In 2 Kings 13:14–19, we have an interaction between Elisha and Joash, king of Israel, in which Elisha prophesies victory over Syria, but because of Joash's failure, the victory will only be a partial victory.

There are two major "events" in the story – first, Elisha tells Joash to shoot an arrow out the window, and second, Elisha tells Joash to "strike the ground with them":

15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows.” So he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow,” and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands on the king's hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward,” and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot,” and he shot. And he said, “The Lord's arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows,” and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them.” And he struck three times and stopped. [ESV]

Here I'm interested in the proper interpretation of "strike the ground with [arrows]" – I see two possibilities:

  • Hold one or more arrows in your hand, and beat them against the ground by hand
  • Place the arrows in your bow, and shoot them against the ground

Personally I tend to prefer the second option, as it seems more natural in context, but it seems to depend on two things:

  • The word "strike" – can the Hebrew word here mean the same thing as "shoot," or at least imply a ranged strike, as in "strike the ground over there by shooting this arrow"?
  • The word "ground" – does the Hebrew word here necessarily imply the physical earth, or could it also mean the floor of a building? This may or may not be relevant, since Elisha's house could have a dirt floor.

What is the best way to understand what Joash does in this verse?

2 Answers 2


Great question. Though i am no expert in the field i am pretty sure that your first interpretation is the correct one. For this i have got two convincing reasons. First, i don't see how the term הך can refer to "shoot" as per your second interpretation. As far as my Hebrew knowledge extends, the word הך is never used to denote shooting only "beating".

Second: If this would be a reference to "shooting", why would the text change the terminology to הך instead of sticking to the ירה theme, since this is how the previous verse described the king's move. If the text only wishes to convey that the king shot his arrows downward instead of horizontal it would say "ירה ארצה" (as in the previous verse where the king aimed towards the east), not "הך ארצה". This causes me to conclude that הך means "beating" literally.


The MT for 2 Kings 13:18 is:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַח הַחִצִּים וַיִּקָּח וַיֹּאמֶר לְמֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל הַךְ אַרְצָה וַיַּךְ שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים וַיַּעֲמֹד

The linear translation is (mine):

And he said "take the arrows" and he took, and he said to the king of Israel "strike (downwards/the ground)" and he struck three times and he stopped.

There are several factors to take into account when interpreting this verse:

  1. The ESV interpolates "them" in, "and he took them". There is no pronoun "them" in the MT here.
  2. The word אַרְצָה can mean either "towards the ground" (downwards) or "the ground" and the translator must make a choice of which to use. The ESV choses "the ground"
  3. The ESV interpolates "with them" after "the ground". This "with them" is not in the MT.

A fourth, more important factor, is that OT prose is not always sequitur in the way western prose is required to be. A single verse can list several things or actions with the connective waw (and) where the connection between them is merely circumstantial and not sequitur. This factor is difficult for western readers to take into account when translating and interpreting OT verses - our literary sensibilities require there to be connection.

So, a translation that stays close to the Hebrew text, preserving its ambiguity and its marvelous economy would read as above:

And he said "take the arrows" and he took, and he said to the king of Israel "strike downwards" and he struck three times and he stopped.

where the meanings

  1. "he took [the arrows in one hand] and struck downwards [with the other or the same hand]"
  2. "he took [the arrows] and struck [them on the] ground

are equally likely, as they appear to be in the MT Hebrew.

In any event, as Bach notes in his answer to the OP, the interpretation of וַיַּךְ as meaning "shooting" is difficult to justify.

My advice in reading these verses is to live with the ambiguity that is inherent in the MT and to appreciate the economy of its language.

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