Haftarah Parshat Vayera (2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 8, 2014 / 15 Heshvan 5775
The narrative of the first story in this week’s haftarah is laconic. We are told of a woman from among “the wives of the sons of the prophets” who has fallen into dire straits on account of her husband’s death. Her creditors are threatening to take her children as slaves. She addresses Elisha, pleading for his intercession, in particular, because her husband was a servant of God. This woman’s identity is only partially addressed. Who was this wife of one of the sons of the prophets? For the rabbinic tradition, the story line’s description was insufficient but, in true rabbinic form, what little the text gave, provided ample clues for who this woman’s husband might be.
This woman was identified, in the rabbinic tradition, with a certain Obadiah, who managed King Ahab’s household. This heroic figure was renowned in the book of Kings for saving the prophets from the hands of Ahab’s wicked wife who sought their death. The earliest rendering of this association (to my knowledge) is found in a midrash from Pesikta deRav Kahana (an Eretz Yisrael midrash from the late Talmudic period 4-5th century). This midrash raises this poor woman to a heroic stature no less than that of her husband. In addition, it also forges a link between the haftarah and the Torah reading. As background to this midrash, we must take note of the events in the preceding chapter from the book of Kings. There, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea are at war with Moab. The king of Moab, Mesha has decided to offer up his son as a sacrifice to his deity in order to enhance his war effort. In a strange turn of events, a great wrath came not upon Moab but upon Israel and it was forced to retreat. Rashi recounts the midrash’s version of the story this way as an attempt to explain this anomaly: “[King Mesha] asked his attendants, ‘What is so special about this people Israel that God’s performs miracles for them?’ They said to him, ‘Their forefather Abraham had an only son and God asked him to offer him as an offering and Abraham desired to fulfill God’s will.’ King Mesha also had a firstborn and he thought to offer him up as an idolatrous offering to the sun deity [as an attempt to emulate the Akedah story]. God became angry at Israel because Mesha’s act reminded Him of Israel’s sins since they too offered human sacrifices to idols.” (adapted from Rashi on 3:27) The midrash then goes on to explain the redemptive role of the woman in our story: “Said Rabbi Mana: ‘Were it not for the merit of the wife of Obadiah, Israel would have been destroyed that very day. Why? For a woman from among the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha.” (Pesikta deRav Kahana 2:5, Mandelbaum ed. p. 23)
Obadiah’s wife was accounted as the heroine of our story on two counts: the first was her recognition of God when all those around her were involved in idolatry and the second was her love and compassion for her children which contrasted with those who wantonly offered up their children for ill-gains. This midrash transforms this woman from being a victim into a heroine. She becomes a model to identify with, for it is not just Elisha the prophet who saved the day but also this unsung heroine who was loyal both to God and to her children.