Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Atheist and Bible to marry! Read all about it!

Could be a little excess hyperbole in the title there. I was also thinking of calling it - "Why this atheist loves the Bible," which amounts to the same thing with a little less drama. But, the truth is, I do love the Bible, and sometimes that perplexes people who know I do not believe in God. Very rarely, it angers someone, but that has happened. Too bad. Even had they the copyright for it, they couldn't keep me from commenting on it. Nor can they stop me from saying "God bless you" if they sneeze or "God damn," "Good God," "Jeeesus Christ" or any other expression. Sometimes, I have even been known to comment, "that's the weight God wants me to be" (but, I'm fighting it nevertheless) which caused one friend of mine to look very puzzled and to say "But you don't believe in God." I know, I know, but religions have such great metaphors.

I love the Bible, not because I believe it is divinely inspired or the word of God, not because I believe it is accurate in its history or accept the miracles in it as having taken place. I love it for the stories, and the language and the occasional inspiration, and also for its prominent place in the only culture I have ever intimately known. Today I thought I'd write about a Biblical character you wouldn't normally read about. I'm using the NIV Bible, if anyone cares.

My favorite prophet. When I was a kid one of my favorite programs was My Favorite Martian, a show about a martian with certain powers who came to live with an ordinary young man. In the Bible, there are many people with amazing abilities, including prophets, but, for some reason, this one prophet Elisha is my favorite among them. He doesn't drone on and on about the fall of Israel much, bellow angry jeremiads; he just does cool stuff and reminds me a bit of character's in Grimm's Fairy Tales more than an old wizened prophet. Then again, the tales about him also remind me, in his irascibility, a little bit of Gandalf too (as often magical and irascible old men do). Or maybe it's just that the Grimm Bros. and Tolkien were so influenced by the Bible. You can find the tales about Elisha in 2 Kings 2-13.  I'll go through some of them and when you sit down tonight with your King James version in your hand, you can read the whole thing.

Elijah and Elisha. Elisha (meaning, I read, my God is salvation - "El" in a Biblical name always refers to God) didn't just jump out of a rock whispering spells and croaking bad guys. He was an apprentice first to someone who is probably the most popular prophet in the Bible, Elijah, aka, Elijah the Tishbite. Elijah is sometimes lumped together with Moses and Jesus, and that's not bad Biblical company. Jews know him best from the Passover holiday, as there is a place set for him at dinner, and reputedly, he drinks the wine left at the table for him. One day (Elisha's introduction is found in 1 Kings 19), Elijah sees a boy, Elisha, plowing a field with oxen, and throws a cloak over him. The boy says good-bye to mom and dad, burns his plow to make a fire to feed his people, and the goes with his new master. "Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant." Just like that. If it reminds you a little of Jesus calling Matthew - me too.

"Dragons live forever, but not so little boys," says the song, and apparently not prophets either. Elijah was going to be called to heaven. On a journey near his end he told Elisha to stay where he was because the Lord had sent him to Bethel. Elisha replies, almost rythmically, "As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So, he accompanied him. At Bethel another prophet asked him if he knew the Lord was going to take his master, and he acknowledged he did, but said, "Yes, I know, but do not speak of it." They repeated this little scenario in heading into Jericho and to the Jordan River and Elisha repeated his little mantra - "As surely as the Lord . . . ."

When they got to the river, Elijah, with a company of prophets watching, took off his cloak, rolled it, and struck the water with it. The river split and the two crossed dryly. If that reminds you a little of Moses splitting the Red Sea by waving his hand - me too. I like to call this event "The Prophet and the Second Parting," not because it's such a big deal, but I just think it sounds like a good title.

When they got to the other side, Elijah asked what he could do for Elisha and his wise apprentice asked for a double helping of Elijah's spirit. Ah, that was not so easy, warned Elijah, but he promised that if Elisha saw him when he was taken, he would have it. Then, walking along and chatting, horses and chariot of fire appeared, separating them and taking Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind. If that reminds you a little of Hades springing up from the earth to snatch away Persephone - me too.

Elisha helplessly calls after him – “My father! My father!” and tore his own clothes. But, he picks up Elijah’s cloak, the one that had been used to call him, and walks back to the Jordan River. He took the cloak and cried “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah” and struck the water as Elijah had. With that the waters parted again, and literally taking up his master’s mantle, he crossed. Touching, isn’t it?

The same company of prophets was watching and noted that Elijah’s spirit was resting upon him. They doltishly asked if they should go look for Elijah to see if God put him down somewhere. Elisha says no, but they keep asking until he is embarrassed into it. Of course, they find nothing, and when they come to him, he pretty much says – “Told you.”

Elisha and the thirsty townspeople. Then Elisha, apparently already in his full powers, a sorcerer’s apprentice with his awesome abilities is asked by the townspeople to solve their bad water problem. He tells them to bring him a bowl and put some salt in it. He flings the salt into the spring and fresh water comes out. Seem like a boring tale? Maybe it’s not so dramatic, but when you remember that in some Eastern religions and Western superstitions salt had mystical ability to ward off evil spirits (ever notice Sumo wrestlers throwing salt before a match?), it takes on new significance.

Elisha and the two bears. Don’t mistake Elisha for the Dalai Lama. He wanders back to Bethel where some kids mock him, calling him “Baldy.” I kid you not. I know, because the Bible tells me so. Taking the ribbing rather hard, he calls down a curse of the Lord. Two bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of the kids. If that reminds you a little of Tolkien's "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards for they are subtle and quick to anger” - me too.  However, he moves on, probably wisely. I can't imagine the parents would be overly happy.

Elisha and the three kings.  Three kings of Israel, Samaria and Judah decide to attack Moab, which had rebelled against Israel when the new king came in, find themselves in the desert without water (which, of course, is why one does not go into the desert without a lot of it). The king of Judah asked if there was no prophet who they could inquire of (If that reminds you of the Greek oracles . . . ) and someone replied that Elisha who used to pour water on Elijah’s hands was around. When the king of Israel comes to him, Elisha, ever the grouch, asks, “What do we have to do with each other?” and tells him to go to the prophets of his mother and father.” When the king of Israel protests that it was the Lord who called the three of them together, Elisha answers in that cranky yet whacky way, “As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, I would not look at you or even notice you. But now bring me a harpist.”

Bring me a harpist? But, apparently it helped put him in the mood, because he is now touched by the Lord and is able to tell them to dig a ditch and it will fill up with water. Not only that, but he will hand over Moab to them, and they can have their way. Sure enough, in comes the water. But, when the Moabites see it, it looks red and they think their enemies have slaughtered each other. So, they attack and got their Moabite heads handed to them, just as Elisha predicted. However, after a failed counter-attack, the king of Moab did what you or I would do – he sacrificed his oldest son. Apparently, God appreciated that, as “the fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.” See why I love the Bible. All it needs are orcs and a balrog.

Elisha and the oil jars. Not all the stories are so compelling. This one makes you want to say – “And . . . so?” One woman comes to him and tells him that her husband, a member of the company of prophets, therefore Elisha's servant, is dead and their creditor wants to sell her two boys into slavery. Elijah asks her what she has and she says a little oil. So, he has her borrow jars from her neighbors and pour the oil in them. She then tells him what they have done, and he replies – “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts.” I think the moral is sometimes you just need someone to tell you that what is right in front of your face – is right in front of your face, and just get busy.

Elisha and the sugar momma. A wealthy woman from Shunem and her husband make a little room for Elisha in their house for when he’s around. One day he is there lying about and he calls his servant, Gehazi, and tells him to summon the lady. He asks what he can do for her in return for this hospitality. Of course, she has nothing to ask for. But, Gehazi suggests that she has no son and her husband is old. The next thing you know, Elisha is telling her that she will have a son next year. She tells him not to get her hopes up, but sure enough, the next year she gives birth to a son. If that reminds you a little of Abraham and Sarah, or the Virgin Mary . . . . Frankly, I am just a little suspicious that Gehazi didn’t have more to do with it than The Good Book is telling us. In any event, some years later, the child complains to his father of a headache, and the next thing you know, he’s dead. His mother rushes off to Mount Carmel to find Elisha. At first, Elisha has Gehazi rush to her to ask what is the matter and she inexplicably responds that everything is fine. But when she gets to Elisha she grabs hold of him and Gehazi shoves her away. But, Elisha barks at him to leave her alone and she tells him what happened. He sends Gehazi to the child with his staff with orders to lay it on the boy’s face (Holy Gandalf! A magic staff!). It didn’t work and Elisha went himself. He lay himself down on the boy, “mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands,” and the boy warmed, sneezed seven times and woke. Mythological tales of bringing someone back to life are quite common, but this one was pretty dramatic. Of course, Isis dancing around Osiris with a magic phallus might be just as good.

Elijah and the bad stew. Back home in Gilgal during a famine, Elisha was hosting the company of prophets. He ordered his servants to make a stew which they did out of herbs, vines and gourds. But, when the prophets ate it they yelled, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” So, Elisha had them mix some flour in and it worked out just fine. As someone who has had the same thing happen at a dinner party, let me explain. Every good stew needs some flour as stock. Oh, yes, much practical advice can be garnered from the Holy Bible.

Elisha and the bread. Another food related story involves a visitor who brings Elisha 20 loaves of bread (apparently, Elisha entertains a lot). When Elisha tells his servant to feed the people, the servant tells him that he can’t feed 100 people with so little bread. Elisha tells him again to do it and reminds him that the Lord says, “They will eat and have some left over.” Easy for the Lord to say. But, sure enough, when they set it out, there’s enough. Which brings up another practical point - most people over cook for their parties, always sure they will not have enough. By the way, if this story reminds you of Jesus feeding the people . . . .

Gehazi’s big mistake. Another time a man from Aram, Naaman, went to the king of Israel to ask that he be cured of his leprosy by Elisha. The king did not take it well, reading the letter of introduction from Naaman's king, tore his clothes (you notice this happens all the time), and said “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” But, perhaps I’m being unfair. Unlike, say, the mayor of San Antonio, who never has to worry that the mayor of Houston is going to attack his town one day, these kings had to be quite careful about insulting their neighbors. But, in any event, when Elisha heard about it he sent the king a message, which I will interpret loosely as, “What’s with the drama? Sent him to me and I’ll show him the good stuff.”

When Naaman went to the man of God, Elisha sent out a messenger who told him all he had to do was to wash in the Jordan 7 times. Naaman went away angry, saying that he thought Elisha would have “come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.” Even then, presentation was everything. Finally, a servant convinced him to do it and lo and behold, it worked. He went back to Elisha, said he knew that the only God was in Israel and asked him if he could reward him. Elisha said in his typical fashion, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I shall not accept a thing.” Trust me that wasn't always the case. Personally I usually give up the second time something is offered to me, having learned from experience that my refusal is far more irritating to the giver than the good feeling I get from not accepting, but Elisha was adamant.

Gehazi, however, if you remember him, was not happy about it. He went after Naaman and Naaman, seeing him, got out of his chariot and asked if everything was all right. It was, Gehazi said, but a couple of prophets came by and Elisha wanted to know if you would give them some money and clothes. With this, Naaman happily complied. Gehazi hid the gifts away and came before Elisha.

“’Where have you been, Gehazi?’ Elisha asked.
‘Your servant didn’t go anywhere,’ Gehazi answered.
But Elisha said to him, ‘Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you?’”

Now, you know that Gehazi is saying to himself something like, “Oh, boy. Please not the bears. Not the bears.” But, no bears. However, Elisha arranges it so that Gehazi ad his descendents get Naaman’s leprosy. Remember what I said before about meddling in the affairs of wizards. Anyway, Gehazi does return later, so perhaps it was the leprosy flu.

Elisha and the iron axe. When the company of prophets came to Elisha, they asked him to come down to the Jordan with them, as the place where they met was too small, and they wanted to build a place down the river. At the river, one of the men dropped his iron axe in the water. “Oh, my Lord," he cried out, "it was borrowed.” Elisha asked him where it fell, and cutting a stick, threw it in the water, causing the iron axe to float. The man plucked it out of the water. If this reminds you of Jesus walking on water . . . .

Elisha and the blind guys. Remember I told you they never knew when there neighbor was going to attack them. Well, soon enough the very same Aram from whence Naaman came is raiding Israel. Their king becomes quite frustrated that the Israelis always find out his plans and avoid him. At first he suspects one of his men. But, then it is explained to him that Elisha, residing in Dohan, is telling Israel's king Aram’s plans.

So the king of Aram sends men to surround Dohan. When Eliza comes out with his servant, they see the enemy troops and the servant panics. But Elisha tells him not to worry, that there are many more of us than them. He prays to the Lord to open the servant’s eyes and then he can see a ring of fiery chariots surrounding them. Then Eliza prays that his enemies are struck blind, and so they are. If this reminds you of the story of Lot.

Elisha tells the attackers, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for. And he led them to his own king in Samaria. The Israeli king asks if he should kill them, but, Elisha instead counsels him to feast them and send them home, which is done. And Aram stopped raiding Israel. For a while, anyway.

Elisha and the king's officer. When the Arameans attacked Samaria again, there was famine and the price of food was terrible. The king in a fury decided to kill Elisha (I’m guessing because his God wasn’t helping much). But, Elisha knew it before the king’s messenger even got there, and he had his prophets shut the door against him. The king asked why he should wait for the Lord anymore. Elisha foretold that that time tomorrow, flour and barley will be cheaper. The officer on whose arm the king leaned (hey, that's what the Bible calls him), questioned Elisha further, and Elisha predicted it would happen, and he would see it, but not get to eat any of it. If this reminds you of Moses and the Holy Land . . . .

In the meantime, 4 lepers were living by the gates. They decided that if they stayed there, they would die, so they decided to surrender to the Arameans and hoped they wouldn’t kill them. Unbeknownst to them, the Lord had made a big racket and the Arameans, believing the Egyptians and Hittites were attacking, fled. When the lepers got there, they ate, drank and pilfered. Then they realized they should tell the king or they might get in trouble. So they did. Scouts were sent and found that in their flight the Arameans had discarded their clothes and equipment.

The Israelis came out and plundered the Arameans camp, trampling to death as they went the officer on whose arm the king leaned. As Elisha predicted, prices would come down, and he would get to see it, but he would never eat it.

Elisha and his worst prediction. Elisha went to Aram and the king sent his servant, Hazael, to ask him if he would recover from his illness. When Hazael asked as he was bid, Elisha told him that he should tell the king that he would recover, but that he knew he was going to die.

At that, Elisha began crying. When Hazael asked him why, Elisha said because he knew Hazael would kill the people of Israel (he was a lot more graphic, including ripping open pregnant women’s bellies). When Hazael asked how it was possible that a servant could do this, Elisha said that God had revealed to him that Hazael would be king.

Sure enough, when Hazael went back to his king and told him that Elisha said he would recover. “But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king’s face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king." Maybe Elisha shouldn't have had such a big mouth.

The end of Elisha. Things become complicated at this point, particularly with war, and I skip ahead to the end of his life. Elisha was suffering from an illness. The king of Israel came to him worried about war with Aram. Elisha had him open a window and shoot an arrow. Then he told him to strike the ground. The king did so three times. “The man of God was angry with him and said, ‘You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times.'”

I'm not sure what the significance of this last tale is, but, it's possible that the old fellow may have just lost it, because that made little sense. Or maybe he was just having fun with him.

And then, just like that, the old man died and was buried. But, later, some Israelis were burying a man when they saw Moabite raiders and they threw the body into Elisha’s tomb. The man rolled onto Elisha’s bones, and then he suddenly stood up alive. If this reminds you of Jesus and Lazarus .  .  . .

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .