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No. 79: At The Center of the Book of Kings

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 79
November, 1995
Copyright 1995, Biblical Horizons

The Book of Kings is structured chiastically, or concentrically. To see this clearly, we start in the middle and work our way outward.

2 Kings 3–7 record the central events of the ministry of Elisha. Elisha makes his first appearance in 1 Kings 19:19-21, when Elijah invests him with the prophetic mantle, and the first two chapters of 2 Kings record the process by which Elisha succeeded Elijah as the leader of the sons of the prophets. Still, it seems legitimate to start with 2 Kings 3–7 as a distinct block of material. 2 Kings 3:1 introduces the reign of Jehoram, son of Ahab, thereafter he is not named; instead, he is identified as the "king of Israel" (e.g., 3:13; 5:7; 6:9; etc.). Beginning with 8:16, Jehoram is named once again and the book returns to its standard form of organizing the material according to the reigns of the kings. In chapters 3–7, moreover, the focus is not on the politics of the period, but on the ministry of Elisha.

The outline of 2 Kings 3–7 has a concentric structure:

I. War with Moab, 3:1-27

J. Elisha provides for indebted widow, 4:1-7

K. Elisha raises Shunammite’s son, 4:8-37

L. Elisha heals the poison stew, 4:38-41

L1. Elisha feeds 100 men, 4:42-44

K1. Elisha heals Naaman the leper, 5:1-27

J1. Elisha recovers a borrowed axe head, 6:1-7

I1. War with Syria, 6:8–7:20

Both I and I1 deal with wars between Israel and a neighboring nation. In both cases, Elisha is prominently involved in Israel’s deliverance.

In J and J1 the emphasis is on redemption from debt and potential slavery. The prophet’s widow cannot pay her husband’s creditors, and fears that she will be forced to sell her sons into slavery; Elisha multiplies oil to redeem her. In J1 one of the sons of the prophets loses a borrowed axe-head. Given the value of such items in ancient Israel, he thus faced a considerable debt; Elisha makes the axe-head float to redeem him.

In K and K1, Gehazi plays a prominent, and largely negative role. He fails to heal the Shunammite’s son, and covets the riches of Naaman. Both passages have to do with birth and rebirth: The Shunammite literally gives birth and her son is reborn, while Naaman is "born again" from his deathly leprosy. This is underlined in 2 Kings 5:14, which tells us that after washing in the Jordan, Naaman’s flesh "was restored like the flesh of a little child."

At the center of the chiasm are two food miracles, the first a healing of poisonous food, the second the multiplication of healthy food.

Having established that 2 Kings 3–7 is chiastically arranged, we can look at the material on either side of this section to see if it also is arranged concentrically. We find that such is indeed the case:

E. Jehoshaphat and Ahab, 1 Ki. 22:1-50.

F. Reign of Ahaziah, 1 Ki. 22:51–2 Ki. 1:1.

G. Prophet curses sick king, 2 Ki. 1:2-18.

H. Exodus of Elisha, 2 Ki. 2.

H1. Exodus of Shunammite, 2 Ki. 8:1-8.

G1. Prophet "saves" sick king, 2 Ki. 8:9-15.

F1. Reign of Jehoram, 2 Ki. 8:16-24.

E1. Ahaziah and Joram, 2 Ki. 8:25-29.

Considering the E sections, in both sections the King of Judah (Jehoshaphat; Ahaziah) goes with the King of Israel (Ahab; Joram) to fight Syria. In both sections, the King of Israel is defeated and wounded (Ahab shortly dies; Joram goes home to recover, and is killed by Jehu).

Considering the F sections, we find in F that Ahaziah of Israel did evil, followed in the ways of Jezebel, and that Moab rebelled against him. In F1, Jehoram of Judah did evil, followed in the ways of Jezebel’s daughter, and that Edom rebelled against him.

Considering the G section, in both cases a sick king (Ahaziah of Israel; Ben-Hadad of Syria) sends to a prophet asking if he will be healed. Interestingly, Ahaziah sends to the false god Baal-Zebub, while Ben-Hadad sends to Elisha! In both cases, the king dies. God tells Ben-Hadah that he will recover, but since he in fact dies, this seems to imply salvation for his soul. Ahaziah (G) is condemned to death for seeking Baal-Zebub, while Ben-Hadah is promised life because he sought the Lord.

Finally, in the H section we have two exoduses out of the land and returns to the land.

It may be stretching it a bit, but there appear to be more concentric circles even beyond what we have set out already:

A. Destruction of Baals (1 Ki. 17-18).

B. Queen Jezebel kills prophets, threatens Elijah; Elisha called (1 Ki. 19).

C. Ahab has Ben-Hadad ride with him, after battle (1 Ki. 20).

D. Naboth’s vineyard (1 Ki. 21)

D1. Vengeance for Naboth’s vineyard (2

Ki. 9)

C1. Jehu has Jonadab ride with him, during battle (2 Ki. 10).

B1. Queen Athaliah kills princes, threatens Joash; Joash becomes king (2 Ki. 11:1-12).

A1. Destruction of Baals (2 Ki. 11:12-20).

Concerning the A sections, in both cases a contest between God and Baal takes place, in A at an altar, and in A1 in the Temple near the Altar. In both cases, God is victorious and the prophets and priests of Baal are destroyed. In A, the contest with Baal actually begins in 1 Kings 17, when Baal, the storm god, is prevented from bringing rain to Israel for three years.

Concerning the B sections, in both cases a wicked queen kills those who threaten her. In B they are God’s prophets, while in B1 they are God’s royal house. In both cases, the wicked queen threatens God’s agent (Elijah; Jehoash), who is protected by another agent of God (an angel; the high priest). In both cases, God’s agent is installed at the end of the story (Elisha; Jehoash).

Concerning the C sections, in both cases we have a battle scene, during which the king of Israel invites someone to his chariot. In C, wicked King Ahab, after defeating Ben-Hadad, invites that Syrian king to his chariot, and is condemned for it. In C1, the temporarily righteous King Jehu, after destroying Ahab’s house, invites the righteous Jonadab to his chariot.

Finally, concerning the D sections, both cases have to do centrally with Naboth’s vineyard. In D, Ahab steals Naboth’s vineyard, and his doom is pronounced. It is said that the dogs will eat Jezebel (1 Ki. 21:23). In D1, this doom is carried out, specifically for Naboth’s vineyard (2 Ki. 9:10, 25-26, 36).

We can now put it all together (see next page):

One thing that emerges from the structure of this narrative is this: Despite all the attention given to various wars and reigns, what is central and what is outermost is liturgical and sacramental. The A, D, and L sections all have to do with God’s altar-worship and His provision of food for His people, against the false worship (and starvation) offered by Baal.

Finally, it can be noted that this entire section is the center of the entire book of Kings, which is structured generally as follows:

a. United monarchy; Temple built (1 Ki.1-11)

b. Northern Kingdom begins (1 Ki.12–16:14)

g. The House of Omri (1 Ki.16:15-34)

d. Elijah and Elisha (1 Ki.17–2 Ki.11)

g1.The House of Jehu (2 Ki.12:1–15:12)

b1.Northern Kingdom ends (2 Ki.15:13–17:41)

a1.United monarchy; Temple razed (2 Ki.18-25)

The focus on the Temple at the beginning and end of Kings provides a liturgical-sacramental focus for the events of the book as a whole, which come to a point in section L.

1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 11

A. Destruction of Baals (1 Ki. 17-18).

B. Queen Jezebel kills prophets, threatens Elijah; Elisha called (1 Ki. 19).

C. Ahab has Ben-Hadad ride with him, after battle (1 Ki. 20).

D. Naboth’s vineyard (1 Ki. 21)

E. Jehoshaphat and Ahab, 1 Ki. 22:1-50.

F. The reign of Ahaziah, 1 Ki. 22:51–2 Ki. 1:1.

G. Sick king condemned by prophet, 2 Ki. 1:2-18.

H. Exodus and Return of Elisha, 2 Ki. 2.

I. War with Moab, 3:1-27

J. Elisha provides for indebted widow, 4:1-7

K. Elisha raises the Shunammite’s son, 4:8-37

L. Elisha heals the poison stew, 4:38-41

L1. Elisha feeds 100 men, 4:42-44

K1. Elisha heals Naaman the leper, 5:1-27

J1. Elisha recovers a borrowed axe head, 6:1-7

I1. War with Syria, 6:8–7:20

H1. Exodus and Return of Shunammite, 2 Ki. 8:1-8.

G1. Sick king "saved" by prophet, 2 Ki. 8:9-15.

F1. The reign of Jehoram, 2 Ki. 8:16-24.

E1. Ahaziah and Joram, 2 Ki. 8:25-29.

D1. Vengeance for Naboth’s vineyard (2 Ki. 9, esp. vv.25-26)

C1. Jehu has Jonadab ride with him, during battle (2 Ki. 10).

B1. Queen Athaliah kills princes, threatens Joash; Joash becomes king (2 Ki. 11:1-12).

A1. Destruction of Baals (2 Ki. 11:12-20).