Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

What if someone who knew the future told you that you were going to massacre tons of people?

You’d try to avert that, right?

The LORD said to him, "Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him."

- 1 Kings 19:15-18 (NIV)

You got that? God's decided that Hazael, Jehu and Elisha are all going to kill a heap of people for him. A fairly radical moment for what would later become turn-the-other-cheek Christianity.

But my top question is this – what if they'd refused? Would that have been right?

The fascinating thing is, I think that's exactly how Elijah felt. He's the one who's told by God in the above excerpt to contact the other three and give them their bloody instructions. He doesn't seem to like the sound of all that. So the only instruction he carries out is the part to make Elisha his successor as prophet.

And Elisha seems to agree with him, because after Elijah has left this life, he doesn't tell Hazael and Jehu either.

And he keeps his silence, for over seven years.

Until, yikes, Hazael comes to him.

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, "Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, 'Will I recover from this illness?' "

Elisha answered, "Go and say to him, 'You will certainly recover'; but [or Go and say, 'You will certainly not recover,' for] the LORD has revealed to me that he will in fact die." He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael felt ashamed. Then the man of God began to weep.

"Why is my lord weeping?" asked Hazael.

"Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites," he answered. "You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women."

Hazael said, "How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?"

"The LORD has shown me that you will become king of Aram," answered Elisha.

Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, "What did Elisha say to you?" Hazael replied, "He told me that you would certainly recover." But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king's face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king.

- 2 Kings 8:9-15 (NIV)

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between man’s free will, and God’s. I think it was my idea.

Throughout the Bible God encourages people to choose to stop sinning, yet in some places he actually causes them to sin. (eg. the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 9:12) In Hazael’s case above, it’s not really clear whether he subsequently kills people because he chooses to, or because God chooses for him to.

He does protest at the above prophesy "How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?", which rather implies innocence of such intentions, but he could equally well be lying.

It is clear from later chapters that God uses King Hazael, with his Kingdom of Aram, to keep the Israelites in check, which in itself is a good thing.

So the LORD's anger burned against Israel, and for a long time he kept them under the power of Hazael king of Aram and Ben-Hadad his son.

- 2 Kings 13:3 (NIV)

So had God actually decided Hazael’s future, or was he simply using what Hazael already had in his heart to do? Did God want Hazael to begin his massacre when he'd first told Elijah many years earlier? Did Hazael's murderous intentions then fester through the long years that Elijah and Elisha kept stum from him? Given the way that Elisha breaks down and cries, his secret sure seems to have become a source of pain for him.

Poor Elisha. Even when, after so long, Hazael improbably stands in front of him and asks him for a prophesy, Elisha still never actually anoints Hazael king, or gives him instructions to kill anyone. Rather, he sounds resigned to those future events. If anything, even knowing the will of God, Elisha appears to be more discouraging Hazael from following it. As such, Hazael seems to begin his massacre without very much influence from Elisha.

Throughout the Old Testament, God frequently changes people’s futures on the basis of their having a change of the state of their heart in the present. Hezekiah’s experience in chapter 20 is a prime example:

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."

Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: "Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, 'This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the LORD. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.' "

- 2 Kings 20:1-6 (NIV)

So we, as well as God, appear to be father to the future.

But if God changed Hezekiah’s future on the basis of his new change of heart, that begs the question – who made that choice of Hezekiah’s?

The obvious answer is that Hezekiah did. Yet just two chapters earlier, when Sennacherib stated that the events of his life were of his own choosing, God refuted him and said they were his doing:

By your messengers
you have heaped insults on the Lord.
And you have said,
"With my many chariots
I have ascended the heights of the mountains,
the utmost heights of Lebanon.
I have cut down its tallest cedars,
the choicest of its pines.
I have reached its remotest parts,
the finest of its forests.

I have dug wells in foreign lands
and drunk the water there.
With the soles of my feet
I have dried up all the streams of Egypt."

" 'Have you not heard?
Long ago I ordained it.
In days of old I planned it;
now I have brought it to pass,
that you have turned fortified cities
into piles of stone.

- 2 Kings 19:23-25 (NIV)

So Sennacherib thought he had done those things because he had chosen to, when in fact he had chosen them because God had chosen for him to choose them. That’s how the above passage reads to me.

Muddying free will even further though is God’s attitude to the final holy executioner predicted in the opening passage above - Jehu.

Elisha the prophet again steers clear of delivering the prophesy of kingship himself. Perhaps in something of a resigned compromise, he sends another prophet to do it instead, instructing them:

Then take the flask and pour the oil on his head and declare, 'This is what the LORD says: I anoint you king over Israel.' Then open the door and run; don't delay!"

- 2 Kings 9:3 (NIV)

Surely Elisha again knew what a bloodbath would surely follow. After all, here’s the start of what the young prophet actually told Jehu when he got there:

Jehu got up and went into the house. Then the prophet poured the oil on Jehu's head and declared, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'I anoint you king over the LORD's people Israel. You are to destroy the house of Ahab your master, and I will avenge the blood of my servants the prophets and the blood of all the LORD's servants shed by Jezebel. The whole house of Ahab will perish. I will cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free.

- 2 Kings 9:6-8 (NIV)

So, armed with instructions from God to kill people, Jehu keenly becomes the definitive religious zealot. He callously mass-murders everyone he can from Ahab’s family – over a hundred people – inviting others to join in with him, and boasting “Come with me and see my zeal for the LORD.” Ahab himself had died… err… some 12 years ago now. A long time, really, though he had been alive at the time of the original prophecy.

It's almost as if Elijah and Elisha had tried really hard to stop God's deadly plans from coming to pass, but years later Elisha found it to be inevitable.

So Jehu killed everyone in Jezreel who remained of the house of Ahab, as well as all his chief men, his close friends and his priests, leaving him no survivor.

- 2 Kings 10:11 (NIV)

Jehu also kills the king of Judah, and gleefully lures all the Baal-worshipers to their death, by pretending to be one himself. How did he lure them all there? Why, he threatened to kill them of course – the same as the penalty for any soldier who let one escape.

Far from the respect he probably thought history would have for him, Jehu comes across as someone who Christianity is surely thoroughly ashamed of.

But here’s the thing – I’m wrong. Jehu actually is right. He actually is obeying God, and God, believe it or not, is pleased with him for all this killing.

The LORD said to Jehu, "Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation." Yet Jehu was not careful to keep the law of the LORD, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam, which he had caused Israel to commit.

- 2 Kings 10:30-31 (NIV)

So it’s not that black-and-white then. God approves of Jehu’s killing Ahab’s descendants, but not of his other sins.

Still, let me repeat the first half of that yet again just soas we’re clear, God approves of Jehu’s killing Ahab’s decendants. Of course he does. He told him to do it. All moral arguments aside, God did tell Jehu to do it.

But here’s Hosea 1:4-5:

Then the LORD said to Hosea, "Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel's bow in the Valley of Jezreel."

So I basically have four problems now:

1. That God instructed Hazael, Jehu and Elisha to kill all those people.
2. That God gives a reward for killing all those people.
3. That God gives a punishment for obeying him.
4. That God’s punishment is exacted upon the perpetrators’ descendants, and not the perpetrator.

(sigh) This book started out so well. The adventures of the prophets Elijah and Elisha were really fascinating. But then it all descended into this bloodbath of unpleasant stuff that doesn’t make sense to me.

But as I make my way through the Old Testament, I find I’m starting to form a couple of off-the-wall theories... (only theories mind you, so please don't zealously kill all my descendants for this)

1. That mankind genuinely did not know what was right, and what was wrong. It had not yet been “written on their hearts.” The only hope they had was to blindly obey whatever God told them to do. God knew that any new king would fight Ahab’s family anyway, so God decided the outcome as always. The actual act of killing was not something he approved of, simply a choice of man that he could decide the winner of.

2. That maybe God incited man to sin as some sort of a live vaccination. In sinning, we were supposed to learn why sinning was wrong. We were supposed to argue with him as part of that learning process, as occasionally people did.


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