Elisha and Hazael -or- One Biblical Response to War and Suffering

There’s a little story in 2 Kings, one of the Elisha stories, that absolutely fascinates me.

7 Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,”  8 the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  9 So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  10 And Elisha said to him, a“Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.”  11 And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept.  12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.”  13 And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.”  14 Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.”  15 But the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place. (2 Kings 8:7-15, ESV)

Where to start?

What I find most fascinating about this story are verses 11 and 12. “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women,” Elisha says to Hazael. He sees, perhaps in a vision, or perhaps simply because he grasped Hazael’s character, the violence that Hazael will do to Israel — to God’s people — once he becomes king of Syria.

And what does Elisha do?

He cries.

No press conference. No demand for a pre-emptive strike. No war without end. No condemnations. Not even any warnings, so far as we are told. Just a tear. Or two. Because he sees the suffering that’s coming. Suffering that likely comes — Hazael makes much war against Israel in subsequent chapters of 2 Kings — though Elisha’s vision is all we get in the way of details.

Hazael, as king of Syria, will wage horrific war, kill women and babies. He will kill unborn children. Again, the writer(s)/editor(s) of 2 Kings say this comes to pass because “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Kings 13:3). Hazael appears to die a natural death, and his son appears to lose much of what Hazael conquered. So it goes.

Oh, and Amos calls down doom upon “the house of Hazael” and “the strongholds of Ben-Hadad” (Amos 1:4).

But that’s it.

It’s an important story. Because much of our modern theological conversation about evil demands that those who are “self-identified” good people must act. To stop horrific evil. Such as the evil Elisha clearly see Hazael ready to perpetuate.

But nothing of the sort happens in scripture. If Elisha does anything, it isn’t said here. Hazael leads an army, an army that inflicts much death and destruction. And this is seen as God’s judgement on Israel for its idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33). The Assyrians would later conquer Israel, and its people would vanish. (Actually, no, they would become Samaritans.) Now, we tend not to see God’s judgement at work that way, and when we do, it’s generally to make tawdry political points. Because that seems to be all we’re capable of anymore.

It speaks to the pointlessness of our ethics. Our ethics demand the exercise of our power because they assume the exercise of power. Our ethics assume power. We don’t know what to do when we don’t have any. Elisha is not powerless — the episode in 2 Kings 6 when he strikes an entire Syrian army blind, but only to mislead them, not to defeat them — shows what power Elisha has. He could have easily dealt with Hazael had he wanted to. But his is the power of the prophet — the one who pronounces the word of God. He leads a Syrian army into a trap, and then commands mercy. And a feast. It’s not a permanent peace, but there is no permanent peace this side of the eschaton.

Elisha not only foretold the coming awfulness, in a way, he also anoints the man — an Assyrian leader, no less, one of the enemy’s, one of the oppressor’s, commanders — as king who will inflict that awfulness. It’s a strange tale, one that leaves our ethical sense reeling a bit.

And that is the point, I think. Sure, Hazael will be one of many imperfect instruments of God’s justice upon God’s people. But this is not an easy book of moral tales, a guide to good behavior, recipes on how to do right and succeed at life. It is the story of God’s people in all its wonder and brutality.

It is our story. We need it because of the wonder. And the brutality.