Elisha's Dilemma?


Leave it to a couple of neoconservatives to ruin a perfectly good Bible story.

I’m referring, of course, to the piece on the opinion page of Friday’s War Street Journal (ahem, ‘scuse me, Wall Street Journal) entitled "Jonah’s Dilemma" in which authors and thinkers (sic) Michael Oren and Mark Gerson comparing George W. Bush to the Prophet Jonah.

Yes, the very same Jonah who spent three days in the belly of fish after fleeing "from the presence of the Lord" because he did not want to go preach repentance to Ninevah, who got angry at God when, in fact, Ninevah did repent.

(I’m reliant here entirely on Jim Lobe’s reporting on the subject, because I have not been able to find the entire WSJ piece on line and I do not have time to actually track down the Friday issue and read it.)

Oren and Gerson start the piece out by noting that this reluctant prophet has something to tell U.S. policy makers today:

This year, as on every Yom Kippur, Jews throughout the world will recite the Book of Jonah, one of the Hebrew Bible’s shortest and most enigmatic texts. Jonah is the only Israelite prophet to preach to Gentiles, and the only prophet who clearly hates his job. And yet Jews read the book on their holiest day of the year because of its message of atonement and forgiveness. But Jonah also conveys crucial lessons for all Americans as they grapple with crises in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and yearn for far-sighted leadership.

According to Lobe’s citation, Oren and Gerson state that Jonah’s true dilemma involves the nature of his assignment from God. If Ninevah repents and God subsequently relents, then the people of Ninevah will wonder if they were ever in any danger to begin with, while if they refuse to listen to Jonah, God will follow through on God’s threat and obliterate them. "Either way, [Jonah] loses — that’s the paradox of prophesy."

(I guess I missed the course on Biblical exegesis using the methods of Leo Strauss, but when exactly did the Book of Jonah become all about Jonah or even mainly about Jonah’s "success" or "failure" as a prophet? Isn’t it rather about God and God’s mercy and the fact that we human beings have no control over how God works in the world?)

But no matter. According to Lobe, Oren and Gerson go on to state that this "paradox of prophesy" is the kind of "quandary [that] is routinely encountered by national leaders, especially during crises." Being proper neocons, they go on to invoke Winston Churchill and Harry Truman as perfect examples of this "paradox of prophesy":

Winston Churchill, for example, prophetically warned of the Nazi threat in the 1930s, but if he had convinced his countrymen to strike Germany pre-emptively, would he have been hailed for preventing World War II or condemned for initiating an unnecessary conflict? As president in 1945, Harry Truman predicted that Japan would never surrender and that a quarter of a million GIs would be killed invading it. And so he obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only to be vilified by many future historians. But what if the atomic bombs were never dropped and the Battle for Japan claimed countless casualties — would history have judged Truman more leniently?

This is, Oren and Gerson say, the "tragedy of leadership." (And I just thought it was one unending privilege after another, being Commander-in-Chief of Everything Under the Sun. Whodathunkit that being Potus could be so tragic?) After considering the negative examples of Jimmy Carter in 1979 (failed to act against Iran) and Ronald Reagan in 1983 (failed to act against Hizbullah in Lebanon), Oren and Gerson advise Bush to keep doing what he is doing, aware that the "paradox of prophesy" means that no one will — or even can — truly appreciate what he is doing.

[America’s leaders] must decide whether to keep troops in Iraq, incurring untold losses of American lives and resources, or whether to withdraw and project an image of weakness to those who still seek to harm the U.S. If diplomatic efforts fail to deter Iran from enriching uranium, American policy makers will have to determine whether to stop the Islamic Republic by force or coexist with a highly unstable, nuclear-armed Middle East. They will be reproved for the actions they take to forestall catastrophe, but may receive no credit for averting cataclysms that never occur. For Mr. Bush and his successors, this will remain the tragic dilemma of leadership.

Lobe sums the piece up nicely: "So, there you have it. The message from Jonah (and Churchill and Truman) is Sustain the Surge and Bomb Iran."

Um, excuse me, but where is God in all this? I mean, it’s fairly clear that neoconservatives worship American power as their god, so it is possible that the lack of the Lord in Oren and Gerson’s piece is intentional and not a mere oversight. God sent Jonah to Ninevah, "that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come before me," and it was God who was the author of the impending shock and awe against "that great city," not Jonah. Would Jonah have been so reluctant to preach, or exercise judgement (or both), had he had a massive arsenal at his disposal and the ability to use it on a whim? On his own, would he have even given Ninevah that chance to repent?

And what to make of Jonah’s intense reluctance? He flees the Lord and heads as far away from Ninevah as he can possibly think of, hoping to get "away from the presence of the Lord." Most (I think all) of Israel’s prophets have been conscripts and have showed great reluctance for doing the Lord’s work when called, and many were found doing other things when that call came. Where is the reluctance in any of the neocon heroes? (Was Winston Churchill at work laying bricks — he was a member of Britain’s bricklayers union — minding his own business when God called him to fight the good fight against Naziism?) All of them seem happy and eager to do what they claim to be God’s work, which usually involves some kind of war against some kind of evil in order to save God’s people.

Oren and Gerson need not have worked so hard to make the story of Jonah fit their notion of "prophetic" political leadership. There is another tale, one that actually applies to their notion of the prophet who sees all and is confronted with future potential monstrous evil against God’s people. It is one of the many stories told of the Prophet Elisha and it’s in 2 Kings 8:7—15 for those of you with a Bible or Tanakh who want to look up the passage yourselves. I’m going to cite the passage as it is translated in the English Standard Version, which is my preferred Bible translation:

  1. 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,"
  2. 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?"
  3. 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?"
  4. And Elisha said to him, "Go, say to him, You shall certainly recover, but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die."
  5. And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept.
  6. 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."
  7. 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."
  8. 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."
  9. 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.

Elisha is faced with a truly horrific vision, a violent vision that shows clearly what the future portends. So what does Elisha, a "prophet in Israel," do when confronted with the future leader of Syria who will set fire to the fortresses of Israel, kill its young men and "rip open" it’s pregnant women? Does he hold a press conference? Publish a book, write columns for the Wall Street Journal and go on CNN demanding immediate action lest the young men and expectant mothers of Israel perish at the hands of its enemies? Does he contact the kings of Israel and Judah and lobby hard for a "pre-emptive" attack? Are there air strikes? A targeted assassination? An invasion to liberate Syria and effect "regime change," ousting Hazael and replacing him with pliant client of either Israel or Judah?

No. Elisha simply weeps and gets embarrassed.

So far as we can tell from 2 Kings, Elisha tells no one about the threat Hazael poses to God’s people Israel in the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It’s the moral equivalent not of 1938 but of 1932 and Elisha, given this horrific vision of the future, does nothing. Is there a "paradox of prophesy" in this? If there, the author (and any subsequent editors) of the Kings account doesn’t bother with it, because what follows are occasional accounts of desultory fighting between Israel and Syria. Eventually, by 2 Kings 10:32, God finally intervenes — on the side of Syria.

In those days the Lord began to cut off parts of Israel. Hazael defeated them throughout the territory of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the Valley of the Arnon, that is, Gilead and Bashan.

Hazael and his army march against Jerusalem but abandon their seige after "Jehoash, king of Judah, took all the sacred gifts that Jehoshaphat and Jehoram and Ahaziah his fathers, the kings of Judah, had dedicated, and his own sacred gifts, and all the gold that was found in the treasuries of the house of the Lord and of the king’s house, and sent these to Hazael king of Syria." (2 Kings 10:32-33) No one suffers from this looting of the temple. This is not the last of Hazael, as he wages war — on God’s behalf — against Israel and Judah for many years, oppressing Israel (2 Kings 13:22) before eventually dying, likely from old age or natural causes (the text does not say how he dies), and being succeeded by his son. The Kingdom of Israel recovers (and then only temporarily — it will fall permanently in Chapter 17) only when it and Syria have new kings, and then only because "the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (2 Kings 13:23)

No pre-emptive war. No regime change. No commando raids. No air strikes. No sanctions. No AEI press conferences. Just embarrassment and weeping.

Now, I will grant that according to our neocon exegetes, Elisha is a lousy prophet — he is no Harry Truman, much less the sainted Winston Churchill (who maybe was assumed bodily into heaven without first dying?). He’s constantly cavorting with non-Israelites (especially important Syrians), healing their skin ailments, blessing them with children and raising their dead. He even fails to annihilate a Syrian army when he gets the chance, instead he merely blinds it, leads it right into the camp of the Israelites and then demands that Israel show them mercy — mercy! — by feeding them and letting them go home of their own accord.

This, of course, is why the likes of Oren and Gerson want nothing to do with the real God revealed to us is scripture. They want a vengeful, arrogant and merciless deity, and the United States of America fits that desire perfectly. They want to follow a prophet unwilling or unable to encounter a God whose mercy is real and cannot be controlled by or subject to mere human caprice. The President of the United States is their perfect vengeful, arrogant and merciless prophet.

The perfectly false prophet of a perfectly false god. The dilemma is, unfortunately, ours.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.