Why we like, or don’t like a Bible story where God smites soldiers just following orders.

2 Kings 1 is another in a series of stories that on one level thrills us but also bothers people. 

Ahaziah falls through the lattice. He’s not a Calvinist, arising and saying “glad that’s over”. Instead he wants to know if he’ll die so he sends a messenger to Philistine Ekron to find someone to inquire of Baal there. Lots of commentary about that mostly because we don’t know why he couldn’t simply consult at the Baal temple constructed in Samaria built by his father.
The angel of the Lord tips off Elijah who meets the messenger on the road and says “No God in Israel to do your fortune seeking? Turn around and tell your master he isn’t getting out of bed.”
The king figures out by Elijah’s fashion who it is and sends 50 men plus a captain to Elijah to do the obvious. If he wanted to chat he could have sent a messenger not a platoon. You’d think maybe 2 or 3 would be sufficient to get the old guy. He was spry enough to run before Ahab’s chariot but he’s older now. There’s the god thing. 50 should do it.
Then the toasting starts. Fire from heaven and the soldiers are gone.
round 2, same outcome
Round 3, the captain wises up and doesn’t presume any amount is enough. What protection do they have from fire from heaven? He respects God and the man of God and expresses his need. He’s between God and the king and he figures out he’s actually got a better chance talking to God than explaining to the king why he doesn’t want to get roasted.
Elijah goes with him and basically delivers the same message he gave to the original messengers, and it happens like Elijah says. End of story. Brother becomes king.
I wish I had more history of interpretation on this passage. My Ancient commentary has one church father that seems to relish blaming Jezebel for all of it because she made Ahab and his sons her slave. Modern readers have modern problems with this.
1. It makes God look bad for toasting 102 guys following orders.
2. The fire from heaven part makes others suspect it to be a legend. The spirit of Thomas Jefferson remains with us, even if we don’t believe in ghosts.
You can actually have a lot of fun with a passage like this if you work a bit harder at it.
1. Building codes. The palace in Samaria was clearly substandard. Modern building codes would have prevented the fall allowing Ahaziah to go about his pagan ways all he wanted to.
2. Ahaziah was a klutz. Clumsy people die all the time in bathrooms and national parks. Blame God for gravity?
3. Was Ahaziah looking for healing or just information? Probably whatever he felt he could get.

4. Why outsource it? Given the family history and his reaction to Elijah’s message his relationship with Elijah and Yhwh wasn’t good to begin with. Ahaziah is like us. It’s interesting comparing him to Naaman who a few chapters later will also go abroad looking for a cure. The commander of the army harassing God’s chosen people has issues (bigotry against Israelite water to overcome) and he gets his intel from a girl likely taken in a raid but he asks and receives. Ahaziah doesn’t ask because he’s probably filled with spite. If he had asked and God had healed what would that have required of him. My guess is he’d rather die than receive a handout from Elijah, even if would save his life. This is the contempt of the familial. You see it all the time.
5. Why is the story told this way? If you cut out the burning the platoons part the outcome wouldn’t be changed at all. The fire from heaven against his soldiers has the same impact as the fire from heaven at Carmel. He doesn’t believe the one, why the other. Again there is an insight here into belief. We like to imagine that we’re all about the evidence, but then again read the Alan Jacob piece. We have our pride. We have our tribalisms.
6. The story clearly is shaped to point us to the third captain. This is classic story telling where you’ve got repetition, a group of three, and a change. The soldier is as stuck as Ahaziah. He can’t trot back to the king and say he’s scared to die. The king will kill him for that. The captain is no fool and he does an assessment as to where he might in fact find mercy, and he calculates that it’s with Yhwh and his prophet and so he does, what the king simply won’t do, and his life is spared. Then we go back to the king to be reminded of his heart, and his outcome.
Back to our contemporary kvetching.
7. It’s always interesting to me how people on one hand say a. “I hate a story where God acts violently in a way that we judge to be unwarranted” and b. “I think it’s all just a legend”. Won’t you think the second skeptical point cancels out the first? Do you mourn the dead killed off by fiction writers throughout history? Do you complain that the author is unjust?
8. The real reason people complain about God doing things like this (he does it in the NT too, don’t just say “that OT God”…) is that we fear it gives us license and cover for tribalism and blunting universal humanism. That’s not an unfounded concern. People have been using the Bible to justify all sorts of bad things for years. At the same time people will use just about anything to justify anything. Even proud atheists like Stalin and Mao could justify lots of killing without it.
9. At the same time the concern actually comes up in the gospel of Luke. Jesus and his disciples are traveling to Jerusalem and Samaria isn’t offering any hospitality. James and John ask if Jesus would like them (those sons of Thunder) to call down fire from heaven and smote the town. They are clearly a bit full of themselves and into the “God’s special messenger” thing. You’d think their failure to cast out the demon a few verses before might have humbled them, but no.
In fairness to the disciples fire from heaven for refusing to extend hospitality really connects more with Sodom and Gomorrah than this passage. It’s hard to know what they were thinking.
10. Jesus doesn’t take the bait and rebukes them. Why? Read the passage before where he tells them what’s coming. He doesn’t look for Baal-Zebub for future telling. Jesus is going to Jerusalem, but turned over to the hands of men and die.
This isn’t a new story of course. Jezebel slaughtered the prophets of Yhwh and threatened Elijah. Elijah wasn’t under any illusion that he couldn’t be killed for doing what he did.
We also tend to overlook who really is doing the killing in this story. We’re upset if God takes the lives of the soldiers in this way, but less so if Ahaziah orders them into battle against Moab and they die. People die all the time. Remember this story started with Ahaziah falling through a lattice either out of clumsiness or bad building codes.
So why grab onto the idea that it’s a legend? What’s behind our motivation on that score?
1. We’ve certainly got some moralistic therapeutic deism rolling around inside of us. It’s God’s job to show us a good time.
To me MTD is pretty silly if you look at life in this world, unless you really live as a healthy, wealthy, young privileged individual. It makes more sense to imagine God as a fiction author and we’re along for the ride, bumps and all.
A bit from Walker Percy
The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so. Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind to say to himself that his situation is preposterous, that an explanation is due him and to demand such an explanation and to refuse to play out another act of the farce until an explanation is forthcoming. No, he takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs, curses politicians, and now and again to relieve the boredom and the farce (of which he is dimly aware) goes off to war to shoot other people—for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all. On the contrary. The more intelligent he is, the crazier he is and the bigger an asshole he is. He becomes a professor and forms an interdisciplinary group. He reads Dante for its mythic structure. He joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual and does not once exercise his own freedom to inquire into how in God’s name he should find himself in such a ludicrous situation as being born in Brooklyn, living in Manhattan, and being buried in Queens. He is as insane as a French intellectual.
Percy, Walker. The Second Coming (pp. 189-190). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
2. What really bothers us, and I have to credit CS Lewis and his book Miracles for this, is the idea we have no protection from God. Ahaz wouldn’t have sent 50 men out if Elijah were surrounded by a group of 200 from Ben-Hadad. We know how to do math with each other. But a sovereign God acting from above? That should terrify us.
Why aren’t we terrified?
This brings us back to the third captain. Despite two dead platoons he finally knows that Yhwh is more reasonable, and merciful than we are with each other. The real king lives justly, and even if he’s got questions about his dead predecessors Yhwh is still a better bet than Ahaziah. He asks and receives. He seeks and finds. He knocks, and the door is opened.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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