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2 Kings 4:38-41 (NIV)

.. One of them .. found a wild vine and picked ... its gourds ... he cut them up into the pot of stew... they cried out, “Man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it. Elisha said, “Get some flour.” He put it into the pot ... And (then) there was nothing harmful in the pot.

  • What exactly was this wild gourd?
  • Would the soup really have caused death? Was this a strange figure of speech that means something else?
  • Is there a modern-day explanation on why adding flour absolves it's apparent poisons? For example, a particular chemical/food reaction?
  • Did putting flour in actually do anything? Or was it a "placebo effect" ?
  • Or were the men merely being whiny, superstitious, picky eaters?
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Welcome to BH.SE! Interesting question(s) on a very strange passage. – Jon Ericson Dec 7 '11 at 0:50
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Read in isolation, 2 Kings 4:38-41 can be understood as a story about a foul tasting soup that Elisha improved by adding a new flavor.

However, the context in II Kings is miracles performed by Elisha to save people from death by famine. From within that context it seems that the "death in the pot," was an actual danger that required Elisha's intervention. Nevertheless, it's noteworthy that the miracle was effected through the physical means of adding a new substance to the pot and not by merely reciting some "magic words."

This story, like the previous story about the "resurrection" that Elisha performs for the Shunamit woman's son, raises questions about the relationship between the natural and the miraculous:

  • Did Elisha merely perform CPR on the kid to "bring him back to life" or was the resurrection performed supernatural?
  • Did the food substance added to pot serve as a natural chemical antidote or miraculous panacea to the danger at hand?
  • Is a "naturalistic" miracle less miraculous than miracles effected by incantation alone?
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Do you think the early tellers and readers of these stories have the same "questions about the relationship between the natural and the miraculous"? I sort of assumed that the stories were meant to be about miracles. – Jon Ericson Dec 9 '11 at 18:25
@JonEricson, definitely. Also, the Elisha narratives are some of the most bizarre and enigmatic in all of Tanakh. I think the wild style in those narratives reflects the fact that Elisha himself was an enigma and the people in his own time never really understood him. – Amichai Dec 9 '11 at 18:38

The word in Hebrew, verse 40, is maveth. It means death, as in pestilence. It is used in the Bible where death and destruction is conveyed as a meaning. It's not talking about bitterness. The message is, the prophet intervenes for these men due to Yahweh's mercy. Ref.: Gesenius's Lexicon of Hebrew and English and my knowledge of Hebrew.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics--StackExchange! That's useful information and a good place to start on a complete answer. From what you said, it sounds like the passage is talking about poisoned food of some sort. Why did Elisha use flour as a medium for performing the miracle? – Jon Ericson Mar 26 '12 at 17:54

A wild gourd is just that. A gourd which grows in the wild. It would be difficult to say which species of gourd it might be though.

"There was no more death in the pot" has also been translated "there was no more bitterness in the pot" or "there was no more harm in the pot".

Starch, by my understanding, does have the ability to mitigate certain bitterness and acidity in foods, so it is quite possible that this actually "fixed the problem."

My interpretation:

The men whined about the food not tasting good. Elisha then added meal (often this was flour or ground corn) to the stew and then it did not taste as bad.

(Someone will probably delete this, but I'm reminded of the tongue twister: Betty Botter bought a bit of bitter butter, but, she said, "The butter's bitter. If I put it in my batter, then my batter will be bitter." So she bought a bit of better butter and she put it in her batter and her batter was not bitter.)

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@Amichai But the word in verse 41 is not "death" but evil (רָ ע). It seems then that those who would translate that as death are the ones adding their own interpretation. – cwallenpoole Dec 9 '11 at 6:35
you are correct. I have deleted my earlier comment. Instead I meant to say: the literal translation of the Hebrew word רע is "evil." Those who translate: "there was no more bitterness in the pot" are departing from the literal meaning of the verse and offering interpretation. – Amichai Dec 9 '11 at 7:14
Welcome to BH.SE! Do you have any reference to support the idea that starch removes bitter taste? (It sounds likely, but it would help to have a bit more data.) – Jon Ericson Dec 9 '11 at 18:23
@JonEricson It is my understanding that meal (which is a starch), as an emulsifier, has a tendency to absorb both acids an bases -- things which make things sour and bitter. This is why, for example, you are advised to eat bread after eating spicy food -- it neutralizes the offending acids. – cwallenpoole Dec 9 '11 at 19:56

OK so sorry to burst your bubble but based on what Elisha did the death was actually a poison or extremely bitter taste mistaken for one. Why?

  1. It specifically mentions the gourd and none of the other ingredients. This makes it likely that they found out the gourd was the cause of the bitterness
    1. It says as they were eating in the NKJV when they said there is death in the pot. This further proves number 1 as if it were something alive or symbolical they would have noticed what it was while cooking
    2. Flour is well known to be an emulsifier which absorbs acids and bases nullifying the bitterness or the poison from the gourd.
    3. The reason Elisha would know this is as a frequent traveler he himself probably came across a similar situation and was directed by God or discovered himself that bread solved the problem

As for the women with the dead son I say it was a combination of both due to description. The boy was not said to be dead but simply was not awakening. Before Elisha prays to the Lord and then spreads himself over the boy. It then says his body warmed. Then Elisha breathed in him. God directed Elisha to use CPR as the child was not dead but simply unconscious for unknown reasons. Possibly he had a form of Pneumonia or disease as his body was cold which was probably what lead scholars to believe he was dead. Even the woman's pleading words when she meets Elisha suggest her son was gravely ill and not dead. The logical conclusion was that the boy was on the edge of death, unconscious from some disease, ailment or accident and was simply revived by Elisha. The treatment ministered suggests the boy was not stricken by a lethal illness but was actually dying from a lack of treatment, something the medicine of the time would not know but God would. So yes Elisha was guided by God to use what we now know as CPR along with his own body heat to revive the child.

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The story follows the Covenant pattern: a delegation of authority, a firstfruits, a testing, a result, an accountability and a future.

The point here is Israel as firstfruits. When Israel seized kingly authority without priestly deference to God first (as Cain, who made his offering before Abel), the Land would cease to be blessed. Time and again, when Israel shed innocent blood, God sent a famine. The blood cried from the ground and the Land itself would be out to kill them. (We also see this in the famine in Bethlehem at the beginning of Ruth, following the shocking bloodshed at the end of Judges.)

What saves the day is priestly flour, a true firstfruits, the facebread. We can also tie this to Samson, who served grinding in the mill and was then able to judge as a sacrificial king.

It is interesting that the "liturgical ingredient" Elisha used to heal the bitter spring in Jericho was salt. It speaks of barrenness. The children of idolatrous Israel were cut off (like Sodom) and the children of Gentile believers (in Jericho!) were saved.

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