Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Delegated Miracles

This week’s haftarah reading opens:

A woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha, saying: “Your servant, my husband, is dead, and you know that your servant was a fearer of God. And a creditor is coming to take my two children as slaves!” (2 Kings 4:1)

Although “your servant” is often used as a polite form of address in the Hebrew Bible, as in older English literature, this widow’s husband might well have been one of the prophet Elisha’s subordinates; he does head a company of disciples in a later story.1

The Prophet Elisha and the Widow with her Sons, by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1657

And Elisha said to her: “What can I do for you? Tell me, what is there in your house?” (2 Kings 6:2)

All she has is a small jug of oil, so Elisha makes a miracle in which the oil keeps coming while she pours it into one container after another, until every empty container she could borrow is full.

And she came and told the ish ha-elohim, and he said: “Go sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your children can live on the rest.” (2 Kings 4:7)

ish ha-elohim (אִישׁ הָאֱלֺהִים) = man of God.

The title ish ha-elohim or ish elohim appears 75 times in the Hebrew Bible. Usually it refers to a prophet—someone who delivers God’s warnings or verdicts to kings and crowds. Yet King David is called a man of God three times.2 David is not a prophet, but God treats him as a favorite and forgives him for his many moral transgressions.

The person called ish ha-elohim the most often is the prophet Elisha, with 28 references, all in the second book of Kings. He is not a model of morality, either; when a bunch of little boys make fun of his bald head, he curses them in the name of God, and two bears emerge from the woods and mangle 42 children.3

Is Elisha an ish ha-elohim only because he is a prophet? Or does that designation say something further about his relationship with God?

Elisha is the disciple of Elijah, another prophet who is often called a man of God. Like his mentor, Elisha despises the kings of Israel. He passes on God’s warnings and verdicts to them, but avoids seeing them in person as much as he can. Also like Elijah, he performs miracles for individual human beings in his spare time.4

Elisha initiates two more miracles in the second story in this week’s haftarah reading: a miraculous pregnancy and the resurrection of a dead boy.

The haftarah is paired with this week’s Torah portion from the book of Genesis, Vayeira, which also features the annunciation of a miraculous pregnancy. In Vayeira, three divine messengers (often called angels in English translations) disguised as men come to Abraham’s tent. He gives them generous hospitality. Before they get up from the meal Abraham serves them, one of the divine beings says:

“I will certainly return to you at the season of life, and hey! A son for Sarah, your wife!” (Genesis 18:10)

Sarah overhears, and laughs.  She knows that both she and Abraham are too old to have a baby.

Then God said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Can it be true I will bear a child, when I am old?’ Is anything too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the season of life, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:13-14)

In the haftarah an unnamed woman in the town of Shuneim offers Elisha even more generous hospitality than Abraham did for his visitors.

One day Elisha passed through Shuneim, and a wealthy woman was there, and she prevailed upon him to eat a meal. And it happened whenever he passed through, he turned aside there to eat a meal. And she said to her husband: “Hey, please! I know that the one who passes by regularly is a holy ish ha-elohim. Let us make, please, a small walled upper chamber [on our roof] and let us  put a bed and a table and a chair and a lampstand there, and it will be when he comes to us he can turn aside there.” One day he [Elisha] came there and he turned aside into the upper chamber and lay down there. And he said to Geichazi, his servant: “Call this Shuneimite woman.”  (2 Kings 4:8-11)

Elisha wants to repay the woman for her ongoing hospitality, but does not take the trouble to go downstairs and talk to her himself. Nor does he ever use her name. Elisha asks his servant to tell the woman that Elisha could use his influence with the king or the army commander on her behalf. She turns down the offer.

Then Geichazi said: “Actually, she has no son, and her husband is old.” (2 Kings 4:14)

Elisha tells his servant to call the woman up to his doorway.

And he said: “At this appointed time, at the season of life, you will be embracing a son.” And she said: “Don’t, my lord, man of God, don’t you lie to your maidservant!” (2 Kings 4:15-16)

Both Sarah in Genesis and the Shuneimite woman in 2 Kings are childless and have old husbands. They are certain that they cannot conceive. The annunciations they receive use some of the same words. But the speakers are different. Sarah hears the news from God’s voice, speaking through a manifestation that looks like a man but is actually divine. The Shuneimite woman hears the news from an actual human being, a man of God who somehow initiates miracles on his own.

Geichazi, not God, suggests that pregnancy would be a good reward for the Shuneimite. Then Elisha confidently predicts she will have a baby, without consulting God. And God cooperates.

And the woman conceived and she gave birth to a son at this appointed time, at the season of life, that Elisha had spoken of to her. (2 Kings 4:17)

The third miracle in this week’s haftarah occurs after the Shuneimite woman’s son goes out into the field with his father, and suddenly gets a piercing headache. A servant carries him back to the house, and at noon he dies on his mother’s lap. She carries him upstairs, lays him on the bed reserved for Elisha, and hurries off on a donkey without telling anyone what happened.

And she went on and she came to the ish ha-elohim at Mount Carmel. And when the ish ha-elohim saw her across the way, then he said to Geichazi, his servant: “Hey, the Shuneimite woman is over there! Now hurry, please, and call her and say to her: Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with your child?” (2 Kings 4:25-26)

Elisha still does not refer to the woman by her name, and he still uses his servant as an intermediary so he will not have to speak to her directly.

She tells Geichazi everything is fine, but when she reaches Elisha she seizes his feet. Geichazi steps forward to push her away, but Elisha stops him with the observation that this woman is in serious distress, and God has not told him why.

Then she said: “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Didn’t I say: Don’t you give me false hope?” (2 Kings 4:28)

At this, Elisha knows what happened. He gives his staff to Geichazi, and orders him to say nothing to anyone he meets along the way, and place the staff on the dead boy’s face. Elisha apparently believes that just as God keeps delegating the power of working miracles to him, he can delegate that power to Geichazi.

But the woman does not believe it. She insists on leading Elisha back to her house. When they meet Geichazi on his return trip, Geichazi informs them, “The boy has not awakened.”

Elisha’s Servant Geichazi, by by Bernhard Rode, 18th century

Elisha climbs up to the rooftop chamber, where the boy lies dead on Elisha’s bed.

And he entered, and he shut the door against the two of them, and he prayed to God. And he climbed up and he lay over the child, and he put his mouth on its mouth, and his eyes on its eyes, and his palms on its palms, and he bowed over it. And the flesh of the child became warm. (2 Kings 33-34)

Perhaps Elisha realizes that he is not in charge of his miracles. He cannot delegate his power to someone else. And he himself has worked miracles only because God has delegated that ability to him—so far. Humbled, Elisha prays to God this time before he tries to make another miracle. And then puts his whole self into it, mouth, eyes, palms, and body.

We cannot know why God decides to abet Elisha in his miracles. He may be a “man of God” in the same way as King David: God is charmed by something about him, and acts with favoritism.

Similarly, we cannot know why some people today seem to lead charmed lives in which miracles are commonplace, while others are more ethical yet struggle for every inch of progress. But the story of Elisha’s third miracle in this week’s haftarah is a warning that we should never overreach, or take our success for granted.

  1. 2 Kings 6:1-7, in which Elisha makes an axe head float.
  2. King David is called ish ha-elohim retroactively in Nehemiah 12:24 and 36:2, and in 2 Chronicles 8:14.
  3. 2 Kings 2:23-24.
  4. In 1 Kings 18:1-39, God merely tells Elijah to appear before King Ahab. On his own initiative, Elijah sets up a contest between the God of Israel and the Baal of Phoenicia, and God plays along by igniting a miraculous fire on Elijah’s altar. In 2 Kings 1:1-10, King Ahab’s son sends soldiers to arrest Elijah, but the man of God calls for fire to come down from heaven and consume the soldiers. Again God cooperates.

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