(2 Kings 4:1-37)
November 3, 2001
What is the place of miracles in the Biblical tradition? The prophet Elisha, like his master Elijah, was renowned not only for his prophetic and moral leadership but also for his ability to perform miracles. The haftarah recounts two episodes in which Elisha used his miraculous abilities to rescue the unfortunate from their bitter fate. In the first story, Elisha is called upon to save a poor widow who is faced with having her children taken from her as repayment for a debt. Elisha calls upon God to provide her miraculously with enough vessels filled with oil to settle her debts and provide for her family’s sustenance.
“A certain woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know how your servant revered the Lord. And now a creditor is coming to seize my two children as slaves’” (2 Kings 4:1 NJPS translation)
Targum Yonatan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, embellished the story by merging it with the story of Ovadiah, the servant of King Ahab who saved the prophets of God by hiding them from Ahab’s wicked wife Jezebel. (1 Kings chapter 18).
“A certain woman, the wife of one of the students of the prophets, cried out to Elisha, saying: “Your servant Ovadiah, my husband, died and you know that he was a God fearer. For when Jezebel sought to kill all of the prophets of God, he took a hundred of the prophets and hid them fifty each in caves. He borrowed money and fed them, lest he feed them with property stolen from Ahab the king. The creditor is coming to seize my two children in order to collect the debt.”
It is a common feature of midrash to enhance Biblical stories by filling in the details of the story. The Targum, by identifying the widow in our story with the wife of the heroic character Ovadiah, has made her plight even more tragic. Ovadiah’s good deed ultimately caused his family’s bad fortune. It has also made the behavior of the creditor all the more criminal since debts were never meant to be collected through the sale of children. Elisha’s miracle comes to repair this moral outrage. This story puts Elisha’s miracles into perspective. They are an extension of his will to establish moral order. In a sense, this is a ”miracle” in which we are all enjoined to participate.