The Complete Book of 2 Kings
Update: Lots of you wrote to clear up the mystery of the whores bathing in Ahab's blood that I mentioned in the last entry. My Jewish Publication Society translation is pretty clear that the prostitutes took a blood bath, but other versions of the Bible tell a different, less revolting story. According to the other translations, Ahab's blood-soaked chariot was rinsed in the same pool where the local harlots washed themselves. If they got his blood on themselves, it was by accident.
The Book of 2 Kings
I'd hoped that 2 Kings would be like Spider-Man 2—smarter, bolder, sexier, and more fun than the first one. Unfortunately, it seems more like Jaws 2, a dumb sequel that lamely retreads the best bits of the original and then adds a bunch of new junk.
The book does begin with a promising action sequence. Clumsy King Ahaziah—Israel's Gerald Ford—falls through a window. As he lies there injured, he asks Baal if he will recover. Bad move, King. Elijah cheerfully informs Ahaziah's flunkies that because he prayed to the wrong God, he'll die.
Hoping for a stay of execution, Ahaziah dispatches 50 men to arrest Elijah. The prophet has them incinerated with divine fire. Another 50 men are sent, and there's another 50-man barbecue. Elijah finally agrees to accompany the third squadron back to Ahaziah. The prophet tells the king again that he's doomed for Baal-worshipping. Ahaziah dies.
This chapter ends with one of the weirdest, most gruesome passages in the entire Bible, but it starts innocently enough. Elijah is dying, and his disciple Elisha refuses to leave his side. Elijah strikes the river Jordan with his mantle, the water parts, and they cross on dry land. (Oh, that old trick!) As they're walking along, a "chariot of fire" swoops down and carts Elijah up to heaven in "a whirlwind."
Let's pause here and consider how unusual Elijah's death is. First, where did this "chariot of fire" come from? There's been nothing remotely like it in the Bible so far. When people die, they just … die. Even when prophets and patriarchs die, they simply expire and are buried. Corporeal ascent is a new trick. Why would Elijah qualify for special thanatic transportation when even Moses didn't? Any why a chariot of fire? This is a spectacular and memorable image, but again it comes from nowhere. God and His angels have never ridden in chariots before now. (I assume, incidentally, that this is the source of William Blake's chariot of fire. Right?)
Second, what's this "heaven" Elijah is ascending to? Until now, the only afterlife mentioned is Sheol, which is definitively down in the ground, and also a place where bad people end up. I suppose Elijah's heaven could simply be heaven in the secular sense, as in "the heavens." But that's not what it sounds like. It sounds like a special destination, a holy place. Is it possible that Jews actually have a developed notion of heaven, up in the sky, where God's favorites go when they die? If so, it is news to me—and not good news. I have always enjoyed Judaism's focus on the here and now. If Jewish heaven exists, who gets to go there? Just hall-of-famers like Elijah? Or all good people? And what happens there?
In the chaos, Elijah drops his mantle. Elisha picks it up. He strikes the river with it. The waters part for Elisha, too! So this is where the phrase "picking up the mantle of the prophet" comes from. (This episode has been ripped off by countless myths and movies since, in which the young disciple grabs the magic sword, takes a practice swing, and learns that the power flows through him now.) Elijah's other disciples acknowledge Elisha's elevation, and announce that he has inherited Elijah's spirit. Elisha starts experimenting with this miraculous power: He throws some salt in a foul spring and the water turns sweet.
At last, we've reached the crazy, horrifying, inexplicable finale. As Elisha is walking to Bethel, a group of boys—"small boys"—start mocking him: "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" I've written before about the Lord's profound affection for bald men. Here He demonstrates that His fondness for cue balls has veered into dementia. Elisha turns around and curses the boys in the name of the Lord. After his curse, "two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys."
Yep, you read it right. The Lord sends bears to commit a mass mauling, all because of a bald joke.
After much head-scratching—bald-head-scratching, since I'm a bit of a ping-pong ball myself—I realized there's one possibly sympathetic interpretation of Elisha's behavior. He's new at this prophet thing. He hasn't learned his own powers yet. Until he picked up Elijah's mantle, he was a regular guy. His curses had no more effect than ours did. But now he has superpowers, and his every action has consequences. His passing curse—presumably tossed off the way you might give the finger to a tailgater—suddenly has potency it never had before. He learns the hard way—or rather, the 42 boys learn the hard way—that "with great power comes great responsibility." (Oh wait, maybe this is like Spider-Man.) You can't go around crippling every tyke who insults your haircut. In this charitable interpretation of the baldie-bear story, we must assume that Elisha is as horrified by the episode as we are, and that it helps him learn that he must only use his powers sparingly, and for good.
Another appalling war. The bad king of Israel allies with good King Jehoshaphat of Judah to attack the Moabites. The armies end up in the desert without any water. The Israelite king begs Elisha to save them. Elisha says he would let the Israelites die without a second thought, but because he admires Jehoshaphat, he'll help. Elisha then reveals himself to be the Funky Prophet: He can only conjure the power of the Lord when music is playing. A musician is summoned, and Elisha delivers a lifesaving flood of water.
Here's the bad part. Elisha also orders the armies to block every Moabite spring, cover Moabite cropland with stones, and chop down every Moabite fruit tree. They do it, and triumph. But let's hearken back to Deuteronomy, chapter 20, when the Lord establishes laws of war. One of them, explained very carefully, was that you may not cut down enemy orchards. The trees are innocent parties and must be left unmolested. Cutting down fruit trees is a 50-year war crime, ruining the lives of your enemy, as well as their children's and grandchildren's lives. This is presumably why God banned it so emphatically. So, it's confusing and tragic that He encourages it this time. (Alternative theory: Elisha is a false prophet, and these were not God's orders.)
The horrors of the chapter continue. The besieged Moabite king, on the verge of defeat, sacrifices his first-born son as a burnt offering in plain sight of the Israelites. This turns the tide of the battle and the Israelites flee. The theology here befuddles me. If the Moabite made his sacrifice to his god, not the Lord, then presumably it shouldn't have helped, since rival gods are impotent. If the Moabite king sacrificed to the Lord, it shouldn't have helped either, because the Lord has made it very clear that he loathes child sacrifice. The only theory that makes sense is that the child sacrifice does not work theologically, but does work strategically. It scares the heck out of the Israelites, who figure: If he'll do that to his own son, can you imagine what he'd do to us? (Many movies have borrowed this trope. I'm thinking, for example, of The Usual Suspects, where Keyser Söze makes his reputation by murdering his own family before his enemies can.)
That Elisha is such a plagiarist! He performs exactly the same prophetic miracles that Elijah did a few chapters ago! He turns a poor widow's olive-oil jar into a bottomless oil fountain. (A culinary question: Would the magic olive oil be extra-virgin, too?) Then, when a young boy dies, Elisha brings him back to life, ripping off Elijah's technique of lying on the corpse. (Marvelous little detail: As the boy comes back to life, he sneezes seven times. There is something eerie in a sneeze, isn't there?)
This chapter marks the start of the long and complicated Aram War. Aram, as I discovered by consulting a handy-dandy map on page 535, is basically Syria. For the rest of 2 Kings, Israel and Judah are going to be slugging it out with the Aramites (as well as the usual Moabites and Philistines). The Aramite commander Naaman is a leper, and at the beginning of this chapter, he learns from a captive that the Israelites have a great healing prophet. So, Naaman writes a letter to the Israelite king asking for medical advice from the prophet. The king assumes this is some kind of trap, designed to provoke a war. (Imagine Kim Jong-il asking for a consult at the Mayo Clinic.)
Elisha hears about Naaman's letter, tells the fretful king to calm down, and invites the enemy leader for an office visit. (There's a 15-shekel deductible.) Elisha instructs the leprous general to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. This treatment plan infuriates Naaman, who thinks it's insulting and way too easy. "Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?"
Naaman's servant urges him to reconsider, pointing out that if Elisha had asked him to do something difficult, he would have done it, so he shouldn't balk at doing something easy. Naaman grudgingly takes his Jordan bath, and his flesh heals. He immediately accepts that the Lord is God. He promises never to worship any other God, but begs Elisha for one free pass. He says that when the Aramite King forces him to go to the temple of Rimmon, the Aramite god, he will bow down in order to save his life and his job. Elisha says that's OK. This is the first recorded example of "passing." Naaman is the original Marrano Jew, worshipping God in his heart but avowing another religion publicly. I always wondered about the Biblical justification for this kind of deception, and here it is!
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.