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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
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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
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    @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
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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
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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
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    @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
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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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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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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – James Shewey Jul 29 '16 at 15:39
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Rlb.USA asked:

Would the soup really have caused death? Was this a strange figure of speech that means something else?” And, “Is there a modern-day explanation on why adding flour absolves it's apparent poisons? For example, a particular chemical/food reaction?"

It is essential – to understand the Bible – we make reference to context. Speculation can do his share in the work only if it is in synch with Bible context (from micro-context to the global one).

So, the context of 2 Kings 4:38-41 suggests us that that account has no relation with a meliorative food technique performed by Elisha, but, instead, it enhances the God-driven role of the prophet in behalf the people of Israel.


Rlb.USA asked: “What exactly was this wild gourd?

As regards the particular kind of gourd indicated by פקעת (2 Kin 4:39) is interesting that André de Mol in his ISA (Interlinear Scripture Analyzer) translates the term with ‘colocynth gourds’. Can it be a possibility? More than that. Going by looks this plant seeems (to a not trained eye) an innocuos gourd.

enter image description here

But, read now what Wikipedia (in this case the article contains plain references) said of this plant (in this particular case, Citrullus colocynthis).

Ingestion may cause irritation of the mucous membranes in the gastrointestinal tract, bloody diarrhea, or kidney damage. The ill effects are caused by cytotoxic and antimitotic cucurbitacins. The active substances pass into urine and breast milk and can lead to abortions in pregnant women. Other symptoms of poisoning include ulcers, wall perforation, peritonitis, kidney bleeding and bladder inflammation. Often brain hyperemia, delirium and collapse occur. Death may occur as a result of respiratory arrest. Cross-fertilization of colocynth with watermelon or zucchini sometimes leads to cases of poisoning. Cases of poisoning have also been observed in animals that consumed the fruits. The intake of just 3 g of colocynth and be fatal. Exposure of the skin to the active substances may cause blistering” (Wink, Michael; Ben-Erik van Wyk; Coralie Wink (2008). Handbuch der giftigen und psychoaktiven Pflanzen. ISBN 978-3-8047-2425-9)

The dangerousness of this plant is enhanced by the – as we read in the exerption above – possibility of a cross-fertilization of innocuous and healthy watermelon or zucchini. At this point it should not be difficult to understand how people can take a poisonous plant instead of a safe kind of pumpkin. The Bible account itself says that this occurred “because they did not know it (the plant)” [ידעו לא¯כי]. Sometimes knowledge makes a difference between life and death.


Rlb.USA asked:

Did putting flour in actually do anything? Or was it a "placebo effect?”, and “Or were the men merely being whiny, superstitious, picky eaters?

The Elisha's use of flour must be situated in a different frame compared to the frame supposed by Rlb.USA. Often, inside the Bible miracles accounts, we see some performed actions (along with some utilized objects) that are not necessary to the purpose of the miracle itself.

For a couple of examples, none of the following objects triggered the miracle effectiveness: a) the piece of wood thrown by Elisha into the water (2 Kin 6:6) before the axhead was floating on the water; b) the soot tossed toward heaven by Moses (Exo 9:10) before the boils were breaking upon the Egyptians.

The point is: the miracles cited were not performed through those objects but only through the spirit of IEUE God.

Why, so, those symbolical actions? Evidently, they worked as an illustrative device – a demonstration - that prepared bystanders to grasp what the prophet was to do.

Applying this concept to the examples cited, as if the prophets were saying to bystanders:

(a) “See! Now the axhead will float like this stick of wood is floating on the water!” (b) “See! Now the black boils will stick on Egyptians like this black soot will stick around!

Similarly, as if the flour utilized by Elisha speaks for him: “See! Now the poisonous soup will become healthy like a flour soup!

Hope this will help.

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It is apparently possible that Elisha's suggestion adding flour to a stew made with toxic amounts of the "gourds" could mitigate the poisonous effect. [But don't try this at home!]

Support for this possible view can be found in: "A Pharmacological Study of Biblical 'Gourds'" by David Macht in the Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct 1919-Jan 1920, pp. 185-197. That paper suggests the gourd was probably Citrullus Colocynthis as mentioned in other posts (although a second possibly is Ecballium Elaterium). Macht goes on to report an experiment (which today has questionable ethics - and may be difficult for people to read) where 40 grams of Colocynthis "apples" were boiled and fed by tube to a 7.1 kg dog. The dog had violent foaming and frothing at the mouth, vomiting, bloody stools and died 18 hrs later. A second 6 kg dog was fed by tube 40 gm of Colocynthis apples which was boiled with 60 grams of a 50/50 mix of wheat and corn flour. The second dog had minor symptoms with diarrhea (but no blood in stools) persisting to the next day, but was eating and fully recovered on the second day. Macht comments that similar results came from another test using elaterium. He mentions that kaolin “may greatly modify the action of strychnin [sic]”. A pharmacology book from the 1920s says that colloids (which flour in water can be a colloid) can partly adsorb drugs as well as hindering access to absorbing surfaces.

[Perhaps an expert in chemistry or pharmacology can weigh in on this. (And again, don’t assume it will work for suspected toxic ingestion – call poison control instead).]

Finally, as mentioned by Ruminator, a possible “naturalistic” solution from a simple reading of the story does not invalidate more in-depth exegesis into the symbolic meaning of the text.

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2 Kings 4:20 And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died.

Died means dead...

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It is in the realm of possibility that God gave Elisha a naturalistic solution. Just a small amount turns "Death Pot Soup" into "Zucchini Bread"!

However, this is fairly obviously intended as metaphor of a spiritual reality.

Isaiah compares Israel to a "deceitful vine" because despite God's best efforts Israel does not produce righteousness, which is the fruit that the farmer (God) is seeking:

[Isa 5:1-7 KJV] (1) Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: (2) And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. (3) And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. (4) What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? (5) And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: (6) And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. (7) For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

As a result God is sent the Messiah as the true vine whose branches would bring forth edible, even delicious fruit:

[Gal 5:22 KJV] (22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

[Eph 5:9 KJV] (9) (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;)

[Mat 12:33 KJV] (33) Either make the tree good [IE: "high quality"], and his fruit good [IE: "high quality"]; or else make the tree corrupt [IE: "low quality"], and his fruit corrupt [IE: "low quality"]: for the [quality of a] tree is known by [the quality of] his fruit.

So by eating the toxic fruit of a wild vine God is illustrating that the people of Israel are rotten:

[Luk 6:43 HNV] (43) For there is no good tree that brings forth rotten fruit; nor again a rotten tree that brings forth good fruit.

In Jeremiah God says that he will turn some of the inedible figs of Israel and turn them into choice figs:

[Jer 24:1-10 WEB] (1) The LORD showed me, and behold, two baskets of figs were set before the temple of the LORD, after Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon had carried away captive Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and the princes of Judah, with the carpenters and smiths, from Jerusalem, and had brought them to Babylon. (2) One basket had very good figs, even like the figs that are first ripe: and the other basket had very poor figs, which could not be eaten, they were so bad. (3) Then said the LORD to me, What seest thou, Jeremiah? and I said, Figs; the good figs, very good; and the bad, very bad, that cannot be eaten, they are so bad. (4) Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, (5) Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans for their good. (6) For I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up. (7) And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (8) And as the bad figs, which cannot be eaten, they are so bad; surely thus saith the LORD, So will I give Zedekiah the king of Judah, and his princes, and the residue of Jerusalem, that remain in this land, and them that dwell in the land of Egypt: (9) And I will deliver them to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth for their hurt, to be a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse, in all places whither I shall drive them. (10) And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, among them, till they are consumed from off the land that I gave to them and to their fathers.

This is a description of Jerusalem in the 1st century. The Jewish leadership is the "rotten fruit" that rejects their messiah while the apostles et al are the "good fruit" which are the new covenant Jews, chosen by God to fulfill his will:

[Col 1:6 NKJV] (6) which has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth;

So if we take the death in the post to be the unholy spirits of the natural vine and the flour as symbolizing the new covenant then we have Jesus as the new Elisha, redeeming individual Jews (formerly vessels of death) and turns them into vessels of the holy breath of God. Perhaps in light of this the sign of Jesus turning water into wine makes him a "greater Elisha":

[Jhn 2:8-10 KJV] (8) And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. (9) When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, (10) And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.

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