progress’. And, as with many issues relating to the environment, the forces of racism also loom large.

So, when the water supply to Flint, Michigan has been polluted by dangerously high levels of lead since 2014, we need to confront how those waters can be healed, but also why – especially as up to 12,000 children could have been exposed to what is effectively a neurotoxin, especially as the situation disproportionately affects black communities.

So, when the Dakota Access Pipeline is diverted away from the water source of the state capital and through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation lands, leading to assaults on protesters and the renewal of activity as the result of an executive order from President Trump, we have to see it in the light of the historic mistreatment of Native American tribes and a tendency for protests to be met with violence.

Like the story of Elisha healing the water, these are, on their surface, stories of anomalies, of problems that need to be fixed. But on the deeper level, they’re symptoms of a curse – of the way in which we’ve commodified resources as precious as water, of the way in which indigenous and black communities are often the first to suffer the ill effects of the way in which we manipulate our environment and disrupt our climate. And that’s a curse that needs lifting, healing, and while that still needs acts of grace all along the line, this isn’t just a case of Elisha throwing some salt into a spring; this is about working to heal the way in which we treat each other, the way in which we treat the land.

And so maybe, in these stories in which the corruption of water brings death, we can ask for the grace of healing, and see our communities resurrected. But that can only be done when the history of those communities is confronted, and present injustices fixed. Only then can the water be healed; only then can our lands start to prosper again.

 

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Elisha and the Bears (2 Kings 2:23-24)

There are certain verses that get pulled out whenever someone wants to talk about obscure bits of the Bible. The story of Ehud is one of them, as is the naked young man in Mark; basically anything that involves nudity or weird violence. And one of the weirdest moments of violence in the Bible is the story of Elisha and the two bears.

The context – the prophet Elijah has been taken up to heaven, leaving his successor Elisha to take up his mantle. Almost immediately he seems to establish his credentials – he purifies the stagnant water supply of Jericho before heading off to Bethel. This is when things get strange.

He’s faced with a group of kids who mock his bald head. This isn’t polite behaviour, and so Elisha calls down a curse upon his tormentors, whereupon two bears charge out of the woods and maul 42 of them.

End of story. Elisha heads off to Mount Carmel (the site of his mentor’s greatest victory) and the kids presumably think twice before dissing baldies.

The reason this story gets so much airplay is thanks to the King James Version, which describes those mocking Elisha as ‘little children’. Translated that way and the whole thing sounds less biblical and more Hunger Games.

However, translation is where the problem starts. Where the KJV talks about little children, the Hebrew actually means ‘youths’ – in several other places throughout the Bible, the same word refers to young men old enough to go to war. Meanwhile, Elisha probably wasn’t that much older than them – after all, he was working for his father when Elijah appointed him as his successor, and his ministry would go on to last over sixty years. This doesn’t really seem to be a bunch of school kids mocking an old man.

Suddenly the story starts to take on a different tone. Look at what the youths shout at Elisha – “Go on up, you baldhead!” We tend to focus on the baldhead, because let’s face it, it’s funny to see that in the Bible. But the real insult is in “Go on up”.

(Although it’s worth noting that Elijah was always considered to be hairy, so maybe there’s a personal slight going on here – “You’re no Elijah, Elisha…”)

This incident takes place not long after Elijah was taken up to heaven (at Bethel!). In other words, the youths are telling Elisha to follow his mentor and get out of there. This isn’t a personal insult aimed at Elisha’s haircut (or lack of one), it’s a pointed comment aimed at his status as a prophet; they’re not rejecting Elisha, they’re rejecting God himself and they seem to know it.

This isn’t surprising – Bethel was a centre for Golden Calf worship, established in the city a few generations earlier by a idolatrous king. You wouldn’t expect the place to be particularly welcoming to someone identifying himself as part of a tradition fundamentally opposed to worshiping other gods. With this in mind, maybe there’s more to this than an aggressive teenage street gang. Maybe there’s an element of intimidation going on here.

After all, look at how many youths the bears mauled – 42 of them. In what appears to be a nasty confrontation, the odds are not in Elisha’s favour. This isn’t about a stroppy prophet getting a bunch of children eaten by wild animals, this is something that could turn violent.

Of course, the bears attacking the youths still isn’t the non-violent response to the situation we might like to see, but the story falls within a broader context of God’s prophets being threatened by the followers of other gods, and of Israel breaking the historic covenant – in a prophecy against idolatry, Hosea refers to God acting like an angry bear. This isn’t the nasty little story some paint it as, it’s part of an ongoing conflict.

And I guess that’s a lesson we can take away from the story – when we’re dealing with the Bible, context is vital. Reading these two verses can make it look like Elisha’s a child-mauling lunatic; looked at from another angle, he’s miraculously saved from a mob of young men who seem to want him out of their city ASAP. It’s an important distinction to make…